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Games That Pushed The Limits


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Part 1
I have been recently been fascinated by the history of the various machines that have battled for
our living rooms. Each machine has had its strengths and weaknesses, and as a programmer, Im
amazed by some of the ways developers have harnessed the power of consoles and pushed them
to their limits resulting is some marvelous games.

I usually try to emphasize that gameplay is more important that graphical quality. However, I
thought it would be interesting to take a look at games that were the most demanding when it
came to a consoles limited system resources.

Other Parts:
Part 2 & Part 3 Part 4 is on the way
Subscribe to my feed or sign up for email updates to keep up with this project.

Solaris

Im by no means a 2600 expert, but Solaris is definately
one game that comes up quite frequently in terms of
innovative 2600 games. Considering the 2600 wasnt
originally intended to do much more than play Pong
variants, Solaris is a technical masterpiece with its
sophisticated gameplay and relatively high resolution
graphics.

Although the game played much like a first-person space shooter, you can always see your ship at
the bottom of the screen. The graphics for Solaris were first-rate as the multi-colored aliens are
flicker-free and glide along smoothly, even when attacking in groups.
Full Review of Solaris

Super Mario Bros. 3



Nintendo stood behind its first two systems for a quite a
while even when the next generation of consoles had
made their footprint in the market. Because of this,
developers knew the NES inside and out and were able to
develop some excellent games that kept up with the
upcoming 16-bit titles.

Super Mario Brothers 3 led the way of pushing the seven-


year-old NES technology to its limits by being worlds apart
from its predecessors in terms of graphics and sound. Just about every gamer was blown away by
how groundbreaking SMB3 was when it was debuted. Of course, the infamous movie, The
Wizard gave us a preview of the beautiful, new sprites, backgrounds, and animation effects.

If you had never seen an NES before, you would think that Mario 3 was an early version of Super
Mario World. The characters are alot bigger and many are more detailed than the original SMB
games. In the Giant World levels, we get a serving of especially-large sprites the goomba is

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twice the size Mario.


Full Review of Super Mario Bros. 3

Castlevania 3

With the third installment of the NES Castlevanias, Konami
packed a very large game into that small cartridge with a
couple of custom mappers, which gave the NES very nice
graphic effects, such as rotation and parallax faking.

The graphics are revamped and are some of the best on


the NES. A very large amount of animated tiles in the
backgrounds of movement stages fill the game with a
haunting atmosphere. Some action stages have some
surprises that add to the challenge, such as automatic scrolling, rising water, crumbling bridges,
and falling towers.

Konami made the most of the graphical capabilities of the NES to provide intricate details such as
stained-glass windows, moss on rocks, eerie swamp fog, ominous shadows, rotting wood, and
spectacular lightning flashes. This is a definite step up from Castlevania 2 which often repeated
backgrounds. The enemies and bosses look much better than they did in the previous Castlevania
games (which were good to start with). The animation is one thing that is much improved, as many
of characters now have more than just one or two frames.
Full Review of Castlevania 3

Kirbys Adventure

Kirby was another one of those games that came out for
the NES as gamers were already looking forward to SNES
titles. Its a cute and fun-filled game that, like Super Mario
Bros 3, looked like an early SNES game with a smaller
color pallete. Kirby had an advantage on Mario 3, however,
as it was the largest licensed NES cart at 6 Mbit.

Rather than make some piece of trash as the last great


NES game, the makers polished it and polished it until you
can almost see your face in it. The graphics stretch the 8
bit format to its absolute limit. It is the aesthetic equivalent of painting the Lords Prayer on a grain
of rice the beauty is that of working within the limitations.

Kirby himself is a beautiful vibrant pink, the worlds he passes through are delicious lime greens, ice
blues, chocolate browns the rich colours do not attempt to emulate 16 bit, but instead try to
make 8 bit as beautiful as possible. The attention to detail incredible as Kirbys character
animations are about as good as they get on the NES.

