Video games have been around for a while now. We’ve now reached a position where children who played, and were inspired by, games such as Pac-Man, DOOM, or Super Mario Bros are now making games of their own. Chris Davis, creator of The Escapists, puts it like this: “I also happen to be a big retro game fan, so the visuals are a nod to the games I used to play as a kid that got me into game development. I tend to make games my younger self would have loved to play back in the 8/16 bit days.” What that means is that, nowadays, the vast number of games we enjoy every day have a huge variety of art styles, many of which look like they could’ve been released 20 years ago.
Just this week, in fact, I’ve been playing Sonic Mania, Nidhogg 2, and Undertale – three very good games that all utilise pixel art in their presentation. Sonic Mania is famously made by a team of old school Sonic fanatics, and is a great example of people who grew up during the 80s and 90s bringing back elements of the titles they used to love. Mania bears a striking resemblance to the Sonic games of yore, but with modern luxuries like high definition and buttery smooth frame rates elevating it above those older titles. It’s nostalgic, yes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Pixel art evokes a simpler time, but when done well, it can achieve some astonishing results – even in an age of games nearing photo-realism.
The truth is, not only is there a huge diversity in art styles, but there’s also a huge diversity in pixel art alone. Nidhogg 2 looks very different from its predecessor, for example. The chunkier characters are expressive and the levels are impressively detailed, while the first game has a simpler style that is somehow evocative of early 80s titles and yet distinctly its own thing.
Undertale, again, is wholly different, with limited use of colour and small sprites restricting the amount of detail. However, from what I’ve played so far, Undertale’s characters and world are some of the most memorable I’ve encountered in recent years. It’s amazing how much personality can come across from characters a few pixels across and with just a handful of frames of animation. It’s a world away from something like, say, Uncharted, but there is easily as much characterisation going on in both.
I look back on the games I listed as my top five of 2016, and among them is Hyper Light Drifter, a fantastic action title with gorgeous pixel art. It pleases me to see it stand alongside Ratchet & Clank, Overwatch, Uncharted 4, and The Witness, my other picks, because while these other games all have their own (excellent) visual signatures, Hyper Light Drifter is proof that well-executed pixel art can be just as impressive as, well, anything else really.
Sometimes I see people online lamenting the abundance of indie games with a pixel art style, and I wonder why they don’t like it. Games like Gran Turismo Sport or Battlefield 1 have incredible visual fidelity, but they are equally as plentiful as pixelated titles. We live in a time when Thimbleweed Park is releasing in the same month as Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and this diversity of art styles is something to be celebrated, not maligned. I’m not saying that all pixel art is brilliant, because it’s not. But allowing yourself to see the beauty in what can be achieved with pixels will make you feel much better than criticising “yet another pixel art platformer” on PlayStation Plus.
It’s all down to personal taste, of course, and it’s not my intention to criticise. I just look at the games coming out every week and I’m blown away by the sheer range of what’s on offer. I can go from playing Horizon: Zero Dawn to No Man’s Sky, TowerFall Ascension, The Witness, or Hohokum. Think about how visually different those games are from each other. I’d rather that than every game look like a photograph.
Are you a fan of pixel art games? Do you revel in the sheer variety of experiences available on the PlayStation Store? Go low-res in the comments section below.