Feb 23, 2009

Spectrum of Beauty (a tiny digital exhibition)

Anyone interested in game design will tell you that graphics and sound should be complimentary to the way a game plays. That gameplay comes first. That, despite the enduring success of Dragon's Lair, the essence of gaming somehow lies somewhere beyond the realm of the visual arts. That there is to it more than mere eye candy, impressive gfx or a thundering soundtrack.

These people would of course be right. Well, mostly really.

On the other hand, the vast majority of game creators, and that would include both graphics specialists and any kind of visual artist working on games, would fail to see that the visual quality of a game, its beauty, is actually platform and technology independent. They can't, you see, seem to grasp the simple idea that hardware imposed limitations can actually inspire artistic innovation and show off ones talent, and keep asking for more power to express themselves. They stubbornly ignore the fact that the abstract beauty of Kandinsky is far more interesting than the latest photorealistic 3D depiction of the Death Star and keep striving for realism; not art.

To actually illustrate the point that visually beautiful games can be created on the humblest of platforms, I've decided to present you with some glorious screens the ZX Spectrum managed to display, using nothing more than its meager (and quite frankly odd) 15 colours on its tiny 256 x 192 display, while simultaneously battling with the computer's inherent colour clash problems. And no, I'm not referring to anything technically impressive the Speccy demoscene has managed to force out of the hardware.

(click on the following screenshots to see them properly)

Deus Ex MachinaAutomata, Deus Ex Machina, 1984, WoS

MugsyRussell Comte, Mugsy, 1984, WoS

Mugsy's RevengeThe Pixel Brothers, Russel Comte, David O'Callaghan & Mike Robinson, Mugsy's Revenge, 1984, WoS

AmauroteSte Pickford, Amaurote, 1987, WoS

Mike Robinson, Terrormolinos, 1985, WoS

The Great EscapeDenton Designs, The Great Escape, 1986, WoS

3D Ant AttackSandy White, Ant Attack, 1983, WoS

Back to SkoolMicrosphere, Back to Skool, 1985, WoS

Now, I could of course go on and show you a dozen other screens showcasing a variety of Speccy-centered art styles, rave about Batman or link to some rather impressive videos, but, well, I won't do that. I'll just hope you understood what I meant to say and that the Artful Gamer soon gets his hands on one of Sinclair's beautiful machines in order to comprehensively tackle the subject.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:


  1. Hah, first comment! :)

    And I think your actual point is true too, although if taken to excess you'd just be a reactionary wee gnome, as you'd expect of this least beloved of all denizens of the realms of fantasy and tacky gardens. ;)

  2. Quite impressive lineup.. The Batman game looked damn spiffy too!!

  3. Me, reactionary? Never! I'm progres incarnated in a garden ornament, I am. And I moderately drink too oh JM, you infidel.

    Absolutely Deitrix. And you should see some of these beauties moving on a proper TV. Ahhh, glorious.

  4. Ah, that reminds me the bloody brilliant Sherlock Holmes Text-Adventure game..and the nice fluffy (not really made of fluff) buttons of the spectrum..

  5. "progres incarnated in a garden ornament"
    You should use that as a slogan! ;)

  6. Absolutely so Dualnames. Sherlock Holmes and a score of other adventures -Hobbit, for one- sported some fantastic stylized graphics. And the Spectrum + keys are made out of (almost) proper plastic too.

    LOL @ JMcL63!

  7. This is the most Correct blog post I've seen in a long time. :)

    It's very very true that the limited capabilities of the 8-bit machines (the speccy in particular) lead to some genuinely brilliant graphics compositions which still manage to look more impressive than any amount of 16million colour scanned art as used in modern games.

    I think simliar things can be said of some of the graphics on the 16-bit machines; I'm thinking in particular of some of the stunning hand-drawn bitmap art you got in some games as well as stuff like the Bitmap Brothers' titles where they managed to do incredible things with 16 colours (even if the games weren't always that good; yes, 'Magic Pockets', I'm looking at you).

