Friday, 17 October 2014

Unit 78 - Comparing the graphics of a 2D & 3D game

Unit 78 - Comparing the graphics of a 2D and 3D game
By Dave Johnson

The games I am comparing
For my graphics comparisons, I have chosen to compare two games from two series that have been hugely successful in the history of video games. The series in question are the 'Castlevania' games by Konami and 'Megaman' by Capcom. I have chosen these games not only because they are close to my heart and rekindle many great memories, but I also think that they accurately reflect the relationship between a generations developing technology and gameplay.

The list of 'Castlevania' games is long and has since become legend in the eyes of the gaming world. It has a legacy that has continued for almost 30 years and I believe effectively illustrates the technology behind each generation of games console.  The list of titles in the series currently stands at an immense 39, but I have chosen the one that I believe is most significant. This is because it marks the series acute transition from retro 2D platforming, to advanced 3D gaming of the 21st century. That title is 'Castlevania - Lords of Shadow '(XBox 360 / Playstation 3).

Click here to see the game in action :

The game features many recognisable creatures of folklore, legend and particularly movies, such as skeletons, werewolves, gorgons, zombies and even Satan himself. The cast of villains numbers the hundreds across the games entirety, being a gallery of classic monsters. What is interesting in general about the 'Castlevania' series is that as horror movie technology has developed, so have the games graphics and ideas. They have moved from fairly tame shambling skeletons in the series first 1987 outing to terrifying flights of imagination in 2014. The same can be said of the game's environments - beginning with the castle of many Hammer Horror movies, the series has developed into creating breath-taking landscapes and weird locations that are all of its own. 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow' feels like an epic journey in its own right, with the developers having pushed console system graphics to the absolute limit. This is partly what I love about the game - its graphics are both innovative and surprising, rewarding the players perseverance with another pleasingly strange creation to fight or sight to see.

'Mega Man'
'Mega Man' began as a series in 1987, the same year that the original 'Castlevania' was released. Like it's aforementioned peer, the series began on the Nintendo Entertainment System as a challenging 2D platformer. SInce those early days the series has developed to a staggering 50 titles on multiple systems. The 'Mega Man' series has to date sold 29 million copies, making it the developer Capcom's most lucrative franchise. 'Mega Man' has also proved to be a huge success in other areas of popular media such as television, comic books, manga, novels and even rock music! There are a few established American bands that base their music around the series including 'The Protomen', 'The Minibosses' and 'The Megas'. Few other video game series can claim such a vast influence over other kinds of media, making 'Mega Man' a unique example.

The title I will be looking at is one of the latest releases of the series classic 2D platforming format 'Mega Man 10' (XBox 360 / Playstation 3)' . I feel that this is a good comparison between genres as both the franchises I have chosen began in the same year, with the games I am looking at both being released in 2010. Both games are also good illustrations of how far the developers have gone to rejuvenate the franchises, both in terms of graphics and gameplay. 

Click here to watch the game in action :

3D Game : 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow' (2010)

The very first outing for the ‘Castlevania’ series was back in 1987 and was released on the original Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom in the US and Japan). The Nintendo Entertainment System was, at the time, a state of the art home entertainment console. It featured a wealth of games, with many genres still at an experimental stage and very much in their infancy.
The NES CPU used an 8-bit central processing unit with which he could handle data from the game program at any one time. Additionally the NES featured 2 kilobytes of video RAM for the picture processing, 256 kilobytes of object attribute memory to hold a display list of sprites and 28 bytes of palette RAM. By today’s standards this is a miniscule amount of hardware and processing power, but it serves to illustrate the limitations that the games and graphics were working under at the time.

Most games from that era were 2D plat formers whose graphics were a pixel based format such as JPEG or PNG. This was because the limitations of the hardware meant that only tiny files and programs could be run at any one time. As consoles have progressed over the years the amount happening in on our screens has increased tenfold. Now using the 8GB memory RAM of 2014, 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow' stands as a towering example of just how far technology has altered our game experiences. Modern console processors are now at such an advanced stage that the number of graphics elements on screen at any one time can be bewildering:

1987 - Simple 2D sprites, basic backgrounds and a limited play area
2010 - Complex polygons, light & shadow effects, a complex HUD and an immersive play area


The basic premise of each 'Castlevania' game has always been the same. Every hundred years, the evil count Dracula rises from his grave to spread evil across the land. A member of a generations old family of vampire hunters must take up the mantle and battle their way to the counts' castle facing monsters and traps along the way. If they survive this journey it culminates in a final showdown with Dracula himself, where the character is given the chance to end the evil one's reign.