The backgrounds graphics may be The biggest strength of the game. In relation to most other
NES games, the backgrounds in Kirbys Adventure are superb. Theres one level that takes place
in a forest and you can see an ocean in the distance. There is also some nifty parallax scrolling in
the tower stages of the game. If all that wasnt enough, the game has smooth animation as well.
Even the intros to each level were nifty. All these little elements come together to create one
dreamy gaming experience.
Full Review of Kirbys Adventure

Honorable Mentions:

Megaman 6 One of the least favorite Megaman games, but the graphics are the best of the
NES series with colorful backgrounds and foregrounds and impressive enemy design. .
(Review)

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Dragon Warrior IV -Weighing in at an entire 1 megabyte of program ROM, this RPG


improved on its predessors and pushed the bounds of what an NES cartridge could hold.
Correction: Im told that the real version of the game is only 512K. Still an impressive title,
however. (Review)
Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers This Capcom platformer was en excellent of example of
colorful sprites and great animation. A licenced game done right (Review).

Ghouls N Ghosts

Most gamers in the 80s (including myself) were pretty
much clueless about Segas first home system. While it did
not have the developer and retail support that the NES
had, it had a number of games, especially arcade ports,
that were graphically superior to the NES.

Outside of the slightly downgraded graphics and sound, the


Sega Master System port of Ghouls N Ghosts played
almost exactly like its bigger arcade brother, which would
cause even a Nintendo fanboy to be impressed. Even
though it is slightly slower, the presentation is so impressive that its hard to believe that this was
made for the Master System. Of course, it never looks as good as the 16-bit console ports, but this
really proved that the system could do amazing stuff with the right people behind the project.
Full Review of Ghouls N Ghosts

Phantasy Star

As one of the greatest exclusive SMS games, Phantasy
Star was an RPG that topped any other RPG in the 8-bit
generation. It was the first console RPG to be released in
the United States since Nintendo had not seen fit to import
either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy for the NES at that
time.

Phantasy Star was jam-packed into a full 4 Megabit


cartridge and was superior to both games in terms of both
graphics and sound. It delivered fully detailed on-screen displays and character graphics (as
opposed to the tile-like graphics of Nintendos offerings) and made full use of the Master Systems
PCM synthesis chip to deliver one of the best FM-based audio experiences ever heard in an old-
school 8-bit RPG.
Full Review of Phantasy Star

Honorable Mentions:

Sonic the Hedgehog Series The SMS did not sport the Genesis so-called Blast-
Processing, but did a good job keeping up with the blue blur.
Gunstar Heroes If anybody can push a system to the max, its Treasure this rare
Genesis down-port still shined.

/
Sapphire

If there is one thing that can get a PC-Engine fan excitied,
it must be one of Hudsons high quality shmups most of
which demonstrated effects simply unthinkable on an 8-bit
machine.

Sapphire, in particular, featured a number of amazing


raytracing, rotation, real-time scalling, morphing, and real-
time 3D effects. Simply put, it had an avalanche of effects
without a single slowdown. Giant sprites, a heavy-metal
soundtrack and an outstanding playability make of
Sapphire a near-perfect shmup.

Sapphire is a milestone on PC-Engine history. Its quality is comparable to some great Playstation

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shooters, like Raystorm. If not for the high price usually asked by sellers, Sapphire would be an
obligatory acquisition for any PC-Engine collector.
Full Review of Sapphire

Honorable Mentions

Dracula X (aka: Castlevania X) -Some truly gruesome creatures punctuate this game,
showing just what can be achieved in 2D with a limited color palette. (Review)
Strider Had an expert conversion to the PC Engine thanks to the Arcade CD format. With
the extra memory the Arcade Card afforded the programmers, this game was true to its
arcade parent in terms of graphics and gameplay.

Gunstar Heroes

Its nearly impossible to talk about the Genesis and
technical mastery and not have Gunstar Heroes come up
in the conversation. If there was one developer that knows
how to push 2D consoles to their limits, its Treasure (the
same group that brought you Contra on the NES). This
run-n-gun classic has mobs of sprites that litter the screen
at any one moment. The two player game features a
moderate amount of slowdown, but its not enough to
significantly detract from the game.

