8-bit is a term that gets thrown around a lot, by a lot of different games.
What does this term actually mean, and how many games deserve to use it? Mark (@britishgaming) finds out.
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what is 8-bit search the App Store for this term and you'll get games like super mega worm mcpixel retry Bitcoin billionaire Century City and Star Trek trachsel's they all have one thing in common they're drawn in low five picks Allart visuals meant to evoke video games of days gone by but they also look quite different from one another and could be from many different eras and different consoles so what is that specific piece of computer jargon 8-bit actually mean and how many of these games deserve to use it when describing themselves well for starters let's figure out what the term itself means a bit is one binary value and as it's either 0 or 1 it has two possible States two bit has four possible States four bit has 16 and 8-bit has 256 that's 256 places to store information now developers could be talking about 8-bit color depth this is when each pixel in an image can be one of 256 different colors from a master palette it's certainly a retro limitation compared to the millions of colors in in today's games but it can describe images that look like this or like this and anything in between that's a broad broad range of images and doesn't do all that much to help describe which era of video games the app is trying to ape it's more likely then that developers and journalists and publishers and players are talking about the 8-bit processes that powered consoles in the early 80s like the NES Master System and ZX Spectrum the term 8-bit doesn't refer to the graphics specifically it's more about memory space and info registry and all that gum and is why links rupee count and Zelda goes up to 255 and pac-man goes weird if you go to screen 256 but the low power of these devices also led to huge limitations in the types of graphics that can be displayed and it's not just about colors or size take the NES for example where the complicated restrictions brought about by its picture processing unit led to the iconic graphics you see in games like Kirby and Megaman the PPU spits out one layer and one layer for sprites which are the moving images like Mario and his enemies for the background the screen is split into nine hundred and sixty eight by eight pixel tiles you can only have 256 unique tiles on screen at once though so you'll have to repeat some the NES can show a maximum of 64 colors but only 13 one time on the background layer you get to pick four palettes which are three colors each and one backdrop color and you can't just use those colors wherever you like each block which is a group of four tiles can only use colors from one of those four palettes the sprite layer is equally limited the tiles are 8 by 8 pixels again but you can stick more than one together each tile has just three colors and transparency and you can share a maximum of 12 colors on the entire sprite layer you can't rotate or scale sprites and you can only show sixty-four of them on screen at once and don't forget that if you have eight sprites on the same horizontal line the rightmost one won't show up due to scanline limitations all of these Hardware restrictions lead to the sort of graphics that we might call 8-bit it's not just about color depth or the size of the pixels it's about hardware limitations the tight constraints led to really ingenious tricks and workarounds Mega Man's blue helmet and beige face are two separate sprite tiles which make use of transparency and the massive bosses in his second game are actually background tiles instead of sprites shatterhand faked snez style parallax scrolling on just one background layer by moving bits of the background and making sure they never intersect a batman return of the Joker did it even better by using animated backgrounds to fake the movement by the end of the NES developers were making incredible looking games thanks to smart art design clever workarounds and the inclusion of mappers on certain cartridges which let the game pull off a few extra visual tricks I don't think it's necessary for designers to restrict themselves so resolutely to retro limitations to make their games look 8-bit shovelknight for example might look like it could run on an nes but it has colors not on the consoles palette oversized sprites no scanline flickering a widescreen aspect ratio and impossible parallax scrolling but it feels more worthy of the 8-bit moniker than the games simply have a reduced color palette and a chunky aesthetic it would never actually run on the retro in a million years it's also worth remembering of course that there's more to 8-bit than the NES other consoles at the time had 8-bit processors but their own set of limitations the Commodore 64 has just 16 colors and weird wide pixels the ZX Spectrum has those super bright colors and a massive border the Gameboy works with tiles and only had four colors so it's great to see games that mimic these consoles and computers to wrastling adheres to some limitations of the Commodore 64 8-bit dubs is all done in four colors and has that sickly green hue of the Gameboy and laughs maluna wants to be an MSX game so what's the takeaway from all this well one is that you could never really know what someone means when they say 8-bit it could be that they're using a 256 color palette it could be that they're trying to mimic the graphics of one of many 8-bit powered consoles or it could just mean that's all a bit pixelated it's like the words literally a nonplussed its users become so ambiguous that it's not really useful anymore and to a bit consoles were limited by more than just colors and resolution so developers who want an authentic vintage feel to think about adhering to at least some of those retro restrictions and three you should definitely bring up nes tile limitations and ZX Spectrum palettes every time someone says flappy bird is 8-bit because it will make you sound really cool and everyone will want to be your friend