The NES That Never Was… [ ARTICLE ]

What if the NES could unleash it’s full color palette unconditionally? Would that have changed its longevity? Would it have staved off the 16-bit generation? We’ll never definitively know, but it’s an interesting idea to ponder.

So, do you know what this is?

NES Color Palette

NES Color Palette

This is the color palette for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It technically had 64 colors in it, but nine of them are black and there are also two shades of gray that look almost identical to some other colors…So let’s play it safe and say that it had a palette of 54 colors.

Now 54 definitely doesn’t seem like a lot. Especially when you compare it to the 32,768 different colors available on the Super NES or even the 512 different colors available for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive. But the color palette wasn’t the main hindrance for how the sprites look on the NES. It’s real limitation is not being able to utilize it’s full color palette at the same time.

The NES had 4-color sprites and one of those colors always had to be transparent. So unless you were using the background to bleed another color through or layered sprites on top of each other, like they did with Mega Man’s face, you were limited to three colors. But what if you weren’t?

That’s what I want to demonstrate with the examples below. Note that all the colors used in these examples are available on the NES and I tried not to alter the intention of the original sprites, where applicable, just give the sprites additional colors and/or shading.

Super Mario Bros. 3 sprites
Super Mario Bros. 3 – Mario
Mega Man NES Sprites
Mega Man 1-6 – Mega Man
Legend of Zelda - Link NES Sprites
Legend of Zelda – Link
Metroid - Samus Aran NES Sprites
Metroid – Samus Aran
Castlevania - Simon Belmont Spites NES
Castlevania – Simon Belmont

Now I’m not saying that what was released on the NES wasn’t impressive. I’m just suggesting that it could have been even more impressive if the developers would have able to play with the entire box of crayons at anytime.

NES Sprites Standard and Full Colors

Standard and Full Color


  • That is a world of difference.

  • That is incredible stuff, very nicely put together.

  • Kender

    So, why were the sprites limited to only 3 colors? Is it just a hardware limitation of the time, or was the NES poorly designed in that regard?

    In other words, is there any way that the NES could have pulled this off with the hardware it had?

    • I would doubt it. The NES was working with hardware from 1983. Something that could fully utilize that color palette was probably just not cost-effective, if even possible, at the time.

      • Da Mighty Camel

        I think that’s something really important to consider. Upon release the Nintendo Entertainment System was unique – and advertised appropriately – in it being the first affordable, high-quality gaming console for the entire family.

    • Yep, Zauron has it right. NES and SNES sprites were a lot like GIF formatted image files are today. There was a limited number of palettes that a developer could create, and then each sprite was assigned one of those palettes. When a sprite was drawn the pallette number and the address in memory where the sprite was stored was given to the system to draw the sprite. but there were only 2 bits per pixel on the NES and 4 bits per pixel on the SNES, making it so that each sprite could only have 3(+trasparency) colors on NES and 15(+transparency) on the SNES.

  • Lovely! In fact, isn’t that what the secret to the TurboGrafx-16’s simulated 16-bit graphics? If I understand the specs correctly, the resolution was no better than what the NES could do, but it had a much deeper color palette at its disposal, allowing it to create graphics akin to your spruced-up NES ones above. I felt so cheated when i discovered that.

  • Now, why do those sprite edits also look so damn familiar, too? Esepcially that Megaman….

    • I think it’s simply that some of the general shapes are very similar to SNES counterparts, so when you allow it to come closer to SNES coloring, it’s going to look similar to a more recent version we’re used to seeing.

      • Not quite. Like the Megaman one, I wanna say Wonderswan, but I don’t think that one was in color.

  • Phaelin

    Capcom was a boss at sprite manipulation back then. Man oh man.

  • 8bitpalate

    These look great. I’m really digging the Simon redesign.

  • Christian Taylor

    The Simon Belmont/Link are awesome

  • Halrawk

    I think SNES would have been held of, or possible never made if this were the case. I bet we would have skipped a whole generation!

  • freakpants

    I will definitely consider this when i travel back in time.

