Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Pixels 4Ever?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 7, 2014

Old-school bitmap art can be pretty dang awesome. Like this, from the incredibly cool arcade-style freeware game Maldita Castilla, by Locomalito Games. Check it out – it’s freeware. Tip the creator with the number of quarters you would have dumped into this game if it had been in an arcade machine:

My kids and I thoroughly loved Towerfall for the Ouya. The new version has the hottest modern gaming hardware pushing 2D pixels like it’s 1992. While IMO the graphics weren’t quite as amazing as Maldita Castilla, they didn’t need to be. They were as good as they needed to be to support the outstanding gameplay. If you think this looks like fun, you’d be right:

Supporting the gameplay is really the key.

One of the problems with more realistic and detailed graphics – every possibility has to be meticulously modeled / animated / rendered. The answer to this, as budgets skyrocket, is to limit the breadth of interactions so that you don’t end up with the combinatorial explosion of necessary assets and variations. For example, you might have a game concept with a cool idea like, “Oh, what if we set a guy on fire, and THEN blow him up with an explosive arrow, and then his exploding, flaming chunks sets everything they touch on fire?”

My inner 14-year-old thinks this is the coolest idea ever. In a game like Towerfall, you’re talking maybe a half-day of coding, and maybe a day or two of art assets and variations. But if you were working on the latest Call of Duty game (one of my favorite punching bags for AAA gameplay, not that they are bad games… I do enjoy them, but they are what they are), you could be talking many hundreds of man-hours going into implementing the same feature. In a simpler game, it could be implemented on a whim. But in a AAA game, it will probably never make it past the brainstorm phase.

The Verge published an article a few days ago about the 8-bit / 16-bit “retro” style of game graphics that are very popular these days with indie games. Entitled “Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future,” it opines that while the graphics that would have been at home on a console twenty years ago might be there in part out of retro sensitivities and (somewhat) easier / cheaper development for indies, those are not the only reason it’s popular. Done well, the art won’t age as attempting to push the “realism” levels will. It invites the player to judge a game by a different criteria than the AAA blockbusters with tens of millions of dollars of budget, and maybe more importantly – it’s an artistic style.

UnderstandingComicsInvoking Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, the stylized form encourages the player to project their own imagination into the less-detailed, less-realistic graphics and animations. This potentially gives it greater power to evoke emotional reactions than the most photorealistic graphics available today.  The article makes several arguments and quotes people who know more about this than me, so I’ll let you read it.

But it’s kind of thought provoking.

Especially for people like me who grew up with the “low-res” 8-bit graphics, and dreamed of some day having graphics as detailed and realistic as we have today. I can’t deny that it’s cool, but graphical improvements haven’t taken gaming where I’d hoped it would go. Sorta like how live-action movies based on comics don’t always fulfill on their promises (although they are getting better!).

There’s something to be said for abstraction.


Filed Under: Art - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I’ve never felt particularly nostalgic for really low-res or 8-bit stuff. However, once we reached the 16-bit/256 colour VGA age, that was good enough for me (more is better in some cases of course, but that was a good baseline for acceptability).

    Of course with indie games you sometimes get odd combinations. For example, I was playing Gunpoint recently (excellent game) and the environments and menus are all (relatively) static and highly detailed compared to the pixel-art characters. It kinda works though, each character being quite distinctive despite the lack of fine detail.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I was rarely impressed with C-64 graphics (though it did happen). Or NES. They were functional. I wasn’t a console game in the early 90s, but I was a PC gamer – getting right after VGA became a thing. While I don’t miss 320 x 200 resolution much, some of the visuals back in the day were pretty awesome given the tech. Naturally I have a biased view of Ultima 7, but there were some companies – especially in the UK – that really had their bitmap graphics DOWN and did some gorgeous art that fit inside a 256-color (or 255 + transparency) palette.

    Westwood produced some very good-looking VGA games. Lands of Lore and EOB2 come to mind. The early-to-mid 90s Sierra & LucasArts adventures – Gabriel Knight 1, Monkey Island 2, Robin Hood: Conquest of the Longbow, etc. Great stuff.

    And of course, now that I’ve gone back and played them, games like Final Fantasy VI… wow.