Every graphical element in Gunstar Heroes is impressive: from the rotating, pseudo-polygonal intro
logo to the warping, scaling, and rotation effects throughout the actual game. And, much like Metal
Slug, the bosses in Gunstar Heroes are made up of tons of sprites that move and jiggle
independently. Not only did Gunstar Heroes graphical effect enhance the visual apprearance of
the game, but it also help increase the variety of the gamplay.

No other game on the Genesis pushed the system as far as this technical marvel. In fact, nothing
on the Super Nintendo scaled objects as well, or moved this fast or smoothly with the possible
exception of a few Super FX chip games.
Full Review of Gunstar Heroes

Panorama Cotton

This European shooter had incredible 3D effect
backgrounds, making the MegaDrive hardware do things
that the Nintendo fanboys claimed were impossible on the
Sega machine.

The game plays much like Space Harrier and Burning


Force. It looks much better than the Genesis versions of
those two titles and its pseudo-3D line scrolling hasnt aged
all that badly.

Panorama Cotton is gorgeous to look at as it makes some of the best use of the Genesis color
palette Ive ever seen and the backgrounds are ripe with detail. The line scrolling effect is still
impressive, even if the overall scaling may seem slightly choppy to a modern gamers eye.
Full Review of Panorama Cotton

Vectorman
Vectorman was, in a way, Segas answer to the Donkey
Kong Country series and its pre-rendered, 3D-like
graphics. Vectorman not only looked beaufitul, but also
provided some animations that were even more impressive
than DKC.

Vectormans developers, Blue Sky Software, made use of


an impressive new program called Vector Piece
Software, which allowed the spheres making up
Vectormans body to be individually animated. Thats why he moves so smoothly, and how he can
easily glide into and out of his various transformations.

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According to Vectormans head developer, Richard Karpp, A large percentage of the levels
implemented a creative use of the Genesis scrolling backgrounds it was possible to specify a
different scroll offset for each horizontal line, for example, which could give a parallax effect. It was
used vertically in a few levels as well, even though vertical scrolling was limited to 8 pixel chunks.
Some examples for of its uses were for waterfalls and the conveyor belts.

The bosses were all designed around this technique as well. The first boss that you encounter in
the game, which looks like a fighter plane, is actually implemented in the second scrolling
playfield, and they used scroll offsets to make it look like it was rotating.

One of the more subtle effects we used was the highlight/shadow mode of the Genesis, which
allowed the artists to use more on-screen colors than games typically used. To round out the rest
of the graphical effects, you can see dust motes above light fixtures, shimmering arctic waterfalls
and some impressive lightning effects. This late Genesis title kept Sega fans interested as Sega
prepped the Saturn.
Full Review of Vectorman

Honorable Mentions:

Sonic and Knuckles Not only did this last 2D console Sonic game have some beautiful
backgrounds, animation, and a sweet 3D-ish title screen, but its also was the only game to
have its special Lock-On cartridge format. It allowed you to attach the older Sonic carts into it
and play Knuckles in those games. Very inventive.
Contra: Hard Corps This shooter had a healthy dose of eye candy sprinkled with scaling
and rotation effects. Hard Corps also had some awesome backgrounds and level designs
that rivals the SNES version of the series in every way. (Review)
Virtua Racing Even though this 3D racer used a built in chip, it was awe-inspiring to see
running on the Genesis. And the games initial price tag was equally jaw-dropping. (Review)
Castlevania Bloodlines Bloodlines was able to do fake translucency, mirroring, parallax
scrolling, cloud effects, transparency, and other graphical feats that pushed the systems
powers were done in this game. (Review)

Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves



Just about every late Neo-Geo game pushed the
system to its limits. How else would SNK continue
to such masterful games on hardware that is over a decade old? If I had to choose one game that
defines how great of a 2D game SNK can push out of a Neo-Geo, Fatal Fury Mark of the Wolves
would top the list.

Although most gamers can expect great visuals from SNK, Mark Of The Wolves features some of
the best 2D animation in a fighting game. It has drawn comparisons with Capcoms Street Fighter
3, and although it doesnt have quite as many frames of animation as Third Strike, youd be hard
pressed to find many 2D fighters that move as fluidly as this one.

