In 2010, Apple introduced the “Retina display” on the iPhone 4, a screen with a resolution high enough that the naked eye (at a standard viewing distance) could no longer distinguish individual pixels. Since then, these ultra-high resolution displays have moved to tablets, desktops and laptops.
For a while, it seemed like the days of pixel art were finally over. But low-resolution pixel art hasn’t gone away. In fact, it is on the rise.
Beginning in the late 2000s, indie game developers began to take retro pixel art aesthetics seriously. They did this in part for nostalgic reasons, but also because in some cases it’s easier for a small development team to create simpler block graphics than detailed, high-resolution illustrations that look professional. (As with everything, there are exceptions—for example, creating compelling and fluid animations with 2D sprites is a very time-consuming process.)
Mark Ferrari looks at these contemporary pixel artists with awe and reverence. “I did pixel art because there was no alternative. It was not a choice, but a necessity,” says Ferrari. “People doing pixel art now do it of their own free will. Now there is no technical need to deal with pixel graphics. But they choose it because they like it.”
So while pixel art was once a limitation, it’s now a priceless artistic aesthetic that will likely never go away, thanks to that very short period in history where artists did what they could with the limited technology of the time.
Storage space also sets limits on graphical complexity
In both console and PC games, the complexity of graphics was limited not only by display capabilities and logical speed, but also by how they were stored on removable media that could be distributed to clients.
“People these days don’t really understand what a limited environment we were working in in terms of storage space and processing time,” Marc Ferrari says. “At that time, disk space was really precious.”
At the time Ferrari was drawing his graphics for Lucasfilm, the game had to fit on several floppy disks, each of which could only store 1.4 megabytes. Although Lucasfilm had compressed their game illustrations, the limitation on the amount of detail was due not only to the resolution of the IBM PC graphics card, but also to the capacity of the floppy disks themselves.
But like memory prices, the cost of storing graphics data on removable media has also fallen exponentially. In terms of consoles, in 1976 a Fairchild Channel F cartridge contained about 2 kilobytes of data, whereas Nintendo Switch game cards can store up to 32,000,000 kilobytes of data (32 GB). That’s 16 million times more storage space, giving you much more room for detailed graphical data.
Pixels today. On the advantages of retro-styling in modern games
The graphics of the old games were a direct consequence of the technical limitations of iron, but this is long gone – the current consoles and PCs allow you to never return to the same pixel art. Therefore, some people are wondering the place and significance of retro-styled games in today’s industry.
Some say that a pathological tendency to nostalgia hampers the visual potential of video games. Holding back the “horse”, not wanting to come up with something new, using familiar, characteristic, recognizable styles, developers stand still and narrow the potential audience of their games only to enthusiasts who sincerely appreciate retro.
Simplifying graphics can have a serious effect on the gaming experience. By getting rid of redundant visual information, you leave space for players to fill in the gaps, speculate and draw. Only in this way can the game world become truly alive. Activating the player’s imagination is a powerful tool for enhancing immersion.
A perfect example is the story-driven To the Moon. The modest pixel art of the game made it possible to shift all attention to the most important thing – a touching story that captivates the player with simple tricks. Let’s say the game’s heroine, River, has a characteristic habit of averting her eyes – at such moments only one or two pixels change on the screen – and this becomes a subtle, barely noticeable, but powerful emotional connection between the player and the character.
Another advantage I’ve found with some retro games is the tight synergy of gameplay and graphics fueled by your imagination. For example, Zelda 2, a NES game with a very simple picture, boasts some of the most dynamic sword fights I’ve ever seen in my life.
In many 3D games, the combat system is based on mindless pressing of all buttons in a row, auto-aim, auto-block and QTE. The complexity of the graphics in these titles simply doesn’t allow you to assess the situation quickly enough and react effectively, which is why the developers have to automate many elements to keep you interested in the fight.
In turn, in Zelda, you are in complete control of your character – every parry, every swing, all hits happen exactly when you need it. Part of this lightness is due to the visual abstraction that allows the action to be surprisingly furious, fast-paced and graceful.
Whatever happens, pixel art will continue its path in the gaming industry. Its relative simplicity and efficiency help to develop development in different countries and expand the gaming community. Pixel graphics do not require expensive software or special equipment and are loyal to the power of the computer (unlike 3D engines).
Under certain conditions, pixels can become a portal to the incredible world of creativity, reveal the secret of creating video games and become a buffer for people with new interesting ideas. You just have to want.