Dissertation – final publication

this is the final draft of my dissertation. it`s a really hefty document, the final one weighed in roughly 11,000  words.(not including the case studies)
i`ve taken out the appendice, since all it contained was my 4 case studies and the three interviews and they already exist on this blog.

happy reading!

Neo-Retroism

 

By Stewart Leadingham

University of Abertay Dundee

School of Computing and Creative Technologies

May 2012

 

 

University of Abertay Dundee Declaration

Author: Stewart Leadingham

 

Title: Neo-Retroism

 

Qualification Sought: BA Hons Computer Arts

 

Year: Fourth

(i) I certify that the aforementioned project is entirely my original work.

(ii) I agree that this dissertation may be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form and by any means without the prior, written consent of the undersigned.

Signature: _____________________________________

 

 

Date: _____________________________

 

 

 

 

Abstract

Video gaming is undergoing a change right now.

We are nearly at the peak of visual fidelity with our 8th generation of hardware and cloud gaming on the rise, so it’s inevitable that other visual styles than ‘realistic’ will make resurgences. Retro-themed visuals have always been prevalent in many unique titles, usually as a throwback, or – in rare cases – as a genuine evolution of a style developers were all too quick to abandon during the 90’s race to perfect 3D graphics.

However, once in a while, there are some rare examples of games which have not only had their visuals and gameplay designed specifically as a throwback to the Retro era of the 2D golden age, but also manage to improve and innovate on these time-tested themes in ways never thought possible thanks to the utilization of more powerful hardware.

This fusion of the old and new is perfectly timed for a lot of reasons; with photorealism fast approaching, people will begin to look at other visual styles for diversity and also to save costs.

Retro graphics are inexpensive to develop for, and they have an iconic look which is unique to our industry. Small games development is becoming less expensive thanks to the rise in indie gaming popularity from prevalent online venues such as Steam and the indie bundles.

Big-budget games, by comparison, seem to be gaining contempt from many gamers. Call of Duty has long been the definitive game for people to chastise for being too big and popular, and company perception is also at an all-time low [30].

Table of Contents

 

Introduction – Page 5

 

Chapter One: The Formulation of the Genre – Page 6

           

Where the Market Began and How it Continues to Grow – Page 6

Reception of the Genre in Today’s Consumer Base – Page 6

Methodology – Page 7

Literary Review – Page 8

 

Chapter Two: Exploration of the Definition – Page 13

 

Upcoming Growth – Page 13

Misfires in Execution – Page 13

Chapter Three: Examining Titles in the Genre – Page 16

 

Case Studies – Page 16

Other Mentionable Titles – Page 21

 

Chapter Four: Personal Practice-Based Research – Page 24

 

Strengthening the Fundamentals – Page 24

Media Tests – Page 24

Interviews with Neo-Retro Developers – Page 25

Conclusion – Page 27

 

Appendices – Page 28

 

Mutant Mudds Interview – Page 28

Mage Gauntlet Interview – Page 28

Dark Void Zero Interview – Page 29

Superbrothers Case Study – Page 30

Dark Void Zero Case Study – Page 38

Bit.Trip Beat Case Study – Page 42

Bit.Trip Runner Case Study – Page 44

                                                                        

References – Page 52

 

Introduction

‘Neo-Retroism’ is the fusion of the old and new, and this document is intended for the purpose of examining this definition thoroughly by looking at which games may or may not qualify as Neo-Retro, with the encompassing research question of this dissertation being:

“What is Neo-Retroism and how can it be developed and innovated further?”

The aim of this research is to explore the use of 16-bit graphics as a means of stylization and as a mechanic in modern videogames, media and culture, then subsequently develop an interactive piece based on any findings.

For the first objective, four case studies on titles which had high critical praise for their Neo-Retro features will be performed to ascertain what they have done correctly and what they have not.

Objective two comprised of three interviews with developers whom have published Neo-Retro titles or are developing them, and will involve several questions based around the concept of designing and implementing a 16-bit system for a modern title. This will include what inspirations they took and the benefits of the style.

Objective three will be personal research conducted by creating various media tests that marry Retro visuals alongside modern gameplay mechanics.

Objective four will be a playable version of a Neo-Retro title, to provide an example of the Neo-Retro experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One: The Formulation of the Genre

 

1A:  Where the Market Began and How it Continues to Grow

Neo-Retroism has been popularised thanks to positive public perception of ‘Retro’ and the high quality and critical praise of indie games which utilise this style. It’s continuing to grow because of the diverse marketplace, digital distribution and the strikingly lower development costs. The style has had a warm reception from gamers whom crave nostalgia, but wish not to be burdened with the shortcomings that are usually associated with the era (unfair difficulty, lack of accessibility and narrative weaknesses).

Graphics are peaking thanks to the advent of cloud gaming and our 8th console cycle. Cloud gaming can operate on any device with a high speed internet connection, so in theory gamers could begin seeing games with Crysis-level visuals on handheld devices [13]; a strategy many of the larger video games companies could be likely to imitate. Realistic visuals are expected to saturate the market, assuming it hasn’t done so already.

In recent years, the video gaming landscape has been divided quite drastically. Initially, homebrew and indie games were quite difficult to obtain and publicize; early examples include ‘Net Yaroze’ development kits for the PlayStation One which cost approximately one thousand pound, and the only outlet was demo discs attached to the official PlayStation magazine publication in Europe. In the internets’ infancy we also had fan-made mods of popular PC shooters Doom and Quake, but with the advent of broadband and the prevalence of high-speed internets, online distribution is quickly becoming the norm for developers who wish to save on publishing costs and still reach a wide audience.

Digital storefronts like Steam, the Xbox Live Marketplace and the App Store provide an inexpensive means to any developer who wishes to make their software available to the world at large. Even Nintendo, who are usually last to embrace online trends have finally embraced digital distribution [40].

Indie developers in particular have taken advantage of these risky new frontiers to become household names thanks to their creativity and innovation. The successes of blockbuster indie hits like Braid [11] and Limbo show that despite only being available online, they can still rake in big figures and top the review aggregate sites.

Another interesting Neo-Retro indie divide is the Nintendo side of things. One of the earliest games on the Wii’s digital distribution service was a rhythm/puzzle game called ‘Bit.Trip Beat’. To summarize its impact on the market, it’s had a breakthrough success and spawned six sequels, two retail compilation packs and a HD sequel in the works for the next generation of consoles.

It’s an iconic game for Neo-Retroism, and it has spawned a plethora of similarly-styled titles on Wiiware and the DS Eshop (Light Trax, Rotozoa, Tomena Sanner). The fact that these original IP’s on an online Nintendo marketplace have had success is quite telling of Neo-Retro’s popularity. Many developers usually have a hard time finding success on the Wiiware store [16].

 

1B: Reception of the Genre in Today’s Consumer Base

An ever-growing concern amongst publishers is that Pixel style games are of no interest to today’s younger generation of gamers who never grew up with the style. However, this appears to be a false assumption; they aren’t actually put off by retro visuals. It clearly engages them on a creative level, because with simple sprites they need to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. While playing Zelda on the NES, a class of ten-year-olds thought the bushes look like petrified snails [22].

The makers of Fez had a group of children come in and play-test their latest game for feedback and the results surprised them [42].

“I had this class of kids come in yesterday morning, 12 to 15 year olds. First thing in the morning I was scared shitless. I thought these kids are going to tear me apart; they are not going to like this game, they are not going to get this game. They are not going to get like the nostalgia aspect of it.

Because they’re too young, and I was certain that they’d be saying things like, “There’s no guns in this game?! What the fuck this is?” But no, they were like entranced by it, and they kept saying like, “This is amazing! I need an Xbox now.”

