Pixel Art: The end of an era?

Developers talk about the artistic form that shaped video games.

At first glance, the launch a few weeks ago of Kirby Mass Attack was a minor event. The umpteenth installment of a saga that has never been recognized in Europe for a console that gives its last pigtails passed without pain or glory for the sales lists.

However, its appearance was much more significant. With development focusing on the powerful 3DS, Mass Attack – with its charming and intricate sprites – may be the last 2D pixel art game Nintendo publishes.

The modest DS is probably the last platform on which the decision to base the visual aspect of a game on piles of pixels is due to a pragmatic and technical need. With a 3DS considerably more powerful than its predecessor, the only reason why a mainstream title uses pixel art instead of more modern graphic techniques will be purely aesthetic.

Matt Bozon, creative director of sprite specialists Way Forward Technologies, whose wonderful Aliens Infestation is probably also one of SEGA’s latest pixel art projects, suggests that although we may see such titles on 3DS, it won’t be a creative direction that many major companies choose.

“There was a decline in pixel art on the Game Boy Advance, and there have been even fewer games on Nintendo DS,” he told Euro gamer. “With the video game industry shifting to the Hollywood model of the summer blockbuster, the pixel is no longer attractive enough for the masses.

Nintendo didn’t want to give a definitive answer when we asked them about it, but Mass Attack director Mari Shirakawa wasn’t too optimistic.

“The screen resolution will continue to improve and, as you say, the need for pixel art will decrease,” she explains.

“I think pixel art has a unique artistic charm that you can’t find in polygamous art, and personally it’s one of my favorite graphic styles, so it would be sad to see pixel art being used less and less.

“But at the same time I don’t necessarily see this as a big loss, as the improved graphics will help increase the possibilities of the games.

Along with Way Forward, Toronto developer Capybara Games is another of the few Western studios still proud of pixel art. The Nintendo DS version of the sublime RPG puzzle Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes showed some of the most inspired and charismatic sprite work since the 16-bit golden age. Capybara also agrees that times are changing.

“In pre-PSP laptops, the screen resolution was so low that pixels were often the best choice in terms of clarity,” explains co-founder and art director Anthony Chan.

“As we move away from ‘small screen devices’, that limitation fades away. Most talented pixel artists go on to make high-definition 2D art, as you can see in Capy or in studios like Way Forward.

“So what,” you might ask. For the generation that started video games before the first PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the beginning of the 3D era, this really represents the end of an era. Iconic, familiar and wonderfully expressive despite its simplicity, pixel art is the video game. A player has the heart of ice if he is not thrilled to see a Mega Man sprite jumping through the air or the 16-bit Link lifting a piece of the Triforce over his head.

“It would be sad [if it disappears] because pixel art is intimately linked to games. It’s part of its fabric, part of its history,” Chan says.

“It would be like forgetting that there was hand-drawn animation, as the film industry seems to have done. You have to know where you’re coming from, see evolution, and appreciate the ability to ‘modernize’ techniques that aren’t modern anymore by themselves.

But Adam Saltsman, creator of the pixel art game for iOS Canabalt, argues that its appeal goes beyond nostalgia. Its purity, precision and clarity have numerous benefits when it comes to creating good game play. It argues that the rigid predictability of pixel by pixel animation is easier for the player to process, and responds better than more modern techniques.

“You can see it if you compare Street Fighter IV with Street Fighter III,” he explains.

“Although Street Fighter III is a faster and more aggressive game, and in some aspects less accessible, the fact that the animation is discreet and quantified makes it easier to learn to time and understand what is happening on the screen.

“Your brain thinks, ‘oh, when the animation freezes at this point if I press this button it’s the right timing’, while in Street Fighter IV it’s rather ‘when the leg moves off the ground and is halfway through completing this animation it’s when I press any button’. You don’t have a specific point on which to train.

“For games that are based on timing, to learn from the interactive game system, the fact is that there is a style or language for quantified movement that helps people learn and that is really useful.

Chan adds that, by asking the game to fill in certain blanks, the simplicity of pixel art also helps you get more into the game and use your imagination in ways that more literal visual styles are not able to do.

