Pingudroid: pixels, music, videogames and stuff (and penguins)
  • VN review – Synergia

    CW/TW: Spoilers, mentions of sexual assault and pedophilia.

    I recently got the Fanatical anime bounty bundle (which ends tomorrow, by the way!), focused on games with an “anime” aesthetic, most of them visual novels. I thought this bundle could be a good way to find stuff to play and review; so, after looking through the game selection, for my first game I settled on Synergia.

    Synergia is a sci-fi yuri visual novel published on 2020 by developer RadiArts (Francisco Pérez Molina), focused on a love story between a human and an android. If I had to define it in a couple words I’d say “80s/90s anime”, both in a good and in a bad sense, as you’ll soon see.

    The nice stuff

    The first thing you’ll encounter when you play the game is an animated intro sequence, which is quite awesome in my opinion. After this introduction, the game doesn’t disappoint visually: it’s stylish and polished. It has a well-designed interface and the background art is good and varied. There’s PLENTY of backgrounds in this game, every little scene has its own background, which does a lot for immersion.

    There’s also another thing I really liked, and it’s the fact that you don’t only interact with the text in the usual VN way (through dialogue), but also through different interfaces depending on which machine the main character is currently logged into. At certain points of the plot, you can read e-mail, request a copy of your house’s key card, check the news, use a virtual avatar to interact with other people… it’s pretty cool and well-thought-out, a neat piece of world-building. Definitely one of the game’s strongest points.

    The character art is in your typical mainstream anime style. I find it a bit bland/expressionless personally, but it’s good for what the game aims to be, so I have no complaints on that front. Also afaik all the art and writing in the game was made by its author, which is impressive. The music is immersive, and great at some points – I really like the track that sounds during tense moments, it’s very unnerving and it fits the genre 100%. So, visuals- and sound-wise, the game is professional and, as I mentioned, very 20th century anime in a good way.

    The not so nice stuff

    The issues begin to arise when you pay attention to the writing; which is indeed a problem, since a visual novel relies on both good art and good writing, to make up for its lack of gameplay. I believe this is in part because the game’s developer is not a native English speaker (he’s Spanish, like myself), so the English translation feels unnatural and stilted – but I tried playing the game in Spanish and the writing was full of spelling errors and quite badly written as well, so I think it’s also a case of an amateur writer who couldn’t afford editing and proof-reading.

    It’s a shame, really, because the bad writing definitely hampers the experience: sentences go on and on, dialogues feel unnatural, characters react in childish or unexplainable ways and have no personality, plot twists are predictable and make no sense, there’s WAAAAY too much exposition, etc. It’s not so terrible that I had to stop playing, you definitely can look past that if you like the genre and still enjoy the game. However, don’t expect a professional work of literature.

    (also, note that the best part of the game narrative-wise (the epilogue) is locked until you finish both endings of the game, which means that most people won’t get to read it. Probably not a wise design choice…)

    Bad novel 101, lesson one: have two characters tell each other something they already know.

    The outright horrifying stuff

    However, my biggest gripes with the game aren’t related to its mediocre writing style (I can appreciate the effort put into it, and the fact that it’s been created by a single person – no shame in making and publishing a personal project, even if it’s not perfect), but to certain deeper aspects of the plot that are very very problematic, the kind of stuff we should have left behind decades ago, which just shows a total lack of critical thinking and self-awareness from the author’s part.

    The entire game seems to be built around mechanophilia, and more specifically around the typical male otaku obsession of having sex with female-presenting robots. That’s fine, this kind of game is usually directed to a niche audience and I don’t mind (and even enjoy them myself) such topics in fiction when they’re treated with proper care. Unfortunately, while this VN isn’t as full of rampant machismo as the anime and manga that inspire it, it still has a lot of glaring issues, which I’ll summarize below:

