Posted at 10:00 on 29th June 2008 - permalink

with special guest reviewer
Brad “DethSkeweR” Hampchester
Vice President of Explosions, Epic Games

Brad Hampchester Man, I totally did not get on with these stupid things at all.

Pixelblocks are like a bunch of tiny one-stud legos that you can link together to make mosaics and shit. They say on the box that they’re a construction toy – yeah, like the Nintendo Wii is a games console (AMIRITE?). You can’t make the kind of cool spaceships and robots and stuff you can with legos, instead the point is that they let you recreate characters out of games. They don’t say this on the box anywhere because I guess that wouldn’t look very educational, and these things cost serious buck$$$ so they probably want to sell them to parents as well as developers and dorks.

I ordered the largest set they make (please note I did not go into a toy shop to buy these, toy shops are totally for babies), which includes 2000 pieces. Initially my plan was to build a Locust Abdominator, a new boss enemy from Gears of War 2 which rips out people’s ribcages with a giant vending machine claw. However with a bit of preliminary mental math I figured out that I had barely enough pieces to render one of the creature’s groinspikes. Jeez!

I was going to send a wicked harsh email to Pixelblocks LLC, but then some of the guys here explained that the idea was to make sprites from old retro games, from the caveman days before normal mapping and petulant occlusion stencils. I dimly remembered that Epic had done some 2D games before Unreal, Jazz Jackrabbit and Jill of the Jungle or something, but when I brought this up with the guys they pretended not to hear me. So all I could think of to do was Mario or Zelda or some other kiddy Nintendo shit.

All the technical brainsteins in the audience will have probably figured out that 2000 pieces does not exactly equate to true HD resolutions. It is in fact 0.002 megapixels, which is even worse than an iPhone camera I think. The colour depth is kind of limited as well – it could be charitably described as 12-bit colour I guess because you get bits in twelve different colours.

But what really blows is the fill rate. We are talking minutes per line here people. An Etch-a-Sketch could run rings around these things. I don’t see how anyone could do anything useful with this system ever.

I can’t help but think that I could have better spent the two hours that it took me to build Mario flipping the bird. I could have been designing an even gnarlier set of out-sized armoured shoulder pads for one of our ethnic stereotype space marines.

I wouldn’t recommend these at all as they’re totally not moving with the times. Next time I want something to decorate my cubicle I will follow the art department’s advice and buy a bunch of figurines from Spawn.com. I hear that they are coming out with a series of ‘dark’ reimaginings of Hanna Barbera characters this year. Their diorama of zombie Snagglepuss disemboweling Huckleberry Hound in fetish gear would look totally sweet on the shelf above my desk. Totally. Sweet.

Peace out dudes!
– DeThSkEwEr –

Erm, yes. Pixelblocks are quite a fun and versatile toy, but there’s a grain of truth in Brad’s criticism of how long it takes to build things with them. They are also rather expensive, although random tat emporia like TK Maxx sometimes have them on special offer. On the positive side, the end results look very impressive even without special lighting or presentation, and unlike mosaic beads they’re endlessly reconfigurable if you get bored of your current creations.

Flickr documents some of the slightly more imaginative uses they’ve been put to, such as both Sam and Max, various other characters, and this ridiculous effort (along with endless versions of Mario, Link and Megaman, of course).

I suppose they’re also quite a good tool for teaching the challenge of maximising what you can achieve with limited resources, although thankfully game developers typically don’t have a limited quota of black and white pixels at their disposal. Maybe that’s an opportunity for micropayments that EA should look into.



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