The Most Visually Unique Video Games

Looks don't make a game, but interesting-looking titles have a way of imprinting on us.

List by Nadia Oxford, .

Graphics aren't everything, but they can be a huge help in making a game stand out. They're also a keen way for a game to express itself and emphasize its themes. Sure, Super Mario Bros would play the same if Mario was a squiggle instead of a fully-defined plumber in overalls, but his human shape indicated Nintendo had stepped far away from the Atari 2600 and entered a realm of its own.

Even a flawed game can be unforgettable if some manner of visual quirk helps us pick it out from the flock. Here are some examples of games that flaunt their own style.

Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii)

Despite its unique look, Yoshi's Wooly World immediately brings to mind another soft and warm Nintendo game: Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii.

Though Epic Yarn lacks many of Kirby's traditional mechanics -- the pink puffball can't binge on enemies and use their powers -- the game introduces a whack of new yarn-based gimmicks to its base 2D platforming. Who needs to eat bad guys when you can pull them apart like a cheap sweater?

Yoshi's Wooly World may be fuzzy to the touch, but it was Kirby who pioneered the idea of burrowing into a denim-patterned background and raising adorable hell from his personal pocket. Never forget.

Okami (Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3)

Though it first hit the PlayStation 2 in 2006, Capcom's Okami remains one of the most visually memorable games ever designed. That's thanks to the fact its characters and setting are given life through a sweeping ink-and-watercolor motif that references traditional Japanese paintings.

The rest of Okami's experience is built to harmonize with its style. The story involves gods and demons rooted in Shinto legends, and the game's classic Japanese music carries you deep into its myths. Okami is an unforgettable experience, all told.

Jet Set Radio (Dreamcast, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PlayStation Vita)

Jet Set Radio (or Jet Grind Radio, if you like) marked the start of the new millennium and the sixth console generation with its unique cell-shaded graphics.

And oh boy, developers loved what they saw of Smilebit's neon-electric graphics. A slew of cell-shaded games followed Jet Set Radio's debut; it was seemingly gaming's chosen aesthetic through the first half of the aughts.

Even Nintendo dabbled with the style for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker on the GameCube, a design decision that caused hardcore Ocarina of Time fans to shriek and stomp their feet. Ten years later, the same fans pointed at The Wind Waker's jovial graphics and asked "Whatever happened to Nintendo and innovation?"

MadWorld (Wii)

Platinum Games' uber-violent beat-em-up MadWorld sold poorly when it debuted on the Wii, providing troubling confirmation that despite the console's record-breaking sales numbers, its attach rate for third party games was dismal.

It's not like MadWorld doesn't stand out, either. The game's stark black-and-white graphics recall comic books, particularly hardcore fare like Frank Miller's Sin City. Red is the only other color that makes an appearance, specifically the gobs of blood that spew forth when main character Jack dishes out brutal punishment.

Whatever you think of MadWorld's violent content, there's no arguing that it's an easy game to pick out of a crowd.

Clay Fighter (SNES, Genesis)

Fighting games and "Attitude!!" ruled the '90s, and Interplay's ClayFighter has both. Released in 1993, ClayFighter probably would have slipped under the deluge of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat wannabes choking the market at the time if not for two unique traits: Its sense of humor, and its clay graphics.

Indeed, ClayFighter's claymation characters allowed for over-the-top violence in a time when politicians and parents peered at video games under a microscope in hopes of finding damning evidence about the pastime's negative influence on kids. But what can you say about a fighter taking a buzzsaw to the midsection if that fighter is made out of plasticine? You may as well forbid kids from using a dull knife to cut modeling clay.

Interestingly, claymation characters remain rare in video games, though Nintendo recently brought the style back with Kirby and the Rainbow Curse for the Wii U.

Pit-Fighter (Arcade, SNES, Genesis, Multiple computer ports)

Like ClayFighter, Pit-Fighter is ridiculous. Unlike ClayFighter, this over-the-top fighter isn't very much fun -- and ClayFighter's gameplay is average to begin with.

At least Pit-Fighter lets you bring foreign objects into brawls, including bar stools, crates, and motorcycles. The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club. The second rule is you don't forget your motorcycle.

