16-Bit Perfection -
I grew up in a Nintendo house playing an NES. Even after the SNES came out, I played my NES constantly. In fact I can only remember really playing Mega Man X on my SNES, and a little bit of Super Mario World. No, I was an 8-bit kid through and through. This was mostly because I had piles of NES cartridges, and SNES cartridges were slow to trickle into our collection. My mom could grab an NES game at the pawn shop for ten bucks and keep me enthralled for weeks, as opposed to a fifty dollar SNES game at a real store. But, as things progressed into the era of early 3D I began to see the advantages of 16-bit over my beloved 8-bit. I never really appreciated the graphics on my SNES until it was too late.
Anybody that played NES games as a kid probably had the same system that me and my brother employed for more indecipherable sprites that we saw. A lot of my friends referred to the bullets in Contra as tomatoes, and the bullets in Ikari Warriors as marshmallows. My favorite were the small purple creatures from Kung Fu Heroes, which me and my brother referred to as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Of course they look nothing like sandwiches, and really just resembled eggplants with mouths.
But with 16-bit games things became much clearer. Suddenly there was just enough clarity to recognize what every item and enemy was supposed to be, and it did kill a little bit of the magic for me. It was especially disheartening for me because I was the kid that made up his own names for every enemy in Zelda, and decided what kind of creatures they were because our copy didn’t come with a manual. As the guessing game disappeared, we grew fond of the graphical prowess of the 16-bit era. Games looked damn good, and it was nice to actually know what everything was for a change. The mystery had been replaced with solid pixel art and great animation. I remember being shocked when I picked up the SNES Spawn game and he wasn’t just a small block of pixels, but instead a full sized sprite of my favorite comic book character that swayed with animation.
Then the 3D revolution happened. The Nintendo 64 was on the horizon and the Playstation was gaining traction among gamers for its 3D graphics. Those few short years where 16-bit reigned supreme were drawing to a close, and like most other kids I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my favorite video games in glorious, detailed 3D. What I got was a mottled mess of blurry textures and hard to see models. Let’s be honest here, it wasn’t pretty. At the time it was the best we had, and we all oohed and aahed but early 3D games can be painful to go back replay. This was a trend that even continued through early PS2 games. It was expensive to make 3D games, and if a studio didn’t have the cash it showed. Even well-funded first party games suffered the transition to 3D. When was the last time you played the original version of Super Mario 64?
Fast forward to now. Games compete fiercely with each other over who can have the brownest, most dust covered levels. Graphical fidelity has reached a shocking high, but major studios want their games to look “real”, even though the real world looks drab and boring. Aside from some of the more majestic parts of the real world, it’s a pretty dust-filled, gray place. Now, this isn’t to put out studios that put out amazing games because there are quite a few, but the big Triple-A titles that get all the hype seem to follow this pattern. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 16-bit style games are on the rise again even though we have the power to do so much more.
16-bit games have clarity and simplicity while still being able to look impressive. Today 16-bit graphics can be programmed by an incredibly small team, and it gives them a retro charm that gamers look at fondly. Again, I think this is because it was the perfect balance between looking like they were meant to and still being attractive.
Graphics from early video games were representative because the technology simply didn’t exist to make them look like what they were really meant to be. Looking back at any Atari game we can see this, and I’m sure the guessing games were rampant back then as well. 16-bit games, in my opinion, are the pinnacle of gaming graphics. While I have to say that I do play my fair share of 3D games, nothing grabs we and makes me feel at home quite like some well-crafted pixel art. Maybe I’m just getting old.
Title image credit: http://www.drawsgood.com/9923/235356/gallery/pixel-video-game-characters-high-score-society