Pixel Art: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Those who grew up playing classic Atari or Super Nintendo games always end up feeling a little nostalgic when faced with games that have pixel art graphics, or the famous “pixeled” images.

But, the truth is that this art style is far from being used only in older games.

Today consolidated among the many other styles, pixel art is present in releases from major studios and independent developers, in addition to having a creation process that can be as complex and laborious as 3D styles. You can see a few examples at Pixelart123.

For those who don’t know, the pixel is the smallest element present in a visual electronic device in which a color can be applied. Despite appearing to be square, giving the impression that the drawings are made with lego pieces, it does not necessarily have that shape.

This is because pixels are formed by the set of three color points: red, green and blue (ie, the RGB color system: red, green, blue). From this system it is possible to create 256 variant shades of these three colors and then form a combination that generates about 16 million different shades.

In this way, a pixel art image is drawn pixel by pixel – and these pixels must be noticeable – causing its shape to have square edges and not smoothed or rounded, as in other types of graphics.

Keep reading this article to learn more about:

How did Pixel Art come about?

The concept of “Pixel Art” was first mentioned in 1972, when Richard Shoup created the SuperPaint software for Apple’s Mac systems. But the first record of this term was made in 1982, when Adele Goldberg and Robert Flegal cited it in a series of articles while working for the Xerox Research Center in Palo Alto.

In the gaming world, pixel art was the solution found due to the limitation of the first consoles that appeared at the time, which supported a limited number of colors and animations.

However, despite having emerged from a technological limitation, the style pleased the public around the world and even with its structural simplicity it was possible to create incredible classics that are still remembered among gamers, such as Mario Bros, Space Invaders, among others.

And even after the emergence of more powerful consoles, such as Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo Wii, many studios and independent developers continued to bet on style for their projects and continued to be successful. The indie game Fez, released in 2012, is an example:

What techniques define pixel art?

It may not seem like a lot of work, but it is important to remember that in this type of art each pixel must be drawn.

Therefore, when using an image editing program it is necessary to zoom in as much as possible until each pixel can be edited individually.

This means that every detail created will make a big difference in the final artwork.

But, how do you know if a certain style is really pixel art? Here are three important features:

Anti-aliasing : The main goal in pixel art is that of course the pixels are visible to the player or viewer. Therefore, the tool with the anti-aliasing effect (responsible for “smoothing” the edges in the drawings and present in several graphic manipulation programs), must be used with care so as not to harm this characteristic effect of the style. Some artists often employ this effect by drawing it by hand.

Color Usage : There may be confusion between what is pixel art and what is 8-bit. In fact, when a game is in 8-bit it doesn’t mean that it has pixelated images, but that it uses a supported color standard within that capacity.

In early video game models, for example, only 256 different colors could be used in games.

On the Atari 2600, where the capacity was for 128 colors, some games didn’t have the borders drawn and, therefore, there should be a great contrast between the figures to avoid confusion. The Air-Sea Battle, created for the console in 1977, is a beautiful example of this:

Even with a more limited color palette, you can draw shadows, lighting effects, and other details using pixels. However, to keep the pixel art style as faithful as possible, it is recommended to draw these effects manually and avoid using the ready-made features available in image editing software.

Lower resolution: the resolution for a pixel art game doesn’t need to be very large, since this style has been consecrated precisely on more limited devices. To give you an idea, Super Mario Bros. was only 256 x 224 pixels, and Mario himself was made at 12 x 16px.

This, by the way, is one of the advantages for mobile game developers, because the lower the resolution of the game, the more devices will be supported – including cell phones with lower capacity.

Voxelart: pixels in 3D

In addition to pixel art, another popular style among game artists and designers is voxelart.

Basically, it’s a three-dimensional pixel. So, while in pixel art the data is stored in a bitmap, the voxel does it in a three-dimensional grid. Check out an example in this figure by the Portuguese illustrator Gustavo Santos:

Some famous games made in pixel art

For those who still don’t remember what they look like or don’t know pixel art graphics, here are some examples of games made with this art style, from classics to some recent indie releases:

Space Invaders (1978)

Released for Arcade in 1978 and inspired by the classics Star Wars and War of the Worlds, Space Invaders is one of the most remembered games by the most nostalgic gamers and is on the list of the 10 most influential games of all time according to the IGN portal.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Also on IGN’s list, Super Mario is arguably one of Nintendo’s biggest hits and one of the first games created in a side-scrolling style. Its influence in the world of games and popular culture is so great that the soundtrack and visuals of the game are recognized even by those who have never played it.

Super Meat Boy (2010)

Fast forward a few years after Super Mario Bros., the indie game Super Meat Boy has become a hit since its release in 2010. Created by developer duo Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the game tells the story of a boy made of meat who must face different challenges to save your girlfriend, made of bandage. The game was named the Most Challenging Game of the Year 2010 by IGN and also received the Best Downloadable Game award from Game Spot and Game Trailers.

Hotline Miami (2012)

Hotline Miami’s intense gameplay, soundtrack quality and graphics have made it a huge success since its release by developers Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin. The game was made in 2D and, unlike side-scrolling platformers, it offers an overhead view of the scenery and characters.

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