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Making Retro Video Game Pixel Art With Perler Beads

Making Retro Video Game Pixel Art With Perler Beads

One of the best parts of being a this-generation parent is doing nerdy stuff with your kids. And it’s just a bonus when you get to nerd-out with your kids while revisiting an old summer camp craft.

The most awesome of all summer-camp-crafts-turned-nerd-craft has to be Perler beads. These things basically look like pixels, so you know where I’m going with this (also, you saw the header image and you, dear readers, are not stupid).

Perler beads give you the opportunity to revisit some super-rad 8-bit classics while doing crafts with your kids. I’ll show you how to make a simple goomba from Super Mario Bros. 1 that you can stick on the fridge or wall. And just think – if you get the hang of this, you can create your own retro video game scene on your kid’s wall and be the envy of…well…me, at least.

First, you’re going to want to choose a subject. I like the clean simplicity of Super Mario Bros. character sprites (no weapons, simple shapes, basic color palette), but you can make any character you’d like. Keep in mind that because old Nintendo characters are 8-bit, its characters will work best – but you’ll see in your travels that people have made everything from Atari up to large-scale 32-bit Mortal Kombat characters. If you want to keep it simple, keep it SNES or earlier!

What You’ll Need:

1) Perler beads. Obvi, right? It’s a good idea to buy one of those 11,000-bead bins so you’ll have some of each color (and let your kid to burn through that seafoam green color you never need) but it’s a good idea to buy some basic colors individually. I knew I’d need a lot of white, black and brown, so I bought individual bags of those. It’s not a bad idea to think about which characters you want to make ahead of time and literally go buy those color palettes. At about $2.50/bag, it’s not going to kill you to buy a couple of colors individually, and you’ll have enough for multiple projects. A little list organization can go far here and avoid over- and underbuying.

PRO TIP: You never want anyone to find your shopping list of perler beads and color palettes because while you’re doing something nerd-awesome, it looks really sketchy before you’ve got a final product to prove that you’re not super creepy.

2) Perler pegboards. If you buy a big bin of beads, you might get some small pegboards (the ones you used in summer camp), but it’s a good idea to pick up a couple of the bigger, interlocking ones so you’ll have ample room for your craft. Nothing’s more of a bummer than seating 20 beads only to find that you started your creation too far to the right and now you’ve got to re-seat them all one peg left. And nothing kills craft time with your kids quicker than devolving into crying and screaming over Perler beads.

3) Tweezers (optional). As a purist who remembers a time when his fingers weren’t giant sausages, I still like to do the arranging by hand. Plus, I’ve got a kid who does still have small, nimble non-sausage fingers. But, if you are going for speed, a set of tweezers can help you get a handful of beads into place without risking sausage-mashing everything else on your board.

4) An Iron. When you’re done setting the beads, you’ll need an iron to fuse them all together. If you don’t have one, you could use (in a parallel universe where bad ideas are good) the bottom side of a pot or pan that you’ve heated up on your stove.

PRO TIP: don’t ever do this pot/pan idea because it’s stupid and you’ll melt the beads too much and burn your hand.

5) Ironing paper. This stops the beads from sticking to the iron (or that pan I told you not to use, dummy). If you buy the 11,000-bead bin, it’ll usually include a couple of sheets, and they’re reusable.

6) Hanging Supplies. When you’re done with your craft, you’ll want to put it somewhere. The most common options are magnet backing or, my preference, Quake Hold.

When it’s all said and done, your total initial investment can be upwards of $30-$40 depending on how much you’re buying and if you take my advice about not using a frying pan instead of an iron, but many of these materials can be reused from project to project.

The Planning Phase

For ideas, you can simply google “Nintendo perler”, and we’ll see you back here in a couple of days.

Oh, you’ve returned!

Perler Bead Metal Man

My Perler Metal Man in process, circa 2001.

So, now you see that there’s a ton of people out there that have made every character conceivable. This is great news because years ago when I was in college and doing this, it was a lot more DIYIMAFBY (Do It Yourself and I Mean All the F**k By Yourself). So, back then I had to download a character sprite, open it in Photoshop (or MS Paint!), enlarge it and draw a grid on it. Now, you’re able to find most characters online already made, which means you simply have to follow their lead and count the beads as you lay yours down.

Luckily, however, there’s giant communities of people doing this now. Simply scour Flickr and find a character you’d like (use a search string like “perler Nintendo”) and then load up the largest version of the picture that they offer.

