1. Sprites that Reward Amazing Accomplishments
Metroid is a go-to example, but Chrono Trigger also really ran with this idea.
The challenge involved in seeing these sprites makes them rare—and their rarity makes them memorable. The Moonlight Parade dancer only shows her face (and her footloose skills!) after beating the game. Frog in his human form is “only” one battle tougher to get on screen, but some people will never see him outside of online sprite rips because their principles won’t let them meet the requirements. On the right are game versions of Akira Toriyama and Yuji Horii, who can’t be found unless players beat Lavos with only Crono and Marle or beat the souped-up, higher-stats, not-supposed-to-be-defeated Lavos at the Undersea Palace.
For a more modern and less 2D example, check out the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The character involved would have been striking even if the game had as little story as the original Legend of Zelda, but the tease of this appearance from the beginning helps further. Delayed gratification works.
2. Sprites that Imitate Popular Imagery
I’ve mentioned before that Samus looks like Ripley and Mega Man looks like Astro Boy, but they’re not the only sci-fi game characters paying homage. The original Mega Man X saw fit to draw upon Star Wars.
Vile is a prime antagonist who plays a very similar role to his design inspiration, Boba Fett. Sigma loses the character parallel but picks up a more iconic image: a green lightsaber. Red and blue lightsabers turn up in the Super Smash Bros. series and Final Fantasy VI, respectively, under the names of Beam Sword and Atma Weapon (or Ultima Weapon). While I’ve known creative people of all media types who back away from the idea of allowing the influence of classic elements of the past into their projects, including myself at one time, even game development teams who make high-level art draw on pop culture.
Just like real-life Mr. T and Blues Brothers lookalikes would catch eyes, these sprites turn heads with their resemblance. The Japanese game also had imitation logos that were cut from the English release, such as a Coca-Cola-looking truck and the red cross on hospitals—and whatever the real names of the Runaway Five are, they were colored even more like the Blues Brothers. The Mother series may not sell like Pokémon or Final Fantasy, but those who love it swear by its ability to rend hearts. Go ahead and ask them. While most of its emotion comes from the dialogue and circumstances, the appearance of recognizable figures lends a feeling of familiarity that services the setting and story.
3. Loosely-Defined Sprites
Months before Flea hit the scene in Chrono Trigger, the Trixter line of enemies in Final Fantasy VI introduced me to gender confusion. At the age of ten, I thought the enemy had feminine legs but masculine hair. At the age of twenty-seven, I still don’t know what I’m looking at—it’s forever a mystery, and that’s why I remember it.
As for the Trilium, I didn’t know it was a weed until I looked for the Trixter sprite on videogamesprites.net and saw Trilium hanging around in the plant monster section. For eighteen years I believed it was a weird-looking snake and the fact that it uses poison attacks doesn’t help.
In hindsight, I blame myself for not looking closely at the Trilium. What I don’t blame myself for is not knowing that Celes was supposed to be hanging from the wall until a dialogue box asked me if I wanted to remove her chains. No matter how closely I look at it now, I don’t think I would have been able to tell. Crono fares a little better. Even though his handcuffs are small red lines, it’s at least clear that his hands are in front of him and I can infer what’s going on from there. In either case, I remember these kinds of sprites because they required my imagination to puzzle out and infer what I was seeing. That doesn’t mean that making sprites too small for their intended detail is good practice, but it’s how things happened. Not everything memorable is memorable for a “good” reason.
Oddly enough, this problem didn’t disappear with the shift to 3D models and occasionally even got worse. In Final Fantasy VII, the party is taken captive at the top of the Shinra building and their restraints are entirely invisible. The same thing happens with Tales of Symphonia over in the 21st century when the group fakes their capture to sneak into an enemy facility.
4. Sprites that Invoke the Bizarre
Another way of getting the imagination rolling is to throw nonsense at the wall and see what sticks.
Here we have an androgynous person with a whip riding what I can only describe as a flying green thing, a creature design and color scheme right out of Dr. Seuss, a robe with a cloud for a head, a doll covered in ectoplasm with teddy bear ears and extendable floating arms, a living Aztec drawing with an Unown sticking out of it, and a whale with boils on its back the size of toads. I may not like all of these sprites, but I also can’t forget things this weird.
It’s also possible to add only a pinch of quirk.
The Chrono Trigger team could have stopped at giving Ayla a fur bikini to show that she’s a cave girl. The Final Fantasy VI team could have contented itself with Ultros being a purple octopus. The EarthBound team could have settled for having any kind of hippie for an enemy. None of them did. Ayla runs on all fours, Ultros is an octopus with fangs to push him over the edge of odd, and the New Age Retro Hippie has a funky cross-legged, arms-out pose. Nobody would ever stand like that—and that’s why it’s great.
King Truffle’s mustache, the Lagomorph bunny’s hat, and the Cactrot’s three “hair” spikes are the most important parts of their character designs, just like spiky golden hair is the most important part of a super saiyan. Little touches mean everything.
5. Taunting Sprites
Video games are about getting things done, but taunts don’t accomplish anything in and of themselves—they only build the mood toward the moment when the pot starts boiling. Taunts are self-sustained hype that add anticipation and flavor.
Chrono Trigger imps have never killed anyone, not even players who take up low-level game challenges, but they leave their mark on everyone; Marle’s rather worthless Provoke technique serves as the hero party equivalent. Launch Octopus and Snivy from the fifth generation of Pokémon look down on their pitiful opponents. Launch Octopus can back it up. Snivy has some evolutions to go before it can shine, but the lesson is that characters can convey their personalities with only a few frames of animation. Kefka’s laugh plays a similar role in Final Fantasy VI with an audio-based assist.
For a modern counterpart, Twilight Princess features an early baboon miniboss who slaps his butt cheeks at Link. The World Ends With You has Joshua, one of the more arrogant RPG party members of our age. While dialogue was the main tool for exposing his character, his smug facial expressions could also have told all the story he needed.