Art & Illustration Gaming

Early 3D games and isometric digital art.

Saxxon arcade video game illustration and logo

You can look at it two ways, either isometric designs are a way of simplifying 3D, or, the way i see it: an idealized way of looking at 3D. An interesting abstraction of perspective. Now, if you want to get technical, isometric perspective is incorrect. It’s not really how the three dimensional world works. The perspective has no vanishing point, the lines will never meet on some unseen horizon. But isn’t that what art is? It’s not copying with exactitude, it’s an interpretation. An abstraction of the real world. Even high resolution polygonal 3D, the one you see on video games or 3D movies, is not really 3D. Everything that we call 3D while looking at a screen is not, it’s just an illusion. There’s no real depth on a flat surface. We’re just cheating the brain.

Philosophy aside, let’s get into some history. I won’t bore you too much with the early beginning of isometric illustrations, but they have been used for a long time before the digital age. The most common use would be for schematics which one can still find in manuals for electronics (electronic boards, appliance installation and audio equipment guides, as an example). But what we’re really interested on is in the early days of digital graphics. And in that case, the first isometric video game we know of is Treasure Island (SEGA). Released in Japan in 1981, but delayed internationally. That would happen in 1982. As it turns out, Saxxon beat it to market in North America. Saxxon was a kind of flying aircraft shooter kind of game. It became extremely popular in Arcades. Maybe this is one of the reasons, but Treasure Island wasn’t very successful.

Saxxon is well remembered by most Boomers and Genexers, if not by name all one needs to do is show them an image of it. If you’ve ever been to an arcade in the 80s you know Saxxon. Aside from the arcades, it got a lot of ports to different consoles.

Treasure Island (SEGA)

Before I go into a home computer and console side-quest, I have to mention Q-bert, which cannot be ignored and, just like Saxxon, started in the arcades and became a home computer and console success. Q-bert was another classic of classics, just like Saxxon. But unlike it, there weren’t a lot of other games who tried to copy Q-bert, so it’s almost one of a kind. One could say it was too emblematic to be copied. All this said, Q-bert was definitely inspired by Treasure Island in its rhombille tiling look (check this for how to make a custom rhombille) .

Back to Saxxon. It was ported to the Apple II, Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and ColecoVision, just to name a few. Now these are just the ports, then came the games inspired by it. One of the early ones I remember playing quite a bit was “Raid over Moscow” on the Commodore 64. This game looked way ahead of its time, and it had some isometric screens a’ la’ Saxxon. But it didn’t end there, there were also other perspective angles being used on other screens.

Q-bert arcade version

Another great example of a wonderful isometric game was Marble Madness (Atari). This one was an arcade game first, but I discovered it on a Commodore Amiga. Marble madness is a super fun, but challenging game. You can play it here now. The Amiga had superior graphics, to the point where the games were starting to look as good as the arcade ones. This is what we all dreamed of: not having to go spend money on coins for games and being able to play these games as much as we wanted to in the comfort of our homes.

These days, isometric graphics are not restricted to schematics and video games anymore. You will see isometric digital art infographics or hero images for websites, to name the most common ones. Some designers use it in a more contemporary way, with slick graphics, while others are making homages to the 8-bit era. It’s interesting to see how design has trends that tend to repeat themselves. We go back to the past to get inspired, but then we add a new twist to it, and that’s how art evolves.

An isometric illustration used as hero image for a website.

I’ll leave you with some homework. Next time you look at a game, a graphic on a website or a manual, pay close attention because you might be looking at an isometric illustration.