2D: Mario & Luigi – Bowser’s Impressive Sprites

Note: There’s an entry right below this one which I published this morning, but which didn’t appear on the site until just now for various reasons. Please read it before this entry, as it will help contextualize the bigger picture of this post. I was wondering why no one had commented on it, durrr.

As a wise man with a machine-gun arm once said, “[Mario & Luigi] jes’ full of surprises.” I didn’t expect to like Bowser’s Inside Story nearly as much as I did, for starters. Even more unexpected, though, was the fact that the game has some of the best 2D sprite work I’ve ever seen. Sure, there are more visually spectacular 2D games out there, but so far as I can tell Inside Story looks to be packing mostly old-fashioned sprites. Not much in the way of Muramasa-style jointed, rotating sprite agglomerations, and a refreshing lack of pre-rendered CG art, too.

Or am I mistaken? The animation demonstrated by Inside Story’s sprites is utterly impressive, and it’s so fluid that I actually have a difficult time discerning whether or not it really is all hand-drawn, or if Alpha Dream somehow managed to concoct some sort of impressive fakeout technique that lets them pass off prerendered CG as traditional art. Characters move with a classical cartoonish grace and exaggeration that few CG artists can duplicate; yet at the same time, each action is depicted through far more frames of animation than most developers are willing to invest in hand-drawn characters. It is a tiny conundrum.

I’d love to talk to the developers, but I fear that Nintendo likes to keep a tight lid on its first- and second-party teams. Heck, even third parties are shy when it comes to talking about their work for Nintendo and always insist on passing it through Proper Corporate Channels first. So, the prospects of a heart-to-heart on Bowser’s phenomenal animation are pretty slim, which means I gotta do the old-fashioned speculation thing.

Personally, I’m leaning toward the art being a mix of pre-rendered and hand-drawn art. The sprite silhouettes look very CG, but the fine details have a solidity and flatness that’s practically impossible with the interpolation and anti-aliasing that results from rendered sprites. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the character shapes were crafted via CG and fleshed out via hand retouching — which, I think, is given some credence by the fact that the thick outlines around sprites betray artifacts of careless antialiasing when seen against dark backgrounds (this being the game’s single visual flaw).

I suppose it probably doesn’t really matter, and it probably doesn’t interest much of anyone besides myself. But as someone who really loves the distinctive look of old-fashioned sprite work, I’m sincerely curious to know how they went about creating visuals that somehow demonstrate the best traits of both old- and new-school game art: It sports the smoothness of prerendering, yet it’s far more timeless and attractive than, say, the now-horriby-dated original Super Mario RPG. I’d love to know if this is the product of some clever tech trick, or just the fruit of simple labor and effort.

In any case, the results speak for themselves. There’s a ridiculous amount of animation for every single character in the game, including the most minor enemies. Yes, sure, it’s a (more or less) turn-based RPG, but every creature has lush idle animations as well as multiple attacks — and each attack is broadcast with some sort of tell to clue you in to the proper reaction to counter with. And then there are all the story graphics; Princess Peach alone — in her few brief appearances — has animation enough to put most action heroes to shame. And don’t even get me started on Bowser. And the backgrounds! And… yeah.

Secret best-looking game of the year?

(This is the part where some idiot brays like a jackass about how it totally looks like a primitive Super NES game, haw haw, and then I slap that fool so hard his teeth fly out and lodge themselves in the wall.)

24 thoughts on “2D: Mario & Luigi – Bowser’s Impressive Sprites

  1. It would be wonderful if there’s a tech trick behind this. Not only making it theoretically easier to make a fluid sprite based game, but in that they went through lengths to make it look 2D.

    I am amused that, just earlier today, I was thinking about how great it would be to see something like Blaster Master redone with high resolution sprites.

  2. Ironic how your quoting Shane who now works at the company responsible for publishing 2 of the greatest looking classic style 2D games in a while, Muramasa and KOF XII.
    great article, Parish. Maybe you could get Alpha Dream to answer your questions at TGS.

  3. Have you seen the spritework in the Japan-only Dragonball Kai game?

    The animation isn’t as smooth but the sprites look really nice.

