Top 5 Graphically Impressive 8-Bit Games

Picking apart the pixels of the 8-bit era’s most gorgeous games

Top 5 Graphically Impressive 8-Bit Games


Look at those graphics! I’ve heard those four words strung together countless times throughout my childhood and even still to this day, but as us gamers got older and wiser we all figured out that gameplay trumps graphics in the long run. That wasn’t the case though back in the 8-bit days, as most gamers simply went off of the front cover art and the screenshots that were splashed across the back of the box, carefully placed between paragraphs of the game’s synopsis. If a game was new and you weren’t one of the lucky kids that had a subscription to a gaming magazine, you were out of luck unless the local rental store just happened to have the game in stock, but that was almost never the case with a newly released title. If the graphics on the back of the box looked good, the game must be just as good, right? Graphics were king!

When retro game fans discuss 8-bit games nowadays, I often hear how they “had to use their imagination”, considering that 8-bit graphics didn’t always portray the character the way the gamer had pictured them in their head, and in some cases this is true. Purple 8-bit Jason from Friday the 13th on the NES is a perfect example of this, and I can think of a few others that many gamers didn’t think twice about since that’s what we were used to seeing back then, but some games just pushed the hardware to the limits and found a way to make chunky sprites look amazing. In this list I want to focus on the games that really stood out in the graphics department. Games that managed to leave player’s mouths agape while staring at their CRT TV’s in awe at the amazing digital goodness their eyes were being treated to. Here are the top 5 graphically impressive games of the 8-bit era. I do realize that technically the Turbografx 16/PC Engine is running off an 8-bit CPU, but it’s also utilizing a 16-bit video color encoder and 16-bit video display controller, so in fairness we’re going to keep those games off the list.

Mike Vito has been a slave to gaming ever since playing his grandfather's Atari 2600. A collector of all things retro, his main focus is obtaining a full NES collection. Being a father has rekindled his spirit for Nintendo and he now spends most of his time teaching his daughter about the games of yesteryear. Current favorite games: Air Zonk, NHL Hitz 2003, Castlevania Symphony of the Night, & Super Dodgeball.
  • Orko

    I thought original NES Battletoads was pretty impressive visually back in the day.

    • Mike

      No doubt. That’s another game that still holds up today. I’ve never beaten it though. I may be saving that for a “Top 5 8-Bit Game Soundtracks” 😉

  • I do agree that these games you picked had some great graphics and presentations (I’m surprised Phantasy Star isn’t on the list for the SMS) but it’s too bad you overlooked impressive graphics on other 8-bit platforms that aren’t NES/SMS. They were not the only 8-bit systems out there, as they are sometimes treated.

    Some examples of what I mean, mostly running on stock hardware:

    Solaris (Atari 2600, 1986) – Considering the limitations of the 2600 hardware (8-bit 1.19MHz 6507 processor, no sprite engine, 128 bytes of RAM), this game is downright amazing. Given that the 2600 was intended to play nothing but Pong type games, Solaris doesn’t even seem like its running on the same system. Bonus that there is no flicker.

    Stealth (Atari 800XL/XE; Commodore 64) – With scaling type effects, lots of color, no flicker and excellent speed, it’s hard to believe this was a 1984 release.

    Nebulus/Tower Toppler/Castelan (Various: C64, Amstrad, Spectrum, NES, Atari 7800) – Impressive effects overall of how the castle/tower spins around and in some versions color or parallax. Arguably the 7800 version has the most impressive parallax bonus round while the NES removed that in favor of a platformer.

    Ballblazer (Various platforms, original was the Atari 8-bit computers): First person sports game that for versions on the later Ataris and the C64, move along quickly…the NES/Famicom version of this didn’t attempt the first person in favor of an isometric overhead view. The original Atari 8-bit version had an impressive real-time opening sequence with animation and lots of gradient shading.

    The Fractal Games: The Eidolon / Rescue on Fractalus / Koronis Rift (Various platforms; by Lucasfilm games) Lucasfilm’s experimentation with fractals to generate 3D environments on 8-bit hardware really deserves far more praise then nice art direction for a platformer. While the gameplay for these titles might not have set the world on fire, their graphics were very impressive as this allowed players to interact in 3D worlds.

    Mayhem in Monsterland (Commodore 64, 1993) – Released the same year as Kirby but the C64 hardware is older than the NES and they didn’t have additional hardware to make this game work.

    Wrath of the Demon (Commodore 64, 1991) – Another C64 game that hits on impressive graphics without the extra hardware – large animated sprites, good use of color, parallax. While it doesn’t have the screen resolution of an NES/SMS game, the other elements it does well make up for that.

    There might be a few others out there I am missing but there definitely are some nice looking games out there.

    • Francis DiPersio

      Good picks, ArcadeHero. Phantasy Star definitely deserves credit, as those dungeon exploring segments look great to this day.

      Having said that, Mike is one of our North America-based contributors, where the C64 and other similar console/PC hybrids didn’t see much traction.

      Even still, those games are all fantastic examples of ther hardware being used to great effect.

      • Thanks and fair enough towards his contribution. To be honest, I’ve never played a C64 😛 I’m in NA as well and have friends that swear by it though…looking into some of those titles, it has an impressive roster and games that are arguably quite nice to look at (The Last Ninja series as well).

        I have played the Atari examples however as I collect for those systems. They just don’t seem to get much attention outside of Atari circles for whatever reason.

  • Pingback: The Impressive Graphics of the Atari 8-bit Era Consoles | Gaming Arcryphon()

Review Archives

  • 2018 (244)
  • 2017 (434)
  • 2016 (427)
  • 2015 (172)
  • 2014 (91)
  • 2013 (28)
  • 2012 (11)
  • 2011 (9)
  • 2010 (12)