Pixel art isn’t just for classic games – it’s here to stay in a big way
In the early ’70s, pixel art was developed to put video games out to the masses. Things have changed massively since then – as we’ve made strides in everything from technology to design – and yet there’s still increasingly a space for pixel art.
So, why might that be? As art lovers, we know that the very best art is a reflection or commentary of the time or context in which it’s produced, and so the use of pixel art in a range of areas deals explicitly with issues ranging from the development of technology right through to our interest in the past. It gets us looking, and it gets us talking, so that can account for at least some of its continued success.
What is pixel art, and what’s its history?
Pixel art started in 1972, but the term “pixel art” itself didn’t come about until around 1982, a decade later. It was first used in Richard Shoup’s SuperPaint system, which was a pioneering graphics program. It was then popularised with the release of games such as Space Invaders in 1978, and the iconic PacMan in 1980 – which can still be found and played in arcades to this day – or you can even play it online.
It then found its way to 8-bit consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System which was released in 1983, and later the Sega Master System in 1985. Generations of gamers have grown up familiar with the style.
So what can it be likened to? Essentially, it’s a computerized version of a few different traditional artforms. In some ways, it’s akin to certain types of embroidery – like cross-stitch- as well as some kinds of mosaic and even beadwork as well. This is because of the way that these more orthodox mediums also construct pictures from small colored units – which is similar to the way that we construct images using pixels digitally on our computers.
Where is it used today?
Unfortunately, for a while, pixel art saw a rapid decline as games systems got technically better and better. 3D home consoles were released, and there was a focus on realism and showing how fast things developed.
However, somewhere along the line, throwbacks came back “in”. Although a favorite with indie publishers, there’s scope across the spectrum. It’s highly versatile and finds a place easily within modern society. The Hunger Games: Girl On Fire for mobile, for example, worked alongside the blockbuster franchise and in itself an example of how simple and fun games can work with this artwork style. Using pixel art, it was able to stand out from other movie games on the market, and there’s a lot more scope and appeal to pixel art which “is what it is”, as opposed to trying to make a low-polygon rendering of Jennifer Lawrence, the movie’s main character.
Mobile gaming opens up an entirely new market for a relatively old style, and it’s not just movie games that use pixel art – it’s being used across the gaming world. In casino games, for example, you will find its use helps to demonstrate the timeless nature of such games. This is highlighted particularly well on slot machines, for example, those found on Oddschecker.
But it’s not just games at all – creators are using the pixel art medium outside of the digital sphere. What’s more, it’s taking over Singapore, too. We certainly haven’t been immune to it right here. Just look at the work of Elvin Ong. He’s aware of the ability that art has to evoke emotions, particularly those of nostalgia. Capturing the ever-changing nature of Singapore and using pixel art to illustrate the skyline we are all so familiar with currently is a smart idea. When you look back at his work in years to come, the subjects will evoke equally as much nostalgia as his chosen medium. In its selection, there’s acceptance – he’s aware that things will change, but seeks to capture the beauty as it is in this moment.
Why is it back, and why is it appreciated today?
Pixel art has something of a charm about it. Its seemingly rudimental style in the gaming industry actually requires a lot of painstaking effort and patience, something that we can certainly appreciate in all mediums.
It’s back because of the cultural significance that games play in our society, too. Video gaming is everywhere, and pixel art is arguably the most characteristic visual style. The two are inextricably linked, even with all the gaming developments that have been made. Sure, there are those who think it’s tired and that we should be progressing onto new things – but it’s true of all art that it’s entirely subjective.
It’s perhaps been the realisation that pixel art is worthy on its own. According to an article published in The Verge, there is now a question of presenting “games as art” to a wider audience. They’re not trying to compete with watercolor artists or those involved in drawings. In fact, it’s described as “digitally native cartooning.” In some games, such as Passage, the pixels themselves serve a deeper purpose than simply being the chosen medium. They can actually help in gameplay – glitchy-style effects, for example, can reflect the protagonist’s “shuffle” through life.
It’s also got a nostalgia factor as well. People can look back on the games of their childhood fondly. But these days, the nostalgia factor isn’t everything with pixel art, we’re focusing on embracing the pixels themselves. They’re not trying to be photos or anything else, but they’re often expressive in their own right, digitally, and should be respected as such.
The future of pixel art
If all of this is anything to go by, it looks like pixel art is here to stay. When returning to its origins, it seems that games are returning to their retro roots, all to put across a trendy, vintage image. As for pixel art itself, it’s finally being appreciated as an artform.
But it’s not all about nostalgia. There’s a lot of room for innovation and expression as well. Talented pixel artists are constantly pushing the boundaries and using the medium in new ways. According to Nathan Vella, co-founder and president of Super Time Force and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, “pixel art is neither a fad, nor a static medium.”
It’s accessible, as well. That means that everyone – yes, including you – can get involved with pixel art, whether that is digitally or using mediums such as pencils or crayons. There are plenty of resources online for artists to help you get involved.
And on that note, we’re excited to see where – and how – pixel art appears next!