Once essential due to the low-powered machines, pixel art has become a stylized choice for video games today. For one, you don’t need to borrow a supercomputer to run them.
There are, however, two factors that give the aesthetic an edge over other art styles: nostalgia and deception. Pixel art can transport you back to the simpler time of games, but at the same time surprise you with depth! These paper-thin, 2D sprites allow a game to be robust and layered.
And it’s not just about being retro. Developers are using the visual style to illustrate their unique visions. We have put together a list of four such gems that can genre-hop their way into your hearts. Best part? They can all be found on Steam, so get your Steam Wallet Codes ready, cause we’re sure these are some games that you would not want to miss!
Reducing Terraria to ‘Minecraft in 2D’ is rather unfair. Sure, you are dropped in a procedurally-generated world to, er.. mine and craft. BUT, the clue is in the name though. On the surface, ‘Terraria’ is about exploring the zany ‘Terra’ (earth) it brings to life. But dig a little deeper, and the terror jumps out.
Compared to Minecraft, Terraria is a more focused experience. There’s a greater emphasis on combat and the creepy-crawlies you slay range from bunnies to floating eyeballs and even the occasional ‘Moon Lords’. The crafting is also far more imaginative; you can craft things like ninja stars, lightsabers and demon altars.
Objectives provide structure to your experience — build settlements by attracting NPCs, and defeat bosses to advance the story. Terraria, however, shines in the surreal exploration. Make your way down to the underworld or aim for the skies! You can sink in hundreds of hours and still not be sure if you’ve seen it all. Therein lies the intimidating factor. For a newcomer looking from the outside in, Terraria could seem imposing. There isn’t much in the way of tutorials and the learning curve is rather steep.
But with the game declared complete with the final Terraria 1.4 update — aptly titled ‘Journey’s End’ — it is the best time for all first-timers to try it out! You can get into it co-op, multiplayer or alone if you’re feeling adventurous. With the Terraria: Journey’s End update, you can now decrease the level of difficulty (or increase it, you monster!), play golf and fly kites. But more importantly, you can now pet the dog.
It’s been nine years of constant updates and releases across generations of consoles yet never has a 2D world felt livelier.
The cyberpunk subgenre has seen a revival in all forms of entertainment, and VirtuaVerse is the latest entry on this gaming front. Set in the not-so-far-away future, the point-and-click adventure title is draped in neon and ticks all the cyberpunk boxes: kanji signs, augmentations and street noodles. Think ‘Blade Runner’, only you play a smuggler.
VirtuaVerse‘s setting is a dystopia increasingly ruled by augmented reality, connected to a singular artificial intelligence. The protagonist is a pirate, fighting against the system with modded hardware and cracked software as tools for rebellion. Things take a turn when his girlfriend goes missing.
The adventure game mechanics are also a throwback to the Sierra and LucasArts classics. The point-and-click system lets you take your time and make progress, one puzzle at a time. A few puzzles can obtusely stretch the definition of logic and some of the narration can be heavy-handed, but never at the cost of breaking the immersion.
Passing the soundcheck is a must for any cyberpunk property, and VirtuaVerse aces it. Record label ‘Blood Music’ is behind the development, and it shows. The label’s lineage can be traced back to ‘Hotline Miami’, and the techno beats of VirtuaVerse are dripping pink-and-blue with mood. The soundtrack alone warrants picking up this game and giving it a go.
One Step From Eden
One Step From Eden is a grid-based, deck-building, rogue like, real-time strategy game. That dizzying mashup of genres screams ambition, and the game realizes it well. Released in March, this fast paced, combat-heavy title will kick your ass.. repeatedly. You will also get better, both in terms of your skills and gear, and that’s the hook.
The battleground is an 8×4 grid, divided between you and the enemy. You have two spells — specific in property and chosen randomly out of the deck. There’s a mana meter that takes recharging, but you can dodge incoming attacks in the meantime and chip away at the enemy’s health with a basic attack. There are bosses to beat: kill them to grab experience and loot or spare them to earn a potential ally (and a starting character unlock). The random decks, complemented by the roguelike nature of the campaign, means tons of replayability.
However, much like its genres, One Step From Eden can cause a sensory overload. The pixel artwork is distinct – characters are cute, the animation is fluid and the backdrops are varied. Sadly, you won’t get a chance to take it all in because you can’t pause the frenetic action. The sound effects are good, but the electro-music seemingly blurs into the background. Those looking for a narrative will also be rather disappointed. Aside from brief exchanges of dialogue before a boss fight, and some lore about the titular city of Eden, there is no real storyline or motivation to the game.
That hardly gets in the way though, because getting better at the game is all the motivation you will need. You will make split-second decisions while your fingers dance on the keyboard (or Switch Joy-Con) and try out new characters and load-outs for new runs. There are more than 100 spells and 150 artifacts to collect, and with co-op and PvP options, you will stay… One Step From Eden.
Pardon the pun, but Stardew Valley will never go out of season. The multiple GOTY winner has sold over 10 million copies since its release in 2016, and remains both the second-most selling and second-highest rated pixel art game, right behind its eccentric cousin Terraria. But why exactly has the game aged like fine wine (made from the freshest, gold-star cranberries)?
Part of it is the ongoing pandemic, which has left gamers yearning for a slice of quaint outdoor goodness. Stardew Valley has also been immensely helped by the numerous mods created by its large faithful community. From quality-of-life mods such as tractors and bathhouses to aesthetics such as anime character sprites and to Japanese architectural revamps. Then there are straight-up expansion packs and mods which turn animals into Pokemon!
At its core, Stardew Valley remains an experience that is simultaneously accessible and deep. You inherit your grandfather’s farm and do what all farmers do – grow crops, raise livestock, fish, and forage your way to a larger bank balance. You interact with villagers who sport layered personalities and eventually find the love of your life. There are also RPG elements in the form of custom builds and play-styles, set against the medley of amazing hand-drawn art and foot-tapping music. The multiplayer is smooth and you can share a farm with three friends. But for a game present across all major consoles and mobile, lack of cross-platform multiplayer is a huge let down.
Regardless, for those who have not played Stardew Valley before, autumn is a great time to visit Pelican Town. And for those who have, it’s like coming home.
That’s it! Four titles, four distinctly different experiences. From facing Eldritch horrors to harvesting parsnips. Foiling conspiracies in a dystopian future to using spells on frenemies.
Sure, pixel art evokes that retro feeling but there’s much more to the style. Along with talented creators building bewitching worlds and a variety of games, we won’t be running out of these blocks of happiness anytime soon.