Nostalgia or Evolution? Exploring the Frame Rate Journey from PS2 to Modern Consoles

When it ruled the world of video gaming, the PlayStation 2 delivered far more than revolutionary new titles: it also delivered some of the last waves of games to run at 60 frames per second (fps), the golden shard of video perfection that ensures a game appears to run fluently and silky-smooth. Today, if that fluidity of motion is the standard that console games aim for, it’s obvious to anyone that it has become harder to achieve. In the following paragraphs, I want to look at why that is and where this might be leading us.

The Dawn of HD Gaming

Embracing Visual Fidelity Over Performance

From the PlayStation 2 to every machine released afterwards – the PLAYSTATION 3, the XBOX 360 – game development became defined by the jump to HD gaming. This was a time that took advantage of technological advancements in television to pump out games at 720p and 1080p. The increase in detail was an undeniable improvement, but required more GPU memory and processing power than ever before, ushering in an era where 30 fps is considered normal, and dipping less than that results in a less smooth experience.

The CPU Bottleneck

Underestimating the Heartbeat of Consoles

They sometimes think that gaming performance is all about the GPU but the CPU plays a major part in maintaining frame rates because it is responsible for handling game mechanics and much of the setup for rendering scenes. This quickly became apparent on PLAYSTATION 4 and XBOX ONE as they were hampered by low-grade CPUs, despite the games pairing those CPUs with strong GPUs. Many titles were unable to achieve a consistent frame rate above 30fps.

The Quest for the Perfect Screenshot

How Visuals Came to Rule the Roost

But with the latest consoles of the current generation, the PLAYSTATION 5 and XBOX Series X|S, offering legitimate increases in raw power, it’s possible (in theory) to push higher frame rates. However, as with previous generations, visual fidelity remains king (high-fidelity graphics look better as screenshots or in trailers, and trailers remain key components of marketing campaigns). This has, for the most part, meant that many of the launch-window titles we’ve seen on the current generation have proven to be a throwback to the 30fps benchmark, even when the hardware is capable of more.

Why Did the PS2 Excel?

The Perfect Balance of Simplicity and Efficiency

It is interesting to think back on how the PlayStation 2 was able to achieve such mass-market 60fps titles. As well as a lower pixel-pushing demand, the architecture, especially the built-in ‘Graphics Synthesizer’ and ‘Emotion Engine’, was geared to a resolution of achieving a nice balance between the scene complexity and rendering speed. That is to say, it is hard or impossible for the modern consoles to achieve the same frame rates while under the constant push of a visual experience, as it aims for more and more detailed images.

The Gamer's Perspective

Do Frame Rates Really Matter?

Although there’s a vocal minority cheerleading for higher frame rates, the general console gaming audience appears much more interested in the graphical wizardry. The tide is beginning to turn, but it’s taken the new console generation to start getting players to notice these graceful signs of motion. 60fps has become the default target on more mainstream titles, but most blockbusters still run at 30fps. This suggests that, to many people, the allure of impressive graphics is still winning out over something as abstract as smoother motion.

Reflections on the Frame Rate Debate

To summarise: yes, the PlayStation 2 generation was a golden age when it came to performance, but I don’t feel bad about it giving way to one where the height of graphical fidelity has come at the expense of smoothness. Technology has advanced, consumer expectations have shifted, and a relentless search for photorealism has come to dominate contemporary gaming. We might yet see performance claims returning to the forefront of marketing. Indeed, my money is on publishers making 60fps guarantees a common practice on next-generation consoles, which are due out next year. But we could also have settled permanently into something that even my younger self would have found acceptable. And that’s 30fps.

About Consoles

Furthermore, contemporary consoles have become multifaceted machines with comprehensive CPUs and GPUs that allow the player to explore complex stories. Regardless of the advances in technology, most consoles are caught in the dilemma of either offering hyper-realistic visuals or prioritising playing fluidity. It is really interesting to see if and how the next generation of console developers will continue the unending cycle of gamers getting more greedy in their demand for both visual fidelity and playing fluidity.

Jun 16, 2024
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