Fresh Painted Pixels:
Graphic Recycling, Good and Bad

Mega Man X, Mortal Kombat and Destiny

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution of graphics and development in digital media spaces. Today we’ll be examining game franchises that re-use assets and the rationale behind this sometimes-questionable choice.


Typically, when a game developer or publisher wants to create a sequel to a successful game there is a certain level of familiarity that they want to convey to those who played the previous title. There are many ways this can be achieved: having a very similar control scheme, keeping the look of the main character or cast the same, using set pieces from the previous game, and so on. This is an expected part of the process of making game sequels (with some notable exceptions) and fans of the previous title can be irked if the newer title is not similar enough to the old.

There is another concern when taking this approach to game sequels, and that is the possibility that the new game is too much like the old game. It can end up being just a copy of the old game with maybe some new features tacked onto it. That would be fine if the new title was a remaster of the original, but not so fine for an intended sequel. A balance needs to be struck between the familiar and the new to keep fans interested and to keep the series fresh. Still, consideration for existing assets is important. Why completely remake something you’ve already made that works? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to start completely from scratch in your game sequel when you have a finished game to borrow from. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work go into major game titles, which is costly in both money and the well-being of developers, so finding ways to alleviate that workload is vital. Still, fans of any franchise won’t enjoy playing the exact same game with a new name, so you need to innovate somewhere. 

In this article and the next, we’re going to be looking at that balance of re-using old assets versus creating entirely new ones. When is it an artistic choice, or just a lazy choice? When is it cutting corners, and when it is just practical?  There are so many games that do this that we couldn’t possibly have the time to break them all down, so I’ve selected a few well-known ones that work for our purposes. Let’s get to it. 

Mega Man and Mega Man X—So Much the Same, and So Much Changed

The much-beloved Mega Man [ 1 ] and Mega Man X [ 2 ] series of games are among the most well-known examples of asset reuse. In the first iteration of Mega Man games for the NES, the sprite for the Blue Bomber was basically lifted and reused from the very first game onward to the sixth [ 3 ]. The sprite being a direct copy meant that the majority of Mega Man’s movements were also the same—running, jumping, turning, and so on. A few additional frames were squeezed in here and there for special animations, but for the most part, it all looked the same.

It didn’t control exactly the same, however, and this is a good thing, because in the first game the Blue Bomber was too hard to control correctly, and that was fixed in the later iterations of the series. He also got a new move in Mega Man 3 in the slide, which naturally was all new frames for the sprite, but which was also reused thereafter [ 4 ]. His basic attack animation with the Mega Buster also remained the same, though it gained an ability to charge up in the fourth game, the familiar yellow energy blasts streaking across the screen remained the standard attack of both Mega Man and X for their entire franchises [ 5 ]. The other asset reuse comes in the general formula of these games—Mega Man needs to defeat eight Robot Masters, sometimes in any order, other times in batches of four, but always eight. Each of these Robot Masters has a special power that Mega Man can obtain once he defeats them, allowing him to use different strategies in other stages and against other Robot Masters. On top of that, each of the special weapons is more powerful against a particular Robot Master, making that one easier to defeat once Mega Man has acquired the requisite power. Some of these make a bit of logical sense, like the Ice Slasher from Ice Man being effective against Fire Man. 

The modeling of X and his contemporaries in many cases pulled from reexamining Mega Man and his enemies’ designs, and making them more aggressive.

