My Favourite Art Style: The Pixels Of Adventure

RPS has sealed itself inside a chocolate egg for the duration of the UK’s long holiday weekend, to emerge only when the reign of Mr Hops The Doom Rabbit has run its dread course. While we slumber, enjoy these fine words previously published as part of our Supporter program. More to come.

Monkey Island 2 marked the dawn of a perfect little era for adventure graphics. I remember seeing it at a computer show and just being blown away. The detail in the opening town. VGA was here, and with art came with it. I still love this era of pixel graphics, and often find it superior to many techniques that came later at creating a world I can get lost in instead of constantly subconsciously picking holes in.

It offers a perfect mix of detail and rough detail, allowing for incredible amounts of character to be both enjoyed and more generally intuited from simple animation and basic images. There’s a sense of texture and grain to the image, much like film compared to later games’ video. In most cases, and this is something that would bug me in so many higher resolution games, the characters actually fit into the world, rather than being sprites from one universe pasted onto backgrounds in another. It feels cohesive, tactile, like a world you could step into and actually touch, in much the same way that a good cartoon can say more in the simple curve of a character’s mouth than any overtly realistic oil painting can ever hope to match.

And that’s just Monkey Island 2. Just about every Lucasarts games, the wonders of Kyrandia 2: Hand of Fate, Sierra games like Gabriel Knight… all of them looked great at the time, and generally aged far better than the HD and 3D and FMV games that followed. Especially the early 3D ones. Brr. Double-brr for some of those.

Now, when I say ‘pixels’, I don’t necessarily mean pixel art. Monkey Island 2 for instance wasn’t technically pixel art – they were painted with a mix of tools like marker pens and coloured pencils, before being scanned in. When you’re dealing with 320×200 images, you get pixels. These days it’s more of a deliberate choice, typically because the needs and expectations of something at that or slightly larger scope are so much less than HD. And of course, with that, comes Problems. With 3D, every time two characters have to interact, it becomes impossible to ignore that they’re two distinct entities flapping around. With good pixel art, the experience is seamless, unbroken, effective. With pixels, the effect isn’t just in what you see, it’s in what you don’t – the pictures you draw in your mind, the pictures that stay in your memory.

In the hands of a master though, it doesn’t matter, and any ideas of the style only working as a pure nostalgia kick get to go right in the bin. In particular, Ben Chandler, in-house artist over at Wadjet Eye Games, is nothing less than a goddamn pixel wizard, with art that shares all the advantages that the style had back in the early 90s with another couple of decades worth of tools, lighting experience and technology, like having an unlimited palette to play with instead of just 256 colours. Technobabylon, Shardlight, Blackwell Epiphany and the upcoming Unavowed are all games that show just what a great artist can do, even if a few sniffy people will sniff on Steam about being able to count the pixels. It’s far more worthwhile to admire how good they still look in the right hands, and in the right games, but on any screen.




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38 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I have a particular love for Space Quest IV: link to adventuregamesbackgrounds.blogspot.co.uk

    Those painted backgrounds are wonderful.

  2. JamesTheNumberless says:

    I’ve always found modern “retro” pixel art games strange since I don’t remember there being an era in gaming where pixels were meant to look like pixels, with sharp edges. Good computer art always suggested something that wasn’t actually there, be it movement or detail. I also thought it was a shame that adventure games pretty much universally moved away from this kind of suggested realism, to a cartoon style, when resolutions improved.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, what people think of as a retro look isn’t, because the CRTs monitors of the time bled pixels and auto-softened everything (“poor man’s anti-aliasing.”)

      In particular, quite a few games that look heavily dithered now were actually using the different colours so that they’d blend together like paint and offer a wider palette to play with than the system they were running on was capable of actually displaying.

  3. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    Oh good, an adventure game thread locked away from the frothing hordes. I also love hand-drawn adventure game graphics. The past few days i have been playing Tales of Monkey Island, and although it’s pretty neat to be able to move Guybrush around with WASD, it definitely has that feeling of 3D models awkwardly plopped into a scene. I think this has gotten better in the last year or two (e.g. Life is Strange), but there is still something appealing and organic about more traditional 2D animation, especially in adventure games where you tend to spend a lot of time looking at the background. The best pixel artists really did suggest so much depth. I must admit i find it difficult to play through those old adventures now – i recently bought Grim Fandango Remastered and haven’t been able to make it past the first couple of rooms because the lack of widescreen makes it feel claustrophobic – but they sure look great in screenshots. I think one of my favorite oldies in this style was Cryo Interactive’s Dune. Those sunsets still can’t be beat.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    I could look at screenshots of games from this era for hours and be well-entertained. So beautiful!

  5. Premium User Badge

    zapatapon says:

    Good pixel art is absolute magic. Such personality. I hope there will always be talented artists still making good games in this vein, ignoring blasé naysayers.

  6. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    These screenshots all look great. One of these days I really need to just walkthrough my way through some of these old adventure games just to get the art and story.

    Metal Slug games have always been the cream of the pixelated crop in my eye. They are full of absolutely amazing sprites.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Thirith says:

    Have you read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Richard? I always thought that his points on abstraction (you can find a scan of the relevant page here: link to gatheryourparty.com) are also pertinent with respect to pixel art (in the looser sense that you use here).