Additionally, the game rivals the likes of Marvel Vs Capcom 2 in terms of special effects; the
gratuitous amount of hitting sparks, fiery projectile attacks, and flashy lightning visuals are
generously displayed even with the simplest special attack (i.e. Butts rising uppercut). Its simply
astounding how smooth the idle animations are and youll begin to notice little details for each
fighter.
Full Review of Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves

The Last Blade 2



Weighing in at a whopping 554 Megs, The Last Blade 2
has some of SNKs most lush, detailed graphics ever. The
backgrounds are stylized and match the mood of the game
perfectly. The separately animated sprite fields add a
wonderful sense of depth and movement and they
augment the character graphics in a way that adds flair and
imagery with out competing or detracting from the
characters themselves. This combination creates an
atmosphere that really contributes to thrilling, intricate
gameplay (much like the first Last Blade did).

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Every fighter is so finely detailed and animated that it will make you want to play more simply to
admire the art. I guess my only gripe about the art (and this is very minor) is that the characters
dont have their own backgrounds anymore, whereas in the previous Last Blade each fighter had a
personalized stage.

The pre-match cinemas are vintage SNK and there is plenty of eye candy effects with the specials
and supers. The zoom effect was also appropriately used, keeping the frame rate smooth and
constant, not to mention keeping the characters focused.
Full Review of Last Blade 2
Honorable Mentions

Samurai Shodown V This was the last of the offical Neo-Geo games and like other late
releases, it was impressive in terms of showing what an old platform could do. SSV nearly
topped out the Neo-Geos cartridge store capacity at 708 Megs. (Review)
King of Fighters 2003 THE biggest Neo-Geo game ever at 716 Megs. 2003 was the last
KOF game on the original Neo-Geo hardware and I still find it hard to believe its not a
Atomiswave game. (Review)
Sengoku 3 Graphically, the game is a quantum leap over Sengoku 1 and 2. The characters
are not only much larger but considerably more detailed with reasonably fluid animation. The
special effects for certain attacks are also extremely well done. (Review)
Metal Slug 3 Despite a couple of minor blemishes here and there, Metal Slug 3 is one of
the greatest ever 2D titles on any system, and definitely the most well-rounded game in this
series. (Review)
SNK vs Capcom Chaos SvC really had some potential as it has some large sprites and
great color, unfortunately, it seemed like SNK rushed this title as lacks the detailed
characters and smooth animations that many of its other fighters have. And once you actually
get into the game, you realize that it is pretty flawed. (Review)

Yoshis Island

Near the end of the SNESs long journey, Nintendo
released one more Mario World-esque game which
resulted in the most graphically advanced SNES game
especially in terms of 2D. Yoshis Island uses the Super FX
2 microchip to create sprite scaling and polygon effects
that are relatively advanced for a Super Famicom/SNES
game.

Obviously, the power of the new hardware gave Nintendo


the opportunity to display all sorts of great visual effects that had never been seen before. In fact,
when compared with 32-bit games being released for Sonys Playstation, Yoshis Island may have
left some people scratching their heads, wondering what advantages a CD-based console had
over 16-bit cartridges.

The entire game is filled with small details and little enhancements that really push it over the top.
Yoshis Island features a unique graphical style that looks similar to a childrens book; its very
colorful, with sketchy, handdrawn looking effects that popup and warp in real-time. Yoshi, Baby
Mario, and all of Koopas minions animate beautifully. Some enemies move strictly by scaling and
rotating around the screen, pushing the SNES to the max.
Full Review of Yoshis Island

StarFox

The first (and one of the few) games to bear the Super FX
Chip technology, Star Fox was a technical marvel as far as
Super Nintendo games were concerned. The enclosed
chip, which was powerful enough to push out flat-shaded
polygons and render them reasonably quickly, was also
expensive enough to limit its production to just a few titles.

The Super FX chip freed up the system resources inside


the SNES and made for one very fast, great-looking, and

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great-playing 3D shooter. These and other such customized co-processor carts were very
expensive to produce, and it was not long before Nintendo began other, cheaper avenues of
assault on Sega.
Full Review of Star Fox

Donkey Kong Country (1, 2, and 3)



This popular series was without doubt one of the best-
looking group of platformers to ever grace a 16-bit console.
Rares development teams had found a way to convert 24-
bit animation sequences into a format that a 16-bit console
by creating on a high-end SGI workstation and then porting
them to the SNES.