That’s not to mention the interest of retro games from casual gamers, or even people, who don’t play games. Apparel and clothing with retro iconography plastered on them have become immensely popular. The fact that so-called niche designs like these are making their way into massive retail chains like Primark and New Look are quite telling.

This surge of interest in retro is similar to the latest popularity in 80’s-themed clothing [20]; what’s old is new again.

Retro imagery can evoke people’s imaginations much in the same way that books and puppetry does, because they have to mentally fill in the details to a degree.

This T-shirt features the old Atari symbol; an example of the old once again coming into fashion [8]

Puppetry had a lot of downtime during the CGI boom in cinemas; much like how retro visuals have been downplayed during the fast rise of 3D gaming in the 90’s. it retains its identity today but for a different reason. Obviously puppetry will always resonate strongly because it is real, and unlike CG films, it doesn’t have to try so hard to immerse the viewer in its reality. Pixel art has a similar advantage over modern visuals.

“Adam Saltsman, creator of iOS pixel art free-runner Canabalt, argues that its appeal goes beyond just pure nostalgia. Its purity, precision and clarity have myriad benefits when it comes to crafting engaging gameplay. He argues that the rigid predictability of pixel-by-pixel animation is much easier for the player to process and respond to than more modern techniques.”  [10]

This is an edge that retro visuals will always have; much like how puppetry will always look more real than CG simply because it is.

There are various other fundamental advantages retro visuals have as well; such as the lower costs, the fact that it’s a more palpable canvas for developers to experiment with and that it’s a more established platform so there’s a vast library of development tools catered to it.

 

1C: Methodology

 

The over-arching plan for this dissertation will be as follows, ascribing to the layout described below this paragraph:

 

 

Objective One: Case Studies

A: Bit.Trip Beat

B: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery

C: Dark Void Zero

D: Bit.Trip Runner

Objective Two: Interview

Objective Three: Media Tests

A: Tixel

B: Bit.Cops

Objective Four: Final Playable Piece

For the first batch of case studies, several select games will be played and the formula of each will be catalogued; these findings will then be dissected to extract the specific elements which help the retro style and modern technology work together so well. The games in question are chosen because they have been specifically praised by critics for their retro elements, which make them relevant to the assessment.

The case studies will result in a list of points garnered from the study. For the Q&A with developers, a series of questions will be posed regarding their development history and their products in development. This is in order to try and understand their inner workings and affinity for the style. For example, how well did the style effect development on their platform of choice, or do they have previous experience with low fidelity visuals?

In objective two I will conduct interviews with developers on their Neo-Retro products. Through a combination of feedback and an examination of the games themselves, the pros and cons of their implementation of their chosen art style will be assessed, and a deduction as to why they chose the style they did will be made.

For the third objective, two game concepts will be abstracted and developed throughout the year. Initially it’ll consist of sketchbook work and media tests to ground the style and idea, after which full production will occur; consisting of polished pixel environments and character animations. This will be made replete with music, sounds, a functioning user interface and special effects to expound upon the idea of Neo-Retro experimentation. The concepts are intended to take advantage of modern technology while adhering to the retro aesthetic and feel.

For the final piece, the deliverable will be like a media test from objective three but a playable build will also be available. The objective is to create a working model which successfully blends two different visual styles as game mechanic; one of which will be retro-themed. Initially, the assets will be created in high-definition then redrawn as 16-bit sprites, creating two disparate environments with different properties. The purpose of this is to showcase a refined Neo-Retro game concept.

1D Literary Review

The first resources looked into were based around the actual creation of sprite art [26] [23] [28]. Extremely low fidelity visuals such as Atari-era art are good assets for research. With minimal visuals and flair, every asset becomes extremely prominent; making gameplay a key priority. A Twin Peaks fan game utilises the Atari style to create homage to the climatic final episode [10].

There’s an interesting point to be raised about visual restrictions here. To have created a faithful adaptation of a property, it’s made harder by modern standards. Attention to detail is a lot less demanding on the developer when there’s a substantial lack of detail in the product.

The game is, you see; set in the nightmarishly psychedelic, labyrinthine Black Lodge which Agent Cooper has to negotiate in the last episode of the show. And as such, its concept is a perfect fit for a 2600 game. The Black Lodge itself and 2600 games in general, you see, operate on the same rules. Both look and sound weird. Both have abstract internal logic at best. Both make bounteous use of repeated, identical rooms. Both are tough to navigate, are completely unfair, and will go all-out to kill you for every second of your contact with them.”  [14]

Another intriguing ‘demake’ (to remake a game or several games as retro-themed versions) is Minitroid [58]. This concept came across as intriguing initially on account of the minimalistic art style, but also because the project itself maintained the trademark deep Metroid gameplay and kept all of the original mechanics in place.

During research through Game magazines in the university library, an interesting quote was found [31], sourced from the art director of the Scott Pilgrim game:

“Because of their iconic nature, more powerful expressiveness lies within the limitations of retro games.”

 

Andy Schatz, the lead designer from Pocketwatch Games, voices a similar opinion [6].

“I’ve always thought that creativity is best bred through limitations. When you work within a set of limitations, it’s much easier to find creative and innovative ways to break those rules and expand the creative horizons,”

There’s a certain artist, well-known for his demake projects [18], named Eric Ruth. Praised for his work on a number of NES-themed games he has developed. Mr. Ruth tends to make games based on various popular titles, with some examples being Left 4 Dead, DJ Hero and Halo.

His games are retro-themed, but they are not averse to using modern technology. His games incorporate features such as leader boards, ultra-smooth PC controls and keep a solid technical performance thanks to the low fidelity nature of the product.

With features such as these, it makes his titles could easily be mistaken for an updated arcade machine game [17].

The introductory screen to the Left 4 Dead demake created by Eric Ruth [24].

One of my favourite genres of the by-gone arcade era is the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that used to inhabit the retro arcade scene. I’m a BIG fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, X-Men Arcade and the mostly forgotten DJ Boy. So, naturally, I tried combining two things I love together (this is how they invented peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) and in the end, came up with the concept that you can now play on your computer for free.” [19]

 

In the time before the advent of the internet, arcade titles would usually be elusive and hard to track down, but the relative ease of downloading a title changes the dynamic of it completely, as does the removal of a lives-based system. This shifts the focus onto the quality of the gameplay, rather than forcing players to continually pour more money in the machine to beat the game.

 

“This aspect drew me a lot further into not just demakes, but indie games. There are plenty of examples which use this formula of improving the retro style with new technology.” [41]

Fez is an excellent example; it would never have been possible on a 16-bit console, but the characters and environments have a deceptive simplicity to them, which in turn bolsters the effectiveness of the perspective-switching mechanic.

Everything that wasn’t directly related to that idea ended up being cut so it’s not just a cool art style for the sake of a cool art style; it’s meaningful. Technically, it’s nothing mind blowing. I like to say this game could have been made at any point in the last 15 years; it’s just polygons made to look like pixels with a clever twist.[41]

 

Fez shows that the art style of a video game can be an inexhaustible resource to a prospective indie design studio, given enough innovation and creativity.

Another notable indie game – with which the aforementioned game shares a number of similarities – is Minecraft; a title that employs extremely blocky objects and simple textures to render dense, gigantic landscapes for the user to explore. Not to mention the fact that the franchise has created itself a very strong and recognizable visual identity. The environmental textures are obviously inspired by levels of the Retro era. This also helps make things identifiable in the low-fi resolution and a whole lot quicker to implement new features.

Oh yes, a lot. It mostly helps me decide which of the infinite list of potential features to add first, but every now and then there’s a really great suggestion that I just have to add.[35]

Many larger developers are also putting in the effort to keep 2D gaming alive and well. Wayforward could be considered trailblazers in this regard; over half of their video games catalogue contains sprite-based 2D titles, many of which have been very highly critically praised and possess devout fan followings.

