Sega’s video-game artists had to draw pixels by hand on crazy, custom machines in the 1980s and 90s

Analog methods in a digital world.
Analog methods in a digital world.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Making video games today is a complex undertaking that can require years of work. But in the 80s and 90s, it involved a whole other layer of difficulty.

Not only did gaming companies have to make the games, they had to invent the machines used to make them. Video Games Densetsu, a blog dedicated to gaming ephemera, highlighted a series of photos showing how some of Sega’s most iconic titles were developed.

The photos depict artists at work on the Sega Digitizer System, a piece of custom-built hardware that included a “light pen” to fill in pixels by hand. The system consists of three large panels that occupy an entire desk. Two of those panels are large screens showing the sprite the artist is working on. One screen magnifies the sprite down to the pixel, allowing the artist to fill them in with the light pen.

The Digitizer was used to produce games for both Sega’s coin-operated arcade games and for its 16-bit home console, the Megadrive (sold as the Genesis in north America). The photos show at least three generations of the Digitizer at work, with the third-generation machine being used to develop Golden Axe II, which was released in 1992. There’s also a documentary (in Japanese) showing the machines in action.

Even the third-generation Digitizer had to rely on some analog processes, according to Sega enthusiasts who have traced the machine’s history. One poster on the Sonic and Sega Retro Message Board pointed out that artists had to print their finished work and then annotate the print-outs by hand to indicate how the sprites would move.

Pen and paper have a long history in video-game design. The original Super Mario game released in 1985 was entirely designed on colored graph paper. Hit games today are a different beast, offering hyper-realistic graphics and can spend years in development. But the foundations of game development laid down in decades past still inform today’s designers, as one game producer pointed out: ”Back then they were using light pens on CRT screens to draw pixels, and nowadays we’re using pens on tablets to draw, sculpt, and manipulate 3D objects,” Yannick Boucher, a development director at Electronic Arts, wrote in a Facebook post discussing the Digitizer. ”But we’re still using a pen. Just a different version of it. It remains the timeless tool that it is.”