So while artists like Final Fantasy‘s Kazuko Shibuya were tied to the technical constraints of 1980s game consoles, Neofotistou and Medeiros enjoy the puzzle-box nature of using a nearly limitless tool set to create art defined by limitations set by themselves, not the technology. This discipline is what separates modern pixel art from its predecessor, says Neofotistou. “What if, using NES restrictions, I can make pixels on a screen look better than any NES artist at the time had the knowledge, skill, time, or budget to make?”
Not only does pixel art have creative implications, it also opens new doors for how games are made, says Medeiros’ colleague Maddy Thorson, who rose to prominence as the writer and designer of Celeste.
“Pixel art is so small file size-wise, we could keep all the gameplay graphics for Celeste in system RAM,” she explains. Celeste‘s infamous difficulty is built around the concept of trial-and-error, and the player will die so often during a playthrough that the game has a cheeky death counter. Storing graphics in RAM allows for the player to instantly restart after they’ve died, reducing frustration and adding to the “Ooh, I’ll get it next time!” feeling that makes the game so addictive.
It also allowed Thorson to tweak and reload levels without having to restart the game, helping her create Celeste‘s intricate level design and pixel-perfect platforming. “It’s just so fast with pixel art.”
While Thorson says she’s prototyped 3D game ideas, pixel art remains the most comfortable medium for Extremely OK Games. “It’s about picking our battles,” she says. “When do we stay in our comfort zone, and when do we step outside?”
Retaining pixel-art graphics for Extremely OK Games’ next title, a “2D explor-action” game called Earthblade, allows the team to spend their ambitions on elements like level design, combat, and narrative. Medeiros laughs as he recalls reading fan comments online about how Celeste could run on retro gaming hardware. It’s not possible—even if the game does run at a resolution similar to Game Boy Advance games. With a familiar visual foundation in place, Medeiros and Thorson bring their worlds to life through other means, including tricks that didn’t exist during the ’80s: graphical elements that break the game’s typical 8×8 grid layout, realistic lighting, layered scrolling backgrounds, and impressive special effects.
There’s a vocal part of the community who are dissatisfied by modern pixel art games like Celeste adding visual flares to the basics defined decades ago, says Neofotistou. But for her, it’s a sign of an evolving medium. And she sees an opportunity for more graphical styles to follow the road paved by pixel art. “It’s a reinvention of the AAA gaming wheel by indies, and it’s very exciting.”
Similarly, Medeiros expects a surge in games inspired by the PlayStation’s *Tomb Raider–*style low-polygon graphics. Just like pixel art has picked up new tricks and ditched the jank, these 3D games will also be refined for a new audience. “It’s way more important to make games that look the way you remember games looking in that era, not exact recreations,” he says.
Once predominant and then discarded, pixel art has been revitalized by artists like Neofotistou and Medeiros. Buoyed by the rising tide of indie game development, their work reveals a maturing medium that’s here to stay. Just as the simple pixel art of the ’80s gave way to more sophisticated techniques in the ’90s, a similar evolution is occurring now as pixel art is being rediscovered as a modern technique. Technological limitations lie in tatters; the canvas of possibilities is endlessly broad for the future of the medium.
“Pixel art doesn’t need to be pigeonholed as retro,” says Neofotistou. “We use the tools that are most appropriate for the vision we’re trying to implement.”
Medeiros sees a future for pixel art that’s rife with experimentation and novel techniques. Even if the current pixel art movement goes away when this tail end of the indie game boom ends, Neofotistou says, making things using pixels can’t and won’t go away. We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what pixel art can offer as a creative medium.