Seeing Science: Why do Video Game Characters Look Better Today?
Have you ever wondered why video games today look better than video games from the 1980s? Today we have video games with relatively realistic figures, a lot of color and a lot of details, but these were not really features of games from the early 1980s. One major change between then and now is the number of pixels, or dots on the screen, used to represent video game objects. In this science activity you will put your artistic talent to use and investigate whether increasing the number of pixels makes a video game character look better.
When Nintendo first introduced the Super Mario Bros game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985, Mario was only 16 by 12 pixels in size. Decades later, the Mario in Super Paper Mario Wii has more than 15 times as many pixels (he’s 67 by 50 pixels)! Pixels are the smallest unit of data in a picture. If you were able to magnify your TV screen or computer monitor many times, you’d see that the entire screen is arranged with thousands of small dots or squares, like a piece of graph paper. Each dot or square is a pixel. To make a picture, each pixel is filled in with a single color, and many pixels are placed next to each other to form an image.
The first home video game consoles, like the NES, couldn’t store or display much data, so only a few pixels could be shown on the screen at a time. Because of this, the video game characters and other video game art only used a few pixels. But today’s video game consoles can store much more data and so the characters are higher resolution.
- Computer with internet access and a printer
- Custom graph paper. You can print it from Incompetech.com’s free graph paper website or you can draw your own graph paper using a ruler, pen or pencil and two sheets of paper.
- Pen or pencil
- Colored pencils, crayons or markers
- Using Incompetech.com’s free graph paper website, make and print a sheet of graph paper with “Grid Spacing” of five lines per inch. Then make and print a second piece of graph paper that is 1.25 lines per inch.
- Using a ruler and a pen or pencil, draw a box on the first piece of graph paper (the one with more squares) that is 32 by 32 squares. Each square will represent a single pixel, so there will be a total of 1024 pixels within the box.
- Similarly, draw a box on the second piece of graph paper that is eight by eight squares. There will be a total of 64 pixels within this box, which should be about the same size as the box on the other sheet of paper.
- If you want to draw your own graph paper (instead of printing it), on one sheet of paper make a grid with lines that are about a quarter inch apart. Make the grid be 33 by 33 lines this way. On a second sheet of paper, make a grid with lines that are about three-quarters of an inch apart. Make this grid be nine by nine lines.
- With colored pencils, crayons or markers, draw a character inside the 32-by-32 pixels box you made. The character can be any character you want. You can draw something from your own imagination, or try to copy an existing character. Add as much detail as possible to your character, but each pixel can only contain a single color (and must be completely colored in). The character does not have to take up all 1024 pixels (you can leave some blank). When you are done, how does your character look?
- Using the colored pencils or other drawing tools, draw your character in the eight-by-eight pixels box on the other sheet of graph paper. Draw the same character as you did before, trying to keep as many of the details the same between the two drawings. How does the character look on this sheet of paper?
- Compare the high-resolution (32-by-32 pixels) drawing of the character with the low-resolution (eight-by-eight pixels) drawing of the same character. Which drawing has more detail? Which drawing looks better?
Extra: You can repeat this activity a few more times but draw other characters, monsters, or objects. Are your results always the same?
Extra: Try this activity again, but this time add additional drawings of the character at resolutions of 64-by-64 pixels and 128-by-128 pixels (but keep the overall drawing size the same). How does adding even more pixels affect the level of detail in your picture?
Extra: Compare the minimum number of pixels it takes to make different shapes. Some shapes you can try are triangles, diamonds, stars, circles, and hexagons. Are certain shapes easier than others to make, using just a few pixels?
Observations and Results
Did the character in the higher-resolution box (32-by-32 pixels) have more detail, and overall look better, than the character in the lower-resolution box (eight-by-eight pixels)?
Resolution refers to the number of pixels wide and high an image is. Generally, the higher resolution an image is, the more detail we can see and the better it looks to us. The character you made in the 32-by-32 pixels box has more pixels (1024 pixels) compared to the character you made in the eight-by-eight pixels box (which contained 64 pixels), but they should both take up about the same amount of space (meaning the pixels in the 32-by-32 box were much smaller than the ones in the eight-by-eight box). This means that the character in the 32-by-32 pixel box is higher resolution and so should appear to have more detail, and overall look better, than the character you drew in the eight-by-eight pixels box. Specifically, when trying to draw the same character in the eight-by-eight pixel box you may have found it was very difficult to maintain many of the details from when you drew it in the 32-by-32 pixel box, and you had to make tough decisions about which details to include and how to show them without completely distorting the image.
Ask an Expert
- The Evolution of Mario, from NFG Games
- Pixel Art Tutorial, from Derek Yu
- Fun, Science Activities for You and Your Family, from Science Buddies
- The Pixel Puzzle: Why Video Game Characters Look Better Today, from Science Buddies