A Brief Visual History of Video Games

The progression of visual fidelity of Laura Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise (1996 to 2014). | Image from Cussan


The progression of video game graphics through the 20th and 21st is characterized by remarkable advancements in technology and innovation. From the earliest recreations of tic tac toe on room-sized computing machines to the latest cordless virtual reality systems coming to market today, video games have enjoyed nearly 100 years of innovation. Usually a combination of factors: being the first of a genre; having novel game mechanics universally enjoyed; including a compelling story or character development; or visually representing the latest in what technology can do all contribute to a games recognition in the history of the medium. This project sets out to focus primarily on graphical advancements and creates a summary timeline of milestone games. While not exhaustive, this brief visual history of games presents some obvious and obscure games that deserve a note based on the compelling visuals they pioneered.


When curating video games based on visuals, the primary factor for inclusion was that the game must have contributed something visually novel to the field. For early video games, this is often based on both the advancement of core graphical capabilities and the advancement of gameplay or game mechanics due to new graphical display capabilities. Later games might be selected because they present an excellent example of graphical refinement as major jumps in capability or visuals have slowed in the 21st century.

Uncharted: Drakes Fortune set new standards for character fluidity and scenic detail on the newly released PlayStation 3. | Image from Engadget

Research was not limited to any specific sources, but two primary references were used in this timeline for their thoroughness and related time-based historical presentation of games. The first was the Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History. This timeline served as an excellent reference, but has a wider scope when compared to a timeline focusing only on game graphics. The second primary source was the National Museum of Play. Their Video Game History timeline includes an exhaustive look at games that made major contributions to the medium from many angles (gameplay, visuals, public adoption, hardware advancements, etc). Other sources like IGN, Gamespot, Gameinformer, and Wikipedia were referenced when searching for more obscure games that might not have made it into the spotlight, but still contributed significantly to the advancement of game graphics.


The timeline was created using TimelineJS, a javascript-based timeline creation tool. Setup was remarkably easy using the included google spreadsheet template, which is referenced by TimelineJS to build the final timeline.

Visual examples of games were pulled from various sources (cited in the final timeline) and re-uploaded to Flickr to avoid images being lost to link rot.  


The resulting timeline displays a succinct visual history of the progression of graphics in video games. Most of the pre-2000 games were chosen because they created a new sub-genre within the medium. For example, while Jump Bug was a lesser-known arcade game, it was the first to employ both a side-scrolling system of movement and platformer jumping mechanics.

Super Mario 64 expanded the medium by bringing 3D graphics to a mainstream franchise like Mario and was the first 3D video game experience for many.  

Post-2000’s games become more difficult to catalog visually as graphical improvements were more a refinement of previous generations vs. entirely new methods of display. Additionally, while the focus of this study is on graphics, many developers and even game consoles choose to devout their effort to other areas of expansion like new game mechanics, novel input methods, more immersive storylines, or creative art styles.


Reflecting back on the final timeline, there are two primary areas of refinement which would expand and enrich the existing content. One was the display of the medium: static images simply don’t convey video games in their intended form as video would have. This was considered part-way through the process, but timeline.js limitations did not allow for the simplest approach – to use YouTube embed functionality to clip videos down to the most relevant parts and remove sound. A future iteration of this timeline with video content would greatly improve the viewer’s ability to see some of the described features and increase engagement.

The second area of refinement would be to determine a more rigorous methodology for post-2000 video game selections. As graphical enhancements slowed in later generations and the amount of new games being released greatly increased, it became harder to determine which game was the first to employ a new graphic technique. More research could be done in smaller technical advancements, such as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’s improved character animation system. A tighter definition of what constitutes a graphical enhancement would also support the discovery of more games. For example, with the advancement of technical capabilities, 3D worlds can be drawn in higher detail, even when looking hundreds of feet away from the player’s location. This is less of a brand new visual feature and more of an expansion of overall visual fidelity due to hardware improvements.  

Despite these areas for improvement, the final timeline provides a succinct, friendly entry into the complex world of video game graphics and their expansion from dots and lines on a tiny display to entire 3D worlds of movement, color, and life.