Others are kind of out there, like the Super Arm from Guts Man, which allows Mega Man to lift certain blocks, being effective against Cut Man if you throw said blocks at him (in a literal rock/paper/scissors way). After the Robot Masters is the fortress of Dr. Wily, which contains its own series of unique bosses, plus a gauntlet run of the eight Robot Masters, and then Wily himself in some kind of terrifying machine. Of course, each new game meant new robot masters to defeat, which meant new special powers to acquire and utilize, as well as new Wily stages to conquer. This is probably the part that kept Mega Man fresh for so long, always having a new set of bad guys to face and special weapons to utilize. Some of them were quite creative, while others fell a bit short—how many iterations of a freezing-type weapon can you have before that gets boring? But fun and creative special weapons like the Bubble Bomb from Mega Man VII, which, as it sounds, launches a bubble with a bomb inside that will encase foes and then explode, make for some interesting new strategies that players can employ. Still, having this established formula of defeating a boss, collecting their power, and using it on another boss that was weak to it helped to bridge the gap between the familiar and the new. 

When the Super Nintendo came around, Capcom decided to try a derivative series of this signature franchise with Mega Man X. A different robot, simply called X, became our main character, and for the first three games, his sprites are copies of the original with some deviation for his newer armor sets [ 6 ]. Likewise, with movements, X’s motions are basically copied from the first game onward, with some additions. In the first game, X needs to earn his dash ability by finding his leg armor upgrade, but in X2 and X3, the dash is standard, with the armor upgrades adding a sky dash and vertical dash respectively. The sky dash is the same animation as the ground dash, but in the air, so not too many points for creativity there. The vertical dash added all-new frames for X as he was able to blast upward into the air. Both new abilities changed the games in more than just basic movement, as X will need these upgrades in order to reach certain hidden areas of the game that contain other upgrades. The rest is the standard set of motions from the first game, running, jumping, wall kicks, and clings. The X Buster standard shots remain the same yellow globe, while the second and third stage charged shots changed slightly in the second and third games, as well as the additional fourth stage charge up when you find the arm upgrade. These little changes showcased how X became more powerful in each iteration while keeping most of what he does the same. 

X, in keeping with the tradition, fights eight bosses, this time called Mavericks, and he likewise gains special weapons from those bosses, to be used on other bosses that have a weakness to them. The Mavericks, in contrast to the Robot Masters, are all animal-based (save for a few notables, like the series boss, Sigma), rather than the standard humanoid of the original series games. It seems like for this series, Capcom decided to go a lot more outside the box with the special powers, at least in X2 and X3, with weapons that encase foes in solid blocks of crystal, or a gravity generating weapon that pulls flying enemies to the ground, damaging them in the process. After defeating the eight Mavericks, the final stage area is unlocked, where X will have to face two more unique bosses, plus the gauntlet run stage of all eight Mavericks, and finally the Sigma boss stage. Again, this series does its best to bridge the gap between old and new by keeping a familiar formula but changing up its base components. An extra change in the X series is how stages themselves will change depending upon which Mavericks have been defeated, and which special weapons you have obtained. In the first game, defeating Storm Eagle causes his aircraft to crash into Spark Mandrill’s stage, destroying many of that stage’s power conduits and causing it to go dark in many places, which also serves to de-power many of the stage’s electric foes. You can cause additional changes by defeating Chill Penguin, which freezes the lava in Flame Mammoth’s stage, and defeating Launch Octopus causes water to flood Sting Chameleon’s stage. All these changes serve to make these levels easier to navigate, as well as opening areas that were previously impossible to get to. 

This makes revisiting these stages important and changes their basic environmental art in ways that make these revisits fresh and interesting. These stage changes were present in a smaller capacity in X2, where the weather patterns on the Weather Control stage could be changed with different special weapons, but came back more fully in X3, where there are stage changes for defeating Blast Hornet, Gravity Beetle, and Volt Catfish. Notably, this approach is also used in Mega Man VII, where defeating Freeze Man and using the Ice Cracker on the weather robots in Cloud Man’s stage turns the rain into snow, making traversing the stage a bit safer, thanks to there being no lightning. This is a micro-level of asset reuse that is a poignant example of how to do this well and shows the developers’ level of expertise in reusing graphic assets without making it boring or overly repetitive. In similar fashion, while the primary antagonist, Sigma, continues to return and cause havoc, his boss fights are all quite different, showing how his power changes and evolves alongside that of X.

