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Pixel Art in Gaming: Salad’s Perspective on a Growing Trend

The visual simplicity of early PC and console games has influenced plenty of games released in recent years. And I’m all in. Some of the most popular and highly-rated games have gone back in time to pay homage to their pixelated forebears. Forgoing the abundance of tools capable of simulating realistic environments, indie devs have proven it’s possible to craft engaging, successful games with a pared-down aesthetic.

When personal computing and console gaming first came about, there were significant limits on graphical representation. Pixels — the smallest unit of measure for a digital display — were limited by a computer’s resolution, clocking in at 72 pixels to an inch (72ppi).

For 8-bit graphics, the maximum screen size was 256x256px. Today, the iPhone 12 has a screen resolution of 2,532x1,170px and displays at 460ppi — nearly a hundred times the pixels at six times the density.

A comparison between a CRT Monitor and a new mobile phone. Squares represent a 1:1 pixel ratio.

Game developers were likewise hampered by 8-bit computer processors. They could only use 256 possible colors, whereas today’s color palette has ballooned to billions of subtle hues. Since the game code still needed a hulking portion of memory, graphics often got diluted to 54 colors.

As technology advanced, so did our understanding of gameplay in general. Gaming has become a billion-dollar industry, gone so mainstream that major universities are offering game design degrees.

Our ability to craft experiences has even expanded to unforeseen media. A nascent metaverse awaits at the convergence of augmented reality, virtual reality, and blockchain gaming.

But despite — or perhaps *because of — *those early limitations, the enduring aesthetic of classic games still manages to ignite the imagination. Designers have restrained cutting-edge tech to proscribed limits in a bid to tie the old to the new.

Pixel art takes many of us back to childhood memories — like booting up a 256-color PC to the sound of Saturday morning cartoons, eagerly watching the screen flicker to life as our chins dripped the sugar-saturated milk from a cereal bowl.

Their successors borrow the latter-day discipline of contemporary game design and pair it with a reminiscence on simpler tastes. It’s a form of synthesized nostalgia that harkens to classics like Pitfall!, Qbert, and Wolfenstein 3D without approaching strict emulation.

Pixel Art Gallery

Retro aesthetics and modern technology has produced a spate of instantly familiar, yet wholly novel titles that provide a masterclass in self-imposed constraints. From the jejune spirit of Undertale to the wild terrains of HyperLight Drifter, you’re sure to find something that sparks a nostalgic twinge in your heart.

Here is a sampling of some of our favorite pixel art games, including landmark titles and projects in development. We’re excited to see where this growing trend will go.



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