    • Childish/”lolita” aesthetic for the female androids, and more specifically the main love interest. She looks like a child, she acts like a child, and she is presented in provocative and sexual situations. Sorry, but no. This entire genre is disgusting and should be eradicated from the face of the Earth.
    A child having a temper tantrum is not sexy, folks.
    • Objectification and sexual assault as normal developments and plot points. MILD SPOILERS AHEAD: The main love interest is forced to strip and treated like an object (even though she’s fully sentient and basically indistinguishable from a human); other androids (mostly female-looking) are also shown naked in background art and treated like objects, and the main character basically assaults her love interest (breaking into the bathroom when she’s showering, touching her intimately without permission) and that’s… not condemned, but instead treated like this is Ranma 1/2 or something, with some blushing and some screaming and “you’re so mean” energy, and then everything’s forgiven. Seriously? Have we really not evolved at all in the past 30, 40 years? I was expecting better from a game that advertises itself as “story rich” and “LGBTQ+”. The fact that the main couple is wlw doesn’t make the game any less sexist and rape-apologetic.
    • Stalking, lying, “celebrity-crushing” and manipulation… equated to “true love”. OK, there isn’t a non-experience-breakingly-spoilery way to say this, so if you want to play the game for yourself, just skip this bullet point, OK? OK, great. BIG SPOILERS AHEAD: in the end, the cute android was actually manipulating you and everyone else in the cast. She “fell in love” (?) with you before she knew you (by stalking you), artificially implanted her “love” for you (?!) into the minds of all her sister androids so they would help you against their will (!), and basically lied to you during your entire relationship. But this is all magically forgiven and forgotten in just a few lines of dialogue. Yay! It was at this point when I realized that not only the entire plot of the game made no sense, but it was also incredibly fucked-up from beginning to end.
    What a cute innocent girl.
    • “Villainification” of social change and insurrection. OK, this may seem somewhat mild after the objectification and apology of assault and whatnot, but it really irks me when writers, in order to make the opposing forces in a story appear “equally good/bad”, just turn rebels/leftists/anarchists/whatever into mass killers or outright evil people for no reason. MORE SPOILERS: In this game there’s a huge Empire that’s evil, and fucks with the main character’s mind by giving her apathy pills basically. There’s also a group of rebels that are trying to destroy this Empire. The main character is pro-Empire, so as to make this stance appear a bit less ridiculous, the writer turns the rebels into evil would-be-genocides that would willingly kill (??? Whatever for?) the entire population of the Empire in order to win the war. Because this makes total sense and is how social revolution must work irl surely. To paraphrase Pop Detective, since the author found no better way to handle this, they “pulled a Marvel” (go watch this video essay, it’s awesome).

    Final verdict

    So, what’s my final verdict? Do I recommend this game…?

    Absolutely NOT. Unless you already own the game (for example, because you got the same bundle I did) AND you’re a big fan of cyberpunk and/or wlw stories, this game isn’t really worth your time. You can definitely overlook all of this and still enjoy parts of it, I know I have, but I’d really recommend you go play something else. If you want a good visual novel set in a not so distant future with queer romance and heavy political plots, I really recommend the Arcade Spirits series (I recently wrote a review on part 2).

    OK, I think that’s all I wanted to say! Thanks for reading. When I have the time, I’ll keep playing more games from the bundle and reviewing them here, hopefully with more positive results. Until the next time!

  • VN review – Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

    CW/TW: mentions of suicide, spoilers.

    This is a spoilery review, so beware: read it if you have already played the game or if you don’t mind spoilers (I won’t really reveal stuff like “the end of the game” and other major plot points, just specific details throughout, so this shouldn’t ruin the experience of the main plot).

    Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a sequel to Arcade Spirits, an arcade-themed, queer-friendly visual novel released in 2019 by Fiction Factory Games. I really enjoyed the first installment, which I got in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality from, and I had been looking forward to playing AS: TNC for a very long time. Fortunately, I got the chance to do so recently, and it was a lot of fun.

    After posting some comments and screenshots on Mastodon, I thought it would be interesting to write a review of the game from my point of view. So here it is! A list of pros and cons, and a final verdict, on Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers.

