As art director of Griffin Aerotech, Chris Cruz has achieved something that marks him out among his peers: with Skycurser, his pixel artwork powers a sidescrolling shoot ’em up that has been released into arcades in 2016. Currently on test in locations around the world, it pays tribute to the Japanese shooters that once dominated gaming.
HISTORY “When I was very young, around grade-school age, I dreamed of making a new fighting game. Back then, I used a simple DOS bitmap editor called NeoPaint to create sprites for games that didn’t exist. Around the same time, I was also obsessed with Doom and would make new monsters and weapons for WADs. I hadn’t made pixel art since then until Skycurser, and this is my first time attempting to make pixel art on a professional level. My approach since starting the game hasn’t changed much, other than learning new techniques and becoming more proficient over time. I’ve also learned not to start any work without gathering lots of reference materials. Having good references – photos, 3D models, illustrations, other pixel work, and so on – makes all the difference.”
COLOURS AND RESOLUTION “Since our game is designed specifically for an arcade release, we knew that we needed to choose a resolution that would be compatible with existing professional arcade CRTs at a 15khz refresh rate. The resolution our team decided on is 320×240, which was the standard for nearly all arcade releases in the early ’90s, and gives you a nice square pixel on a 4:3 CRT arcade monitor. As an artist I’ve been happy with the level of detail I can achieve at this pixel depth, but for future games we may consider ‘cheating’ a little more horizontal resolution by compressing a slightly wider format back down to 4:3, like Capcom did with the CPSII and CPSIII arcade systems. Colour choice is an area I struggle with to this day. I think the palette can make or break the final image, and many times, if you’re trying to adjust colours after the pixel process is far along, it’s already too late. Generally, I like to use natural, organic colours, but punch them up a bit so they really jump out of the monitor. With effect animations, I turn the knobs to 11 on colour to help create contrast. I limit the palette to no more than 15 colours per sprite with an additional colour reserved for ‘transparency’. It helps keep the animations manageable and produces a look that feels authentic to the era I’m most inspired by.”
INSPIRATION “I think the best pixel art to date was done by Japanese artists at arcade developers in the ’90s. The obsessive details of Irem, the beautifully fluid animation of Capcom, and the uniquely chunky style of SNK are definitely the big three that I reference most often. It turns out that some of my favourite pixel artists actually bounced around between those companies over time, so there’s a strong likelihood that my favourite work was all done by the same small group of artists. Some of my all-time favourites from a visual perspective are Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Metal Slug 3, Beast Busters, and, as an outlier, Doom II.” STANDING OUT “My highest priority is to make art that serves the gameplay, so I tend not to think much about anything else as I’m designing. However, I’ve found that very few artists today work to achieve the ’90s Japanese arcade look. Since I’m working toward that style, it’s been fairly easy to maintain a visual voice that’s unique among most modern games. Staying away from ‘dirty pixel’ effects like dynamic lighting, fog, rotation and scaling also helps, as those types of tool-assisted techniques have become part of the dominant style today.”
STYLE “My favourite visual styles came from Japanese artists attempting to do things in an American style – the Street Fighter series is a great example. I like to joke that Skycurser’s pixel style is that of an American artist trying to emulate a Japanese artist who’s trying to make something an American audience would like [laughs]. Outside of that, for Skycurser I try to be as visually wild and over-the-top as possible. Usually if an idea takes more than just a few moments to come to me, I’ll move on to something that’s more instinctual. I like to keep it super dumb and fun.”
CHALLENGES “Working on a game part-time while trying to manage the responsibilities of real life is an incredible challenge. Since I’m the only pixel artist on the game, every single asset that I want to include is another time investment. The temptation to take shortcuts is always there, but I’m constantly reminding myself of the legacy of incredible pixel art that my work will be judged against. Releasing Skycurser prototypes to arcades has been like rocket fuel for my creative process. Seeing people enjoying it really keeps me motivated.”