It’s the last chapter in one of DF Retro’s most expansive projects yet. Across every Sunday this month, we’ve taken 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 the late 2006 launch. We’ve seen triumph and disaster, along with a gradual metamorphosis, with 1080p coming into its own on smaller scale projects with less advanced visuals – punctuated by the arrival of stereoscopic 3D, requiring higher pixel counts, providing a backdoor to further 1080p support for the ‘Triple’. In this final chapter, we cover the years 2013 to 2015 – a period of transition as the difficult PS3 era yields to the juggernaut success of PlayStation 4.
2013 proves to be an intriguing year for 1080p gaming for Chad Warden’s favourite console and it starts off with the arrival of the HD remaster of Zone of the Enders 2 – or rather, its second arrival. Originally released in a sub-optimal form at 720p with missing effects and dire performance, Konami took the remarkable step of recommissioning the project, handing it over to technology masterminds Hexadrive – an HD remaster of an HD remaster, if you like. What we got was a game that more fully utilised the PlayStation 3’s SPUs, resulting in a 1280×1080 masterpiece, with full 1920×1080 vector work. It’s a fascinating story that was also one of John Linneman’s first pieces of work for Digital Foundry. The only regret with this one is that Konami didn’t let Hexadrive loose on the original ZOE HD remaster, which isn’t particularly great.
Other impressive 1080p titles in 2013 included the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix collection, with a 900p to 1080p dynamic resolution scaling system included in the Final Mix remaster of the first Kingdom Hearts, plus a 1080p remaster of the Game Boy Advance offering, Chain of Memories. This would be joined in 2014 by Kingdom Hearts 2.5 remix, with the sequel remastered to the same specs as the original release (complete with DRS), plus a port of Birth by Sleep, a 1080p rendition of a technologically excellent PSP release.
Beyond that, 1080p support on the PlayStation 3 continued to be more adopted by a range of indie titles, while also being leveraged for 2D art – Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown (a visually striking Dungeons and Dragons inspired brawler) being a spectacular case in point. Soundshapes and Guacemelee also caught our eye for similar reasons, as did WayForward’s Duck Tales Remastered. Cream of the crop is Rayman Legends – remember when Ubisoft took chances on stunning games like this? – which leveraged the UbiArt Framework to spectacular effect, producing an unmissable experience.
2013 drew to a close with a couple of excellent 1080p releases. By this time, the PlayStation 4 had arrived and was making its mark, but it was fascinating to see the arrival of XGen’s Super Motherload, a relatively simplistic title that saw you digging for minerals and precious stones on Mars. Yes, it’s not exactly pushing the envelope with its 2D visuals. However, side-by-side with its contemporary PlayStation 4 release, we see a PS3 game that is virtually identical. Both run at 1080p.
The year closed with the last major PlayStation 3 triple-A release – and the last high profile 1080p title: Gran Turismo 6, possibly the largest GT game ever made in terms of its vast array of content. Polyphony Digital increased resolution from the 1280×1080 of GT5 back to the 1440×1080 seen in its original GT demo at the system’s launch. However, MSAA anti-aliasing was jettisoned in favour of the less effective MLAA, and performance was highly questionable – especially in tracks using dynamic time of day and weather effects. Thankfully, users could drop down to 720p via the system menus for a smoother ride. Polyphony Digital pushed hard with GT6 – perhaps too hard – and we can’t help but think it would have been better suited as a launch title for PlayStation 4.
Moving into 2014 and 2015, we reach the end of our full HD odyssey, and while the PlayStation 3 era began to wind down, support with cross-gen titles continued. This resulted in a number of terrible PS3 disasters – simply because the system had so little technological continuity with its successor – but it did bring us the Final Fantasy X and X2 remasters, which were also impressive beasts 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 with no anti-aliasing at all, with only a minor hit to performance.
Beyond that, support for PS3 1080p is fleeting. We’ve already talked about the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 package, while Drinkbox offered up another 1080p gem with Mutant Blobs Attack – another example, like Guacamelee, of art and technoogy working together to produce 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 all about hitting tennis balls into the faces of enemies dotted around the screen. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, but there it is!
So, at the end of this marathon project, what have we learned? On the face of it, championing the PlayStation 3 as a 1080p gaming machine (initially with two HDMI ports, don’t forget) comes across as spectacularly over-optimistic, bearing in mind the profound limitations of the RSX graphics chip. We tested 88 titles with 1080p support (defined as 1280×1080 to full 1920×1080), accounting for just three or four percent of the circa 2500 game library that the PlayStation 3 possessed across its lifespan. At may seem like a small amount but that’s more than both Xbox 360 and Wii U combined. On top of that, of those 88 titles, 52 of them targeted a 60 frames per second frame-rate. That’s impressive.
It’s also worth remembering just how impactful 1080p could be across the era. Full HD gradually became the standard for displays of the era and those pin-sharp presentations could look truly exceptional, especially when looking at visuals as impressive as those in Ridge Racer 7, Gran Turismo and Super Stardust HD. Most other titles targeted 720p or lower – inevitably upscaled to some other display resolution – remember that actual native 720p displays were extremely difficult to come across during the entire generation.
More generally, developers aimed to push the envelope, but the results were often muddy-looking and with sub-par performance. What’s impressive about the 1080p library for the Triple is how often game-makers built those visuals around the limitations of the system, the clean presentation and often fluid performance levels helping to ensure they withstood the tests of time.
As you’d have seen if you’ve been following this DF Retro video series, John Linneman rated every game for the effectiveness of its full HD resolution, then averaged out the results across each year. Yes it’s a somewhat arbitrary metric that can be compromised by the amount of entries per year, but from this entirely unscientific viewpoint, the best year for 1080p gaming on PlayStation 3 is 2013 – perhaps not the best full HD games as such, but the combination of GT6, HD remasters and expert 2D/2.5D deployment of 1080p made it a great year for the system.
However, it’s a close-run thing with a notable brace of runners up! The launch of PlayStation 3 in 2007 saw some interesting experiments with 1080p, while 2012 was also a great year for full HD gaming on the triple. It’s as if the trend started strongly, petered off for a few years, then came back strong – and that’s simply because those early experiments with triple-A fare dissipated for the most part, while the rise of indie titles and 2D definitely helped to flesh out the library.
All of which draws us to the close of this most ambitious of DF Retro projects we’ve yet to undertake – no mean feat when we’ve also looked at the entire OG PlayStation line-up, performed tech analysis on every Mega Drive/Genesis 32X title and even rated every single console port of id Software’s Doom! We’ve got many more plans for bigger projects like this – work that’s only made possible by the retro tier in the Digital Foundry Supporter Program, so please consider backing our work, but if you have any ideas for other projects along these lines, do let us know!