Starting Screen: Sprite-Based Game Art Is Far from Overdone

Indie developers love sprites, but each studio has a unique thumbprint that keeps the retro style fresh. Plus: Fate of the Furious wins the box office, there's a cat in Kowloon Walled City, and C-C-Chip 'n Dale's music rocks.

[Leans on horn, unrolls window, and lets thumping music spill out onto the street] Hey everyone! I'm doing Starting Screen for Kat this week! Let's all pile in and have a good time.

I spent an enjoyable chunk of my weekend playing Cosmic Star Heroine, a retro-style RPG from Zeboyd Games. It's been described as a cross between Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star, and honestly, that's a good analogy. Kat and I will surely talk about the game's general strengths on Axe of the Blood God, but I wanted to spare a word for its sprite-based graphics. They look good. Very good.

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Since the rise of the indie scene, there's been some pushback against the kind of retro visuals you see in games like Cosmic Star Heroine. "Overdone" is a word that gets tossed out a lot. "Lazy" is another. It's true many independent games go the 2D route, and it's likewise true said 2D games typically fall back on sprite-based graphics that recall 8- and- 16-bit games from the '80s and '90s. But are developers really taking the "easy way out" by utilizing sprites instead of, say, polygons?

Nay, I say. Absolutely not. First and foremost, let's dispel the myth that making a game out of sprites is somehow "easier" than making a game out of polygons. Sprite artists don't fiddle with MS Paint for a few hours and call it a day. On the contrary, I look back at a game like Suikoden II and weep inwardly for how much time its animators must've spent on unique animations that you never see more than once, e.g. the game's heroes playing hopscotch as children.

Second, I personally find it difficult to get "bored" of sprite art. There are so many styles, so many unique artistic takes. Even the original NES's library exuded individuality from game to game: Look at the clean, cartoony designs Capcom used in the Mega Man games versus the bright, expertly blurred tile sets Konami used to add texture and detail to its Castlevania games.

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A game shouldn't live or die by its graphics, but visual style counts for a lot. I appreciate the hard work Zeboyd put into every frame of Cosmic Star Heroine, and those lovely sprites make me excited to get further in the game.

By the way: Check out the Zeboyd blog for a breakdown of the "how" and "why" behind the studio's sprite art, as well as an explanation on how its style has evolved across several games.

Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week

Obsidian had a bit of a rough ride in 2010. They released two RPGs that year—Alpha Protocol and Fallout New Vegas—both of which struggled for different reasons. Alpha Protocol in particular was panned for being even jankier than Mass Effect, which it sought to emulate.

Like Mass Effect (and Fallout New Vegas), Alpha Protocol made up for its poor gunplay with outstanding writing and a surfeit of narrative choices. Not that the action was all bad—playing as spy Michael Thorton, Alpha Protocol had decent sneaking mechanics. You could also pick up skills that would improve his proficiency in everything from martial arts (JUDO CHOP) to gadgets, making him a regular James Bond.

In recent years, Alpha Protocol has undergone a bit of a rehabilitation, its Steam review score currently sitting at a very positive 9 out of 10. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but if you love Obsidian, then this is a good RPG to check out.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers' Zone J

The Disney Afternoon Collection comes out tomorrow! Are the games contained within as good as you remember? Find out when my review goes up. I think it's OK to say the games' music is still pretty great, though. In fact, I thought I'd highlight an overlooked piece from the collection: Zone J from Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers.

When we talk about NES Disney music, Ducktales' Moon music is our go-to tune. That's fine; it's great. But I love how imposing the music is for Chip 'n Dale's final level. You only hear it once in the game, which makes it even more special.

It's fitting. I mean, Fat Cat isn't exactly the most frightening villain in the history of cartoon bad guys, but he's not the kind of kitty you'd want to mess with. To this day, I still remember him telling the eponymous Rescue Rangers "I don't know who you are, and I don't care. But when you cross Fat Cat, you go splat!" before a henchman hurled them off a building.

No gloating. No speeches. Just a quick, clean disposal of irritating rodents. Fat Cat gets stuff done.

