Video games in their infancy evolved in different ways than they do today. Gamers nowadays consist of those of us who fondly recall when gaming described in bits, and those who were born after those days. Life of Pixel is an indie platformer game that takes gamers on a journey from the early days of console and computer gaming through over a dozen systems. Though not pixel perfect, Life of Pixel is an entertaining and informational experience that delivers numerous visual and aural renditions of classic gaming.
Life of Pixel starts with more content available than I expected. What I thought going into the game was, that I would start at a console and progress to each subsequent console by beating all levels. You know, like how older games play. This is thankfully one aspect of old-school gaming that the developer chose not to use. As a child, I did not enjoy playing a game with a difficult part that would not allow me to proceed in any way until I proceeded. I was never one to collect guides, didn’t like using a Game Genie until I beat the game, and didn’t yet have the tempting help of the Internet. I’d eventually get through the game, but only after it left a sour taste in my mouth. Some gamers like this satisfaction, but I never have. Just as Pixel discovers the many classic consoles in the museum (the basic premise of the game), you are free to play through any of the available systems. But in order to unlock and ultimately complete the game, you need to collect gems.
Life of Pixel has several 8 & 16-bit game systems for play from the start, such as Commodore 64, Amiga, SNES, Apple II, Game Boy, NES, Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum. Some consoles are locked away for the player to unlock through progress. Attaining a lofty goal of collecting 72 magic gems will unlock the Sega Master System. There’s also hidden fruit, found in secret areas of levels. According to the game, you can collect this fruit to unlock a “big secret!”, which goes to show that replay value does exist in the game. Add to that a leaderboard for best level times, and you’ll find there is a good amount of value to wring out of the game once you’ve beaten the available levels.
The levels attempt to recreate the look and feel of their system’s period of gaming. The look of them is a pleasant reminder of how gaming used to look, often bringing to mind gaming memories I haven’t thought of in years. You can even tweak the look further by brining up the options menu and applying visual changes that recreate screens and filters from the past. What’s more, you might recognize levels that have taken on the looks of many popular classics, like console games Castlevania, Legend of Zelda, Shinobi, Wonder Boy, Streets of Rage, Metroid, Pitfall, Mega Man, Sonic, and computer classics such as Turrican, Uridium, Jet Set Willy, Rick Dangerous, James Pond, and Prince of Persia.
The design aspect of some levels, however, is a mixed bag. Despite what I said about challenging games earlier, I do enjoy a challenge and Life of Pixel does deliver. Some levels require a fair amount of precision, timing, and patience. These traits add to the fun of vying for speed in some of the beginning consoles’ levels. Some aspects of the level design do cause unnecessary deaths, though, like the natural trial and error due to screen scrolling. I didn’t mind this too much, but I could see it being a problem for others. What I did find to be a problem, however, is that the pattern of spikes is quick to eject yet slow to retract, with an odd period where they can be present but not cause instant death if mostly withdrawn. While the screen scrolling is something that occurred in older games, I don’t recall if I died in games like Prince of Persia due to spike timing. Another point is one that also shouldn’t be criticized too much, as it does fall in line with how the games it recreates actually were – level length. Though earlier levels are brief, later levels are larger with more variety and possibilities for death of your little square character. You could zip through a beginning stage with just a concern of a record time. A much later level could leave you frustrated at how you gotten so far, only to die and have to start over. Remember how Pixel visited a museum, to learn how gaming was? Ah, how we’ve been spoiled with plentiful checkpoints. This isn’t too big a deal, but it is worthy of note of what could be a gripe by younger gamers is a memory for (us) older gamers.
Another aspect of level design is what’s included in each level. Specifically, the random enemies and power-ups/equipment. First, I’d like to discuss the enemies. The assortment increases as you advance in consoles, and are often incorporated into the levels rather than just being there. Their play styles also add to the challenge, such as needing to adjust to a varied flight pattern of a bat or shots fired from a tank. They’re a variable in the level that expand in breadth along with the rest of the game. I will say that the placement of some of the enemies didn’t make sense, but then there also isn’t a pervasive story throughout the game. Next, the power-ups & equipment. This wasn’t as much a staple in earlier gaming, so you won’t find much of these in the 8-bit consoles. As they begin to make appearances, they do their part to add depth to the gameplay. When you first encounter a bubble or a jetpack, you wonder why they’re in the level. As you progress through systems, the power-ups and equipment become less nonsense and more fun addition to gameplay. You will encounter an anti-gravity switch that is more apparent in levels of certain consoles. I liked how this altered the way a level is played, so much that I at times used it to proceed through levels in different ways just for fun. I’d say it was underutilized, but I think it’s more just me wanting levels to incorporate it more.
I mentioned earlier the visual touches you can use to change up the look. It is clear the developer has more than a fond memory of these classic systems. I’m willing to wager many of the systems found virtually in Life of Pixel, are still owned by those responsible for this game. I started gaming with a Commodore 64, so I was glad to see that along with playing the console, I was able to add raster effect to replicate an analog TV and also change the look of the screen colors to match what I saw many years ago. The music in this game is easily one of the highlights for me. Each console has its own music, provided by several chip musicians to really give the game the authentic atmosphere. A lot of the music I heard is great stuff – to the point that I’d like to have the soundtrack to Life of Pixel. I knew the music of this game would reflect the nostalgic recreation this game is going for, but each time I started a new system I was again pleasantly surprised with the quality tunes.
A couple attempts at modernizing could use a bit of work, such as the achievements that are tough to read when they appear in game, and the time displayed in the corner not doing anything for the player trying to beat a record. For the Wii U, the leaderboard for best time is only available on the Wii U when not using the GamePad. When using the off-screen mode, the awesome music cannot be heard through the GamePad. Also, the Pro Controller works but not the Wiimote. Why not support what feels like a NES controller? The developer is certainly at home when in the past, as levels built to look like older games are instantly recognizable, enemies making appearances in multiple systems fit in throughout, and a mustached Professor Pixel provides technical information about each system encountered. A good indicator of how this game straddles the authenticity of the past despite advances since, is the jumping mechanic. It feels as if it belongs in the past, in more than one meaning of the term.
How the game plays, is a straightforward recommendation. As controlling one character throughout many systems, the controls deliver just how they should – consistent. Pixel moves at an appropriate speed, jumps – albeit it differently than we’ve become accustomed to – with a double jump that feels solid, and that’s about it. You can also move up and down to pan, and push B on rare occasions as an action button. You’re now ready to make daring leaps, and eventually navigate by other means in later levels.
Life of Pixel is a good history lesson for new gamers, and a fun romp through nostalgia for those who have been around for a few (gaming) generations. While the platformer gameplay does have a couple intentional and possibly unintentional flaws, they are negligible. I would like to see the developer release an update to tweak a few things here and there, and maybe even include levels (with anti-gravity switches!) meant for speed runs. I would like to stretch my legs – er, corners – and get Pixel into the leaderboards.