Nothing gold can stay
I'll leave it to the professors to deconstruct Robert Frost's classic poem, but I do believe "nothing gold can stay" also applies to polygons and graphics. No matter how cutting edge and impressive a trailer or sprawling open world may be in its day, the march of time makes everything outdated all too soon. That doesn't erase the happy memories, but in the cold light of present day, many classic gaming cinematics inspire less awe and more guffaws.
So, with the added context of time, I've dug up seven cutscenes from back in the day that blew my mind and have aged terribly in the many years since. I still have a fondness for all of these, recalling how I stared in wonder at them during my high school years. But nowadays, I feel slightly silly for being so mesmerized back in the day. Whether you remember these or not, I promise you'll at least get a chuckle out of some CGI thats seen better days...
7. Resident Evil 2's opening
How it felt when it was new: The original Resident Evil was notorious for poorly acted FMV storytelling even back in 1996, so Resident Evil 2's CG intro is the arrival of the future. Look at the fully realized characters Capcom built! Gasp at the hideous, shambling zombies! Marvel at the fiery explosions! This is your grand introduction to Raccoon City, setting the stage for an epic journey for Lead characters Leon and Claire.
How it looks now: Both stars of RE2 look like modest marionettes that are plagued by barely functioning mouths, and every humanoid onscreen looks progressively worse. The buildings have texture akin to paint on cardboard, while a citywide zombie outbreak only amounts to a few visible corpses (I'm guessing to save money). The lowest point comes near the end when a zombie crashes out of a car window, where it's less moved by physics, and more manipulated by the an unseen CGI god.
6. StarCrafts alien arrival
How it felt when it was new: I've finally booted up Blizzard's sci-fi successor to Warcraft, and the intro movie sets the mood wonderfully. With some obvious influence from contemporary films like Independence Day, this slice of life-turned-death from above beginning shows just how huge the threat is in this game. It communicates the vastness of space, the danger of the alien threat, and takes a moment to show an exploding head in detail. After seeing that, I was more than ready to take out thousands of Zerg.
How it looks now: The game itself has held up pretty well, but this intro doesn't look that far removed from a Dire Straits music video. The head movements, mouth, and skin are so unreal that I can't believe they didn't stand out back in the day, and the same goes for the bland polygons that spray when the spacecraft explodes. The fisheye lens is the topper to make this as '90s as humanly possible. However, I will say that the sound of the head exploding remains impressive.
5. Spider-Man: The Movie's real-life actors
How it felt when it was new: You'd be hard pressed to find a more fervent Spider-Man fan in the gaming press than me, and I was positively giddy at the idea of playing a game based on Sam Raimi's then-recent Spider-Man (all the way back in 2002). To make Activision's opening feel even fancier, the game features performances by both Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe. Hearing them speak while watching Spidey in action made it feel like I was playing a movie!
How it looks now: Physics are 90% of what makes Spider-Man fun to watch, so when he moves like gravity and wind resistance are meaningless, it puts a damper on everything. Meanwhile, for as costly as including the movie stars may have been, they now look like totally different people. Peter Parker has the mannerisms of a crash test dummy that recently gained self awareness, and Norman Osborn looks like an animatronic version of Timothy Leary.
4. Command & Conquers FMV/CG mash-ups
How it felt when it was new: As a gamer in the mid-'90s, you were constantly being told you were on the cutting edge of a tech-fueled future of virtual reality. It seemed like any day, games would be replacing movies as the dominant form of entertainment. Mixing FMV actors with computer graphics were the next step, with titles like Command & Conquer leading the way. Sure, the actors were a little cheesy, but those close-ups on the units gave you a great sense of scale in the battles to come.
How it looks now: Surprisingly, the FMV acting has aged much better than the CG, if only because they've come back around to being quaint in a so-bad-it's-good way. Meanwhile, the CG buildings and vehicles would be more convincing if they were Legos pulled around on strings. Even without the fakeness of polygonal humans, C&C's world couldn't be more remarkable in its unreality.
3. Final Fantasy 7's death scene
How it felt when it was new: This is the moment that launched a thousand fan shrines, as an entire generation's hearts broke with the unexpected death of Aerith. Sephiroth dropping from the sky to stab her in the back as Cloud looks on helplessly pulls in the player immediately, and keeps them glued to the screen from then on. The simple music deepens the feeling of the scene, which stays all the way up until Cloud lays her to rest as the scene fades to black.
How it looks now: There's still emotion to be sure, and faces aren't too bad thanks to their slightly cartoonish proportions. But the gravity of Sephiroth's movements are worse than a high school production of Peter Pan, and Aeris' bloodless stab wound is about as believable. To top it all off, the 1997-quality water makes it look like Cloud is preserving Aerith's body in a Jello mold.
2. Tekken's original endings
How it felt when it was new: Tekken first set the standard for 3D fighting games in arcades, and then on PlayStation, thanks in part to its flashy presentation. It began the trend of rewarding players with a brief cutscene every time they finished a solo run with a character, introducing a surprisingly rich fiction to Tekken's world. The scenes range from serious to silly, but all had people of the '90s saying "Whoa! This looks just like Toy Story!"
How it looks now: Oof, where to even begin? Kazuya dropping a floaty Heihachi into a volcano? Jack's ending where almost nothing moves? Every characters' inability to smile in a natural way? They all look so primitive. On the plus side, Tekken's ending cinematics could only get better from here, improving the graphics while keeping the tone equal parts melodrama and comedy.
1. The GameCube 2000 demo reel
How it felt when it was new: If you were a Nintendo fan in the N64 era, you were often looking hungrily at the cutscenes on the PlayStation and wishing that Nintendo's cartridges were able to do the same. This 2000 teaser of the games that would come to the GameCube showed us a future of colorful Pokemon, Luigi's scared overacting, and a lifelike Legend of Zelda that fans were losing their minds over. Remember the initial negative reaction to Wind Waker? That's because fans had been dreaming of a Zelda game that looked as good as those few seconds of footage.
How it looks now: The Luigi and Pokemon bits hold up all right because the weirdness of their movements can be partially credited to their cartoony appearance. Meanwhile, Link fighting Ganon is supposed to be intense, but the motions looks about as real as a local auto insurance ad. Plus the black backdrop looks insanely cheap today, like the developers couldn't be bothered to draw all of Hyrule castle. If we wanted this over Wind Waker, we were idiots.
Any old cinematics you love despite knowing they look terrible today? Or do you think any of today's cutscenes will look just as bad in 15 years? Share your thoughts in the comments!