# – “bits” as in 8-bit, 16-bit art and gaming systems

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– “bits” as in 8-bit, 16-bit art and gaming systems

In: Technology

A bit is a single number: 0 or 1. If you combine several bits together you can write larger numbers, like 00, 01, 10, and 11 are ways to write 0, 1, 2, and 3 respectively.

A digital image is really just a series of numbers: a number for how red the upper-left part should be, a number for how green the upper-left part should be, a number for how blue the upper-left part should be, then similar triples for each other part of the image. An 8-bit image uses 8-bit numbers, which range from 0 to 127, for each of those. A 16-bit image uses 16-bit numbers.

Computers (gaming systems) store everything as numbers, not just images. A 16-bit system is designed to work with 16-bit numbers easily, and needs to work harder to accommodate larger numbers and wastes space when dealing with smaller numbers.

Edit to add an actual 5 year old analogy:

Suppose that you are practicing writing and adding numbers at school. Your teacher gives you strips of paper with four blanks each to write numbers on. This is a 4-bit system. If you want to write down numbers like 3047 and 1382, this system is perfect. If you want to write down numbers like 12, 73, 42, and 18 you can do that too. You could even save space by writing two of these shorter numbers on the same strip, but then you need to remember that 1273 is the number 12 and the number 73, not the number 1273. If you want to write down numbers like 17345 you have to tape two strips of paper together.

The “bits” of a game system mainly represents how big an integer (whole numbers, positive or negative) can be that it can do math on at once. The NES was 8-bit, and could add two number together as long as they were 8 bits long. If you wanted to add 16 bits together you needed to use 2 CPU instructions to do it. Memory access sometimes comes into play as well especially in more modern systems, but early CPUs often had different rules about memory access and arithmetic input sizes.

In terms of graphics, they weren’t directly related. Older systems had more primitive graphics processors with more limits. The CPU was often a separate piece of hardware from the graphics processor. Said processor built the screen image pixel by pixel based on sprite sheets and a listing of what went where, and a grid of tiles for the background. The limits were usually of how many tiles were allowed in a given area and how many unique colours were allowed within a single tile.

So saying graphics looked 8-bit is really just saying that game systems at that time tended to have these graphical limits. The next generation would have improvements across the board, for the CPU, the graphics and the audio. And repeat for each iteration.

a bit is a digital information, and can have 2 state: 0 and 1.
This is the smallest unit of data in computing.

When we talk about 8, 16, 32 or 64 bits system, we are talking about the ability of a cpu core to process information in 1 cycle, 1 operation.

Obviously, the more bits that can be processed in 1 operation means more room for more details.
This as become a way to indicate a type of computer generated images.
8 bit computer where often limited to 4,8 or 16 colors. Some could handle 32 with dedicated chipset and the resolution of picture was pretty low (usually between 240 and 320 lines on the screen).
The number of objects (sprites) on the screen was limited as well.

16 bits upped the resolution (often to 640 lines), the quantity of memory that could be handled by the system and increased the number of colors that could be present, pictures became less blurry and more detailed, but still not a photo.
You could still se a blockiness to the pictures.

That and nostalgia made 16 bit pixel art a style in itself today.

A bit is basically a tiny little switch in a computer. Bits can only ever be on or off, which you’ll often hear called 1 and 0.

When programming computers, we like to be able to work with numbers bigger than 1, so we’ve invented a way of counting higher by putting bits together in a way that we call the binary number system, or just binary.

In binary, each bit represents a number that’s twice the last one. The first bit represents 1, the second 2, the third 4, the fourth 8, and so on and so forth. If the bit is on, you add the number it represents to the total, like so (smaller bits are on the right):

10110 -> 16 + 0 + 4 + 2 + 0 = 22
01101 -> 0 + 8 + 4 + 0 + 1 = 13

As it turns out, using this system you can represent any number if you have enough bits. But how many is “enough”? That’s where 8-bit, 16-bit, and so on come in. With 8 bits we can store numbers up to 255. With 16 bits, up to 65,535. 32 bits gives us numbers up to 4,294,967,295.

An 8-bit computer has enough switches in it that it can perform math on numbers up to 255 directly. If you want to use numbers bigger than that, you’ll need to come up with a clever way of storing one number into multiple sets of 8 bits, which makes the computer slower. Obviously, 255 is not a very big number, so as soon as it became affordable to add more switches to the machines, we did.

Side note: “8-bit art” is just a term for pixel art that looks like the kind of art you would see on an 8-bit game console. The number of bits does not directly affect the kind of graphics a computer can display, but 8-bit consoles were much slower than modern computers and could not run graphics that were very fancy.

Side note 2: You may hear about a “memory limit” related to bits. For instance, 32-bit computers can’t use more than about 4 Gigabytes of memory (4.29 billion bytes, to be exact). Why? Because 32-bit computers can’t count higher than 4.29 billion! Each byte needs to be numbered (so the computer can know which one is which) and after that you run out of numbers to give them!

In reference to gaming systems, it’s talking about the generation of gaming systems. The systems with 8-bit CPUs didn’t have much *memory*, so they had memory-saving tricks like making the game-world out of repeating tiles, not putting many colours on the screen at once, and so on. They could’ve made 8-bit systems with lots of memory, but when memory got cheaper, there were 16-bit CPUs and they upgraded the CPUs as well. That’s why 8-bit systems are ones without much memory.

It’s really about how much information can be processed each second or how much memory can be used. The more bits means a larger bus, and that means more information. More bits also means more possible memory addresses. As the capacity increased, the complexity of the game increases.

Bits were a marketing scheme, they found something on the hardware that used the number of hits they wanted and said a machine was 8-bit, 16-bit, etc. This could be the size of a register in the CPU, the memory bus width, or anything else. Marketing teams wanted people to think this determined the power of a system, but it was completely meaningless. The Atari Jaguar and N64 were both called 64-bit machines, but they had very different graphical capabilities.

A bit is a 0 or 1 in a binary value. When we say 8 bit or 16 bit we mean that an individual value in RAM (the actively used data on the system) can be at most 8 or 16 bits.