10 best modern pixel art games
In the days of 8/16-bit games, developers had little choice but to render their creative output in 2D pixel-art. As the 32-bit generation began, waves of polygon-heavy 3D games saturated the market, but recently we’ve seen a resurgence in pixel games – and in just about every genre, too. We’re huge fans of the art style here at games™, so we put together the best pixel games to hit the market in recent years…
Papers, Please (2013)
Genre: Immigration Services Simulator
Papers, Please is set in the immigration/border control offices of the fictional Eastern Bloc state of Arstotzka, after being selected for the position by random employment ballot. The Communist theme is established from the off, and the game puts you in moral situations other games refuse to – therein lies its strength. It’s tricky, engrossing and offers political commentary you won’t find in a lot of other games, and the art style that makes it up is intentionally coloured with drab earthy tones – contrasting nicely against the vibrant colours you tend to see in pixel games. It’s as interesting as it is unique.
Rogue Legacy (2013)
Rogue Legacy took 18 months to develop, but it’ll take you far, far longer to complete – with a difficulty level inspired by the Souls series of games, the game also uses the 2D action platforming you’ll find in Spelunky, used to navigate a sadistic, randomly-generated dungeon. It’s frustrating as all hell when you first boot it up, but as you learn the intricacies and the pixel-perfect commands, it opens up (although it’s still unreasonably hard). The boss sprites you encounter all have ‘remixed’ versions with varying attack patterns scattered throughout the game – a bonus way of reusing content unique to pixel-art games.
Shovel Knight (2014)
Genre: Nostalgia-Inducing Platformer
Intentionally designed like the 8-bit games of old, Shovel Knight takes its inspiration heavily from Castlevania, DuckTales, Super Mario Brothers and Mega Man – going as far as using the same colour palette as the games you’d see on the NES. A side-scrolling adventure, supported with a chip-tune soundtrack (two tracks of which were written by Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae), Shovel Knight has many entertaining nods to its forebears – you can even ride your eponymous shovel like a pogo stick, a la DuckTales. It’s the best kind of nostalgia: fresh and new with nods to the games that lead to its existence.
Mercenary Kings (2014)
Think Metal Slug, but a much more fluid experience, and with gorgeous animations, and you’ll have a good idea of what you can expect from Mercenary Kings. The game’s single-player campaign leaves a lot to be desired, but like Metal Slug, the real fun comes in when you grab some friends (three in this case) and blaze your way through the levels as a four-strong unit. It’s in this aspect of the game that the tight shooting mechanics and light platforming really come into their own, and the chunky, well-oiled animations glue everything together beautifully. The campaign may be long, but at least it looks beautiful.
Genre: Tactical Fencing
There are few games out there that really excel at mimicking the feel of a proper duel – but Nidhogg, despite its minimalism in terms of graphics, pulls it off with aplomb. The 2D arenas that make up the game’s levels are designed for one-on-one combat, and the way the game is balanced makes it easy for newcomers and pros alike to clash with interesting results. The Eighties aesthetic – mixed with a vivid palette of rushing colour – makes every encounter feel unique, and every death feel epic. For how incredibly simple it appears, Nidhogg is actually phenomenally well-balanced – one of the best indie fighters we’ve played.
Super Meat Boy (2010)
Genre: Sadistic Platformer
We can’t stop writing about Super Meat Boy – it tends to make it into one of these lists once every couple of months. But Team Meat’s pixel-perfect platformer is more than the sum of its parts: the mechanics are satisfyingly brutal, the art direction features some of the best pixel-based gore we’ve ever seen and the soundtrack is like someone got Sonic Team and made them into a metal band. Riddled with unlockable characters, hidden levels, secret items and cruel ‘Dark Worlds’, it’s just as playable after 60 hours as it is after six. Essential for any hardcore gamer. Seriously, if you’ve not played it yet, get on it.
Hotline Miami (2012)
Genre: Twin-Stick Massacre Action
Dennaton Games’ top-down shooter is surprisingly one of the most violent games we’ve ever played – made worse by the pseudo-realistic way it handles and the unforgiving nature of the multiple encounters you’ll play through. It’s basically Drive: The Game, even referencing director Nicolas Winding Refn in the credits, littering the game with subtle hints to 2011’s neo-noir hit. It’s the pixel-art equivalent of a David Lynch story – so say the creators themselves – and uses the top-down view as a smart device to distance the player from the violence: a theme that’s echoed implicitly in the game’s deceptive story.
Genre: Trans-Dimensional Puzzle Platformer
Fez is unusual as a pixel game, because the voxels that make up everything in the game world are actually rendered in 3D – game designer Phil Fish crafted custom 2D pixel art and his programmer, Renaud Bédard, designed software that wrapped each custom tile-face to the side of each voxel, making the game look 2D whilst operating in 3D. That stunning art style informs the core mechanic of the game, which sees you solve increasingly devious puzzles based on your perception of 2D planes in levels constructed in 3D layers. There’s been nothing quite like Fez before, and we doubt there will be for a while yet.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
Genre: Non-Vocal Adventure
A game that managed to break through in both the East and the West, Sword & Sworcery EP was one of the first hugely successful art games released on iOS. Supported by a fantastic soundtrack composed by Jim Guthrie, and a delicately detailed art style making the most of the 16-bit-inspired pixel art, Sword & Sworcery EP introduces the player to one of the lushest, most interesting worlds ever committed to a mobile device. Compounded with an interface that’s so intuitive it puts other iOS games to shame, Sword & Sworcery EP was a solid proof of concept for retro-inspired art games on mobile.
Genre: Sandbox Survival And World-Builder
Each game of Terraria is different – working your way through a procedurally-generated world, the player is given a pickaxe to mine resources, a sword for combat, and an axe for woodcutting. Sound familiar? Terraria is the 2D equivalent of Minecraft, and looks infinitely better for it – the lo-fi graphics of the world’s biggest game pale in comparison to Re-Logic’s vivid pixel-art interpretation. Despite initial appearances, the gameplay aspect of Terraria is also much deeper – with much more of a boss/character-led experience than Minecraft. Its lack of tutorial and direction received some criticism, but we actually found it incredibly refreshing.
If you fancy something a little more insane in the pixel art world, #IDARB may be for you