Looking back at PowerVR

As part of our celebration of 25 years of PowerVR, Riyad Emeran, a stalwart of the British tech journalism scene in the late 90s and the founder and original Editor-in-Chief of consumer tech review website TrustedReviews.com, takes a misty-eyed look back at the many memorable gaming moments it made possible.

Back in 1996, I decided to switch careers – I’d spent eight years working in the field of high-performance computing, but I’d come to realise that I wanted to do something more creative, while still indulging my love of computing and tech. The answer presented itself when I applied for a job on PC Pro magazine and was consequently offered the position.

I’ll admit that I was like a kid in a sweet shop when I first started at PC Pro. I was able to get my paws on all the latest and greatest hardware, and nothing excited me more than the promise of a new generation of 3D graphics.

Being in the enviable position that I was, I managed to convince a PC system integrator to build a high-powered rig, complete with one of the very first PowerVR 3D accelerator boards in the UK. Obviously, I wanted the opportunity to write about this tech and inform my readers, but deep down I just wanted to play with it!

Of course, back then there were no established 3D standards, so each hardware vendor had to convince developers to optimise games for their specific accelerator, and given that I had such an early board, there wasn’t actually that much to play on it.

But one thing that did run on the system was a very early demo build of a driving game called Ultim@te Race. So early was this demo build that the full game wouldn’t be released for almost two years, but that demo was enough to show off what PowerVR was capable of.

Ultim@te Race on PowerVR circa 1998

As a result, many of the PC Pro editorial staff spent altogether too much time in the labs over the coming weeks. At first, it was to marvel at the incredible graphics and amazing lighting effects, complete with lens flare as you drove towards the sun. But that admiration eventually turned into determination; determination to clock up the fastest lap time of the relatively short demo!

I dread to think how many man hours were lost during that time, or how often keyboards were smashed with fists when one of us clipped a toll booth on the bridge at the end of a lap, but those weeks were also some of the most memorable from my early tenure at PC Pro all those years ago.

Such stuff as dreams are made on…

My longest and most passionate relationship with PowerVR came in the shape of Sega’s last foray into gaming hardware, the Dreamcast. The Sega Dreamcast still stands as one of my all-time favourite gaming platforms – it pushed the boundaries of what was possible in a home system and even pioneered online console gaming with its built-in modem.

So good was the Dreamcast that when I flew out to the Hong Kong specifically to pick up a PlayStation 2 shortly after it launched in Asia, I barely bothered to use it for a year after, since the games on the Dreamcast were simply far better.

The Dreamcast really shone when it came to ports of Sega’s arcade machines, mainly because it was powered by pretty much the same hardware as Sega’s NAOMI arcade system, which included a PowerVR 2 graphics chipset. This meant that games such as Crazy Taxi, Virtua Fighter and Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast were near pixel perfect ports from the arcade machines.

Sega’s PowerVR-powered NAOMI arcade system

But the daddy of those arcade conversions was and always will be Soulcalibur, and what a game that was. Even if you weren’t a big fan of beat-em-ups, Soulcalibur was so graphically beautiful to behold, with fluid 3D movement the likes of which had never been seen before, that you became instantly hooked. I can remember losing entire weekends to Soulcalibur tournaments with my friends, stopping only long enough to buy more snacks and beverages to keep us going.

Soulcalibur on the PowerVR-powered Dreamcast

 

The Dreamcast wasn’t all about arcade ports, though, there were some amazing and groundbreaking original games, too. Resident Evil: Code Veronica was, at the time, the most ambitious, the largest and the most graphically impressive chapter in the series, and it was a Dreamcast exclusive. The Dreamcast version of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was another showcase that was as close to the PC game as any console version of a Lara adventure had got.

But when it comes to Dreamcast exclusives, there’s one franchise that stands head and shoulders above the rest – no, I’m not talking about ChuChu Rocket, although that’s undoubtedly a Dreamcast highlight, too. For me the most memorable and ambitious game series to appear on the Dreamcast was Shenmue.

Shenmue was the game that invented the Quick Time Event, (which many might not see as a good thing) but it suited Yu Suzuki’s opus perfectly. Taking on the role of Ryo, a young martial arts master desperately trying to track down his father’s killers, Shenmue was ahead of its time.

Shenmue was a groundbreaking game made possible by the leading-edge graphics of the Dreamcast

These days we’re used to games that try to recreate real life; both the exciting and mundane aspects. But when Suzuki created Shenmue in 1999 it was new territory. I remember spending one afternoon simply moving boxes in Shenmue 2, only for my wife to ask me what kind of game has you moving boxes for hours… I didn’t have an answer for her, but I did carry on moving boxes.

Like so many games on the Dreamcast, Shenmue and its sequel were graphically stunning for the time, both in terms of rendering and textures, and the fluid movement of the characters around the environment. Those graphics were powered by the PowerVR 2 chip inside the Dreamcast, so I can say without question that PowerVR was responsible for some of the most memorable gaming moments I’ve ever had.

While PowerVR had a significant and memorable impact on me all those years ago, most PowerVR users today don’t even realise that they’re PowerVR users, so pervasive is the technology in the mobile and embedded space. For a long term 3D acceleration geek like me, though, I’m keen to see what PowerVR will bring us tomorrow. With virtual reality finally becoming, well, a reality and augmented and mixed reality starting to gain traction, could there be another PowerVR graphics milestone for me to look back on some day? I wouldn’t bet against it.

 

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