Also, there’s a website called MyPixelPal.com – it’s supposed to let you load a picture and then show you which colors you need and where they go. I’ve never been able to get it to work correctly though, so the eyeball method above might work better for you.

Making Your Sprite

Once you’ve got your pattern and can refer back to it either on your computer, phone or hard copy (ew, what is this, the 90’s?), it’s all about patience. You simply choose a direction and start putting beads down. I like to work from either the top-down or bottom-up, but some people like to make an outline and then fill in. I prefer to mutter to myself “okay, four brown across, then six brown across under that,” while my son asks “what, daddy? Did you say snacks and treats?”

If you’ve been blessed with sausage-fingers like I was, you can use your tweezers or employ your kid. There’s nothing worse (well, in this project at least) than having one bead fall over, then knocking 10 others out of place as you try to dig down for the first one.

Also, here’s a cute idea that requires you to have a metric ton of M&Ms on-hand (and I do, so…): you can make a basic “diagram” first in M&Ms and let your kid eat one for every bead he puts in place. This only works on smaller characters because if you give your kid like 90 M&Ms and then blame me for it, I’m going to pretend we never met.

Here’s a video of someone making some Mega Man crafts with Perler beads (though on a bigger scale than I’d suggest you start with:

(In comparison, this guy’s Mega Man took up five pegboards, while mine – below – took up one.)

Want to go crazy-wafers with this? You can start playing with the color palettes. There are glow-in-the-dark beads you can use for parts of your sprites, or you can use the colored-semi-translucent ones for effects, such as making an awesome Fire Mario or glowing invincibility star. Ooh, shoulda told you that back in the buying-phase. Sorry ‘bout that.

So somewhere between these two paragraphs, you (and/or your kid) finished your pixelated Perler creation. Congrats!

Once you’ve finished, admire it – but my god, man, don’t touch it! You’re going to want to set this somewhere high while you help your kid finish his own project if he was working on one independently from yours. Once you’re both done and ready, start heating up your iron to medium heat and go have that snack, if you didn’t already feed your kid 90 M&Ms.

Put the perler board onto your ironing board, put the ironing paper on top of it, and sit the iron on top of that. Apply, as they say, “gentle, even pressure” for a minute or so. You can peek to see if the beads are fusing together, but please make sure you’re careful of that iron because your grabby kid will be next to you saying “CAN I SEE CAN I SEE CAN I SEE CAN I SEE CAN I SEE” and if the iron gets bumped off the table and falls on (in order of importance) your kid, the couch, the floor or you, it will not be a happy craft day.

So, you peeked and it looks like the beads are semi-melty and fusing. Carefully peel the ironing paper all the way back, then – somehow – flip your creation over on the board. Sometimes you can simply take it off the board with your hands. If you have another perler board, you can hold one board over the other and flip it all over. Anyway, get the thing flipped however you see fit. Repeat the ironing process (including the part where you don’t drop it). When you’re done, let your character creation sit with the paper on top of it for a minute or so – you want to give it a chance to set and cool.

Perler Ironing Process

This is also how I make grilled cheese.

You should give it about four minutes and twenty seconds, which is the exact amount of time it takes to listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “The Waiting”.

And then, voila.

Displaying

Perler Mega Man

Lookin’ real DTF, Perler Mega Man.

So now you want to display your artwork proudly. Back in camp, you’d stick some of that magnetic backing on it, and remember what happened? Your awesome letter “J” you made stuck to your parent’s fridge until your stupid brother slammed the door after getting a Squeez-It, it fell and two beads broke off. Your mom was all “ohhh honey, we can fix that” and tried to re-iron it and the whole thing melted. You hated your brother for like two months and you never trusted your mom with any of your stuff again. SO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T USE MAGNET BACKING.

I prefer Quake Hold. It’s the same stuff you use to hold the bottoms of photo frames on the wall or underneath a vase on the china cabinet. It’s removable, so if you decide on another option later, it ain’t no thang. Take a little bit of that Quake Hold and stick it on the back, then go stick your character on your office – I mean your kid’s bedroom – wall, and get working on your next character.

Whether you need a craft for a rainy day or just a fun afternoon geek-out session, Perler beads can (and will) entertain you and your kids while you revisit your old 8-bit past.

Have you made any cool retro video game characters from perler beads! Send us links to your creations in the comments below and be sure to share this with your crafty, nerdy parent friends!

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Author: Zach Rosenberg View all posts by
is married and has one son. You can also find his writing on HLN, The Good Men Project and The Huffington Post. He is an avid gamer, rides unicorns, and loves rainbows.