It would be a colossal understatement to say that video games are a huge industry nowadays. In fact, they’re getting pretty close to being a $200-million-a-year behemoth. That’s definitely not too shabby if you ask me. But, with all these newfangled 3D graphics and realistic 3D worlds, one resilient stalwart still proves a fan favorite: the 2D game character.

That’s right, even with all of the graphical advances in current times, many gamers and developers still prefer the ‘ole bitmap. Why, you may ask? There are actually quite a few reasons, all good. It’s easier, more cost-effective, and simple to make a 2d game character, for one. But that’s not the extent of it, of course. Today, we’re going to learn a bit about two-dimensional video game characters, their history, and their continued importance today.

Let’s dive right in!

What’s a 2D Game Character Anyway?

We all have to start somewhere, don’t we? You see, in the beginning, we didn’t have photorealistic graphics and vast 3D sandboxes. Yes, if you’re very young this may be hard to fathom, but I swear it’s true. Gather ’round the campfire as I tell you a story of the before-fore times. (Thanks for making me feel old, by the way.)

Way back when, we had to make do with two-dimensional pixel representations called sprites.

In computer graphics, a sprite is a two-dimensional bitmap that is integrated into a larger scene, most often in a 2D video game. The term was first used by Danny Hillis at Texas Instruments in the late 1970s.[1] Originally, the term “sprites” referred to fixed-sized objects composited together, by hardware, with a background.[2] Use of the term has since become more general.

Systems with hardware sprites include the TI-99/4A (1979), Atari 8-bit family (1979), Commodore 64 (1982), Nintendo Entertainment System (1983), Amiga (1985), Sega Genesis (1988), and arcade games of the 1970s and 1980s. Hardware varies in the number of sprites supported, how many can be displayed per scan line (often a lower number), the size and colors of each sprite, and special effects such as scaling or reporting pixel-precise overlap.

Hardware composition of sprites occurs as each scan line is prepared for the video output device, such as a CRT, without involvement of the main CPU and without the need for a full-screen frame buffer.[2] Sprites can be positioned or altered by setting attributes used during the hardware composition process.

More on Sprites (Not the Drink)

These had to be animated pretty much by hand, in a technique that resembled hand-drawn animation. As you can probably imagine, this was a painstaking process. The good thing is that consoles and computers didn’t have much computing power in those days, hence, there wasn’t really much material to create super-faithful drawings. In fact, most characters simply resembled a few Lego blocks put together.

This limitation stemmed from the fact that artists just had a few pixels to work with. The fact that they created expressive, memorable characters speaks of their immense talent. Hyper-famous mainstays like Mario came from this era of basic sprites; at first, he was more-or-less an intimation of a heavyset Italian plumber rather than a fully realized 2D game character. As you can probably tell, while simplicity was Queen, there were greener pastures ahead.

The Evolution of the 2D Game Character

Technology went through rapid phases of evolution. In time, arcade machines and some home consoles were able to render more detailed graphics. While the same hand-drawn pixel art techniques were still a thing, characters got more and more complex real fast. That meant that, for the first time, video games resembled animated features rather than cave art. With better graphics, of course, came a veritable deluge of fans.

The late 80s and early 90s were a wonderful time for 2d game character fans. Incredible games like Street Fighter 2 in arcades, Sonic the Hedgehog on consoles, and many others, signaled an increase in fame that still lasts to this day. The mass adoption of voice acting for video games sure didn’t hurt things either! As I wrote in our article about it:

The most notable event was probably the advent of affordable CD-ROM technology. These discs allowed games to incorporate better graphics, voice acting, and full-length videos into their stories. Games got more epic, their ambitions got more cinematic, and by the mid-90s, voice acting was everywhere.

And I truly mean everywhere. Better technology, voice acting, more detailed, expressive characters, and booming numbers of gamers everywhere turned the industry into an even bigger giant. What’s more, animated TV shows and live-action movies became a thing. This only led to even bigger numbers down the line; suddenly you couldn’t turn around without a video game character hogging the scene.