In ten words or less, why should we buy your game?

Do it, or 2D dies here and now.”  [36]

The sprite style has obviously passed the point of being used on account of technical limitations (even the lowest-end devices on the market are still capable of rendering competent 3D images), but Matt Bozon also mentions an interesting parallel to that ideology:

“Remember the last 75 years of practical effects being the only form of special effects in film?”

“Latex puppets and miniature sets were the only path until CG game along. Well, people are still entertaining the masses with puppetry, only now it’s by choice.

 

“It’s the same with pixel art. Creative people can work above the technology and set limits for themselves to create something that looks unique. So, you could say we’re past the golden age of pixels, but are now free to use them purely for self-expression.” [37]

The initial purpose of this dissertation was to seek out parallels to things like noir movies, but sadly the available literature told a very different story:

“As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view, never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it, and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise.” [27]

Michel Ancel – of Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil fame – is as devout a fan of 2D gaming as Matt Bozon, despite the fact that he has, for the most part, produced a number of 3D games himself. Over the course of his career, he has spear-headed development in a plethora of platforms and genres. Yet despite this, he still strongly maintains that 2D gaming has a lot of room to grow and there are a lot of ideas that are still waiting to be explored:

“You mean feeling involved in the game, with 2D? My feeling is that it’s just a matter of distance between the results and the idea. With 2D, you have seen that if we want to draw a skeleton, it’s a matter of seconds. With 3D, it’s a matter of maybe minutes, or maybe hours, between the idea and… but with new 3D tools, I believe that 3D’s going to be closer to direct ideas. If you look at most of the media, you look at the movies, for example. Most of the movies take their stories from books. Books are written by people alone, with no constraints, with their own personality. It’s not a matter of discussing with 20 people what to do. It’s just doing something. So it’s very pure, in terms of creativity.” [34]

Aside from video games, sprite visuals have found their way into popular culture. “PIXELS” is a stellar music video by one Patrick JEAN [57]. The game uses the iconic sprite style to overlay voxel graphics onto real-world footage. Combined with a photorealistic lighting engine, it has a bold and fresh look to it. Unusually, the voxels still carry over the limited frame animations of games from yesteryear, resulting in a combination of high-production value with the ‘style’ of retro graphics.

Another retro pixel advert, it seems to be intended for advertising gardening tools that uses gaming as a negative stereotype, and yet the visuals and animation speak volumes about how the style is perceived [55]. ‘Junior Senior – Move Your Feet’ is another video investigated [56]. They struck a strong balance with the visual style; all the while never dispelling the illusion that this was possible on a home console, making this a potential factor for nostalgic immersion.

Taking note of how retro art was exhibited was a big part of the research dedicated to this report. During the early weeks, the first exhibition space investigated was at the computer game museum in Berlin, Germany [29]. Aside from displaying vintage consoles, the establishment also has a sprite-based decorum. The cabinets and displays are all hollow squares. Presumably a conscious design choice made apparent by the influence of the ‘square sprite’.

Three other exhibits were more akin to conventions then museums; the Classic Gaming Expo [12] is a large, glamorous convention which takes place in Las Vegas and has hosted many charity competitions and celebrity endorsements. Prizes have included such relics as famous developers Atari systems and prototype carts of legacy titles.

Another is the Portland Retro Gaming Expo [46]; an expo more focused on the preservation of our retro lineage than any of the others, the owners of this exhibition seem to wish to educate and inspire through the demo booths and guest speeches they have.

The third display investigated, the Replay Expo, seems a great deal more conventional [48]. While it is strongly focused on retro games and the preservation thereof, it also hosts gaming tournaments for contemporary titles and many other related activities. It’s had a large number of high-profile guests such as representatives from the Gaming Baftas, Nintendo, Microsoft and talks from the writers of many British gaming magazines.

There has been a number of interesting pieces of work on done on sprite art in a realm outside of videogames. Aptly titled low-fidelity art or ‘pixelling’, the artist Craig Adams from Capy Games (Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery) emailed me to decline my offer for an interview but did direct me to a very worthwhile interview [4].

“It had occurred to me that ‘audio-visually sophisticated’ did not necessarily require ‘technologically more complex’, and I could envision a style of retro pixel art that could be both startlingly fresh AND be relatively economical to deploy. “

‘Minusbaby’, also known as Richard Alexander Caraballo, is another noteworthy pixel artist. In his interview [3], the subject of anti-Neo-Retroism was brought up, where the artist very strictly adheres to the limitations of the emulated art style. He mentioned it in the context that he was receiving criticism for his work.

“A few months ago, I made a Pulsewave flier using its palette along with darker versions of the original sixteen colours. While some purists have a tough time giving me respect, my colour choices and disregard of the screen resolutions of the original consoles and computers set a personal precedent allowing me to do whatever I want, therefore avoiding boredom and inspiring growth. I am done being bothered by conservative crews who can’t cope. Besides, it’s fun to be naughty and break rules.”

Another notable pixel artist dubbed Helm (actual name, Telemachus Stavropoulos), echoes the same sentiment as Jonathan Lavigne; that restrictions can help breed creativity [2].

“All my art is informed by the particular effects of computer aesthetics. Hard (and sometimes absurd) machine limitations as a breeding ground for innovative approaches to conveying emotions through visual art.”

There’s a pair of Pixel artists, known as Eddie and James, whom compare the rigidness of pixel art to creating architecture [1]:

“The inspiration for the c64 art is various and from a large span of low and high culture and usually not only from one discipline. In the studies in Architecture is basically the same. The relationship with my c64 art and Architecture could be said to be economical, spatial and social. Economic in the sense that I try to find ways of getting down to a clean result, taking away the excess and getting down to the essential of the intention.”

Canabalt is an especially popular sprite based game, and the creator Adam Saltsman has this to say regarding pixel animation [37]:

“Adam Saltsman, creator of iOS pixel art free-runner Canabalt, argues that its appeal goes beyond just pure nostalgia. Its purity, precision and clarity have myriad benefits when it comes to crafting engaging gameplay. He argues that the rigid predictability of pixel-by-pixel animation is much easier for the player to process and respond to than more modern techniques.”

 

Chapter Two: Exploration of the Definition

 

2A: Upcoming Growth

 

Retro visuals are likely to recur a lot more in the upcoming years, along with Neo-Retroism, for a variety of reasons. This chapter will go into depth on the factors behind its predicted resurgence.

Video game visuals are becoming even more realistic and the majority of titles on the market today make use of regular realistic visuals. As developers excitedly come to grips with the new hardware this year, they are likely to use this style to test the hardware to emulate photorealism as game developers have tried for years now, and in turn create a saturation of the ‘real’ style. This will inevitably bring a lot more attention to alternative art styles (like retro) from players tired of the norm and developers whom don’t possess the budget to create photorealistic titles. WayForward is a company which has built its success on the power of pixel art. They have invested a lot into their own original IP’s, which use Neo-Retro visuals and possess a dedicated fan-base.

“There are few barriers to entry, results come quickly and it’s possible to reach a professional standard much more easily than competing with a five star modern console game.” [37]

Lower costs also attribute to this. Lower costs of software development tools are accelerating one person development teams. If this continues, game development would become more freeform and creational, like art. One of the elements which push video games further from being held with the same distinction as traditional `art` is the economy. Publishers are throttling developers’ creativity, and it’s very difficult to think of games which were created for the sole intention of expression, and not profit.  With the latter becoming more prominent on account of relatively cheap indie development, we could see some future innovators in the Neo-Retroism genre. This is not to say that other visual styles could be part of this potential trend, but retro graphics are inexpensive and easy to develop for – and as many innovative developers have shown, they have an affinity for it, and can use it well.

