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Pixel Art and the Retro Game Revival

Posted on 20 Mar 15:59
By Jack England

The humble pixel is the building block of all computer graphics. Even as we move into the realm of 4K ultra realistic graphics, pixel art games continue to thrive as a genre in the indie gaming market. Top gaming charts still feature games that look like they hopped straight out of an arcade with 16 bit or even 8 bit graphics.

You don’t have to dig deep to find the likely reason behind the popularity of retro-inspired games. The average age of gamers today is 34 to 35 years old. This would place their birth at around the same time as the Golden Era of arcade gaming.

But is nostalgia the only reason people still like pixel art games? Well absolutely! There’s a lot of nuance and clever game design lurking behind these old-fashioned aesthetics.

Nearly all children aged 10 to 16 in the UK play games and immensely popular pixel-based crafting game Minecraft has an overwhelmingly young user base. So clearly retro looking games aren’t only appealing to an older generation of gamer.

In this article, we look at the continuing and multi generational appeal of pixel art games.

What is Pixel Art?

First, let’s talk about the actual definition of pixel art. A pixel is the smallest unit of a digital image. Computers of yesteryear were only able to produce images in 8-bit pixels, which were limited to a 256-colour palette.

 pixel-art-and-retro-game-revival-02-arkanoid.jpg 
Arkanoid, your typical bright and blocky arcade game
Source: Moby Games

Pixel art is a way of manipulating pixels, often using more modern graphic processing, to produce an aesthetic reminiscent of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Of course, pixels back then weren’t merely an aesthetic preference or a quirky way of designing games--they were the de facto setting.

So today, in a world of hyper-powerful graphics processors and rendering software, using pixel art is a deliberate choice that doesn’t just come down to aesthetics but also game design.

A Connection to the Past for a New Generation

Can you be nostalgic for a time you didn’t live in? Yes, if pixel games would have you believe. With every passing year the chunk of active gamers who actually grew up playing classics like Donkey Kong gets smaller. The memory of spending afternoons in arcades become just anecdotes to a generation growing up in an era where online multiplayer makes it possible to play with the entire planet without ever leaving your home.

But maybe anecdotes and stories of mum and dad playing games still play a part in retro’s prevailing popularity. Researchers found that nostalgia for retro games hit hardest when players remembered them in the context of family and friends. Because that’s part of what makes classic video games so special--they brought people together, either in arcades or couch co-ops.

The study also found that memories of playing made people feel more connected to those around them. Retro games may still be bringing together people in a way no highly polished AAA game can, as older gamers introduce classics to younger kids or family members. The classics can then act as a gateway to modern pixel art games.

Pixels Allow Players and Developers to Dream

With sparse details, pixel graphics challenged players to fill in the blanks using their imagination. In the minds of players, the little green icon from Space Invaders could very well have been Master Chief’s Spartan Laser or Fallout’s Tesla Cannon.

 pixel-art-and-retro-game-revival-03-space-invader.jpg
The galaxy’s bravest defender--the laser cannon from Space Invader
Source: Space Invaders Wiki

Today’s most successful pixel art games still tap into the power of personalising the playing experience by letting gamers fill in details. “We had a lot of big blocks of colour and pixels. This way the player themselves could imagine what they want when they look at the game,” shares Celeste and Towerfall programmer and artist Pedro Medeiros de Almeida at the 2019 Full Indie Summit.

It’s not surprising then that Minecraft and Terraria--arguably the biggest sandbox games today--use pixel art. The medium naturally lends itself to building worlds. “Pixel art is just intrinsically a video game language, so people have a tendency to just judge it as old and retro, when it's actually quite flexible,” says Andrew Steward of Triple Vision Games.

That flexibility translates to a near limitless capacity for creation, which has enabled many aspiring developers. Many pixel art and retro-inspired games today come from indie studios. A lot of that has to do with the relatively lower costs and time needed to produce pixel art. “Like many other small game developers -- I found that working in a lower resolution, working with pixel art is much more efficient,” says Hyper Light Drifter lead developer Alex Preston. There are also tons of powerful yet free software available to beginners and professional artists alike.

pixel-art-and-retro-game-revival-04-hyper-light-drifter.jpgHyper Light Drifter features hauntingly beautiful 16-bit graphics
Source: PC Gamer

This has effectively kicked the gates of game development wide open for more people. It’s not unfathomable today to hear of pixel-art game developers who succeed without the financial clout of AAA publishers.

The Bold and Bright Future of Pixel Art Games

Pixel art may have made game development more accessible, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive, when done properly. We’ve seen some gorgeous pixel art games over the last half decade. 2018’s Celeste shows that 8-bit’s 256 colour palette is no limitation at all.

pixel-art-and-retro-game-revival-05-celeste.jpgCeleste is a true love letter to pixel art and platformers
Source: Digital Trends

The lightning fast and fluid Hyper Light Drifter can play smoothly at 60fps--an endeavour that took the developers 150,000 lines of code. In Noita, another ambitious indie game, players can interact with every single procedurally generated pixel on the screen. To make the game possible developers created their own engine--aptly named Everything Is Falling--that basically coded pixels to behave according to real laws of physics.

pixel-art-and-revival-of-retro-game-noitaNoita--a game where the world is burning, melting, or freezing, sometimes simultaneously
Source: Rock Paper Shotgun

Developers today are introducing innovation to the artform by melding it with modern art styles, or creating game mechanics that would have looked like pixel sorcery back in the 70s or 80s. These games prove that pixel art is not outdated, but has rather established itself as a legitimate art form that has grown beyond its retro roots.

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