In the early days of video games – ignoring Tennis for Two and the like – graphics were low resolution images using a very limited palette: first two colours, then 48 for the NES. The golden age of these hand drawn pixel art games, before the move to 3D games and digital painting, was arguably the SNES, which had 32,768 possible colours but could only display 256 different colours on a single sprite. The limited colour choice meant that smooth gradients were not possible, and colours tended to look blocky and contrasting. This, combined with the low resolutions stretched over a large tv screen, gave a distinctive art style where individual pixels were very visible.
Pixel art has never really gone away, but in the last 5+ years there has been a renaissance of the style in indie games. Pixel art is certainly easier to produce than 3D art, which will usually need different team members to model, texture and animate. Pixel art also immediately creates a distinctive and coherent art style simply by following the rules of a restricted palette, which can be much harder to achieve with all the freedom digital painting now allows.
Perhaps another reason for the resurgence of pixel art is the proliferation of smart phones. These now have very high resolutions for 1080p video, but the original iPhone could only handle 480×320 which is definitely in the domain of pixel art – and it couldn’t then handle 3D very well.
There are different approaches to deploying pixel art in a game. A few try to stick very closely to a particular style arising from given hardware limitations. Shovel Knight (2014), for example was designed as if it could actually be played on a NES – though compromises had to be made. Read more about that here.
Freedom Planet (2014) is essentially a Sonic fan game, and its graphics style matches closely those of the first four Sonic the Hedgehog games released on Sega Genesis.
Especially for those who enjoyed the original games, this restrictive style is very effective. The best games of the early 90s were positively beautiful, but most were forgetable. If done badly, pixel art on its own just makes a modern game look amateur.
Other games follow no exact historical style but use low resolution rendering, upscaled with straightforward nearest-neighbour interpolation to modern displays. This has the same advantages and disadvantages as before, but with the added problem that one must impose one’s own restrictions to create a consistent style, or risk incoherence.
Papers, Please (2013), the so-called ‘document thriller’ uses a fairly low resolution render target and a reduced colour palette to create its art style. This is then stretched not to fit the screen but merely an integer multiple, and is then letterboxed. This is a common approach, to prevent uneven pixel sizes and to ensure they are square. If it were a non-integer multiple, either filtering would be required or different pixels would appear to have different widths, either of which would reduce the fidelity.
The alternative to a low-resolution render target is to upscale individual sprites. This means that they do not necessarily have to be perfectly aligned with one another. For example, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011), which features some of the best drawn pixel art in a modern game, uses multiple layers to create a parallax effect, and despite these having the same magnification, they are not aligned at the level of the pixels they contain. On top of this beautiful art is overlaid some antialiased and generally very smooth looking UI elements, as well as some round and triangular elements in the gameplay, helping to highlight their otherworldly nature. It should be noted that the skies and some post-processing in Sword and Sworcery feature smooth gradients with full colour palettes, which in this case creates very nice effects.
In the next part of this blog post, I will discuss games which have used pixel art in a much looser way.