2B: Misfires in Execution

 

 The spirit of Neo-Retro in question (most would assume visuals) could be any elements profound of the retro era, like the punishing difficulty of some games or the simpler mechanics of others. When these elements are embraced too much it stays un-innovative and could qualify as a simple remake in the right context. The question of ‘What makes a game Neo-Retro?’ is hard to ascertain. It’s easier to only make examples of good Neo-Retro games, but – for the sake of fair comparison – several other poor examples of retro gameplay shall be brought up and elaborated on.

Sonic 4 Episode 1 is an example of a poor effort to reinvigorate a game using Neo-Retro qualities. Sonic Team only co-developed it; they made their sister developer, Dimps, do the majority of the work, and they rehashed an old 2D Sonic engine from a DS game and repurposed it with HD CG sprites. This breaks an illusion any retro game should maintain; that it doesn’t seem like a game that could function on a console of previous generations – sacrificing player immersion for the sake of appearances.

A screenshot of Sonic 4, Episode 1 [52].

They missed a huge opportunity regarding Neo-Retro visuals. The visuals from the original Mega Drive series still up well today, thanks largely to their highly-detailed pixel art retaining the same charm as it always has. Using their larger art team they could have improved on that style with an abundance of subtle HD effects and modern, blockbuster set-pieces. Instead, they chose to use CG sprites for nearly every asset in the game. CG sprites are simply 3D renders screen-shot as 2D visuals. This was obviously to keep the developers in their comfort zone, but it didn’t translate well to the game. CG sprites were made popular by such titles as Donkey Kong Country on the SNES because the visuals were emulating what even 3D hardware couldn’t accomplish by that point (extremely high-poly character renders).

On the other hand, the few things which do qualify in terms of seeming retro would be the music and gameplay.

The music is emulating the Mega Drive sound card which gives the music in the game that distinct, MIDI feel that often brings about a sense of nostalgia, except that it uses modern day equipment. The composer tried to obtain the original hardware specifically for that purpose.

The gameplay is also thematically similar to the retro titles. It has a small repertoire of moves and they are experimented with and expanded upon as much as possible in the games length. The neo part would be the inclusion of brand-new moves and environmental gimmicks.

NP: How did you change or adapt your musical style for this return to the classic-style Sonic?

JS: Due to the hardware limitations of the Genesis, we could only work with a certain number of notes and a certain number of sounds. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a game for current consoles, but I tried to compose the tracks the old-fashioned way. I went back to the basics. I didn’t actually go back and use the old FM sound tapes, but I tried to compose with as few notes as I could. I went about it largely the same way I did with music for the Genesis. Actually, I did try to dig up a development kit for the Genesis. But it requires an old Japanese PC from NEC – Not a very common PC- and I couldn’t find one of those. So all I do was sample some sounds from the original Sonic. [32]

Megaman 10 is another example of a game that, despite intentions, fails to come across as retro – precisely because it emulates its retro inspirations to a fault. The product actually emulates slowdown and sprite flicker – prevalent features in the previous NES iterations. The only modern implementation was an overpriced downloadable content store built into the game.

The aesthetics, audio and gameplay are all identical to past versions and it is available on modern downloadable stores, however, so it does classify as Neo-Retro.

A more stretched example would be Tomena Sanner. Upon first impression, it resembles a game from the 16-bit era of platformers, featuring colourful visuals and upbeat music. Available on the IOS story and the Wiiware Shop, it’s a quirky take on the Canabalt style of games which are very popular on browser-based game sites and downloadable stores. In these types of games the protagonist is always running to the right and the player needs to deal with oncoming obstacles. The game doesn’t feature retro visuals, just very low fidelity ones. The characters are all roto-scoped and behave like typical 2D platformer characters; they have very high jumps and are always exaggerated in their motions.

The music itself isn’t distinct of any particular era. The gameplay is very simple, featuring only one button to perform all the characters motions. However, this system is context sensitive and – depending on when you press it – it’ll perform different actions. For example, pressing it while extremely close to enemies’ results in a more flash choreographed jump over their heads or a twirl around them.

The one element in the package which could have been classified as Neo-Retro would have been the simple one button gameplay. But because it’s context sensitive and not actually developing a single mechanic thoroughly, it’s not retro inspired design. It’s a very vague approximation of what could qualify as Neo-Retro and it is very debatable. But the same, stretched logic could be applied to arguments about other genres. For example, Call of Duty features jumping, but obviously isn’t a platformer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3: Examining Titles in the Genre

 

3A: Case Studies

 

I performed a case study on an indie title called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery. It’s a highly stylized and minimalistic adventure game featuring a unique aesthetic style which combines retro visuals for characters and environments with high-resolution lighting, shadow effects and user interface art.

It uses HD visuals for elements it dictates necessary by its own logic, which can include puzzles which aren’t immediately identifiable, user interface elements or even plot points. Overlaid atop the retro art direction, it becomes very prominent and the developer knew this.

Despite having a retro aesthetic, it doesn’t hold back technical limitations or creativity regarding the hardware. At many points in the game, the player is required to make use of the IOS devices’ accelerometer, the in-built clock for lunar events, multi-touch puzzles and even social media instances. There is a function available that permits a user to tweet any line of dialogue; a feature which has, surprisingly, not been copied by every game afterwards, considering the surging interest in social gaming.

A key element of retro games is to extensively exhaust a few key mechanics, whereas a lot of modern games try to pack in every feature imaginable and not give the player enough creative uses for them all. Superbrothers is a simple touch-based adventure game, and it employs simple mechanics for the intuitive hardware. Just like retro games, there aren’t an abundance of items or abilities, just a few which get used extensively; such as holding down on the screen to activate a luminescent ‘singing` mode, or in combat; tapping the enemy to attack and holding on your character to shield. These simple designs are a perfect fit for the touch screens limited controls. Instead of tacking on virtual buttons or a cluttered interface, the game is designed to use the simple hardware to its advantage.

The game has a highly distinctive narrative method. All of the rural fantasy characters speak with ‘surfer dude’ slang and fragmented logic, and engage with your heroic knight character to help her on her quest. And on every start-up or new chapter, a sharply dressed man in a suit who lives in the user interface directs you as a player on what to do next and enquires about how you feel the games progressing.

Screenshot of Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery [53].

All these storytelling methods eventually converge for the games ending and this odd meta-narrative method of narration is very modern and unique, considering that typical retro stories were often understated or non-existent. This is definitely a modern feature of the title, and yet it doesn’t detract from the retro immersion.

Superbrothers is very much like the Bit.Trip series, in which the visuals are surprisingly capable and impressive for the relatively young hardware they exist on, yet also retains the identity of its blocky inspirations. It’s a genuine evolution of the aesthetic, not to mention all the Neo-Retro design choices.

Speaking of Bit.Trip; there’s also a lot of interesting Neo-Retro features in Bit.Trip Beat – an arcade-themed, Arkanoid-inspired downloadable title.

The game is controlled by moving a paddle on the left side of the screen to deflect projectiles incoming from the right. These are controls are actually a throwback to the paddle controllers and rotatable knobs of the pong arcade cabinets. Not only is it an innovative way to update antiqued hardware, but it’s also very intuitive, fast and a rare example of motion controls done well. It’s far superior than if they merely used button based controls; playing the game with a regular controller would be akin to playing Guitar Hero without the guitar. It would be harder and the immersive feel would be lost.

Screenshot of Bit.Trip Beat [9].

The visual style of the game is unique even six years after its debut; with the only title to usurp its panache is its sequel, Bit.Trip Runner. It combines high fidelity lighting, particles and atmospheric effects – like fog and smoke – to compliment the angular polygon world. Everything looks lifted out of a vague 80’s arcade game, replete with the Dark Space-like backgrounds and given a fresh lick of polygonal paint. The game also changes it’s visuals based on player performance, dips in health will cause the game to drop into a flat 2D, black-and-white mode which seems to perfectly emulate the original Pong arcade it draws it’s inspirations from.

