My obsession with video games came at a later stage of my youth than most; I was a late bloomer. Growing up in the 90s, I dabbled in Crash Bandicoot and earned all the gym badges in Pokémon Red (FWIW: Charmander is and will always be the best starter), but that was the extent of my gaming experience. No one played Doom or Wolfenstein in my neighbourhood, Mega Man was barely in my periphery, and abandon any hope for seven-year-old me trying to figure out which Final Fantasy to start with.
Why Is Pixel Art Still Around?
It wasn’t until the late 2000s (a less embarrassed me would claim the early 2010s) that I finally sunk my teeth into gaming. That’s all to say, I pretty much cruised past the first pixel art era – a time when pixel art wasn’t an aesthetic choice, but a hardware limitation. However, as someone who’s invested more than a handful of hours into Stardew Valley and watching Let’s Plays of Celeste and Hyper Light Drifter, I sought to understand why pixel art has resurged in a new era – an era in which popular indie games insist on returning to this stylistic well.
In the article “Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future,” published by The Verge in 2014, author Sam Byford spoke with game designer Jason Rohrer. Rohrer claimed that he saw pixel art as “a digitally native [form of] cartooning.” His argument here is that pixel art is intrinsic to computers. Even though the technology has evolved towards high definition, the idea of breaking art into blocky pixels is something that transcends innovation. It’s a basic understanding of how computers display 2D images. To an entire generation of (older) gamers, pixel art is the simple, underlying language of the computer. The reason it has had such a lasting presence is partly a bid towards nostalgia, but more so because pixel art is a two-dimension expression of digital minimalism. It is, at its core, simplistic.
Compare an image of Lara Croft from the original PlayStation Tomb Raider to an image of Link from the SNES. The latter has aged well, while the former looks dated and low-tech. Tomb Raider’s low-poly aesthetic strived to push the technology towards complicated realism and landed too far away from the finish line to not be judged by time. In seeking to create the next-best thing, Tomb Raider moved away from graphical minimalism for flashy, groundbreaking effects. They didn’t embrace the jagged edges that they were limited to and, instead, attempted to mix curves and exaggerated body structures to hit a point of realism that they couldn’t achieve. Over the years, the low-poly aesthetic disappeared by way of graphical evolution but re-emerged after taking note from pixel art. Superhot, Minecraft, and Grow Home are just a handful of modern day examples.
As oxymoronic as it is to say, the resurgence of dated low-poly art and the longevity of pixel art lie in the ability to evolve with the technology. Designers of today who wish to re-connect with old gaming trends continue to refine the aesthetic and improve upon the capabilities of the original consoles. They take advantage of colors, expressions, and angles that were foreign to those classic machines.
In a blog post published on Gamasutra, Shovel Knight developer David D’Angelo talks about how their intention was to evoke the feeling of older games while simultaneously “breaking” the limits of the NES. They wouldn’t box themselves into old specs. He mentions the integration of parallax scrolling, an expanded color palette, and particle effects among other ways they improved the game’s pixel art aesthetic compared to its original era counterparts. While the style may originate from the 16-bit era, it owes its lastingness to its adaptability.
Ultimately, gamers are ageing into game designers who are seeking connection with their youth. They are embracing the technological shortcomings of the past and re-appropriating these aesthetics to become timeless art styles by paring them down to their most minimal, simplistic expression.