Retro Authenticity


This goes hand-in-hand with my previous rant, but when doing retro graphics and sound, authenticity is something very important to me. I won’t say that everything I do is 100% authentic. Far from it. But everything I do is done intentionally with the best understanding of the limitations I have at the time and tested on the closest I can get to real hardware. Any deviation is a matter of knowing what I want to do to break something with the understanding that I’m breaking something, with intent.

Let me just throw out a few examples.

CGA++ palette

This is a personal palette of mine that generally sacrifices truer, brighter colors for a wealth of useful grays compared to the real EGA palette. In all technicality it’s actually a subset of VGA and in that context is a perfectly valid rendering, just without the use of the larger swath of the VGA palette. CGA++ takes the idea of RGBI (Red, Green, Blue, Intensity) used by CGA and extends it with half-brightnesses, with pure tones set aside as "exceptions," though my personal use of them is extremely limited. In all honesty, pure tones are far more useful to my work for palette swapping rather than actual graphics and sticking with colors that look a bit dingy in actuality keeps things from being quite so blinding, especially when displayed on a real CRT where the color response is much greater, especially for warm colors. All of this may sound rather anal, but it’s found its way into more of my games than probably any other palette than the NES palette because it’s just so darn useful. The only thing it’s missing is good amber colors, which I wish there was an easier means to reproducing directly more often than you’d think.

NES expansion chips

NES MIDI was a thing. NES per-tile background colors were a thing. They weren’t necessarily a thing together in one chip in reality, but they could have been. Granted, some of this is a matter of "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," but even though my workflow is heavily invested in MIDI, I at least have the decency to limit how many channels I throw at it, because there’s not much point in making an NES style game if you’re only filling it with DOS style music and getting creative with combining them can offer some nifty results. The important thing isn’t necessarily sticking to the MC5 or any other specific chip since companies were free to make whatever chips they wanted; the important thing is that it’s something within the tech of the time, even if it would have been unreasonably expensive. Oh, that and I just go ahead and assume the expansion sound is enabled, so really I’m operating much closer to the Famicom than the NES.

BSC StarSystem and MiniBlue

To put it this way, these are my way around getting sued by Nintendo when I want to do NES or Game Boy style games. The MiniBlue is actually based on a tiny Mario alarm clock I picked up from a garage sale shaped like a tiny Game Boy and the BSC StarSystem is basically my "what if the NES got a handheld version" that take pointers from contemporary design and technology. I won’t go into the minutiae of the differences, but a major difference between them and Nintendo’s hardware is the flashers you may have noticed on the main site. TL;DR: those are inspired by a fantastic handheld pinball game from my childhood that also included vibration and it’s a thing I keep in my room and to this day still get the urge to pick up and play. Naturally, I cranked this up to 11 because even that only had red LEDs where that’s extended somewhat in my own interfaces to what feels like reasonable limits, but having those flashers to really crank the intensity is something I have that’s based on real technology of the time and Nintendo never did.

But enough about me…

Let’s talk about why authenticity is so important. In a nutshell, it’s the reason people are so dazzled when shown what CRT graphics actually looked like. Things like dithering were taken to have always looked like crap and people think pixels were always this big, chunky thing because of the criminal laziness of indie developers who hid behind the "retro" label to excuse their own sloppy art. They absolutely banked on people’s ignorance impicitly or explicitly because they figured pixel art was easy and nobody was going to know the difference if they just added noise over their crappy art assets and seeing that drove me up a wall. Authenticity is understanding that artists NEVER had the goal of drawing chunky pixels or making things look intentionally like crap; they used the tools at their disposal for the greatest realism they could achieve. Even if it was stylized, the goal was to deliver a polished product that looked as good as possible. They tried to make it look like anime, or maybe some other established art style. Nobody and I mean nobody wanted their art to look like a blocky piece of crap unless there was a specific reason for it. You have to realize that professional game artists are professionals. There were always crappy homebrew projects, yes, but when it comes to people making serious endeavors, some of your oldschool artists came from traditional animation backgrounds and understood the importance of keyframes that served them well when making sprites in limited positions. All of them came from a position of some amount of education, either formal or self-taught, that earned them the position of an artist on a title that they hoped was going to keep them employed. No professional artist EVER wants their work to look bad, unless it’s done in irony.

To that end, they USED the limitations of the time. If there was an imperfection, they learned how to use it to their advantage. Limitations foster creativity. And art is nothing if not a creative endeavor.

Authenticity from indie developers in the early days of HD would have gone a long way toward people understanding and appreciating that artistry so it wouldn’t have been such a surprise today when people are finally getting the word out. People would have just understood that things on CRT looked as real as the hardware would allow and maybe would have demanded a bit better from the likes of Nintendo instead of pointing to box art and manuals swearing up and down the games always looked chunky without actually having seen it for themselves, or worse yet, coming to the baffling conclusion that the artists WANTED them to look chunky, but CRT wouldn’t let them. And, I mean, yes, that’s a thing people legitimately argued with me about and it makes no sense at all. Why would you WANT your art to look chunky? What style would that have been EMULATING? Seriously, if you’re the first person to make a video game on an 8-bit system and you’re looking for an art style, show me where the heck you get the idea to make art with chunky squares? Did the designers of all these systems have a total obsession with some obscure Impressionist painter who only drew blocks in a grid and decide the whole system was supposed to emulate their style? Were people enamored with looking through screen doors and thought that forcing that on everyone to make a game for the next few years would appreciate it? Inquiring minds want to know.

AND YET Nintendo had the absolute gall to claim that chunky pixels were how the graphics were originally meant to be viewed on the NES Classic. Why would they spew such an obvious lie when a lot of those people are probably still working for them? Well, as I said in my last rant, emulating CRT is HARD. Nintendo got lazy; end of story. And probably caved to demand they already knew existed in a gaming populace who’d already been gaslit for years by that point. If anything, Sony’s handling of the PS1 catalog on PS5 is the most honest any game company has been about this in long enough that anyone old enough to quibble on details is old enough to drink.

So really, that’s basically what it boils down to: authenticty is truth. It’s the absence of lies and gaslighting. It’s honoring the efforts of professional artists. It’s offering the opportunity to enjoy something the way it was meant to be. And it’s also learning from and appreciating your forebears as a creator. Art doesn’t happen in a bubble; it’s a long progression from the earliest bone carvings and cave paintings that still survive all the way to modern teams of folks dedicated to lovingly rendering and animating the nose hairs of this year’s generic FPS protagonists.

But most of all, it just legitimately looks better. Fite me!