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Of all the art styles in video games, none has a stronger chokehold on developers and players alike than the humble pixel. Whether it’s a fantastically detailed modern take on what is possible in pixels, or something made in homage to NES and SNES games of yore, pixel art can be found everywhere — in every genre of game, on every console (no matter how powerful), and in every generation of games, too.
Some may dismiss pixel art as an old-fashioned art style [Names and addresses of those people on my desk, please – Ed.], but the games in this list show that pixel art can be up there with some of the most beautiful games on Switch. Just because something adheres to an evident grid doesn’t mean it can’t be utterly gorgeous — so let’s celebrate the best pixel art in games!
Publisher: Chucklefish / Developer: Pixpil Games
What likely drew you first to Eastward was the incredible pixel art direction, and we can happily report that it does not disappoint. What’s so striking about the visuals is how absolutely detailed they are, packing in a litany of small elements that give lot to chew on, so to speak, in every frame.
A series of misshapen posters on a wall. The faded paint of an old boat hull being used as a roof. Flickering neon lights of an old diner’s sign. All these things come together to convey a tremendous sense of place, and we applaud the developers for executing such an impressive visual style.
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Even with the embarrassment of retro-aesthetic riches on Switch, the pixel art in Kingdom: Two Crowns is standout. Starting on horseback on a moonlit night after a lengthy initial load, the lighting and the ever-present reflection in the foreground water are immediately striking.
Beauty is an integral component of Two Crowns; be prepared to spend a long time gazing at scenery as you canter from one end of your territory to the other. Night turns to dawn, day to dusk in a lovely cycle of light, weather and seasons. While some may find it monotonous or one-note, its tranquillity grows on you – we found it to be a perfect bedtime accompaniment.
Publisher: Abylight Studios / Developer: Heart Machine
Running at a smooth 60fps in both handheld mode and docked, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t just another port of a popular indie game, but the definitive version on the platform it best suits. You only need to play this iteration for five minutes to appreciate just how perfectly Heart Machine’s labour of love suits Nintendo’s portable console.
Its neon-coloured pixel art world – a setting rich with colour but marked by a terrible tragedy that informs everything from character design to the aesthetics of its large and varied map – is a joy to explore, even if you will die ad infinitum in your first few hours.
Publisher: Coffee Stain Studios / Developer: Easy Trigger
The fine detail of Huntdown’s beautifully detailed, hand-drawn pixel graphics infuse everything you do with a real sense of satisfying momentum and weight. Your bounty hunter feels great to control as they manoeuvre through gunfights, their clothes swooping and swishing as they jump and slide, their weapons turning enemies into bloody giblets and scenery into smouldering ruins as they leap around platforms and take cover from the crazed mobs piling out of subway trains, emerging from sewers and arriving on all manner of vehicles in an attempt to take you down.
Publisher: PQube / Developer: MassHive Media
The visuals in alchemy sim Potion Permit are impeccable. Everything adopts an enchanting autumnal pixel appearance, and the amount of detail in each area on the map is enough to have you exploring for hours.
Moonbury is filled with unique characters for you to meet and speak to, and they’re just as visually detailed as the town itself. These aren’t bulk-created NPCs — each has recognisable and unique personality, including romanceable bachelors and bachelorettes.
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Square Enix
The nostalgia-inducing HD-2D visual style used for Live A Live is both faithful to the original Super Famicom game, and also stunningly detailed, and might just be the best-looking HD-2D game yet.
Not a pixel is out of place, as every single environment is utterly gorgeous, with character models that look distinctive and sharp and crisp, and colourful pixel environments that blend seamlessly with the 3D aspects. Rocks on cliffs, computer units, forests of bamboo, and more all meld together perfectly as jagged grass sways in the wind, or a warm flame flickers with sunset orange digital dots. Even the crystal clear water looks flawless as you sneak your way through Edo Japan underwater with your cute little pixel snorkel poking out of the top. And, on an OLED, it’s a real feast for the eyes.
Publisher: D-Pad Studio / Developer: D-Pad Studio
As you can hopefully see from the included screenshots, the aesthetic of this game is absolutely jaw-droppingly stunning at times. The pixel art approach has been used a lot recently, attempting to have gamers fawning all over nostalgic memories of their childhoods, but rarely is it done to such a high standard.
Games such as Owlboy prove that pixel art should never be forgotten as a medium; certain touches such as the immense detail in the clouds and trees had us staring in awe just as much as the most realistic-looking games of 2018 will manage.
Publisher: X.D. Network / Developer: Freebird Games
To The Moon may have that “made in RPG Maker” look to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. Unfolding a love story over the course of decades, through the memories of a dying man, To The Moon shows you brief but beautiful vignettes of pivotal moments in a couple’s life.
Publisher: Humble Games / Developer: Witch Beam
Unpacking stands out from the bunch in this list because its pixel art is a little different. You won’t find softly diffused light streaming through stained glass windows, or complicated grids of exacting colour that create the illusion of depth — no, Unpacking’s strength is in its utter simplicity.
Objects both large and small are recognisably replicated as simply as possible, and though we’ll admit it took us a while to figure out that the small rolled up fabric things were underwear, Unpacking’s no-frills pixel art matches the simple-yet-deep story that the game tells.
Publisher: Dotemu / Developer: Tribute Games
Graphically, Shredder’s Revenge is a feast. There are no CRT filters for this pixel party, which some may find disappointing, but it’s so beautifully, exactingly drawn that it’s hard to muster a complaint.
Every inch is crammed with detail, beginning inside April’s Channel 5 TV station before moving through New York’s backstreets and sewers. Familiar locations are rendered with fresh, loving attention to detail, gorgeous colour, and an authentic cartoon flavour, all strung together with great visual storytelling.