Yes, another glimpse of our primitive pixel roots. This screenshot is from my time on Secret of Evermore at Squaresoft, Inc. This is part of the market from the desert town late in the game.
There is a certain pleasure in working within limitations. Any artist who worked on console games in the pre-3D, 16-bit era had to get very friendly with tiles. On the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) any given level had a limit of 1024 tiles, each of which could only use one 16 color palette. Little tricks were needed to build everything a level design called for: X and Y flipping, color cycling, palette swapping and tile animations were usually needed to stretch the tile budget. That, and some careful planning made it possible to build the requisite hills, valleys, roads, rivers, rocks and huts in a given level. It was a challenge, but it was actually fun to figure out how to get the most from every pixel.
Evermore was my first experience with an isometric top-down view as well, which came in handy during Total Annihilation.
Above is a page from my production notebook. This has a basic inventory of things I'd hoped to build with the tiles allowance for the market level. Most of my career in games can be summed up by countless pages of random notes and awful doodles like this one. It looks chaotic, but it's amazing how much information I find on them today. Just to make myself seem even more ancient, it's like putting a needle into the groove of a record. Once I start looking through the reams of pages from Total Annihilation or Vince, I can usually place the exact time and place I made each crude doodle and notation.
Games are still subject to many limitations today, but the boundaries are a lot more mushy. Storage is hardly a problem anymore. Movies and audio assets often take up more space than the games themselves. Tile counts and finite palettes have been replaced by polygon counts and texture memory - but a bit of your frame rate or a few seconds of load time can be (and are) sacrificed in the name of "but it's so cool!"
We spend a lot more time creating wonderful visual content nowadays. I have no complaints, since that's my bread and butter. But the spiraling cost of developing a game has grown along with our technical horizons. Games now take years to make, rather than months. Back in the SNES era, when a cartridge was full, it was full. It was kind of nice to have that clear line in the sand.
Do I have a big, important point? Nope. I just wish I hadn't run out of tiles before I could make some hanging pots and pans for that one merchant's stall. Dammit.