Re-Render Bender—Mario to Metroidvania

Evolution of Art Styles, from 8-Bit to Modern

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution and development of graphics in interactive digital media. This time, we’ll be examining old game art styles and how they have been adapted to new technologies.


With any long-running game franchise, there is always a looming concern on the horizon: What will they do with the next generation of consoles? Not to exclude PC gaming here, but there is a very targeted development cycle around the release of every new console platform that every game studio considers. The promise of newer and better technologies to display virtual game worlds of course means a progressive change in art styles, certainly regarding graphic fidelity, but we also see incremental changes to established art.

Whenever an art team considers changes to established art designs they go through hundreds of iterations before making a final decision [ 1 ]. It is a lot of work, and every potential change needs to be carefully considered. For any sequel within a game franchise, you want the next game to have enough recognizable elements from the previous game to visually convey that they are related. Likewise, it would seem unnatural to have a sequel game where the visual style didn’t at all resemble the previous title. That would be like having the plot of a movie sequel that in no way relates to the first movie; it just doesn’t make sense. 

In this article, we’re going to look over the sometimes subtle, and sometimes quite different, changes made to some of the most well-known game franchises.

8-Bit to 3-D—Mario & Zelda

Two of Nintendo’s flagship game franchises, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, have been gaming staples since the dawn of the 8-bit era. Both of our series’ protagonists have humble graphic origins. Link has had just over 100 different sprites, including poses and colors [ 2 ], while Mario has 385, though most of those are different recolors of his basic 35 poses [ 3 ]. Obviously these 8-bit sprites are very flat and have very few colors in use at any one time. These very simple designs, while quite effective at conveying relevant visual information, are very lacking in flare, as is the nature of the simple hardware they must function on. Before these franchises left the 8-bit era, they both had sequels, in which the designs of these main characters were slightly changed while keeping the spirit of the original. 

In Super Mario Bros. 3, both Mario and Luigi were changed to be more round figures, having bellies, puffy cheeks and round noses [ 4 ]. Their faces also became more defined, having clearer delineation between eyes, skin, and mustaches. Despite the changes, the two characters are easily recognizable. In Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, our titular hero was moved from a top-down sprite to a side-scrolling sprite, and thus changed appearance quite drastically, though he still looked like Link, keeping the green hat and tunic, and elf-like features [ 5 ]. The change in game style also meant a big change in how Link’s sprite would have to function. Movement and attacks had to match up to a side-scrolling adventure, as well as how special items would be used. While having only two directions to move the character across the screen is technically simpler; you still have vertical movement with jumps, as well as foes that fly or climb, so you have the same axis of movement to worry about in overall design of things. Sprites can be “flatter,” but still need movement frames to indicate all these actions.

Mario’s had a dramatic evolution of appearance over the years. However, each game attempts to pay tribute to what’s gone before, leading to a visual library and continuity, even across decades.

This trend of increased graphic fidelity—while keeping a very defined and identifiable look—continued into the 16-bit era with Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In Super Mario World, our plucky plumber retained his rounded shapes with the addition of better color definition (as you might expect) and more clearly defined clothing and shadows [ 6 ]. Though Mario and Luigi’s black overalls were changed to the more typical blue, this change was hardly a reason to not associate them as the same characters. Their distinct red and green color schemes kept the brothers easily identifiable, and these schemes were consistent across their different powered transformations, a la Mario having red overalls when he picks up a fire flower, and Luigi having green overalls when he has the same power. Likewise, Link received a wider variety of colors, though they are mostly shades of green with a hair change to strawberry. Link also had better shading, shadows, and a bigger range of facial expressions thanks to his enhanced eyes [ 7 ]. Link kept his signature hat and tunic look, making him easily identifiable despite his brighter and more detailed pallet. Link did get upgrades to his basic green tunic, with a blue and red version that provided him with more incremental protection, while retaining his iconic look.