    The nice stuff

    • It ties well with the original. AS: TNC lets you load your savefile from part 1, which changes some minor aspects of the plot depending on the decisions you took in the previous game. It also has several characters reappearing. Ben and Matt are my favorites – such a fun pair! Other characters don’t reappear directly but are mentioned during conversation.
    • The meta humor is amazing. I snorted and even laughed out loud several times during my first playthrough. There are constant references to current gaming culture, corporate media, copyright law and all kinds of stuff, without breaking the fourth wall directly. This is very much on-brand, which you’ll soon realise if you follow Fiction Factory Games in any social media.
    • There’s so many penguins. Seriously. Part 1 had a lot of penguins everywhere already, but here there’s an entire amusement park dedicated to Pengy, the corporate penguin mascot. My paradise.
    • Incredible background art. The background art was already good in the original, but in AS: TNC I was blown away by the sheer detail and personality of each environment. The images aren’t static, but have simple animations, particularly in their lighting, that bring them to life. I feel this game is a practical lesson on how to do VN background art well.
    • Well-designed characters. The main characters are very varied, both in their visual design and personalities. I love them all. There’s also very solid nb representation, with two non-customisable characters who are nb (and this time straight away, unlike (SPOILERS FOR PART 1) Ashley in the previous installment, which only reveals themselves as nb/gender-questioning when you romance them). Each character is also representative of at least one or two social or mental issues, which makes this a very attractive game for left-leaning people who worry about this kind of stuff, and that’s definitely the intended target demographic for this kind of VN (more on that in the “cons” section…).

    • Polyamorous route! I was lucky enough to stumble into it in my first playthrough. I came in blind, so I wasn’t expecting this at all, but the game gave me enough clues that I could Google it and keep on the right course to unlock this option. I liked both characters and wasn’t sure which one to choose, so it’s cool that I didn’t have to choose in the end. 😉 They have a very cute and healthy dynamic in my opinion.
    • Many qualify of life improvements from the original. There’s icons/avatars to represent each character, and you can even pick your own; you can navigate locations visually on a map instead of choosing from a simple dropdown menu; there’s more character customization; there’s also a few more meaningful meters/choices during gameplay, which make the story even more nuanced.
    • Great voice acting. As in the original Arcade Spirits, the voice-acting of this game is incredible. Great casting, each voice fits their character perfectly, and it just makes the game come alive. I just wish there was more of it!
    • Excellent writing. Each character has its own voice, and choices are more weighted than in the original – being brash isn’t always necessarily bad, being quirky isn’t just a gimmick, etc. There’s more nuance. Considering how your choices affect dialogue, I can’t imagine what their design document must have looked like. Extremely complicated, I assume. I also like the order/chaos mechanic for Iris. I still have to replay the game to see what happens if I choose chaos, but it’s a very nice addition. Iris feels more alive and like a character of her own.
    • Genre subversion. I like the use of VN conventions as a way to subvert expectations, like not being able to choose the “reasonable” option, having a (MAJOR SPOILERS) creepypasta alternate personality counter, etc.

