Celeste and the failure of modern pixel art aethetics (Gaming)

by Cody Miller @, Music of the Spheres - Never Forgot, Sunday, August 23, 2020, 13:25 (32 days ago)

I've been giving Celeste a try lately. I don't want to talk about whether the game is good or not (I think it leans towards not), but there is one huge glaring issue with the game.

The game is hideous. And I think it has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding that modern developers tend to have with regard to pixel art.


Celeste is Garish, gaudy, with startlingly low visual contrast for obstacles. Your character a tiny sprinkle of pixels across the screen. Compare this to say, Stardew valley.


And yet, Celeste is not the only modern pixel art game to look horrible. More often than not a modern Pixel Art game is simply revolting, with those that understand the art direction seeming to be the exception. Why is this so? Why are so many pixel art games bad looking?

To me, it seems as if there's a fundamental misunderstanding of aesthetic in regard to limitations. Older hardware had literal limitations for the number of colors you could display. Your palette was necessarily limited and so the graphics needed to be distinct, bold, and simple in terms of detail.

Compare the simplicity of Megaman 5:

To the horror that is Legend of Kage:


Do you see the difference? Do you see how the 'detail' of the tree and grass just ends up looking like ass? Whereas there is separation and clarity in Megaman?

But what about when we get more colors?


Notice there is still separation with distinct elements? Unfortunately though, that's not what the game actually looks like. The dithering is visible on a modern computer monitor under an emulator, but on a CRT it looks quite different. You'll have to trust me (you can't really "screenshot it") when I say that the imperfections of NTSC and the composite video standard tended to smooth out the colors, and that the dithering often resulted in a much nicer gradient when played. You can do down a ribbit hole here.

The bottom line, is that pixel art as we remember it was meant to be bold and distinct, and meant for CRT displays. Even PC games were eventually displayed on a CRT monitor.

The crisp pixelated look that is so fetishized now never existed in the first place for the 16 bit era. And for the NES era it was guided by principles of separation.

So look back at that screenshot from Celeste. The game utilizes the higher resolution rendering to add detail and complexity, but still opts for the limited flattened color palette while at the same time not utilizing black or shading to make things stand out. And so the result is far closer to Kage than Megaman. The game wants the colors of an NES game with the detail of a SNES game, and so you have two goals at odds with each other. The result is a game that's simply ugly.

I see this with so many pixel art games now. Tiny characters in a sea of indistinct pixels. And overall flatness instead of depth. Complexity without realizing how to make that work. It's the surface level detail without an understanding of how and why the best looking games of the 80s and 90s looked the way they did.

The ART in Pixel Art has been largely lost.

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