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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Idolising the Pixel

Over the past decade or so the pixel has gone mainstream. High-definition televisions and media formats really put the number ‘1080’ in the mouths of anybody upgrading their bulky cathode ray tube TV, and inevitably the layman question “1080 what?” had to be answered. The seventh generation of video game consoles (specifically PS3 and Xbox 360) arrived to showcase that High-Definition. That very few games ran natively at 1080 was immaterial - HD had landed! And with our hi-res obsession came a new appreciation for the humble pixel itself; after all, those individual blocks made up all our jaggy games of old. But as the novelty of anti-aliased polygons wore off, players and developers began looking back and embracing the 2D pixel aesthetic from the earliest video games. And that aesthetic spread into fashion, furniture and art. Pixels even got an eponymous movie last year (about which we shall never again speak.) ‘80s retrogame-chic pops up everywhere these days – Famicom phone cases, Tetris t-shirts, Atari manbags - they are cultural callbacks to the dawn of our digital age and are displayed as badges of lo-fi credibility – we were there at the beginning when the now-Disneyfied plumber was just a 16x12 collection of squares.
Box and manual art for early home console games were designed not only to really pop on store shelves,
but also to give the players an idea what those rudimentary, pixelated blobs actually represented.

Nintendo embraced their sprites and advertised them
prominently on their boxes in the West from the beginning.

But they were muddy, blurry squares. Modern remasters and emulators outputting 1080p via upscale trickery make us forget the colourful gloop most of us saw as we sat in the glow of our curved screens thirty years ago. We forget that those games were never designed to be viewed in HD. We forget that while some companies embraced the pixel in their advertising, most attempted to hide their ‘ugly’ cuboid characters behind hyper realistic or extravagant covers that bore little relation to the sprite but, instead, communicated what players were ‘supposed’ to be seeing. Beyond that, players had to impose their own imagination on the impressionist canvas of the flickering CRT. Our current pin-sharp pixel worship doesn’t celebrate a return to the purity of some past experience, but highlights that this modern fixation actually echoes far older artistic preoccupations.


Some examples of the work
of street artist Invader.
 

Alexander the Great. Pfff, hardly. Not even 720.
We've been creating and idolising lo-fi interpretations of the real world for centuries. Art history constantly demonstrates the deconstruction of complex forms into simpler blocks for rebuilding and reconfiguration. Greco-Roman mosaic tiles offer an ancient analogue to the pixel, although they allow the viewer to appreciate the image’s complexity in a way an animated sprite couldn’t until we were able to screen-grab and fetishise each frame. Unlike mosaics or textiles where intricacy is easily considered and appreciated in the final product, animated art usually prevents similar analysis without disrupting the final form. When taken in isolation and out of context, ironically it’s often the economy of pixel art rather than the detail that is most admirable in a field governed by strict technical limitations. The implication of a single pixel on a character can read differently to every player. I was always convinced that Sonic the Hedgehog had no visible mouth. Looking closely at the sprite blown up on a monitor, one could argue that the darker red pixels imply his mouth but I always perceived a defiant, determined frown, not the shit-eating grin he wore in all accompanying media that fed into his ‘hog with ‘tude persona. The sprite was open to individual interpretation.

“Enemy GAUDIZARD attacked!”
In the 19th Century ‘realism' in painting and portraiture lost relevance somewhat following the invention of the photographic camera. The Impressionists began exploring the effects of light and the eye’s perception of a scene, and more abstract takes and movements followed.


Pointillism is a painting technique involving thousands of coloured ‘points’ painted to create the scene, much as sub-pixels use RGB to represent the whole colour spectrum. It’s perhaps most famously exemplified by George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. Try zooming in on those sub-pixels!

Intricately beautiful, but a ‘mare to animate. [Source]
This retreat to the abstract is echoed in video game history – the constant drive towards 3D, sandbox play experiences and photorealism created an offshoot of games exploring a more ‘abstract’ aesthetic. This occurred even before games entered the third dimension. While Rareware shot for incredible 3D-esque sprites in 1994’s Donkey Kong Country, which were certainly impressive at the time, Shigeru Miyamoto resisted calls from within Nintendo to replicate that style in Yoshi’s Island and instead raided the crayon box, producing a look that still stands up today. The ‘Celda’ controversy surrounding Wind Waker was the result of developers maturing artistically and being chastised by a playerbase excited by the Spaceworld 2000 tech teaser and locked into the mindset of MORE REALISTIC = BETTER. Wind Waker’s timeless art style endures in a way its follow-up, Twilight Princess: Fan Appeasement, simply doesn’t. Nintendo, as with all large companies, are somewhat hamstrung by their audience, but the ‘indie’ studios that sprung up in the late ‘00s were free to make bold artistic choices which happily dovetailed with their limited resources and growing retro nostalgia. Minecraft’s voxels offer a new way to interact with our beloved pixels. Mario Maker allows the player to swap palettes, taking us from pixel to polygon at the touch of a button. Super Mario Bros plays and looks just as you remember it. As you REMEMBER it, not how it is if you go back, but ignorance is bliss. It was always 16:9, no? It was always HD!