  • TecXero

    That actually answered a question that came up when I was playing Earthbound Zero. Thanks ^_^

  • exp

    is my math wrong, or there are 5 color on original megaman and 4 on original samus?

    • Brad

      There are, but remember “unless you were using the background to bleed another color through or layered sprites on top of each other, like they did with Mega Man’s face, you were limited to three colors.”

      Also, I actually think it wouldn’t have stopped the SNES from arriving when it did, if anything it would have hastened its arrival. The SNES had two main advantages over NES: Graphics and Hardware, including better carts (i.e. Bigger Games). If the NES was advanced in the graphics dept. Nintendo probably would have spent less time with the SNES in development.

    • For Samus Aran, the black is actually from the background. It’s there for visual purposes. For Mega Man, that’s two different sprites.

      • exp

        oh, i see, thanks!

  • antiavenger

    This is one heck of an interesting concept. One I hadn’t even considered or knew of that well (I knew about the 54 unique colors but not the sprite limitation). Someone, somewhere is thinking about this right now on their PC remake of an NES game. :P

    • Well, since the NES was built in such a way that the cartridge is the final connection to make the system complete, maybe it’s possible. Castlevania 3 used the MMC-5 chip that really pushed what the NES could do and I’ve seen full-motion video on the Atari 2600, as well. So I’m willing to bet that if someone really wanted to, they could create a cartridge capable of completing this task and more.

      • clovervidia

        True. Now if only the NES could use the VRC6, because that had extended audio as well as graphical enhancements. If I recall correctly, Nintendo didn’t want developers to make their own expansion chips, so Nintendo made their own. The MMC5 also had extended audio, but the NES couldn’t use it due to certain contacts being removed. That is why Castlevania 3 on the NES sounds like crap compared to the Famicom version.

  • Thegreatklaid

    The funny thing is just minutes before my friend was telling me about some art contest on DevaintArt where you had to draw 8-bit characters. I asked her if you could only use 4 colors of course.

  • This may be a weird question, but what were some other games that made use of the transparent color?

    • Right off the top of my head I can tell you that the original Final Fantasy did. Especially with the Black Mage. He was actually blue, tan and dark tan. The black from where his head would have been was just the background color.

  • The reason for this limitation was mostly memory. Each pixel of a sprite took only 2 bits of memory, which gives you 4 colors – 00, 01, 10, and 11. To access all 64 colors, you would need 6 bits per pixel. That means 3x the amount of memory, both in cart space and working video memory. I’m guessing that the NES didn’t have enough working video memory to do that.

    Another limitation of the hardware of those days was not only how many colors you could use per sprite, but how many per “char” (tile) of the background as well. The background itself could use the full palette but each tile could only use part of the palette just like the sprites.

    Even the SNES had similar limitations – although it had a full 16-bit color palette, each sprite could only use a portion of that. I never worked with the SNES but I did work with the GBA which was similar. On the GBA you got 512 total colors you could have on-screen at once – 256 for sprites and 256 for background tiles. Traditionally sprites were limited to one “row” of the palette, so 16 colors total (15 + 1 transparent), as were individual 8×8 tiles of the background. The GBA featured a special mode where a sprite could access the full palette, at the cost of taking up much more memory (8 bits per pixel instead of 4 bits), however, since the sprites were all sharing the same palette, if you had a sprite that took up all 256 colors you are limiting colors available for other sprites. Palettes had to be very carefully arranged so that sometimes a 256 color sprite would have part of it set up as rows that 16-color sprites could use at the same time.

    My point is just that even the 16-bit era consoles didn’t really give you full 16-bit color, not by a long shot, but 15 colors per sprite still looked a lot more impressive than 3.

    • Draken

      So now the question is this – How difficult would it be to implement these things in an NES Emulator, and would you need to edit the ROMs as well?

  • That’s very interesting post right here. I loved NES when I was a kid and remember those character’s you’ve drawn and their game franchises well. Adding those additional colors makes hell of a difference! Nice work, that definitely would had improved graphics a lot in my opinion.

  • Sarge

    And what if Pac-Man and E.T. for the Atari 2600 had been done properly, and not in a huge rush? The video game landscape might look completely different today.

