The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds

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1993 was the year gaming changed forever. A pre-rendered point and click adventure game called Myst was released and went on to ship millions of copies and become the best-selling game of all time. It was not until the uber-popular ‘The Sims’ franchise came along that its record was bested.

I was an impressionable 9 year old at the time, and I remember ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ while my friend demonstrated Myst to me on his PC. Here was a game world full of sights and sounds that had a fidelity I had never experienced before. The textures on the stone pillars and trees actually looked like their real-world counterparts. Was I dreaming? No, this was the revolution in gaming graphics that the CD-ROM had made possible.

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Myst

Since then I have had the privilege of experiencing many other pre-rendered games and their day-dream inducing environments on a variety of consoles including Playstation 1 and 2, and the much underrated Gamecube. Even in today’s climate of HD games featuring incredible backdrops such as Uncharted 2 and God of War 3, I still like to reminisce about the titles I was raised on that left such an indelible mark on my imagination. Please bear with me as I take a trip down memory lane and share some of the best examples of games employing pre-rendered backgrounds with you.

The follow up to Myst – Riven – was released in 1997. It was my first title on Playstation and the only game with really difficult puzzles which I’ve persevered with until the bitter end, avoiding that crutch we are all tempted to turn to in times of ‘progression paralysis’ – the walkthrough. The world design was far superior to Myst, as were the textures and animated elements in each area. Whereas Myst shipped on one CD-ROM, Riven shipped on five (four for the PS version), which gives you an idea of how much more detail was in the sequel. To this day, the textures are some of the most realistic you’ll find in a game. If you’re a fan of exploring fantastical locations, then definitely give Riven a go. Atrus needs your help people!

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Riven

The series that defined the Playstation was no doubt Final Fantasy. I borrowed Final Fantasy VII from a classmate in 1998 and only gave it back weeks later due to the sheer scope of the narrative. I had never played a 40 hour game up to that point, and the fact that the title keeps you engaged all the way through bears testament to the superb story the writers conjured up for this classic of classics.

The too-frequent random battles sucked, but no one can argue that the pre-rendered backgrounds were expertly designed. From those beautiful patches of life amidst the decay such as Aeris’ two gardens in the slums (next to her house and in the church) to the Tudor houses in Kalm – the first town you visit after you step out of Midgar and realise just how vast the world actually is.

(If you’re a details freak like me, look out for the subtle animation of people moving behind the curtains just before the CG sequence where Cloud jumps onto the train in Midgar.)

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Final Fantasy VIIThe game I’ve most anticipated in my life is undoubtedly Final Fantasy VIII. In those days you would have to wait about a year for a long Japanese game like this one to be localised into English. Thank goodness times have changed! After months of exhilarating expectancy, I finally got my hands on it towards the back-end of 1999.

The backgrounds in Final Fantasy VIII were a big step up for the series and for PS1 titles in general. There were more looped CG animations than in FFVII, better textures, more environmental detail, and the camera was generally zoomed in and therefore not as isometric focused as it had been in the previous game.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when Squall and his cohorts entered the town of Balamb and went down to the seaside – the waves rippled realistically and a flock of seagulls drifted across the sky.

(For detail freaks, look out for something akin to a depth of field blur as you walk down the main street of Balamb and approach the signpost.)

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Final Fantasy VIII

The next title that had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief was Onimusha 2 on PS2 in 2002. If you’re a fan of cherry blossoms and rivers in spate, then find a way to get your paws on this game! The environments are a sight to behold, and the PS2’s graphical heft meant that real-time objects like breakable pots, sliceable bamboo and hopping frogs blended in with the amazing CG environments to create something truly spectacular.

The water was the best I’d ever seen in a game at that point, and the workers’ village and Japanese traditional homes from the Samurai period were remarkably detailed. The pre-rendered locations really lent a sense of immersion to the game that many other titles on PS2 did not share.

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Onimusha

The remake of the first Resident Evil on Gamecube in 2002 was a big deal, and I thoroughly enjoyed the atmospheric environments and nearly photo-realistic backgrounds. However, the release of Resident Evil 0 in 2003 is when pre-rendered graphics really got crazy-beautiful. In the opening sequence you’re on a train speeding through space and time (and a pretty mean rainstorm). The rain realistically drips down the windows and everything on the train sways from side to side, including a couple of dead people’s limbs!

Almost every scene in this game has some animated CG element that loops so well it’s impossible to tell where it begins and ends. From shifting dishes in a full sink to the flickering flame of a candle, the developers made sure to include dynamic elements wherever possible. Resident Evil 0 represents the high watermark of pre-rendered backgrounds for me, and I can only imagine what the team who did this game could cook up for us in HD if given the opportunity.

The Glory Days of Pre-rendered Backgrounds - Resident Evil on Gamecube

I’ve left many games with excellent pre-rendered graphics out in this article, if only to ensure you don’t stop reading out of boredom before you reach Resident Evil 0! Games that deserve at least a mention are Blade Runner, Abe’s Odyssey, Parasite Eve 2 and Fear Effect. They all use CG backgrounds differently, and feature locations you aren’t going to find anywhere else. If you have the time, try to spend some hours on these classics and report back to us with your thoughts.

I have a sneaking suspicion that mainstream games using pre-rendered backgrounds are a thing of the past. They may pop up from time to time on handhelds or PSN/XBLA, but I doubt the major game executives smell money as far as these types of games are concerned. It’s great that we’ve got consoles nowadays that can render in real-time the environments seen in something like Uncharted 2, and I can’t imagine how multiplayer action games could possible work using pre-rendered backgrounds.

But when the producer of Final Fantasy XIII says they didn’t put towns in the game because it would have taken too much time and money to create them in HD, then I can’t help but think maybe they should just revert to CG backgrounds for their next game and give all us RPG village nuts and pre-rendering enthusiasts something to smile about.