This week the Smithsonian American Art Museum is asking the internet to vote on the best art in videogames. The Art of Video Games exhibition will explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers. They want us to help us select the eighty video games that will be represented in the exhibition, and they’ve broken it down by era: Start, 8-bit, Bit Wars, Transition and Next Generation. Within that each era is represented by different systems (Atari VCS, ColecoVision and Mattel Intellivision for Start, for example)
Now I took the time to vote, and it understandably took me quite a while, but there were some notable exceptions. Toe Jam and Earl on the Megadrive (sorry, that’s “Genesis” for you Americans…) for example. This got me thinking of an all time top five art styles.
So here are mine –
5. Toe Jam and Earl. (Megadrive) This was a kind of silly rogue-like co-op planet crawler, but the art style lifted it into cult status, by injecting some brilliant oddball humour into precedings. The sequels were disappointing platformers, but check out this original on the Wii virtual console. I’m proud to say I beat this baby, back in the day, and the funkatronic soundtrack is my mobile phone ringtone…
4. Phantasy Star. (Master System) This was the first rpg I ever played, and the thing that drew me in and kept me playing for hours was the art style. There was even a pioneering first person view in the dungeons. Because of the restrictions of 2D and the static combat screens, I feel extra care was taken with the designs, and I still feel that the Phantasy star series never quite looked as charming again. There was a japan-only remake called PS generation 1 for the ps2 in 2003, but I’ve never had the pleasure of checking it out.
3. Space Invaders. (Atari Arcade) It’s an obvious choice in any top 5, but its no accident that those ever advancing alien symbols have become international design icons, representing video games, the 80s and general retro-cool. For example I have a space invaders ice cube tray. Even today, as well a great game and as addictive as hell, it’s beautiful to look at.
2. Final Fantasy VII. (Playstation) This game is many people’s favourite Final Fantasy because of its story and the fact that it set a new bar in terms of cinematic storytelling. But for me it also has the best art style of any rpg. Unlike many, I prefer the cutesy way the characters are represented on the map screens, only for them to be more realistically rendered in the cut scenes and battles. Similarly the music bridged that gap between digital chip music and full cd audio with digitized vocals over sythesised orchestral builds. In short, I love the way the game celebrates old 16 bit art styles but marries it with the textures and storytelling of 5th generation consoles.
1. Pixeljunk Monsters. (PSN) Ok, so maybe this is my addiction calling. After all when my ps3 died one of the first things I thought was how much I was looking forward to having to do all of this game again on my new slim. The fact is though, that no other tower defence game has ever kept my attention for the 100s of hours I put into this one. The gameplay is tight, the boards are varied, but the thing that really sets it apart is the unbelievable art style. Its weird, but in my opinion it’s the most beautiful and original character design in any game. From the sombre little dancing african dude you play to the sparse ambient music. This game just oozes charm, even when your tearing your hair out.
Now I realise that is a top five that will divide, but when you think about it the art style of games is such a personal thing and comes down to taste and nostalgia as well as overall game experience. So after you vote on the Smithsonian exhibition, I look forward to hearing yours.