Computer Graphics


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In computer graphics, a sprite is a two-dimensional image or animation that is integrated into a larger scene.

Sprites were originally invented as a method of quickly compositing several images together in two-dimensional video games using special hardware. As computer performance improved, this optimization became unnecessary and the term evolved to refer specifically to the two dimensional images themselves that were integrated into a scene. That is, figures generated by either custom hardware or by software alone were all referred to as sprites. As three-dimensional graphics became more prevalent, the term was used to describe a technique whereby flat images are seamlessly integrated into complicated three-dimensional scenes.


An example of sprite animation from the popular game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In this frame the sprouts of grass and brown puffs of smoke are integrated into the scene using sprites. Other objects in the frame such as the character (Link), the flower just behind his feet, and the rock walls and ground are more complicated three dimensional objects that employ texture mapping.


A closer look at the graphic can help reveal imperfections of this rendering technique. Take a look at the puffs of smoke about the character and to the left. Notice that one sprite at the bottom of the largest puff of smoke is cutting into the ground, revealing its actual geometry is not an amorphous puff but a flat plane. Also notice that the grass near his feet is interacting with the flower near his feet in a strange way. The base of the grass is closer to the camera than the flower yet the blades appear to be behind. For this to be a correct perspective the grass would have to be leaning toward the ground away from the camera at an obtuse angle. Even though the original image that created the grass sprite was clearly created using textured polygons, it is being added to this scene as a sprite. These imperfections escape the notice of most viewers because they are rare, and often do not last very long as they and the camera move.

More often sprite now refers to a partially transparent two dimensional animation that is mapped onto a special plane in a three dimensional scene. Unlike a texture map, the sprite plane is always perpendicular to the axis emanating from the camera. The image can be scaled to simulate perspective, it can be rotated two dimensionally, it can overlap other objects and be occluded, but it can only ever be viewed from the same angle. This rendering method is also referred to as billboarding.

Sprites create an effective illusion when:

  • the image inside the sprite already depicts a three dimensional object
  • the animation is constantly changing or depicts rotation
  • the sprite exists only for a short period of time
  • the depicted object has a similar appearance from many common viewing angles (such as something spherical)
  • the viewer accepts that the depicted object only has one perspective. (such as small plants or leaves)

When the illusion works viewers will not notice that the sprite is flat and always faces them. Often sprites are used to depict phenomena such as fire, smoke, small objects, small plants (like blades of grass), or special symbols (like "1-Up"). The sprite illusion can be exposed in video games by quickly changing the position of the camera while keeping the sprite in the center of the view.

Sprites have also occasionally been used as a special effects tool in movies. Most notably, the creators of the fire breathing Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring used sprites to simulate fire emanating from the surface of the demon. Small bursts of fire were filmed in front of a black background and made transparent using a luma key. Many bursts were then attached to the surface of the animated Balrog model and mixed with simulated smoke and heat waves to create the illusion of a monster made from fire.

The term sprite can be applied more loosely to mean any 2D graphic drawn on a computer, also known as Pixel Art.

Billboarding Edit

Billboarding is one term used to describe the use of sprites in a 3D environment. In the same-way that a billboard is positioned to face drivers on a highway, the 3D sprite always faces the camera.

Ah, yeah. You need the image to be 256 color/8 bit PNG or a BMP file. You can use Irfanview to convert it if you want.Since the color palttee is limited to 256 colors (it is a pixel program after all), a 24 bit PNG won't work.Also, gifs won't work either, you'd have to convert them to a PNG. Ah, yeah. You need the image to be 256 color/8 bit PNG or a BMP file. You can use Irfanview to convert it if you want.Since the color palttee is limited to 256 colors (it is a pixel program after all), a 24 bit PNG won't work.Also, gifs won't work either, you'd have to convert them to a PNG.

Alternative terms Edit

  • 3D Sprite is a term often used to refer to sprites that are essentially texture mapped 3D facets that always have their surface normal facing into the camera.
  • Z-Sprite is a term often used for 3D environments that contain only sprites. The Z-parameter provides a scaling effect that creates an illusion of depth. For example in adventure games such as Kings Quest VI the camera never moves, normal 2D sprites might suffice, but Z-sprites provide an extra touch.
  • Impostor is a term used instead of billboard if the billboard is meant to subtly replace a real 3D object.

Hardware sprites Edit

In early video gaming, sprites were a method of integrating unrelated bitmaps so that they appear to be part of the a single bitmap on a screen.

The Blitter is a hardware implentation of the Painter's algorithm. For each frame the sprites are first bit blited (short for "bit block transfer") into the fast, large, double, and costly frame buffer and then the frame buffer is sent to the screen. The Blitter was renamed to graphics accelerators as more complicated rendering algorithms are used. The Blitter has a high initial cost for simple scenes.

