Gone But Best Forgotten #1: 3D Pre-Rendered Graphics

I intended to write this sooner, but alas: other projects took up my time – including another article on this site. I’ve since caught up with my workload, so I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and start this series for real. As I mentioned in the short introduction I wrote last month, Gone But Best Forgotten is a retrospective series – focused squarely upon things I feel nostalgic for, but also recognize that there’s no reason to bring about their return. This could be about just about anything, but this time around, I’m going to focusing on something primarily seen within the realm of video games.

During the 1990s, 2D graphics were essentially at their peak,  but 3D graphics were on the rise. Fortunately, at this point in time, most affordable video game machines were severely limited in their ability to generate 3D graphics, with most efforts being limited to either extremely blocky or otherwise primitive. At this point in time, 3D graphics were generally limited to either arcade games or prohibitively expensive systems. By the mid-90s, however, the fifth generation of video game consoles, including such machines as the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s new “PlayStation”, it seemed that 3D graphics were going to become more common. This left the then-current Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System – with their 2D graphics – looking downright primitive by comparison. Not intending to be totally outdone by their impending successors, the older platforms attempted to recreate these experiences with mixed results.

Ys I on the Sharp X68000, one of the first games to use pre-rendered 3D graphics. 

Direct recreation of 3D graphics – seen in such titles as Nintendo’s Star Fox, Sega’s Virtua Racing, Stunt Race FX, Zero Tolerance and 3D Ballz, among others – was met with mixed results. They were technically very impressive, given the hardware that they were built on, but compared to both games seen in arcades and the upcoming consoles, they were definitely very much underwhelming. Fortunately, this wasn’t the only method for attempting to bring advanced 3D graphics to these older platforms. There was, of course, pre-rendered 3D graphics.

Pre-rendered 3D graphics wasn’t exactly a brand-new technology: in theory, it was no different from the digitization of live-action actors used in Mortal Kombat and its many imitators. The only real difference is that 3D models were used instead, with each frame of animation effectively being a digitized 2D snapshot of the model in a specific pose. Therefore, the graphics themselves were still the same exact sprites that were seen in pretty much every game during the 16-bit era – they were just represented a much more complex image, rather than being drawn from scratch, pixel by pixel. Among the first games to utilize this graphical trick was a remake of the 1987 classic, Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished for Sharp’s X68000 computer system, released back in 1991. The game’s bosses were pre-rendered in 3D, providing a severe contrast to the remainder of the game’s graphics, which were depicted using traditional 2D artstyles. While the game itself sold poorly due to some odd graphical choices, it did provide a proof of concept: 3D renders were technically achievable on 16-bit hardware.

The Donkey Kong Country games had perhaps the most recognizable use of pre-rendered 3D graphics.

This led to what were considered some of the most impressive looking games of the generation, at least at the time. Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy was heralded for having some of the most impressive graphics possible on the Super Nintendo. Sonic 3D Blast utilized this gimmick as well, and while it was not received quite as well, no one was complaining about the game’s graphics. Vectorman was a unique game that utilized both pre-rendered 3D graphics as well as an attempt at an actual 3D perspective for some graphical tricks most people would have considered impossible on a piece of hardware that was first released in 1989.

Of course, not all games fared as well as DKC.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this little graphical trick was the fact that even the fifth-generation systems – the very systems this technique was formed to compete with – utilized it in a number of ways. The most common use of pre-rendered 3D was in backgrounds: games like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII relied on this to achieve some of their more impressive visuals. Odder still, however were the rare games that used them exactly as their forerunners did. This was particularly common on the Sega Saturn with games like Bug!, Clockwork Knight and Johnny Bazookatone taking advantage of that particular art style.

Give me Capcom’s Marvel Super Heroes any day.

Ironically, it would take until the sixth generation, with platforms like the Dreamcast and particularly the PlayStation 2 to remove the reliance on pre-rendered 3D graphics, opting for a much broader use of real-time 3D graphics, which was more technically impressive and continues to be used to this day. However, pre-rendered 3D graphics did have one last hurrah during this generation: as handhelds weren’t technically capable of recreating the 3D graphics seen on modern consoles – they were, in fact, more similar in power to 16-bit era machines – they too relied upon pre-rendered 3D graphics in order to achieve some of their more impressive visual achievements.

1489 - Mario Vs. Donkey Kong (U)(Venom)_01
It’s kind of funny in retrospect.

The reason not to bring this back is obvious: pre-rendered 3D graphics were strictly a stop-gap measure, to achieve better graphics in a time where technology simply could not handle the real-time rendering of 3D models. We’re far beyond that in terms of technology, so the only excuse for doing such a thing would be an attempt at trying to recreate the retroactively cheap appearance of these graphics for the sake of appealing to someone’s nostalgia. The funny part about the whole thing is that this method is actually still technically used today – just as a rotoscoping technique, meant to keep 2D sprites on-model while animating. It’s been used in games like Blazblue and The King of Fighters XIII. Perhaps the most ironic thing of all is that nowadays, not only are 2D graphics generally more expensive to create than their 3D counterparts, they’re also generally considered more graphically impressive as well.


It may sound like I’m a bit down on this particular technique and in a sense, I am. Even if it did allow for better graphics at the time, it didn’t take long for games created using pre-rendered 3D graphics to show their age – especially with games from the fifth and sixth generations. At the same time, the fact that it is clearly unfeasible to revive does give it a certain nostalgic feel to me. Like I said, at this point, I truly feel as if the only way I can feel a sense of true nostalgia – containing both a sense of memory and loss – is by reflecting on the bad ideas that should clearly never be revived, things that will remain intact in their original forms, even as more and more things from the past are revived for both the old generations that grew up with them, as well as new generations discovering them for the first time. Bringing things from the past back is all well and good, but at least from my perspective, nostalgia is incomplete without a sense of loss.


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