If you’re one of the many millions who regularly peruse what the Switch eShop or Steam store shelves have to offer, chances are that at some point you’ve thought “Phwoar, that indie game looks incredible!” The huge range of smaller titles being released every week include plenty that showcase a team or individual’s pure artistic vision – free of the compromise and blandness that can render triple-A art styles so utterly boring. A subset even choose to tantalise our nostalgia buds not by updating games we’ve already played – that’s for the big boys to handle – but by harnessing the power of the pixel.
“If you can capture a style established by an iconic title or series of a specific era,” says Jonathan Lavigne, co-founder and creative lead at Tribute Games, “…the advantage is that your game will benefit from a strong nostalgia factor.” This reminiscent feel is certainly something that both the studio’s two major titles FlintHook and Mercenary Kings actively tap into, but Lavigne adds “Pixel art in itself doesn’t deliver nostalgia... [We] always prioritise a modern approach as far as 'quality of life' type features are concerned.”
Making a 2D game with roots set firmly in the past can also be a blessing or a curse, because players are more prone to make associations or compare it to the experiences it evokes. “Sometimes, these associations, while flattering, can be misleading and make the marketing of your game harder,” Lavigne says. “For example with Mercenary Kings, players kept comparing it to Metal Slug because of its graphics style. However Mercenary Kings isn’t a run ‘n gun like Metal Slug, but a slower action-RPG type of game.” Lavigne feels that the game initially went misunderstood because of this, with “many people disappointed or confused about what it was. It took some time and extra work to communicate the right message.”
Speaking of pixel games owning their message, The Messenger is an upcoming retro action-platformer that looks heavily indebted to the Ninja Gaiden series. In the same way that Shovel Knight took heavy inspiration from the Mega Man titles – particularly with its end level bosses – the folks behind this latest indie darling openly invite comparison while hoping players see what new elements they’re introducing.
“It really helps setting expectations initially, but I think a rich experience is one where you first show up for a reason, but stay for another,” Sabotage Studio’s Thierry Boulanger says. “Five minutes into The Messenger, players set out on a very classic, even cliché adventure. The breadth of the experience in a way is the delta between that starting point and where it all ends. By letting players think they know what they are getting into, the stage is properly set to bring in a lot of surprises, because we have a game that doesn’t look like it should be able to do what it eventually does.”
One of the big features The Messenger introduces is one that simply couldn’t exist or work were it not for the historical eras it replicates: moving between hardware generations. “The reason for the 8 to 16-bit transitions in the game is that the hero time travels into the future, and we support that audio-visually by moving the game forward one console generation,” says Boulanger. “For gameplay, having the whole game in past and future renditions at the same time allows us to mess with the level layouts in order to revisit challenges and reward exploration.”
By actively working this technique into The Messenger’s gameplay rather than simply including it as a cool feature, Sabotage Studio is creating an unusually functional pair of rose-tinted glasses. It demonstrates a willingness to pay homage to Ninja Gaiden while creating something more unexpected and original – because while those games may have been great in their time, not every part of them feels quite so enjoyable now.
Tribute's Lavigne also tends to think in this direction. “If you’re making something totally new, there’s nothing wrong with doing CRAZY stuff like rotating pixels or adding dynamic lighting. Things go wrong if you don’t choose pixel art for the right reasons. If you’re not sincere in your appreciation of pixel art and go with it only to follow a trend or to save time, players will notice.”
Another recent example that has used a pixel style in an inventive manner is Dead Cells. The game basically weds the carefully thought-out level design and progression of a Metroid with the procedural generation of a roguelite, and unsurprisingly developer Motion Twin tells me this wasn't easy – though it’s also what PC players have grown to love about it.
“It was quite a challenge, yes, we had to keep that in mind while building it" says Sebastien Bénard, the lead developer on Dead Cells. “It defined the way we generated the levels, but also the player's progression. Of course, backtracking doesn't go well with a roguelite structure and short-run-based sessions, so we made death a core part of the backtracking loop. Then we transformed the metroidvania style skill unlocks into permanent character upgrades that allow you to discover new content and use your new abilities with each new run, without ever really having to backtrack. It’s probably that feature which made the whole 'RogueVania' mixture possible and relevant.”