Both game series kept the design of their main character (and supporting cast) basically the same for several years, only adding little changes here and there. They aren’t the same games at all, but the sharing of the most basic assets, such as the gameplay formula, and the appearance of the protagonist of the story can certainly be classified as a copy and paste. However, since the games themselves play differently and have slight variations on that same hero sprite, they don’t end up being cheap copies of one another, but good, solid games that stick to a working formula. 

Mortal Kombat 1, 2, 3 and Trilogy

Another very famous and very samey franchise is Mortal Kombat, the blood-fest fighting game that captured the minds of a generation with its inclusion of incredible amounts of violence [ 7 ]. Blood, Fatalities, and later Brutalities, the absurd Animalities, Babalities, and Friendships are the hallmarks of this game franchise.

A “modern” mashup of the first three games, using MK3 Ultimate’s engine, Mortal Kombat Trilogy allowed one to select sprites from the older games’ versions of any character, and even older stages like the MK2 version of the Pitt, though this posed graphical fidelity issues.

While this franchise has come a long way from its lowly beginnings of only seven fighters, a small assortment of special moves and no combos to speak of, one thing that remained consistent for the first three games, and their remastered and Trilogy versions, is the overall art style. The rotoscoped sprites of different actors in costumes lent a small amount of realism to the old games, and that art style continued until the next generation of home consoles. It’s easy enough to make an argument for keeping this simplistic style. With maintaining an established look that you carry through to new games, you have a bunch of reusable assets and a good formula, since a tournament fighter with moves that let you kill your opponent was pretty novel at the time.

Even with those assets, however, Midway saw fit to bring enough changes to character sprites come the second game to make them more distinctive. Liu Kang, for example, didn’t get his red headband until the second game. Likewise, Johnny Cage didn’t have the colored wrist wraps and shin guards. What stayed the same were the characters’ distinctive stances. Scorpion’s raised back fist, Sub Zero’s close guard knife hand, Liu Kang’s low guard—it’s all there. What also was brought back were the basic punch and kick animations, which remain pretty much unchanged throughout the original trilogy and remasters, other than being smoothed out a bit. Brutal uppercuts, high roundhouses, sweeps, and high and medium punches are all present in each game for each character [ 8 ]. With the addition of combo moves in the later games, characters started to get more unique techniques to complement their distinctive visual aesthetics. Executing chain combinations with Johnny Cage showcased his Shadow Kicks, while he juggled his opponent in the air. Nightwolf brought his energized tomahawk into the mix, as he brutalized his foes with his powerful combo attacks. Kitana uses her signature metal fans in her extended combos, Mileena her sai, and Jade her staff. In these ways, the developers gave enough uniqueness to the characters, even the ones that were palette swaps, to make them stand out. They also kept the basic moves the same for each, allowing anyone to utilize them in similar ways if they were unfamiliar with that specific character.

The simplest critique one can level at the series is the ninjas. Scorpion, Sub Zero (at least original Sub Zero), Reptile, Smoke, Ermac, Rain, and Noob Saibot all use the same model and clothing, with just a palette swap for their main color. The ninjas got more distinctive in the third iteration of the game, each one having more unique moves and stances, but still, they are just color-swapped sprites. A similar issue exists with the ladies of Outworld, Kitana, Mileena, and Jade all had a very similar outfit with different colors. And then the addition of the cyber ninjas, which also had the same issue. It seems like a lazy design choice, considering how many interesting characters actually exist in all three games. Fighters like Kabal, Jax, and Sindel all offer unique sprites that are highly stylized and distinct from any other. In future games in the series, the ninjas and Outworld ladies do get more distinctive looks. However, the palette-swapped sprites are also their own parody, an in-joke from Midway that basically all players understood, so even that design choice, however lazy seeming, had a certain charm to it.

