Retro-inspired pixel art has been making a comeback in recent years, with some video games using it 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 2020. 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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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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Moonlighter is a 2D action RPG that sees you playing as a shopkeeper with big dreams of becoming an adventurer. The game is broken up into two modes, separated by a day/night cycle. Days are for running your shop and upgrading gear while evenings focus on exploring dungeons and collecting materials.
Similar to Dead Cells, risk versus reward is at the core of Moonlighter‘s gameplay loop. Delving deeper into dungeons can yield more materials but also puts you at a much higher risk of falling prey to an assortment of occupational hazards, namely monsters and traps.
Where the game truly shines is its variety, mainly due to how different both modes play out. In particular, the shopkeeping component is surprisingly deep, allowing you to purchase store upgrades, set prices for wares, and even tackle crooks who try to shoplift.
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.
Noita is another pixel art game that falls under the roguelike umbrella. In it, you control a magic-wielding witch with the power to freeze, explode, or melt anything that crosses their path by crafting and casting new spells while exploring procedurally-generated dungeons ranging from dark coal mines to freezing-cold wastelands.
Where it differs from most games is how it goes about rendering every pixel on screen. The game applies a physics simulation to different objects and terrain, allowing for unique interactions and increased destructibility.
What exactly does this mean?
Well, you can jump inside a lake filled with piranhas and kill them all with one zap from your staff because that’s how electricity would work underwater. Progressing further through dungeons opens up new kinds of environments and reveals more secrets about the game’s world.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
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.
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.
Similar to Stardew Valley, Littlewood is a 2D farming sim that takes advantage of its pixel art graphics to create a sense of nostalgia reminiscent of retro 8-bit and 16-bit games. In it, you play as a hero who loses their memory after defeating a Dark Wizard and restoring peace to the village of Littlewood.
The game tasks you with rebuilding Littlewood its former glory by venturing out into the vast world of Solemn to gather resources and recruit new residents. As you explore the magical forests, bustling fishing towns, and mysterious mining caves that make up Solemn, you’ll encounter a host of characters with unique motivations.
Littlewood also offers various hobbies and crafts to take up, such as farming, fishing, merchanting, and more. Resources you gather are used to modify the land’s look and layout, with the player given creative freedom to build up Littlewood in their own vision.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
Developer Yacht Club Games took the indie game scene by storm when they released Shovel Knight back in 2014. The 2D side-scroller features charming 8-bit pixel art graphics, a slew of memorable heroes and villains, a robust combat system that revolves around using different gadgets, and superb platforming to boot.
The original Shovel of Hope story sees the titular hero taking on the Order of No Quarter and their villainous leader, The Enchantress, using a shovel as his primary weapon. Since the original’s release, Yacht Club has repackaged Shovel Knight into a series of separate expansions and spin-offs.
This is the version we recommend checking out as it features the most’ bang for your buck’ for anyone who wants to dive headfirst into the series.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove includes the Shovel of Hope base game, in addition to four expansions: Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown.
Standing in stark contrast to the other games mentioned in this list, 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.