Mike's Media Minute

Fate of the Furious closed this box office weekend with a worldwide take of $532 million. This give the film the all-time largest debut weekend of any film ever, both in worldwide and international numbers. The previous record was $529 million, which was established by Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

We live in a world where the Fast and Furious franchise firmly sits alongside the majors: Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, Transformers, and Harry Potter.

How did we get to this point? The first film was a B-grade version of Point Break based around street racing. It wasn't until the fifth entry that the franchise hit on something that could be considered a strong concept. A yet, here we are, with the eighth film breaking records and a ninth film already on the way to finish everything up. I got nothing witty to say.

Caty's AltGame Corner

Kowloon Walled City almost seems like a mythical place, considering how many times it’s been replicated as a setting for fiction. Whether it’s the eerie Kowloon’s Gate or even a co-opting of its imagery in Dredd, Kowloon Walled City is an unknowable entity today, given that it was demolished in the early 1990s.

The brief Bitsy-constructed game A Cat in the Walled Kowloon reimagines the historical area in a fresh way: by relegating it to 8-bit. The player controls a puny 8-bit feline in search of a place to nap, directing the cat all across the stairs among the labyrinthine city. The kitty meets friends along the way: napping cats, fighting cats. The palette of the world changes with every screen, from navy to mustard. After a couple minutes, the cat finally reaches that perfectly dry and clean place to rest its head.

A Cat in the Walled Kowloon was inspired by the HK Project, an in-development “cat adventure game” which sees a feline navigating grimy alleyways of a unique dystopian city. The setting of HK Project, quite fittingly, was also inspired by the historical Kowloon Walled City. You can play developer zott’s A Cat in the Walled Kowloon in your browser on itch.io.

Racing With Jaz

Last week, Slightly Mad Studios took the wraps off a new video showcasing Project CARS 2's Rallycross racing component. The fast-cut piece features six different vehicles - Honda Civic Coupe, Ford Focus RS RX, Volkswagen Polo RX, Mini Countryman RX, Ford Escort RS 1600, and Olsbergs MSE Supercars Lites - kicking up dirt and dust as they race around a series of mixed-surface tracks.

As a huge fan of Rallycross, I must say that I'm really looking forward to this aspect of the game. I just love the combination of small, high-powered cars and short, tight, and twisting courses - it makes for fast, intense competition in which the action is exciting and often very close indeed.

As well as making the game look great, the video does an excellent job of showing off Project CARS 2's dynamic seasonal weather system, with the cars competing in a variety of conditions that range from icy through torrential rain to dusty and dry. That should help make the driving interesting and challenging when the game is released later on this year.

Quick Thoughts

  • Remember when I said I might finish Zelda: Breath of the Wild over the weekend? Well, I didn't. Whoopsy-doopsy.
  • Did you know cockroaches love to hide in the PlayStation 4 more than any other game system? Now you do. You're welcome.
  • Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson dressed up like Pikachu for Easter, because he is a man's man. Also, he is "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment!" ... I can't take credit for that. My husband said it.
  • If you haven't done so already, check out the video / commentary I posted of a 20/20 profile on the NES (circa 1988). One very interesting thing to take note of: There are a lot of female NES fans in the video, and they're all into the same games as their male counterparts. When I was young, I got into gaming through my female friends, their moms, and even my aunt, who was big into Donkey Kong.
  • The Toronto Raptors have a proud history of ugly and nonsensical playoffs shirts. Staying true to tradition, nobody knows what the hell to make of this year's shirt – even the Washington Post is baffled – but the hullabaloo prompted me into looking up last year's shirt. Preeeeetty sure it's supposed to be an angry snowball that someone designed after looking at a picture of a Bomb enemy from Final Fantasy…?
  • Off-Topic: My niece recently had her birthday at a laser tag joint. Most of the 7-year-olds at the festivities had never played laser tag before, and they all kind of huddled in a circle like frightened deer. After a few minutes, though, their candy-colored killer instinct kicked in and they ducked and shot with ease. It was impressive and a bit dismaying to see them take to the whole "war game" thing in record time. Oh, and I bought my niece a Freddy Fazbear doll. He was a hit.

Tagged with Feature, retro games, Starting Screen.

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