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?"
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.