What is it about the art of the late 80’s to mid 90’s that we can’t let go? How many 20XX platformers look like they could run on a SEGA Genesis? Why do 90% of indie-JRPGs seem like they visually resulted from the equation “Earthbound meets X”? When did Symphony of the Night clones become so ubiquitous that Metroidvania is now in the gaming nomenclature?
I can’t logically comprehend why this period stuck so much. Sure we can all look back at those games and say, “Wow, this shit still holds up today”., but what does that actually mean? I can’t remember the last time I saw Atari 2600 inspired game art garnering press online. Nobody is eager to relive the ugly, early 3D polygons from the PSX and N64 era. Yet there is an endless supply of visual clones of FFVI, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Bros., Megaman, etc. (Ok, maybe FFVI is a bit of stretch, those sprites are untouchable).
There are generally a few reasons I see for this undying trend in game artistry. The first explanation is that developers are trying to recapture their childhood and this is likely one of the initial root causes of the resurgence of retro art. In the early days of Kickstarter, and frankly still heavily prevalent today, you saw developers pitching games as the spiritual successor of their childhood favorites; everything is claiming to recapture The Secret of Mana or Tactics Ogre. The issue though, is now retro art games are being made by developers that weren’t even alive during the initial release of the games they are mimicking. “What do you mean recapture the magic of Chrono Trigger, you were born in 1997.”
The second explanation is that this art style has a built-in audience. The idea is that if you make an difficult platformer, there is an audience already clamoring for more difficult platformers. Super Meat Boy didn’t have introduce running, jumping and wall-jumps; the 2D platformers of days past already embedded those concepts into gaming zeitgeist. Stardew Valley already had a large fanbase to appeal to: anyone that slightly enjoyed Harvest Moon. This issue with this explanation is both that retro-developers have to compete with the rose-tinted glasses version of people’s childhood memories and that developers have to compete with the 1,000 other developers chasing the exact same indie game. Do you really want to claim your game is just as amazing as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past?
The last explanation is that retro art is cheap and easy. This explanation is somewhat true, doing 2D pixel art is going to be cheaper than say, realistic fully rigged and textured 3D models. Into the Breach is would have been much more expensive if they tried to create Armored Core-esk models and environments. But I argue that although the capacity of the developer definitely impacts the art direction of every game, choosing retro art is an artistic choice. Vector art could be considered even cheaper to produce than pixel art, but developers deliberately choose an aesthetic to visually communicate their desired experience.
When I really look at retro art and its effectiveness to visually communicate or convey emotions to the player, I started to compile a list of reasons I thought retro art was so effective. But quickly these reasons read off like basic art design: color palette, contrasting colors to focus view, ratio of characters on screen, directing focal points, large heads to show emotion, etc.
I think the real reason retro art is so prevalent is the ease of executing core design principals. Retro pixel art balances the ability to handcraft each piece of art while still being scalable for a small team, or individual, to realistically execute. It’s easy to show contrast, proximity, repetition or any other visual design principal because you are controlling each pixel of art. You don’t have to worry about a 3D camera swinging around to any angle, or how the light source will drastically change the visual fidelity of a texture.
Retro art also benefits from years of north star examples. How big should the head be compared to the body in a retro RPG? What is the ratio of screen space a character should take up in a platformer? All of these have decades of examples to pull from. With this, developers can put a slight bit of individuality into their execution. Understale isn’t merely Earthbound, it’s Earthbound that looks like a Saturday morning Nickelodeon cartoon. In this sense, any inexperienced game developer would almost be foolish to attempt anything but retro art.