The 7 most beautifully animated 2D games

There’s something very special about the process of old-fashioned, frame-by-frame, 2D animation. In the old days, the only way to get your animated character to wave his or her arm was to spend hours upon hours painstakingly crafting each frame and constantly readjusting your work to make sure everything flowed correctly. Now you just set a couple of keyframes and let a computer do it all for you.

Above: This took us 10 minutes

Compare our stupid little stick figure to the works of Don Bluth, Hayao Miyazaki or the Disney animators of the last few decades. These animators are rightly labeled as geniuses: they’re able to turn a series of static images into a living, breathing world, filled with characters with fluid – yet subtle – movement. Animation is the art of motion, and to break down our gestures into tons of tiny frames takes a level of observation and patience that few can really appreciate.

Above: Wow, did Spike Jonze see this?

Videogames add another layer of complexity to the art of animation, as most games don’t flow in a predetermined, linear fashion. Here are the games that most impressed us with the quality of their 2D animation while remaining fully interactive. Some of the games use the old-fashioned hand-drawn cel animation style, and some of them rely on pixels, but they’re all flat, all cartoony, and all of them are as fun to look at as they are to play.

7. Aladdin (Genesis/Mega Drive)

Sure, we’ve been over this before - The SNES version of Aladdin was developed internally by Capcom (which then owned the rights to develop and publish all Disney games on SNES), while the Genesis version was developed by Virgin Interactive, with the help of the Disney animators who worked on the film. Now, we don’t mean to disrespect Capcom’s efforts (Aladdin on SNES is still among the best platformers on the system, and truth be told, many of us at GR prefer it for its gameplay), but you can’t deny that the Disney magic makes a big difference. Back-to-back time!

Above: Not that Aladdin uses a sword much in the movie, but it’s certainly more badass than Mario-ing people to death

The swirls of smoke that erupt from breaking lamps or from getting too close to hot coals, the fluidity of the climbing animation, and (of course) the pink-hearted boxer shorts make the visuals in the Genesis version really pop. Is it because of the use of scanned animation cels as opposed to pure pixels? Maybe, but regardless, you have to give credit where credit is due for Virgin’s impressive line of 2D Disney-licensed games that came out in the ‘90s, including The Lion KingHercules and even obscure games like Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow – there was a time when a Disney tie-in game was a thing to be excited about.

Above: Not this 

We could just turn this list into a collection of all our favorite Disney games, but Mr. Antista’s covered that all before. There’s got to be some non-Disney stuff that looks good, though, right? Well, how about this?

6. Earthworm Jim

Above: Will f*** you up 

Designers David Perry and Doug TenNapel are extremely well-known figures in the gaming world (incidentally, David Perry worked on the Genesis Aladdin, too), and Earthworm Jim the character is such a recognized fan favorite that his voice actor, Dan Castellaneta, isn’t known for anything else.

Above: No, wait, we take it back. He also voiced Boogerman 

There’s certainly something to be said for fluid, hand-drawn animation – it can turn even a cold, corporate advergame like Cool Spot (Perry’s prior effort) into a beloved retro classic. Everyone knows the Earthworm Jim series for its over-the-top, cartoony style – and if you judge a game based on the quality of its idle animations, Earthworm Jim 1 and 2 are bona fide artistic masterpieces.

Above: Earthworm Jim: making not playing a game fun since 1994

David Perry’s career as a game director effectively faded out after he worked on Enter the Matrix, a game that a surprisingly large number of people both bought and hated. He now lends his name to David Perry’s Industry Map, a handy little site where you can enter a game’s name and find out where in the world it was made.

Doug TenNapel, on the other hand, went on to create The Neverhood and sequel Skullmonkeys, two notably well-animated claymation games. The Neverhood borrowed gameplay elements from Myst and traditional point-and-click adventures, while Skullmonkeys was simultaneously reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey, Earthworm Jim and Tomba!, as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yeah, it’s kind of a weird game.

