Archive entry by Ste Pickford on Thu, 26 Feb 2009
I thought it might be fun to show some of the 'working' for the title screen to an NES game we did called Ironsword.
I found all this stuff rooting through some old backups.
Working on the NES was my first experience of cartridge development. All my previous work was on tape or disk based computers, and the loading screen - a nice image to look at while you waited up to 5 or 10 minutes for the game to load in - was always a big job for the artist on the game. I loved doing loading screens, and had a reputation for being quite good at them. Cartridges meant instant loading, which meant no loading screen.
The NES came out of the coin-op tradition, rather than the home computer tradition, so most games either had nice 'attract modes' at the beginning (where the game plays itself on autopilot, with a 'press start' message over the top, replacing the 'insert coin' that would have been there if it was a coin-op), or very plain title screens with just a logo and a start / options menu.
I think I was trying to do something a bit more like a loading screen for Ironsword, as that was what I was used to doing. Unlike a home computer where I usually had a full screen bitmap where I could draw whatever I wanted, I was stuck with the very limited NES graphics system, which was designed for scrolling video games, not static, detailed images.
All I had available were 256 8x8 pixel characters, 2 bits deep (4 colours each, including the background colour), and a similar number of 8x8 pixel sprites which could be overlaid on the top of the character screen, with severe limitations on the number available on screen at any one time.
The first image shows the work for the bulk of the title screen - the drawing of Kuros, the main character in the game. I wanted to do something quite detailed, and I spent most of my character budget on this image, but I tried to use a lot of solid black shadow to save the odd character here and there. The version to the right with the blocky blue line around it shows exactly how many unique 8x8 characters I used here - 161, nearly two thirds of the 256 available.
Next is my Ironsword logo. I was quite pleased with this, but just after I finished it we got a copy of the logo designed by Acclaim for the cover, so I had to throw my logo away and copy theirs, which was a bit more bland and blocky, with detail that didn't work very well at such a low pixel resolution.
This took up most of the rest of my character budget, although I managed to repeat a few characters where the second 'O' and 'R' appeared later in the logo.
Next is the sword in Kuros' hand. I used sprites for the sword, so this graphic didn't come out of my character budget, and could use a different colour palette of 3 colours (plus transparency) from the background. I wanted some flames shooting up the sword to bring the screen to life a bit.
You couldn't have very many sprites on a horizontal line on the NES, so tall thin graphics, like the sword, were ideally suited to sprites. It would have been impossible to use the same technique of the sword was held horizontally (so obviously I had this in mind when planning the image).
Underneath you can see my final set of 256 character graphics, then the smaller number of sprite graphics.
In the set of character graphics you can see that I don't include a complete alphabet. There's no J or Q or X or many numbers. That was because those particular letters weren't needed on this particular screen. This might seem unbelievably bodgy nowadays, but back then tricks like this were essential if you wanted to get the most out of the limited hardware. You can imagine what a nightmare it would be to handle text strings in the code with changing character sets like this.
Finally, at the bottom is a screenshot of the finished title screen from the game (note the number 1 in the date is the same character as the letter I in the subtitle and roman numberals - clever eh?).
Spending a full character set, and half a sprite set, on just the title screen was still quite an extravagance back in the NES days. Most games used in-game graphics for the title screen, so we must have had a decent sized cartridge available.