High-scoring combos will uplift the player into an ethereal mode where every object has accompanying particle trails, explosion effects, and harrowing sound effects. It’s rather visually intense, and oftentimes extremely difficult to achieve. On the other hand, the paced use of ‘regular’ visuals makes the impact of the high-scoring mode even stronger.

The simple mechanic of hitting objects back to the right is innovated within every second of its gameplay. There are dozens of different projectiles which behave differently and inflict various effects on the player and the game world itself. This extremely thorough use of the main mechanic greatly strengthens the core gameplay.

Despite age-old classics like Pong and Arkanoid being around for decades, Bit.Trip Beat manages to innovate on them. The second boss in the game is a sideways Arkanoid board which will throw pieces of itself at the player in random directions. Eventually, after a barrage of pixelated items, the boss will throw its very last pixel at the player, ending the fight. The final fight is essentially a two-player pong battle, only the boss has four full-sized paddles to provide a considerable challenge. This is Neo-Retro is a very slight regard, as the original Pong cabinets could not display five paddles at once.

One small area where the games visuals stumble is in its information presentation. Because the visual style is blocky and flat-shaded, the text employs a chunky square style seen mostly in Commodore and Atari games. It’s not easily readable and it makes the in-game heads-up-display seem redundant, particularly during intense rallies.

Despite being a puzzle/arcade game, there’s actually a story embedded in the visuals. Various shapes and symbols in the background tell the story of Commander Video’s (the series’ protagonist) consciousness forming. Each of the three levels are a different part of his conceptualisation; level one being his mind taking form, the second a very visual representation of his nervous system developing, replete with a rather claustrophobic fly-through of a bright, orange river with blocky chunks flowing through a deep red cave – apparently meant to represent the view inside Commander Video’s arteries.

Level three has simple shapes and objects coming into view, like trains and forests. This is to show that Commander Video is becoming aware of the world around him. There are no words spoken or dialogue presented throughout the entire game. The approach taken is very subtle and innovative, especially when used with a visual style which has always favoured conventional storytelling methods (see any story in any 16-bit game). It lends a feeling of maturity to the retro style of the game. And, because the blocky visuals are abstract and interpretive, the story can take on any number of meanings.

The audio is also an update of an age-old style. Levels are roughly twenty minutes long and the songs never loop throughout that time as each level possesses its own opus accompanying it. The style of the music is an amalgamation of retro chip-tunes, but with modern synths and techno sounds that lend an eerie sound quality to the game. It also gives the game a very strong audio identity to compliment its similar visual one.

Bit.Trip Beat is – compared to the video game market in this day and age – a special game. It’s not a revitalization of a long-forgotten IP or some nostalgic cash-in of any means. It seems to have remembered everything about arcade gaming that mainstream publishers have forgotten, and given it the rebirth it deserves. The title is a defining example of Neo-Retroism, and gets that element right in nearly every aspect.

Speaking of revitalizing IP’s, Dark Void is an HD game released on Xbox 360 and PS3, which also had a similar complimentary product on the e-shop, and an IOS called ‘Dark Void Zero’. Dark Void itself is a third-person shooter with a jetpack gimmick and fairly generic visuals. Dark Void Zero, on the other hand, is a throw-back to NES shooters like Megaman and Contra, but with very subtle modern improvements.

The game had a faux backstory alongside its initial reveal, about how it used to be an extremely rare arcade game on the `Playchoice-X10` cabinets which had two screens. Following from this, since Capcom found it deep inside its vaults, this was the reason Dark Void HD was conceived.

None of this was true of course, but it was a hilariously indulgent marketing tactic which unintentionally irritated retro collectors whom presumed the cabinet was real. They even phoned up Capcom asking how they could get hold of one.

The game itself is, on the surface, extremely retro. You`d be forgiven for mistaking it as an actual NES title, but there are a few key improvements; namely, the stability of the engine.

Whereas Megaman 9 and 10 were rife with slowdown and sprite flicker problems, Dark Void Zero runs at a rock-steady 60 frames per second and can have dozens of objects on screen at once with no frame rate hits. As such, the controls are highly responsive; which is a blessing given the tough-as-nails retro gameplay. The channel separation for the audio is flawless; there are no sound effects and songs blending together like how retro games used to do because of their inferior sound hardware. Basically, none of the technical shortcomings inherent in a legitimate NES title are present.

Design wise, the game has also been highly modernized and streamlined. There’s a wide bevvy of weapons in the game which come across to even an experienced player as new and inventive despite the fact that they are, surprisingly, just carbon copies of weapons from Contra and Megaman. There’s also a wide assortment of weapons ranging from fast to slow, small to large projectiles. Some overheat, some don’t even use ammo and some of the bullets have unique trajectories. There are even some that seem inspired by Halo’s day-glow alien weaponry and Ratchet & Clank’s unusual weapons.

Elaborating on the design; the flow-level geometry and difficulty balance both run wonderfully. Because the main gimmick is the jetpack, levels play with the idea of verticality and ‘the walls/floor is lava’ obstacles and it gives the level layouts a lot of charm and variety; an important factor considering its NES game-esque length of approximately five hours including retries. The game is still very difficult, but it has fair checkpoints and the more frustrating segments are always book-ended by fun set pieces or stress relief scenarios with conveniently placed power-ups.

There are three levels I the game and each one plays out like a mini-Metroid game. There are closed off paths until you acquire the correct weapon or key card, and some rudimentary backtracking through corridors and rooms to find what is needed to progress to the next area.

The bottom screen also features a map which makes traversing these levels all the easier, making supplementary use of the DS hardware. The design is bloated with forced touch screen controls or even more than the typical two buttons such games need. It also would have benefitted greatly from things like DLC levels or an online leader-board. Despite this, Dark Void Zero is definitely a Neo-Retro title. It’s a smart homage to retro shooters yet still maintains high standards of quality and creativity.

The last title in my collaboration of case studies was the Bit.Trip series’ most popular entry; Bit.Trip Runner. As earlier mentioned, the Canabalt style of platformers has become very popular on browser-based portals, and – before the release of Bit.Trip – it hadn’t been extensively fleshed out beyond five minute ‘pick up and play’ titles. Runner is simultaneously a call-back to retro platformers and an expansive entry into this genre of game.

The game has a lot more moves and abilities then Bit.Trip Beat, which seems natural considering it’s the fourth entry into the series. The game, of course, uses all of them to their fullest extent. The move-set is in and of itself quite creative. For instance, simple concepts like the up and down directional buttons are rarely used in platformers, but they work well in this style of game to perform moves because you don’t have to continuously hold a direction to move.

Regarding visuals, there are a few interesting choices which seem to be more a plot effort than a stylistic one. Commander Video is an alien and he is on a strange planet. All life forms in the game are created with voxel graphics, whereas he always remains a flat sprite. This aesthetic lends a sense of oppression and difference, like it’s the entire world against one person. Not only does he look different, he animates differently from everything that surrounds him also, which reinforces the notion of how alien he is, and to all that around him.

The voxel characters move like typical 3D characters, very smoothly through the world, coming in and out of the plane. Commander Video, on the other hand, is always attached to the foreground and his animations are extremely sharp and have low frame counts; exacerbating the feeling of difference to the planets citizens.  It’s impressive to think that this kind of information can be imbued in such simple means.

Screenshot of Bit.Trip Runner [49].

There is, however, sparing use of the high-res visuals. There are a plethora of particle effects in the game to add emphasis to things like defeating enemies, destroying barriers or earning collectables. The effects happen in a flash so they serve as a nice overlay of sorts to the retro aesthetic instead of as some overwhelming, unnecessary modern addition.

