Yeah, there's some fun possibilities with this sort of thing. I used a very minor take on this to vary the look of the worms in Shai Hulud a little, beyond just straight color shifts, but I've been blue-skying about crazier ideas with it as well, and this is a pretty good proof of concept of the amount of variation you could get.
The really revelatory thing here for me is the idea that every color you're not actively using in a given sprite represents another dimension of opportunity to vary the image. If you're working with only two or three colors for a given sprite, you could essentially embed four or five wholly unrelated sprites in the same 8*8 tile by doing really careful math about layered combinations of pixels assigned to different colors, which will then be flattened out with a bunch of palette swaps to render the particular sprite you want with the particular colors.
Of course, the overhead in rendering to do that with a bunch of sprite every screen draw might become quickly prohibitive, but it might be possible to strike a balance where you essentially "compress" a whole lot more than 16*16 low-bit-size sprites into the sprite sheet while maintaining a decent rendering speed.
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