Similar to what Tribute Games did with Mercenary Kings and Sabotage are doing with The Messenger, I ask Bénard his thoughts on straddling that line between new and old in a pixel game. “While we wanted to create the overall feel of a pixel art game, it’s 2018 and there are a bunch of modern techniques available to spice things up and move away from the orthodoxy in that particular style. Choosing to use them gave us a lot of freedom to play with colours, animation, and special effects, which, in turn, allowed us to differentiate ourselves while keeping this retro, pixel art feel.”
For all the fresh feats indies are bringing to retro-style games, however, all three I speak to remain fully aware of how saturated the 'pixel art indie' market is these days – with dozens of new titles released every week. Prior to founding Tribute Games Jonathan Lavigne worked on the much-beloved Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game, and tries to twist this potential headache into a positive. “The influx of pixel art games is also a new challenge to overcome. It’s becoming harder to stand out from the crowd, so we have to keep pushing ourselves to make better games and better marketing.”
Sabotage's Boulanger remains similarly optimistic. “I personally love it, as long as they genuinely attempt to contribute to gaming. I understand and share players’ sentiments about games that simply attempt to cash out by trying to associate to beloved classic games, but as far as I can tell it’s been mainly a problem on mobile.”
Discussing the pitfalls of the pixel style, Motion Twin's Bénard outlines the received wisdom within the industry, before suggesting his own contemporary take on it. “Marketing articles and people in the industry often talk about this. The idea being that, it's better to convey a sense of what the game will play like through the art style. So a cartoonish art style hints at a relatively accessible game, while a dark, oppressing atmosphere has become instantly associated with difficulty... you know who we’re talking about…”
“From this perspective it makes sense to associate 'retro' controls, physics, and gameplay with a retro or pixel art style," says Bénard. "However the medium has evolved incredibly since pixel art was a technical constraint. A lot of gameplay improvements have been made, standards and habits aren't the same. People have moved on in some respects. Anyway, this leads to a lot of developers wanting to recreate everything about the retro games they loved, even the parts no-one misses – knockback damage on everything, clunky wind up jump physics, the rest of my pet peeves... They forget that an art style doesn’t have to dictate everything about gameplay.”
From this point of view, many developers may be better served by breaking the rules of what people expect. Not just in the games themselves, but in how potential players are potentially led to perceive them. I mentioned earlier how Mercenary Kings initially stumbled with Metal Slug comparisons before finding its audience, but this wasn’t an issue for Tribute Games’ next pixel throwback, the hugely compelling shoot-and-looter Flinthook. It’s an experience many pixel developers should learn from, rather than going through it themselves.
When asking Bénard, Boulanger, and Lavigne about the pixel art games getting it right, praise is unsurprisingly heaped upon Yacht Club Games for striking the right balance between elements new and old with Shovel Knight. This modern classic is a shining example of how to tickle the nostalgia glands, while having a modern heart beating away underneath.
More recently, though, “Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is really solid,” gushes Lavigne. “I love the art style and the gameplay reminiscent of the old Castlevania games.” Boulanger adds a few more favourites: “…since I’ve been so late to the Specter of Torment party I did enjoy it ‘recently.’ Dead Cells too, I think it's a great example of modernized pixel art done right.”
Which leads nicely to another Dead Cells developer, Matthieu Pistol, who pops in at the end to highlight a few of the other games the Motion Twin team have been playing lately. “To mention a few favourites: Hyper Light Drifter, Hammerwatch, Kingdom, Wizard of Legend… And let's not forget Celeste, which managed to convey emotions through its posing and animations, despite being super low-res.”
It's easy to forget that the reason many developers first choose to make a game using pixel art is that they feel the same nostalgia everyone else does. But when you make that leap from player to developer, it's not enough to simply copy what came before and hope to hit your audience in the same way. The games that most effectively play upon our nostalgia are those that have respect and a sense of affinity for where those feelings originated and, in replicating aspects of them, look also for ways they can be meaningfully updated – as well as delight a new generation of gamers. Some might say we're not short of pixel art games, which is true, but the best of them are far more than tributes: what we often call 'retro' is a living style, one that continues to evolve with the medium and surprise developers and players alike. In other words, you ain't seen nothing yet.