    The not so nice stuff

    • The character customiser is lackluster. One of the first things that you come across when you play the game is the character customiser. While I will admit that this customiser is much better than the original’s (there’s more pronoun options, you can wear different accessories, etc.), it’s still clearly not enough. The player character looks lifeless and flat, particularly when compared to the other characters. The “corpulent” options look terrible (they don’t fit the face properly), there’s not enough color options to pick (you can only choose highly saturated colors), the clothes are bland and almost all haircuts are horrendous.
    • …and it’s grossly overused. But that’s not all. The original game also had a pretty bad main character design, and a very limited editor; but that was fine because the main character was unique in the game that they existed in. However, this time other NPCs use the same generator as the player, leaving them with no personality at all. I understand cutting corners in development, but it would’ve been better to use generic NPCs that looked bland instead of using the same template that the main player uses. I can kind of understand having the rival character use the same template (although it’s still weird), but random one-off characters? No way. It makes the player feel like an NPC instead of an actual character. You don’t want a self-insert character to feel like an NPC. They have to be generic, yes, but unique. This is an enormous design mistake, the biggest in the game I’d say.
    • Too much plot and political commentary, too little human interaction. The writing of the game is excellent, but I feel like the dialogue leans too much on the main plot and the underlying political commentary (there’s A LOT of political commentary in this game) and too little on the human interaction, romantic or otherwise. There should be more dialogues and scenes not directly tied to the plot or to some deep understanding of society or human experience. Characters speak all the time about heavy topics, like gender, accessibility, capitalism, environment, depression and mental health, family acceptance, living with disability, etc. Don’t take me wrong, those are topics that I (and most of the intended target audience) am interested in, and in most cases I believe they tackle them in a sensible manner. I love a text heavy game, and I even love a text heavy game that is not only fun but also makes you think; however, it’s just TOO MUCH, too often. Clearly a lot of thought was put into it, but ultimately it’s too heavy-handed. Such discussions aren’t properly balanced with normal, lighter everyday conversation, so at points the characters feel stiff, like walking manifestos.
    • Too much plot, too little romance. Unfortunately, the previous point bleeds into the “romance/friendship sim” part of the game. This is a game with a main mechanic (the friendship/love meter) heavily tilted towards romance, but where there isn’t much romance at all plot-wise. I detect a bit of a ludonarrative dissonance here. This also happened in the previous installment, in some romance routes more than others, but in AS: TNC it’s more apparent because of the constant political commentary. Personally I took the (SPOILERS SPOILERS) polyamorous route with Grace and Jynx, and I was looking forward to seeing some of the dynamics in conversation, maybe even how Grace opens up to her family about this relationship despite her anxiety, or how Jynx learns to welcome so many people into her living space or something; but this wasn’t as developed as I had hoped. It feels like the characters and plotlines were under-developed and under-used.
    • The main character doesn’t have much of a personality. In the original Arcade Spirits, this was diminished because they had a friend from before the events of the game (Juniper) that gave them context as a character, and they also had previous jobs, a family curse, etc., stuff that gave them a backstory of sorts. In AS: TNC they try to make the main character too much of a “blank slate” for the player to project themselves into, and the character ends up being a bit of an empty husk. Which I understand, I guess; we can’t have it all. But it’s still a shame, since it turns conversations between the player character and the other characters much more flat and less interesting. An approach more similar to the original would’ve been preferable, imo.
    • Inadequate treatment of disability. One of the main characters/possible romance interests has a physical disability, wears leg braces and uses a cane. While the game’s treatment of her disability throughout the story is mindful enough (although, as with the rest of the political discourse in the game, there’s way too much of an over-focus on her disability), the first scene when you meet this character is… how to say it… a bit of a disaster. I felt extremely uncomfortable since you (SPOILERS) aren’t able to respond in a respectful way when meeting her, you can only choose bad options, making the main character look like an asshole. I understand that they did it that way to create some kind of “teaching moment” for the audience, but they failed to consider two things: their intended audience has a high chance of being already educated on this matter, so forcing them to be assholes is a bad move. And, even worse: disabled people do also play games, they might even be playing this game in particular because there’s a main character who is obviously disabled, and they may (and have been, if Steam reviews are anything to go by) be rightfully offended at being unable to respond properly in that situation. Not a good idea.
    • Inadequate treatment of suicide. Many players have commented that the game’s treatment of suicide is tactless, used as a gimmick, and should’ve been better informed. I myself didn’t realise this while playing, since it’s not a topic that I personally know much about, but I can totally see it afterwards after reading people’s reviews. I don’t think it’s as blatant as the disability thing, but it could’ve been certainly done better. In any other game I wouldn’t complain, but the team behind AS clearly want to do representation as well as possible from all fronts, so this should certainly be improved upon.


    Do I recommend AS: TNC? Overall, yes, absolutely yes. Despite its faux-passes, the writing is clever, intriguing and thought-inducing, and the characters are quite delightful and varied. If you’re a fan of visual novels, you’ll definitely enjoy its play on the VN genre conventions, its meaningful choices, relationship meters (hidden or otherwise) and lovely background and character art. If you like queer stories, and/or stories that tackle mental health or social justice issues, here you’ll find representation aplenty.

    Be aware of the content warnings and the game’s shortcomings, but consider that, regardless of its imperfections, the authors clearly put a lot of thought into doing representation as well as possible, and this is one of the best queer-friendly, body-positive stories you’ll be able to find in the indie scene.

