"The Prince" from Katamari Damacy © 2003 2005 NAMCO LTD.

Top 5 Most Visually Disctinctive Video Games

Recently I read an interview entitled “Video Games are Dead” with video game designer Chris Crawford. Crawford is well known for writing the classic book “The Art of Video Game Design” in 1982, which was the first “serious” book on the topic of video games ever to be published. In the interview, Crawford expressed concern over the lack of innovation in the industry now, with new games rehashing the same experience over and over. In addition, it’s obvious when you look at modern games that many game designers are obsessed with making things more detailed, more photo-realistic. Is this what the industry needs? With Crawford’s interview in mind, I cast myself back to reflect upon some of the more distinctively-designed video games in history…

Written by Jon.

Tempest © 1980 Atari, Inc.


Made over two decades ago in 1980, Tempest can still hold its head high as having a highly distinctive, stylised design. One of the first games ever to use vector graphics, Tempest’s bright, colourful 3D-perspective levels were a huge innovation in a time dominated by “flat” 2D video game designs. In addition to Tempest’s obvious visual distinction, Tempest also made several other innovations in terms of actual game mechanics. For example, at the time it was normal for progressive levels in a video game to be simply clones of the previous, but with an ever increasing difficulty level (faster / more enemies) – Tempest was one of the first games to introduce visually-distinctive progressive levels, each with different enemy designs.

Katamari Damacy © 2003 2005 NAMCO LTD.

Katamari Damacy

From its highly original and critically-acclaimed gameplay to its bizarre, colourful levels and quirky cutscenes, this list just wouldn’t be accurate without mentioning Katamari Damacy. In terms of game mechanics, Katamari Damacy was as strange as it was innovative – you play a small alien character who rolls a ball (called a “katamari” around the surface of a planet. As you roll over objects, they stick to the ball and as you gather more and more objects, your katamari grows to a gigantic size as it becomes made up of people, houses, trees and innocent animals, all helplessly stuck to your katamari. Hilarious to watch.

Killer 7 © 2005 Capcom Entertainment

Killer 7

A highly-stylised game, Killer 7 is the brainchild of Japanese game designer Goichi Suda (who is somewhat notorious for wearing wrestling masks in press conferences). Unorthodox in play style, Killer 7 received a lukewarm reception from gamers, despite its distinctive, comicbook-like graphics to which it could attribute much of its pre-release hype. After its release in 2005, Killer 7 won many accolades from the press thanks to its visual flair and play style, including “Best Game No One Played” from IGN and “Most Innovative Game” from Gamespot.

Vib Ribbon © 2000 Sony Computer Entertainment

Vib Ribbon

Vib Ribbon deserved a lot more commercial success than it achieved. In terms of game design, both the visuals and premise were highly distinctive. Drawn in a kind of scribble-like mass of lines, players could insert their favourite music CD, control a rabbit character and negotiate obstacles created dynamically by the type of music being played from the CD. The obstacles would vary according to factors such as the tempo and volume of the music being played.

Okami © Clover Studio Co., Ltd


Released only a few months ago, Okami is a game by Clover Studio in which you play a Shinto Goddess who has taken the mortal form of a white wolf (in Japanese, “Okami” can mean both “Wolf” and “Great Deity”). Although an impressive, involving adventure game in terms of gameplay, what really sets Okami apart from every other game this year is its incredible visual style. The style resembles that of a Japanese

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watercolour painting, with some Kirie-like influence.

Chris Crawford’s book “The Art of Video Game Design” is now out of print, but it is freely available to read online.

  • Gregory

    Great review!
    I’d like to add the Rakuga Kids N64 game, and in the same vein, Paper Mario.

  • http://sirtingle.blogspot.com/ Tingle

    I like to add Wario ware, Animal Crossing , Lego Star Wars and Spore when it comes out.
    Crawford hasn’t made any games himself in a long long time. While this doesn’t discredit him totally, it does make him sound like an old guy ranting about how things were better in his day.

  • Sean

    Gitaroo Man, LocoRoco, Wario Ware?

  • http://www.monkito.com/ Dranore

    His (Crawford’s) overall point is well and good in anycase.

    I wouldn’t call ‘Wario Ware’ visually distinctive – it’s modeled on (S)NES games – so there are plenty of games that LOOK like Wario Ware. The thing to emphasize here is that he’s only refering to the game’s visual style – NOT the content or gameplay. Those are very different things. I applaud your decision to stick to the visual side of things. However – every choice save Tempest was within the last 6 years – the ‘top 5′ was also probably a mistake. You’d have been better off trying to cover significant visual styles in games – claiming those are the top 5 visual styles from all of gaming history is a pretty grandiose statement. As someone very interested in game design, this article feels very lacking in depth for the claim – you’re others are usually very appropriate.

