Designing Within the Limits: Examples From Early Video Games

Design in its many forms is almost always undertaken within limitations. For example, a designer may be limited by their own abilities or the brief provided by a client, or the need to finish work for an agreed deadline. Sometimes the form of the work itself dictates what is achievable: one favourite example of mine would be character design in animation – where economy in lines and colour results in characters that are easier to draw and animate well.

At the extreme end of the scale is the design work put into early video games: back when artists had no more than about 256 separate blocks of light (with a limited palette) in which to communicate everything they could about a character. So, without further a-do, here are some favourites of design economy from the 80s and 90s:

Jumpman and Donkey Kong

Next to Pac Man, Donkey Kong was one of the first Arcade games in which a character was integral to its marketing, a different direction after years of spaceships, tanks and paddles. The game also features one of the first basic narratives in a video game – Donkey Kong stomps his feet to create the first construction-site maze, and Jumpman chases him until defeating him and saving his damsel in distress. Trivia fans: Donkey Kong was originally conceived as a Popeye tie-in.

Of course, Donkey Kong isn’t just about a rampaging ape: Nintendo also created ‘Jumpman’, the barrel-jumping carpenter. Even in 1981, the fundamental elements of the character we now know as Mario are present: the moustache, the red and blue colour-scheme, the cap and even the single golden pixel representing a button on his dungarees. Interestingly, the character was sketched first on paper, smoother lines translated into the jagged language of a 16x 16 sprite. Mario’s trademark moustache is often described as a compromise for being unable to give such a small image a mouth. Perhaps most remarkably, Jumpman’s wide shape, flatter head and the flick of his mullet do make for a character that is visually distinct from the “real” Mario.

A shaded version of the Donkey Kong design appears in this early art, suggesting that Nintendo may have been hoping to create a more complex sprite than that they ended up with. Nevertheless The Donkey Kong sprite is several times larger than that for Jumpman, allowing for a mouth (and an annoying smirk that challenges you to insert more coins when you fail).

Original Donkey Kong Illustrations from the Nintendo wikia

Designed For Great Things – Sonic the Hedgehog

In many ways, Nintendo’s Mario was a happy accident: an enduring mascot who grew out of a blank slate, beloved because of the quality of the games he appeared in rather than because the design itself. Whilst no game fan would play down the quality of the games that Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog appeared in, it’s undeniable that the character was a planned success, a distinct rival that would claim much need market share for SEGA globally.

Sonic the Hedgehog originally came out of a company competition to create a mascot character to rival Mario.  Naoto Ohshima designed his “Mr Needlemouse” to appeal to American culture, hence the red white and blue colour-scheme (though SEGA’s corporate colours doubtlessly influenced the design too). From the earliest stages of design, Sonic was a strange approximation of a Hedgehog, drawn with few spines for ease of realisation in a low resolution sprite. Since the early design pictured above, Sonic has lost a superfluous second spine on his head, and his spines have been made more rigid, giving them a tougher ‘buzz-saw’-like quality.

Oddly enough, the mascot competition also threw up Sonic’s eventual nemesis, Doctor Eggman (or Dr Robotnik, to everyone over the age of 18). As you can see from the original concept image above, this character was originally a lot less malevolent – in fact, he’s wearing pyjamas. Whilst clothes can apparently turn a man into either a sleepy Theodore Roosevelt or a mad scientist with a fleet of bunny powered machines, the main change in the character’s demeanour was achieved by giving him a sinister, massive pixelated grin.

It’s interesting to note that the sprites in Sonic the Hedgehog are that bit larger than the others on this page (compare the pixel for pixel representations of the original sprites with other characters on this page). This is yet another sign that instilling the character’s visuals in the minds of early 90s youth was most important of all.

Original Sonic the Hedgehog concept images from the character pages of Sonic Retro.

Link’s Awakening

Like Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda was mostly constructed on paper before being programmed (Nintendo recently released documents showing dungeons and maps created on graph paper). A more off the cuff approach would have been time consuming on the computers of the day, and the Legend of Zelda ended up as one of the largest games of its time (necessitating a new battery save feature).

The design of the hero, Link was kept simple, but even with the bounds of the sprite-work he remained distinct. A floppy pointy hat, elongated nose and ears, and a brown / lime green colour keep the character as distinct as possible in a 16 by 16 space. Note: that it is not clear whether this ‘concept image’ was made into the sprite or whether it’s a model sheet extrapolated from the original sprite for promotional materials. But then, Link’s design is interesting in how it has since evolved in separate, sometimes simultaneous directions, with all the fundamental features of the character intact.

Original Zelda concept image from Zelda Universe.

The Amazing Transferable Skills of Akira Toriyama

Akira Toriyama is most familiar outside of gaming circles as the manga artist behind Dragon Ball, but he has also provided concept artwork for the characters in every Dragon Quest role-playing game. The first four were all NES titles, and replication of his designs was rather limited by the need to make a game with a varied cast have distinct, readable characters (the NES had only 56 useful colours).

A jump to the SNES meant it was a lot easier to accommodate larger, more colourful sprites. However, Toriyama’s background in Manga and anime character design were invaluable. The purple cape and white robes of Dragon Quest V’s hero are immediately readable on the corresponding character, despite the relatively small size of the sprite (in fact, this is a design that could be reduced even further in size and still be identifiable).

Toriyama also worked on Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, considered by many to be one of the most technologically advanced games on the system. At the very least, its character sprites were bigger than those in most RPGs, and they even aspired to have something approaching the proportions of the characters in the original art. With Toriyama’s bold colours and selective details (the scarf particularly), the sprite above is as good an interpretation of the art as is really possible at such a resolution.

Dragon Quest V Hero artwork and Sprite from the Dragon Quest Wiki. Chrono Trigger artwork from RPG Planet

Yoshitaka Amano in the Shadows of Final Fantasy

Yoshitaka Amano’s character artworks are treasured among fans of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series, but they also represent a polar opposite approach to video game concept art when compared with Toriyama’s work.

In the NES days, Amano’s art was valued but ultimately ignored. The art above depicts the ‘Warrior of Light’, a character who has since been realised in the Dissidia fighting games spin-off series. He supposedly corresponds with the Warrior player class in the first Final Fantasy, but even if it were possible to put his design into the game, they clearly haven’t.

The SNES title, Final Fantasy IV offered up greater colour detail, but the sprites weren’t actually that much larger. It was possible to give supporting character Kain an interpretation of the intricate Dragon-helmet in Amano’s artwork, but the palette of the sprite bears no resemblance to his original vision (this is perhaps a simple need to have the character stand out on any of the game’s backgrounds).

The last SNES Final Fantasy (VI) was a forty-odd hour experience with a controllable cast of fourteen characters (and plenty of enemies and other non-player characters), so the need for differentiation was there. Terra (above) was given green hair, perhaps to differentiate her from Celes. Aside from the use of red in her sprite, all other cues were discarded (heck, her chest even seems to have grown in the sprite).

However, despite the fact that very few of Amano’s visual ideas were incorporated into the game, the value of having such an artist onboard is difficult to measure in simple terms. As art intended to inspire the programmers and artists working direct on the game, this art doubtlessly worked to make Final Fantasy a more inventive series, as well as inspiring character personalities and plot points.

Amano art from the Final Fantasy Wiki. Sprites in the Article were taken from