The Sprite Engine is a hardware implementation of Scanline rendering. For each scanline the appropriate scanlines of the sprites are first copied (the number of texels is limited by the memory bandwidth and the length of the horizontal retrace) into very fast, small, multiple (limiting the # of sprites on a line), and costly caches (the size of which limit the horizontal width) and as the pixels are sent to the screen, these caches are combined with each other and a special sprite: The background. It is larger than the screen and tiled, were the tile map is cached, but the tile set is not. For every pixel every sprite unit signals it presence onto its line on a bus, so every other unit can notice a collision with it. Some sprite engines can automatically reload their "sprite units" from a display list. The Sprite Engine has synergy with the palette. To save registers, the height of the sprite, the location of the texture, and the zoom factors are often limited. On systems were the word size is the same as the texel there is no penality of doing unaligned reads needed for rotation. This leads to the limitations of the known implementations:

Computer using Chip sprites on screen sprites on line max texels on line texture width texture height colors anisotropic zoom rotation background collision detection transparency source
GBA 128 32 256 8 8 yes yes affine mapped tile layer alpha
SNES 128 32 256 8 8 yes yes affine mapped tiles alpha
Out Run using system16 128 32 8 8 yes no 3 tile layers alpha [1], [2]
Amiga using Denise 8 16 arbitrary 3,15 no no bitmap color key
PC Engine using HuC6270A 64 8 16,32 16,32,64 15 no no color key
Sega Genesis 80 20 320 8,16,24,32 8,16,24,32 15 no no 2 tile layers color key [3]
C64 using VIC-II 8 12,24 21 1,3 1,2 no 1 tile layer yes color key [4]
Atari using ANTIC 2,8 128, 256 1,3 color key [5]
Sega Master System
Sega Game Gear
64 8 8 8,16 color key [6]
NES 64 8 8 8,16 15 -2, -1, +1, +2 color key [7]
Gameboy 40 32 256 8 16 no no color key [8]

Many third party graphics cards offered sprite capabilities. Sprite Engines often scale badly, starting to flicker as the number of sprites increases above the number of sprite units, or uses more and more silicon as the designer of the chip implements more units and bigger caches.


During most of the 1980s, hardware speed was in the low, single-digit megahertz and memory was measured in mere kilobytes. Beside CISC-processors all chips are hardwired. Sprites are rare in most video hardware today.

The central processor can instruct the external chips to fetch source images and integrate them into the main screen using direct memory access channels. Calling up external hardware, instead of using the processor alone, greatly improved graphics performance. Because the processor is not occupied by the simple task of transferring data from one place to another, software can run faster; and because the hardware provided certain innate abilities, programs that use CISC or BIOS were also smaller.

Separate locations in memory were used to hold the main display and the sprites.

There is a technique called "dirty rectangles", useful when the Blitter was not sufficiently powerful or software sprites were being used. There is only one frame buffer that wraps around the edges, but only those parts that have changed since the last repaint are updated either with the background or the sprites in their updated positions.

Some sprite engines could only store 8 positions in their registers and the unchallenged CPU was programmed to update them
An unfinished sprite of a penguin

An unfinished sprite of a penguin

several times per frame. Software blitting was complicated by some very strange addressing modes into video ram.


Sprites are typically used for characters and other moving objects in video games. They have also been used for mouse pointers and for writing letters to the screen.

Alternative terms Edit

For on-screen moving objects larger than one sprite's extent, sprites may sometimes be scaled and/or combined.

  • Player-Missile Graphics was used on the Atari 400/800 to refer to hardware-generated sprites. The term reflected the usage for both characters ("players") and other objects ("missiles"). They had restricted horizontal resolution (8 or 2 pixels, albeit with scalability, and a potential 192 lines of vertical resolution), limiting their use somewhat.
  • Movable Object Block, or MOB was used in MOS Technology's graphics chip literature (data sheets, etc). However, Commodore, the main user of MOS chips and the owner of MOS for most of the chip maker's lifetime, applied the common term "sprite".
  • On the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Game Boy, sprites were referred to as OBJs (short for "objects"), and the region of RAM used to store sprite attributes and coordinates was known as OAM (Object Attribute Memory). This still applies today on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS handheld systems.
  • Software sprites were used to refer to subroutines that used bit blitting to accomplish the same goal on systems such as the Atari ST and the Apple II whose graphics hardware had no sprite capability. (This was of course oxymoronic)

Sprite culture Edit

More recently, sprites are edited or created by fans in a process called "spriting". "Spriters" mostly use them to become sprite comic artists, for the purpose of creating a video game-themed comic. It has been continued by Macromedia Flash animators who create sprite cartoons.

External links Edit

Sprite archives Edit

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