8-Bit In Video Games

Video games can be defined in many ways. We can separate them by genre, year, system, and country of origin. Some of these terms become less useful over time, yet still hold an important part in gaming's legacy and zeitgeist. 8-bit can be one of these terms, as a classic designation that still manages to act as an important descriptor decades after its inception. So what is 8-bit anyway, and how is the term used today?

The Origins of 8-Bit In Gaming

The technical but not especially helpful 8-bit meaning refers to a computing system that offers a data width of eight bits. This data width can be thought of as the amount of data that can be accessed in a single instruction from the computer. The more bits that can be accessed, the more complicated the instructions can be, the more processing power is required, and the more complex the result can be.

In video games, we tend to use bits to refer to early video game consoles and generations. With 8-bit, it refers to platforms like the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Sega Master System, and the Atari 7800.

This 8-bit console designation also means we think of games in these generations as 8-bit titles. The original Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy games were all 8-bit games.

8-bit isn't just about the limitations of these systems and games, it also refers to the audio/visual output that they produce. Large pixel sprites of limited detail and music with blips and low fidelity are all synonymous with 8-bit gaming, and this idea is maintained today.

8-Bit as it Exists Today

8-bit in gaming technically refers to the early systems and their games, but it also acts as a shorthand relating to more modern retro-inspired games. Titles like Shovel Knight and Celeste aren’t limited by 8-bit restrictions, but they still carry on the legacy of what 8-bit represents.

When you ask what is 8-bit music, you’ll still think of the NES when playing a modern 8-bit-inspired game. When looking at their visuals, modern 8-bit style titles still reflect what devices like the NES were capable of. Today, 8-bit is a synonym for games that intentionally limit their audio/visual makeup. These games will often vastly overstep the potential of what 8-bit systems were capable of, but it's the spirit that remains true.

Whether looking at original 8-bit titles or newer takes on the 8-bit formula, the central tenant of 8-bit is that our imaginations manage a lot of the work. Limited audio mixes and visual designs provide clarity that allows our minds to soar, and the result can be a more focused gameplay experience. It might seem contradictory, but by going backwards, 8-bit titles can bring us closer to the core of what gaming represents.