What’s Sprite?

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Sprites are 2D images used in video games to represent characters or objects. They were popular before the emergence of 3D games, but have seen a resurgence due to mobile devices. Spriting involves creating images pixel by pixel and animating them through small progressive movements. The limited pixel grid presents a challenge, but sprites can have dozens of frames of animation.

Spriting, in computer graphics, is the act of creating a two-dimensional (2D) image that is usually quite small compared to the size of an average computer screen. These images are known as sprites and are often animated. A sprite was once the primary visual element in computer games, identifying a small square on the screen that was used to represent some game element, such as characters or objects. With the emergence of three-dimensional (3D) games, the use of sprites in video games declined in favor of 3D models. The resurgence in the use of sprites, however, has been driven by the development of mobile and handheld devices that lack the computing power and graphics hardware to run 3D graphics.

The act of drawing sprites is known as sprite drawing. Sprites are usually limited in their resolution, traditionally because the resolution of televisions and computer monitors used to be very limited. The definition of what a sprite actually is varies, with some defining it as an image with transparency in unused areas of the graphic. A broader definition is any small image used in a 2D video game, in which case it may also be called a tile and could be designed to display a repeating pattern and serve as a background.

As video games moved primarily towards 3D renderings, the sprite continued primarily as an art form, sometimes related to the nostalgia around 2D game characters. Spriting usually involves developing an image within a limited pixel field, building the image pixel by pixel rather than with larger graphics tools. In reference to early sprite artwork, some people who practice sprites limit the use of colors in the image to the original 16- or 256-color palette that was common on early computer monitors and video game consoles.

In many video games, sprites representing characters, special effects, and other elements were commonly animated. This involved drawing the same sprite over and over again in a sequence of frames where the animation was expressed through small progressive movements. They were sometimes called sprite strips and could be saved into a single image file and loaded into a program, where they were cut into tiles and animated.

One of the challenges of the sprite was working within the limited pixel grid, sometimes as small as 16 pixels wide. The goal is to define a unique character within the limited space while sometimes leaving room for animation within the sprite tile. It is not uncommon for a sprite to have dozens of frames of animation to depict it performing certain actions that are important to the video game it is included in.

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