  • A guide to creating pixel-art assets (part 1)

    On the value of pre-made assets

    (Tl;dr: Long dissertation about why royalty-free game assets are important in general, and to me personally. Feel free to skip and go to the first section of the actual guide, What is pixel-art and why use it?)

    As you might know if you’ve read some of my previous entries (like this compilation of pixel-art top-down assets), during this last year, I’ve been slowly getting into the bottomless pit that is the world of royalty-free video game assets.

    I didn’t use to care much about these; I had bought into the “do everything yourself, be a TRUE creator” mentality that many people in the indie industry often preach, citing one-of-a-kind examples like Eric Barone and his Stardew Valley. That led to a long string of unfinished projects, including my latest and most involved failure, a Godot project called Monster Embassy and later rebooted as Orosynthe.

    However, a year ago, between September and December 2021, I did something I had never done before: I took practical game development classes. And that changed everything.

    The course I took was VERY intense and with a hands-on approach, so we were developing games from almost day one. Not only that: we were supposed to FINISH games in a weekly or bi-weekly basis. After so many years of attempting huge, involved projects that never got anywhere, this blew my mind! And it changed the way I approach gamedev forever. It made me understand the game jam mentality too: there’s something to be said about a strict time limit and having to cut as many corners as possible to ship a minimum viable product.

    The course was focused on Unity, but the most important lessons I learnt are universal (which is for the best, really, because I don’t think I’ll ever be touching Unity again, at least not of my own volition xD). One of these lessons, perhaps the most important one, was: take all of the shortcuts. If you can do something faster, if you can make things easier for yourself in any way, DO IT. Use an engine, for starters; use as many specific tools as possible to aid in your development; the more tailored to your needs your tools are, and the less programming you have to do, the better; and, the more pre-made assets you use, the faster you’ll advance in your game development and the higher the chances of you actually finishing the game.

    Using assets during this course was not only encouraged, but necessary: most of the students weren’t adept at art, for starters, and even if they were there just was not enough time to make the assets and the game in the time frame that we were provided. So, like any good Unity beginners and gamedev-wannabes, we scoured the free assets in the Unity Asset Store, and some of us were even adventurous enough to search the deep and fascinating archives of (amazing site, btw). For the first time ever, I created entire projects using only assets made by others: music, graphics, characters, fonts, sound effects, basically everything. And, guess what? I finished those projects. A couple of them were even decent enough that I published them on (they’re still crappy student projects, mind you, but they’re at least playable and quirky and FINISHED). And none of that would’ve been possible without the generous asset creators that released those materials into the world.

    I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a few months after finishing the course, when I finally started to get an itch (and the time) to start working on my own projects again, one of the first things I considered was: should I really revert back to my previous frame of mind, and try to do absolutely everything on my own? Did I really have the time and motivation to finish a project like that? And the answer was no. I knew what it took to finish a short game now, and I understood that, under my circumstances, making a project in the scope that I had been previously envisioning wasn’t just difficult, it was outright impossible.

    That understanding didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a victory. It felt like relief. Because I was finally able to accept this and start moving forward.

    Admitting that you need help (in this case, in the form of assets) isn’t a bad thing. It means that you understand your circumstances and are willing to work around them or adapt to them. This admission has different consecuences depending on the person; in my case, I now understand that being technically able to do pixel-art, music and programming doesn’t mean that I should tackle all of those things on a single project, all at the same time. Having multiple talents isn’t a contractual obligation to solve all problems by myself. Amazing revelation, right? Such a weight lifted off my shoulders!

    After realising this, I researched game assets. Slowly. At first I bought some Humble Bundles at the lowest tiers, and looked for the asset creators on GameDevMarket and I found incredible creators like Jason Perry or Joel Steudler. I subscribed to some Patreons. I bought even more bundles. Then I began to discover smaller, but equally talented creators. Eventually, I started working on my own assets to sell. I amassed a wide asset library and began supporting asset creators just because I wanted to, not just because I needed their assets. I realised how important, and often overlooked, this aspect of the game industry is.