    If you’d like to write a better article on the subject, I’d recommend doing a little reading first. A recommended link on the subject:

    Videogame Aesthetics

    This article covers most of the bases you do but with more thought and development than is covered here. Includes a broader selection of games and doesn’t try to hit bullet points so much as discuss directions where game graphics can go… also makes an EXCELLENT connection to Scott McCloud’s visual triangle – which is an incredibly smart connection to make – as it really applies to all art, not just comics.

    But thanks for covering such a diverse rang of topics here on Pingmag, it will serve you well in the future – I’m sure of it. Just try to have a little more depth to the subject and at least try to add something new to the discourse if you’re going to bother writing on a topic. Just my two cents.

  • Administrator

    Dranore > thanks for the comments. It was meant to be a quick article, although of course I would have liked to go into more depth and may do so in the future, time permitting. As for the gap in the game timeline, you know, I tried so hard to think of a game that was visually distinctive from the 16-bit era, but I came up with nothing! Even my video game fan friends couldn’t think of anything truly distinctive. The best I could come up with was Ballz, a (rather fun) fighting game where players were made of…balls. A lot cooler than it sounds.

    Do you have any 16-bit suggestions?

  • http://www.kungfoodie.com Kung Foodie

    I have to disagree with Dranore….

    I LOVE Ping mag because the articles are brief and can be read quickly. I don’t have time to spend half an hour or more slothing through an article. I think your readers are smart enough to know that if they want more details they can do a few searches and dig up plenty of additional info.

    The beauty of Ping is that you’ve developed a style and voice that covers tasty bites of design in life. I say keep it up!!!

  • http://www.monkito.com/ Dranore

    I played Ballz. It was good Vectorman was more popular and in the same style. The hard part about the 16 generation was that you were limited in what you could do… Sofisticated graphical effects were expensive to achieve. That being said there were some interesting things Ballz/Vectorman was one. Comix Zone for Genesis was very unique. It was sort of Viewtiful Joe 0.1 alpha. Again with “Top 5″ that’s hard. Cause really there are lots of unique styles – it’s subjective – link in any art – to say anyone is better than any other. Some people like photorealism – Unreal 3 and Crysis are amazing real looking. It just depends what floats your boat. But I digress…

    Lemme think for a second. It’s really a difficult topic if you take into account all of electronic games as they have existed. I think the Tempest style Vector graphics was an excellent choice because it was unique and still is as no major developer works in that medium anymore. If you wanna go with Hayward/McCloud’s visual triangle analogy – You have photo-realism, abstraction, and iconography. The most extreme example of any of those cases can argued to need one of those top 5 spots. As far as I’m aware photorealism would go to Unreal 3/Crysis at this point. Abstraction? You could argue Tetris. Iconography – well really that’s text adventure in the most iconic sense. Though I’d probably go a bit further and choose NetHack for using maps generated from ASCII characters. Moving away form the extremes, you could argue the FMV (Full Motion Video) games for SegaCD (Sewer Shark, Night Trap, Ground Zero Texas, etc.) had a very unique visual style. Lucas Arts adventure games were certainly unique for their time going for a cartoon look and actually getting pretty close to what they were going for.

    I’m posting this question to a classic game community I run in occasionally – I’ll post again if I get any interesting replies.

  • http://www.monkito.com/ Dranore

    That was typoriffic, sorry.

  • http://www.michaelpodolak.com gl0tch

    How could you forget Rez?!

  • http://www.monkito.com/ Dranore

    I don’t think anyone FORGOT Rez. I just wouldn’t put it in the top 5. But if you read the link I posted, he included it there.

  • http://www.gravestmor.com marcus

    And Rez is kind of a sprititual descendent of Tempest…

  • http://www.pressuresystem.com Simon

    Yeah REZ!

  • Josh J

    Notable: Jet Set Radio Future (and Jet Grind Radio)

  • Dranore

    Jet Set Radio (aside from being awesome in and of itself) is only significant because it was the FIRST cell shaded game – Killer 7 and Okami are both cell shaded – as was Zelda: The Windwaker. As were others – One could argue that Killer 7 is more distinctive in it’s blending of many styles with cell shading or Okami for moving beyond standard cell shading into replicating a paper medium. Though JSR/F does have a great sense of style – it’s more just a cool style versus something revolutionary in and of itself.

  • http://www.monkito.com/ Dranore

    Here’s the results so far, I can’t comment on all of them, as I haven’t played them all:

    Metal SlugS
    Warning Forever
    Another World/Flashback
    Illusion City
    I, Robot – The first 3D game
    King’s Quest 6

    More as they come.

  • Jon

    Another World…not sure if its technically a “16 bit” game, but it did appear on the major 16 bit consoles.

    Also, I think Wario Ware deserves inclusion purely based on aesthetics

  • Jeff

    you forgot parappa the rapper and bust a move 2

  • http://www.gamethink.net jerjer

    Fear Effect was the first cel-shaded game, approx 10 month before JSR, but JSR was the first game to use cel-shading as a unique selling point. Your top 5 list is fine, but I regret that videogames graphical style is now increasingly conservative. any game that dares to do something different is now considered an oddity.

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