The Best Pixel Art Games that Blend Past and Present
Since its conception, the video games industry has been racing towards the future. As technology has evolved over the decades, developers have pushed every component to its limit to deliver cutting-edge virtual experiences, giving birth to the now universally familiar elements of gaming.
Today’s technology is capable of spectacular hyper-realistic feats; sweeping landscapes and unique characters almost movie-like and practically transcending the screen. But while the console giants duke it out for virtual supremacy and the mammoth studios strive to reach the next graphical peak, many indie developers are walking a different path: a path leading back in time.
In the last decade, a surge of indie games have emerged opting for the pixel art graphic style, channelling iconic titles of the late ‘80s to early ‘90s such as Chrono Trigger and Simon the Sorcerer. Combined with modern storytelling and mechanics, these make for a wonderful amalgamation of old and new, nostalgia and innovation, like a new book with a traditional cover and binding. This has proven incredibly popular among indie gamers—us included! Thus we’ve compiled a cross-section of some of the best pixel art games from a variety of genres, which are perfect for those who crave new adventures, but pine for the vibes of yesteryear.
Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition
The RPGMaker engine has been a godsend for small developers looking to echo the style of classic JRPGs, and Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition from Stegosoft Games is one of the most stunning titles to come from it. The floating world of Ara Fell is falling foul of vampires and in danger of falling from the sky, thanks to an ancient protection spell turned curse. Its fate now lies in the hands of spirited teenage archer Lita and her group of companions.
Ara Fell showcases sublime pixel art graphics with charming character animations and beautiful locales ripe for exploring. Jump, swim and crawl your way around this lore-rich world, undertaking quests and making a myriad of items with a simple yet extensive crafting system. Enemies will test your party’s skills in classic turn-based combat, offering the chance to customise them upon levelling up. And the cast of relatable and likable characters at the game’s heart will take you on their own personal adventures and quests the more you journey with them. For those whose hearts still belong to Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition is for you.
Crypt of the NecroDancer
Rest when you’re dead? Not likely! Crypt of the NecroDancer by Brace Yourself Games combines dungeon delving with top-notch tunes in a unique rhythm-based roguelike. While searching for her father in the crypts, novice treasure hunter Cadence has her heart stolen by the evil NecroDancer, meaning she must act in time with his magical music to keep it beating.
As you would expect from any rhythm game worth its salt, the soundtrack is outstanding. Composer Danny Baranowsky showcases a flair for a wide variety of musical genres with insanely catchy and dynamic pieces for each level. Navigating Cadence through the procedurally generated dungeons will test your rhythmic mettle, digging through the tunnels and facing off against a vast assortment of adversaries, all with differing movement patterns to be memorised and circumvented. One misstep can be deadly!
Different weapons and spells can be unlocked as you progress, as well as the opportunity to play as different characters with different musical remixes to the levels’ themes. Looking for a beyond-catchy hit that will be hard to put down and have you bopping to the beat for days? Crypt of the NecroDancer ticks those boxes!
What better way to champion ‘90s gaming than to have a point-and-click adventure game set in the ‘90s? Set in 1995, Clifftop Games’s debut game Kathy Rain follows the titular strong-willed and fiery journalism student as she returns home for her grandfather’s funeral and investigates the mystery surrounding his death, coming face to face with her troubled past in the process. This powerful debut sports a compelling and intriguing story with a dark, sinister truth at its centre, superb writing and stellar voice acting directed by Dave Gilbert of point-and-click powerhouse Wadjet Eye Games.
Nineties life is perfectly reflected in satisfying puzzles and items without ever feeling kitschy or cheesy—a seamless trip back in time for ‘90s kids like myself—and features over 40 beautiful hand-drawn locations with atmospheric colour palettes. Throw in a highly likeable protagonist who makes a great first impression even when obscenely drunk, and you’ve got a pixel art gem! The indie scene has produced outstanding point-and-click adventures and Kathy Rain sits firmly among them. Whether you’re a fan or newbie to the genre, Kathy Rain is a must-play.
When it comes to pixel art games, metroidvania platformers are by far the most prevalent. In 2018, Lunar Ray Games added their debut game Timespinner to the growing number, and it still continues to hold its own. You are Lunais, a Time Messenger’s daughter who witnesses her family’s murder by the Lachiem Empire and is transported to an unknown world when the great Timespinner device is destroyed. Using her time manipulation powers, she vows revenge, but things are not as simple as they appear.
Like Ara Fell, Timespinner features incredibly stunning and smooth pixel art animation, showing great care and attention to detail. Lunais’ world is rich in lore and character, visual styles changing as she travels through time and platforming puzzles showing the rippling effects of actions in earlier times. Combat is exciting and unique: combinations of magical orbs provide endless extravagant ways to dispatch imposing foes and challenging boss battles will test your skills and timing to their limits. This is all set against a backdrop of a dynamic gothic soundtrack, echoing the soundscapes of the PS1 era. While there may be an abundance of pixel metroidvanias in indie gaming, Timespinner has an addictive quality that will have you going back to it time and time again.
The Witch’s House MV
The early 2010s saw a boom in RPGMaker horror games after becoming a hit with YouTubers—The Witch’s House by Fummy being one of the most popular. In 2018, the HD remaster The Witch’s House MV was released, bringing the twistedly exquisite indie horror to a new audience.
Young Viola finds herself drawn to a mysterious mansion in the woods and ventures inside, only to find it a place of pain and death steeped in bloody history. Like others in the genre, The Witch’s House MV focuses on puzzle-solving and unexpected jump scares, both executed wonderfully. A gruesome death is almost around every corner, making it exhilaratingly unpredictable. Puzzles are layered and interesting; Viola must carefully study clues to open the upper floors and avoid another grisly demise; slow wits can be just as fatal! As well as reworked pixel graphics, the HD remaster also adds brand new difficulty modes and full gamepad support — perfect for lightning fast reactions.
The Witch’s House MV is an example of a remaster done right: highlighting the high points and introducing new elements. Even avid fans of the original will feel as if they’re playing it for the first time!
Can’t get enough of pixel art games? Check out what we have to say about Don’t Forget Me, a cyberpunk pixel art game about finding the memories you have lost.