Pixel Art Games Are All the Rage Now, Here’s Why
When Sony launched the PlayStation 5 and Xbox unveiled the Xbox Series X and S, they immediately convinced people to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars (scalpers are not welcome here) on their powerful, new machines. Generational shifts don’t happen that often in the video game industry anymore – I think the last gigantic leap that we ever took was when games transitioned from 2D to 3D. When these shifts happen, it’s natural for people to wonder how gorgeous the graphics will be or the potential of the hardware. Game developers always aim to bring out the best in the graphical department, but things are different now. Remember those 2D blocky graphical styles reminiscent of the 80s and early 90s? They’re now huge hits in the gaming scene, with some titles bagging awards from annual awards ceremonies.
Born Out of Necessity
The pixel art aesthetic wasn’t born out of aesthetic reasons but due to necessity. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, hardware limitations made pixel-based art styles prevalent in most games. When the rise of 3D games came to be in the 90s, pixel art became less and less used, so why did it spring back up in popularity in this current day and age? The most obvious reason for this is nostalgia. Many people have a strong connection between pixel art and the old-school gaming vibe due to most early games being made in this style. For the millennials, pixel art fuels their memories of Friday nights and Saturday morning of Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, and Faxanadu marathons.
Since memories of playing games are positive (for most people), they feel a warm nostalgia when they see the pixels. After its decline in the 90s, when 3D became the hot ticket item for game devs, other developers still used the aesthetic during the 2000s. The relative use of the art style was long enough to trigger the nostalgia factor in our brains. Thus, modern-day pixel games such as Cave Story and Terraria became an unexpected hit that started the Pixel Art Renaissance.
However, emulating the past wasn’t the main reason that motivated developers to stick to pixel art. It all boils down to the cheaper costs. Compared to more realistic-looking, top-of-the-line games, pixel art visuals are more efficient to produce, reducing production costs on the developers’ side. You can say that it’s not just a mere coincidence that indie developers made most pixel-based games in the 2000s. Because of this, indie games have become a synonym for pixel art games. If you pair the nostalgia factor with the low production costs, it’s no surprise that this art style has become popular again.
Blending the Old With the New
These days, modern pixel art games aren’t just a replication of the technical limitations of the past. Instead, they take this flavor and enhance it with larger screen resolutions. By using the 16:9 widescreen format and dropping the old 4:3 ratio, game devs can achieve more visual complexity without deterring the retro flavor. Jo-Remi Madsen, known for his work on Owlboy, defined this as “Hi-Bit.” Some games blend 3D graphics with pixel art textures to create the perfect hybrid. Others even go so far as to break the pixel limitations by adding non-pixel UIs or visual effects on top of the “traditional” aesthetic, adding a refreshing yet familiar touch.
Pixel Art Gave Birth to A New Sound
The pixel art aesthetic isn’t just about visuals. Many AAA titles borrow the Hollywood approach by using orchestral scores, but believe it or not, pixel games have their own sound: chiptunes. Both share the same minimalist philosophy; pixel art’s visual magic comes from the early technical limitations, and so does 8-bit and 16-bit music. In conjunction with early games having to rely only on a handful of pixels to create a fictional world, video game soundtracks had to be made with simple synthesized sounds.
The restrictions shaped the sound and the way the composers made music. Only a few layers of sound could be played simultaneously, forcing the composer to adopt specific composing methods. The prominent one is a preference for using catchy melodies, which led to the most iconic video game tunes we all have ingrained deep in our brains. For many years, having a pixel art game meant having an 8-bit or 16-bit soundtrack in tow. However, as technology moved forward, pixel art evolved from a necessity to a choice, and so did its sound.
Pixel art is neither a fad nor is it a static medium. As the most defining visual style in video games, it’s safe to say that pixel art is here to stay – even if it might not give your PS5 or Xbox Series X the best workout possible. There’s no way of telling where the form might go next, but if it’s anything like what we’re seeing now, boy, are we in for a treat.