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What Can Super Mario Teach Us About Graphics Technology?

Swarmer2010

If you ever played Super Mario Brothers or Mario Galaxy, you probably thought it was only a fun videogame—but fun can be serious.  Super Mario has lessons to teach you might not expect about graphics and the concepts behind them.

The basics of image technology (and then some) can all be explained with a little help from everybody’s favorite little plumber. So read on to see what we can learn from Mario about pixels, polygons, computers and math, as well as dispelling a common misconception about those blocky old graphics we remember from when me first met Mario.

Resolution, Sprites, Bitmaps and Super Mario Brothers

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Videogames are rendered on televisions and monitors in single pieces of image information called pixels, short for picture elements. These base units used to make up the only kind of artwork that videogames could have, in the days of older, more basic videogames and consoles. These are sometimes called sprites, which in context of video games, is another name for bitmap image. Bitmap is the simplest term for an image file—you might glean from the name it is a simple map of the bits that make up the image.

When you think of classic Super Mario Brothers-era Mario, you think of the big clunky pixels those sprites were drawn with. As it turns out, the original Nintendo Entertainment System only had an effective resolution of 256 x 224 pixels, with only a total of 256 x 240 even possible.

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Compared to modern game consoles, the NES is pitifully low resolution. Resolution can be defined as the total number of pixels available for display. This can apply to any type of graphic, whether it’s Mario, a bitmap of a logo, or a digital photograph. More pixels is always more opportunity to create a better image.

Even the Wii console, which is only capable of Standard Definition of 480p, displays 640 x 480 pixels, even on high definition televisions capable of much more. However, the difference is pretty clear—Mario is considerably more high resolution than he used to be.

Sprites vs Polygons, or Pixels vs Vectors

polygons vs pixels

Many modern videogames have abandoned the aesthetic of older games, following a more recent trend in graphics. These games create their characters with vector shapes called polygons, which you may (or may not) remember from geometry. Polygons can be defined as “any shape that can be created from a limited number of points and line segments.”

Bitmaps, or sprites, are made from files that are a literal mapping of colors laid out on a grid, hence creating the blocky texture we’re used to seeing on classic Mario. Newer Mario, sculpted in a three dimensional space with polygons, is less limited than older Mario. He “exists” in a sort of “world” made out of math, graphed out by increasingly speedy computers the same way you might draw a polygon when blocking out an algebraic graph on a whiteboard.

These basic polygons, line segments, and points are called primitives, and they are the base units of this mathematical world the same way that pixels are the base units of bitmaps. However, unlike bitmaps, they don’t have resolution. Think of how the camera zooms in on Mario in the newer games, and how he never seems to revert to any blocky, clunky pixel version of himself. Basically, you can move a polygonal Mario any way you want, and he’ll stay clean, crisp and high resolution.

Image Rasterization, or How Donkey Kong Came to The Super Nintendo

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If you’ve played any of the recent Mario Kart Games, you are probably familiar with Mario’s old nemesis Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong starred in a series of Mario-style run and jump action games in the mid-nineties called Donkey Kong Country, which boasted computer-rendered, polygonal-style graphics on a system that wasn’t truly capable of it—the Super Nintendo. What miracle had been pulled off to make this work?

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As it turns out, Nintendo and partner RARE sort of pulled a fast one on their audience. Donkey Kong Country, its sequels, and many other games from RARE used a process called rasterization to turn polygonal graphics into two dimensional, pixel-based representations.  This created the illusion of advanced, computer-rendered graphics in an age when they were considered high-tech, beautiful and exotic.

Rasterization can be thought of as taking a digital photograph of a polygonal graphic—lining up the 3D, non-pixel based graphics to a grid and rendering it in pixels. The word raster itself is often used as a synonym for “bitmap.” There was really nothing “3-D” about the “3D Adventure in the Kingdom of Kong,” but rather humble pixel sprites made from the best computer generated graphics of the day. (At least, according to Nintendo.)

8-Bit Images vs 8-Bit Processors

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One of the most frequent misconceptions is that the NES graphics were 8-Bit graphics and SNES and SEGA systems were 16-Bit. While those numbers were closely associated with those systems, they were not accurate in describing the images on screen. The NES actually had 6 Bit graphics, while the Super Nintendo had 15 bit color, but was limited to only 8 bit graphics on screen at any one time. Confused? Let’s take a quick look at what those 8 and 16-bits really meant.

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A Bit is the smallest bit of information a computer processes, and an 8-bit processor has a capability to process an octet (8 bits) in a single cycle. The Nintendo Entertainment System had such an 8-bit processor, as the SNES and Sega Genesis had processors capable of 16 bits per cycle. Modern processors in most computers have an architecture that allows for 32 or 64 bits per cycle, which occur in billions of cycles per second.

