Do Graphics Matter in Video Games?


In June 1972, a strange machine called Pong showed up in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, CA. It was unlike anything the public had seen. A large box with a screen that displayed 2 white paddles and a ball, people soon discovered you could move the paddles side to side and score against the other players. The game was simple, yes, but it was mind-blowing at the time.

Soon, games such as these grew more and more popular, and as a result, more advanced. Atari, the creator of this Pong game, released consoles, devices that could play multiple games, as long as you had the cartridges. Again, these games were simple, and their graphics look positively wretched by today’s standards, but they were successful and were simple clean fun.

But soon the video game market crashed in 1983, due to poor quality games, expensive consoles, and a flooded market. Video games became passe.

But the industry received a shot in the arm when a bold new company came into the market: Nintendo. Releasing their own console, the NES,  in 1985, and compared to Atari, it featured more advanced graphics.

But that’s not why the system became popular. In fact, It became popular because the games were fun. It didn’t matter that the first Mario Bros had rudimentary graphics. Really, It was just pure, unbridled fun to control Mario jumping over obstacles and getting 1-Ups, and exploring the Mushroom Kingdom.

Which leads me to my main point. graphics don’t matter, as long as your game is fun. Sure, people might buy your game more if you have good graphics, but what will keep people remembering the game will be its gameplay. On the SNES, Nintendo’s follow up console, they advanced the graphics significantly. Now you could play games that were almost 3D, like F-Zero, Starfox, and Donkey Kong Country.

Nintendo hammered this point home in their advertising, and so did their competitor, Sega, who boasted about their system, the Genesis, being more powerful than any other. So what were the so-called “graphically superior” games they were talking about? Well, the 2 most visually complex games that the console had were Vectorman and Virtua Racing. Never heard of them? That’s because they weren’t that fun or memorable. Sure, people in 1992 might have marveled at the realistic Polygons of Virtua Racing, but it was nothing more than a normal racing game once you got over the marvel of 3D Graphics.

And now, in the crowded market of gaming, graphics seem to matter more and more. Graphical engines have become more and more advanced, with some games looking extremely life like. Bethesda employee Pete Hines, a major member of the video game industry, said on the OXM podcast: “There’s a lot of people who say graphics don’t matter. To them I usually say ‘you’re lying’. People will look at a screenshot and make a snap decision: ‘that looks awesome’, or ‘I’m not interested’. So if you can make something look amazing just at first glance, it’s so much easier to get them”

This quote is emblematic of people’s general attitude towards graphics. They flock to games with astounding graphics, and don’t care if it has an interesting story or great gameplay. I’m not saying having great graphics is bad, far from it. Games like Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild has excellent graphics and visuals as well as fun gameplay and a great atmosphere. But other companies don’t understand this balance, they focus solely on graphics and make the gameplay feel like an afterthought. And this is a problem.

Consider this: In 50 years, which games will the public remember? The original Mario Bros, Space Invaders, and Sonic the Hedgehog (Games which are not all that graphically impressive) or Call of Duty 5, Destiny 2, and the other innumerable shooter games with great graphics but no interesting gameplay? I have a feeling it will be those first three.  Not only are these older games more fun to play and more original, but they also hold special meaning for people. Who could forget their first time playing Mario? Going to the arcade for the first time? Older games hold a place in all of our hearts, and sometimes you just want to go back and relive those memories.

Take the video game Tetris, for instance. Since its initial release on the Game Boy, to its endless ports to other consoles, it has become the best selling video game of all time, surpassing 495 million units. But despite its success, the primary iteration of the game isn’t that graphically advanced. It’s quite rudimentary, in fact.

And yet, the game is incredibly successful, proving that a game doesn’t need stunning graphics to be a hit. In fact, in 1996, Nintendo attempted to revive the game in 3D with better graphics on their ill-fated console the Virtual Boy. Despite the superior graphics, the game sold poorly, as did the system. (The Virtual Boy only sold 770,000 systems, according to an article by Business Insider, a crushing disappointment for Nintendo)

So in the end, graphics don’t really matter. Game-play and story is truly what’s important in gaming. And while graphics can elevate a game, they are not important in the grand scheme of things. So next time you’re thinking of picking up a game solely for the cool cover or the videos you saw online, think twice. It’s not as necessary as you might think.