  8. Call me a philistine, but the limited-colour aesthetic of that era has always been a bit beyond my appreciation. :-P

  9. Correct, eh? Well, glad we agree then dear Matty. And I must add that there are some pretty fantastic EGA pieces of art too. Not as impressive as anything the Bitmaps did on home computers mind, but impressive nonetheless.

    Oh, and Pacian you philistine!

  10. You're absolutely right about the computer acting as a technical constraint that enables human creativity.

    Eric Chahi (Another World) said something really important in an interview with eurogamer some time ago.

    Eurogamer: Do you think Another World could ever be brought to life in 3D?

    Eric Chahi: Yes it is possible to do it in 3D. The important point is to use the flaw of media to express something with it, to use it as a medium. As example, polygons are angular; I incorporate it in the style of Another World. Always better suggest the reality than copying it.

    Beautiful! That's what the Speccy artists do, and I think a lot of the Sierra On-Line artists did with hand-painted EGA screens, before they got lazy and scanned their art to VGA.

    Can't. Wait. To. Buy. A. 128k.

  11. There was an interesting article on Kotaku today that talked about a fictional but fully working 8-bit game that was made for the movie The Wrestler (http://kotaku.com/5158834/the-making-of-wrestle-jam-the-wrestlers-unsung-hero?skyline=true&s=x).

    The creators said the biggest challenge they faced was creating character sprite designs for 8-bit hardware with today's technology. I just found it funny that today's developers found it harder to develop a working game on hardware that was over 20 years-old (in this case it was a NES) than on today's technologically impressive (and often very complex) hardware.

    Anyway, it still turned out to be beautiful! I actually want to own a copy, if only for the novelty value.

    By the way, this is unrelated but I was wondering why your posts aren't dated? Unless I'm missing it somewhere.

  12. Ansolutely understandable Chris. I couldn't wait for my Spectrum either. So beautiful little machine's that they are. Oh, and glad we agree too. Apparently, besides being impressively creative, Mr. Chahi is eloquent and wise too. Suggestion is so much more effective than detailed depiction.

    Even CGA graphics can be beautiful, mind...

    Hey Tom. How are things mate? Well, they are fine, surely. As for the Wrestles, that was a great read and a very intriguing game too. Its creators made quite a point too.

    Post dating hasn't been implemented in the template I'm using, but when I find the time I'll try adding it myself.

  13. Well, things are ok I guess, they weren't though. I've been quiet because my mum was ill and recently passed away, but I need to get back into blogging sometime as I enjoy it and it keeps my mind off things :-)

    Ok, cheers Gnome. I was just curious.

    Sigh, Google sometimes makes these word verification things impossible to read properly!

  14. That's terrible Tom. Can't say much more. My condolences and stay strong mate. Blogging and being as creative as possible always helps, mind. Anyway. Welcome back!

  15. Thanks mate :-)

    I totally agree. In fact It has actually made me determined to be more creative than ever. I may actually get on to writing that novel I've been talking about writing for years!

  16. All this also reminded me the very nice games I once played..Bored of the Rings is a really cool, Eric the Unready, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Gods(Spectrum version), Head over Heels(Best Game of All Time According to my opinion), which makes me beg for an article for Head over Heels some time in the future.

  17. Hey, never knew there was a Spectrum version of Gods... As for Eric the Unready, while I 've heard it's a fantastic game -possibly better than the the Sorcerer series- haven't played it yet.

    Oh, and Dualnames mate, if you search this very blog you will find a little something regarding Head over Heels. I do promise to eventually thoroughly cover the subject though.

  18. Back to school is really quite one of my favorite games of all time, there was a remake called Klass of 99, which I suggest you all download and play

  19. Ah, yes, dear Dualnames. Klass of '99 was brilliant and sported some excellent pixel art. There's a little related something to be found in the latest Retro Remakes compo, you know.