We should remember that although the number of pixels in the vertical line was still the measure of resolution before HD ruled, CRTs had the ability to support multiple resolutions. They would rapidly scan across the screen projecting one line at a time, ‘skipping’ every other one if the input resolution was sufficiently low, resulting in that delicious banding effect. CRTs would take the input resolution and, regardless of horizontal pixel number, alter the beam sweep rate to fill the width of the 4:3 screen. Consequently, the pixels would ‘stretch’ and become rectangular. The NES (see the Super Mario Bros illustration) output 256x240 pixels, which is not 4:3 (320x240), but the CRT stretched them by about 20%. Nowadays TVs have a set resolution across the screen (1080p, or ‘full HD’, gives us 1920 fixed pixels across with the standard 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio) and they cannot be ‘stretched’. Therefore, displaying NES games in 1:1 pixel mode on modern screens results in a thinner than expected screen. This can be remedied but it involves some algorithmic trickery that necessarily blurs the x-axis pixel info to fudge that extra 20%. We get our 4:3, though it doesn’t look as sharp due to a fundamental limitation that the older tech didn’t have. Add a scanline filter and you’re getting close.
Shocking textures. And where’s my 4xMSAA?? #lazydevs

I remember the static of CRTs though: being so close I could discern the bright red/blue/green of each sub-pixel; turning the TV off and touching the screen, watching it glow white under my fingertips; hearing the static discharge and smelling the burning dust rising out of the back vents of the hulking Trinitron. Replicating all that is much more difficult than getting the sharpest, cleanest signal from the source and faking the scanlines. It’s that atmosphere which is hard to recreate. Because, if we’re honest, many of the games themselves don’t hold up after 30 years. They often need a spit-polish to bring out the fun again in a modern context (not only visually, but also in feature set – things like online multiplayer or leaderboard/achievement support).

And that’s really the ultimate goal here – creating the circumstances that give us the feeling that we’re playing just as we did. For some this involves replicating the exact set-up, but for most others, spoiled by years of pin-sharp definition and digital convenience (or lacking the space to accommodate the bulky old tech), it actually means embracing the upscaling, emulation, remasters and remixes. Ultimately the delivery method, be it clone console, emulator, virtual console or the genuine painstakingly sourced article, isn’t important so long as these games are played and enjoyed. The advertising for Nintendo’s upcoming NES Mini plays on early ‘90s VHS nostalgia with tape warping effects and curved screens before a burst of light heralds the arrival of 16:9 and they showcase the HDMI output and various display options in HD. The catalogue of 30 included games are advertised to run at 60HZ – something most PAL gamers never knew they were missing back in the day. And, of course, some fans want a 50 HZ option because ‘they’re not the games I played’ without it. They’ll be faster and/or smoother, yes, but not identical. This demonstrates the tightrope developers walk when revamping their back catalogue. The unoptimised Sonic the Hedgehog we European gamers played would be a syrupy nightmare to US/Japanese players, but that was all we knew. No wonder I never thought ‘speed’ was Sonic’s defining characteristic. For me it was all about maintaining the flow through those beautifully designed levels. Hearing the music at 60HZ for the first time made me anxious. ‘No, no, slow down! Calm down!’ I’ve taken mp3s into Audacity before and slowed them down 20%-ish to match my memories and appreciate all those notes! But after playing the games on several other platforms since then (it surely tops the Game Ported To Most Platforms Ever list), returning to the original hardware is TOUGH (‘how did I ever play this chuggy mess?!’) and not how I want to remember the game. We think we want technological authenticity, but the human mind is a treacherous bastard. Grezzo’s Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask 3DS remasters are masterclasses in how to update aged classics while respecting not only the original intent and direction, but also players’ memories.

How you remember (top) versus how it was (bottom).
Going back to the source is jarring after years of 30-60fps.
Standardisation across regions means NTSC/PAL discrepancies are a thing of the past, though our preoccupation with resolution and frames-per-second is far from over. Sony and Microsoft are both diving into the 4K quagmire and once again arguments about upscaling versus native rendering abound. ‘4K’ itself is something of a misnomer – the actual vertical resolution is only doubled from 1080 pixels (to 2160), but 2K doesn’t sound as impressive, I guess. So convention was broken and the name was taken from the horizontal pixel count instead. Which at the standard 16:9 ratio is actually only 3840 pixels, NOT 4000. That’s right, tin-foilers, we’re being screwed out of 160 pixels. I’m sure there’s a lawsuit in there somewhere. Of course, things are further complicated by the film industry which uses a marginally different standard of 4096x2160…

Regardless, 1080p60 isn’t bleeding edge anymore. But is native 4K30 better? How about upscaled 4K45-ish? Post-processing? HDR? Downsampling? Filters?...

It all boils down to a pixel, whether crisp and clean or smeared by its nearest neighbour. Play and let play…except, of course, if you use that unholy Super Eagle filter. That is obviously and objectively wrong and you should be punished/reeducated. [/sarcasm]

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