The background has a more substantial use; the spacey skies have lots of bloom and fog, but luckily these thin, opaque effects are quite subtle and blend nicely into the background. They do a good job of offsetting the game’s sharp angles and edges, keeping all the sharpness and focus directed on the playing foreground.

But what detail in the background is what makes up the bulk of storytelling. From each zone Commander Video progresses through, there appears to be an environmentalism message at play (much like in the original Sonic the Hedgehog), with the initial worlds being sparse rocky fields with more mining equipment as the levels progress, until eventually a sterile metropolis emerges. Like everything in the Bit.Trip series, it’s open to interpretation as the developers say.

And by utilizing 8-bit and abstract visuals, the games allow players to find meaning within them, to “fill that in gaps with experiences from your own life, or your imagination.”  [38]

On the subject of the sharp foreground, the ledges and Commander Video himself are all pixel rigid, and it’s this sharp nature which serves as an intrical part of the games feel. The game runs at a blistering pace, and running into obstacles causes you to restart at the very beginning, although fortunately no level last more than a few minutes. Timing jumps could have been much more frustrating as, on account of the sharp nature of most of the level designs, predicting jumps is all the more intuitive. Had the geometry been rounded or more detailed the perception of what is safe to land on and what isn’t could have been painful for a user.

Commander Video’s sliding on the ground animation is also helped by the retro aesthetic. Commencing a slide has no in-between animation; its straight form running to low on the ground. This streamlines player control and is a welcome design choice when the player has very close calls with obstacles.

Just like the Beat entry in the series, Runner makes a big effort when it comes to music. The level designs are also tied to the progression of the music. Whenever the player takes damage and is sent to the beginning, the music also restarts. The geometry of the level and the moves that Commander Video makes does also seem to create the music rather than act alongside it. There are audio peaks whenever the level has higher platforms and every time Video performs a jump or kick, it has a distinct beep to it which fits perfectly into the retro rhythm. The flow of the music seems purposefully designed to imbue players with a sense of timing to help them overcome the tricky challenges they’ll face in the game.

Perfectly running through a level without a single error makes it seem like a professional piece of audio work, which is a delightful touch that really encourages a strong play-through on any given level. And the constant complimentary beeps from actions and addictive chip-tune songs help stave off the monotony of constant retries and an absurd number of jumps. About 70% of the game is spent jumping.

Bit.Trip Runner is a spectacular example of Neo-Retroism, hence why it was chosen for this case study. It definitely has its price tag’s worth of content despite using only two buttons a directional pad.  Every single aspect comprising of its make-up and design comes across as a clever combination of the old and the new. From the animation styles to the character models, music, level design and everything in-between, it’s Neo-Retroism at its finest and is the benchmark for what qualifies as a Neo-Retro game.

3B: Other Mentionable Titles

 

Aside from the games this case study elaborates on, there are a lot more on the horizon which deserve a mention, for which a summary can be provided concerning what it is that makes them Neo-Retro or not.

Lone Survivor is an indie game from a single developer about a character trying to survive in a monster-infested world [33]. Initially, Lone Survivor comes across as unique in how the game presents itself. Every single pixel on-screen is overlaid with a textured pattern which gives the game an uncanny amount of depth, almost as if it’s reaching out for the player.

The ambiguity that pixel art offers is a natural fit for horror games. For instance, Silent Hill 2 fits well an example as it is regularly praised as the high point in both the series and the horror genre itself. The monsters are designed to be as featureless as possible; they don’t have faces and a lot of their noises are muffled, which is a feature that play strongly on the innate human fear of the unknown and the alien, and with pixel art, your mind has to fill in a lot of the gaps because of the lack of detail – an ingenious feature which allows the player to use their own imagination to add to the tension and scare-factor of each encounter.

“Although graphics are rudimentary, the atmosphere is absolutely stunning. Environments look suitably grotesque and the creatures manage to disturb despite — or perhaps thanks to — the lack of detail.” [15]

GameSpy’s review also had similar praise for the retro style [25]:

”And the retro-style graphics actually made the lurching, screaming things that went [sounds of blood spewing] in the night even more frightening, simply because the lack of details made them appear even less human.”

This combined with the probing presentation of the pixels makes lone survivor a brilliant Neo-Retro candidate. The patchwork texture would have been impossible on older systems, as would have the sound, cut-scenes, engine stability and amount of game content, and yet the pixelated design achieves the desired effect.

Aside from digital distribution and browser-based games, retro has always seemed to hold a strong grasp on collectors. To carry on from this, Nightmare Busters is a SNES game which is special for one reason; it’s being developed and published in 2012 [39]. Because of the difficulty in printing SNES carts, the standard retail price is seventy dollars; yet despite this, the developers’ website has managed to completely sell out on pre-orders.

This shows that there are a dedicated number of retro fans who are willing to put down a large amount of money for content on an older console which could easily have been achieved on the younger generation. Nightmare Busters doesn’t have any technology or tricks; it actually is just a SNES game. However, on account of this fact, it doesn’t quite qualify as a Neo-Retro title.

Developers Capy (the people behind Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery) are developing a new game called Super Time Force [54]. On the surface, it appears to be a regular, Contra-inspired scrolling shoot-‘em-up. The art style is distinctly retro, and just like Superbrothers’ trademark style; everything has a stretched verticality to it. The neo part, however, comes into play when a character dies.

The player is taken back to the beginning, and a ghost of their last play-through accompanies them, shooting the way they did before; acting rather like a method of lowering the difficulty. This mechanic can repeated several times, obviously lowering the challenge after each failure. It’s a very inventive and appealing way to add balance to an old-school shooter, a typical example of which would usually be considered quite punishing. It’s a very subtle neo implementation on a visual front, but it’s a gameplay evolution which would never have been possible back in the day (it can up to 500 characters on screen at once).

Dino Run is a free browser based game with Atari-influenced visuals [44]. An incredibly diverse colour palette is used throughout the game, however, which sets it apart from its inspiration, along with many layers of parallax scrolling, an extremely smooth frame rate and plentiful number of objects on screen; hallmarks of a Neo-Retro title. It’s influenced by the Atari aesthetic, not limited by it.

The gameplay involves running from the left to the right as a little dinosaur, hopping over obstacles to outrun an always chasing ‘black doom’. The game can be incredibly atmospheric thanks to its use of context-sensitive music and visuals. Depending on how close the doom is behind your character, the music becomes more dramatic and heavy and the colour washes out from the screen and objects become silhouettes of their former selves. It also features online matchmaking and a persistent levelling system across all modes, something definitely not possible on Atari hardware; a solid Neo-Retro title.

Realm of the Mad God is an interesting amalgamation [47]. Mechanic-wise, it’s a cross between a MMO and a top-down shooter. But what makes it special are the design choices, such as perma-death and a cleverly-implemented in-game store for players to purchase additional item storage and power-ups, not to mention up to fifty player raids with hundreds of projectiles flying everywhere. The perma-death feature could have been a big negative if implemented poorly, but the games design work in its favour; since the gameplay is visceral and immediate being a shooter, player death always feels like the players fault, never the games.

The art style is, of course, suitably retro; the style was a conscious choice because of two-person development and a lack of a traditional art background for the artist. It’s browser-based and a lot of advanced gameplay elements are in play, but the genre mash-up and intricate MMO design are only possible on today’s technology.

Abobo’s Big Adventure is a fascinating homage [5]; it’s basically a parody game where ‘Abobo’, the main protagonist, travels through all the hallmark games of the NES era like Super Mario Bros, Castlevania and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Every era brings a new way of controlling the character, and enemies and their distinct movement styles cross over into genres which they don’t belong; for instance, Goombas in a RPG or Contra goons in a platformer. All these cross-genre shenanigans would never have been possible on NES hardware, making Abobo a clever tribute, a smart modernization of age-old software and mechanics and definitely Neo-Retro.