Obviously, Midway did something right, because these games were incredibly successful despite some seemingly lazy art choices. I remember my time as a teenager playing these games and liking that there were so many different colored ninjas and cyborgs running around, not because of their swapped designs, but because it meant there were more fighters to toy around with. I seemed to like them despite their sameness. It helped that the games kept themselves fresh with increasing move pools, expanded rosters, and graphic improvements that didn’t lose the feeling of the old art style. Given that experience, anecdotal as it is, it’s hard to say that this design choice was bad. A more accurate statement is that it was an easy choice to make, allowing the developers to create character’s visual styles more rapidly, allocating more focus on the different special moves and combos they would have.

Destiny 1 and 2, Forever Behind Their Own Hype

As one of the newest MMORPG action-shooter games on the market (that’s a mouthful), the Destiny game series has, so far, pleased many while also drawing the ire of others. You wouldn’t call the game itself necessarily bad—it has all the elements of a good game in it, and it’s certainly playable and enjoyable. Yet the complaints lodged here are of a different sort. Players have complained that the “new” content in Destiny 2 is just re-used content from the first game, at least in part if not in whole [ 9 ].

Paywall content is something that’s plagued both Destiny and its sequel, which received a great deal of criticism for minor changes to prior content before burying it behind yet another pay-wall. A clear case of ignoring audience feedback for entirely too long.

Now, again, there are valid reasons for re-using older assets in a game franchise, saving time being chief among them, but they could also fall into the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” rule. Destiny 1 and 2 have had a lot of heat coming their way for a myriad of problems both games have had. With a high amount of volatility in the development staff, it was only natural that both games would see issues [ 10 ]. However, even with these problems, it doesn’t necessarily mean that asset re-use is a bad idea for Destiny 2. Bringing back weapon and armor sets from Destiny 1 for example is a good way to help newer players feel more included, in so far as they didn’t “miss” their opportunity to earn that epic loot and play around with it. Likewise, bringing back older dungeon or raid content, it allows the newer players to experience that content that they would have otherwise missed.

However, there is a line to be drawn with this sort of thing, otherwise, you end up just making the same game all over again, which is what we want to avoid. It is understandable that players coming from the first game to the second game would be expecting something new, something to justify the purchase price of an entirely separate game and treading old ground from the first game may not be it. It has been likened to a nice reboot, rather than a game that is distinctly a sequel [ 11 ]. This comparison is not without truth. As mentioned, the development history of Destiny has been fraught with problems; changing from a supposed 10-year road map of content creation for the first game into a sequel-based series would justifiably draw the ire of fans and critics alike. Even so, understanding the poor position that developers were put in for this game, it might just be the best move they can make for the longevity and overall quality of the game series.

There is another glaring issue with Destiny 2 and its content, and that comes in the form of changing old content in a small way and then locking off that old content behind a paywall. Such is the case for the Curse of Osiris downloadable content [ 12 ]. Before this DLC, the end-game content like Nightfall and Raids had a lower Power Level requirement, achievable without the DLC purchase. After the DLC came out, however, this Power Level requirement was raised, specifically to 330, a Power Level that could not be obtained without purchasing the DLC first, meaning the content was effectively gated off for players who had not purchased the DLC [ 13 ].

In effect, nothing of that end-game content changed, save for its overall difficulty and thus Power Level requirement. This isn’t even really recycling content, and can’t be classified as remastering either, it’s just making numbers bigger, and then charging more money to get those bigger numbers. It’s an example of a terrible mindset in the games industry overall, where content is cut up and sold piecemeal, rather than as a complete gaming experience, and even in some cases selling you the exact same content again with bigger numbers tacked onto it. It’s no longer recycling at that point, it’s a copy-paste cash grab, and is quite disgusting. The backlash against this move caused Bungie to reverse this change [ 14 ][ 15 ].

