Going 8-bit

In last week’s iDevBlogADay post I talked about how I was considering making my next game in the “doodle” style, but I eventually decided otherwise. This week, I’ll talk about the style I’m going with instead: 8-bit.

What is 8-bit?

The 8-bit name comes from 8-bit computer architecture, but the 8-bit style itself is really based on games from the 8-bit console era (NES and Master System). These days, the name “8-bit” seems to cover stuff from the 16-bit era as well. 8-bit graphics are called pixel art, and they have low resolution and low colour depth.  The music in 8-bit games has a very distinct sound and is often called “chiptunes”.

Why 8-bit?

Let’s be honest: it’s just plain cool. Unlike doodle graphics, I get the sense that using pixel art adds credibility instead of taking it away. It’s been used a lot, and yet it never really seems overused. Pixel art is also a ton of fun to create. It requires a certain amount of skill, but it’s much easier to make (for me) than the style I was originally considering for my next game (pre-rendered 3D).

8-bit inspired music is also awesome, with a style all its own. I’m planning to make the music for this game myself, mostly because I’d love to dabble in making music that sounds like this: http://georgeandjonathan.com/.

Implementing 8-bit

I’m not 100% certain of the approach I’m going end up taking to get the graphics to look right. The general idea I’ve seen in most 8-bit iOS games is that they double the pixel sizes, so that each in-game pixel takes up four real screen pixels(sixteen on the Retina display). For now, I’m actually using double-sized assets and rendering in 480×320 but I may move to using a half-size buffer and assets so that it’s truly low-res.

I’ve seen different 8-bit games use different approaches. For example, Super Quick Hook has low res in-game sprites, but the text is actually pretty small and high res:

8-bit tools

Sprite Something

Sprite something is *awesome*. It’s an iPad app for creating pixel art sprites, and it’s what convinced me that 8-bit was the right style for my game. You can use it to easily create pixel drawings, which it’ll export as transparent sprite sheets. Well worth the $2.99


SFXR is a simple 8-bit retro sound generator that was created as a way for devs at Ludum Dare to create sound effects really quickly.  It’s open source, and has been ported to Flash for convenient in-browser use: http://www.superflashbros.net/as3sfxr/


SunVox is a free cross-platform music making application.  I have to admit that I haven’t used SunVox yet, but it looks really cool, and I’ve heard some awesome music created with it. For music creation on the go, there’s also a SunVox iPhone app ($4.99).

Inspirational 8-bit iOS games

The Incident

Super Quick Hook


Gravity Hook HD

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9 Responses to Going 8-bit

  1. Mike Berg says:

    Funny, I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days about how I want to do some pixel-art characters, to see if I’m any good at it. I’ve never tried before, but it looks like a lot of fun. Can’t wait to see your next project, Matt!


  2. I’m into Pixel Art too for my upcoming game using mostly The Incident and Canabalt as reference, also, of course, tons of SNES games (the sprite archive). I recommend visiting http://wayofthepixel.com and http://pixeljoint.com for anyone considering pixel art. Ah, and you can do amazing pixel stuff with GIMP!

  3. wadevondoom says:

    Be aware that both Sprite Something and Pixen and REALLY, REALLY prone to crashing. I have both and tried to use both. Both decide to crash at any given time. I spent about 2 hours on a sprite only to lose it to SpriteS dying on me. I haven’t seen an update to the app since I bought it about 5 months ago. I gave up and used GIMP instead. I really wanted to use these, especially Sprite Something. @alfred Kwigbo is correct about the bugs in Pixen also.

    • Matt says:

      Hmm, yeah that matches what I’ve heard about Pixen. Everyone seems to warning about bugs and crashes.

      As for Sprite Something, I’ve used it for a few hours and haven’t had any problems. There was just an update (1.11) released for it 6 days ago, which include “Improved stability, bug fixes”, so maybe that’ll fix your issues with it :)

      • wadevondoom says:

        Oh boy. That would be swell. I know it sounds lame but I really liked this for pixel art. You really had to focus on a small space with limited tools and just ‘do the art’. (I can’t believe that I have no wi-fi at work). I am going to download that ASAP. Thanks Matt.

        • Matt says:

          Yeah I think that’s part of what makes Sprite Something so awesome. It really shows what the potential of the iPad as a content-creation (not just content-consuming) device.

  4. Michael says:

    It’s expensive unless you already have a copy, but I found that Photoshop is pretty good for pixel art. There’s a good guide for configuring it to work well at the pixel level here: http://www.gamedev.net/reference/art/features/pixelart1/page3.asp .

    With photoshop you can use scripting to output data about your textures directly into a format that can be loaded by your game. I used this when developing my iOS game to output texture coordinates into a plist file.

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