Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, was originally released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000. Unlike Kirby’s Nintendo counterparts such as Mario and Link, this lone Nintendo 64 starring effort was a 2D platformer instead of a 3D adventure. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, was recently made available for online play on the Nintendo Switch. To mark the occasion, Nintendo Life re-published its 2015 review of Kirby 64, which was written when the game was made available for Wii U’s virtual console. The review offers some interesting thoughts on reviewing visuals in older games and the kinds of video game visuals that age well.

First, the reviewer, Mr. Thomas Jones, addressed the general difficulty for reviewing visuals “for early polygonal games”:

Visuals can be one of the trickier subjects to fairly “critique” for early polygonal games. Let’s be honest, some Nintendo 64 visuals don’t hold up exceedingly well, with early 3D models tending to age far worse than 2D sprites. Characters and objects can appear cube-like and rigid, textures are often rudimentary to say the least, and scenery can lack the detail and artistic flair you may have gotten used to in the past two decades.

Nintendo 64 played a leading role in taking games from the 16-bit 2D platformer era to an era of 3D games. Super Mario 64 was the most influential early 3D platformer and a game that inspired a sense of awe with its scope and visuals when it was released. Nintendo 64 produced a number of other genre-defining 3D adventures including The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooe. Being old enough to have enjoyed video games in the late 90s and early 2000s, I can speak with some authority in stating that Super Mario 64 felt more visually impressive than 2D games. Before I comment further, let us read Mr. Jones’ assessment of Kirby 64 itself:

That is why it’s so pleasantly surprising to see how well Kirby 64 has held up, and the title remains one of the best looking that the N64 ever produced. Much of this can be credited to the stylistic approach the designers took — the extremely stark, colourful visuals complemented the N64’s graphical limitations perfectly. Kirby 64 often borrows the “crayon” style visuals seen in titles like Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story to wonderful effect, giving trees and skies a glorious scrap-booked effect. The cutscenes in particular have stood the test of time, with Dedede’s toy-like 64-bit guise being arguably far cuter and charming than his more recent appearance. Not to mention, making Kirby look so perfectly spherical is an impressive coup for the N64.

I recall there being some disappointment when Kirby 64 was released that it hewed very closely to Kirby’s 2D adventures on Game Boy and Super Nintendo. Moreover, since Kirby 64 was a late Nintendo 64 game, it came out after the release of the Sega Dreamcast in the United States, which was vastly more powerful than the Nintendo 64. In those ways, Kirby 64 felt a bit dated when it was released.

But perceptions change. We have seen the release of three new generations of video consoles subsequent to the release of Dreamcast in 1999. Much as Dreamcast was capable of feats well beyond the scope of the Nintendo 64, modern consoles are significantly more powerful than Dreamcast and the other consoles of that generation (PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube).

A copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door in its original box with the instruction booklet.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is an example of a Gamecube game that aged very well due to its unique style. I also understand that it is hard to come by today. Good thing my original copy is in clutch condition.

The 3D games from Nintendo 64’s apex in the 1990s look primative today. What was visually impressive on a technical level in 1998 is not technically impressive now.

So, how should we evaluate video game visuals in hindsight?

Mr. Jones makes an interesting point about Kirby 64 that I agree with. Kirby 64 focused on cultivating an aesthetic. While it kept Kirby locked on a 2D pane, it produced bright, cheery, and sharp (for the Nintendo 64) visuals. While it is not technically impressive by today’s standards, it has an aesthetic style that holds up well. The same cannot be said for many of the early 3D games on the Nintendo 64, which largely had to choose between being blocky or muddy.

I have not played Kirby 64 in two decades, but between my memories of the games and the screenshots, Mr. Jones’ analysis seems to be to be on point. In his assessment of Kirby 64, Mr. Jones highlights what is, in my view, the most beautiful platformer of the 90s and one of the most aesthetic games ever produced: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi’s Island was released for the Super Nintendo in 1995. Its crayon visuals and handcrafted aesthetic were recognized as impressive at the time – and I dare say that no game from the 16-bit era has aged better in terms of visuals. Yoshi’s Island is as much of a graphical accomplishment today as it was 27 years ago.

The foregoing raises interesting questions for game contemporary game developers: What is the audience for your game? Paraphrasing John Ruskin in a different context – does the game aspire to be a game of the hour or a game for all time? A game of the hour need only produce technically impressive visuals with respect to the current state of hardware. A game for all time must have genuinely pretty and aesthetic visuals that will continue to impress stylistically even after the current generation of hardware is obsolete.

I must note, however, that pushing hardware to its limit and creating an aesthetic experience are not mutually exclusive. The second game in the Kirby series, Kirby’s Adventure, was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (“NES”) in 1993. The Super Nintendo had by then supplanted the NES as Nintendo’s flagship console. Kirby’s Adventure pushed the NES to its limits in many regards, and it stands as one of the most technically impressive games on that console. However, Kirby’s Adventure, like Kirby 64 seven years later, is also a genuinely pretty game – and it holds up better than many early 3D games in its visual presentation. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, also benefitted from years of work and development on the Super Nintendo.

Taken together, we can apply the ideas herein to evaluating contemporary games. It is not always possible to predict how a game or other type of media will age. But in our immediate assessments, we should look beyond a game’s technical feats and consider its artistic merits – for the latter are far more likely to age well than the former.