A Brief History Of Pixelart: Origins And Early Developments

Pixel art refers to digital artwork created through the use of software, where images are edited on the pixel level. The definition of pixel art is not entirely agreed upon, but it is generally distinguished from other digital artforms by its focus on deliberate placement of individual pixels, as opposed to continuous tones or gradients. In pixel art, each pixel matters.

The history of pixel art traces back to the earliest days of computer and video game graphics. With extremely limited processing power and display resolutions in early gaming systems, artists were constrained to using a very low number of pixels, and so had to carefully choose each pixel color and position. These technical restrictions led to the emergence of a unique aesthetic, now know as pixel art. While modern computers no longer have the same limitations, pixel art continues to be used for its retro style. Over the decades, pixel art has evolved from its video game origins to become a vibrant art movement and community.

This article provides an overview of the origins and key developments of pixel art, from its beginnings in early video games, through the pixel art scene on 1980s home computers, up to the present day with pixel art’s resurgence among indie game developers and mobile games. The history of pixel art illustrates how technological constraints can give rise to inspiring art and creativity.

Precursors to Pixel Art

Although pixel art originated with early video games and computers, some of its roots can be traced to more traditional art forms. One precursor is mosaic art, which constructs images out of small colored tiles. Mosaic art has existed for thousands of years, with examples found from Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The discrete square tiles of mosaics have a similar feel to pixelated graphics.

Another precursor is cross-stitch embroidery, which emerged in Europe and the Middle East during medieval times. Cross-stitch uses X-shaped stitches in a grid pattern to form designs and pictures. As described in the History of Cross Stitch on Wizardi.com, cross-stitch was an early form of pixel art created with thread and needles rather than on a computer screen.

Lastly, early computer graphics laid the groundwork for pixel art’s emergence. In the 1960s and 70s, computer scientists began experimenting with generating still images and animations using computers. Programs like SQUID, developed at the University of Michigan, demonstrated some of the first raster graphics and pixel-based images. While crude, these initial computer graphics were precursors to the pixel art used in early video games.

Earliest Video Game Pixel Art

The earliest examples of pixel art originated in the 1970s with the release of some of the very first video games. Atari’s arcade game Pong, released in 1972, featured simple pixelated graphics consisting of a two-dimensional line that represented the tennis net, two paddles, and a square ball (Source). The following year, Atari launched another seminal arcade game, Space Invaders, which depicted pixelated aliens descending from the top of the screen that players had to shoot.

a pixelated tennis net, paddles and ball representing the simple graphics of pong.

Home video game consoles also utilized pixel art during this early era. The Atari 2600, launched in 1977, featured games with basic pixel graphics like Pong, Asteroids, and Yar’s Revenge (Source). Rival console maker Intellivision, released in 1979, had slightly more detailed pixel art in games like Utopia and Tron: Deadly Discs. Early arcade and home console games laid the groundwork for pixel art with their simple 2D environments and characters.

Pixel Art in 1980s Home Computers

The 1980s saw the rise of 8-bit home computers like the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Nintendo Game & Watch which became popular platforms for pixel art. The low resolution and limited color palettes of these systems presented unique creative constraints for artists. The Commodore 64, released in 1982, featured a resolution of 320×200 pixels and a palette of 16 colors. Its comparatively high resolution and processing power for the time made it one of the most popular home computers and a favorite of pixel artists (https://www.reddit.com/r/GoldenAgeMinecraft/comments/158zsgm/commodore_64_pixel_art_i_built_in_classicube/).

The ZX Spectrum, released in 1982 as well, had a resolution of 256×192 pixels and a palette of 15 colors. Game developers took advantage of its attributes like bright, saturated colors and dithering techniques to create visually impressive pixel art within the Spectrum’s limitations (https://houndsofgeek.wordpress.com/category/commodore-64/). The Nintendo Game & Watch series of handhelds, introduced in 1980, also featured simple pixel art visuals constrained by their low-res LCD screens.

Pixel artists embraced the technical restrictions of these platforms, finding creative ways to produce detailed artwork, sprites, and environments. Their work showcased the potential of pixel art as an artform and exemplified how limitations can inspire creativity.

1990s Console Pixel Art

The 1990s saw pixel art reach new heights in popular home video game consoles like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Games developed for these 16-bit systems allowed for more detailed and vibrant pixel art compared to previous generations. Landmark titles like Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo demonstrated the artistic potential of pixel art on these platforms (Bitmap Books 2019).

With its Mode 7 graphics, Super Mario World exemplified the Super Nintendo’s expanded graphical capabilities. The game featured richly detailed backgrounds and smooth rotation effects in levels like the Chocolate Island and Forest of Illusion stages. Series characters like Mario, Luigi and Bowser had more fluid and expressive animations thanks to the increased pixels available to artists and developers. Other SNES games like Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country also became pixel art classics, employing advanced techniques like parallax scrolling.

Meanwhile, the Genesis competed with the SNES by enhancing its own pixel art credentials in acclaimed games like Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic’s speedy animations and the distinctive environments of the Green Hill Zone became emblematic of the Genesis style. The console wars between Nintendo and Sega ultimately pushed pixel art to new heights during this era of 16-bit gaming.

