Retro Graphics And Modern Pixel Density


Pier Solar came out on Steam not too long ago with a significant visual upgrade, and while playing the demo I saw it to be a really good example of a game that pulls off the retro visual style without looking like crap on modern displays.

Pier Solar actually originally came out a few years ago as a SEGA Genesis game — a legit new game that was built around the parameters of the Genesis and even printed on Genesis cartridges. That’s one level of retroism most indie developers simply don’t attempt. Instead we get games with sprites that look pixelated but don’t really resemble what actual NES games looked like, confusing our memories of them. Pier Solar‘s HD upgrade however has made me conscious of games that build themselves too much around old parameters considering the hardware they’ll be played on.

Pier Solar has three visual modes: the original 16-bit Genesis graphics, the HD graphics, and HD+ which is just the same thing but with that pixel smoothening algorithm I hate. The 16-bit style might work if you’re playing the original version on a Genesis and that Genesis is hooked up to a CRT. On a 1080p TV though everything looks somewhat muddy. I’m not talking about how actual standard definition games look stretched on modern TVs though. I’m talking about what happens when games designed for low pixel density reveal massive, chunky pixels on 1080p displays, even when natively rendered at 1080p. That’s what PIer Solar’s 16-bit mode looks like, along with some other games.

Another perfect example is Environmental Station Alpha which I mentioned not too long ago. The alpha demo’s natural rendering resolution is extremely low — possibly Game Boy resolution, and while it scales up well the low pixel density results in sprites made of small numbers of huge pixels. If you can, go back and look at an old Game Boy screen and notice how many pixels per inch you see, then compare that with your latest flatscreen TV or computer monitor. It’s why true-resolution screenshots of old games look so much smaller than how you remember them. What I don’t get is, if you’re never going to play these new games on screens that small, why optimize them that way?

Pier Solar’s HD mode (the default) on the other hand, maintains a lot of the pixelated sprites but puts them in environments with much cleaner and more detailed art assets. They’re still pixelated, but only slightly. It also still looks like the art of an old school Japanese RPG, following the same artistic rules, just with more detail. It looks like a retro-style game that was actually made with 1080p displays in mind.

Quite a few indie games manage to do this. The most striking examples I’ve seen come from art director Paul Robertson, most famously in the Scott Pilgrim game but also notably in Mercenary Kings. Those games are in with the retro look, but you can tell that from the beginning the developers knew you’d be playing them on big screen TVs, thus they make full use of modern levels of screen real estate. The sprites in those games have a level of detail significantly higher than what would be possible most of the time on actual old consoles.

The ultimate example of this would probably be the recent crop of arcade and console fighting games, most famously the last couple main King of Fighters games, but also including Persona 4 ArenaBlazBlue, and Under Night In-Birth. These games aren’t even trying to be retro. They’re just continuing what Japanese fighting games have always done, but on modern hardware optimized around modern rendering resolutions. These are some of the only games that use 2D sprites (well, not all of them are completely 2D) without intentionally trying to be retro. The result is a sort of next-gen pixelated art style which is what I like so much about these games.

As for why so many games with pixel visuals don’t seem to fully take modern resolutions and pixel density into account, it’s easy to point to budgets. The main reason so many games use retro graphics in the first place is it’s cheap. Higher detail sprite art probably costs more, but how much more is unclear. It’s not like Pier Solar had a massive budget, though the PC release did come after the developer had probably sold a number of Genesis copies. Mercenary Kings is also hardly a AAA game.

I think a main reason however is many indie developers just haven’t thought to apply retro graphics styles to better utilize larger screens. Most seem to be producing what’s cheapest or what most resembles what they remember.


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