This is the final chapter of one of DF Retro’s biggest projects to date. For the past few weeks, we’ve been taking a look at 1080p gaming on Sony’s controversial PlayStation 3. We’ve looked at the beginnings of the Full HD dream, from Sony’s initial marketing claims through to its launch in late 2006. We’ve seen triumphs and disasters, but also a gradual metamorphosis, taking 1080p on smaller projects with less advanced graphics to Carry came, underscored by the introduction of stereoscopic 3D, which requires higher pixel counts and offered a backdoor for further 1080p support on the PS3. In this last chapter we cover the years 2013 to 2015, a period of transition in which the difficult PS3 era gives way to the great success of the PlayStation 4.
Here are the other parts:
2013 is an exciting year for 1080p gaming on Chad Warden’s favorite console and it begins with the arrival of the Zone of the Enders 2 HD remaster, or rather its second arrival. The game was originally released in a subpar 720p version with missing effects and lousy performance. Konami took the remarkable step of re-commissioning the project, handing it over to technology company Hexadrive. An HD remaster of an HD remaster, if you will. The result was a game that made better use of the PlayStation 3’s SPUs and presented a masterpiece with a resolution of 1280×1080 pixels and full 1920×1080 vector graphics. It’s a fascinating story that was also one of John Linneman’s first works for Digital Foundry. The only unfortunate thing about this game is that Konami didn’t unleash Hexadrive on the original ZOE HD remaster, which isn’t great.
Other impressive 1080p titles of 2013 included the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix Collection, featuring a dynamic resolution scaling system from 900p to 1080p, which was included in the final mix remaster of the first Kingdom Hearts, and a 1080p remaster of the Game Boy Advance game Chain of Memories. 2014 saw the addition of Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix, the sequel remastered to the same specs as the original (complete with DRS), as well as a port of Birth by Sleep, a 1080p rendition of a technically excellent PSP version.
In addition, 1080p support on the PlayStation 3 has been extended to a number of indie titles and also used for 2D graphics. Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown (a visually stunning Dungeons and Dragons-inspired brawler) is a spectacular example of this. Sound Shapes and Guacemelee also caught our eye for similar reasons, as did WayForward’s DuckTales Remastered. The icing on the cake is Rayman Legends – remember when Ubisoft took a risk with games like this? – which uses the UbiArt framework in a spectacular way and offers an unparalleled experience.
2013 ended with some excellent 1080p releases. At this point, the PlayStation 4 was already out and making a lasting impression. What was intriguing, however, was the arrival of XGen’s Super Motherload, a relatively simplistic title that has you digging for minerals and gems on Mars. Yes, the game is not exactly a sensation with its 2D graphics. But alongside the PlayStation 4 version, we see a PS3 game that’s virtually identical. Both run at 1080p.
The year ended with the last major PlayStation 3 Triple-A release and last high-profile 1080p title: Gran Turismo 6, possibly the largest GT game ever made in terms of sheer volume of content. Polyphony Digital has upped the resolution from GT5’s 1280×1080 back to the 1440×1080 seen in the original GT demo when the system was launched. However, MSAA anti-aliasing was jettisoned in favor of the less effective MLAA, and performance was extremely questionable, especially on routes with dynamic time of day and weather effects. Thankfully, users could downshift to 720p via the system menus for smoother playback. Polyphony Digital put a lot of effort into GT6 – maybe too much effort – and we can’t help feeling that it would have been a better choice as a launch title for the PlayStation 4.
With the years 2014 and 2015 we reach the end of our Full HD odyssey. As the PlayStation 3 era drew to a close, support continued with cross-gen titles. This led to a series of horrific PS3 disasters, simply because the system had so little technological continuity with its successor. But it brought us the Final Fantasy X and X2 Remasters, which were impressive titles on PlayStation Vita too. On the PS3, these games ran at 720p with FXAA, but it also turned out that you could run them at 1080p without anti-aliasing with only a minor performance penalty.
Also, support for PS3 1080p is fleeting. We’ve already talked about the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 pack, while Drinkbox has released another 1080p gem, Mutant Blobs Attack. Another example, like Guacamelee, of art and technology working together to create a beautifully polished presentation. The last Full HD title we could find? That would be the bizarre Tennis in the Face, a platform puzzle game about hitting tennis balls in the faces of opponents scattered around the screen. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, but it is what it is!
So what did we learn at the end of this marathon project? At first glance, the PlayStation 3’s touting as a 1080p gaming machine (don’t forget, initially with two HDMI connections) is spectacularly overdone considering the profound limitations of the RSX graphics chip. We tested 88 titles with 1080p support (defined as 1280×1080 to a full 1920×1080), which accounts for just three or four percent of the roughly 2,500 games that the PlayStation 3 got during its lifetime. That may seem small, but that’s more than the Xbox 360 and Wii U combined. In addition, of these 88 titles, 52 achieve a refresh rate of 60 frames per second. This is impressive.
It’s also worth remembering how impressive 1080p could be in those days. Full HD was gradually becoming the standard for screens of the era, and those pin-sharp displays could really look extraordinary, especially when looking at stunning images like those in Ridge Racer 7, Gran Turismo and Super Stardust HD. Most other titles aimed for 720p or less – and were inevitably upscaled to a different screen resolution. Consider that true native 720p screens have been extremely hard to find throughout the generation.
In general, developers wanted to push the envelope, but the results often looked muddy and underperformed. What’s impressive about the 1080p library for the PS3 is how often the game developers pushed the system’s limits, and the clean display and often smooth performance helped the games stand the test of time.
As you’ve probably seen if you’ve been following this DF Retro video series, John Linneman rated each game on the effectiveness of its Full HD resolution and then averaged the scores for each year. Yes, it’s a somewhat arbitrary metric that can be tainted by the number of entries per year, but from this totally unscientific standpoint, 2013 is the best year for 1080p gaming on the PlayStation 3. It might not be the best full -HD gaming as such, but the combination of GT6, HD remasters and expert use of 2D/2.5D 1080p made it a great year for the system.
However, it’s a close affair with two notable pursuers! The launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2007 saw some interesting experiments with 1080p, while 2012 was also a great year for Full HD gaming on the device. It seems like the trend started off strong, leveled off for a couple of years, and then bounced back strongly. That’s simply because the early experiments with triple-A titles mostly fizzled out, while the rise of indie titles and 2D definitely helped fill the library.
All of which brings us to the end of this most ambitious DF Retro project we’ve tackled to date. No small feat, given that we’ve also taken a close look at the entire OG PlayStation range, running a technical analysis of every Mega Drive/Genesis 32X title and even rating every single console port of id Software’s Doom! We have many more plans for larger projects like this one, a work that’s only going through the retro stage in Digital Foundry Supporter Program possible, so please consider supporting our work. And if you have any ideas for other projects along these lines, let us know!
Originally written by Richard Leadbetter, Technology Editor, Digital Foundry