“On a conceptual level, the representative aspect of pixel art is as comforting as it is challenging,” he insists.

“Drawing a circle with two dots and a line is a representation of a face – it makes the player abstract and interact with the game visually and not just through mechanics.

Beyond that, he argues, is its precise and abstract nature helps to maintain the fourth wall, while the quest for perfect photo realism of 3D graphics can emphasize small but annoying imperfections that take the player out of the experience.

“Pixel art doesn’t have the distraction of 3D,” explains Chan.

“The more real you are with 3D, the more material faults you’ll see. This happens long before the disturbing valley, but it’s also accentuated by it. With 3D emulating the real world, the player can easily confuse the game with the real thing, causing problems with textures, animations and even technical components, such as collisions, to become more obvious.

But perhaps most importantly, pixel art makes the playing field fairer. You don’t need big budgets, huge equipment, expensive technology and a complex education to make a game with pixel art. All you need is passion, desire and a little artistic talent.

“There are few entry barriers, results are obtained quickly and it’s possible to achieve professional quality much easier than competing with a modern console game,” admits Bozon.

And it’s that efficiency that keeps the middle alive. Although mainstream developers are turning the page, indie developers have taken over, spurred on by the nostalgia for the games of their youth and the fact that it’s an accessible and cost-effective way to make attractive video games.

Digital distribution systems such as the App Store, Steam or Xbox Live Arcade have freed developers to make the games they want to play, not those dictated by Activation’s road map or Electronic Arts. Best of all, they’ve found a receptive audience.

Saltsman’s Canabalt, the charming puzzle for iOS The Last Rocket, the brutal VVVVVVV platforms, Way forward jewels for DSiWare like Shantae: Risky’s Revenge and Mighty Flip Champs, Super Meat Boy, Super brothers: Sword & Sworcery, Cave Story, Tiny Tower, Game Dev Story, the Bit series. Trip, the future Super T.I.M.E. Force of Capybara… the list of fantastic – not to mention commercially successful – pixel-based indie games never ends.

The few developers who still work with pixel art today done it because they want to, not because they have to. Unlike those who do it in 3D, they are not limited by the number of polygons, the size of textures or by trying to go technically further. Pixel art is a more advanced medium in its evolutionary line and, therefore, designers can only concentrate on doing something different, both from a visual and playable perspective.

Do you remember the special effects in cinema over the last 75 years,” asks Bozon.

“Latex puppets and miniature models were the only viable way until the CGs arrived. Well, today you can still entertain the masses with puppets, only now you do it by choice.

“Creative people can work without thinking about technology and impose limits on themselves to create something unique. So perhaps the golden age of pixels is past, but now we are free to use them purely as a form of expression.

One of the concerns is the size of the power market. Can it grow beyond the gray-haired players who are thrilled at the promise of a return to simpler times? Is the vision of a set of pixels something that drives back teenagers, a generation that has grown up with Halo and Call of Duty instead of Packman and Gradius? Saltsman doesn’t care too much.

“We used to wonder if putting a pixel game in front of a kid would make him complain because the game was ugly compared to Super Mario Galaxy or whatever,” he says.

“My nephew may be too old – he’s seven or eight years old – but when he comes home he loves to put in all those old, pix elated NES or Mega Drive games. Art isn’t the problem, it’s the exaggerated difficulty of those games. That’s what drives it back.

“My mom can play pixel art games, kids can play them – I don’t think there’s anything about that that’s a problem,” he continues.

For better or worse, in 2011 most triple A developers will try to mimic the visual style of Michael Bay, Spielberg or Pixar, producing games that look less and less like games. While it’s a bit sad that all that’s left is a few talented indies honoring the work of the media’s creative ancestors, it’s great to see Capy, Way Forward or Salt mans step forward to preserve – and innovate in – the only visual style that the video game industry can regard as their own.

“It’s embedded in pop culture, so I don’t think it can just go away,” concludes Bozon.

“As a creative exercise, try to imagine a future in which polygonal graphics are no longer the norm. Games that had good visual styles will linger in our memories, but games that tried to imitate reality may not age as well and look weird. Hopefully we can continue to use technology in new and artistic ways.