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Emulating Retro Graphics in Affinity Designer

Today, we gonna have tons of fun creating a group of retro characters for an imaginary 8-Bit era video game.

Difficulty: Beginner

Knowledge required: 

  • Be familiar with Affinity Designer’s interface

  • Basic use of the Color Panel

You’ll discover how to:

  • Get creative finding ways to represent characters using limited tools.

Brief introduction:

Old-school computer video game graphics had a lot of technical limitations. Game designers back in the 80's and 90's needed to be very resourceful to represent as accurately as possible what they had in their minds when it came to designing their characters.

If you're interested in learning more about the technical aspects of these games, I recommend you to check out the YouTube channel of the 8-Bit Guy; there are tons and tons of fascinating information about a lot of retro related technologies.

Today, we're going to focus on the emulation of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) kind of graphics. We're going to create three low resolution sprites (16 cells) or objects to be animated in our video game. After that, we're going to learn how to create a 'high resolution' NES sprite (32 cells).

According to Tech Terms:

A sprite is a bitmap graphic that is designed to be part of a larger scene.

Step 1: Setting up the grid system

First, we'll be drawing a small sprite, consisting of 16 cells, or pixels. Game designers used to create these smaller sprites using 4 grids of 8x8 pixels.

Create a New Document of 320x320 pixels at 300 dpi. We are always gonna set up our files in multiples of eight.

Next, open the Grid and Axis Manager, from the Top Menu > View.

Now, we need to divide our Artboard into four equal parts. Select the Show Grid option, uncheck Use Automatic Grid, leave Basic Mode as it is and in the Spacing input, type: 160px (which is the half of our document).

Don't leave this panel yet; for the Divisions option type: 8. This way, we're going to have a document divided into four main parts of eight divisions each, to sum up, a sixteen-per-side working area (I promise this isn't gonna be a frigging boring mathematics tutorial).

Recognize these two by any chance?:

The classic characters you see here have been made using the same 16x16 grid system:

Usually, these type of sprites are drawn using raster graphics (like with Affinity's Photo Pencil Tool), but nowadays this task can also be accomplished using vector graphics, which is way better because editing vector graphics can be more accessible and quicker to edit than raster ones.

Free downloadable:

Before we move any further, I want you to download and install our free color palette for this tutorial. It's a collection of the full range of colors available for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Way cool huh?

Let's continue.

Step 2: Filling in the Grid

Getting good at drawing super simple sprites requires a little bit of practice. Most of the features of our characters are just a mere interpretation of what they really are, however, using the template we're about to create, you can get into it very quickly. Once you get the hang of it, you can start modifying little bits here and there and, little by little, begin building interpretations of your own characters.

Tools-wise, this is going to be one of the easiest tutorials, the only one you'll be using is the Rectangle Tool. Select it and draw something similar to the image above. Being aware of the space, is mandatory here.

Continue adding the main features. Notice how important is the ability to simplify our character's attributes and yet, keep them readable from a distance.

When using bitmap graphics, you have to fill in each little square one by one. That won't be necessary here, because, with the help of the Rectangle Tool, we can cover larger portions of the illustration without hassle.

Don't forget to use the NES Swatches to help your drawing keep that feel of authenticity.

Now, we're going to add just a little of complexity by adding color shades.

Hide the Grid for a moment (CMD + ' Mac, CTRL + ' Win) and just take a look at the beautiful piece of art you've just created! Look at the elvish ears I added, isn't it a cute little bastard? Also, notice how important role plays the Navigator here; these images are meant to be readable at tiny dimensions, so I always keep the Navigator besides my Artboard, so I can keep checking out the proportions and general looks of my sprites.

Step 3: Same base, a little variation

Now that you feel more confident about this technique let's create a bad guy to fight our little hero. Fill the background with any dark blue color you like the most from the color palette.

Using almost the same proportion as our little elf, draw a skull like in the image above. Remember to keep one eye on the Navigator Panel to make sure our drawing looks good at small sizes.

Check how simplified your characters need to be on this grid system. In the image above I've reduced the rib cage and the pelvis to two single lines. Synthesis is king here.

Notice how I solved the pose. To indicate our skeleton's knees are flexing, I just had to use two squares, the same applies to its arms.

Add some shading to the skull and draw a sword to make him appear menacing, like the fighting skulls from Jason and the Argonauts.

Step 4: Stepping up a notch.

Like if we were inside a video game, let's add more challenge to this fun creative process. Let's imagine we've been asked to create a human female character for the game.

Drawing feminine features using this reduced grid can be really challenging, so let's make a little template that you can fire up as a base and modify to your needs.

Give a nice action pose to her arms.

And her legs. Don't forget to check out the Navigator to spot anything that doesn't look right.

Add an eye, (the other one has been covered by her hair), her mouth and a nice blaster.

Add some shading, and that would be pretty much it. If you look at the Navigator, she seems like she's running or jumping and, that's what we were looking for her pose.

Step 5: Houston, we need more resolution!

But, what happened when game designers needed bigger sprites, like in stage bosses or higher resolution characters? Well, the 'stitched' more 8x8 cells together and make them appear as one single object. Let's take, for example, the last character we've just made; if we wanted her to have more detail or make her larger than the other sprites, instead of creating a 320 x 320px Document, we had to double it making a new 640 x 640px one.

This way we'd have a sprite with double the resolution. But, what happens with the Grid then?

In this case, we need to double our Grid's resolution either. Open the Grid and Snapping Axis panel again and first, input 320 px for Spacing and, 16 for Divisions. This way we'll have a 32x32 resolution instead of 16x16.

If we were being strict with our basic cell-size of 8x8 units, we could have also left the Spacing value as 160 and the same Spacing of 8, to work with 8 primary cells, instead of 4. It doesn't matter actually, as long as we have the same 32x32 grid divisions to work with.

The difference is notorious from the beginning; now we're able to handle more detail and overall, better-defined shapes.

We can have a more wavy and dynamic hair.

And even more facial features, like big bold eyelashes.

Adding more definition to her hair.

It's funny the way one can feel more freedom just by expanding the resolution from 16 to 32 cells (which are the equivalent of pixels), and now we have any resolution we want in our own computers, to the point we don't see any pixel at all when making our artwork. We've come a long, long way from those early days. It makes you wonder how brilliant video game artists actually were back then, doing miracles with these kinds of resolutions and color limitations.

Now, our female character has a more understandable and dynamic silhouette if we compare her to our original sprite. Although; I love to work on smaller resolutions, it really pushes your skills and imagination to solve design problems using less resources.

Step 6: Rinse and Repeat

Now, we have our characters done, it's time to have fun giving them roles and creating a whole world around it.

To create this bigger scene, I've used a 2560x2560px Artboard and divided the Grid into 8 Spaces of 320px each, using 16 Divisions per cell. Which is basically the same resolution we used to make our characters, but with more cells.

It's time for you to experiment creating your own characters and worlds! Hope you have enjoyed this tutorial as we had tons of fun making it and learning about retro graphics. Please, let us know in the comments if you want more tutorials like this one. See you next time!

- Enrique

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