Retro-inspired pixel art has been making a comeback in recent years, with some video games using it to capture the feeling of playing classics like Super Mario Bros. and others solely for artistic purposes.
In many cases, these games go above and beyond their 8-bit and 16-bit predecessors, offering detailed character models, environments, and gameplay mechanics that simply weren’t possible back in the day.
In this list, we’ll be highlighting the best pixel art games to play in 2021. Rather than exploring every 2D pixel-based game, we’ll focus on modern video games that use pixel art as its primary art style.
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Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Android, iOS
What better a game to start with than the one-man passion project, Stardew Valley, developed by Eric Barone, aka ConcernedApe. Inspired by the beloved Harvest Moon games, the game is presented as a 2D farming sim with some light RPG mechanics and vibrant pixel art graphics.
In it, you create your own character and set out to bring your grandfather’s old farm back to life by gathering seeds, planting crops, and selling them for a profit. Eventually, the game opens up and lets you explore other areas such as ranching, wine-making, baking, etc.
There’s a day/night cycle that encourages you to plan out your activities ahead of time, including exploring mines, talking to neighbors, tending crops, or just hanging out at the local bar. The citizens of Stardew have distinct personalities that really make them come to life and encourage you to make friends, single-out your rivals, and even get married.
Hyper Light Drifter
Developer: Heart Machine
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, iOS
Hyper Light Drifter is a stunning pixel art action-adventure RPG in which you play as a hero called the Drifter. At the start of the game, the hero is shown suffering from a deadly illness, prompting him to venture into the mysterious lands of Buried Time in hopes of finding a cure.
What ensues is a grand-scale, atmospheric journey through menacing environments filled with branching paths and secrets to uncover. You won’t find a single line of dialogue in the entire game, as it relies on telling its story solely through visuals.
Combine this with exploration-heavy gameplay, and it’s easy to spend dozens of hours basking in HLD’s varied dungeons and locales. However, be prepared to master a demanding combat system that requires quick reflexes to dodge, deflect, and slash at enemies.
Developer: Sabotage Studio
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Some of our favorite pixel art games are the ones that include nods to the classics that came before. The Messenger is a 2D action-platformer that goes as far as to include a mechanic from the game that inspired its creation, Ninja Gaiden.
The mechanic in question is “cloud-stepping,” which allows the player to chain together jumps by striking certain objects, usually street poles or lamps. In it, you play as a ninja tasked with delivering an ancient scroll to the top of a mountain that’s littered with monsters and traps along the way.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a twist that involves time-travel, something that gets reflected in both the story and gameplay. Aside from its captivating narrative, The Messenger throws a bunch of new abilities and tools your way throughout the game to keep things interesting.
Developer: Matt Makes Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux
When discussing ‘must play’ pixel art games, Celeste is one that definitely comes to mind. The universally-acclaimed 2D action-platformer manages to strike the perfect balance between gameplay and story, although some may find its default difficulty a bit overwhelming.
Thankfully, developer Matt Makes Games has included several options for players who just want to experience the story, including a dedicated Assist Mode. In it, you play as Madeline, a girl looking to escape the struggles of everyday life by climbing a mysterious mountain.
Players advance the story by completing a series of hand-crafted platforming levels that revolve around precise jumping and dashing. For those who love a good challenge, Celeste features hidden collectibles scattered throughout levels along with remixed ‘B-Side’ stages that boost replayability.
The Mummy Demastered
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
There was a point in history when every new blockbuster movie was accompanied by some cheaply made licensed video game tie-in. Nowadays, those kinds of experiences are mostly limited to mobile, so imagine our surprise when we first discovered The Mummy Demastered.
For those unfamiliar, the game is a 2D Metroidvania based on 2017’s The Mummy, which itself is a reboot of the 2000s action franchise owned by Universal. The game doesn’t strictly adhere to the events of the film, instead casting you as a special agent assigned to bring down an evil mummy Princess named Ahmanet.
Where things get interesting is upon realizing the game was developed and published by WayForward, makers of the Shantae series, and all-around pros at creating engaging 2D platformers. As a result, TMD plays nothing like the barebones licensed games from back in the day, offering tight controls, eye-catching pixel art, and a hard-hitting soundtrack.
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: Switch, PC
Octopath Traveler is a turn-based RPG from Square Enix that takes pixel art to new heights with its unique ‘HD-2D’ aesthetic. In a nod to classic RPGs, characters are represented by 2D sprites that are cleverly set against highly-detailed environments.
Complementing the game’s distinct look is a lengthy 60-hour campaign spread across eight playable characters that come from wildly different walks of life. As you get to know each adventurer, you’ll find yourself exploring magical and dangerous lands throughout the massive continent of Orsterra.
Combat is played out using traditional turn-based battle mechanics in which characters use special class-based abilities and talents. Battles are where Octopath Traveler’s pixel art truly comes to life, showing off the game’s dynamic shadows, lighting, and particle effects.
Developer: Motion Twin
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS
Categorized as a roguelike, Dead Cells is a pixel art game that focuses on combat and exploration as you traverse procedurally-generated dungeons. Each run sees you gathering materials to craft better gear as you hunt down formidable bosses and minions throughout a sprawling 2D labyrinth.
Upon dying, players are returned to the starting area with slightly more resources than their previous run. This is at the heart of Dead Cells’ gameplay loop, which encourages you to take risks and push yourself further despite the possibility of dying.
The game includes an array of different weapons and perks to unlock, which carry over between runs. A fun fact about Dead Cells is that despite its pixel art graphics, the game is technically rendered in 3D but uses a 2D perspective to trick you into thinking you’re playing a side-scrolling platformer.