Above: TenNapel also directed Sockbaby, the Citizen Kane of sock-related beat ‘em-ups 


  • kazemaki - May 1, 2014 5:25 a.m.

    Did they forget mortal kombat in that list of fighters? XD
  • hugobedward - July 24, 2011 6:49 a.m.

    New trailer below
  • Lemming - June 29, 2012 9:56 a.m.

    It's out now for iOs. Some are complaining about cost to length of content but if they knew the history they might've thought differently.
  • hugobedward - July 24, 2011 6:48 a.m.

    GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! it seams that a company called React Entertainment are releasing the act in august.
  • lymanzaar - November 29, 2009 10:43 p.m.

    The Act should be a either a Virtual Console or XBLA game.
  • Kytl - November 27, 2009 5:20 a.m.

  • Spybreak8 - November 24, 2009 2:27 a.m.

    Good read
  • jackthemenace - November 23, 2009 8:24 p.m.

    UI LOLled at the stick man XD but i really want to get odin speher for the PS2, and i intend to get muramasa at christmas (aswell as EVERY OTHER GAME that i've ever wanted)
  • GrenadeSpamAndSausages - November 23, 2009 7:43 p.m.

    Wow The Act looks absolutely stunning I feel really quite bad for not even knowing it existed and now even worse that it no longer exists, mission accomplished gamesradar you made me hurt inside.
  • Memph - November 23, 2009 6:42 p.m.

    1 vote for Metal Slug series. Still looks corking today
  • erreip199 - November 23, 2009 1:56 p.m.

    man i gotta get myself Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier for the lols XD and thx GR now i feel bad for never knowing The Act existed until today :c... perhaps one day i can get a PC copy of it... i bet some one will port it... someday
  • deedob - November 23, 2009 12:51 p.m.

    Meh... Sorry, mr article creator... i just don't "feel" any guilt for "the act". There was already some games who looked and played almost exactly like that game that were released decades before. They are still being released now and then. Dragon's Lair, Space Ace... You pushed a joystick or a button on "cue" to change the animation sequence of the "game". Same as the "act" where you turn a knob to change the animation. They all look the same exact kind of game. Trial and error games like those are somewhat a thing of the past (and should mostly stay there if you ask me)...
  • Styrophoamicus - November 23, 2009 5:51 a.m.

    " Dan Castellaneta, isn’t known for anything else" Are you being sarcastic? He's Homer Friggin' Simpson!
  • GameManiac - November 23, 2009 5:27 a.m.

    Now I'm having a REALLY tough time deciding if I should get A Boy and his Blob or not. ... Also...Uuuuugggggghhhhhh... Not that fox-woman from the Murasama game again? It's warping my mind!
  • bocaj - November 23, 2009 1:33 a.m.

    Great top 7!
  • uvebeenpwned - November 22, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    So wait...on Super Robot Tenshin whatever, the ladies' boobs grow bigger for their special attacks, and its like an instant win? Usually that only happens in bed. lol.
  • Metroidhunter32 - November 22, 2009 2:34 a.m.

    I knew Muramasa had to be on here somewhere.
  • lovinmyps3 - November 21, 2009 8:21 p.m.

    Damnit!! I would totally download The Act on XBLA!! ='(
  • bamb0o-stick - November 21, 2009 6:43 p.m.

    Dammit, how is it our fault that amazing games like The Act fail? The very reason we are reading gaming magazines and websites are to have things like this brought to our attention about it. You guys share a load of the blame as well as we do.
  • Kabukibear - November 21, 2009 4:41 p.m.

    I actually got a chance to play The Act at a small game show in Miami, Fl a couple years back. They had all sorts of old systems to play and had that arcade there. I was hooked immediately and my gf had to drag me away after I kept pumping quarter after quarter into it. It's every bit as charming and well done as they make it seem in the article. I didn't get very far, I was at the doctor part, riding a hospital cart down a hall trying to avoid other patients and obstacles. Anyway, this is a shame, I had no idea at the time that it was one of those games I'll probably never get to play again. Bummer.

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