It’s funny how things work out. A couple of years ago I was doing some freelance writing for the Official Nintendo Magazine (UK), and I’d done a review of Mario vs Donkey Kong. As part of this review, I had put together a quick look at Mario:
As a result of this I had the idea to write up a complete History of Mario Sprites. Some time later an editor from Rotovision, a company normally above such things, contacted me about the possibility of writing a whole book on pixel art and sprite design. Long story short, I accepted.
The book focuses on sprites and character design, and portable game devices from the GameBoy to modern mobile phones. It’s stuffed full of sprite histories, developer commentary and interviews, a history of mobile game platforms, some pixel tutorials and more exciting stuff besides. Read on for more!
These are excerpts from the book, which covers a wide range of pixel goodness in its 200 pages.
Pixel virtuoso Henk Nieborg says “back in those days I drew most of my gfx on a black background, I just liked that. You could get away with a lot of stuff by fading it into darkness. I also prefer to draw to blackness because the contrast on the megadrive system was insane, if i would have anti-aliased everything to white i would have probably gone blind.”
There’s an interview with Michael McWhertor, creator of Marios 64, and Sato Takayoshi who ported Sexy Pariodius to the Sega Saturn. Army of Trolls, eboy, Jan Halfar, and Chris Hildenbrand – who creates graphics for over 20 games a year – are also featured.
There’s a substantial section on the rise of portable gaming, from mechanical to rudimentary electronic to LED and VFD games, to the modern era of DS and PSP sophistication. No important stone is unturned – mentioned along the way are the Wonder Swan, Neo Geo Pocket, GameBoy, Turbo Express, Game & Watch and Atari Lynx. There’s plenty of screenshots for them all, with special attention paid to the sprites and how they compared to other platforms.
Regarding the Game & Watch: “They were functional as well as entertaining, each one had a tiny clock display and could be used as an alarm. The plus-shaped directional controller was first seen on the Game & Watch, and Nintendo has used it on every one of their game systems since then. Nintendo was very successful in with the series, releasing several games based on big licenses like Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and Popeye. Several of Nintendo’s greatest games had Game & Watch versions too: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior and Zelda all received the treatment. Even Super Mario Bros, Nintendo’s flagship title, was released as a special edition prize Game & Watch. “
Exhaustive histories are given for many famous game sprites. Castlevania, Bonk’s Adventure, Ghouls n Ghosts, Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong and, of course, Mario, all make an appearance. It’s a fascinating way to see at a glance how we got to here from there. Every platform under the sun is covered. 8, 16 and 32-bit platforms, portable and console, and even mobile phones. There are some big surprises in there, with games you probably never heard of featuring characters you thought you knew.
“Like many game characters there was a time when Sonic went through a very ugly stage. Sega’s effort to keep the franchise new and fresh went completely awry when they tried to make Sonic 3D. Using pre-rendered graphics Sega put Sonic in a 3-dimensional world, which not only made Sonic lose the majority of the hedgehog charm he posessed, but also made for very poor gaming.”
Several artists contributed some how-to guides, brief introductions to the amazing world of pixel art. There’s a section on choosing the proper tool, and the difficulties of porting images from one platform to another. There are technical chapters as well, covering important concepts in pixel art, like the technical limitations of LCD screens, and the differences between pixel and vector images. There are hundreds and hundreds of images throughout, and every chapter is packed with pictures and diagrams.
“LCDs do not create light, they block it, so every LCD screen requires a light to function. The first black and white LCDs used environmental light, like the sun or a lamp, to illuminate the display. This worked well for a time, but colour LCDs require much more light and can’t rely on external sources. When the Lynx, GameGear and TurboExpress were released they used backlights, expensive and power hungry flourescent tubes tucked behind the screen. These provided ample light but drained six AA batteries in 4-6 hours. “
There are several genre histories, covering the advance of graphic power from beginning to end. The difference between Karate Champ, Street Fighter and Guilty Gear are astonishing. Ditto the changes made between Final Fantasy 1 and Chrono Trigger. RPGs, Fighting games and Platformers are all covered.
“A year later Konami created what is almost the first modern fighting game. They introduced many new features which later became staples of the genre: status bars that decayed as a player took damage, a roster of opponents, including two hidden ones, that had to be defeated in sequence, and the gravity defying leap. There weren’t many moves, but the character art was superbly charming. Unlike Karate Champ however it didn’t offer head to head play, and so the fighting game boom was delayed a little longer. “
Glu Mobile, Jadestone, Game Loft, Capybara and Blue Label Games graciously contributed images, stories, anecdotes and fascinating info about their development methods. The book is jammed with images from their cutting edge games, as well as past releases and several secret looks at unannounced and unreleased titles.
Henrik Pettersson of Jadestone writes: “The greatest opportunity, then, is that everyone carries a gaming platform with them everywhere. The nature of the phone dictates what games are suitable on them and right now the industry is in a learning phase. I think that when the developers, publishers and consumers get more accustomed to the format it will outshine all portable devices in gaming.”
And Much More!
It’s amazing how much you can pack into 200 pages. There’s a pile of porting examples, from SNES to GBA, or Genesis to Master System to Game Gear. There’s amateur creations from talented artists across the world, and a fascinating look at the trials of creating new releases for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16.
It’s a pixel party, and you’re invited!*
*admission prices vary, check Amazon for details.
Oh, and the author bio is pretty over-the-top. I swear I had nothing to do with it: “NFG Man (Lawrence Wright) is the human face behind two of the largest independent game sites on the Web, nfg.2y.net and gamesx.com. He has also run a successful game store and writes for some of the worlds leading games magazines. He lives and works in Australia.”
It’s flattering though, don’t you think?