  4. From the bottom post: “and… some other stuff that I’ve heard about that will be awesome.”

    Pray tell, what is it? Spoil it! Just say you are buying X retro game and you hope it doesn’t get “re-released” or “remade”.

  5. The other Mario & Luigi titles already had some impressive spritework, but I have to say that Bowser’s Inside Story really takes the cake. The color use and character details are superb, but Bowser’s incarnation here is one of the most impressively 2D animated characters I’ve seen in a good while. His shell in particular almost has a 3D look to it, and I was surprised that Alpha Dream pulled a Metroid and had Bowser punch with his right fist on the field, no matter what direction he was facing.

    Really, this is wishful thinking but I’d love to see Alpha Dream try their hand at a new 2D Zelda title in the future. If anyone could pull it off well, they could.

  6. Alpha Dream will not have a presence at TGS, since it’s strictly a developer. And Nintendo never attends TGS. At least not as a company, anyway; I’ve seen Nintendo people there, of course.

  7. “(This is the part where some idiot brays like a jackass about how it totally looks like a primitive Super NES game, haw haw, and then I slap that fool so hard his teeth fly out and lodge themselves in the wall.) ”

    TFrog = Mr. T? News at 11.

  8. ——————————————————————————–
    Even with some prerender trik it just may do it faster not easier, this is just the fruit of simple labor and effort of a good aniamtors with a production schedule focused on quality graphics. And there are no games like that now…

    well muramasa its a good sample of precious graphics but its a different kind of animation, due to game speed, its aniamted with toon boom based on a combiantion of cut-out and shape substitution aniamtion with no shape interpolation. Wich’s a whise choice seeing the kind of armoured and pice covered characters. I worked with that very same aniamtion style.

  9. Unfortunately, sprite-based graphics have a niche stigma – fine for something like an RPG, ananthema for a game that Nintendo undoubtedly expects to sell upwards of 5 million of. I’ll take my victories where I can find them.

  10. If I had access to some king of all-powerful brainwashing machine with which I could pry open the minds of the unsuspecting, it’s a sad fact that I’d use it first on everyone at Nintendo to figure out how they do that magic they do so well.

  11. Also have a soft-spot for sprites. In regards to the technical side of the artwork, I also think it’s largely touched-up CG art. That said, given the vast quantity of mario-themed DS games Nintendo has/will release, it wouldn’t surprise me that they would invest some dough drawing in those extra frames. Obviously not all of the art is reusable, but I have to figure a lot of it is… and I’m sure everything they’re doing is scalable, so it could conceivably be used on a console title, or at least a mini game a console title.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Nintendo draws from the same damned characters for nearly all their games/cartoons/whatever — they have to be creating some solid libraries of scalable 2D and 3D art.

  12. I was debating whether or not I was going to pick this up (I loved the previous two but I just picked up Scribblenauts, I’m still playing Professor Layton, and I’m in school).

    This post, and the accompanying screenshots, have convinced me to get it tomorrow when I get paid.

  13. My copy just came in the mail. Can’t wait to play it, after I finish a few other games though.

    I love the 2D look, hell, I think that’s what the DS should keep churning out. 2D and NOT 3D.

  14. Forgive me Mr. Parish, it was late, I had a hard time reading between the lines, and probably overzealous in trying to be witty. Bad combo. *removes foot from mouth*

  15. Just a guess: maybe they hand animate some of the frames and then use some kind of interpolation software to fill in the rest?

    Sorta like how in The Simpsons key frames are done in America and then it’s shipped off to Korea to fill in the rest.

  16. Great thoughts Jeremy. I planned on picking up Scribblenauts on a recent trip to Florida, but I’m thinking about opting for Inside Story now. You’re not the only person that cares about finely detailed 2D animation in video games. It’s a dying breed for sure, but when it is done right it can turn out to be something absolutely timeless.

  17. The animation is very smooth. It appears to use some segmented sprites, especially on Bowser, though it does’t rotate them. I am not a fan of the art style, character proportions and Tropical Skittle color palette though, it reminds me of a Free Korean MMORPG run through an eagle filter. Still, I appreciate it anytime someone makes the effort to make new sprites, as opposed to re-using them like Metal Slug 1-7. I hope this does well.

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