Video game art has evolved over time from 8-bit sprites (an image) to 3-D, low poly visuals and to the high definition graphics we see nowadays. And while those amazing HD graphics are a spectacle to look at, there are developers out there who are finding old-school graphics to be the new ‘classy’ in video games. Pixel graphics are more than often used by independent studios rather than Triple A corporations (EA, Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, etc…) because it is considerably less time consuming and thereby not as costly to make. This allows studios that are smaller or one-man to create games faster and within their budget. Not only this, but it allows the focus of the development time to go more into making a flawless and smooth player experience rather than adding that extra detail to your grass texture. But of course, pixel art can look very cool and done in the right way, it can look stunning.
Before we dive into best practices with pixel art, let’s talk about why pixel art works and is still enjoyed by people when there are near photo realistic graphics being made in today’s game development industry. Usually, if a player had played a lot of games during their childhood that were made in the 90’s, like Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and Mario, they will often times enjoy games made with pixel art.
Image from Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992)
Image from Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992)
This is because most of these games are inspired by those same old games. They often have very similar controls but the pixel art gives the game a look that creates a sense of nostalgia for the player. This nostalgia is really what makes these games so enjoyable. It provides the player with the younger mindset that they had when playing the games of their childhood and allows them to enjoy the game in a similar manner. This is why if your target audience is a younger age group, you don’t want to make your game look like it was made in the 90’s because it will look dated to them. They never played those games. This is why younger kids love games like Call of Duty because they always keep making super flashy, gritty, HD experiences on the best available game engines year after year. Games with pixel graphics have a niche audience that enjoy the feelings of nostalgia the graphics bring but if the player lacks the experiences of 90’s games, the game will look dated and the magic will be gone.
Although it is easier to make pixel art, pixel art can be tricky to master. You have less space to work with when making it because you are often working with a smaller resolution sprite sheet. A sprite sheet is a simple image with a series of sprites on them that the game can use to easily put together animations. Here is an example of Sonic’s sprite sheet from a game named Sonic CD released in 1993.
As you can see it’s a lot of the same thing over and over again with slight alterations. That’s how hand drawn animation is made and that is no different for sprite animation. This is one of the only aspects to pixel artwork that technically is a little more tedious than 3-D animation. Once you have a rigged up 3-D model, you can animate it freely without having to remodel it each frame. You can get creative with pixel art but it’s only going to look quality and smooth if things are drawn over and over again. There are many tools to do this, though. Photoshop and Gimp are your friends when it comes to pixel art. You could even use Microsoft Paint. But it is easy to draw sprites that don’t look anything like what you were intending to make so definitely be sure to practice!
One great thing about sprite sheets is how easy they make level building. Once you have all of your sprites done you can use these as tiles to put together your world in a very rapid manner. This is great for prototyping and it makes creating larger game worlds a faster process. The best games with pixel artwork have a wide variety of scenery to make the game come to life. Just because the graphics are less detailed does not mean you can skimp on the amount of animations, weather effects, variety of characters and enemies or even the parallax sky boxes you use in your game. In fact it is the opposite. It is the best art style to do all of these because they will truly stand out when done well. In Unity, you can implement the Tilemap which allows you to turn the level editor into a grid. Then you can just click a square on the grid while having a sprite from your sprite sheet selected and it will be painted into the square. There is no need to worry about spending time spacing out your sprites on your own this way. Just start drawing out your levels!
There is a lot more to talk about with pixel art games and I may go over additional aspects of pixel artwork in the coming weeks, such as parallax sky boxes which are used to give a 2-D game a 3-D effect. For those wanting to look into setting up a project in Unity with a Tilemap go ahead and watch the tutorial by Brackeys below which is a good introduction to that topic. Have fun creating your pixel art games!