How many pixels do you need?

2011-10-01

What would you consider a decent screen resolution for gaming? 1280×1024? 1600×1200? Or maybe 1920×1080, if you’re a console owner?

My mobile port of Buzz Grid runs just fine on a screen as small as the one on the left:

microemu buzz grid danlaser

That’s 176×220, a common resolution for cellphones around 2005. Seems limited? Nintendo Gameboy, possibly the absolute best-selling gaming console ever, had a screen no bigger than the one on the right: only 160×144! And four shades of gray for variety.

Those are extreme examples. But old computers often didn’t have many more pixels to work with. For comparison, I’ve put together this little diagram showing the screen resolution of various classic machines.

small screens

Note that these are the actual screen sizes, and the diagram itself is 640×480 pixels large — the same resolution used in Baldur’s Gate II as late as 2001. Many classic games such as Doom and the LucasArts adventures ran in even less — 320×200. My last two cellphones can display them with room to spare.

You could argue that technology marches on, but there is progress and progress. We could have had flying cars and atomic planes decades ago, but we don’t. And you’ll hear all kinds of reasons why, but I say that’s because it would create too many problems for very little gain.

You could also argue that more pixels equals prettier games, and I’ll be the first to admit that Mass Effect (to pick an example) looks spectacular. The problem is, it doesn’t look like a game. More like a movie on DVD that stops now and then to offer you a simplistic choice. Myst, with its blocky 3D renders, moved me a lot more. Speaking of movies, don’t even get me started about the original Star Wars versus newer editions.

Now, if you’re absolutely certain that your next game really, really needs 2 million pixels to look good, by all means, target the absolute latest hardware. But make the decision knowing that the lower limit is 16×16.

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