There are a lot of three-dimensional iterations of these two protagonists, so I’ll have to be brief, or I’ll be here forever. Blasting into the era of 3-D with the Nintendo 64, both Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time raised the bar for both genres significantly. Now in full 3-D, Mario’s body shape, size, and clothing became completely defined, with a red cap and shirt, blue overalls with brass buttons, white gloves, and brown boots, and of course Mario retained his mustache. While all these elements, save the gloves, were present in the 2-D iterations of Mario, bringing them into the 3-D realm meant giving them a more tangible shape.

Now Mario could look more like a human man than a drawing. This basic design remained the same in all of Mario’s future games, from Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube all the way to Super Mario Odyssey on the Nintendo Switch. Mario’s look became smoother as the consoles powered up, resembling less of a block-built form and more of a regular man, if an oddly shaped one. While the minute details of Mario’s outfit, such as the cuffs and stitching of his pants, have been given greater detail as hardware allows, he is always recognizable regardless of what game he is in, even going sequentially backwards. The three-dimensional era of games saw the first big distinctions drawn between Mario and Luigi, with the green brother now being a taller, slimmer reflection of his more famous brother. Luigi still retained his green color scheme and most of his basic look, so he’s not totally apart from his lower bit iterations.

Link received two forms in his 3-D debut, known as Kid Link and Adult Link. As you might expect, Kid Link was smaller and couldn’t use the same equipment as Adult Link, but both characters shared the signature outfit of green hat, green tunic, and boots. Adult Link also notably got tights and an undershirt, as well as leather bracers. In Ocarina of Time, Link once more got a blue and red version of his classic tunic, blue to allow him to breathe underwater (it’s magic!) and red to better protect him from fire in Goron’s mountain. This basic look got some detailing upgrades in successive games—Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild. There was additional patterning on the bracers, representing some of the same complex leather working that is done in the real world. There were clearly defined seams on Link’s hat and tunic, including stitching, and the addition of a chain mail texture under his tunic with a shirt underneath. Link also had the addition of leather straps to hold his shield and sword (whereas previously they just “sat” on his back). Link’s animations in a three-dimensional space were naturally more complicated, and they had some variance depending on which game we’re talking about, but more or less his sword attacks and bow shots remained functionally the same. This allowed fans of the franchise to easily pick up and play, adding another layer of familiarity to the character. I also want to give mention to other main characters from these series—Princess Zelda, Ganon, Princess Peach, and Bowser—that had also undergone this same “glow up,” becoming more detailed and defined while not losing their original design. 

Link has similarly had a striking evolution of appearance, with distinct visual styles across decades of his various incarnations.

While these are not the only two characters in game franchises to receive such incremental updates without losing their core design, they are perhaps the most prominent examples and show how a well thought out design philosophy can create a consistent art direction that keep your style fresh without losing what made it special in the first place. 

Pokémon—Oh My God There Are Hundreds of Them,
And They All Get Their Art Updated

One of the most prolific and genre-transcending intellectual properties ever made, Pokémon is perhaps best known for its anime, but its true beginnings came in the video games for the Nintendo Game Boy. Until the 8th generation games, Pokémon Sword and Shield, every Pokémon game title has been released on Nintendo’s handheld gaming devices. Naturally, this would mean the graphics of the Pokémon games would lag behind the typical console, though as we have seen through the ages of gaming, even those devices with lower pixel counts can portray a lot of complex visual information.

Even so, the Pokémon franchise graphics had very humble beginnings in the first generation of games, Pokémon: Red, Blue, and Yellow. Each of the original 151 Pokémon only had about three sprites between them: a front-facing sprite, a back-facing sprite, and the “popping out” sprite when they enter a battle [ 8 ]. Also, all these sprites were in black and white (or green if you set your Game Boy display that way) [ 9 ]. There was no animation to be seen for these first-gen Pokémon. When we hit Gen 2, there were incremental changes to the pixel art of each sprite, as well as each sprite being in color, since we have moved to Game Boy Color now. The iconic Pokémon, Charizard, looked much more like its anime counterpart in this generation, having smoother sprites and more defined features. Also, in Pokémon: Crystal, we got a few frames of animation for front-facing sprites. That’s a huge change for the now 251 total monsters [ 10 ]. Oh, and I should also mention that we also had shiny Pokémon, which are a different colored version of each Pokémon that are rarer. So, yeah, a lot of sprite art was packed into this one.

