Best games to combine polygons and sprites

In recent years, gamers have begun to see a specific style of play that marries sprites and polygons slowly gain popularity. With the release of Octopath Traveler, this style was dubbed “HD-2D” by Square-Enix. However, while this HD-2D aesthetic is great and it’s super exciting that it’s becoming more and more popular, it’s not really a completely new aesthetic.

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In fact, this aesthetic first appeared in the PlayStation 1 era. Which begs the question, since sprite and polygon have been featured together for almost 30 years now, what are some of the most notable games to have it incorporated?

ten grandia

Grandian, the party that looks into the distance

Grandia is an example of the PlayStation era of RPGs making full use of this graphical style. Here, all the characters are represented as sprites, while almost everything else is polygonal. This allows for a world that has detailed sprites, but can also have a rotating camera that can move around the different environments.

In order to help backgrounds and sprites look more cohesive, there is an early use of cel-shading on polygon elements. It works quite well and helps give this fantastic title a unique aesthetic.


9 Disgaea

Disgaea, Laharl surrounded by zombies

The era of merging sprites with polygons largely ended with the death of the PlayStation. Most series have started to move towards exclusively polygonal visual styles. Disgaea, on the other hand, refused to abandon this graphic style. The Disgaea series has incredibly clean and well-drawn sprites that fight in polygonal arenas.

Unsurprisingly, the Disgaea games are still, to this day, absolutely gorgeous. The characters are full of expression, while the camera can move freely in the arenas as they are polygonal. There’s a reason tactical RPGs retained this graphical style long after it fell into disuse; it just works perfectly with the midrange.

8 Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions

Belias as seen in Final Fantasy Tactics

Long after Final Fantasy largely committed to polygon graphics, Matsuno’s magnum opus Final Fantasy Tactics came out with this quaint fusion of sprites and polygons. Of course, there’s not much to say about the grandeur of Final Fantasy Tactics, but the charming and sharp graphical style gets largely less attention.

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And, to be honest, it’s a visual style that doesn’t draw much attention to itself. However, it managed to stand the test of time, still being a beautiful game to this day. What its polygonal big brothers cannot claim.

7 Shantae: Half-Genius Hero

Shantae Half Genies Hero, Risky floating around using her hat

Shantae has an odd history of being a game series that still feels like it’s using technology long after it’s been phased out. So it’s only fitting that Half-Genie Hero, a PS4 game, rocks that unique aesthetic that was so popular in the PS1 era.

Featuring largely polygonal environments, Shantae is littered with beautiful 2D assets. With clever cel-shading and a colorful palette, Shantae shows why this unique visual style should never have gone into recession.

6 Guardian Heroes

Guardian Heroes, beam special combos multiple enemies

Guardian Heroes is one of the best beat-’em-ups ever made and considered one of Sega Saturn’s best games. Famously, it puts a heavy emphasis on battling gameplay movement inputs and a branching approach to level progression, all accompanied by a classic RPG-style leveling mechanic.

However, he probably wouldn’t have the same popularity if he didn’t have such an excellent visual style. The environments are largely polygonal, but they’re peppered with sprite-based environmental objects. This creates a look reminiscent of a pop-up book. Everything comes together to form a fantastic whole.

5 Paper Mario: The Millennium Gate

Mario talks to Goombella in the Thousand Year Gate

Back when sprites had largely ceased to exist, Nintendo did what Nintendo always does (for better or worse) and bucked the trend. And as a direct result, The Thousand-Year Door is absolutely stunningly beautiful. With this absolutely classic RPG, we get a glimpse of what games might have looked like during the sixth generation if companies hadn’t completely abandoned a winning aesthetic style.

Sure, the aesthetic ties into the great gameplay, and it all ties into one of the most charming RPG scripts ever written, but that look is definitely a big part of what makes this game so special.

4 Xenogears

Fei stands in the middle of a sleepy village

Xenogears is another legendary PS1 RPG that made the strategic decision to use sprites in polygonal environments. However, while the characters are rendered using sprites, the mechs (named “Gears”) in this game, which can be used during combat sections, are polygonal.

Xenogears merges these elements beautifully with the clever use of cel-shading. The Xeno series would ditch sprites as it transitioned into the PS2 era. It’s a shame, because Xenogears holds up better aesthetically than nearly all of its spiritual successors.

3 Hard body: lifting

Hard Corps Uprising gameplay screenshot

Coming from the seventh generation of consoles, Uprising is a sequel to the beloved Contra: Hard Corps. And this game is an absolute dream to play. It’s got everything you’d expect from a Contra game: from tons of on-screen bullets to enemies rushing you to the satisfying arsenal of weaponry.

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However, it also features a stunning mix of high quality sprites with HD polygonal background and enemies. Uprising is a frantic and visually arresting side-scrolling title that everyone should play.

2 Valkyrie Profile

Valkyrie and her crew battle dragons in the snow

To date, Valkyrie Profile has served as the model for some notable games. When it comes to merging polygon and sprite, Valkyrie Profile is an example of the best implementation available at the time. Valkyrie Profile will be released just months before the launch of the PlayStation 2: a system that would open up at a time when sprite integration would become incredibly rare.

Thus, Valkyrie Profile acts as a swansong for this aesthetic style. And that’s a hell of a final argument for the strength of aesthetics. Luckily, as we now know, the aesthetic wasn’t dying, it was just going into hibernation.

1 Triangle strategy

The first Triangle Strategy mission, which you can replay using Retreat

With Triangle Strategy, the classic marriage of sprites and polygons in a tactical RPG has found its way back. While Octopath Traveler was a fantastic effort, Triangle Strategy takes what it did and refines it further. Part of what makes the Artdink take this merging of polygons and sprites so convincingly is how liberally they use visual effects. They play with depth of field and other post-processing effects. Ultimately, the style feels new and innovative, yet extremely nostalgic.

The game itself is also compelling on its own. It features a great iteration of the classic tactical RPG fighting style, playing in a very familiar style, but also adds things like unique pincer attack mechanics to help keep things fresh. It’s a great game and it’s fantastic to see that beautiful graphical style returning to support. Long live the HD-2D era!

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