Back in the 1980's, I tried my hand at programming video games, mostly using Atari's player/missle system which used sprites. I could freehand draw most sprites but couldn't come close to the animated explosions commercial video games like Xevious(1982) displayed. Today, we can download that asset from the web but obviously that wasn't an option back then. Video digitizers existed but I doubt they were used due to cost. So, were those cool 8 bit fireballs created purely "by hand"?enter image description here Esentially I'm wondering if the images were hand drawn first on graph paper or was there more to it. I couldn't get realistic results that way. The image strip is a random image I found on Google. Its not really 8-bit, but I included it to illustrate what I mean.

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    The question covering essentially a whole decade and all (8 bit) games is way to broad to be answered. Further it's not clear what you consider a 'realistic' fireball for this question. Would you mind to add some expalanation and narrow the question down to ananswerable topic and/or a specific game?
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 14, 2021 at 23:44
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    You may want to mention the name of the game you've copied those cool 8 bit fireballs from.
    – Leo B.
    Jan 15, 2021 at 0:33
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    There are interviews and documentation about how Japanese games were written, and initially sprites were indeed all done on graph paper.
    – dirkt
    Jan 15, 2021 at 5:38
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    I hand-pixeled explosion spritesheets for a game myself once. My first attempts looked awful, but with some practice I figured out how to do it. But how to do pixel art isn't really on-topic here. When you struggle at creating good looking explosions yourself, then perhaps a pixel artist community could offer you some advise.
    – Philipp
    Jan 15, 2021 at 10:16
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    @dirkt Not just sprites. I remember seeing an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto to promote Mario Maker that showed off some of the graph paper "level editor files" for Super Mario Bros. levels that were then submitted to the programmers to be converted into game data.
    – ssokolow
    Jan 15, 2021 at 14:07

3 Answers 3


The sprites in the 1982 Arcade Game Xevious were designed by Shigeki Toyama on graph paper by hand. They were admired in the day for their appearance, but they look pretty simple compared to subsequent games.

If you look closely at this screenshot, you can see that explosion is quite low detail, though precise use of colour and many frames of animation can mask this on a CRT. Xevious Arcade

A book has been published of his artwork and sprite designs, which includes some of the graph paper grids for Xevious. One image is below: Xevious Graphics

Image credit: taken from this review of the book.

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    Answers should answer the question, and not just point to an off-site resource which might answer the question. Can you tell us more about what the book says about the design of the explosions?
    – Philipp
    Jan 15, 2021 at 10:00
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    No, I can't find any information. The image was to demonstrate that the sprites in Xevious were designed by hand on graph paper. Jan 15, 2021 at 10:20

The question is way too broad to answer completely, but I'm pretty sure that in almost every case it was either graph paper (+ manual translation into hex, + manual fine tuning), or simple sprite editors. The latter existed on most platforms since at least the mid-80s (from personal knowledge), probably earlier.

Editing sprites with these editors was still a rather basic affair, limited mostly to turning on and off individual pixels, but at least you'd see immediately what you sprite looked like on a CRT. Some also supported overlay (composing one sprite out of many, to get a bigger sprite and / or more colors) and animation previews, which was helpful when working on effects.

Video digitizers of the day would produce grainy, noisy images, at least on machines like the C-64 with its limited palette. The result might be suitable for full-screen art, with a lot of editing, but not for 21x24 pixel sprites. This technology only became useful with machines like the Amiga. Broadly the same goes for early scanners.

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    Hand drawn on graph paper by an artist, I'd wager. In fact, I'm pretty sure all computer game graphics were done that way in the 80's.
    – JeremyP
    Jan 15, 2021 at 8:58
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garry_Kitchen%27s_GameMaker was released in 1985 and included SpriteMaker so I think computer game graphics were definitely not "all" done on graph paper in the 80's (and the artist part is probably also debatable)
    – Foon
    Jan 15, 2021 at 14:37
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    Even with rudimentary sprite editors, the designers had to rely on their artistic skills. Fireballs are about as chaotic as an an animation can get. That they were able to capture that in low-res and still make it look real impresses me to this day. Certain sequences, like the running man in Berserk "could" have been done with the aid of a series of photos, a very crude verision of motion capture.
    – Walter
    Jan 15, 2021 at 15:17
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    @WalterMaslowski — Of course. The advantage was the immediate feedback: you'd see straight away what your sprite looked like on a CRT, and you'd see an animation in an infinite loop while you worked on a single image. Editing usually still meant turning on and off individual pixels. Jan 15, 2021 at 19:53
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    Some 8 bit early programmers did use the pause function of VCR players to trace frames of animation from a TV. The animation in Prince of Persia was done this way, but it would only be as an animation guide for the pixel art which was often done on graph paper. Jan 16, 2021 at 11:22

This rather detailed article does give some insight in the ways they worked back then:

Designing 2D graphics in the Japanese industry

It doesn't go into details of fireballs, but does capture the various stages of development and their evolution over time. Especially the example of CRT vs. pixel is an interesting one.

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    Could you summarise the main points in response to the original question? Jan 17, 2021 at 14:00

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