Faux 8-bit

I found this homage to Hayao Miyazaki in 8-bit:

Hayao Miyazaki Tribute in 8-bit from whoispablo on Vimeo.

Liking both things, I went to have a look, only to be a tad disappointed. That, friends, is as 8-bit as I am newschool. Since I like things to be correct and proper, let's explain a few things about 8-bit aesthetics and why 99% of the "retro/8-bit looking" material we hear about would be just plain impossible in 8-bit lands.

The number of colours is limited in true 8-bit graphics.

A drawing does not instantly become "8-bit" by the sole virtue of being based on blocky graphics.

Due to technical restrictions, 8-bit graphic artists had also a very limited amount of colours that they could use simultaneously on the screen, so they came up with elaborate manual dithering techniques to make it look as if they had more colours. But at the end of the day, the maximum number of different simultaneous colours was pretty small.

These restrictions vary between systems, and each system induced its own little type of tricks that artists used on those platforms. For example, the attribute clashing in Spectrum systems brought artists to think their designs in a way that would either avoid those secondary effects, or go "full monochrome" so you wouldn't notice the clashes.

Another example: in Commodore 64 systems, the mode which allowed more simultaneous colours also had half the horizontal resolution, so graphics running in that mode had "fat" pixels. In addition, the palette is fixed to 16 specific colours which cannot be changed by the developer, so with these two hints it's somewhat easy to "guess" when a screenshot is from a C64. For example, see these examples of recent C64 artwork, featuring double width mode, the limited colour palette, and hand-drawn dithered gradients:


There's only one word for contemporary "blocky" graphics with smooth gradients and an abundance of colours: FAKE.

The maximum number of moving elements on the screen is not infinite

Most of the "8-bit" copycats often sport lots of either a) moving elements on the screen or b) too big moving elements. This was also impossible to have because the maximum number of sprites moving at the same time was limited due to hardware restrictions, and they would also be limited in size. For example, even using "tricks" the maximum number of sprites in a C64 would be 20 and of 24x21 pixels. Certainly not full screen transitions, unless they were using a palette shift, and then the sort of transitions would be way more limited.

Also, more moving element on the screen almost always meant reduced framerates. My most vivid memory of this and a perfect example is playing shoot-em-up games on NES systems: when enemies start spawning more particles to attack you, the game comes to a crawl unless you start destroying the particles really soon. And you'd better do, for the sake of keeping the game usable and responsible! In contrast, the copycats always have smooth and consistent framerates, which just doesn't work.

Pixels are always orthogonal to the screen

When sprites rotate in true 8-bit systems, the blocky pixels keep to a 90 degree angle with the screen--they don't rotate along! In the video above, the arms for the walking character at 00:13 rotate but the pixels rotate around the shoulder axis too--WRONG! In a true 8-bit game, the pixels would be changing accordingly to represent the rotation, and they definitely would always keep to the 90 degrees angle.

No blur!

Everything is blocky in 8-bit systems. There are no smooth background layers as in the video above.

Spot those fakers!

Now you should be equipped to detect what faux 8-bit looks like! I certainly don't want to prevent anyone from working in whatever style they want to work on, but please don't call it "8-bit", because it's not (specially not if you are rendering it with Cinema 4D or After Effects. Jeez, you should be ashamed). Call it retro inspired, or something of that sort, and I won't be calling you out :-P