    Simultaneously, I did two things that I’m really proud of: I began to contribute to a project that wasn’t just my own, instead taking on a particular role in the project (in this case, pixel-art and music – I’m the asset creator here!) and letting others handle the rest; we’re almost at demo stage now, and going strong. And, at the same time, I tackled a personal project, but with a very different approach from previous projects like Monster Embassy: I chose the simplest and shortest project from my to-do list and started working on it in the easiest engine possible (in this case, RPG Maker MZ) and using almost exclusively pre-made assets. I’m more than half-way done now, which is honestly something I never expected to say about a personal gamedev project, and the assets I’m using are giving the game a special vibe that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own. To small victories!

    My biggest conclusion here is: I can delegate game development, or asset creation, or anything else, at any time and for any reason, and that’s OK. Teamwork makes sense. You don’t need to do everything on your own. And using royalty-free assets is also, in a way, a bit like working on a team, for people who can’t afford (or don’t want to, or don’t need) to hire a dedicated artist to make unique assets for their game. When we make assets, free or non-free, we’re turning into that affordable teammate that so many indie gamedev projects need. And I think that’s wonderful.

    Sooo, having gotten that out of the way… Now that you see why I value assets so much, you’ll understand the reasoning behind this guide. I love pixel-art and I love assets, but I know that many people are overwhelmed at the prospect of starting to make assets (no matter if they’re making assets for their own game, for a team or to sell them). So I’ll be compiling some ideas and some guidelines that I find can be useful during the process, in hopes of helping those new creators find their footing.

    Also, a big thanks to eishiya, since it was a suggestion of theirs that got me thinking of asset formats (which we will tackle in a future entry of the series) and eventually decide to create this guide. I hope it will be useful to them as well. Thanks to Eccentric Stylist too for getting me thinking again about the importance of finishing.

    What is pixel-art and why use it?

    Let’s start from the basics: what is pixel-art? And why is it so relevant in the indie game world?

    Pixel-art began as a technical limitation from the earliest computers and game consoles, but over time has been “reborn” (not that it was ever actually dead) and established as an art medium in itself, and one of the most characteristic art styles in current indie games.

    At first, those machines had very low resolution (there weren’t a lot of pixels on the screen), little memory, and could only display a limited number of colors at the same time. To circumvent this, people used techniques not dissimilar to those of cross-stitching or mosaic, where each pixel was placed by hand, taking in mind the palette limitation, to create an “illusion” of complexity. This was aided by the fact that most screens were blurry, or had scanlines, so the pixels weren’t perfectly sharp.

    Screenshot from the ZX Spectrum game Laser Squad (1988). Source: Wikipedia
    Screenshot from Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1991). Source: Wikipedia

    Here’s a pixel-art example, a mosaic example and a cross-stiching example for comparison (source: Wikipedia):

    What pixel-art has in common with those other art forms is the use of a minimum unit (a pixel, a tessera/tile or a cross-stitch respectively) that has to be combined with other units in different colors in order to create a picture. These units aren’t seamless, but instead aligned in some kind of grid or pattern. The minimum unit is clearly apparent to the naked eye, even if at the same time it tries to trick it.

    That’s perhaps what’s most attractive about these art forms: they engage our imagination because we need to mentally bridge the gap between the obvious pattern and what it’s attempting to convey. We’re always aware of the constraints of the medium and its artificiality, which is what makes it so fascinating and, in many ways, so useful, as we will see.

    Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) screenshot in sharp pixels vs as seen on a CRT screen. The CRT version looks more realistic and like it has actual translucencies, because of the screen blur. This example has been widely circulated and it showcases perfectly how artists took the most advantage of technical limitations at the time. Screenshots by GamesNosh

    Nowadays, the screens we use are crisp and defined, and computers can display not only high resolution pictures with thousands of colors, but also advanced realistic 3D graphics. Pixel-art is no longer necessary from a technical standpoint.

