A lot has been written about my general distaste for the modern exploitation of retro aesthetics in lieu of innovative game design (no, seriously, scroll down a bit, I’ve written a lot about it), so I feel the need to start off by saying that I don’t lump Life of Pixel into that category. Yes, it does very much live and die on its ability to emulate the look and feel of numerous older consoles, but it hits those same notes in a different way, making a composition all its own.
The first time I played Life of Pixel was on the Vita, because for some reason I wanted to use the most technologically advanced handheld ever made to play something intentionally archaic. It sounded like a good idea at the time and, to be fair, there wasn’t much to play on the Vita. Many would argue there still isn’t, which is probably a good reason why it was the game I spent the most time with during my short tenure as a Vita owner as the price point was just right and the concept of traveling through the various eras of 2D gaming had more shelf-life than I’d originally expected.
Life of Pixel feels like less like a singular game than a collection of games in a series, each a rather simple platformer that gradually evolves with each new installment. I was initially reminded of Retro Game Challenge and the way it offered a slow drip feed of new games over time. While you’re given a sizable number of consoles to jump right into, the appeal is in starting from the ultra-simplistic ZX81 and eventually settling on the most powerful of home consoles, the Sega Mega Drive.
Did I mention that the game is very obviously European? Most of your choices will be from the slate of home computers offered overseas like the BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC, but you’ll still see the Atari 2600 and NES make an appearance. As someone that has a bit of a knowledge gap but a huge intellectual interest in that era and region of gaming, it’s really cool to see someone intentionally shoot for the awfully bright and gaudy look of a ZX Spectrum title and that sort of attention to detail is where the game excels. There’s a care involved that’s harder to find in other attempts at the same idea, coming off less like an exploitation of an idea than a love letter and celebration of the medium as a whole. Most games wouldn’t bother to give you a brief history lesson on the Game Boy, let alone how much VRAM it had.
It’s a niche product for sure; made by nerds of a specific inclination to be digested by nerds of a similar ilk, but that’s quite alright. If we’re to continue using old game tropes and call-backs, games like Life is Pixel and Evoland should be the examples to go by, giving context to the things we want to revisit, but would typically meet with a dismissive nod after a few seconds uttering “yeah, that’s kinda neat.” Give players a reason to stay.
“Give us a reason to stay.” I think that was Oscar Wilde? No, wait, that was Tracy Chapman. I get my great philosophers mixed up.