But Pit-Fighter is most noteworthy for pioneering the use of digitized sprites in fighting games. It wasn't the first game to do so; that honor probably belongs to Reikai Dōshi: Chinese Exorcist, which stylized its graphics post-shooting to make them more cartoony. Meanwhile, Pit-Fighter's true-to-life models had a more direct influence on the fighting game franchise.

Can you think of another '90s fighter that used realistic sprites in lieu of drawn ones? Think very hard!

Donkey Kong Country (SNES, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance)

Appropriately, arguments about whether or not Donkey Kong Country's graphics can be considered "good" begins to resemble a troop of gorillas beating their chests and screaming about five minutes in.

It needs to be said that Donkey Kong Country's graphics haven't aged particularly well. While impressive for their time, the computer-rendered in-game character models look like someone threw up a jar of Vaseline over piles of monkey fur.

We still appreciate how the title impacted the industry, however. Inspired, developers scrambled to also make games "that look like the dinosaurs out of Jurassic Park!". For a while, it was a very exciting time. And, thankfully, rendered models gave studios an alternative story-telling method previously filled in by awful full-motion video scenes.

Sidenote: While Donkey Kong Country's graphics haven't aged well, its soundtrack has aged beautifully in contrast.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES)

Yoshi's Island isn't simply one of the best platformers ever released: It also features scribbly, hyper-colorful graphics that make the adventure look and feel like a loving art project from a talented child. Though the style is used sparingly today (even by successive Yoshi's Island games), looking at any game with jolly colors and heavy outlines still brings Yoshi's SNES romp to mind.

Rez (Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360)

Vector graphics existed in video games long before Rez flowed into being, but 3D shooter Rez adds riotous colors and pulsating sound to the mix. In fact, Rez is designed to stimulate synesthesia -- a blending of senses capable of triggering a weird kind of euphoria in the right circumstances. Many modern shooting games have since adopted rhythmic elements in honor of Rez.

The acoustic and visual mash-up that defines Rez has been replicated in other genres too, sometimes with pretty awesome results. Pac-Man Championship Edition is similarly surreal, and its re-invention of traditional Pac-play is very much worth looking at.

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Comments 28

  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #1 Tetragrammaton 2 years ago
    I find it hilarious that the bit about JSR is almost more about Wind Waker than it is JSR. :D

    What were your thoughts on Monaco and Patapon?
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 2 years ago
    All good choices. Needs more El Shaddai.

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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #3 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    MadWorld's lack of success, even with the bad third-party attach rate, was predictable given the ultra-violent subject matter. It just doesn't hit the Nintendo audience. I know it didn't hit me. I still routinely pass the game over in bargain bins. It may be a quality game, but it's not really the sort of game I want to play.
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  • Avatar for IndoorBoy #4 IndoorBoy 2 years ago
    Vib Ribbon
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  • Avatar for Damman #5 Damman 2 years ago
    A list like this could expand out infinitely, in every direction. What I'm saying is that this is basically the Big Bang of video game lists. It seems like Nadia's going for pioneers of various stand-out art types.

    I would toss out Proteus, Fract, and Jazz Punk as very unique looking games. Really the "walking simulator" genre has quite a few of them. Comic Zone fits the bill as pioneering the comic book look but not really being that fun of a game. As far as games featuring actors digitized into sprites go, Batman Forever: The Arcade Game is definitely the most outlandish (and garish) of the bunch. Seriously, go look that up. It's bonkers.
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  • Avatar for Uncompetative #6 Uncompetative 2 years ago

    You have excellent taste:

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  • Avatar for Sturat #7 Sturat 2 years ago
    I think it's worth mentioning that the look of Rez was influenced by Tempest 2000 for Jaguar, and while the visuals aren't nearly as over-the-top, Yoshi's Island clearly took some inspiration from Wonderboy in Monster World.

    I'd also nominate Metal Slug and Art of Fighting 3 (which was basically a 3D Fighter rendered in two dimensions), but you could arguably include most of SNK's work from the latter half of the 90's in a list like this...
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  • Avatar for mobichan #8 mobichan 2 years ago
    I would swap Clayfighters for The Neverhood. Far better clay artistry and artistic direction overall. Rakugaki Showtime had a fun style, even on the PS1.
    @IndoorBoy: check out Spike on the Vectrex or anything in a vector arcade cabinet. Vib Ribbon's art was nothing new. Overall game design is another story. :)
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  • Avatar for link6616 #9 link6616 2 years ago
    @SargeSmash Sadly, it's not a particularly quality game. It's not bad, it's just not particularly good either.
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  • Avatar for Whiskeyjack98 #10 Whiskeyjack98 2 years ago
    I think Mirror's Edge would have been a good fit for this article. Borderlands would also be a good choice. You take any screenshot from one of those 2 games and you can instantly identify them.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #11 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    List incomplete without Vagrant Story.
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  • Avatar for davidwurzel94 #12 davidwurzel94 2 years ago

