NES Background Art II: Teaching as a Pixel Sensei

I had the interesting experience lately of working with a new, talented artist on the backgrounds for Almost Hero 2. Even the most talented on pixel ninjas can be staggered by the limitations of NES art and backgrounds, however. This article deals with the process of giving and applying constructive criticism, how artwork evolves through that process, working with restrictions and what different approaches to artwork can accomplish.

To recap: Almost Hero was the first beat em up, a personal favorite genre of mine, that we released for the NES. Initially, we we were just going to use the project as a teaching tool and a fun game to set up at conventions. After about six months of bringing it to events like Magfest, we had enough followers interested in a purchase that we did a limited run. 

Almost Hero follows our ninja rookie as he tries to save his master’s Itsy shop and e-commerce business. This adventure that takes him through various locations, like shark-infested streets and turtle-troubled sewers. At its core, the game is meant to suit speedrun-style play. There are speed runs of River City Ransom at sub 8 minutes, and we aimed to allow similar feats to be pulled off with Almost Hero. The mechanics are easy to pick up, and each level offers a different challenge. The story progresses from a center hub, allowing a player to choose their own destiny as to which area they’ll punch through first.

The experience of making the game taught us a lot about NES art and keeping backgrounds, sprites, and other elements in spec, and we’re looking forward to expanding and improving upon the first game with Almost Hero 2. It will be a slow and steady project for us to massage the next few months, and the fiery spirit of the hopeful, troubled ninja will guide us along. Here are some brief, technical changes:

  • A smaller sprite size than the original game. They’re small enough so that many characters and a lot of action can be on screen at once, even with the NES sprite restrictions, yet big enough to have a lot of detail and character. Our main ninja has been successfully changing his eating habits, and has lost a bit of chub as a result.
  • More detailed backgrounds designed from the start to allow for parallax scrolling.
  • Combat now focuses on weapons, and the player has many ninja moves and traps at their disposal. The main weapon trio features a katana, a bo staff, and a kusarigama. These weapons have distinct move sets, and players should be able to fluidly chain different weapons and attacks together to create combos.
  • More variety in enemies and their abilities, with each enemy being designed to counter your attacks in different ways.
  • New power-ups which are found throughout levels.
  • Levels also have hazards and traps, so the player must be aware of their surroundings and can use it to their advantage.

We worked back and forth with an artist to get the most out of the graphics while staying within the NES restrictions.

  It's almost in spec. Everything fits well with the sub-palette selections except for a few things. The little bonsai tree is using too many colors and the screen uses too many sub-palettes overall (remember NES can only use 4 BG palettes at a time with 4 colors each, including one color shared across palettes). I'm counting at least 5 sub-palettes, but removing the bonsai tree and maybe replacing it with something that uses the stone palette would fix that.
Some improvements, but we can take it further for sure.

First off, there are only 93 unique tiles here, yet the NES can load up a page of 256 unique tiles at a time. Generally, and we will be doing it for this game, we like to reserve 64 tiles for the HUD, leaving the rest to be used for the level art. That still leaves almost 100 tiles free to be used.

There's also a lot of large areas of solid color. We generally try to avoid stuff like that in our backgrounds because it can be pretty bland.

The sky definitely would benefit from clouds, stars, a skyline or something similar to fill it out a bit. The ground also feels rather empty despite the separating lines, and it’d be a lot more interesting with some gritty texture and wear. Sewer lids and drainage grates could add some variance too. Same goes for the building, more detail like damage, graffiti or discolored bricks would help it stand out. The lanterns could be more defined, they currently look flat and don’t appear as round or as lit as they should

These concepts are stylistically much better, but have some color issues.

Some areas, like the green squares, have way too many colors. There's five, sometimes six in them. We can't use any graphics that don't conform to the NES restrictions, as it wouldn't be able display them, so we have to stick to the four four-colour palettes per 16*16 area.

The red squares seem to be mixing sub-palettes, but that's actually much easier to fix. If you were to make one of your sub-palettes black, gray, brown, and purple then change the building on the right to be one of the other established sub-palettes, that would work fine

On the design side of things, I think that this is headed in the right direction, but we could probably use something to break up the sky a little bit (possibly more clouds). Some areas still need some more detail like the floor and especially the tables. They also seem pretty tall compared to the food truck, building and player mockup.


While our new contributor was adjusting his art and working on new concepts, I took some time to take a stab at a background myself to set the style, tone, and palette.  

So with this BG I had a few objectives in mind:

  • Make the palettes as diverse as possible to get a couple of colour schemes going. From the 4 palettes I'd say there are 6 different colour types going on: green trees and grass, grey stone ground, red roofs and bridge, the white walls, blue skyline and black shadow/unfilled space.
  • Show some depth with close walls and objects, further buildings and trees, and far off skyline.
  • Show some light and shadow. There's light from the lanterns, implied light from the stars/moon, and the lights of the buildings on the skyline.
  • Show a couple of different textures. There's foliage, rough architecture with the stonework and walls, intricate architecture with the pagodas and skyline.

It depends on the background, but those are usually good guidelines to follow that suit the NES limitations. There's also the tile usage to consider, so a lot of patterns and objects here are repeated to keep the tilecount low. Tiles can even be flipped which adds some variance without increasing tilecount.

To improve from here, we could probably make the background a bit more readable. It may be too detailed compared to the small characters, so as we continue to work on the backgrounds and characters we’ll be making sure they’re distinct and legible. Doing this with NES graphics can be a challenge, but is also rewarding.

As always, making NES background art, or any NES graphics for that matter, is an exercise in using limitations to your advantage, rather than feeling restricted by them. It is possible, and fun, to create detailed art, with depth and character, while remaining in spec to the NES restrictions. 

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