Stupid Blinkin’ Sprites

You know in Pac-Man, that one ghost Blinky, who doesn’t actually blink? What if he did “blink” or rather, flicker in and out (you know like “real” ghosts do)? In fact, what if all the ghosts in Pac-Man flickered in and out of view? The game would probably be near unplayable.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about sprite-flickering lately, especially in old 8-bit games like the NES. Sprite flickering (particularly on the NES) happens when there are too many sprites being loaded into a given frame, causing some or all of them to “flicker” in and out of existence. (Note that the game will still consider the sprite to be there, even if you can’t see it. So you probably got killed by a “ghost bullet”) While many developers employed some very creative ways around the NES’s sprite limitations, it wasn’t always successful and sometimes made the problem worse.

super dodge ball flicker

The thing about sprite flickering is not only does it make the game unpleasant to look at (hello flashing light seizures), but it can also make the game unnecessarily harder to play. It also tends to go hand in hand with massive game slowdown (or FPS drops for you modern gamers) and I’m not talking small, single digit framerate dips, I’m talking literal slideshows here. Combine that with randomly invisible sprites and you have a game that can go from fast-paced fun to literally unplayable.

For example in “bullet-hell” shooter games, when the screen gets flooded with enemies, all trying to blow your ship into the next console generation, it’s very common for both enemies and their bullets to flicker and temporarily become invisible split seconds at a time. In a game that requires near-perfect reflexes, even a few frames of invisible sprites can wreak havoc.


The Invisible Mega Man

Another game I’m deeply familiar with that has horrendous sprite-flickering is Mega Man. Mega Man actually commits a double sin of sprite flickering with the way it handles the “damaged” animation. Whenever Mega Man gets damaged, he will flicker for a few seconds (supposed to represent his “invincibility frames” I guess) but when the screen is already flickering under the strain of too many sprites, Mega Man can actually disappear from view for several seconds or indefinitely if you remain in the “flicker zone.” Playing both on the PS2 Mega Man Collection and on an NES emulator, this frequent flickering and outright disappearance of character sprites (particularly mine) led to some very frustrating platforming.

Sprite flickering was an unfortunate side-effect of primitive hardware and developers trying their mightiest to overcome those limitations via clever rendering and programming tricks. While some of these only caused minor graphical annoyances, others made games nearly unplayable or at least not enjoyable. Turns out if you force hardware to perform beyond its limits, strange things will start happening….

mega man spin flicker

Well retro ladies and old-school gents, the time has come for me to bid you adieu, for a month anyway. My academic workload will be increasing shortly, so I sadly must take a hiatus from most of my side projects to compensate. But don’t fret, barring any natural or man-made disasters, I will be returning in November to give crap to the things I love.