Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A belated birthday gift, plus a pile of video game ANSI art

Some time ago I was reading up on the CRPG Addict playing through Dungeon Campaign, and upon seeing its start screen, a light bulb went off over my head: that's ANSI! Well, yes and no -- the Apple II's screen had a weird split-mode that enabled graphics display in the upper portion of the screen, leaving 4 lines on the bottom for text. Just perfect for illustrated text adventures like Mystery House! But I didn't come to this conclusion immediately -- first I popped open PabloDraw, the latest incarnation of an ANSI art editor my group Mistigris first released back in the mid-'90s, and whiled away a few hours trying to eyeball the chunky source material and approximate a conversion to actual textmode.

Judging by my notes, this happened some time after my birthday, as it was lumped in with mention of a belated birthday present I'd received -- a copy of the Dark Domains DVD from no less than RaDMaN, founder of ACiD! (ACiD, for those not in the know, was essentially the first -- or at least pre-eminent -- ANSI art group during the art form's peak period in those halcyon '90s. For a time I, based on a "how StUdLy are you?" quiz I published in my school newspaper, was the group's secretary. This not only gave me elite kudos and access to late-night conference calls of dubious provenance, but it turns out was also responsible for my graduating high school, yielding an adult's signature endorsing my extra-curricular activities in fulfilment of our work experience requirement. But I digress.) This DVD was jam-packed with all the onetime contents of the Artpacks Archive FTP site ACiD had maintained, after Trixter (who would end up creating MobyGames) gave the pirate-associated ANSI artpacks the heave ho from the demoscene-themed Hornet archive. (Since, after all, the loaders and intros epitomizing the demo art were in no way linked to the cracking and couriering scene, he exhaustingly sarcased.)

(No privacy violation -- it's been long enough, that that's now my old address! Yeesh!)

The ANSI art format was painfully limited, but it was the right material for its time -- an effective beautification scheme for dial-up BBSes at middling modem speeds, in an age when downloading a Cindy Crawford swimsuit .GIF might take an hour. A focal medium of expression for thousands of teenaged boys (and a few notable exceptions, of both gender and age), it could be used to express anything -- but mostly derived its influences from graffiti (in its typography) and comic books (in its subjects) -- tragically, the stylish launch titles of Image, some of the most highly-polished turds to ever grace the page. But... I digress!

Still in, if admittedly stepping out from, a pixelart era, the pseudo-pixels (tall rectangles in the default MS-DOS screen mode of 80x25) of ANSI art also made it an effective medium for revisiting video game sprite artwork -- and of course, given that access to the subterranean river of wareZ was a critical motivating factor for many aspiring ANSI artists, the subject was never far from their minds in any case.

My birthday is rapidly approaching (you may be hearing about my drumming up the next instalment of my retro game parties), hence the raw material for this post must have been sitting around collecting dust for the better part of nine months now. (Sorry for dropping off the face of the blogosphere in the middle of my D&D spree -- things have been hairy lately and a breath of fresh air will probably make this blog more of a joyous undertaking than another dreary responsibility.) Though my computer at the time didn't have an optical media drive of any kind, I was still able to avail myself of the web interface to the artpacks archive at and dig up some interesting specimens of video game art, ANSI style, for your enjoyment and edification!

Anything visual was fair game for conversion to ANSI art, as my opening indicated, though certain (chest-heaving) themes would prove more popular than others. Here, to set the scene, a couple of specimens from the visual vocabulary of the company Konami:

Here, tropes from Super Mario Bros. are used as set decoration for an infofile, describing group membership. This rendition employs the block characters that made ANSI so special, but eschews its minimal-amazing palette of 16 colours (and endless shades between).
Now we have a piece by Jed of ACiD, an endlessly talented individual who made his mark as a master of ANSImation, or animated ANSI art. This piece is not a specimen of that black art (and indeed I am not sure how one would even go about embedding such materials into web pages) but it remains a good example of his style -- unsophisticated, but very effective. Sonic the Hedgehog is an excellent choice of subject for this piece, presumably celebrating a warez-couriering group named after the speed with which they deliver the goods.
A second piece by Jed, this one features the titular caveman of the video game Trog. Jed was also a deft hand at "toon" shading, which you can see in the typography here, with its reliance on going from a high-intensity version of a colour in the foreground to a low-intensity version in the background, ultimately suggesting a pseudo 3-D presentation -- a stiff order at this brutally low resolution.
Now on to another ACiD member, here Kingpin delivers a small-scale scene of Ken from Street Fighter 2 beating up a BBS's name. You can see how details fall by the wayside as you try to fit in full-body subjects on a single screen, ultimately outlines only suggesting, rather than depicting, particulars.
The counterpart to Street Fighter and the flip side of ANSI art, this is a piece of coloured ASCII art representing a portion of the Mortal Kombat logo. This style relies heavily on negative space.
Here's one from my own group's vaults, an ad for Evil Intentions with a Moogle from Final Fantasy 3, by Halaster once (and again) of Fire. Aesthetics are moving on from toon here, this piece demonstrating "goop".
And another take on a Moogle, this is uncoloured ASCII art from a truly enormous colly (a digest of sorts, etymologically derived from... collage?) that was in a much later Mistigris pack. Computers can automatically generate ASCII art of this style, but not with such crisp edges at such a low resolution. That requires the hands of a genius and the brain of a madman!
Another goop tour-de-force, Hennifer actually distributed primers on ANSI art. The small-scale subject here is of course Doug TenNapel's character Earthworm Jim, his main creation fresh after departing Virgin Games after animating the well-received sprites on the Genesis version of Disney's Aladdin there. This work was probably more creatively satisfying.
Another take on Earthworm Jim and his nemesis, PsyCrow, here Snake Grunger employs ANSI shading to suggest greater texture than likely exists in the original source material. (And if my stack of Nintendo Powers weren't in deep storage, I would take out the copy to check!)
Skipping ahead a decade, we find that even though MS-DOS and the BBS have been long since left behind, artists are continuing to flex their creating muscles in this technologically defunct medium with more contemporary subjects -- here, the video game Red Dead Redemption (aka Grand Theft Horse!) on a somewhat grander scale.
Just a few more pieces. This is more of an interpretation than a direct translation of an image, a highly non-standard work of coloured ASCII art (using filler and edge characters not often seen) showing us Cats from Zero Wing of "all your base" fame. This is by a character who goes by the nickname of Konami (video game much?), who I had the fortune to spend a little time with while passing through Toronto in 2002.
And bringing us right to the present, another work by an artist I've met, this one Mongi from Sweden, during my return from the 1999 Assembly demoparty in Helsinki. Back then, he was purely a high-resolution artist, but I suppose now that the ANSI medium is totally backward, it can be revisited, like needlepoint, beadwork or mosaics, as a minimalist canvas for bonus challenge. The subject is a fellow Scandinavian, ripped from today's smartphones: the main Angry Bird.
No artscene revue would be complete without at least one member of the RIPscrip species, a vector illustration format (which documented not output, but drawing instructions -- so viewers would see every line drawn in fast forward, every step taken toward the final product). This one was also released in my group Mistigris, featuring ironically a game which could be more effectively represented in textmode characters than most: the roguelike NetHack! At the time it was pretty unheard of to distribute computer artscene pieces that weren't ads for some BBS or another, but we didn't always adhere to the status quo in Mist. (Also, ours were some of the last gasp of BBSes! What do you promote when all the boards are gone?) The artist is Happyfish, who is basically the only person I know who has ascended in NetHack. This is one of her characters.
This October will mark the 20th anniversary of the first release by Mistigris, and as you can see, I'm warming up to celebrate it.