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I want to create differently sized (but small, relative to the characters) dust clouds for player movement that move away from the player and fade away by shrinking.

This animated GIF from Samurai Gunn demonstrates the desired effect (observe the brownish clouds that appear as the player attacks).

cloud particles, as player attacks

Can the Shuriken particle system do this? It should randomly create the dust cloud at various shapes and sizes. I'm assuming I'd need to supply the system with a sprite sheet to select from? Or is this just easier/better achieved by using an animated sprite in the scene?

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Yes, it can.

A simple way of doing so would be to just set the particle size to "Random Between Two Constants" as described here, choosing two constants that work for you, and using the texture sheet animation module to refer into a texture where each row represents the animation of a particle (and setting the "Random Row" checkbox).

You could also just use an animated sprite, as you noted. It would give you more fine-grained control at the cost of less random / dynamic behavior (and could require more up-front work to author and tweak the animation). It's up to you.

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