The first video game I ever played that wasn’t a handheld was Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Sega Megadrive, over many happy hours at the after-school club at my middle school as an 8-10 year old. Previously, I’d enjoyed lots of different games on handheld devices (some of which I still have at the back of my wardrobe, long after I’ve dispensed with most of my other childhood toys) but somehow, home console games had slipped underneath my radar. Even when the after-school club introduced the Megadrive for the first time, I wasn’t immediately interested in it and barely paid attention to it for the first few weeks of its presence. I can’t remember how or why I eventually sat down to try it out (possibly because my friends already were) but once I did, I was instantly hooked.
(One of my early favorites (1990)…
Sonic 2 looks amazingly primitive by the standards of today’s games – barely one step up from Pong – but at the time, it blew me away. I was mesmerized by the brightness of the primary colors in the levels, with textures that looked like you could reach out and touch them, knowing exactly what they’d feel like under your fingertips. In Sonic 2, the metal spikes that sprang up out of nowhere looked sharp. Grass looked soft, water looked wet and lava looked burning hot. To the young me, used to playing with 2D characters who barely more than line drawings on tiny green or grey LCD screens, Sonic 2 was pure sensory overload. To this day, I can still feel the hot, bright summer sunlight and smell the grass and palm trees under the blue sky of the first level (and not just because of I’ve recently been replaying its PlayStation 2 re-release and enjoying it all over again. The memories have stayed with me). Because of Sonic 2, the Megadrive became the first home console I owned (a present from my parents as a reward for memorizing all the multiplication tables; something that’s stood my maths skills in good stead ever since).
Sonic 2 and the art of early games like it have also stood me in good stead, because they taught me important lessons about art and creativity. Early video games were what made me realize that it’s not so much what you’ve got as what you do with it and that’s it’s always possible to create something amazing with very little.
Today, we’re used to getting more memory and processing power every year and with every new device that comes out. While this is obviously great, it makes it very easy to forget how little we started out with. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was once impressive because it could show eight colors on the screen at once. Because early systems had very limited memory, creators could not afford to fill space up with graphics and so they had to find ways (just like any minimalist) of showing what they wanted to show in as few lines and pixels as possible.
In many early games, they succeeded wonderfully. Early game art of colorful, blocky shapes, lines and jagged pixel edges developed into a distinctive “video game” style that is recognizable and parodied all over the world today and it arose out of people working within very tight limits rather than having freedom to experiment however they wanted as you’d expect with a new art form. This probably shows how little I know about art history, but the closest similar example I can think of is how often censorship in various forms leads to new waves in art; as people find ways to work around or within the rules. With video games though, the rules are only technological and – as the amazingly intricate virtual worlds of today’s games prove – they get looser every year.
To get back to my own story, Sonic 2 showed me what I was missing. Sonic 3 then fascinated me with greater detail that added an extra sense of realism and atmosphere. (To be clear, neither game ever looked “real” but you could imagine with at least four senses what it would be like to be inside them). Sonic 3D then blew my socks off with shapes that I once really did try to reach out and touch, only to remember that the TV screen was in the way. Later on, Castlevania on the Nintendo 64 astounded me with its misty, rain drenched, haunted woodland and marble tombs in the cemeteries, and I fell in love with the cartoony, but vibrantly colored and characterfully designed rainforests of Pitfall Harry on the PlayStation 2, where every single plant seemed to have its own personality, almost making the entire game environment a character in its own right.
I could go on all day with examples like this, but the key thing early video game art taught me is that it is not necessary to be technically brilliant in as many ways as possible to produce something good. As the very earliest artists proved in cave paintings and sculpture, you can use or be limited to very basic materials and techniques and still create something amazing, injected with enough of your own passion for your work to dazzle your audience. This is what I see every month in my favorite American comics series, where some artists have amazingly realistic and detailed drawing styles, some don’t and some draw in ways that defy classification, but all produce brilliant pages and covers. It is also what I aim for in my own writing and – on the inevitable occasions that I worry about whether or not my work is “good enough” – I think back to the first video games I played to remind myself its possible to create something wonderful with simple tools and what it makes the audience feel is often more important than what it physically consists of.
Game Art: The Graphic Art of Computer Games. Dave Morris and Leo Hartas. Collins. 2003