History of tilemaps and sprite sheets in 2D games

Phaser tilemaps and sprite sheets are very versatile and customisable, with tile heights and width being able to be changed to whatever the developer needs and can have impressive amounts of tiles/frames and resolution, however they have not always been like this so I thought it would be intersting to take a look at some older hardware and see how graphics were at the beginning.

Phaser uses a .json file to hold lots of information about tile sizes and layouts which allows for high customisablility in its tilemaps.

The third generation of video game consoles was the first time sprite sheets and tilemaps were used prominently in the home market, the main consoles of this era were the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and SEGA Master System, which both had very similar graphical capabilities. Both has sprite limits of just 8×8 or 8×16 pixels and could render 64 of these, which may seem a lot but due to the sprite size many characters or objects would often used around 4 to 8 sprites to increase their size and add more detail, however they were still very colour limited with that being controlled separatley in the PPU in the NES where developers had to specify which palettes to use.

Super Mario Bros.’s Mario used 4 or 8 sprites combined together to create the illusion that he was one singular object. Src:

Tilemaps were only used for backgrounds, being an 8×8 or 16×16 atlas of small single colour areas that the graphics unit would used to render a simple background colour. Tilemaps would get a big upgrade in the next generation of consoles with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and Sega Mega Drive with the use of multiple parallax backgrounds and scaling. Sprite sheets also got an upgrade with up to 64×64 sprites on the SNES and 16 colours per sprite which greatly enhanced the graphics quality of games.

SimCity for the SNES utilised the enhanced tilemaps on the menu screen to create a scrolling cityscape with much more detail then its predecesor console.

Home computers often relied more on tilemaps rather than sprites such as the Commodore 64 using custom character sets that acted very similar to tilemaps, of course it came with lots of limitations like only 2 colours per character (4 colours in half-res mode) but many games were made like this such as the Ultima games and more recently, Planet X2. Even when the more modern style home computeres came around in the 90’s with EGA and VGA graphics, tilemaps were still very prominent just with greater capabilities such has higher resolutions and more colours, plus sprite were more commonly adopoted as PC’s became more powerful.

David Murray’s Planet X2 uses edited character sets on the Commodore 64 to create graphics completley in a tilemap. Src:

I think its very interesting to look back at all the limitation of video games in the 80’s and 90’s and I’d love to take on the challenge of making a game with these limits, whether that be on actual hardware or just limiting myself on a more modern engine as I feel it would get me to think in ways that I wouldn’t usually and would incetivise me to optimise more.