The Pixelated Trend

Image by Flickr user amlusch
Image by Flickr user amlusch

When I started playing video games, it was the era of “early 8-bit” (Atari) and “8-bit” (NES) graphics both astounding (Super Mario Bros. 3) and terrible (Home Run). That “video game look” pervaded pop culture until “pixel” was as common a word in our lexicon as “game.” And we loved our sprites no matter how bad the games were. But we also shouted with glee at the dawning of the 16- and 32-bit eras. How had we lived before without such dramatic and joyful color?! Enter the 64-bit era, high definition, and photorealism, and you’ve got yourself a 30-year span of graphics evolution.

So why are many game developers going back in time with their graphics? You’ve seen them, any number of “retro-style” games  mostly on Steam and handheld/mobile devices, such as VVVVVV, Tiny Death Star, and Lone Survivor. They aren’t bad games; in fact, they are some of the most currently successful games available. They aren’t cheap knockoffs, but have been crafted with (occasionally tongue-in-cheek) care and with a definite eye towards fun and replaybility. And many have that distinctive 8-but look — characters and environments all rendered in tiny, colorful squares. Visible pixels define the landscapes, and they look so much better than the blocky blobs we dealt with in the likes of Pitfall! and Dig Dug.

I get that retro is in and it’s cheap to produce pixel graphics, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what I see. In fact, most of the time, retro-style games completely turn me off, no matter how touted they may be. Having spent plenty of time in 8- and 16-bit spaces, I don’t feel the need to return to them. It’s like the resurgence of skinny jeans — no thanks. Been there, done that.

And don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to follow the trend, mostly through Google Play and my tablet. I tried Tiny Death Star — cute but kind of boring. I tried Flappy Birds — pure punishment, something I don’t need more of in my life. I tried 8bit Ninja — meh. All that came to mind when playing them was “thank goodness this is free…and uninstallable.” I found the games unappealing in both gameplay and graphics. Probably mostly graphics. Look, in the end, most original 8-bit games looked horrible, but that’s all we had back then. I mean, Frogger, Space Invaders, heck, even the greats like Galaga weren’t spectacles of graphical wonder. (Though Galaga was darn pretty…) They were fine games that made the best use of the graphical standards that were available. These days, with so much technology and creativity at people’s fingertips, going 8-bit sometimes seems like a cop out. Give me artsy, give me stylized, give me unique — Braid, Guacamelee, Jazzpunk, Spelunky, World of Goo — give me anything other than little, colorful squares stacked upon more little, colorful squares.

But maybe I’m just an old, close-minded fuddy-duddy, hmmm? Don’t answer that. What I do want you to tell me is what are some of your favorite retro-style modern games? Is there a game out there that defies the pixelated trend with such grace and panache that it’ll make me change my mind?

6 Comments Add yours

  1. You know… I swear I was just thinking this the other day, as I was browsing through potential new games to install on my ipad. I admitted to myself that I skipped over reading the descriptions of a few simply because the graphics were 8-bit style, and it was a real turn off.

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    1. cary says:

      Yeah, I’ve passed over a number of games for that reason too. And it’s not like I don’t respect 8-bit graphics as a choice, and maybe my sentiments are a bit superficial, but I’d rather look at anything but these days.

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  2. Hatm0nster says:

    I have a hard time gettleing interested in games following the 8-bit style too, or more specifically: new games following the 8-bit style. I would love to see a new Donkey Kong in the SNES Style or a 16-bit Metroid, but for new IP’s it’s disappointing. I don’t necessarily want to see 3D, but I do want to see new, creative styles more than 8-bit retreads.

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    1. cary says:

      We can agree there! Using 8-bit as a starting point and building it into a style that’s unique is definitely something I can get behind.

      Y’know, the more I play the Metroid Prime games (which are rightly great), the more I hope to see the series return to the spritely, colorful platformer that it once was.

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  3. duckofindeed says:

    I haven’t played any new 8-bit games, but I think the graphics would be a big turn-off for me, as well. I’m usually fine with playing old games with 8 or 16-bit graphics, but I think that’s mainly the ones that I grew up with (like “Donkey Kong Country”) or that are really popular and well-loved (like “Final Fantasy VI”, which I recently started).

    I can’t play average games with such graphics, though. Not the new ones, and I can’t even stand playing most of the games in my Sega Genesis collection on the XBox 360 for very long before I need something at least 64-bit or higher. It’s not that I’m a graphics snob or anything, but many times, “retro” graphics make me strangely depressed.

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    1. cary says:

      I can see what you mean by that. Older games in older graphics make complete sense, and they are just right to play that way. I get that many “retro” style games of today have much better stories and that there’s something to be said for creativity in that vein, but the appeal just isn’t as high.

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