Fez is another shining example [45]. Had it been released earlier in the academic year a full case study would assuredly have been performed on it.

The game is for intents and purposes a retro-themed platformer. The art style is suitably low-res and the animations are sharp and low frame. The main gimmick, however, is the ability to rotate the world 90 degrees to view and interact with the world differently. It’s hard to describe without seeing it in motion, but it’s apparent that even this early into its release, it’s going to become an indie gem for years to come. It’s lit up the Metacritic charts and its developers are extremely outspoken.

The retro elements include the visuals, gameplay and music. The graphics are definitely not restricted, however; there is a lot of sophisticated panning, rotating and scrolling going on which is only possible thanks to the more powerful hardware. The engine that powers the main mechanic is something to behold, seeing it in motion is fluid and impressive. From a design perspective I have no idea how they managed it, but it gives sprite visuals an exciting new relevance. This combined with the already fantastic art design and attention to detail makes the game aesthetically pleasing to both retro fans and casual players alike.

The music is a chip-tune amalgamation like the Bit.Trip series. It uses retro sounds for the majority of its compositions, but it mixes it up with some interesting treble and bass effects to offset its low fidelity. It’s layered and well-constructed, just like the visuals. As for the gameplay, the regular platforming fare is reinvented and improved thanks to the 3D perspective switching. The complexity and creativity of later levels is something every designer/artist can be inspired by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four: Personal Practise-Based Research

 

4A: Strengthening the Fundamentals

Artists nowadays are trained to work with vector art and HD visuals; it’s become the norm for our industry, and for the people that work within it. So looking into our industries past and learning a new style is a fascinating and rewarding experience – one that could undoubtedly bolster the skills of any artist, inexperienced or veteran, by a substantial amount.

The pixelated style is inherently low detail, something that prevents an artist from relying too much on the smaller details to distinguish things, which can be a habit for some. When conceptualizing designs in sprite form, it is easier now to simply take into account the larger details, lie proportions and colour palettes, which makes the designs that much stronger for being more diverse.

Considering how sprite animations are low frame in most cases, this can help any artist identify the major movements which should definitely be key-framed in order to convey the motion as clearly as possible. In-betweens are a luxury that cannot be afforded while working on a fourth year timeframe, which can lead to difficulties deciding on which poses are the most concise for key-framing and how best to blend them together using subtle tweens instead of simply rotating lots of individual assets.

 

4B: Media Tests

 

The work for objective three is to be a mock-up video as opposed to an example of actual playable software. This is on account of a lack of experience with program or design, which would make such a project unfeasible without the involvement of a group of individuals. Regardless of this fact, every effort has been made to both experiment and innovate on a conceptual level during the development of these demos.

For the Tixel experiment efforts were made to implement a resource management gimmick in order to challenge a user’s expectations for a traditional platformer. In the proposed game, Tixel can remove sections from his body to use projectiles but these also serve as his health so it’s a risk/reward system. Aside from simply hitting enemies, various set pieces involving the alien trees and tricking the enemies were arranged to showcase this game function.

Some of the ‘neo’ features of this experiment are the HD visual touches, the large capacity of assets and the development tools, which means that the engine permitted an excessive amount of complex scrolling, panning and zooming to smoothly accentuate the on-screen action. Something old hardware wouldn’t be capable of without having multiple files of the same asset at different resolutions. It also helped keep up with some of the larger HD effects.

Influence was drawn from both Superbrothers and Bit.Trip for the use of HD assets. Soft bloom lighting is used where it would diffuse hard edges and lower objects capacity as a focal point. On the flipside, prevalent effects like none opaque HD art were used to draw attention to important things, such as the user interface and various in game notifications like the reward text for performing special moves, aiming a projectile or defeating an enemy.

The design of the game by its nature requires a lot of memory. Tixel has fifteen states of health and his appearance changes with each one. That means every single move had to be redrawn to fit alongside his physical appearance. This took up a large amount of memory, and had this been an actual working game, it could have overloaded the current temporary memory and caused performance issues; that is, had this been running on 16-bit hardware which the art style is inspired from. The point of Neo-Retroism is to improve the old using the new. So for the Bit.Cops experiment, it was an adaption of the 80’s ‘buddy cop’ formula with modern day shooter mechanics.

There is a distinct lack of ‘Buddy-Cop’ themed games on the video games market today; the only discernable game that could even be considered similar to such being Army of Two by Electronic Arts. The gratuitous violence and one-liners exhibited in films like Lethal Weapon would be an ideal fit for a co-op shooter, and there is a clear demand for it [7].

On first appearance, it just looks like an average side-scrolling shoot-‘em-up with some depth; rather like Streets of Rage meets Contra. But the neo is in the details. Bullets behave realistically, as does the character to getting shot. There are no bullet sponges or slow moving projectiles. It makes gunfights a lot more dangerous and gives the illusion of fast-paced action that most retro titles were incapable of performing. The environment itself had been designed with modernity in mind as well. Many obstacles can be hidden behind using a proposed cover system – a relatively new, if prevalent, feature in games. Many objects are destructible, however, and will only supply temporary cover and some things can be turned into cover such as knocking a table over.

Danger icons and enemy sniper scopes are also in HD to help highlight potential risk to the user.

The modern visuals were implemented so they wouldn’t break the illusion of a retro title, but could subtly improve the on-screen action; an important factor in features such as game notifications like dialogue and bonuses, which are HD assets on account of how difficult it is to perceive low-res text. Having the notifications in HD also helps draw attention to them.

There are small glimpse of HD assets in the characters and environments, too. Whenever an on-screen character fires a weapon, there is a brief HD flash of light covering the character, but it shows up for a quarter of a second so it’s hard to tell the fidelity of it. Whenever obstacles are destroyed such a wooden crates, there’s a high-res cloud emanating for roughly a second. These small glimpses add a lot of polish that players might not even consciously pick up on, but it makes a sequential scenario look smooth and detailed.

4C: Interviews with Neo-Retro Developers

 

During the research, several informal interviews were conducted with some noteworthy developers in the field of Neo-Retroism. First was Kepa Auara from Rocketcat Games, the developer behind Mage Gauntlet – An IOS RPG with 16-bit inspired visuals (see appendice). Through a combination of the interview and research on the product itself it was found that the game has a lot of smartly implemented modern features like HD effects for spells, 360 degree movement and a large assortment of enemies on screen at once.

The game is also a good fit for IOS because of its simple controls. Being inspired from the 16-bit era means it’s structurally similar and it doesn’t use too many buttons to control, which is of course an ideal fit for the IOS touch screen. This fed into the games overarching design which kept the gameplay flowing smoothly and never overwhelmed the player. The choice to use 16-bit visuals was a conscious choice on the developer’s behalf; the style was determined to have found a good balance between nostalgia and readability.

Screenshot from Mage Gauntlet; a game designed by Rocketcat Games [51].

The next interviewee was Jools Watsham; founder of Renegade Kid and lead developer on Mutant Mudds. The Nintendo E-shop title features ‘12-bit’ visuals as described by the developer and creative use of the 3DS’s 3D visuals (see appendices). Now that the title has been released, it’s received wide critical praise for the use of stereo 3D and parallax scrolling.

Using 3D visuals with parallax scrolling was an ingenious way to improve its visual appeal for contemporary gamers, and it even expands upon the gameplay depth by giving players triple the amount of area to explore.

A photograph of Jools Watsham; founder of Renegade Kid [43].

Ignoring the palette restrictions is also a logical way to improve retro aesthetics, for not having to adhere to a specific palette helps differentiate the games look from its inspirations but not wildly so.

The last interview conducted was with Dark Void Zero’s lead designer Jim Bottemly from Other Ocean Interactive (see appendices).

