pixel precision

I thought I’d start this one by pointing you at Mimeo and the Kleptopus King. Mimeo is being developed by Shaun Inman, in whose person you will find the unholy merger of a skilled programmer and virtuoso designer. That combination has resulted in some truly remarkable work, and I can’t wait to see what he might produce in the context of a video game. Mimeo triggered all sorts of odd thoughts in my head, one of which I’ll talk about tomorrow, and one of which I’ll talk about now.

I’d like to take a moment to formally define something I’m going to call Year Twelve. This is the year of your life when everything seemed exciting and wonderful, a time full of seemingly endless enjoyments with little to no interference from the hassles and complications of the adult world. This is almost always the year when you, personally, were twelve. Pixels were the language of my childhood. They take me back to a time when everything was simpler, newer, and more fun. In other words, Year Twelve. As such, the sight of 8-bit or 16-bit graphics can provoke one of two powerful reactions in me: absolute joy or utter disdain.

It all comes down to how the pixel aesthetic is being used. Is this game being retro for retro’s sake? If so, I have a problem with it. If pixelated graphics are being used solely to maximize cuteness, that’s a waste. If they’re being used to hide the game designer’s lack of artistic skill, that’s dishonest. In both cases the underlying problem is laziness. Can’t be bothered to come up with some decent art direction? Here, let me take a cheap shot at your childhood and hope it hits home.

What many people forget when they see a retro game is that those pixelated graphics were products of their time. Memory and screen resolution were limited. Look at The Legend of Zelda. An enormous section of the screen is given over to graphical elements that don’t move, cleverly (and necessarily) reducing the game’s demands on the NES’s limited hardware. This sort of context is essential to understanding why the sprite-based games of the 80s and early 90s look and, more importantly, behave as they do.

Why did I like Mega Man 9 so much? It wasn’t just the cutesy, blocky graphics harkening back to Year Twelve. The game’s designers had gone out of their way to flawlessly replicate the unforgiving precision required to play the game. That’s what so many people miss about sprite-based games; the best ones were marked by precision in all things, from the meticulously crafted graphics to the demands made of the player. In Mega Man 9, you play this section exactly right or you die (although why you’d forego use of the Jewel Shield here is beyond me). Along the same lines, players always have a certain amount of control over Mario’s jump when in the air. Games that did not allow for a similar level of precise control feel loose and frustrating in comparison.

In his introduction to the Mimeo project, Inman writes:

A single pixel out of place, one too few or too many, ruins the illusion. There’s an unmuddied, economy of expression, the thankless result of the limitations of cartridge-based consoles.

At its core, play, and by extension video games, is learning. Call it discovery or mastery but a good game introduces new ideas (teaches), leverages existing ones (reviews) and layers them to create unique challenges (tests). Teaching, at its core, is communicating. Verbosity is an academic sleeping pill. A game’s graphics are the player’s teacher and a good teacher is consistent, clear, and concise. Like good pixel art.

Clearly, Inman gets it. I’m on the edge of my seat for Mimeo and the Kleptopus King. My only regret is that since Mimeo is being developed for the iPhone, I won’t have a plastic controller in my hands when I play it.


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