    P.S.: I wrote down some thoughts on pixel art and why/how it can be so evocative here: link to goofybeast.wordpress.com

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I have not. Never been much of a comics guy.

      • Premium User Badge

        Thirith says:

        If you can ever check it out at a friend’s place, I think it’s worth reading even if you’re not a comic book fan, and I’d definitely say that some of McCloud’s points (especially about abstraction) translate well into other media. Plus, it’s a fun read.

      • finc says:

        Everyone should read Understanding Comics, it isn’t exclusively for comics fans, just anyone who works in communication.

  8. Carra says:

    Playing through Technobabylon right now and you’re right, it looks great!

  9. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Good pixel art is great. One of my personal favourites in gaming is Loom.

  10. Premium User Badge

    DaveGilbert says:

    I, someone who is totally unbiased, approve of the last paragraph.

  11. Premium User Badge

    DaveGilbert says:

    And weird. The article says this was written today (and it just appeared in my feed), but all the comments are from several weeks ago? Eh whatever. HI EVERYONE.

    • Premium User Badge

      Risingson says:

      Hi Dave. Have I already thanked you personally for what you did for the genre? If I did, let me do it again.

      • Premium User Badge

        DaveGilbert says:

        We’re just making the games we want to play. :) But thank you.

        • Premium User Badge

          caff says:

          Hey Dave! Another fan here. Keep releasing great games.

          And yeah join the RPS supporters society. We’re a clandestine bunch, but we have tea and nice biscuits.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      This was originally a Supporter post, so those lovely folks saw it a while ago.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Of all the mentioned ones, you put a screenshot of my favourite graphical style ever ever: the classic Westwood games. They had a kind of mix between rendered, drawn and retouched that used colour in such a wonderful way…

    That’s what I love about the pre-svga era (nostalgia shades warning). All the companies had their own graphical style. You could tell a game from Silmarils, Sierra, Lucas, Westwood, Divide By Zero, etc just because each one of them had a very particular inimitable style.

  13. Pazguato says:

    Oh, Monkey I and II had so beautiful art… totally destroyed on the remastered version. STOP this remaster trend!

    • rebb says:

      Did you know that those Remaster Versions actually include the original Pixel Art ? They usually have a switch that lets you seamlessly go back and forth between the remastered and original mode. In DOTT it’s F1. Pretty amazing feature if you ask me.

  14. It's not me it's you says:

    All the screens in this article are gorgeous and everything you say about the art style of the time rings true. Great art is born from limitations and all that.

    I have similar feelings about the SNES era graphics. Secret of Mana, Link to the Past and Super Mario World look completely timeless to me, as do other great games from that era.

  15. Rikard Peterson says:

    I’d like to mention the game with the best looking background paintings of that era: Discworld. The character sprites suffered from the low resolution and lack of colours, but the backgrounds look truly great. (In my not-so-humble opinion, you could take almost any screen from that game, put it next to any screen in the article, and it’d make the article image look unremarkable.)

  16. Nova says:

    Would be nice to know what games the screenshots are from. I know some, but not all.

    • Premium User Badge

      Risingson says:

      Easy: the one heading the post is from Monkey Island 2. Then Gabriel Knight, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Legend of Kyrandia 2: Hand of Fate [the best Westwood graphics among with Eye of the Beholder 2, sorry for the digression], Quest for Glory IV, Sam&Max Hit The Road, The Dig and, well, one of Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell games (I guess it is the last one in the saga)

      • Premium User Badge

        Risingson says:

        Sorry, between Hand of Fate and QFG4 there is a screenshot of the spitting contest of Monkey Island 2.

    • Atomic Playboy says:

      MI2
      Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Fathers
      Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
      Legend of Kyrandia 2
      MI2
      Quest for Glory IV
      Sam & Max Hit the Road
      The Dig
      Blackwell Epiphany

    • Nova says:

      Thank you both!
      (It should have been in the article, though.)

  17. FreshHands says:

    Yes!

    Sometimes I wonder whether it’s just nostalgia, but it is really easy for me to load up some classic and marvel at its beautifully pixelated vistas. Not just adventure games but also sidescrollers, rpgs, whatever.

    Almost impossible with games from the early 3d era. The horror!

    • Premium User Badge

      Risingson says:

      Sometimes I think about Nintendo 64 and I wonder how they pulled it off. I mean, with the games being THAT ugly.

      Also, before the 3d era, remember there were many horrible svga games where the game houses stopped doing any retouch, meaning that they just degraded the image to 256 colours and let it be.

  18. syllopsium says:

    I wouldn’t say the remasters are that bad. It’s true than some bits of MI2 lose some of the pixel detail, and the animation looks glued on to the background rather than an integrated part of it, but generally it’s an improvement.

    Likewise, whilst I have reservations about some of the things that have unnecessarily changed for the DoTT remake, it’s still a decent game, and introducing a new audience that otherwise would be unlikely to play it again.

    Also, it raises the possibility of new and excellent adventures. Edna and Harvey is by no means perfect, but a lovely adventure, for instance.

  19. Rack says:

    I recently played Day of the Tentacle Remastered and one of the fascinating things was how the artists said they went for that very comic style because the pixelisation process was ruining their beautiful hand drawn art in Monkey Island.

  20. fishyboy says:

    that is some lovely pixel art but storing it in .jpg format is a travesty