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I’ve been getting into retro gaming in the last few years (the options for emulators are just so cheap and good) and I’ve noticed more and more that there is a common “look and feel” to games released on the same console in older generations. With SNES games, for example, I saw a screenshot of Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures and instinctively recognized it as an SNES game before reading anything about it. I’ve noticed this is also true of games for Genesis, NES, N64, and PS1. These sorts of visual distinctions seem to disappear around the sixth generation.

Is there a particular reason for this? Did developer kits back in the day steer people toward certain styles or did the fact that you targeted hardware more in older development result in the similarities or was it something else?

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Much of the "look and feel" of games of that era (up to roughly the early 3D era) was driven largely by technical limitations and tradeoffs of the consoles themselves. The Sega Genesis, for example, could load and scroll backgrounds much faster than other consoles of the era (mainly the SNES and TurboGrafx16), so you saw a lot of Genesis games, starting with Sonic 2's "charge and roll" move, that involved zooming across levels very fast, to show off this capability. The SNES, in contrast, had slightly better capability for layered parallax backgrounds, and better color palettes, so you saw a lot of those in SNES games. The TG16 supported larger, more detailed sprites and a much better sound engine than its competitors, so you saw a lot of games with big, detailed characters and rich extravagant musical scores, that other consoles simply couldn't match. It's the same attitude that today leads to "photorealistic" sports games and boasts of triangle counts: showing off the capabilities of the hardware.

@RobertColumbia also makes a good point in the comments that games produced for only a single console, and companies that developed for a single console, were far more common than they are today, to the point that those companies' "house styles" became associated with the console. Again, this is because the consoles' technical capabilities (as well as cartridge formats!) were so different that porting a game to a different console would have been a monumental undertaking. It did happen, but it was extremely uncommon. First-party games were also more common than they are today (except for Nintendo, of course, which actually had some AAA third-party support at the time but basically doesn't anymore), and the prevalence of first-party games tended to influence a console's style as represented by other developers.

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    Sonic is a great example for both paragraphs. In the 80's and 90's, Sega limited release of its Sonic games to its own consoles. When it got out of the physical console market, Sonic games (with their trademark fast movement across maps) started appearing on Nintendo, Sony, and even PC platforms. Maybe its a generational thing, but seeing "Sonic" and "Nintendo" on the same cartridge still feels surreal. Jul 10 at 14:08
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    Regarding more detailed sprites on the TG16, it seems obvious in retrospect that games like China Warrior were sprite showoffs ("look at our detailed characters!") that showcased what you couldn't do easily on other systems. I also remember the Mode 7 pseudo-3D games on the SNES (basically a 2D game mode with coordinate transforms on the graphics output to make it look 3D). I can watch a video of a game I've never played and instantly see "This is a Mode 7 game! Must have come out on the SNES." Jul 10 at 14:14
  • SNES : "somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 polygons per second". PS1: minimum of 90,000; upwards of 360,000. (I'd +1 but you don't talk about triangles enough and never even say 'polygons' ;)
    – Mazura
    Jul 10 at 19:20
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    One thing missing about this sense of consoles having unique "feels" is that it's only noticeable because modern consoles don't, because they have approximately the same performance. Even across generations now; can you tell whether a game is being played on a PS4 or a PS5? I can't. If this change had not happen, nobody would even think to ask the question.
    – Ryan_L
    Jul 11 at 16:40
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    I'm not sure about ports being "extremely uncommon". I mean, in the strictest sense they were, but reworked versions of games across different systems was actually exceedingly common, especially for popular games or ones based on popular franchises (and most people would have referred to these as ports, anyway). The level of reworking could be anything from "we barely changed it so it's basically a butchered version of the original to match the systems limitations", to rebuilding the whole game from the ground up, to making something that's essentially a different game entirely. Jul 12 at 7:37

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