Well, we said 1990′s but we’ll include the year 2000 too. [Skip to the images]
Mass media currently appears to be going through a phase of remaking or revisiting old classics, particularly with movies. We’ve also decided to revisit some old games. We rebuilt some of their environments and architectural features from scratch, so that we could produce HD rendered images from them. We didn’t know how things would turn out, but the hope was to recapture some of the essence of the originals, but also have crisp modern visuals to enjoy it with.
Although this article is supposed to be a fun ‘what if’ experiment, it may benefit some if we describe rendering and graphics in a bit more detail.
When we say ‘modern software’, we’ll be working with Maxwell Render specifically, which isn’t a game engine, but rather a rendering engine. That means it’s a program that takes a long time to accurately create a single image.
So, what’s the difference between a rendering engine and a game engine?
That’s a complex question, and we are far from experts. To simplify: a render engine strives for visual realism, and visual realism alone. These high-end rendering programs attempt realistic depictions of texture, shadow, light, reflection, refraction and transparency, amongst other effects — effects which are often too heavy for a game engine to deal with in real-time. You could also say a rendering engine tries to recreate the effect a real life camera would give when looking at a scene, so it doesn’t do many of the special effects that you find in videogames.
A game engine has to provide more than just visuals. For example, it may have to provide physics and artificial intelligence, it may have to handle real-time controller input, it may have to play sound and handle network events. As such, it cannot use all available processing power on perfect visualisation. A game engine may therefore have to rely on relatively lightweight approximations of the aforementioned visual phenomena — techniques such as cubemaps (to represent reflections), and pre-rendered light and shadow, in place of its real-time counterparts.
If we compare purely on dedication to visuals: any one of our rendered images would take 20 hours or more to form, and yet a modern game engine with all its effects might produce an image (of the same scene) that is considered ‘better’, within fractions of a second. Better is of course subjective, but this will be discussed later. As we didn’t use any modern game engines, we shall not discuss them further.
A brief explanation of the rendering process:
Rendering is extremely CPU intensive. Basically, the software you use gives a figure called ‘Sampling Level’ or SL to indicate current image quality, and this is linked with the total time spent rendering.
Every time the sampling level increases by 1, the image clarity increases, but it also increases the time needed to reach the next sampling level. In addition, the visual improvement per level decreases after a certain point, meaning that later sampling levels take a very long time to complete, and provide little visible benefit.
The looping animation below shows how a render progresses through the sampling levels. SL 18 took almost 13 hours to reach. What’s more, this is a simple scene. Complex scenes take even longer to progress. The image below still has grain, meaning it requires more render time to smooth out.
Aims and constraints:
This project isn’t entirely artistic. It is possible to create incredibly realistic images, if you sink a lot of time into your project, but you have to balance this with the benefits you or others gain from it. In our case, we’ll scale back time taken, since we’ll want to create many images, we aren’t being paid, and the total audience size for this is not known.
- Complete the modelling and rendering for a given scene in under a week, if possible
- Modelling lifeforms is not required
- Reinterpretation of buildings and functionality is acceptable, so long as the inspiration is obvious when compared with the source material
- Dirt, rot, vegetation, particle effects and so on are not important – only the structures are essential
- It is a bonus if the ‘mood’ of the game scene can be recreated
- The remade structures are not aiming to be functionally realistic
- The rendering software will be Maxwell Render 2.0 & 3.0
- Keep image manipulation and post production to an absolute minimum
Now we begin with the game scenes:
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins
First up we visit a stealth classic: ‘Tenchu: Stealth Assassins’ (1998).
We recreated and rendered one of the building exteriors from the first mission (Punish the Evil Merchant). In this mission you, as a ninja, are sent in under cover of darkness to track down and assassinate Echigoya, a corrupt merchant.
The architectural theme is of feudal Japan, but within the technical constraints of the first PlayStation console. We’ve attempted to follow the overall shape presented in the game, rather than refer to real buildings of older times.
Onto the images. We’ll show some game screencaps first, then our remakes.
Our night and a day renders, below:
Night (Click to enlarge):
Day (Click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, Activision, 1998, PS1]
Metal Gear Solid
Next is the starting area from Metal Gear Solid (the cargo / dock area). To be clear: there is more than one appearance of this dock area, and it appears in more than one Metal Gear Solid game, but we’re mainly focusing on the 1998 PS1 game.
Although we didn’t create the guards, we’ve made an effort to apply similar lighting effects, and run-down / rusted textures.
Below we’ll show four screenshots from the videogame, followed by our three HD renders.
A preview comparison:
Renders (Click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Metal Gear Solid, Konami, 1998, PS1]
Age of Empires 2
We decided to go with a simple concentric castle design here. Although our renders look more realistic, the original’s style looks really nice in its own way, as well as being clear and crisp
[Screenshot source and game credit: Age Of Empires 2, Microsoft, 1999, PC]
Metal Gear Solid B2 Nuke Facility Computer Room
Our second visit to Metal Gear Solid. The top image is a remake of the B2 computer lab where you fight Gray Fox. Due to the top-down angle that the game normally has you viewing in, it’s difficult to piece together the entire lab; but this is a reasonable effort. We’ve changed many things, but the overall layout is the same.
You also meet the character Otacon in this room, and he has a couple of posters on the wall in there. One is of ‘Zone of The Enders‘, and the other is of ‘Policenauts‘.
