What is 8-Bit? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

For some of you youngsters reading, you are probably familiar with the parody of the hottest movie trailers in 8-bit graphics and sound effects. Or maybe your parents still have an 8-bit console, most notably a Nintendo, from their childhood and they have you try it out to see what gaming back then was like. Or if you’re some of the older folks that lived it, then you know that some would call the 8-bit era the beginning of modern video gaming. What 8-bit basically means is that a video game console and computer uses 8-bit microprocessing CPUs. Bit, is a term short for binary digits, a basic measuring unit for processing information, and 8-bit had 256 places to store information in forms of binary data. Though 8-bit means nothing with present technology upon uploading of this article, upon its release, it was considered state of the art and the Nintendo Entertainment System was the hottest toy on the market during its prime in the 1980s.

While Nintendo’s first home console popularized 8-bit, it wasn’t the first and only machine to ever feature it. In fact, many consoles and computer systems from the 1970’s and 1980’s used 8-bit processors such as the first two Apple computers, many of Commodore’s PC units, the Atari 2600, and the Sega Master System are all representations of this generation of gaming that all used some form of 8-bit processing.


Mega Man

  • Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release Date: Dec 1987

One notable feature we notice with 8-bit games is the graphics. As opposed to modern 3D rendering, 8-bit games were pixilated and blocky. Some of you Honey fans probably worked with graphing paper when you were students for either a math or art class, and you had to make a picture by coloring within the squares on the grid. In case you didn’t know, graphics were made by inserting colors into grids of cells so that they wouldn’t consume too much RAM, and yet still make it presentable.

Due to how the grids were small squares, it was only natural that many first generation 8-bit games came across as blocky since they represented a bunch of tiny squares inserted with colors. If you visit some game stores in Akihabara, they do have books that show how Mega Man and Mario were initially designed on graphing paper, and you can find instructional videos on YouTube on how to draw them on graphing paper as well. Then they would use the designs on the graphing paper to convert that into binary data to fill a box on a programming grid.

Various systems had different palettes for displaying colors. While the Master System could display 32 colors at once, the original Nintendo console could display double that thanks to the inclusion of a Picture Processing Unit. While other methods of rendering were theoretically possible, the limited amount of RAM back then just made it difficult and too consuming to make it happen. However, other forms were made by adding in special chips into the cartridges of some games to provide better quality rendering for backgrounds and the characters.


Another iconic distinction of 8-bit consoles is their silly sound effects and catchy soundtracks. Kesha’s Tik-Tok uses 8-bit inspired sound effects as the hook, and much of them are widely used in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World such as Mario gaining coins in the original game. The various 8-bit hardware models at the time had different voices in the sound chips to express different kinds of sounds. If you have played the original model keyboards, a number of them couldn’t play more than two notes at once because the sound chip had one voice. While with later model keyboards, they progressed to four voices allowing them to play up to four notes at once and the progression of technology allowed you to change the sounds. These days, keyboards have numerous voices to simultaneously produce all kinds of sounds.

As early keyboard technology used these limited number of voices, so would 8-bit consoles. The NES had five voices while the Commodore 64 had three, but could channel wavelengths in different ways. The first two voices of the NES console created a square-like length to make the melody of a song, the third voice gave the bass through triangular sound vibrations, and the fourth voice was used for additional sound effects and gave a more erratic wavelength. The fifth voice was also used for other sound effects but wasn’t used that often, but usually with percussion sounds such as drum effects.

While the Nintendo Entertainment System had five voices, each voice functioned exclusively to that one wavelength. Though the Commodore 64 had three voices, each voice had more flexibility and could change their wavelengths. All three voices could produce and change between the square, triangle, wavy, and erratic wavelengths. In some games, Nintendo got around this limitation by having an extra sound chip installed into the game to make more effects. One notable example is the Japanese release of Castlevania III, which contains a coprocessor to provide a more synthesized feel to the soundtrack. Unfortunately, non-Japanese consoles didn’t have the hardware necessary to support this special chip.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Akumajou Densetsu)

  • Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami
  • Release Date: Dec 22, 1989 (Japan), Sept 1990 (US)

Hit Games

While we have listed examples of various 8-bit hardware, in the end, when people hear 8-bit, they immediately think of Nintendo as they made that word a household name. These days, online multiplayer with MMORPGs and/or first person shooters are all the rage, but back then the bread and butter of the 8-bit were platform games. While there were a small number of fighting games, they weren’t as intricate or as deep as they are today. Fighting games back then were just limited to simple punches and kicks and took inspiration from point based tournaments like you see in the original Karate Kid movie. In addition, sprite animations wouldn’t have allowed the motion to be as fluid as they are today.

