Remember the good old days of the pixel? Even back when games were made up of little colored squares they could still be fun and complex; a lot of them were pretty hard too. Pixelated games have been going through a resurgence in recent years. Developers cash in on the nostalgia and simplicity of consoles that have come and gone and created experiences outside of simple platformers. Some also maintain that same taxing difficulty that was in place before things like memory cards and hard drives could save progress. Super Meat Boy especially comes to mind when combining several of those elements. Life of Pixel is a game about a tiny green pixel (named Pixel, of course) who finds a video game museum that houses several retro consoles and dives in to find out more about his background. The inspiration behind this PlayStation Mobile title is obvious but is there more to Pixel than just a portable chunk of nostalgia?
Life of Pixel, like many of the games it takes inspiration from, is a platformer. Pixel can double jump over enemies and obstacles to collect gems. After all the gems in a level are collected, the exit opens up. Plenty of enemies fly and/or walk across the screen that players must avoid, some of them even shoot projectiles. Unfortunately, Pixel isn’t very strong since touching an enemy or getting hit by one leads to death. Oh, and there’s a few environmental death traps to avoid as well such as spikes, water, and bottomless pits. There’s also a tiny collectible found in the level that is usually harder to reach but collecting all of them unlocks a secret area.
Suffice it to say, the basics of Life of Pixel are pretty simple. This is a game where players need to have good timing and a bit of skill to beat each level. Since Pixel can’t “stomp” enemies or use any other means to eliminate them, death can be swift and result in starting a level over from the beginning. For the most part, the punishment of restarting isn’t too painful because most levels can be beaten in under a minute. Along the way, however, some frustratingly difficult sections and annoying issues crop up to ruin the fast-paced flow.
The fundamentals of the game never change but there are some technical issues that turn the game from challenging to somewhat unfair. One of the biggest issues that spikes the difficulty are leaps of faith. Several levels take up more than just one screen, some can actually get quite large. Because there isn’t a way to look up or down, players will need to jump high or low enough so that the camera will shift enough to provide a decent view. Often, though, these jumps result in death because Pixel might land on an enemy or an environmental hazard. For example: one level in the game required Pixel to land on hovering platforms that were above water but the only way to see where a safe landing or water would be was to jump down; death or safety was determined before the camera could even shift. This level wasn’t necessarily hard and could have been completed in a minute had everything been easily visible, instead it took fifteen minutes. Collision detection can also be a little weird. During one life Pixel can brush right against an enemy while in the next he will die without even being touched by it. It would have also been nice if there was just a little less time between deaths and restarting a level. Keeping all this in mind, there are only a few levels that serve as these extreme outliers. Most levels provide a fun challenge but when a level gets it wrong, it can be infuriating.
The visual style is going to draw just about anyone in who has fond memories of the 8-bit era of video games. Life of Pixel’s world emulates the graphical style of past gaming consoles. The Commodore 64, Atari 2600, NES, and even the original Game Boy with its green hues are represented here. Some consoles like the ZX81 or CPC464 are also represented but might take a little bit of reading for some to uncover their history.
With the PS Vita’s crisp screen, these consoles have never looked better (even if they are just using souped-up emulators). The graphical “improvements” from the 2600 to the Game Boy are obvious but some of the other consoles do have a lot of similarities, but that’s just how things were at the time. It’s fun watching Pixel and his surroundings grow in detail as the game goes on.
Keeping it as retro as possible, each console “world” has its own unique track. For fans of chiptunes and old soundtracks, there’s something to enjoy. Each artist is given credit at the start so identifying tracks is easy. The one drawback to the individual songs is that they are the only tracks that play through the course of each world. Clearing a level will cause the track to continue and the other game sounds don’t change much. If certain stages roll on for too long then the music looping itself might just lead to the volume being lowered. At least one additional song per console would have helped spice things up a bit.
Life of Pixel can provide a moderate amount of enjoyment for either long or short sections. Several levels and consoles are quite fun to play through and offer a fun challenge. It’s a shame that there isn’t too much incentive to dig through the whole game again. Despite some glaring gameplay/design issues, the platforming of the game feels bite-sized and just right for a mobile title. Life of Pixel has just enough easter eggs and nostalgia in it to warrant the time and investment and, if anything, provides a brief and playable history lesson on video game graphics.
Note: A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated for the purpose of this review.