Our remake is on the left, in the comparison image below:
Some screenshots from the game:
The renders. (Click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Metal Gear Solid, Konami, 1998, PS1]
Thief: The Dark Project
For this one, we have to sneak into Lord Bafford’s Manor, and into a bedroom. On the tables you can just about see two vases, one key, four stacks of silver coins and a tiara. The back table has a candle stick and a bottle. Effort was made to replicate lighting and feel. The carpet in our render is using a displacement map, so it looks realistic with individual fibres, but this was also very hard on the CPU.
Render (Click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Thief: The Dark Project, Eidos Interactive, 1998, PC]
Next we had a go at rendering the dining hall from the mansion in Resident Evil.
The mansion itself has appeared in more than one Resident Evil release, and there have been alterations in each, so our renders are somewhat of a generalisation across all releases.
Below we’ll post screenshots from the games themselves, followed by our render (with varying lighting setups).
First a comparison (ours is on the right):
Now a game screenshot for reference:
Our renders (click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Resident Evil, Capcom, 1996, PS1]
Onto Jumping Flash! (1995), and the level is ‘World 3-2′.
It’s very colourful and more child-like than a lot of games we’ve touched on, but is also one of the most original and over-looked platform-game series’ out there.
We’ve also provided some screengrabs of the actual game, below, but with the distance fog and relatively primitive graphics, it’s hard to tell what is going on if you aren’t already familiar:
Here’s a couple of high-resolution renders (click to enlarge):
All of the textures needed to be made from scratch for this render, and it was often a challenge to figure out what some of them depicted (for example the EXIT and Jump pads).
[Screenshot source and game credit: Jumping Flash!, Sony Computer Entertainment, 1995, PS1]
We remade and rendered out two iconic areas from Deus Ex (2000), specifically the UNATCO lobby, and the big VersaLife hall.
The first area we’ll show is the UNATCO lobby (minus the guard). We did make the chocolate bar and drink can, which you can just about see on the desk.
A comparison (ours on the right):
A still of the game, followed by our render:
The next area we modeled was the VersaLife Pacific Rim Research Facility hallway: the one with that hand reaching for the world. Whilst the first render was extremely similar to the original, with this one we felt we could be a bit more dramatic.
First is a shot of the game, followed by our render:
You can’t see in our render, but we did include the two passage ways at the very end that go left and right, as well as the keypad on the marble plinth that uses the code ’12′.
[Screenshot source and game credit: Deus Ex, Eidos Interactive, 2000, PC]
We remade and rendered the starting area from the Entryway level in Doom 2 (1995), minus zombiemen and pickups. In the game, the area seems to show a lot of piping on the walls. We opted not to replicate this, as it wasn’t clear what all of it was for, and why it had to cover the walls so thoroughly.
First a screenshot from the game:
Now our remake (Click to enlarge):
We didn’t stick with the brown palette this time — a soft blue light and a cleaner environment felt more appropriate for a futuristic base. The corridor at the end still has a similar look and feel though.
[Screenshot source and game credit: Doom 2, id Software, 1994, PC]
Command and Conquer Gold / C&C95 / Tiberian Dawn
What would Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn (1995) look like in modern rendering software, as opposed to gaming engines?
What initially seemed like a straightforward job ended up taking quite a bit of work and experimentation. Creativity was required, as the in-game buildings didn’t make sense when they needed to be recreated as high-poly models (the Advanced Guard Tower for example). Additionally, perfect recreations of buildings like the Advanced Communications Centre didn’t have adequate detail to depict their high-tech functionality, so liberties were taken with the new models.
Firstly a zoomed-out image to compare the results (click to enlarge):
The image just below shows a scene from the game, with some of the buildings:
Now the renders (Click to enlarge):
One of the issues encountered in setting the scene was scaling. How to scale an Advanced Power Plant more accurately with a Tiberium Harvester or an Orca helicopter? Should a Tiberium Silo not be larger? How big would the Guard Towers really be? It’s part guesswork and part compromise.
[Screenshot source and game credit: Command and Conquer Gold, Virgin Interactive, 1995, PC]
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
This is a remake of the first level (the warehouse) of the very first game. Floating letters and so forth were not included, as we were remaking the physical world, not the gaming aspects.
Screenshot of the game:
Our render (Click to enlarge):
[Screenshot source and game credit: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Activision, 2000, PS1]
Many of these old environments still look interesting when recreated with a modern rendering engine. Many of the game series’ mentioned here also have modern entries featuring nods to their prequels. It’s always arguable in those cases whether the spirit or feel of the original was present or not.
Displaying an environment in a videogame has different challenges to displaying them in photorealistic renders. Game environments often need to quickly convey the usability of certain items, and to highlight paths of interest to a player, in comparison to architectural renders which have to attempt photorealism of locations in which a user would not find much to interact with. This is where graphically simplistic games can find strength: there are potentially more ways to highlight objects of interest since there are less rules about what effects are in keeping with the level of detail and theme of the rest of the game world.
That may also be the charm of old graphics (depending on whom you ask). We can argue that the degree to which the graphics are primitive is the degree to which there is a need for more player imagination to ‘fill in the blanks’. That may explain why it’s harder for some younger gamers raised on modern high-resolution graphics to get immersed in much older and more visually simplistic titles. It can also be argued that the newer renders are ‘sterile’ in comparison, because they rob the user of the need to project their imagination onto the depicted world.
Games, even old ones, have significant advantages over modern HD renders when it comes to giving aesthetic, emotional and intellectual experiences. Games can employ sound, music, characters, text, speech, drama and cooperative experiences in order to affect their users. Therefore, we’d like to argue that although modern rendering software can recreate crisp visuals, in this case they are still reliant on the viewer recalling experiences and moods that originally occurred on relatively primitive gaming technology.