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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 

38 comments

  • Romination - November 20, 2009 9:57 p.m.

    Nothing says stunning like a crotch shot... Thanks for saying your love of The Behemoth. I love the hell out of that studio, it needs to get more recognition.
  • Unoriginal - November 20, 2009 10:08 p.m.

    A top 7 on a Friday? Christmas came early! Kinda feels like the whole feature was written to make us feel bad about The Act:( Mission accomplished
  • AtrocityExhibition - November 20, 2009 10:09 p.m.

    yay i love 2D animation, probably a lot more than 3D too, and its good to see some of my all time favorite games like earthworm jim, skullmonkeys, castle crashers and wario land get mentioned in one article
  • Yaro - November 20, 2009 10:43 p.m.

    Morons! You forgot Samurai Shodown! J/K, actually this is the first time I took the time to look at a video of Boy and his blob and it really IS wonderful, had goosebumps throughout the video, thanks to the music as well.
  • H2A2I00 - November 20, 2009 10:45 p.m.

    wow the act looks amazing i would have totally played that on an arcade
  • aion7 - November 20, 2009 11:29 p.m.

    Good job on the fighting game section. you got my favorites (SF3:3S, MvC2, Garou:MOTW, etc.).
  • zigs - November 20, 2009 11:46 p.m.

    I was totally expecting Braid to be number one. Bit surprised to not see it in the list at all to be honest, i think it's one of the most gorgeous games i've ever seen.
  • AnonymouZ - November 20, 2009 11:58 p.m.

    of course it's our fault. i mean. who buys videogames to play with their knobs... *cough* xtreme volleyball *cough*
  • Conman93 - November 21, 2009 12:39 a.m.

    Would u classify old zelda games ( like link to the past) as 2d
  • Hurricrane - November 21, 2009 1:37 a.m.

    I have never heard of The Act, looks really cool. Too bad it wasn't recognized, I would've bought it >.>
  • 435 - November 21, 2009 2:08 a.m.

    Just set a couple of keyframes and let the computer do it for you? As a 3D animator, frankly, I'm insulted.
  • silvereye - November 21, 2009 2:44 a.m.

    They all looked awesome, but I would have included sonic 1 somewhere, I mean at the time it was considered to be amazing, but apart from that awesome article GR! :)
  • Cyberninja - November 21, 2009 4:14 a.m.

    the act did look fun to bad it will have to rest in peace
  • SuperStingray - November 21, 2009 5:34 a.m.

    What's this? Games Radar making an article about artistic games and NOT promoting Okami?
  • Bobbety - November 21, 2009 6:01 a.m.

    Damn that's depressing!Mind you I probably hadn't ever been in an arcade at the time of The Act.
  • Ravenbom - November 21, 2009 7:04 a.m.

    2D FTW!
  • waynski1457 - November 21, 2009 7:26 a.m.

    So wait, all this and there is no way I can actually play The Act? I WOULD HAVE PLAYED YOUUUUUUU!
  • Picnic1 - November 21, 2009 2:55 p.m.

    Although there was deserved mentions of Disney Megadrive games in general and Cool Spot (and, thankfully, some less good looking SNES games were left out for a change) I'd have liked to have seen Donkey Kong Country mentioned (although with 3D sprites is that 2D enough to be counted?) I know that, by the criteria of the control being too linear, you haven't included some graphic adventures but The Curse of Monkey Island is fondly remembered (even though Grim Fandango's art style gets mentioned more).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Showing 1-20 of 38 comments

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