Pixel Art in Gaming: Salad’s Perspective on a Growing Trend

Within the last couple of years, there has been an increasing appearance of games influenced by the visual simplicity of early PC and console games. And I’m all in. Some of the most popular and highly rated games are moving back in time to take direct influence from their distant relations. Though there is ample technology nowadays to simulate randomized and thoroughly realistic environments, sometimes a game doesn’t need all of that fancy-schmancy computing power to deliver on a really great experience. You can still have an engaging, high-rated game with a more naive interface. In fact, it’s nice to see some more stylistic variance associated especially with indie developers.

The Power of Limits

When personal computing and console gaming started gaining popularity, there were significant limitations on what could be represented graphically. Pixels, the smallest unit of measure for digital display, were limited by a computer’s resolution with 72 pixels in an inch (ppi). For 8-bit graphics the maximum screen size was 256px x 256px. That’s quite the handicap, given that the Google Pixel 3 has a 2160px x 1080px screen and 443 ppi; nearly 100 times the number of pixels and 6 times the density.

CRT Monitor on the left, Google Pixel 3 on the right. Green squares represent a 1:1 pixel ratio of the two devices.

Other limitations were enforced by 8-bit computing, too. Game developers could only use 256 possible colors, where now the color gamut can be in the billions. But the memory needed to house the rest of the game meant the graphics took an even stronger hit, often limited to 54 colors.

The great thing about classic games is that, despite the limitations of 8-bit computing, our imaginations were still ignited by the way game designers were able to create compelling graphic experiences.

As technologies got more advanced, so did our thinking about gameplay in general. We now have education programs and degrees in game design. So not only did our computing get more sophisticated, so did our ability to craft our experiences. Now game designers and developers are able to adhere to a set of self-imposed limitations, allowing a different kind of creative freedom, tying the old to the new.

Futuristic Visions Portrayed in Pixels

The pixel art style takes me back to childhood — booting up my 256-color PC after watching Saturday morning cartoons, my chin dripping with sugar saturated cereal milk and my Dad yelling at me to not eat at the desk. And it seems like I’m not the only one who reminisces on simpler times, recalling classics as Pitfall!Qbert, and Wolfenstein 3D. Luckily, the gaming industry isn’t trying to fall back into puritanical revivals, we’re synthesizing that nostalgia with the more sophisticated platforms we have today. And so far it seems like the marriage of retro aesthetics to modern technology has cemented its dominance.

Variations on a Theme

Despite the self-imposed limitations of pixel art there’s still a broad variety of “levers” that can be pulled to create recognizable and compelling graphics. From the naivety of Undertale to the distinct styling of HyperLight Drifter, you’re sure to find a title that tickles the nostalgia in you.

Into the Breach 

Dead Cells
HyperLight Drifter
The Last Night
Children of Morta
Crying Suns

What’s Coming Next?

At the end of 2018, 2 of the top 5 rated PC games on Metacritic were in the 8-bit/pixel art style: 1.Into the Breach & 3.Dead Cells. And it looks that we’re going to see that trend continue. Here are a few upcoming games we’re looking forward to:

By Arlo Vance