Unlike Mutant Mudds, Dark Void Zero actually adhered to the colour palette of the NES system. A testament to the talent of their artists, on first viewing DVZ looks like it has zero colour restrictions.

The style also had huge benefits on the development side of the game also, not just the art. As he mentioned in the interview, prototyping was very quick as was level building. This clearly fed into the games environment design.

Screenshot of Dark Void Zero; made by Other Ocean Interactive [50].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

There is the slim fear that Pixel art may not be around forever. Nostalgia will only propel the medium so far and it’s up to the Neo-Retroists to find new ways to present an old style in new ways and innovate atop it.

The plethora of Neo-Retro titles in development shows there is still interest in the style. And with a new hardware cycle on the way, there will be even more fresh hardware for the genre to experiment and grow with.

Neo-Retroism might never be at the forefront of gaming or appeal to certain demographics of gamers, but there will always be a dedicated fan base of game historians, collectors and artists keen to explore our industry’s roots further and keep this eclectic genre alive.

References

 

[1] – 8Bit Related News and Media Site/Ed and Joe Interview [Online] Available from:

http://www.8bittoday.com/articles/32/the-work-of-ed-and-joe

[Accessed 23rd July 2012]

[2] – 8Bit Related News and Media Site/Helm Interview [Online] Available from:

http://www.8bittoday.com/articles/26/the-pixel-art-of-helm

[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[3] – 8Bit Related News and Media Site/Minusbaby Interview [Online] Available from:

http://www.8bittoday.com/articles/13/the-artwork-of-minusbaby

[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[4] – 8Bit Related News and Media Site/Superbrothers Interview [Online] Available from:

http://www.8bittoday.com/articles/21/superbrothers

[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[5] – Abobo’s Big Adventure Website [Online] Available from:

http://abobosbigadventure.com/

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[6] – Andy Schatz, Pocketwatch Games [Online] Available from:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/9251-Retro-Looking-Forward

[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[7] – Article and Thread Discussing Lack of Buddy-Cop Games [Online] Available from:

http://kotaku.com/5908364/where-the-heck-are-all-the-co+op-buddy-cop-video-games

[Accessed 12th May 2012]

[8] – Atari T-Shirt [Online] Available from:

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[Accessed 1st May 2012]

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http://static.gamesradar.com/images/mb/GamesRadar/us/Games/B/Bit%20Trip%20Beat/Bulk%20Viewers/WII/2009-07-08/WII38.online_rev.zi_17736–article_image.jpg

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[10] – Black Lodge, Created by Jak Locke, 2011 [Online] Available from:

http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/inspiration/black-lodge-twin-peaks-game/

[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[11] – Braid Sales Figures [Online] Available from:

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[12] – Classic Gaming Expo. 1999-2012 [Online] Available from:

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[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[13] – Crysis Demonstrated on an Internet Browser [Online] Available from:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jT_BbPTtbN4

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[14] – David Houghton, gamesradar.com 2011 [Online] Available from:

http://www.gamesradar.com/twin-peaks-atari-2600-game-most-lovingly-accurate-adaptation-arkham-asylum-seriously/

[Accessed 12th January 20120]

[15] – Destructoid Review/Jim Sterling [Online] Available from:

http://www.destructoid.com/review-lone-survivor-224872.phtml

[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[16] – Developers Speak Out on Nintendo’s Online Policies [Online] Available from:

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[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[17] – Eric Ruth, Eric Ruth Games. 2008-Present [Online] Available from:

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[18] – Eric Ruth Interview. ‘8 Bit Girl’ Website [Online] Available from:

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[19] – Eric Ruth, ‘Team Fortress 2 Demake’ 2011 [Online] Available from:

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[21] – Fez, Phil Fish. Unreleased [Online] Available from:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHXxUpBJ4gM

[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[22] – Focus Group: Childs Play [Online] Available from:

http://www.1up.com/features/child-play-part-ii?pager.offset=1

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[23] – Game Career Guide, ‘Pushing Pixels’ 2011 [Online] Available from:

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[24] – Gamingdead.com [Online] Available from:

http://gamingdead.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Left_4_Dead_demake.jpg

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[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[26] – Gas 13, Pixel Artist. 1997-2010 [Online] Available from:

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[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[27] – Genre and Hollywood, Steve Neale, Published by Sightlines (1999)

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[30] – John Walker, ‘EA Voted ‘Worst Company in America’’ [Online] Available from:

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[31] – Jonathan Lavigne

Games vol. 106

Page 147

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http://junsenoue.com/forums/index.php?topic=375.0

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[33] – Lone Survivor Website [Online] Available from:

http://www.lonesurvivor.co.uk/

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[34] – Michel Ancel, Ubisoft [Online] Available from:

http://www.gamesradar.com/rayman-origins-beyond-good-evil-and-state-games-industry-interview-michel-ancel/?page=1

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[35] – Markus Persson, Mojang on Minecrafts Visual Style, 2010 [Online] Available from:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/27719/Interview_Markus_Notch_Persson_Talks_Making_Minecraft.php

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[36] – Matt Bozon, Wayforward, 2010 [Online] Available from:

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[38] – Neuse, Gaijin Games [Online] Available from:

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[Accessed 23rd April 2012]

[39] – Nightmare Busters Website [Online] Available from:

http://www.nightmarebusters.com/

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[40] – Nintendo Preparing for Third Party Digital Downloads [Online] Available from:

http://uk.wii.ign.com/articles/122/1224063p1.html

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[41] – Phil Fish, Polytron

Games Magazine vol. 109

Page 80

[42] – Phil Fish, ‘The Making of Fez. The Breaking of Phil Fish’ [Online] Available from:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134934/the_making_of_fez_the_breaking_of_.php?print=1

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[43] – Photograph of Jools Watsham [Online] Available from:

http://media.giantbomb.com/uploads/1/16938/1346254-jools_large.jpg

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[44] – Pixel Jam Website [Online] Available from:

http://www.pixeljam.com/dinorun/

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[45] – Polytron Corporation Website [Online] Available from:

http://polytroncorporation.com/61-2

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[46] – Portland Retro Gaming Expo. 2008-2011 [Online] Available from:

http://retrogamingexpo.com/

[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[47] – Realm of the Mad God Website [Online] Available from:

http://www.realmofthemadgod.com/

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[48] – Replay Expo, 2010-2011 Blackpool [Online] Available from:

http://www.replayexpo.com/index.php

[Accessed 12th January 2012]

[49] – Screenshot of Bit.Trip Runner [Online] Available from:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-l9EPtD21hb0/T2tujNdW2DI/AAAAAAAACyc/DWI2mC5AtRM/s1600/kickin.jpg

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[50] – Screenshot of Dark Void Zero [Online] Available from:

http://www.hookedgamers.com/images/1365/dark_void_zero/header_dark_void_zero.jpg

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[51] – Screenshot of Mage Gauntlet [Online] Available from:

http://www.diygamer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/magegauntlet4.jpg

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[52] – Screenshot of Sonic 4 Episode 1 [Online] Available from:

http://gamrfeed.vgchartz.com/galleries/2010-10-18/sonic-the-hedgehog-4-episode-1/sonic-the-hedgehog-4-episode-1_1287428645.jpg

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[53] – Screenshot of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery [Online] Available from:

http://www.capybaragames.com/sworceryscreens/6.PNG

[Accessed 1st May 2012]

[54] – Super Time Force Website [Online] Available from:

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[55] – Vimeo.2011.stihl Australia [Online] Available from:

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[56] – Youtube2000.Shynola [Online] Available from:

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[57] – Youtube.2010.OneMoreProduction [Online] Available from:

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[58] – Youtube.2011.Tokinsom/Betatronic [Online] Available from:

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5 thoughts on “Dissertation – final publication

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