Special Feature: Improving the Graphics of an Old Game

Introduction

There are a number of ways to make a retro video game look new again, though in truth, not a single method is perfect. While graphics from the 16-bit era and below seem set in stone, there are still ways to improve them. Moving into the 3D era with PlayStation and Nintendo 64, there are more options still. Sometimes the method of improvement comes from the developers themselves, and sometimes the work is done by fans. Here are ways improved graphics come into being.

Using a Filter on 16-bit and 8-bit Video Games

A graphical filter rounds out square pixels in Super Mario World.

There are graphical filters for 8- and 16-bit consoles that round out hard edges on old games. All the filters do the same trick, basically turning square pixels into triangles. The bad news is, it’s a little cheap, and I personally prefer to play the game as it was made. The good news is, you can use this trick on just about any old game out there.

Up-rezzing the Resolution of the Game

This is among the most common techniques to make an old game look better by taking a game that was designed to run at a lower resolution, and having it run at a higher one. 2D game purists will tell you a lot of 2D games ran at 240p, so they prefer 720p for those games, because it is exactly three times the original game’s resolution, not accounting for widescreen. It gets a little more complicated with 3D. Old 3D games were often 480p, and moving into the Wii-generation, 480p included widescreen, though nothing about the moniker 480p tells you this. GameCube was also 480p but without widescreen. 1080p, the highest “HD” resolution we will ever know, is a bit of an odd number, and doesn’t easily divide by 480. After HD comes “UHD” with up to 4K, four times the resolution of 1080p. With 4K, you’re really splitting hairs over having a multiple of the original resolution.

The one thing that will improve 3D graphics at a higher resolution is “anti-aliasing,” which wipes out the jagged edges (sometimes called “jaggies”) on your television screen which are caused by running at a resolution not originally intended by the developer. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of up-rezzing is the Nintendo Wii. Again, the Wii allowed for widescreen, making the now ubiquitous 16:9 aspect ratio look great through the lens of an emulator, like Dolphin. The Super Mario Galaxy games almost look like entirely new games in 1080p HD. It feels like a gift from God that Metroid Prime Trilogy exists for the Wii, making the original 2 games available in widescreen, giving you the option of using a controller or a Wii Remote, and running at 1080p and above in Dolphin.

Machine Learning for Pre-Rendered Backgrounds and Deep Learning

Machine learning cleans up an upscaled image (from Final Fantasy VII, PC version).

Final Fantasy VII through IX popularized the notion of “pre-rendered backgrounds.” In laymen’s terms, it is a static image with some light geometry applied to it, so that the hero character could run around on and into the graphic. If, say, Grim Fandango maxed out its pre-rendered backgrounds at 800 x 600 – which used to be a popular computer monitor resolution – there was formerly nothing that could be done to improve the image now running at 1080p and above. Recently in the news, however, there is a new development for this problem. VentureBeat published a story about how “machine learning” can increase the image quality of pre-rendered backgrounds in Final Fantasy VII.

Put plainly, machine learning involves feeding a computer program a “prototype,” e.g. a pre-rendered image file, and say (in computer code) “Improve the image in the following ways.” After this is done to the prototype, the machine is on its own. The software program will find subsequent images and apply the same logic it applied to the prototype. It sounds brilliant (and truthfully it is), but you can spot the limitations as soon as you look at the new images. Namely, in the work done to Final Fantasy VII, you can see the same spiral effect in every square tile on every pre-rendered image shown in the video demonstration. It’s a bummer, but who’s to say the machine couldn’t learn more?

Deep learning is a subset of machine learning, and supposedly was inspired by ways in which the body works, and the ways in which the human brain works. It all sounds rather complicated, but another recent article described how Nvidia used deep learning to improve visuals in The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. Unfortunately, I think every screenshot where deep learning is applied looks worse than the original.

Fan-based Graphical Upgrade Projects

Resident Evil 4 HD Project. Note the background wall.

Let’s get it out of the way: A Nintendo 64 emulator one day allowed for texture packs, which allow a fan to replace a game’s textures with newer, preferably higher resolution textures. It was made with good intentions, but a lot of the projects this feature spawned look awful. It is a reminder that graphics can’t be reduced to textures alone. It would be nice to have the ability to improve geometry, play with lighting and shadow effects, and apply high-dynamic range, camera effects and more. Textures alone aren’t enough.

Moving on to a positive example, Resident Evil 4 on PC has a fan-project still in development that’s making big improvements to the visuals. Titled “Resident Evil 4 HD Project,” the team behind it has increased the texture quality with many things in the game, drawing by hand a better image. All the while, they are improving things that were goofy in the original game. In the most recent video, a developer is talking about how the Jeep the policemen drive gets parked with a bush intersecting the car passenger’s legs. He simply says, “I moved the bush.”

It’s a win-win for Capcom, because you need to own the PC game to apply the improvements. I don’t see a cease and desist letter in these people’s future. Still, it should be noted that you shouldn’t expect this treatment for any old game out there. There are only so many gamers in the world, let alone modders. There needs to be a team willing to go to such lengths.

Ported Games Where the Developer Retains the Source Code

Jet Set Radio in stunning HD. The source code was retained.

A software company saving its source code is serious business. It makes things like improvements and ports easier to pull off, because every line of code and every art asset that comprises that software is still available. Software companies should take it as seriously as consumers do, when they use iCloud or OneDrive to back-up existing documents or photos. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. A number of fly-by-night developers for the NES as well as the Wii probably didn’t care enough to save the source, as long as they made some money making the title.

When the developer does retain the source-code, it’s magical. Look at Jet Set Radio HD on PC. A game released in 2000 has never felt more modern, with widescreen graphics and crystal clear cel-shading! SEGA again saves the day with a Shenmue I & II Remaster, again supporting widescreen graphics, along with extremely high anti-aliasing, and well-used bloom lighting. Digital Foundry does an excellent summary of the Shenmue I & II improvements on YouTube. Re-releases of BioShock and BioShock Infinite, as well as the Batman Arkham series games, more subtly improve the graphics. Secretly I am a former web developer, and when I see a company take their old source code and make a better product with it, I am impressed.

The PC Version is Usually the Best

PC versions in 2019 are usually the best way to play a game. A console gives a developer a set standard by which to determine graphical quality, a steady frame rate, and the like. If they make a PC port sometime later, they usually throw in fun stuff like supporting better screen resolutions and higher anti-aliasing.

The Grand Theft Auto III port, and the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City port, both include a feature I love: higher draw-distances. Put simply, a building that would only appear once you are in close proximity on the PlayStation 2, would appear at a farther distance in the PC version. In Vice City, crossing from one island to the other, you can see the high-rises sooner, and it makes the game feel bigger.

Irrational Games and Crystal Dynamics have been in the PC game biz for a long time, but have also flirted with console development. Still, the most recent BioShock game, BioShock Infinite, lets you play with high texture detail and texture filtering, while the Tomb Raider reboot lets you increase the refresh rate, and play with the aspect ratio.

Conclusion

There’s no one method for making an old game look new again. And developers can’t spend all their time improving their old games, as the future begs for new titles (but I’m still serious about saving source code). All the while, ports are as much a part of the industry as the new titles. Some development houses specialize in modernizing old games, including “blit,” “d3t,” and “DotEmu.” If there’s a game from yesteryear you’d like to play again, it can be better now than it was then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s