    Despite this, there has never been a time when pixel-art wasn’t created or used in some form. Back when home consoles and arcades had already made the jump to 3D, portable consoles like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS still used pixel-art in their games. When even portable games made the full jump to 3D, indie games recovered those pixels for a “nostalgia” or retro value and turned them into something new. Nowadays, nostalgia is still a factor, but pixel-art has mostly established itself as simply another way to do art, and in particular to do art for games (although not exclusively: many people do pixel-art for its own sake too, not just for gamedev!). Even the most popular game of all time, Minecraft, uses pixel-art textures for its blocks and models. Pixel-art is a established medium independently from technical limitations and the current console tech race, and it’s here to stay.

    Screenshot from Advance Wars (2001), a Game Boy Advance game. The Game Boy Advance had an LCD screen, so the pixel-art was designed keeping in mind that all pixels would be sharp, unlike older consoles that were played on tube TV sets, making it closer to “modern” pixel-art. Source: Wikipedia

    A genuine question could be… why? What is so attractive about pixel-art, when much more “advanced” techniques are available today?

    Not everyone likes pixel-art, of course. Some are (understandably) tired of it, others just find it too clunky and can’t see the appeal. And that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their own tastes. However, it’s obvious that pixel-art is still a favorite for a wide chunk of the indie world, both from the creator and the consumer side, and there’s many reasons for it.

    The first one would be nostalgia, from the people who remember playing games in those styles when they were younger. Nostalgia becomes a self-sustaining circle, since those creators make new pixel-art games based on the games they played as children, and children today play those games, which in turn may inspire similar nostalgia-driven creations if they become gamedevs, and so on.

    However, nostalgia isn’t everything, and in fact I’d dare say that it doesn’t matter as much as we think. Pixel-art is genuinely attractive by itself, for starters: many people who never played pixel-art games when they were younger discover pixel-art later on and show interest in it, because it’s beautiful, clever, or just abstract enough to tickle our brains pleasantly and engage our imagination. Pixel-art has gone beyond a simple technical limitation and has become an art medium on its own merits, and for good reason. It has its roots in perfectly valid and ancient traditions of tesselated, tiled and stitched art, as we’ve seen, and I’m sure that it would have appeared anyway as an art form even if older computers didn’t originally force us to use it for technical reasons.

    Thirdly, though, pixel-art is extremely useful and has many advantages, particularly when working with many moving parts, which is common in most videogames. Since you can choose to work with a very small canvas, there’s less variables (pixels) to worry about, which is very useful when you want to make animations, generate variants of the same asset or put different pieces together to create something new. The pixel is the base unit, and since there’s relatively few of them, you can get the wide picture easily and iterate, edit, copy and paste, modify, etc. the moving parts much faster. This is true for characters, backgrounds, tile sets, icons and interfaces.

    The main reason that pixel-art has stuck, in my opinion, is not because of “nostalgia”, although that definitely drove its adoption at first, but because it strikes a very good balance between “looks good” and “is fast to create, edit and iterate on”.

    Pixel-art is hard to master, but easy enough to learn. Most of all, its accessible, both in its making process (even the simplest graphics editing program allows you to draw pixel-art in it) and the computing power required, since pixel-art graphics and textures take up very little memory and are supported by all hardware or software imaginable. You can make pixel-art on a phone. You can make it on a computer from 35 years ago. You can draw it on a grid paper, like they used to do back in the day, and then transfer it to your computer. It’s the epithome of simplicity and that’s what makes it so powerful and the go-to choice for many indie developers and asset makers.

    There’s a reason why precision platformers are usually pixel-art, or why pixel animation is often much smoother and detailed than any other kind of animation in 2D games (setting aside extreme examples like Cuphead). In pixel-art you sacrifice resolution in exchange for control.

    So yes, if you’re considering making game assets, be it for your own use or for others, pixel-art is always a good, safe choice. If done well, it not only looks nice, but it can make the game development process much easier.

    However, in order to make pixel-art assets that are usable and useful, it’s important to understand the underlying principles and know the standard formats of pixel-art, which we will be looking at in future entries.

    Thanks for reading this far! I hope you enjoyed this introduction. In next entries I’ll dive deeper into pixel-art assets and share some useful information about asset formats, the software you can use to make pixel-art and which formats are required for the most popular game engines out there.

    Take care,