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A top-down game is a type of game that presents players and their surroundings from an overhead perspective. This unique viewpoint is commonly found in 2D role-playing video games, war games, and construction/management simulation games. In this article, we will provide an overview of different styles, mechanics, and animations for designing pixel art sprites specifically for top-down games. We will also discuss the limitations for sprites at different resolutions and provide some common strategies and examples of sprites and animations. Let’s dive in!

Top-down Game Mechanics

Top-down games typically feature sprites with low resolutions, usually ranging from 8 to 32 pixels in height (e.g., 8/16/24/32). By utilizing smaller sprites, more space is available to showcase the world surrounding the player. This aspect is crucial in top-down games where exploration is a key element.

Initially, top-down movement was limited to grid-based mechanics, allowing players to move only one tile at a time in four directions (up, down, left, and right). The first Pokémon games are a perfect example of this system, where players were restricted to moving one tile at a time in four directions[^1^].

Example gameplay from Pokemon Blue: the player can only move one tile at a time in the 4 directions. All the game is built with a 16x16 tile sheet, the player sprite included.

However, it is now common to find top-down games that offer free movement in eight directions, eliminating the grid-based constraints. This type of movement design provides more freedom when designing the character sprite, as it is no longer necessary for the sprite to conform to the same size as the surrounding tiles[^2^].

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Top-down Game Sprites

Let’s take a closer look at the main character sprite from Pokémon Diamond/Pearl as an example:

Front-view of the main character sprite of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl

The full sprite for this character has a resolution of 14×19 pixels. At such low resolution, a significant portion of the sprite’s height is dedicated to the head, comprising a total of 13 pixels. This sprite showcases a top-down lighting effect, where the top of the hat features a lighter shade of red, while the lower part and the sides appear darker. Similar shadow effects can be observed on the face and shirt, creating depth and dimension. Additionally, shading is applied to the outline of the sprite to add emphasis to certain details.

Different examples of character sprites from Pokémon

In smaller resolutions, sprite proportions remain similar, but variations can be introduced through the use of different colors, eyes, outlines, clothes, and accessories. By placing emphasis on different details, such as the head, face, eyes, physique, outline, colors, and shading, it is possible to design multiple characters within similar constraints, each with a unique personality.

Top-down and Platformer Sprites

The key distinction between top-down and platformer sprites lies in the direction in which the character faces. In a top-down sprite, more of the character’s head is visible, which is further emphasized by employing lighter shades on the top portion of the character, while darker shades are used below the head and near the legs and feet. The face in top-down sprites appears less prominent, with the eyes positioned lower on the head to convey a “forward-facing” perspective.

On the other hand, platformer sprites are more front-facing, allowing for a clear view of the character’s face since they typically face the camera directly. Greater freedom is also granted when shading platformer sprites, based on the direction and source of the lighting[^3^].

Example of a platformer character sprite, which could also be used for a top-down game

It’s worth noting that it is possible to give a more front-facing perspective to a top-down character, depending on the game’s art style and the desired emphasis on the character compared to the environment.

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Top-down Animations

The most fundamental top-down character animation set comprises three animations:

  • Walk down (character facing front)
  • Walk up (character facing back)
  • Side walk

Walking animation set for a Pokémon sprite, with 3 frames for each animation

Each of these animations requires a minimum of three frames:

  • Idle (default position)
  • Right leg step, with the left leg hidden
  • Left leg step, with the right leg hidden

Walking animations become more interesting when incorporating a bouncing effect to simulate a natural walking step[^4^].

Template for a character walking animation. Notice how arms and legs move back and forth to give the impression of a natural walking step

For smaller resolutions (8/16 pixels in height), fewer options are available for experimenting with different animations. Therefore, pre-made animation sets for these basic movements can often be found.

Example of walking animation from the original Pokémon game character, with and without colors

However, details and effects can be added to make the animations more appealing. Let’s explore some common and effective strategies to infuse more personality into your character’s movements.

Top-down Movement Details

To make your top-down character movements stand out, consider implementing the following strategies:

Idle Animation

Designing an idle animation for the main player is always a good idea. An idle animation involves subtle movements even when the player is standing still, bringing the character to life and conveying readiness for action.

Hair, Accessories, and Clothes Animations

Walking animations can be enhanced by animating other parts of the character’s body. For example, you can simulate the flow and bounce of hair as the character moves. Additionally, playing with light and shadow by animating reflections on the character’s clothes and accessories adds depth and visual interest.


Incorporating shadows into top-down games adds perspective and depth to the 2D space. Shadows can provide a more three-dimensional appearance to objects and players, making solid objects more discernible and defining the level boundaries for players. Animated shadows can further enhance the effect by simulating the character’s up-and-down movement while walking, reinforcing the notion that the character is a solid object rather than sliding on the ground.

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Particles can add excitement and satisfaction to character movements. For instance, leaving behind particles of dirt as the character walks or upon landing after a jump can create dynamic and immersive effects. Consider varying the particle effects and colors based on the terrain to further enhance the experience.

Other Top-down Animations

Apart from walking, your character will likely perform various other animations. Here are some examples to consider:

  • Running: Similar to walking but with faster movement and additional particle effects.
  • Swimming: Pay attention to water tiles and how the character interacts with water. Adding ripple effects is crucial for realistic swimming animations.
  • Pick-up: Implement animations for collecting items and interacting with objects to enhance the overall gameplay experience.
  • Jumping: Although less common in top-down games compared to platformers, a convincing jumping animation can be achieved by modifying the character’s shadow to shrink while airborne.
  • Riding: If your game features rideable objects like bikes, motorbikes, or cars, a whole new set of animations can be created to depict the character interacting with these objects. The Pokémon biking animation is an excellent example of a convincing riding movement achieved with just three frames.

Example of bike riding animation from the Pokémon game

The animations required for a sprite depend on the specifics of each game. Some games also require unique animations for casting spells or special attacks

These examples cover just a fraction of the animations that may be necessary for your sprite, as each game has its own unique requirements. Some games may demand additional animations for casting spells or executing special attacks for a more immersive experience.

In conclusion, this article provided an overview of designing pixel art sprites and animations for top-down games. We explored different styles, discussed limitations at varying resolutions, and shared common strategies and examples of animations. Use this article as a reference when creating your own top-down game. If you’re interested in more content about game development and pixel art, subscribe to our newsletter at Ratingperson. Happy designing!


[^1^]: Original Article “Top-down game Pixel art – Design and Animations” by Sandro Maglione – Link
[^2^]: “Top-down Video Game” – Wikipedia – Link
[^3^]: “How to Create a Top-down Game: Getting Started” by Noa Calice – Link
[^4^]: “The Art of Sprite Animation” by Joe Williamson – Link

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