It was a technique that was also used in Rares Killer


Instinct. Rare took significant financial risks in purchasing the expensive SGI equipment used to
render the graphics. If the game had not been a commercial success, the company could have
gone bankrupt.

Donkey Kong Country also is supposedly the first SNES game to use the scanline trick to push the
max on screen colors from 256 to 4096. To summarize, Donkey Kong Country is a game that
turned the the 16-bit era around and really got Segas attention.
Full review of Donkey Kong Country

Honorable Mentions:

Star Ocean & Tales of Phantasia Star Ocean netted a total of 48 Megabits of compressed
data, completely maxing out the cartridge format. Tales of Phantasia was one only other
game to come close. Both games were incredibly beautiful and featured voice acting a
rarity for cartridge-based games. (Check out the review of the new Tales of Phantasia GBA
Port)
Cybernator/Assault Suits Valken This mech shooter is filled with destructive details and
smooth animation. Its so suprising that this is actually a SNES game, I would say it actually
rivals its Saturn sequel, Assualt Suit Leynos 2.
Axelay This may be the definitive shooter for the SNES. The high resolution graphics are
stunning, and there are so many types of enemies that you rarely see the same one twice.
The centerpiece of this game however, are the bosses they are huge and imposing.
Street Fighter Alpha 2 - Did you even know that Alpha 2 runs on the SNES? Sure, its not the
best version of the game, but its still impressive to see it running on the Super Nintendo.
Stunt Race FX The second game which used the FX chip, but this racing game wasnt
quite as impressive as Star Fox.
Killer Instinct As mentioned above, it used a graphic techinique similar to Donkey Kong
Country and brought it to the 2D fighter genre.

Sonic CD

Possibly the best Sega CD game and the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever, Sonic CD
took advantage of the Sega CD is just about every possible way. The blazing fast
gameplay that was possible in the original Genesis Sonic games was already impressive enough.
Instead of doing a quick port like some other Genesis-to-Sega CD games (Eternal Champions,
Earthworm Jim), Sonic CD was a complete renovation of the Sonic games.

Sonic CD started with a great FMV video intro that was enough to make Sonic fans drool (even if
the music was cheesy), but it didnt end there. Sonic CD featured and incredible CD audio
soundtrack, amazing sound effects (I still love Dr. Robotniks evil laugh to this day), improved 3D-
like Bonus Rounds that took adavantage of the SCDs extra processing capabilities, and 2
additional variations of each level (Past and Future) via the games time-travel feature. Why Sega
never built off of Sonic CDs features, Ill never know.
Full Review of Sonic CD

Silpheed

One of my first and favorite Sega CD games was an
amazing shooter that featured a heavy dose of pseudo-3D

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action and cutscenes. I still think Silpheed is impressive to


this day.

Using polygonal objects with twice the level of detail of


those from Star Fox, and taking up almost the entire
screen at a high fps while doing it, Silpheeds graphics are
technically brilliant.

As your craft makes its way through hostile territory, the on-rails camera forces you left and right,
offering panoramic views of incoming armadas, cramped Star Wars style trenches, and bumpy,
obstacle-ridden surfaces.

The nicest parts are when it misses a huge object by about a centimeter, giving a real sense of
physical immersion in spite of the obvious limitations of the time, such as background pop-up.
Full Review of Silpheed

Honorable Mentions:

The Lunar Series The Sega CDs inproved storage capacity allowed developers to bring
epic RPGs to life in a way that was not possible before. Both Lunar games capitalized on
these strengths by bringing FMV cutscenese, magical soundtracks, and massive amounts of
gameplay to the Sega CD. (Review)
All those FMV Games While the gameplay sucked for the most part, the videos had to be
optimized in order to get the most colors out of the Gennys limited palete. Some of the FMV
games received 32X upgrades that boosted the image quality. Between the Sega CDs
storage compacity and the 32Xs image upgrade, these titles maxed out the Genesis
architecture.