  • uniqueuser said,

    I already played this Maldita Castilla game over 22 years ago…back when it was called Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts.


    The sad thing is that it still has better graphics than this knockoff.

  • Anon said,

    I still think that 320×200 pixels with 256 colors are good enough for many games – at least if they don’t show 3D graphics using polygons, textures, vectors etc. For those a higher resolution is part of the thrill as you can see small things in the distance better (like the vanishing point in a racing game, for instance, or enemies in a first person shooter).

    But, of course, higher resolutions & more colors are as sexy as better animations with more phases, more photorealism (if it fits the theme of the game) etc. so customers will pay top dollar for higher performance hardware. These folks downright demand(!) that their hardware is getting properly utilized – and I see their point.

    The “need” to upgrade the hardware because of more demanding games was – and still is – the motor that drives the PC & console hardware & software business.

    Origin was one of the initial driving forces behind this vicious cycle (on the PC side of things) and now the games consoles and the software companies that support them are the ones that decide when you have to upgrade your PC. The reason simply being that mainstream games development is done first and foremost for consoles and that these have fixed hardware and nobody invests massively in better PC ports when the sales are much lower.

    But that’s not the real problem – the real problem is that modern mainstream games are very similar to each other and that many new games are simply rehashes of older ones. Old wine in new skins, so to speak.

    But then the indie scene became more and more popular – with games that had fresh ideas and, often, simplified graphics, justified be the small teams or even single developers behind these indie titles.
    While “lo-res” was simply the cutting edge of technology back then it has evolved into an art style and thus a feature. There are even lo-fi or lo-res competitions showing games with minimal graphics that prove it.

    What we see now is something I couldn’t envision back then: You don’t need to upgrade your PC that costly and drastically anymore on a regular basis – simply play (good!) games that demand less powerful hardware!
    The lates Blackwell game from Wadjet Eye Games requires only a 1.8GHz CPU and 512MB RAM (1GB recommended) – in other words, a six year old machine will likely suffice.

    Not only is this art style accepted now – it is very likely that it won’t hinder gamers in the future to play games!
    I can now develop my hobby project (a “2.5D CRPG”) with all the patience I need as I know know that even in five years from now I will find an audience that is willing to play it – not because the graphics are incredible (which won’t be the case :o)) but because the story and the game mechanics are hopefully good enough.
    Granted, I won’t make money from it, but that was never the goal anyway. 😉

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Exactly. It breaks the cycle of the “cult of the new.”

    How old is Gemini Rue? I could look it up – I remember playing it when it was “new” some time back. But while the audio might be technologically superior, from the visuals it looks like it would have fit in perfectly with the mid-90s Sierra or LucasArts adventure titles.

    For years, as you say, it was a given that “newer is better,” simply by virtue of the huge steps in technology we made each year. But now – at least in the indie realm – we’re slowly winding that down. A new game isn’t any better than a game from three or four years ago than a new novel is any better than a novel from three or four years ago. Or a movie, as digital effects are getting cheaper for those shows that require special effects.

    Sure, there’s always an advantage for something that’s new – but it’s not as strong.

  • Dave said,

    I’ve been playing a bit of Pacman CE lately and everytime I do, I keep imagining going back to like 1983 and showing it to people and telling them this was the future of gaming. Without showing the 8/16 bit consoles or the 3D revolution.

    I’d love to see what they’d say. I wonder how many people in 1983 even pictured fully 3D games beyond basic polygonal models (a la Battlezone, or early flat shaded 3d graphics) let alone the amazing detail we can cram in these days…

    In the end, gameplay is king (or queen – no need to be sexist about it!) A good game is a good game, whether it’s made of cardboard, wood, metal, silicon, light, electricity or a blend of any of them.

    Have you ever tried Rogue Legacy yet? It’s amazing. Based on Steam’s reportage, that is the game I have the most hours in, more than Bioshock, Witcher 2, etc… And I only started a month or two ago…

    Retro Graphics, and even Retro Control(jump, kill) doesn’t mean Retro Gameplay – you can extend so many things beyond just graphics or even controls into new areas of examination. Every potential interaction between components is ripe for the picking.