Some Notables

Everyone and their mom has heard of Mario and Sonic. Heck, they even have their own movies at this point — although the less said about Mario’s, the better. They tried, the madlads really, really tried.

But beyond the obvious two that everyone knows, many a 2D game character rose to prominence. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know the main cast from Street Fighter two, for instance. Some other characters that became household names are:

  • Samus Aran, from Metroid, the epitome of the strong female protagonist.
  • Guybrush Threepwood, the bumbling pirate from the Monkey Island saga.
  • Earthworm Jim, a zany super-powered character that could’ve only come from the 90s.
  • Marco and Tim from Metal Slug.
  • Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury
  • The Prince, from Prince of Persia.
  • Sonya Blade from the Mortal Kombat series.

And many, many more that have their place in the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere.

2d game character for freelancer

Time Catches Up

Not all was rosy for the 2D game character, though. Detailed hand-drawn pixel animation is a time-consuming affair. Therefore, it’s not strange that developers went with 3D graphics once they became a viable option. Sure, the rudimentary polygons of the first-gen 3D games weren’t exactly pretty, but they got the job done. A move away from 2D side-scrolling games into the freedom of 3D was also the cause.  Suddenly, no one wanted anything to do with 2D anymore.

But that didn’t mean that it was the end of the 2D era altogether. Through trial and error, many developers found out that it’s not always better to go 3D — some titles just don’t work. Likewise, many found that the aesthetics and retro feeling of 2D-era games were not all bad; they possessed a certain charm, a certain vibrancy and innocence that gamers still loved.

It took a while for markets to catch up, though. All through the 00s and 2010s, it seemed that 2D was no longer a mainstream thing. Had it gone the way of the dodo?

The 2D Game Character as Indie Savior

Enter the golden era of indie games. While gaming used to be the province of AAA studios with a massive budget, better access to tech democratized game development. Suddenly, geniuses of all stripes and backgrounds started popping up from under the woodwork, and indie video game development picked up steam.

Sure, indie games have always been around. Many big companies got their start by being a garage operation that grew into something big after a blockbuster or two. Still, there’s nothing quite like the present for indie developers. Better access to tools, more gamers than ever, the preference for mobile devices; all of these things, and more contribute to making indie games far more desirable and sought-after than ever. We’re flooded with interesting games coming from huge companies and operations run by as little as a single creator.

What does this all have to do with the 2D game character?

Retro, Pixel, and Overflowing Charm

You see, at one point game creators didn’t see 2D as cost-effective. They were too mired in the hyper-detailed, costly animated styles from companies like Capcom and SNK. But, in current times, many developers have turned to retro styles harking back to the era of SNES, Genesis, and other 8 and 16-bit consoles. These retro-inspired gems suddenly sparked a whole revolution in gaming.

Games like Undertale, Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Terraria, FTL, are just the tip of the iceberg. The revival of the 2D gameplay style — as well as the appearance of new genres like the roguelike— also sparked incredible new 2D characters. Suddenly, players started adding new names to the all-time great pantheon. The 2D game character Mount Rushmore keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Today, players can enjoy 2D games of all styles created by both indie and bigger developers. Starting from humble platformers that take three people to make, all the way to beautiful, intricately drawn pieces of art that take years to produce, gamers are spoiled for choice. 2D and 3D are no longer fashions, but two styles in an endless palette for creators to use.

What if I Want My Own 2D Game Character?

Well, first off, don’t get all pouty on me, it’s easier than you know. Even if you lack zero artistic talent, it’s easier than ever to have your own 2D game character. If you’re thinking about producing your own 2D game, the internet’s made it easier than ever to access an incredible pool of design and drawing talent.

You can either go it alone, trying your hand amid freelancers, or you could give us a go. Bunny Studio is an immensely diverse talent agency where you can find enough talent to pretty much make your game from scratch. If you need to create your very own character, our talented pool of artists is standing at the ready to bring your creative vision to immediate life.

What do you say? Ready to make that 2D game character Mount Rushmore just a little bit bigger?