SEGA’s Sprite Scaling Wizardry in Arcade Games of the 1990s

While scanning my “Medium article ideas” document, feeling blah and not really wanting to do any of them, I realized I had a game minimized to my system tray. It’s an arcade game, emulated in M.A.M.E (**M**ulti **A**rcade **M**achine **E**mulator) so it doesn’t allow pausing.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. Most of the arcade games I’m nostalgic for are from the 1990s, when I was around the right age that my brain was put together enough to appreciate them and become curious about the technology behind their operation.

“Why dont games on my Sega Genesis look like this?” I would think. Which got me into researching what made arcade hardware different, and the various technical methods used to achieve certain graphical effects in the era before polygons.

SEGA were the absolute masters of this. Their Super Scaler hardware used in titles like Space Harrier, Galaxy Force II, OutRunners, Power Drive Ralley and more did about as much with sprite scaling as you *possibly could* to simulate 3D visuals.

OutRunners, seen below, is a good example of SEGA’s sprite scaling black magic fuckery:

Everything is either scaled sprites or the line scrolling effect used to make the road. “Oh I’ve seen that before in games like Hang On” you might say, but not like this. Watch through a few different stages and see the creative ways sprite scaling is used to depict cities, canyons, bridges, even the shore of the ocean.

But SEGA wasn’t done. “Come on now SEGA” you might say, “you can’t do *everything* with sprites.” To which SEGA replies “that sounds like a challenge”. Power Drift was SEGA snorting coke and not giving eve a *tiny fraction* of a fuck:

Because the player’s perspective is fixed behind the car, even though sprites always turn to face you, they are used successfully here to create fully 3D environments with roads that snake up into the sky like a rollercoaster track. The illusion falls apart during replays because the replay camera isn’t fixed behind the car, but other than that it’s seamless.

You’ve not seen but the tip of the iceberg yet. Now you’re saying “SEGA, you have a problem. We need to talk about this. Sprite scaling is your answer to *everything*” to which they reply *”You say that like it’s a bad thing”* and make Galaxy Force II:

Entire asteroids made out of clustered sprites. Seemingly 3D perspective correct spaceships of massive size. There was a line back there somewhere but SEGA crossed it without looking. Polygons? What the fuck is a polygon and who needs ‘em? When you fly inside space stations it gets really insane, with layered sprites being used to create an entire seemingly 3D interior environment.

Alien 3: The Gun mixed SEGA’s established and highly mature sprite scaling techniques with the same ray casting 2.5D pseudo-3D method of rendering perspective correct walls that was used in games like Wolfenstein 3D or Rise of the Triad:

By mixing this with sprite scaling, it was able to produce more convincing 3D-ish indoor areas than a game like Galaxy Force 2 while still having those luscious, gigantic and detailed sprites. If you can believe it, there’s still not a single polygon in this game.

Why did SEGA go to these absurd lengths, twisting and exploiting something simple like the hardware capability to smoothly expand or shrink sprites *far beyond* what most devs would have considered? Well remember, early 3D was kind of shitty. Choppy framerate, blocky textures, miniscule polycounts.


It’s easy to see how, at least early on, expertly scaled sprites made for a nicer looking 3D-ish game than actual polygon based 3D graphics. Sprite based characters actually looked like what they were supposed to represent, since 2D was so mature by that time they had all the resolution, color depth and space for animation frames they could possibly ask for.

Polygonal characters on their other hand resembled pointy, blocky abstract art. Between 1987 or so and 1995, scaled sprites were the way to go if you needed a game to look 3D. But then, the early sprite scaling games weren’t terribly advanced either, even if they were classics:

Space Harrier was (IIRC) SEGA’s first application of their super scaler arcade hardware. They were not so imaginative right out of the gate, using the capability only for enemies and stuff like trees, boulders and other incidental objects. After Burner fared better, constructing the landscapes you fly over entirely from scaled sprites:

All of this ran at a butter smooth 60 frames per second, further increasing its appeal over chunky polygons at framerates which often didn’t even reach 20. In the 1990s, 30fps polygonal 3D was still a distant, futuristic dream. Have we perhaps lost something, aesthetically, by casting scaled sprite games to the wayside? I hope indie devs can bring this style back.

As an honorable mention, though it’s not a SEGA game, I feel compelled to include Aqua Jack. It’s more reliant on advance line scrolling landscapes than on scaled sprites, but does an amazing job of depicting shimmering, reflective water in such a primitive game engine:

How did they even do that? Necessity is the mother of invention, I suppose. If you *need* to do convincing 3D landscapes, but you cannot manage it with polygons, this is the sort of weird in-between hybrid baboozery which results. Thank goodness too, because it’s utterly fascinating to look at.

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