Could a Throwback to 2D Retro Graphics Rejuvenate the Games Industry?
I’ve always been fascinated by animation and, in turn, sprite based graphics in video games. The concept of taking hand drawn characters and translating them into beautifully animated characters in a game was literally mind blowing to me when I was a kid, and still is to this day. Games such as pretty much all of Capcom’s and SNK’s 2D Fighters (along with the Metal Slug series) and many of Wayforward’s platformers and Sierra’s old point and click adventures feature gorgeous, handcrafted artwork, and half the fun is taking in just how much artistic detail went in to making the final product. In recent times, however, developers have taken a liking to utilizing the full potential of the increasingly advanced hardware that they work with. More often than not, this means making as much of a cinematic, photo-realistic product as possible. Some recent examples that come to mind are the Batman Arkham series, Uncharted (most notably 4), The Witcher III and Grand Theft Auto V. Pushing hardware limits are what seems to be at the forefront of marketing and development, even more so when it comes to pushing AAA products to potential consumers, but are an astronomical polygon count and a plethora of impressive shaders really all that matters when it comes to making a visually impressive game?
Take the recent fan-games Pokemon Uranium and the Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R for short) for example. Those games were made in an attempt to capture the feel of the original Gameboy Advance and Super Nintendo games the respective series’ titles were on. Pokemon Uranium was downloaded 1.5 million times and AM2R presumably around the same number based on its peer reception (I couldn’t seem to find official numbers for whatever reason). It could be argued that people are simply being driven towards these titles by nostalgia, and I can’t deny that taking off the rose colored glasses is difficult when it comes to reminiscing about the charm of hand crated sprites, but take a closer look. These two games are far from simple copy and paste jobs. Pokemon Uranium has all-new, original Pokemon to catch, including a new type that keeps with the theme of the name. AM2R uses assets from Super Metroid and Zero Mission, but the developer and his team also customized the engine and added to the admittedly barebones story that the original Metroid II had at the time.
Looking at things from the Sega side of the spectrum, the hype surrounding Sonic Mania is very real, and is as close to a classic 16-bit title in the Sonic franchise that hasn’t been seen in a very long while, Sonic Cycle be damned. It’s also being developed primarily by well-regarded fans of the classic Sonic games with Sega’s blessing and backing. Freedom Planet, the recently released Sonic styled platformer was also warmly received and has a sizeable fan following of its own. Fans are also clamoring for a followup to the amazing brawler Streets of Rage. While it’s not exactly a large sample size, looking at the reception to these retro styled Sega and Nintendo games on their own shows that the demand is there for taking a series back to its roots in a retro styled return to form. Of course, working in 2D is not without its drawbacks.
Technology has come a long way since the 80’s and 90’s, and while there are engines that are easy to learn and use geared towards 2D games such as LibGDX, Godot, and GameMaker: Studio (the latter of which was used for AM2R), the brunt of 2D work comes from crafting the actual assets themselves. While 3D game engines can have an involved modelling process initially, the actual animation process becomes far more streamlined once the asset has a skeleton established and features like motion capture of the face and body are utilized. Textures and other features further streamline the process when shaders are applied. The real limit here is the cost of the programs and hardware involved with rendering and animating these characters and assets.
In 2D’s case, though, you’re looking at a far more laborious endeavor. Each character and every frame has to be drawn by hand. You have a good eye to keep everything in scale, and make everything move naturally, yet still look appealing to the viewer. It takes a potentially far deeper understanding of how things work than working with 3D demands. With a character moving at a film standard 24 frames per second, you’re talking a lot of individual drawings, which translates into a tremendous amount of work. For some companies, the choice of 3D almost seems like a given considering the manpower demands that working with 2D entails, especially considering some 2D games’ limited budgets. While there’s certainly no denying that animating by hand can be exhausting, if you look at the examples of recent games listed above, and even outside of games in the form of animated cartoons and films, the passion people have for making and enjoying handcrafted art is definitely still there. As long as that passion is there, developers and publishers would be hard pressed to ignore the possibility that some of the long lived classics making a return to their 2D roots would be a bad idea. In fact, it could be quite a lucrative endeavor to appeal to the audience yearning for more of gaming’s earlier years with updated visual flair.
What do you think fellow readers? Would you like to see the big three make a stride to produce 2D games based around your favorite characters and franchises? Do you think that allocating resources towards these products is financially and logistically feasible? Do you prefer 3D over 2D anyways? Is looking to the past the wrong way to go for new games? Sound off in the comments below and let us know what you think!