If there is a thing that can define consoles from the middle '80s to the middle '90s is sprites.
Designing a sprite was not easy, it still is not easy today. For instance there are websites who share free sprites for game developers, which is both cool and kinda symptomatic of how difficult it is to design sprites.
A sprite is not just a collection of pixels, is trying to define something right enough considering hardware capabilities, aesthetic, space and resemblance; for everything else our mind will cover the holes.
Videogamers have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past filling Link's pink hair with personal explanations. Mario had a humongous change in aethetic because of hardware limitations, because the mouth void was too much to fill without a moustache.
Animate a sprite define the sprite itself, the amount of different sprites considering, before actually making the game, which type of expressions and movements the character is going to make is an overwhelming situation.
A couple of weeks ago I was watching A Link to the Past playthrough by Michael Damiani on Easy Allies, when Kyle Bosman, co-hosting the stream, pointed out the quality and reuse of the game's sprites.
At first I cringed but then I realized how much the development of the game focused more on other elements, such as sprite recognition and the reuse is basically done to identify type of areas. In 1991 games like Super Mario World, F-Zero, Pilotwings, Final Fight and Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts were available and we can surely argue about their sprite design, but the road taken by those other games relied more on the sprite design and their animations.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a phenomenal game, but its sprite design was not amongst the best ones for its time. It is functional, it works and on its own it is distinguishable, but, developing the argument, sprite design was and it is hard, with the difference back then was the "graphics" criteria.
Reviews from 1991 went crazy about its graphics, and gameplay, with an amazing reception, which the title totally deserved.
- AllGame 5 stars
- EGM 8.75/10
- Famitsu 39/40
- GamePro 5/5
- Nintendo Power 4.6/5
Nowdays we really look forward to how a game looks, its framerate and resolution, but what is really missing the point, is the capacity to look at a product considering: the hardware capabilities, when the game is launching and development's choices.
Nintendo made Super Mario World, but for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past they look forward a more minimalistic style with a deep functionality, leaning a side to possible criticism and perspective faults.
Videogames sprites are high in calories because they are extremely delicious, even if not amazingly designed, but they are incredibly hard to pull off. Whenever you see a videogame that uses sprites think about who make them, for which purpose and if they are well contextualized in the environment (e.g. 16bit sprites in an 8bit revival game or viceversa).
The reason why a sprite is designed a certain way is the result of multiple choices in terms of developers and hardware capabilities, design objectives, functionality and animations.