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Beauty in Technical Limitations

Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 for iPhone (UK iTunes App Store link). Yep, that’s right — the original game from 1991 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

It’s a fun game, albeit one which I’m not really very good at, having only made it to Spring Yard Zone so far (even with the assistance of the Level Select ‘feature’).

Screenshot of Spring Yard Zone on Sonic 1

One thing that struck me about this game, though, is the technical limitations of the original hardware this game was designed for. When you have a 7.61 MHz 68K processor, a total of 512 colours (only 64 of which can be on the same screen at the same time) and sound that has to be generated through a rather primitive Programmable Sound Generator chip, you have a lot of things to work around and a lot of restrictions to work within to create a fun, entertaining video game.

Despite all these technical limitations — in fact, even because of them, you end up with an artform that becomes uniquely beautiful, because it is so technically constrained. The fact that all the sound has to be generated by this one chip, all the colours used have to be painstakingly thought out ahead of time so that the palettes will work out and you have the colours you need, the fact that the whole game has to fit inside a few megabytes — it enforces simplicity.

It’s something that’s easy to forget about when we can carry around extraordinary processing power in our pockets and the computers we use at our desks have such technical capability.

Video game programming twenty years ago demanded a different mindset — efficiency, simplicity and a degree of pragmatism about making things fit around the limitations. This game for me sums up where the binary, definite nature of digital technology, with all of its 1990s limitations, can meet with the full expression of human creativity.