This comes in contrast to Destiny 1, where the exact same thing happened but wasn’t met with such a backlash from players, so Bungie effectively got away with it that time. One must question why this wasn’t the immediate approach, especially since almost any other game that comes to mind approached expansions or DLC that way—you need to buy the expansion or DLC if you want the new content, and the old content will not be blocked off because of it. Again, it’s impossible to see such a move as anything other than an attempt to squeeze money out of content that was already bought and paid for. Imagine if a game franchise like Mega Man released an expansion or DLC for a game, and then deactivated the final boss stage for players who did not purchase that DLC. Imagine if a Mortal Kombat game, of which several do have DLC for new characters, locked off the VS mode until you bought those new characters. There would be a massive outcry from the player base, such as there was in Destiny 2’s case, and rightfully so. It’s my sincere hope that such behaviors are the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to content being reused. 

Destiny 2’s launch was still harried with issues, and a continued leverage of paywalls for certain content. Now, it is free to play on all platforms and live on Steam.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

So, when we think of games that reuse assets, there will usually be a hard gut reaction—“That game was great! I liked how they kept all those things!” Or… “That game sucked! It was just a copy-paste of the first!” There’s not a lot of middle ground. This is because the balance of reusing old assets versus creating entirely new ones is hard to strike perfectly, and if your franchise isn’t built on that sort of concept, it will be a lot more difficult to convince an audience that is it a good idea. Games like Mega Man and Mortal Kombat get a sort of pass on asset reuse because that is what they are built on and they do it well, reusing only what is necessary and improving on the rest. Whereas something like Destiny and Destiny 2, which built up a whole lot of hype about its expansiveness and content, needs to bring new stuff to the table all the time to keep players satisfied with these promises, and if they are going to reuse assets, it needs to be done in a way that keeps the old content looking and feeling fresh, without gating things off from players who only have the base game. This problem is due in part to pre-release marketing, where you build up a lot of expectations for a product that you don’t even know you can deliver yet. You need to keep promises for sequels or new content in an acceptable range, otherwise, you risk running afoul of your own hype machine. 

When people see that a new Mega Man is coming out, they have a certain set of expectations for that game: fighting through eight stages to beat eight robot masters, gaining their powers, and using them to great effect, and eventually defeating Dr. Wiley in his base. When you have a brand-new game IP, like Destiny, it’s easy to get caught up in everything you could do, or want to do, because you don’t yet have such a set formula. In these cases, you need to be even more tempered with what you promise within a game. People know what to expect from an established franchise, and the developers of those franchises also know what they are expected to bring.

This makes the whole process a lot easier and allows any overly critical takes of “sameness” to be more easily pushed aside in favor of saying, “this game gives you what you want in a sequel to ‘insert game title here.’” If such expectations were better tempered, we might also see a less cash-grab-oriented flow of DLC and expansion content. The idea that there must always be money flowing in from a game like Destiny 2 does a lot of harm when it comes to the development of that content and leads to the kinds of fiascoes seen with the Curse of Osiris DLC. It should never be the case that something which is supposed to expand upon a game also takes old content, slaps a few higher numbers on it, and locks it off because it’s “new again.” With the news of Bungie departing from Activision in 2019 and the subsequent move to a free-to-play model, perhaps the future of the game will follow a better track [ 16 ].

