Fast Company

From 8-Bit To 3-D, Video Game Art Through The Ages

The Smithsonian American Art Museum unveils The Art of Video Games on March 16, a retrospective that explores the pastime as an agent for technological change and artistic growth. From the post-arcade age to today, we revisit some of the games--and their artful contributions--that will be highlighted. Who knew all those hours spent playing Halo had such cultural value?

Start, early '80s

So named for the post-arcade introduction of in-home gaming systems, this era introduced humanoid characters moving in realistic motion with such games as Pitfall. Says guest curator Chris Melissinos: "The mechanics of that character laid the groundwork for design that continues generation to generation."

8-Bit, late '80s

An oversupply of low-quality games led to the video-game crash of 1983. (Seriously.) "It destroyed consumer support," says game designer and critic Ian Bogost. "Nintendo's NES recast games as toys to regain trust." The adventure-like gameplay and colorful environments of Super Mario Bros. 3 ruled this era and introduced the terrain seen in modern gaming.

Bit War, early '90s

Familiarity with processing speeds and storage on gaming systems triggered a war of sorts--everyone wanted to be bigger, better, and faster than everyone else. "Super Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past offered a variety of gameplay mechanics as well as a handcrafted art style," says Melissinos. Adds Bogost: "It tightened that experience to the point of ascendancy."

Transition, late '90s

Remember Dreamcast? Shenmue, designed by Sega's Yu Suzuki, created an environment based on real-world weather and geographical characters of the late 1980s in Yokosuka, Japan. "You could interact with anything," says Melissinos. "It was one of the most ambitious open-world games of the era."

Next Generation, 2000s

Welcome to the era of photo-realism and real-time 3-D. In 2007, Portal triggered a new concept of in-home gameplay--physics, fantasy, puzzle, and sci-fi wrapped in one. "It offers an opening to the video games we already know, but also to undiscovered terrain," says Bogost.

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