Given that I run a retro gaming blog, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I like old games. Occasionally, I try to work out exactly what is that I find so appealing about them that I’d rather play a 30 year old game than a more modern one.
There are lots of things that appeal, but one of them is the artwork. You might think I’m insane, preferring the block, limited palette graphics of older games to the photorealistic graphics of modern consoles, but there is just something about pixel art that I find appealing. Indeed, it’s no co-incidence that my interest in modern gaming started to diminish around the time that sprites and pixel art were making way for polygons and 3D images.
I’m not trying to claim that all 80s games were works of art. Before the days of the dedicated graphic artist, there were plenty of games with some pretty basic/dodgy graphics. However, when you got to see the output of a truly talented artist, the results could be jaw-dropping. As the 8 and 16 bit eras progressed, so programmers and artists became ever more proficient in squeezing the last ounce of memory out of the machines, resulting in better and better graphics. Just take a look at System 3’s The Last Ninja (1987) – such stunning, detailed graphics would have been thought impossible just a few years earlier. Yet in the hands of a group of talented artists and programmers, the game was beautiful to look at, as well as superb to play. Of course, there were some games that relied a little too much on the graphics to sell and were little more than tech demos with a shallow game attached (Saucer Attack was one), but that doesn’t diminish the quality or importance of the artwork.
There was a real art (pun intended!) to drawing sprites and pixel art. The memory and hardware constraints of the machines meant that every pixel and every byte counted. Artists had to be really efficient in the way that they drew. Graphics might have been small and blocky, but they oozed character. You could even argue that what was left out was just as important as was included. Artists became very clever at giving sprites sufficient definition to make it clear what they were, whilst leaving the player’s imagination to fill in some of the detail.
As consoles and computers have got more powerful, the quality, size and scale of graphics have obviously improved massively. Whole cities and worlds can now be visualised… and yet, I still find basic pixel art can create a better atmosphere and give games a unique look and feel.
This is partly because modern games leave little to the imagination. Because hardware is now so powerful, graphics can be very precise and very detailed. There’s no need for the player to fill in any blanks, because everything is up there on screen. With sprites and pixel art, you had to do this yourself and this somehow made the characters more personal to you.
Similarly, no matter how powerful modern machines are, they still can’t quite create completely convincing images of people. There is always something slightly odd about them – whether that’s facial textures, body movement or lip syncing. For me, this means that they sometimes jar with the rest of the world that’s been created or fail to convince me that they are real. Again, 8 and 16 bit sprites couldn’t aspire to this photo-realism – they were what they were and this meant they fitted into gaming environments much better in many ways.
I’m sure I’d be shot down in most art circles for this, but I’d argue that pixel art and sprites deserve to be viewed in the same light as other works of art. It might be drawn using a very different medium or and have a very different purpose to “normal art”, but it still takes a really skilful artist to create graphics that look good, and provoke a genuine emotional attachment. Isn’t that what all great works of art do? In their own medium, I’d argue that great graphic artists were creating real works of art in just the same way that Constable or Picasso did.
It’s surely no co-incidence that recent years have seen a resurgence in this type of artwork and retro-styled games are starting to make a comeback. Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks like this.