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But when you’re talking about images, 8-bit means something entirely different. An 8-Bit image has 28 colors available, or a total of 256 colors. A garden variety JPG will be 24 bit, consisting of three channels for Red, Green, and Blue with 28 colors in each channel. So the NES actually had 26 colors available, while the SNES had 215 but could only display 28. When you look at the images of Mario above, the first two are the only ones that are actually 8-bit representations, the first rendered in 256 shades of gray, with the second rendered with GIF style diffusion in 256 shades of color. The third is a 24 bit JPG, with a total of 224 colors. So the next time somebody talks about “8 Bit graphics” you can proudly correct them, and tell them you learned it with a little help from Super Mario!


Have questions or comments concerning Graphics, Photos, Filetypes, or Photoshop? Send your questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com, and they may be featured in a future How-To Geek Graphics article.

All images of Mario copyright Nintendo, assumed fair use. Minecraft Mario by Swarmer2010.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 02/23/11

Comments (20)

  1. Nathan

    MINECRAFT!!!!!!! Woop :P!

  2. Groff

    First sentence grammar mess up: ” you probably was only a fun videogame”

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Groff: Fixed. Thanks.

  4. anakun

    grammer
    and many other games from RARE used used a process called rasterization

  5. Groff

    Also, did you mean to say SNES the second time here? – “So the NES actually had 26 colors available, while the NES had 215 but could only display 28″

    Ok, enough with my grammar naziing… xD I lived the article, Eric. I was actually trying to explain this to my friend the other day, so this will definitely be sent his way! (He thinks we’re on 256 bit graphics in the current generation of consoles lol)

  6. Eric Z Goodnight

    I’m fine with fixing my grammar. I’d rather not be making these little goofs!

    Keep in mind that number is 2 to the power of 8, not 28, as the cut/paste has shown us. Same with all of those numbers.

  7. Nirahiel

    Yay MineCraft, was playing it when I saw your tweet xD

  8. thenonhacker

    Starcraft 1 graphics is made from 3D models that are rasterized.

  9. Kevalin

    “Grammer” is a nickname you give to your mother’s mother; “grammar” is what far too many otherwise educated people seem to have no clue of how to use properly these days.

    Thanks for these these articles on the workings of computer algorithms and graphics, etc. I’m finding them fascinating, even though I have to guess at the “English” translations from geek of some of the concepts.

  10. Withanamelikedave

    “I lived the article, Eric.”

    That’s intense.

  11. Stevers

    Donkey Kong was Mario’s nemesis in Mario Kart??

  12. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Kevalin: If you find any part confusing, feel free to ask me or the other authors. Many of us are happy to explain things further if they aren’t spelled out clearly enough in the article. I’m always trying pretty hard to make them both accessible and interesting for everybody.

  13. Johnnie

    Did you know that was a Minecraft image? If so you should do a review of the game. I love reading about it as well as playing. Grate articool evin if the grammer might be bad in it. Shout out to Rothgar who introduced me to Hot-To Geek.

  14. Mentioum

    Hooray for minecraft! Keep an eye out for http://www.youtube.com/user/lpminecraftvideos. :D Let me know if you want to come give our server a go.

    Also – awesome article – I read your articles everyday and this is one which really put a smile on my face :D – How I miss Donkey Kong Country :D

  15. David Levine

    Great article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  16. Camilo Martin

    A little correction – there’s no “GIF style” diffusion. Any distribution can be used in GIFs, and certain algorithms such as NeuQuant create better results than the common GIF shows – http://pngnq.sourceforge.net/pngnqsamples.html

  17. Meh

    Actually there is a simple reason behind why bitmaps are not used anymore, the math required to create the kind of art seen in games today is ridiculous. Where the average house hold CPU now a days can pump trillions of nano calculations a second, imagine having to mathematically write out precision just to create the worlds most appealing title ever. While its not impossible it is impractical, as the math would require 4x the average compute power of your normal PC and I’m not talk shit computers I’m talking 12+ plus core with maxed videos cards and ram. Even then you need a system that can handle math that spreads across plain bread. That is only explaining the technical struggle, now we enter the actual science of it because you won’t be hiring game designers or engineers. You will need physicists by the dozen in order to produce something less than even a demo more or less than 90 second video showing anatomically, structurally, procedurally world wrecking, eye popping eye candy you ever pissed your pants.

    I can safely say Pixels and Polygons won’t be replaced anytime soon!

  18. sam

    I love the game doodle defender, anyone agree? but once I made a ship and the bullets came out the top! xD very funny!

  19. Lisa

    Hey!
    For a computer science class I have to make a webpage about a certain subject that has to do with technology and list it’s innovations and I chose to study the evolution of Mario!
    Your site has been so great for my assignment so thank you very much!
    I have every intention of citing everything I take from your site, but I am having trouble using the images displaying 8bit and 24bit mario because they are bmp.
    Is there anyway you could send me the html tag for the images?
    thanks again for the great info!

  20. WLabrador

    This article was very, very interesting to me. I mean, come on, learning with Super Mario! How cool is that? (coming from a big Mario fan who had absolutely no info on this at all) Thank you so much, It was really fun reading, I’m very grateful. I hope you get a lot of visits, I posted a link to this article on my twitter account.

    Again, thanks!

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