That change didn’t remain when the series moved on to the third generation, Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald, for the Game Boy Advance. Obviously, more hardware power means more detail, and every one of the first 251 Pokémon did indeed get an upgrade. They didn’t have several frames of animation this time, but each one had at least two front-facing sprites, and one back-facing sprite [ 11 ]. Again, taking Charizard as the example, the newest sprites had smoother colors and the flame on its tail was better defined.

The 4th generation of Pokémon games, Diamond, Platinum, and Pearl on the Nintendo DS brought us more small improvements, and of course more Pokémon. Our good buddy Charizard, much like every previous generation Pokémon, got two reworked, front-facing sprites, putting it in a different pose and just giving it slightly more detail. However, the fourth generation didn’t change all that much when it came to the conventions of Pokémon. The real big shift came with the generation 5 games—Pokémon: Black and White, Black 2, and White 2. This time around, the Pokémon sprites got a huge upgrade from just being static sprites; they gained animation skeletons. Yes, it took five generations, but finally, every Pokémon moved around during battle, as though they might be alive [ 12 ]. Charizard looked better than ever as it glowered menacingly on the battlefield, its tail swaying back and forth and its wings flexing slightly.

Naturally, coming onto the Nintendo 3DS, we are going to see a big change in our Pokémon. Three-dimensional animated Pokémon, and more than 800 of them, is no small order. Developers GameFreak staffed up for the big new releases of the 6th generation, Pokémon X and Y. Now our classic Charizard floats above the ground, flapping its wings and glaring menacingly at its opponents. It also has a few separate attack animations to go on top of this latest glow-up.

While every iteration of the Pokémon games has given each of the respective monsters a general smoothing out along with better shading and coloring, one thing has kept consistent—the original designs. While Charizard has looked better with each successive generation, it hasn’t been drastically changed, save from its Generation 1 sprites. Charizard has looked “the same,” even when it moved into three dimensions. This is an intentional design choice by GameFreak, who must have realized early on that they couldn’t add even very small changes to their old designs without creating a gigantic workload for their artists and animators—not to mention upsetting long-standing fans of the franchise. This design philosophy does limit the Pokémon franchise to keeping its newer designs as simple as possible, so as not to totally outshine older monsters. Yet it also makes it possible to keep the game production on a somewhat consistent cycle [ 1 ].

Metroidvania—Old-school Adventure Exploration
Coming to a 3-D Realm

The old-school adventure and exploration classics of Castlevania and Metroid followed a similar track to their console contemporaries, with each iteration in the series seeing small upgrades and updates. Metroid having its sole protagonist in Samus Aran, kept on track with other solo-protagonist games, with Samus’ sprites and animations getting slightly better with each new console. Castlevania doesn’t have a sole protagonist, but it kept the protagonists fresh with better models and animations. These games stayed in a two-dimensional realm for quite a while, even into the respectably powered PlayStation 1, where we got the classic and iconic Metroidvania game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While I and many others love this game, it could be said that this release was strange, since many games with similar exploration elements at the time were all being made in 3-D. Likewise, the Metroid games hadn’t seen a 3-D iteration yet, with the last 2-D release being Super Metroid in 1994.

While Casltevania 64 did exist, it was such a terrible exploration into the realm of 3-D that it should never be played, at least not by anyone who isn’t a masochist.  Then along came a game that showed this sort of style could be implemented into a 3-D world—Devil May Cry. While DMC1 is more of an action game, it does contain exploration elements, such as finding hidden items and opening new pathways on the map, as well as RPG elements, as you collect orbs to level up and unlock Dante’s abilities. Not only this, but DMC had the classic, gothic horror style of Castlevania sort of baked into it. Series director Hideki Kamiya said in an interview with 1UP.com that he loved the NES Castlevania: “Back then when I played it, the amount of detail that went into it, I feel the creator must have had a clear vision of what he wanted to do” [ 13 ].