    I was certain that Cuphead would have made the list.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #13 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    The Neverhood and Skull Monkeys are the only other claymation games I can even think of (not counting the recent Armikrog). I really like the claymation art style. I actually quite like Skull Monkeys, even though a lot of people seem to hate it. How can you hate a game with songs like this!?

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  • Avatar for Ghopper101 #14 Ghopper101 2 years ago
    The Unfinished Swan stands out to me as well. The first part of the game is very unique.
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #15 JamesSwiftDay 2 years ago
    What, no Star Fox? I love me some chunky polygons.
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  • Avatar for misanthrobob #16 misanthrobob 2 years ago
    Excellent list!

    My top pick will probably always be the inimitable Killer7.
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  • Avatar for docexe #17 docexe 2 years ago
    Mmm… You know, games like Paper Mario, Rayman Legends, Limbo or even Minecraft might deserve an honorable mention.Edited October 2015 by docexe
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  • Avatar for docexe #18 docexe 2 years ago
    @SargeSmash I personally like it a lot, especially because of its level of black humor, but it is admittedly not among Platinum’s best games. It’s also very short. It’s not bad though, I think you should try it if you get the chance.
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  • I still want to play Okami, especially after playing the rather delightful Okamiden.. Pity that my PS2 died about ten years ago. :/ At least I got to experience the wonders of Yoshi's Island and Donkey Kong Country.
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  • @Tetragrammaton Patapon is awesome! Just gets infuriating in the later stages.
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  • I'd nominate Comix Zone and the newer Rayman games (Legends and Origins). Really distinctive, cartoony yet polished styles.
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  • Avatar for KakiOkami #22 KakiOkami 2 years ago
    @nimzy Seconded times infinity. VC remains in my top 10 of my very favorite games on PS3 and ever.
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  • Avatar for KakiOkami #23 KakiOkami 2 years ago
    @jonathandavies37 There's a HD remaster of Okami for PS3 and it just brings the world to even more life than it already had on PS2. Go get it. Go now! :)
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  • Avatar for SOUP32 #24 SOUP32 2 years ago
    I could go for some Rez on the Vita.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #25 secularsage 2 years ago
    Came to say, "Where's Killer7, Valkyria Chronicles, El Shaddai: Ascent of the Metatron, Mirror's Edge, The Unfinished Swan or Vagrant Story?" and saw the comments had those covered.

    But I must admit, I have a problem with the whole conceit of the article, because most of these games have been imitated by follow-ups, copycats, evolved concepts or spiritual successors and are therefore not unique so much as being interesting footnotes behind broader trends.

    There are many other "visually unique" games I can think of that truly stand apart not just because they were groundbreaking at the time, but because they still remain unique today. 3D Dot Game Heroes, Dragon's Crown, Flower, Flow, Journey, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Limbo, Child of Light, Outland and Transistor are just a few of the more recent titles I can think of, while Hotel Dusk: 215, The Last Express, Grim Fandango and Interstate 76 would be great examples from the past. You could see a screenshot from any of these titles and never think you were seeing another game.

    There have also been a few series that have had extremely unique styles that make them stand way apart from the rest, including the Fumito Ueda games (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, the upcoming Last Guardian), the Pikmin games, the Patapon games, the Viewtiful Joe games and the PaRappa the Rapper / UmJammer Lammy games.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #26 chaoticBeat 2 years ago
    RIP SmileBit :_(
    You shined brightly.
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  • Avatar for mobilesworking #27 mobilesworking 2 years ago
    Surprised it took 18 comments to get to Minecraft.
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  • Avatar for Seb-SE #28 Seb-SE 2 years ago
    Lots of great suggestions in the articles and comments. I'd like to throw the Silent Hill franchise into the ring, particularly the first four titles.

    Even today, running on now-ancient tech, these games sport an entirely carefully considered and breathtaking art style and sense of place.

    Truly timeless masterpieces.
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