Let us begin by taking a look at the evolution of the game's central character. He has evolved from a simple bitmap sprite into a highly believable collection of polygons and bitmap textures. With the availability of 3D, high resolution and vector graphics, every detail of the hero has narrative woven into it. His costume conveys as much story as his facial expressions and movements. With the processing power available on consoles in 1987, 2D was as powerful as it got. With each subsequent release the series graphics have become more complex, traveling from 2D sprites through 2.5D (2D sprites on a 3D background or vice versa) through to full 3D polygon models. The fans never fell out of love with the series despite some occasional low points. When the decision was made to refresh the franchise in 2010, the developers MercurySteam knew exactly what modern fans would expect. David Cox the series producer stated in an interview that the days of 2D were over in the games world:

"I think those days are gone, yes. I think hardcore gamers would love to play another 2D Castlevania, but the reality is that it’s a very niche market and Konami really want this series to be mainstream again. We took this direction in order to reach that bigger audience, otherwise we would have carried on with the 2D approach. That’s not to say I don’t think there will ever be another 2D game in the series, it might happen but just not from MercurySteam. When you look at the future on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I don’t think people want to play 2D games on those consoles. Core gamers may still want something like that, but there’s an expectation among the wider public for big, epic games.“ 

The decision to reinvent the game's graphical look came primarily from what would sell. Also audiences did not want to be given such a cartoonish look and story anymore. Games have developed as a way of telling epic, dark stories and the public have come to expect this. Retellings of Dracula and vampire tales in film such as 'Bram Stoker's Dracula', 'Interview With The Vampire', 'Twilight', and 'From Dusk 'Till Dawn' have got progressively darker. 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow' sought inspiration from these and then added folklore into the mix. It was a game that with its large collection of referenced creatures wanted to become an authentic fantasy story in its own right - to be able to proudly stand alongside the sources it drew inspiration from.  Audiences are intelligent and they do not want a second hand retelling of a story; they want new ideas and concepts, to be consistently surprised and entertained. The game delivers this ethos in abundance.

Artistic style
The artistic style the game manages to portray is of the medieval type, but mixes fantasy, mysticism, folklore and horror into its open world mix. The graphics communicate an epic story filled with detail and emotion. The reliance on 3D means that some truly realistic looking monsters and environments have been created. Everything is built by polygons except for the far backgrounds which are likely to be 2D bitmap images :

Graphics types

Polygons are also vector based graphics meaning the sprites have clean edges. The texture surfaces on the polygons are bitmap images that have been applied. They are there to give the illusion of cloth, skin, metal, stone, hair, blood etc. There is some compression on the bitmap files to help the game run smoothly - too much information will slow down the frame rate of a game. The trick of any graphics developer is to find a trade off between visuals and CPU performance.

There are some 2D graphics which are static bitmaps - these are used on the menu screen and for incidental character information:

These add to the earthy, Tolkien-esque feel of the game as well as providing a welcome break from the complexity of the 3D. I think this is one of the main reasons that the game appeals to me so much; as a professional illustrator I can appreciate the detail and ideas behind the 2D work. As a gamer I can appreciate the complex programming that has gone into creating such a deep, immersive experience.

Image storage
To store the image information required, a game of this calibre has a large portion of its image assets stored on the console hard drive (this usually takes several gigabytes of space). The rest of the code for the running of the game is on the disc which is required to work in conjunction with the stored assets.

Boss battles

One of the staple trademarks of Castlevania's gameplay are its boss battles. A boss is an end of level creature that must be defeated for game progression. The 1987 'Castlevania' offered large 2D sprites that provided gateway guardian to bypass the level. The 2010 'Castlevania' offers huge 3D polygon monsters that ARE a level in themselves. The clever use of scalable polygons gives the impression that the main hero has suddenly become tiny - he literally has to scale a mountain-like monster to defeat it. This would not have been possible in a 2D game and is where the 3D route really takes hold. They make what should have been a simple fight into a real event that the gamer can remember forever. The game takes full advantage of the technology and graphics for the player to move into and out of the environment and feel its solidity - something not possible in previous games.

Boss fight - 1987
Fighting a monster

Boss fight - 2010
Fighting and climbing a monster

2D Game : 'Mega Man 10' (2010)

The very first outing for the ‘Mega Man’ series was back in 1987 and was released on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES CPU used an 8-bit central processing unit with which he could handle data from the game program at any one time. Additionally the NES featured 2 kilobytes of video RAM for the picture processing, 256 kilobytes of object attribute memory to hold a display list of sprites and 28 bytes of palette RAM. This limited processing and storage power meant that 2D platformers were a wise and popular choice of genre for the system. 'Mega Man' proved that when designed correctly, even simple bitmaps could have charm, character and memorable visual appeal. The sprites embraced the limited power of the NES and made its graphic disabilities part of the games visual language:

Mega Man in 1987

Mega Man in 2010 -
still exactly the way the fans like him!


