Meet the new Snail Mail!

We love video games. And we know that game designers work really really hard in order to make games that are fun and playable. Sometimes a video game needs a hundred people to write the code, record the music, design the art, and then mix it all together! And sometimes a team of only two or three people can make a video game that’s even better than the games we see from well known development studios!

One of the reasons that pixel art is a popular style in video games is because someone can use it to build a video game all by themselves. If you think about it, pixels make up all of the computer graphics we see. So it makes sense to start with pixel art.  If you’re interested in becoming a video game creator or a digital artist, learn more about pixel art! This edition of Snail Mail will help you get started.

This is our first bilingual edition of Snail Mail. Download the PDF here, and check out this activity below!

These days we see Pixel Art as a cool retro art style, but when video games transitioned from having no pictures at all, pixel art was an exciting new concept! There were a lot of limitations to it though. On the original Gameboy, you could only use 4 pre-defined shades of grey to make pixel art!

This is a color palette! It contains all the shades of grey that we can use for our pixel art.

To reveal the pixel art, shade the numbered boxes to match the color on the palette.

In old video games, animation was a resource heavy task that took up a lot of the game’s limited storage space! Images were stored as “tiles”, and consoles could only display a small number of tiles before running out of space. 

In the last activity, you already created two tiles! Good job! They look great!

We could use these tiles in a game to show if a character is feeling happy or sad. But using both of these tiles takes up twice the amount of storage than just one tile. Using all these tiles might slow our game down.

To save the game’s storage space, and keep games running as best as they can, developers started telling tiles to change color instead of changing the animation frame! This means that they were able to animate more things on screen while saving storage space for more detailed images! Notice how in the previous activity, the order of the number is different between the two tiles? That means the computer is going to store each tile separately and use twice the space.

With a little work, we can combine the previous two tiles into a single image! It’s.. going to look a little weird though. Go ahead and reveal the new merged pixel art tile.

You can see that the black mouth is smiling and the grey mouth is frowning, but they are both still visible. That’s… a little weird. We want to make it so we either see the smiling face, or the frowning face, but not both at once.

This is completely possible with a technique called palette swapping! Instead of re-drawing the picture twice, we are going to shuffle around the colors assigned to each pixel.

Here are the shuffled palettes. I got rid of the dark grey color and duplicated the light grey! This way, we only see three colors instead of four, meaning we can hide the color we don’t want to see! Try it out by shading the boxes to match this new palette!

Notice that each grid above has the exact same numbers in the exact same order, but when you color them in with the new palettes, the visible image changes! This works because the computer looks for the order of the colors, and if you change the order of the colors, you can change how the pixel art looks without redrawing it!