Pixel Art, Game Design, Legos, and more

Even before we owned a computer or game console, Steve and I were designing games. All the way back in 1978 I was borrowing graph paper from my dad and designing pixel art of space ships, baseball games, and what not. Computer graphics design was a brand new field, and the rudimentary nature of the early game visuals made designing games accessible to even an 8 year old kid. I didn’t need a computer to envision the games I wanted to make (and wouldn’t have my own for 5 years), and even if I did have one back then, I would probably have been very disappointed in resolution and lack of colors on the Apple I and TRS80. All I needed was an idea, some colored pencils and a pad of excess paper that my dad brought home from Hughes Aircraft. I had absolutely no idea what the resolution was of the machines of  the time, but that didn’t matter. I would spend every possible minute at grocery stores, pizza places, and even 7-11s, playing and watching my favorite games of the day – Asteroids, Space Invaders, Star Castle, Galaxian, and Wizard of War. I would then go home and take the colored pencils and graph out what my games would be like, envisioning worlds different from my own, baseball stadiums, soccer fields, breakout clones, driving games, and especially Star Wars games. Electronic Games magazine fueled this even further. I think Steve and I bought every issue until its untimely demise in 1983. We begged and borrowed to buy and pour over every issue more than a year before we even had a 2600 console of our own. The images and art in this magazine just added kerosene to the game design fire in the bellies of two young video game mad young boys.

Before video games, the most creative way for kids of the 70’s to imagine space worlds and imaginary places was with Legos. The Lego sets of yesteryear were far different than the ones of today. We were forced to be creative and imagine what a boat or a plane would look like if it was built almost completely with 2×4 bricks and maybe (maybe!) a special piece that took the shape of a windshield or propeller. That is very different from today where the boat set of Legos comes with a giant hollow boat piece and the child basically adds accessories to the it (not unlike a barbie doll). The similarities to pixel art and basic Lego bricks are numerous, with the rigid grid of brick placements, and the limited color pallet to choose from, Legos basically were a proving ground for our later game design and development.

One of the reasons I like designing 8 and 16 bit style games now is that pixel art can be used to create very clean looking, effective worlds, players, enemies, etc. I almost feel like one of the earliest game developers who had to be the game designer, programmer, artist, and sound engineer all in one. Flash (and other high level languages), along with Photoshop, Acid, and other modern tools give the retro programmers of today high powered tools to quickly replicate what took computer science wizards and MIT versed hackers years to perfect at Atari and Apple.

When I was 10, our school was one of the first to obtain some Apple II computers. I spent many hours banging out simple game graphics, and designing elaborate worlds on graph paper, and then hunting and pecking my way through Apple basic’s plot commands. This game design fire was turbo fueled when when Steve and I received our Holy Grail Atari 800 in 1982 and all the way through obtaining the Atari ST, a 386DX40, and into modern PC times with animated gifs and what not for web sites. Pixel art (even though I still am not very good at it) is a skill that I have always needed, have always tried, and have always been kind of terrible at. I remember wanting to make games so terribly that Steve and I asked our mom to drive to HW Computers in Redondo Beach just to look at the Basic Language cartridge for the 2600. The was the first time we had seen an Atari 800 computer. The store employee basically warded us away from the 2600 basic cart and told us what we WANTED was the an Atari Computer. We grabbed a store software catalog, took one look at the 800 versions of Pacman, Missile Command, Breakout and other games, and we were reeled in hook line and sinker. It would still be a couple years before our family could afford the roughly $800 in extra 1970’s cash ($2500 now) that it cost to obtain this heavenly machine. One of the first games I played on that wondrous Southern California Christmas morning was K-razy shootout. That game and similar games of its ilk are the major inspiration for the current game I am working on called “Retro Goes Berserk”, and of course pixel art will play a major role in the design of the game.

On the Atari 800 we redefined the character set in the larger text mode and made simple grid based games and shooters in basic. We used 8 bit character sets to design Price is Right, and sentence generator games. We sought out game design books, and software that could be used to make even the simplest of games. I remember painstakingly typing in Antic and Analog game program listings and pouring over any and all game and graphics related basic code in Compute! and similar magazines. Unlike today, where every borders has a huge selection of computer books and a good smattering of game programming books, in 1982, you were lucky to find a Microsoft Flight Simulator flying manual if anything at all. Game programming was a series of tricks that only an elite few knew of, and even fewer mastered.

On the Atari ST we dove into GFA basic, DEgas Elite and STOS to plan out adventure, Yahtzee, and space shooter games. The PC brought us into the real work world where programming was not for fun, but for business applications. But Borland C++ allowed us enough power and to knock out some DOS games and begin the journey to the World Wide Web that has taken us up to this point. There were many breaks in game design time during all of these periods. School, girls, sports, work and all manner of other distractions have played a part in my never being satisfied with the catalog of games I have completed when compared to the wealth of ideas that have been left on the table. There were even years when I didn’t play any games at all much less have time to build any of my own. The time has finally come to put all of these ideas from the past 29 years to good use.

Over the last few days I have been working of some in game graphics for Retro Goes Berserk. I have blown them up slightly here so you can see the design a little better.

Here are the frames from the Hero of the game.

He is pretty basic looking. The first three frames create the illusion of a simple walking animation, while the final 4 create an even simpler up and down walking animation. I decided that all characters in the game would face forward when walking down the screen and face backward when going up the screen.

Here are the frames for the robots in the game.

This is the robot that you will fight in the game. The same up and down, left and right idea that applies to the hero, also applies to the robot. The one change is that the robot is on a tank-like track (he doesn’t have legs to walk on). I needed to create three frames for the tank track movement in each direction so when it plays back it will look at least a little like the tracks are moving forward.

I have also just begun preliminary graphics for the other elements of the game: Health packs, ammo clips, a turret that spins, follows the Hero and fires are him, and the pieces of the reactor that the Hero is trying to find to piece together the bomb to destroy the fortress.

The final picture is a blown up copy of the three types of guns the player will use in the game.

These all look pretty simple and rudimentary, but for someone with limited design / art skills (like me), they took a little time. The reactor was the easiest (as you can tell). It will be broken up into 4 pieces and scattered around the fortress for the hero to find.

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