Pixel Art in Modern Indie Games

In recent years, pixel art has seen a major resurgence in popularity among independent (indie) game developers. Many modern indie games utilize a retro pixel art style as both an aesthetic choice and a practical consideration given the small teams and budgets of most indie studios. Two genres where pixel art remains especially prevalent in indie games are platformers and role-playing games (RPGs).

Platformers lend themselves well to a pixel art style, since the simple 2D environments are relatively easy to animate smoothly with a limited pixel resolution. Games like Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy employ a distinctly pixelated look with chunky characters and tile-based levels, evoking the platformers of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. This allows small teams to develop good-looking games without the need for complex 3D graphics and animation. In RPGs like Stardew Valley and Terraria, the top-down 2D perspective and tile-based worlds are also conducive to a pixel art aesthetic.

By tapping into nostalgia for retro games, yet incorporating modern gameplay concepts and quality-of-life improvements, pixel-heavy indie titles like Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley, and Terraria have found great success. Their simplicity, charm, and clear pixel art direction have helped these games stand out in a crowded marketplace and build passionate fan bases. Pixel art continues enabling independent developers to create highly engaging games on limited budgets.

Pixel Art in Mobile Games

Pixel art gained popularity on mobile platforms as smartphones became more powerful in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The simplicity of pixel art allowed it to be easily rendered on mobile devices while still retaining a retro aesthetic. Some notable mobile games that utilized pixel art include Crossy Road, Downwell, and Super Hexagon.

Crossy Road, released in 2014 by Hipster Whale, became a huge hit for its clever take on the classic frog crossing game rendered in a colorful pixel art style. As described on the Wikipedia page for Crossy Road, the game “made over $10 million in revenue within its first five months.”

a screenshot of crossy road showing the colorful pixel art characters and environment.

Downwell, a roguelike platformer developed by Moppin and released in 2015, was praised for its monochrome pixel art aesthetic that complemented the simple but addictive gameplay. As noted in this article on the history of pixel art, Downwell “featured unique sprites that really showed how artists are still managing to create interesting pieces with limited resolution.”

And Super Hexagon, created by Terry Cavanagh and released in 2012, was an extremely challenging reflex-based arcade game with a pixel art style harkening back to the earliest video games. As described by Cavanagh in this pixel art forum thread, designing Super Hexagon’s pixel art to be “clean, visually simple and stark” aided the quick reflexes and precision needed to play the game successfully.

Pixel Art Communities

Pixel art has fostered a vibrant online community where artists share their work and connect with fellow pixel art enthusiasts. Online forums and galleries like PixelJoint provide a platform for pixel artists to showcase their creations and get feedback from peers. PixelJoint, founded in 2004, is one of the longest running and most active pixel art communities. Its gallery contains over 100,000 pixel artworks spanning different genres and styles.

In addition to online galleries, pixel art communities organize contests to motivate artists and promote the artform. The Pixel Art Masters Tournament, held annually since 2015, brings together top pixel artists to compete and produce new artwork based on prompt themes. Other contests like Pixel Dailies provide a daily prompt for artists to create a small pixel art piece within a 24-hour timeframe. These events generate buzz and engagement within the pixel art community.

Notable Pixel Artists

Some of the most well-known and influential pixel artists include:

eBoy – Founded in 1999 by Kai Vermehr, Steffen Sauerteig, Svend Smital, and Daniel Malewski, eBoy became famous for their intricate isometric cityscapes created with pixels.

Paul Robertson – Known for his work on games like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Mercenary Kings, Robertson creates highly detailed pixel art with a stylized, cartoon aesthetic. His pieces often feature science fiction themes with a punk or retrofuturist feel.

Mark Ferrari – An early pioneer in pixel art, Ferrari worked on LucasArts adventure games in the 1990s like Zak McKracken, Loom, and Monkey Island. His detailed, hand-drawn approach to pixels influenced many later artists.

These artists exemplify the creativity and artistic expression possible even when working within the constraints of low pixel resolutions and limited color palettes.


Pixel art has come a long way since its early beginnings, evolving from the technical limitations of early gaming consoles and home computers to become an artistic style chosen for its retro aesthetics. After falling out of favor for a time during the rise of 3D graphics, pixel art has experienced a major resurgence in the past decade thanks to indie game developers who grew up with and have a fondness for the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.

The simplistic pixeled visuals hearken back to gaming’s early days while allowing modern indie developers the freedom to create their own original characters and worlds. This vintage pixelated style strikes a nostalgic chord for older gamers who played these games in their youth, while also feeling fresh and new to younger gamers. The constrained nature of pixel art also provides opportunities for creative solutions within limitations.

While new technologies have opened up near endless possibilities for AAA game studios, pixel art’s limitations can be seen as a positive that focuses developers on strong gameplay and storytelling over technical flair. The flourishing pixel art communities and slew of memorable new indie titles prove that pixel art is more than just nostalgia; it’s an iconic and expressive art style that will continue inspiring games for decades to come.