The Devil May Cry series has been an inspiration for many action-adventure games, including some directly lifting its mechanics (of which I also wrote about in a previous article). It’s interesting to think that a game that pays some homage to the Castlevania franchise would in turn be responsible for the new direction of that series. The next entry in the Carpathian Mountains, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is the franchise’s first good three-dimensional game. Keeping the exploration and RPG elements of Symphony of the Night while adding in the three-dimensional action combat of DMC, this game could be called the “apology” for Castlevania 64 [ 14 ]. Since we have another new protagonist with a brand-new design, we can’t quite do the comparisons we did with the previous titles. However, we can see easily enough the classic, gothic style of Castlevania fully realized in three dimensions. 

The hero of the titular Metroid franchise, Samus Aran has seen an explosion of games in recent years, some deeply modifying her appearance.

We do, however, have a good basis for comparisons with the first 3-D Metroid game, in Metroid: Prime. Samus had a very well-established look for her power armor, and in the sections of the game that are not in first-person view, that armor is fully displayed in its 3-D glory, looking very much as its 16-bit counterpart did, but wrought bigger and bolder [ 15 ]. The rolling ball form that was used to explore the tight tunnels of the previous games is now more akin to a giant metallic hamster ball, capable of rolling up the sides of tunnels and rotating around them to avoid obstacles. Though all the classic sci-fi design elements of previous Metroid games are present, I must mention the big change of this game being in first-person view. So, while it doesn’t really lose the established art style of the series, you do miss out on seeing Samus’ armor most of the time.

Upgrading Your Fighting Kit: Street Fighter

We come back, once again, to the biggest name in fighting games, the Street Fighter series. This long-running series, having just recently passed its 30th anniversary, naturally has gone through many changes. While most fighting game enthusiasts likely started out playing the second game, the original Street Fighter had a very direct influence on what the art style and gameplay of the rest of the series would be like. Firstly, this game is the origin of the biggest stars of the franchise, Ryu and Ken [ 16 ]. While these two fighters were practically copies of one another in terms of moves, they had enough differences in appearance to make them distinct. Ryu had his white gi, black belt, headband, and red fighting gloves, while Ken had long blond hair, a red gi, and wristbands. They weren’t quite as detailed as their next-gen counterparts, despite being on a technically advanced arcade machine, but the individual looks of these two fighters would remain an iconic part of the series throughout its lifespan.

Moving, naturally, into the many and varied iterations of Street Fighter II, we see changes to the detail of the game overall, particularly in the arcade cabinet, though the home console versions are also quite pleasing to the eye. Alongside more active and detailed backgrounds, every fighter sprite became livelier, each one having idle animations. Our two iconic characters, Ryu and Ken, got a small glow-up in terms of persistent shading and lighting and a more well-defined fighting stance. There were some minimal changes to their outfits, with both fighters sporting brown fighting gloves, and Ryu’s hair changing from a reddish-brown to just brown [ 17 ].

A big change in overall art style came with Street Fighter Alpha. This new take on the original designs of Street Fighter were more in line with an anime look and feel. Each fighter had exaggerated features, bright color palettes, and an overall cartoonish look to them [ 18 ]. Ryu and Ken, once again, got a nice overhaul to their designs, with slight changes in their stances and idle animations, and small changes to their facial details (bolder eyebrows). Ken’s gloves changed to yellow/gold, and Ryu’s back to their original red.

The biggest, and perhaps most ill-advised change in art style, comes in Street Fighter EX. This is where the series first tried to enter the realm of three-dimensional models and arenas. It was a bold choice at the time, to depart from the two-dimensional sort of side-scroll fighting that the series was most famous for, to then step into the third dimension and change the fundamentals of the game itself. While the well-known fighters retain their classic looks, their presentation goes from artistically drawn to blocky, unappealing polygons [ 19 ]. While the game functioned fine, those among the fandom who appreciate the crisp art style of Alpha probably did not enjoy the change.

