How to Get Better Graphics on Old PC Games
Even though my Steam library is overflowing with new games I bought on impulse, it’s hard to resist the allure of the classics. But running old games on your modern PC is more complicated than you might think. While the pixelated graphics of the ’80s and ’90s are charming, the dated polygons of early 3D games can sometimes hamper the experience.
Many older games have been remastered or remade for today’s hardware, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, and Metro 2033 Redux. However, there are still many that have not received the update treatment, and are stuck with low-res graphics and dated aspect ratios.
With the right tweaks and hacks, you can make those games look a bit nicer on a modern rig. It won’t make Dragon Age: Origins look as good as The Witcher 3, but it’ll improve things quite a bit.
Bump the Resolution With Widescreen Hacks
Before the mid-2000s, most games used a low-resolution, 4:3 image to match the monitors we all used at the time. If you try to play those games on a modern HD 16:9 monitor, you’ll end up with black bars on the sides—not to mention some seriously jagged edges from the low-resolution graphics. That’s fine, but it’d be nice if you could get the game to fill the entire screen (without stretching the image and making everyone look like Jabba the Hutt).
Thankfully, the gaming community has come to the rescue, creating patches that allow for widescreen aspect ratios and higher resolutions. For example, a tool called Universal Widescreen Patcher can add 16:9 HD support to a few old games, including Need for Speed: Underground, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Other titles may have game-specific patches out there for similar improvements. I recommend searching around the Widescreen Gaming Forum for the titles you want to play, since it compiles many of these patches into a browseable database—complete with installation instructions.
Install Some Texture Mods
Cranking up the resolution will help the game’s models look sharper, but it won’t necessarily help the textures: the faces on people’s heads, the chain in their armor, or the rug on the floor. Since those were still developed for low-res PCs, they’ll appear blurry even if the game is running at 1080p.
That’s where texture mods come in. Dedicated players will often release new, higher-resolution textures for old games that make them look a little less fuzzy. Some people find them a bit overbearing or fake looking, but it varies from pack to pack—some adhere to the game’s original aesthetic better than others.
Some texture packs cover an entire game, like this one for Thief II: The Metal Age. Others will only cover certain textures, requiring you to install multiple packs (possibly in a specific order) to cover all the game’s assets.
You’ll often find texture packs on sites like Nexus Mods, but your best bet is to search around Google and YouTube to see screenshots and videos of different packs in action, so you know which one you want to install. The installation process will vary for each pack, but you’ll usually find instructions along with the download.
Inject Post-Processing With ReShade
Modern games use a lot of different effects to add realism to a scene. For example, anti-aliasing reduces jagged edges, and ambient occlusion adds more realistic lighting and shadows. Plenty of old games don’t have these settings, but would greatly benefit from their subtle improvements.
ReShade is a post-processing injector that can add these effects to games that otherwise don’t support them—heck, it’s even useful in new games that come with sub-par graphics options.
Download the ReShade setup tool, then save it somewhere handy—it only installs ReShade for one game at a time, so you’ll want to keep it around for future games. Start the setup tool and click the big Select Game button to browse to your game’s executable file.
Select the game’s render API from the list along the bottom—you can usually find this on the ReShade compatibility list or on the PC Gaming Wiki. When ReShade asks you if you want to download the standard list of effects, say yes, and you’ll get a “Success” message once everything’s done.
At this point, you could jump right into the game and start tweaking things manually, but it can be a bit overwhelming to have so many different settings available to you. Before exiting the ReShade setup, I recommend looking around for any presets that other people have already created for your game.
You’ll find some on the ReShade site, but there are others on forums and sites like Nexus Mods, so search around and see what you can find. Once you’ve downloaded a preset that looks good, save it somewhere on your PC and click the Edit ReShade Settings button, then browse to your preset.
Once you’ve done that, you can save and exit the tool. Note that some ReShade presets—including the Deus Ex: Human Revolution preset shown above—may require an older version of the setup tool, which you can find on their ReShade’s Mediafire repository. Check the preset’s comments or readme file for more information.
When you first launch your game after installing ReShade, it’ll prompt you to press the Home key on your keyboard to access all the new options, and walk you through a brief tutorial. Again, the list of settings can be a bit overwhelming, but having a preset to start from will help
You can uncheck some of the preset’s settings to see what they do, try new ones on for size, and tweak things to your liking. (I’m a big fan of using SMAA to remove jaggies, MXAO for more realistic shadows, and debanding for smoother color gradients.)
If you want to go all out, you can combine all of the above—ReShade, texture packs, and widescreen tweaks—to completely overhaul a game and bring it into the modern era. Just be sure to read each mod’s instructions very carefully—and don’t waste too much time tweaking, or you’ll never get around to actually playing the game!
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