The basic premise of each 'Mega Man' game has always been the same. The good Dr Light created a robotic lab assistant called 'Mega Man' ('Rock' in Japan). After a treacherous rebellion by the evil Dr Wily, Mega Man is converted to a battle robot to defend the world from Dr Wily's threats. Mega Man's opponents through each level are various droids culminating in a boss fight with a robot being similar to himself. These evil images of himself always have a name that describes their main form of attack: e.g: Chill Man, Nitro Man, Pump Man, Solar Man, etc. Mega Man must defeat each one and gain their respective power before a final showdown with Dr Wily himself.

Mega Man 10 is a deliberately old school platformer. It has been made this way because it appeals to a niche market who want this kind of old fashioned experience. This is in many ways the exact anti thesis of what MercurySteam were going for with 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow'. It is a resolutely 2D experience that uses no polygons, just simple bitmap sprites and level design. The player cannot move 'into' and 'out of' the screen or reach far off waypoints. The gameplay of 'Mega Man' is simple and quite rudimentary.
: run, gun, scroll the screen left, right, up or down, reach bosses, defeat them, power up and move onto the next level.

Mega Man 10 Bosses

Rie Onishi, one of the bitmap artists on the game is quoted in an interview with the gaming press:

"On the Famicom you were always struggling with the color palette limitations, and you could only freely color two objects at a time. When I think about the challenges the Famicom Mega Man developers faced, working without the modern software tools we have today, I think they really must have been supermen!

For graphic design in Mega Man 9, our priority was to make sure everything was visually easy to understand. We made sure all the enemy bullets weren’t obscured by the colors in the stage. That took us a little beyond the limitations of the original Famicom, but I think our designs still retained the overall spirit of the system."

This reinforces the series belief in always staying true to it's origins. The graphics retain the spirit and personality of their early incarnations as the developers understood what worked and what their target audience wanted. The series is so committed to maintaining its simple bitmap look, it ends up still standing out in an over saturated 3D marketplace.

Artistic style

Mega Man 10 possesses a cartoon style that is fun, charismatic and immediately charming - albeit in naive 1980's way! It is deliberately unrealistic to create a wide universe of wacky characters and crazy weapons that couldn't be found anywhere else. The use of colours is simple, harking back to the nostalgia of the 80's. By todays AAA title standards the graphics could be construed as childish, almost primitive. But in hindsight, this is the entire point - to remind a certain age group of gamers of the kind of entertainment they had as children! This is not to say that the game gives the player a simple, easy ride. In fact it is the exact opposite. The game is notoriously difficult as evidenced by the variety of robots, traps and laser blasts on screen. Therefore it is clearly intended for the fun cartoon style to almost be at odds with the games nature, providing an interesting contradiction - friendly on the one hand, not so friendly on the other!

Static bitmap images and animated gifs / jpgs form the backbone of the game's visual style

Graphics types
The game uses bitmaps such as jpegs, pngs and gifs almost exclusively. There are no 3D polygons to be found anywhere as this would shatter the illusion of nostalgia. Bitmaps are the most effective way to replicate old fashioned sprites as they are pixel based grids - exactly what developers were working with in 1987.

Image storage
Available for just £10 on XBox Live and the Playstation network, this makes the game downloadable only. Storage by default is confined to the hard drive of the console. The game is so small size wise that it does not require a physical copy. In contrast, 'Castlevania - Lords Of Shadow' is so large in scope it runs across 2 discs and still requires installation on a hard drive.

Boss battles

Boss fights in 'Mega Man 10' are part of a central gameplay mechanic. Players must decide what order to tackle bosses in since the correct weapon received from defeating one makes certain levels a lot easier. In terms of how these bosses are represented on screen, they are usually a large static background overlaid with smaller sprites. In the example above, the main boss will emerge from the background to fight the player in the foreground, at which point he will be substituted for another collection of bitmaps (one for each part of the boss, as parts have to be attacked and destroyed in order). This illusion of enemies hiding out of reach and then jumping into the fight is a clever technique consisting of active and passive graphic elements. 

I think the two examples I have chosen are really interesting as in many ways they are so closely related - both began in 1987, with their respective examined games being released in 2010. Both have taken into account what modern audiences want, and both understand how to tell their stories. Castlevania's advanced plotline means that 2D would not cater to its intentions - only 3D would have given the developers enough detail to present all the narrative they would need. Detail is everywhere in the game, right down to non interactive elements such as walls, floors, windows and lighting. Every effort has been made for modern audiences to feel they are taking part in a gothic horror story. Mercury Steam knew that the perception of vampires in modern fiction would take a certain degree of artistry to sell to audiences - 2D would just not have been able to convey that atmosphere.

Mega Man 10 on the other hand knows exactly what it wants - its story is in many ways not so much in the game as outside of it with the players. It is in many ways catering to a niche market of hard core video game fans who want to remember the simpler games of yesteryear. That is why 2D is so appropriate - because back then that was all there was! No complex polygons or lighting effects, just pure simple nostalgia.



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