  • jin

    It’s a cool idea, but I do not think it would have affected the 16-bit era.

    I think this for the same reason I think most modern games are terrible:

    better graphics DO NOT mean better games. Would any of you honestly have MORE fun playing The Legend of Zelda with more than 3 colors for the characters?

    I don’t get it…

    • DamienL

      Honestly yes, I think I would have more fun playing The Legend of Zelda with more than 3 colours per sprite. Better graphics are just another tool in the toolbox to create a more engaging and enjoyable experience — exact same thing with sound. Of course simply having “better graphics” doesn’t make a game great, it’s just one component to the overall experience.

  • kvp

    As it was already mentioned the main problem was memory. There wasn’t enough ram and rom to store more bits for each pixel and also there wasn’t enough bandwith in the system bus to fetch all that data. When multiple sprites are visible on top of each other, the system has to check all sprite data to output one pixel. This is usually done by loading one full line of each sprite into the registers of the graphic chip and in this case the memory limit was only a few bytes. This resulted in both the color and sprite number limit.

    More modern systems either raised these limits or completly got rid of them by switching to more modern technologies, like linear framebuffers, software driven rendering and the RGB colorspace. A classical example of these modern systems were the mcga 320x200x8bpp mode of ibm pc-s (introduced just 2 years after the NES), which is a very good example of a modern video subsystem with all current features present. It lacks tiles and sprites, but can emulate both through a rendering engine and became famous as the standard color mode for DOS games. Most famous early 3D games also used it, which demonstrates the possibilities of using a simplier and cheaper, but more powerful hardware with advanced software. As a comparison a single mcga frame (64KB) takes up more memory than the total ram memory of a NES system with extra on cartridge expansion (12 KB). The two systems existed at the same time but were designed for different markets. The NES was targeted as a low cost system for kids, while the ibm pc-s containing mcga cards were on the high end of the market. The designers of the NES made a concious decision to limit the costs by making the system more limited that it was required by the technology available at the time.

  • Fantastic this entry about the nes pallete colors, so I decided to do some changes on my own, I did this one using the pallete reference you posted on Leonardo, from the TMNT

  • Ruub

    So what ur saying is we should’ve bought a Pc-Engine/Turbo-Grafx back in the days..?

    • kvp

      “So what ur saying is we should’ve bought a Pc-Engine/Turbo-Grafx back in the days..?”

      No, but if money was not a problem, an amiga or a real pc was a better choice. Especially that the North American release years are the same. Actually any platform that is more like a proper computer and not a console is usually a better choice in the long term. This stands true today when a mobile phone with a desktop like os is a better choice than a handheld console with a closed platform. Of course everyone buys the hardware that runs their favourite games regardless it’s long term future.

      ps: Some of my favourite games are from the commodore and atari systems and had worse graphics than the NES. But the games were good and usually that’s the most important point.

  • Pepe


    I love exploring possibilities and this one is quite fascinating.

    Great work, at first I thought you were going to talk about remakes (which I kind of dislike) but then there was all this information and examples and… thanks, it’s awesome.

    It also makes me remember my secret wish that someday we will see a (original) Mario game that looks like this:

  • Raattis

    You can do amazing things with very limited color palettes. <– Doom with 16 colors. Wait a minute for NES colors. <– A demo with a 253-color palette

  • Hey, I translated your post to Brazilian Portuguese on my blog

  • FreakZone Games

    Well, actually, you’d have a thing called the SEGA Master System :P Same
    concept, 8 bit, only 64 colors, except the
    Master System allowed 16 colors per sprite instead of 4. Take a look!

  • SkyCharger001

    technically speaking the NES had eight 52-color palettes that were selectable via the color-emphasis-bits giving you a theoretical limit of 416. (I expect there to be a lot of duplicates)

  • the reason this is not doable is the #of sprites on the NES. it had a set spritesheet, and that was it. and, to make sprites with more than 4 colors, (3 if you don’t count a transparency) , you had to layer multiple sprites. this would be difficult to make a big game with.