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A Link to the Past: Understanding the Pixel Art Renaissance

Three dimensional graphics were supposed to be the future of all video games.

It was the mid-1990s, and visions of PlayStations danced in our heads. We’d seen 3D visuals before, of course. The hazy history of Maze War points to the very early three dimensional shooter being developed in 1972. By 1980, Atari’s Battlezone proved that 3D games could be slick, fluid and very playable indeed.

But a decade-and-a-half on, three dimensional game visuals weren’t just an interesting curio and fascinating technical accomplishment. They were a collective obsession. As disc-based consoles became more capable, game publishers, developers, the press and fans alike bristled with optimism about a new era where 3D reigned supreme. The future was going to be a place without the likes of 2D pixel art. They were a thing from an earlier time - less advanced and less credible. Or, at least, that’s what we were told.

The mindset arguably came from the existing movement that focused on photorealism as the ultimate goal for the video game medium. Long before commercial game graphics got anywhere near photoreal, there was much speculation that one day game visuals would have the same fidelity as real life. 3D game worlds were part of that vision. Our reality is a three dimensional space, afterall. So shouldn’t it follow that 3D games are more realistic?

Well, not necessarily. 2D pixel art is now so commonplace it is an everyday part of the gaming landscape - a conventional aesthetic, rather than a daring deviation that raises an eyebrow. It’s a visual style that is particularly popular in the indie scene, but it can be seen in all kinds of places.

Garden Story by Picogram

Pixel artistry that revisits the 8-bit and 16-bit console eras is particularly popular - and particularly the latter - demonstrating that nostalgia is a key driver behind the rise and rise of contemporary pixel art. Titles like Picogram’s forthcoming horticultural RPG Garden Story follow the template of SNES classics like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past so devotedly their homage is impossible to ignore. Like so many other contemporary games that celebrate 16-bit visuals, Garden Story appears to have the past woven through its DNA.

Not that the 8-bit style is anything like out of flavour. Back in 2014 the 2D platformer Shovel Knight debuted to the delight of players and critics alike. It featured precise yet vibrant 8-bit inspired visuals, and was celebrated not only as a brilliant pixel art game, but as one of the best releases of the year broadly. Its success inspired new levels of interest in the 8-bit aesthetic; a legacy that may still be an influencing force today.

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games

Pixel art of the 8-bit and 16-bit flavours offers an approach that lets a game communicate a lot of its spirit and influences to players without them needing to read a word. While pixel art is likely an aesthetic choice first and foremost - at least within the indie community - its an approach that takes many of us back to a time when games felt better, and we had more time to play them. As such, pixel art can in part make a promise that can inspire a lot of sales. It promises a visit to a happier time, and in that regard can even be considered a marketing tool of the ‘key selling point’ variety.

But the appeal of pixel art isn’t just about rose tinted memories.

Because equally, it’s about the pixels themselves. We may be in an era where elaborate, technologically muscular techniques like ray tracing and deferred rendering keep many game makers busy, but out in popular culture, pixels serve as a predominant cultural touchstone for what video games are. The silhouette of a Space Invader remains perhaps the most universal shorthand for all things video games - and the subject of the famed mosaics of the globally celebrated street artist who goes by the name Invader. To humanity's collective conscience, pixel art still defines video games.

Celeste by Matt Makes Games

The style has also developed tremendously, so when a game like 2018’s superb platformer Celeste explored a hybrid of the 8-bit and 16-bit styles, while it evoked a sense of classics from both the NES and SNES eras’ most visually memorably titles, it also elevated what pixel art can be. It’s a game where you can feel the craft of a human hand. Just as they have always done, pixels bring a visual ‘crunchiness’ that makes their host games feel almost tangible - as if they are physical entities built from blocks. But with generations of artists developing the technique to date, the style has come on tremendously. The effort, skill and nuance of quality pixel art can be so striking it serves to make games feel more human - more crafted. At its best it can be evocative of paintings where energetic brush strokes give the viewer a real sense of the creative process - the feel of an artists hand and body moving with a paintbrush.

All of which highlights a rather daft claim that was filed at 2D pixel-based games as their demise was predicted in the mid-1990s. While 3D visuals were seen as advanced, futuristic and dazzling, pixel art was framed as a simpler, more primitive approach that was somehow lesser. At the time, at least, 2D visuals were less demanding on computational memory. But that alone certainly does not frame the worth of an artististic approach.

Now, there are a great many 3D games new and old that demonstrate a remarkable coming together of artistry and technology, and an astounding commitment of skill and devotion by the teams behind them. But one could posit the argument that more of 3D games are ‘automated’ - the likes of lighting and the movement of cloth and hair are often guided by game engines and various special tools known as ‘middleware’ that do the work to lend realism and reduce toil. Of course, it's a flawed argument. Implementing lighting in that way still takes an abundance of human skill and judgement, even if technology handles exactly how rays interact with surfaces and cast shadows..

But maybe - just maybe - pixel art has a little more human spirit at its heart; and near its surface. It is less distanced from the artist by layers of technology, and that might just be part of its appeal.

Not that quality pixel art ever went away, of course. Series like Metal Slug stuck with pixel art long after the rise of 3D, and did so with astounding aplomb. The energy and character contained within the run ‘n’ gun’s sprites and animation brings a whole lot more personality than many 3D games manage, and it feels fresh whether you look at it now or in the context of its time.

Star Renegades by Massive Damage

But the truth is, pixel art has come a long way since the glory days of the NEOGEO library. Take in a trailer for Massive Damage’s recent rogue-lite strategy RPG Star Renegades, and you'll see how the style has transcended the two-dimensional plain. It may not be the first game to deploy the technique, but Star Renegades’ approach of draping pixel art over three dimensional models is a stunning example. It alludes to the purity of 2D game visuals, but moves and transforms through an extra dimension. Elsewhere, recent releases such as Skul: The Hero Slayer, UFO: 50 and Carrion each capably take inspiration from the 8-Bit and 16-bit era while pushing the style into amazing new places.

Not that you should forget the past of pixel art. It has had a huge influence over everything that games are today, informing their journey through the third dimension, and empowering the current pixel art renaissance. With that in mind, we’d point you to a few volumes of our own, such as the SNES/Super Famicom: a visual compendium, which affords you a chance to pour through plenty of the finest pixel art committed to games.

Though, of course, we’d also encourage you to play some pixel art games old and new. With that in mind, it’s time to go and have one more go at finally one-credit-clearing a Metal Slug game… without getting distracted by the quality of the artwork.

SNES/Super Famicom: a visual compendium by Bitmap Books