In 1995 no less a luminary than Shigeru Miyamoto called Dave Jones “the Spielberg of gaming”. This juicy marketing copy was in the wake of Nintendo’s N64 ‘Dream Team’ of which DMA had now become a part. Even at the time I found myself wondering, if this was the case, then who the Roger Corman of gaming was. Games were on a progression to ever slicker heights, exemplified by Psygnosis – our old publisher – in Shadow of the Beast or Wipeout. Sometimes it had been joked that DMA supplied gameplay and Psygnosis supplied the visual sheen. Even by the end of the 80s we had seen an entire floppy disk given over to nothing but what was effectively a trailer for Aquaventura. But the point was always clear: games were getting fancier.
They didn’t seem to have a Corman in the ranks, yet: Lo-fi, cheap, cheerful and no development budget.
Where was he?
Lo-fi doesn’t mean low quality, just different priorities. A live band, not so polished, playing with obvious joy and enthusiasm is a different experience from an autotuned production-line track. Art which is hand-drawn with scratchy lines, quirky bold strokes and an energy about it is a different experience from each line of, say, a character being finely positioned in Inkscape by tweaking a dozen control points on a raft of splines. Not better, just different.
Nowadays lo-fi graphics are commonplace, we see plenty of Cormae around. Eight bit graphics hold a particular fascination. Why not have retro 90s graphics or even do the entire trip down the time tunnel to the black and white vector graphics of the 70s? The answer is that eight-bit graphics form a cultural memory of the time when computing machines started to appear in our homes. They set the template.
Wired recently had an article about a video where Grand Theft Auto V was mocked up as a trailer for the Commodore 64, part of an ongoing 80s backporting of contemporary titles, crowbarred into the capabilities of history. It was all about the eight-bit aesthetic. And it looked the part.
My first reaction was that it certainly had that authentic Commodore 64 feel, but the feeling slowly eroded as the trailer progressed. The loading screen was bang on, the font couldn’t be faulted. But the ‘in-game’ footage didn’t ring true for me and I didn’t know why. Too high a resolution? Was it the lack of those characteristic double-width pixels, or some subtlety of colour choice and character design? Were the sprites just too large to have been rendered by a C64? Well, perhaps. Little technical details weren’t the point. It didn’t feel real and it took me a while to figure out why.
It wasn’t an 1983 Grand Theft Auto, it was a 2014 Grand Theft Auto with 8-bit limitations.
Important difference. But what does it mean?
Let’s leave aside the practicality of this being a C64 game for real. The video had a identity which was recognisably 80s, recognisably a home computer, even to someone unfamiliar with games at all. An 8-bit look.
Now if we’re being technically correct, 8-bit refers to the CPU – such as 6502 or Z80 – powering the computer or console; that’s where the term comes from, not from the graphics. A monochrome screen, with pixels either on or off, is 1-bit colour. Four colours on screen at once? That’s 2-bit. And this is before we get to the complication of early machines generally having character-based displays rather than bit-mapped ones. 8-bit graphics, technically, would be 256 colours.
Let’s drop back down to a looser kind of correct. Describing the look as ‘Eight bits’ is of course symbolic, a convenient shorthand. Does this shorthand include the sound? It means having at most three channels of audio, though even now soundtracks from C64 games have a cult following. What about level design? What about gameplay?
Ah yes, the gameplay. Gameplay could be harsh and uncompromising. Pixel perfect moves. Digital control, no analogue or proportional movement. Repeating patterns making it a test of player memory and reactions.
Let’s call this more encompassing style Faux Eight.
Designing GTA in 1983 would have meant making different choices. It would, almost unquestionably, have been a top-down perspective because the C64 could handle that. It would mean eight sprites on screen tops. Something like, say Siren City. Notch pointed out that retro games these days still make use of a full 24-bit colour palette. I seriously doubt anyone is brave enough to put a title onto iTunes or Play which has only the green, pink, white and black of an early PC CGA palette, or an authentic Spectrum look complete with colour clash.
Who is going to go the full nine yards and release titles with a games equivalent of Lars von Trier‘s Dogme_95, a manifesto for a lo-fi philosophy of moviemaking. Not quite so appealing now? (Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be fun.) But that’s a limitation of the hardware we used to have, it says nothing about the games themselves. The fact that retro is such a large movement is clearly not about a love of the technology.
If not about the technology, then what?
Nostalgia is an oft-quoted rationale.
It’s a nostalgia for the days when the games industry really took off, and eight-bit is the easiest – and most distinctive – way of recalling it. What’s more, it has mainstream appeal and recognition. Much more than, say, that transitional time around 1994 when the environment was 3D but the players were still sprites. Or the endless expanses of fog at the turn of the century when hardware gained a whole slew of depth-cueing tricks.
Indeed an eight bit look is the default for any portrayal of old computers on TV, regardless of time period. There was an advert I recall seeing in the last few years, which was set in the 90s, but which had the displays still being all green phosphor. The 90s, by way of example, are when computers were capable of giving us Jurassic Park. Now contrast Starflight One, a 1983 movie in which the wireframe graphics of the airliner were a literal physical model of electroluminescent wires attached to a jig. Why? Because in 1983 computer graphics were too expensive.
In 2014 the entire movie can be computer graphics, yet we still love our fictional bold, green, wireframe computer interfaces. They are simple and manageable, comprehensible and controllable. Like retro games, in fact. But if there’s more than just nostalgia, it’s the endlessly fascinating meta-game we play with games called ‘what if.’ What if we could have had GTA in 1983? What would it look like? How would it play? Could we have done it for real? If only we’d had the imagination, if only we’d been there, or known what we know now…
Eight bit, then, is much more than nostalgia and alternate history speculation.
It’s a way of correcting the failings of the past.
 by Majami Hiroz
 The best kind of correct.
 Sprite multiplexing can make more appear, a technique which Mike Dailly informs me was available on the Commodore 64 from the very beginning.