While Street Fighter III looked like a more polished version of Alpha [ 20 ], our next big change in art came from Street Fighter 2: Turbo HD Remix. This edition of the many times over remade SF2 came with a major upgrade to the fighter art. Every fighter from the SF2 Turbo roster was present, with super-detailed, hand-drawn models, akin to a high-budget animated film [ 21 ]. In this iteration, Ken and Ryu’s default costumes (there were several color-swapped options) appeared as they did in the original game, with the brown fighting gloves, and even their original idle animations and stances, though obviously re-tailored for their much more detailed and defined models. 

While evolving with the times, there is absolutely a rich and largely consistent visual aesthetic to the Street Fighter franchise, from SF2: The World Warrior all the way to the present.

The last game to change the overall aesthetic of the franchise was Street Fighter IV. Here, the series went back into 3-D but does so in a much better fashion than it did with the EX series. Taking full advantage of the highly improved modern console technology, the level of detail in this game was superb. Stages and backgrounds had fully animated crowds and other dynamic elements. The fighters themselves became imposing figures in their new 3-D models. Ryu’s model still looked like Ryu, but with some notable changes to the minutia of his costume. His fighting gloves had a stylized Chinese script on them that says “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain,” as well as some script on his black belt. Ken had his simple golden/yellow gloves and they, and his belt, have no script. Both iconic characters benefited from the new models with greater muscle definition and smoother animations [ 21 ].

Throughout the entire series, while there were many changes to the art style of the game, the iconic characters retained their signature looks, getting incremental upgrades as the series matured into the newer and more powerful arcade machines and consoles. Even when there were big changes with the art direction of the series, it was still easy to identify these long-standing, series characters.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

So, having looked over several different game franchises and how they have approached modernization to their titles over the years, we can see that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. You could go down the route of the powerhouses like Mario and Zelda, giving your main characters very slight detail changes over time while keeping their original designs intact. You could also take the Pokémon track, not actually changing any of the old designs, but at least updating their graphic fidelity and animations. Or, you could go with the Castlevania example, always changing up your main characters and supporting cast, but keeping one central art theme.

While the art direction of Street Fighter might seem like that of Pokémon, there is a distinction to be made, where the former experimented with vastly different art styles compared to the latter. There is no correct or singular answer, except for what works for your game at the time. There is plenty of room to explore changes in art and graphics while keeping in mind the roots of the original art and paying homage to that. You want your sequel games to retain a similar enough look and feel to them that they are easily recognizable as being part of that franchise, while at the same time changing enough or adding enough to that game to make it a distinct entity unto itself. You want players to come back for what is familiar and to stick around for everything that is new. You must recognize what should be improved, certainly in the overall playability and graphic fidelity of the game, while maintaining your established art style and atmosphere. It is a difficult balance to strike, and while we have many successful franchises approaching this balance in different ways, it will be hard to say what the approach for the next game in any given series will be. As these developers further hone their craft, we naturally want bigger and better things from them, but sometimes keeping things simple and more or less the same works a lot better than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Images

  1. “Mario’s had a dramatic evolution of appearance over the years. However, each game attempts to pay tribute to what’s gone before, leading to a visual library and continuity, even across decades.” Super Mario History Ultra HD Desktop Background Wallpaper for : Multi Display, Dual Monitor : Tablet : Smartphone. wallpaperswide.com/super_mario_history-wallpapers.html
  2. “Link has similarly had a striking evolution of appearance, with distinct visual styles across decades of his various incarnations.” Source: “The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary.” Zelda Wiki, zelda.fandom.com/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda_25th_Anniversary
  3. “The hero of the titular Metroidvania franchise, Samus Aran has seen an explosion of games in recent years, some deeply modifying her appearance.” “Samus Aran Design History.” Reddit, 17 Feb. 2020, www.reddit.com/r/Metroid/comments/f59u2i/samus_aran_design_history
  4. “While evolving with the times, there is absolutely a rich and largely consistent visual aesthetic to the Street Fighter franchise, from SF2: The World Warrior all the way to the present.” Trollucus, Gabenus. “SFIV and SFV Graphics Compare.” Know Your Meme, 22 Feb. 2018, knowyourmeme.com/photos/875432-street-fighter

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