So what are some hit games that help create the console? Previously, Mario, Castlevania, and the Mega Man series were given as examples of how they defined the graphics and sounds of those consoles, not only that, they were just great games. Mario back then is the same as he is today, but introduced novelties that still stay exclusive to its debut. For seven stages, you were always treated to “Our Princess is in a different castle” at the end of each level, and each stage would progressively become more difficult. However, you could shorten the game by finding hidden warps.

The game overall gave players a unique fantasy of assuming the role of a plumber who is the last hope of a kingdom and it just resonated with audiences. It gave quality resolution for its time and a distinct soundtrack that captures the player to think they are going to have fun with this game, but when they go underground, it changes to something more auspicious. But when they get the star, the melody gives the player an upbeat spirit to complement the temporary invisibility.

Mega Man offered a distinct sense of freedom by allowing the player to choose which stage they wanted to play in. Upon beating the loss of that level, Mega Man could obtain the special ability of that particular boss. For example, when Mega Man beats Cut Man, he can use his scissors attack or use the super strength of Guts Man. Through Castlevania, you could fight icons of horror including Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula himself. As Belmont, you can collect various items such as crosses and holy water to defeat the undead. The recent Netflix animated series ties into the third game, which is a prequel to the first two games. In Castlevania III, you have the option to play as Trevor, Alucard, Sypha, and Grant, who each have distinct abilities that can and will help you get through the game.

Phantasy Star

  • Platform: Master System
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sega
  • Release Date: Dec 29, 1987 (Japan), 1988 (US)

While RPGs did exist back in the 8-bit days, they were much different from modern RPGs in every way both obvious and subliminal. RPGs were presented in an overhead layout when exploring, and it was heavily text-oriented. While Nintendo had Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Sega had their Phantasy Star series. What made Phantasy Star on the Master System stand out compared to these more mainstream titles is that it offered a distinct setting with an intergalactic Sci-Fi flavor as opposed to fantasy, which RPGs tended to rely on.

In addition, the presentation of the graphics was very high-quality, which was notably distinct when exploring the dungeons that had 3D like feel. And when combating enemies, they would actually move around the screen while the enemies in initial RPGs would remain stationary and just flash when they attacked. And like Castlevania III, both Japanese and non-Japanese versions offer a different style of presentation with the soundtracks due to differences in hardware. The Japanese version could support FM sound while the non-Japanese version couldn’t.

Final Thoughts and Making a Comeback

As of last year, Nintendo released their HD classic consoles to successful numbers. While 8-bit has passed, we can obviously conclude that it has not and will never be forgotten thanks to fans still paying homage through YouTube videos and music. It is probably the first sign of proof that video games are considered a form of art. While gaming did exist prior to Nintendo, it was an industry that was on the verge of collapse. It was bad to the point that retailers didn’t want to carry any more hardware and software and ET just made things go from bad to worse. But thanks to Nintendo’s debut console, it paved way for modern day gaming. Gamers of all ages see it as the beginning of what gaming is today and without it, we wouldn’t have the present generation of consoles.

8-bit gaming also represents a different set of fun and challenges that today’s gaming can’t offer. While we can just save our game, a good percentage of 8-bit games (with the exception of RPGs) don’t give you that option so you have to play that game in one sitting. Its visuals and sounds are a novelty that expands the identity of that era and its solid library of games. A good number of franchises started as 8-bit games and their legacies strive to this very day, which helps gamers find a frame of reference to one-day visit this distinct time of when the industry was truly beginning.

Castlevania-III-Wallpaper-667x500 What is 8-Bit? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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