Developer: Massive Damage
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Star Renegades is a turn-based strategy RPG that sees you commanding a squad of futuristic heroes as they travel to different dimensions and try to prevent the Imperium Army from destroying the world.
Like Dead Cells, the game employs a roguelike structure where each run offers unique challenges and outcomes. As you progress through the campaign, you can unlock new upgrades for your squad to deal with evolving enemies.
Combat emphasizes interrupting and countering foes using a timeline-based battle system. The game has a lot going on both visually and mechanics-wise, blending elements of JRPGs, real-time tactics, and more into a vibrant pixel art package.
Platforms: Switch, PC, Mac
Prioritizing style over substance, Katana Zero is a fast-paced 2D action-platformer that sees you playing as a katana-wielding assassin known as Subject Zero, who gets assigned contracts by his psychiatrist. In addition to giving you assignments, your therapist also provides ‘Chronos,’ an illicit street drug that lets the user slow down time and look into the future.
The game is laid out in a series of side-scrolling levels that introduce new enemy types and traps, all presented in vibrant pixel art. What makes Katana Zero stand out is the absence of any health bar indicator, accompanied by instant 1HKO damage for both you and enemies.
Later in the game, your character gains the ability to deflect bullets with his sword and dodge attacks using rolls. Lastly, a dynamic real-time conversation system allows you to interrupt characters mid-dialogue, making for some hilarious in-game moments.
Developer: Hidden Layer Games
Platforms: Switch, PC, Mac, iOS
There aren’t many horror-themed pixel art games, which is truly a shame. However, if you find yourself in need of a good spook, Inmost offers a narrative-driven adventure set in a hauntingly beautiful 2D world.
The game focuses on three playable characters whose stories intertwine in fascinating and emotionally powerful ways. Gameplay is a mix of puzzle-solving and platforming, with each character introducing new mechanics and challenges.
Inmost’s story deals with some pretty heavy themes, including loss, hope, and pain, so it may not appeal to everyone. Additionally, it’s a rather short experience, about 3-5 hours on average, so expectations should be scaled accordingly.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux, iOS
The Binding of Isaac is an indie pixel art roguelike from game designer Edmund McMillen, best known for Super Meat Boy. The game was initially created for a week-long game jam but was later expanded into a full-fledged flash title that would late be improved and rereleased as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
Loosely inspired by the biblical story of the same name, Rebirth sees players controlling Isaac, a child forced to flee to his house’s basement upon learning his mother has gone insane, believing to have spoken to a religious spirit.
Although its dark tone and graphic imagery may be a bit too much for some players, the game’s top-down perspective and compact dungeons are meant to mirror classic Zelda titles like A Link to the Past and The Minish Cap.
Developer: Lucas Pope
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, iOS
In Papers, Please, you play as an immigrant inspector on the border of Arstotzka, a nation experiencing high levels of political tension with its neighboring countries. The game tasks you with assessing the legitimacy of applicants’ documents and reporting any discrepancies in an effort to prevent (or allow) potential terrorists from gaining entry.
As the story progresses, things get a lot more challenging as the application requirements to enter Arstotzka become increasingly demanding. Things also start to bleed over into your character’s personal life, with both your family and livelihood at risk of being stripped away.
This is all delivered in pixel art graphics that rely on a limited color palette that reflects the game’s tone and mood. With over 20 different possible endings for its scripted story, Papers, Please does an excellent job at making you grapple with tough moral decisions that affect many people’s lives.
Developer: Headup Games
Tinkertown is a relaxing base-building game with 2.5D pixel art graphics and supports online multiplayer. In it, up to four players explore an array of magical desserts, forests, and snowy mountains filled with untold treasure and angry monsters.
When you’re not setting off for new adventures, the game revolves around building your own townships and filling them with craftable goods via workbenches. You can currently make armor, weapons, furniture, and walls that prevent enemies from entering your castle, cottage, or farmhouse.
While the game keeps things pretty tame when walking around the surface, venturing deeper into underground dungeons throughout the world will see you encountering more powerful boss enemies as well as amazing loot.
Developer: The Game Kitchen
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Linux
Besides Inmost, Blasphemous is another dark and atmospheric pixel art game that has a lot to offer. While it’s steep learning curve is bound to turn off some players, fans of action-platformers and the Dark Souls series are encouraged to check this one out.
You play as The Penitent One, the last survivor of a brutal massacre who finds himself trapped in a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Venturing out into the nightmarish 2D world of Cvstodia, you’ll encounter deadly enemies and deadlier traps.
Blasphemous follows a non-linear structure modeled after Metroidvanias, encouraging you to explore its dark gothic environments and hone your skills with the fabled Mea Culpa sword, unleashing combos and special moves which are wonderfully accented by gorey kill animations.
Developer: Phobia Game Studio
Platforms: Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux
Carrion is a 2D reverse-horror action-platformer that sees you controlling a monster on a warpath to kill its captors and escape containment. The game features a ton of cool monster-based abilities that complement its Metroidvania design and are fun to explore.
This includes being able to grow or shrink in size in order to squeeze through the narrowest air ducts government funding can buy. The monster can also grab and fling both objects and humans using their powerful tendril-like arms and slip through cracks to unlock new areas.
The goal is to ascend the facility until you’re able to eventually escape. However, things get more and more dangerous the higher you go as new enemy types and obstacles come into play. Our favorite part of playing Carrion has to be its 2D graphics, which manage to convey a surprising amount of detail solely through pixel art.