Videogame sprites are a lot like breasts: you either feel they have to be as large as humanly possible, or you can also appreciate when they’re smaller, but still perfectly formed. Never is this more so than with the monochrome Game Boy. Although I have a tremendous appreciation of what systems like the Neo Geo and Saturn could do back in the day, and what is now being done in 2D games such as Odin Sphere and BlazBlue, I still miss the tiny pixelated sprites and the limitations found in Game Boy games – particularly the earlier titles.
When you play the earlier GB games it’s clear the developers were aware of the screen limitations and so worked accordingly. Sadly as the years went on, they became more daring, created increasingly larger sprites, and in my opinion lost something wonderful. If you notice in the screenshot above (the width is increased, but the height should match the original GB pixel height), the original Sunsoft Batman is half the size of his sequel’s sprite. And with Mario, the Mario 2 sprite at his smallest is bigger than the original Mario after powering up! Although forum opinion tends to disagree with me, I feel this trend was a mistake on the part of developers. The best GB games kept things petit and worked to their strengths.
When you stare at a small screen, the main character will always be in view. Making them increasingly detailed and larger to fill the screen is a bad idea, because it means for the length of your playing you’ll be seeing more of exactly the same thing: the main sprite. The Donkey Kong Land sprites, plus those of Killer Instinct, are particularly awful. Whoever thought converting CGI SNES graphics to a 4-tone palette would be a good idea, was an idiot. The games as a result are a blurry, unplayable mess. For my own personal taste, I prefer nothing bigger than Arremer in Gargoyle's Quest, while the original Batman and Mario sprites are absolutely lovely. Look at how much charm they ooze despite being around a dozen blocks high. I could build them out of Lego if I wanted to!
Smaller sprites allow for more variety in the scrolling stages because they give you room to see more of the surroundings, and there’s something primordially satisfying about wielding tiny characters against massive bosses (if you’ve ever had to fight off a grizzly with a pocket knife, you’ll know what I mean). Regardless of whether you’ve ever experienced this same qualia, the fact remains that sprite size also affects design, with bigger sprites resulting in suffocated levels. When you have a combination of small, nicely drawn sprites and solid gameplay, it’s magical. Alien 3 stands as my favourite GB game, and despite generations later having handhelds capable of massive sprites and 3D graphics, with dual screens or widescreen, Alien 3 still ranks in my top 10 handheld titles. Everything is exquisitely detailed in miniature, from beds in the infirmary, to books, garbage, prisoners and the little facehuggers that roam the corridors.
When I play the best the GB had to offer, and there a ton of games (Mercenary Force, Mario Land, Batman, Alien 3, Donkey Kong 94, Monster Max, etc), it saddens me, because I realise that when the GBC and then GBA came out, developers had still not reached the maximum potential of the little monochrome wonder. And I don’t mean in terms of graphics, I mean in clever design that takes advantage of how intimately close you are to the action, coupled with the minimalist, miniaturised sprites and layouts, and all the other limitations that came with the system. Limiting one's creative freedom can focus the design and, ironically, result in something creatively more interesting.
There is a beauty found in limitation and greyscale; the old masters didn’t abandon pencil when they discovered how to put colour on canvas. Even today, with my PS3 and HD TV, I would still be willing to pay money for a well done GB-style game. Not just something stylistically black and white, like Mad World, I mean proper tiny sprites, dwarfed by their surroundings, and doing interesting things in a restrictive space.
Don’t believe me? The biggest proof to me that the GB still had what it takes, was an old competition by Way of the Pixel.
When I first saw the entries I was excited by the prospect of fan-made indie games. Sadly it was only a series of GB mockups – but they hint at what could have been.
My personal favourite? The STALKER mock-up, since after System Shock 2, STALKER is probably my favourite first-person shooter, containing everything which I had wanted from Bioshock, but was denied. Though, I disagree with the mock-up artist’s view that it would have to be turn-based fighting – it could be real-time just like Alien 3! I'm hoping that as indie games grow, and increasingly unusual styles are attempted, a few people will make games of epic scope, but in a minimalist style.
(Alien 3 pics taken from Vooks blog)