You are likely very familiar with pixel art (or pixel art maker), though you may not recognize this name. If you’ve ever played or seen footage of Super Mario Bros. on the NES, then you have an idea of what pixel art is and looks like. Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are created through the manipulation of individual pixels.
The pixel art form is never forgotten, in fact, it has seen somewhat of a revival in the recent years where awesome games adopted pixel art and took it to the next level, a level we never knew existed. A much more comprehensive looking pixel art with depth and rich texture gives life to these games. Today we're going to look two very different games, but each employed a distinct pixel graphics that give the game a very unique beauty to it.
Development on D-Pad Studio’s Owlboy began way back in 2007, only a year after Braid had sparked the fuse for the indie explosion that would turn the industry upside down. It first garnered mainstream attention back in 2011 with the release of its original teaser trailer, with an estimated launch date of later that same year. It would miss that date by five years. By the time of its actual release in November of 2016, it had been in development for nearly a decade.
Owlboy’s Official Release Trailer
Owlboy is Zelda-meets-Kid Icarus with a Steampunk vibe. Simon Stafsnes Andersen, D-Pad Studio’s sole artist, drew every pixel by hand. Every blink of the eye, hulking monster, and furrowed eyebrow was painstakingly animated frame-by-frame for nine nearly break-free years. The result is a vast, colorful world of sprawling underground dungeons, dark forests, and floating islands populated by spectacular characters, beasts, and machines. Andersen described his character creation process in an interview with Gamasutra:
I base everything on shapes and colors so you can easily identify characters, but as games generally gives [sic] you little time to dive into characters [sic] lives, having a design trait players can recognize from the surface is essential.
Drawing inspiration from classic titles like Metal Slug, Mega Man, and Windwaker, it’s a testament to Andersen’s talent that this mish-mash of different influences results in a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. That Owlboy still manages to establish a unique visual identity even amidst the growing number of pixel art titles is worth celebrating. Moreover, that it stands out despite being conceptualized before the retrowave movement (in fact, interest in retrowave would rise, peak, and fade all in the time it took for Owlboy to finish development) is all the more impressive.
Visually, Hotline Miami is about as far from Owlboy’s polished beauty as a game can possibly get. Heavily inspired by ‘80’s neon retro visuals and released just before the vaporwave microgenre came to the fore, Hotline Miami is set in a violent, manic city painted in shocking pinks and vibrant purples. A top-down shooter reminiscent of the SNES’ Super Smash TV, Hotline Miami puts players in the shoes of an unnamed protagonist receiving kill orders against the Russian mafia via recordings on his answer machine. An extremely gory experience from beginning to end, Jonatan Söderström, one of the two-man team that makes up Dennaton Games, says the crime-film Drive and the documentary Cocaine Cowboys influenced the development of Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami – The Masks Trailer
Visually, the game is a pixelated, savage, frenetic mess – like the final scene of Scarface on a loop, each playback set in a different dimension. Flying limbs and disemboweled gangsters, skulls ripped in two by crowbars and shotgun sprays to the face, every aggressive action the player takes is rewarded with a vicious animation, a sickening sound effect, and a bright blinking score. Pristine porcelain and sparkling dance room floors become spattered with blood and guts.
The violence is initially appalling and dreadful, but as the player becomes more efficient with their movements, more understanding of guard patrol patterns and the intricacies of each deadly weapon, this shock gives way to a cold apathy to the surrounding gore. The hundredth time you stomp a fallen guard’s head in with the heel of your boot, the violence barely registers; all that matters is the points you get at the end. The art design makes sure you never do lose that strange, unsettling feeling at the base of your gut, that subliminal disgust.
Top-down shooters are a dime a dozen, but the entrancing level design and visceral animations of Hotline Miami make this a standout in a packed crowd. Every pixel plays its part in defining the personality of this title. The low-res aesthetic and glowing scores that follow each gruesome murder explicit throwbacks to the top-down shooters of old. Every sprite and animation come together in constructing a convincing facsimile of the ‘80s as we’ve seen portrayed in the media, a hyperviolent world of crime and drugs hidden away beneath shining white porcelain and blinding pastels. Hotline Miami is what would happen if our favorite shooters of the '80s and '90s grew up with us.