Absorption of a photon by visual pigments induces isomerization of 11-cis-retinaldehyde (RAL) chromophore to all-trans-RAL. Since the opsins lacking 11-cis-RAL lose light sensitivity, sustained vision requires continuous regeneration of 11-cis-RAL via the process called 'visual cycle'. Protostomes and vertebrates use essentially different machinery of visual pigment regeneration, and the origin and early evolution of the vertebrate visual cycle is an unsolved mystery. Here we compare visual retinoid cycles between different photoreceptors of vertebrates, including rods, cones and non-visual photoreceptors, as well as between vertebrates and invertebrates. The visual cycle systems in ascidians, the closest living relatives of vertebrates, show an intermediate state between vertebrates and non-chordate invertebrates. The ascidian larva may use retinochrome-like opsin as the major isomerase. The entire process of the visual cycle can occur inside the photoreceptor cells with distinct subcellular compartmentalization, although the visual cycle components are also present in surrounding non-photoreceptor cells. The adult ascidian probably uses RPE65 isomerase, and trans-to-cis isomerization may occur in distinct cellular compartments, which is similar to the vertebrate situation. The complete transition to the sophisticated retinoid cycle of vertebrates may have required acquisition of new genes, such as interphotoreceptor retinoid-binding protein, and functional evolution of the visual cycle genes.