Skip to main content

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

Early adopters of lens flare were so keen, they didn't even stop at in-game scenes. It even made it onto the cover of Tomb Raider. Would Lara Croft have become such a household name if it wasn't for a lens flare on the cover of her finest hour? I think not.

Above: Even though the Saturn couldn't really do lens flares, it still featured on the case

Ah, but Saturn could do lens flares, if you were clever enough to program it properly. Lens flare with true transparencies. This sort of thing used to get Saturn owners all excited. A bit like the glimpse of a lady's ankle in the olden days, or a caveman's awe when the first alien visitors started a fire using a couple of sticks.

Above: CG art (left) and the real thing (right). Making Sega fans exclaim things like "Freakin' translucent lens flare effects on a Saturn? OHMYGOD!" before exploding

The 128-bit era

After the 32-bit era, lens flare effects got better and better. How can you not love Dreamcast when it gives you lens flare like this:

Above: And to think Tails thought the sun shone out of Sonic's ass

And who could forget Gran Turismo 3 in 2001 with its 'sunlight through the trees' effect? It was beautifully understated... unlike the Cote D'azure track you can unlock later on.

Above: (Left) Oh, how pretty! (Right) Three billion human lives ended on August 29th...

Think that's bad? You ain't seen nothing yet! Let's move on to:

The modern era

Just when you thought it was safe to come out and that lens flare effects had been exposed as the ludicrous fallacies they so clearly are, along comes Battlefield 3 with two incredible examples. Firstly, there's this:

Turns out the sun is nothing but a lens flare effect, to the extent that looking through a night vision scope makes the sun disappear altogether. Sure, I know there's no sun at night, but JUST STOP AND THINK ABOUT IT FOR A MOMENT.

But the sun isn't the only source of light. Why not have other light sources create lens flare as well? No, better than that, why not have hand-held tactical flashlights that can completely blind the player even at distance and in daylight? They'll be so dazzled by lens flare's awesomeness, they won't even realise they can't see for toffee.

Above: Overkill? Apparently so - a patch reduces the effect outdoors at range. Good!

One game that does have some rather beautiful lens flare is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D on 3DS. Perhaps it's the extra depth afforded by the 3D screen that makes it feel more like there's a lens there (THERE ISN'T), or the fact that it's one of the best games of all time. But we quite like this.

Above: That's right, in Master Quest, you don't even need the sun on-screen! /sarcasm

Now what?

But just when it's getting good, it looks like the effect's days may be numbered. Why? because there's a new sunlight trick that's even better than lens flare. Why? Because it doesn't imply there's a camera lens at all. It implies you're actually there, looking at rays of light. HDR (High Dynamic Range) lighting is the new lens flare...

Above: Uncharted 2, Soulcalibur V, Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 and Infinity Blade II

...which makes us a bit sad, really. After all, everybody loves lens flare. Right?

Justin worked on the GamesRadar+ staff for 10 whole years. Imagine that. Now he is a contributor, specialising in racing games, retro, and Sanic.