A brief history of the most over-used special effect in video games: Lens flare

Welcome to our ode to one of gaming's most over-used special effects - lens flare. I'm sure the first person to think of it got a big pat on the back from his peers. Those same peers then left the room and went to work on shoe-horning it into every game ever. This is the story of how that went down...

What is it?

It's a method of recreating the effect that a light source has when its beams pass through a camera lens. Watch the first 15 seconds of this video for the perfect example:

Video game developers LOVE lens flare and, mistakenly, assume everyone else does too.

Above: Seong Mina loves lens flare so much, she's wearing one on her head

Why? because when polygon graphics hit the mainstream in the mid-nineties, everyone got really excited about the idea of there being a physical camera inside the game world. Super Mario 64 has the Lakitu brothers on a cloud, flying around behind Mario, filming the action. And I used to swear that Virtua Racing's Expert track featured a camera on a cliff that was used for the replays. It turned out to be a sheep.

Above: Why the blurry screen? It's better that way. We played Virtua Racing through an S-Video connection once and nearly lost an eye

So what better way to give the impression of a camera lens than to simulate the bane of a photographer's life? Just look at Die Hard Trilogy here on PSone. Would the game look half as good without those coloured circles all over the screen? Could you ever truly believe there was a camera lens following that car around the blocky streets without it?

Above: Remember, if a sprite's worth using, it's worth using at 7000% of its original size

And so, it started appearing everywhere. And not in a subtle way, either. When the hardware you're programming for can suddenly handle millions of colours instead of 32, it must be very tempting to go overboard. The best example of this lens-flared over-exuberance is Cyber Speedway on Saturn. Lens flare has literally taken over. Not just the futuristic pit lane trailer...

Above: Just to prove you can never have too much of a bad thing

...but the entire universe!

Above: He awoke, blissfully unaware that the lens flare apocalypse had begun

Which is, of course, totally artificial. The real universe has much less green in it.

Above: Today. Good to know Photoshop hasn't changed its stock effect in 17 years...

Then there was the lens-flare that outshone even the chest of Lara Croft. Don't believe us? Look at this...

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine, Traxion.gg, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.