Images

  1. “The modeling of X and his contemporaries in many cases pulled from reexamining Mega Man and his enemies’ designs, and making them more aggressive.” Source: “Image Result for Megaman X 32 Bits Sprites 32 Bit, – 8 Bit Megaman X Clipart (#980036) – PikPng.” PikPng.com, www.pikpng.com/pngvi/oximxJ_image-result-for-megaman-x-32-bits-sprites-32-bit-8-bit
  2. “A ‘modern’ mashup of the first three games, using MK3 Ultimate’s engine, Mortal Kombat Trilogy allowed one to select sprites from the older games’ versions of any character, and even older stages like the MK2 version of the Pitt, though this posed graphical fidelity issues.” VCDECIDE. “Sprite Evolution of Mortal Kombat Characters. (Side by Side Comparison).” YouTube, 26 Apr. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqpVvyhrkL8
  3. “Paywall content is something that’s plagued both Destiny and its sequel, which received a great deal of criticism for minor changes to prior content before burying it behind yet another pay-wall. A clear case of ignoring audience feedback for entirely too long.” Strickland, Derek. “Destiny’s DLC Paywalls Are a Mockery, and They Need to Stop.” VR World, 4 Jan. 2015, vrworld.com/2015/01/03/dlc-paywall-locks-destiny-players-out-of-endgame-content.
  4. Destiny 2’s launch was still harried with issues, and a continued leverage of Paywalls for certain content. Now, it is free to play on all platforms and live on Steam.” www.neowin.net/news/destiny-2-is-now-free-to-play-across-all-platforms-and-also-live-on-steam/

Resources

  1. “Mega Man (Original Series).” MMKB, FANDOM. megaman.fandom.com/wiki/Mega_Man_(original_series). Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
  2. “Mega Man X (Series).” MMKB, FANDOM, megaman.fandom.com/wiki/Mega_Man_X_(series). Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
  3. “NES – Mega Man – Mega Man and Friendly NPCs.” The Spriters Resource, The VG Resource, spriters-resource.com/nes/mm/sheet/36582/. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
  4. “Mega Man 3.” MMKB, FANDOM,  megaman.fandom.com/wiki/Mega_Man_3. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020. 
  5. Minotti, Mike. “Ranking Mega Man 1 through 6.” VentureBeat, VentureBeat, 4 Jan. 2018, venturebeat.com/2015/08/25/ranking-mega-man-1-through-6/
  6. “Mega Man X – Playable Characters – Mega Man X.” The Spriter’s Resource, The VG Resource, spriters-resource.com/fullview/1225/. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
  7. “Mortal Kombat Wiki.” Mortal Kombat Wiki, FANDOM, mortalkombat.fandom.com/wiki/Mortal_Kombat_Wiki. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
  8. GameSpot. “Mortal Kombat 1, 2, and 3 | Revisiting The Mortal Kombat Series.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Mar. 2019. youtube.com/watch?v=WFRDr87J7Gk.
  9. Sinha, Ravi. “Asset Reuse in Video Games: Rights, Wrongs and ‘Maybe You Shouldn’ts’.” GamingBolt, GamingBolt, 21 Nov. 2017. gamingbolt.com/asset-reuse-in-video-games-rights-wrongs-and-maybe-you-shouldnts/amp.
  10. BDobbinsFTW. “Destiny 2 DLC Is a Scam.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Feb. 2018. youtube.com/watch?v=oZXABh6M8BA.
  11. AngryJoeShow. “Destiny 2 Angry Review.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Sept. 2017. youtube.com/watch?v=qLdQWtkH0aQ.
  12. “Curse of Osiris (Expansion).” Edited by CuBaN VeRcEttI et al., Destiny Wiki, FANDOM. destiny.fandom.com/wiki/Curse_of_Osiris_(Expansion). Accessed Apr. 4, 2021.
  13. Sterling, Jim. “Destiny 2 Locks Old Content Behind New DLC Purchase.” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Dec. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=EXgtDs1oOlQ.
  14. Sterling, Jim. “Destiny 2 Ungating Content Originally Gated Off By DLC.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Dec. 2017. youtube.com/watch?v=vr_-v8hr5Bs.
  15. Destiny Dev Team. “Expansion and Season Access Update > News.” Bungie.net, Bungie. 11 Dec. 2017, bungie.net/en/News/Article/46537.
  16. Destiny Dev Team. “Our Destiny > News.” Bungie.net, Bungie, 10 Jan. 2019. bungie.net/en/News/Article/47569.