Pixelart Animation: Bringing Characters To Life In Games

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are created and edited at the pixel level. It emerged in the 1970s and 1980s [1] with the advent of computers, video game consoles, and graphic editing software that allowed artists to manipulate individual pixels. Early arcade and home console video games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Super Mario Bros. used low-resolution, pixelated graphics out of necessity, given the hardware limitations of the time.

Though modern gaming and screens can render highly detailed 3D worlds, pixel art remains popular as a choice of style for indie and retro games. The limited resolution forces artists to convey visual ideas, emotion, and animation in a minimalist, abstract way. Many find this aesthetic nostalgic and enjoy the challenge of creating complex artwork within constraints. The style also enables small studios to develop visually interesting games with modest budgets. Recent hit indie games like Stardew Valley, Undertale, and Dead Cells demonstrate pixel art’s ongoing appeal. While hardware no longer imposes such limits, pixel art persists as an art form today across games, digital art, and other media.

Technical Aspects

Pixel art animation utilizes low resolutions and limited color palettes compared to traditional digital art and animation. Early pixel art used resolutions as low as 320×200 pixels with 256 or fewer colors. Modern pixel art can use higher resolutions like 1080p but often retains a retro pixelated aesthetic by limiting colors and using chunky pixels rather than blending (Importing and Creating Animated Pixel Art Sprites into After Effects in HD).

Animation techniques involve using spritesheets that contain different frames of animation all within one image file. The individual frames can then be displayed sequentially to create the illusion of movement and animation. Pixel art animation can also utilize traditional frame-by-frame animation, drawing each frame individually. This allows for more control but is more time consuming (Creating Pixel Art Animation in After Effects).

Common tools for creating pixel art animation include Photoshop, After Effects, Aseprite, GraphicsGale, and Piskel. These tools allow artists to work at low resolutions with indexed color palettes and provide specialized pixel art animation features.

Artistic Style

Pixel art has a distinct aesthetic that sets it apart from other art styles. The pixelated look gives pixel art a retro, 8-bit era feel. This low-resolution style emerged partly due to the technical constraints of early games and displays. Each “pixel” is literally one colored square on screen, which gives pixel art its signature blocky, mosaic appearance. Artists work within the limits of resolution and color palettes to create a cohesive and intentional look. Constraints breed creativity. The limited space per pixel means every pixel matters. Pixel artists carefully choose colors and place pixels to convey shading, textures, shapes and details. This minimalist, lo-fi style strikes a nostalgic chord and provides a blank canvas for the imagination (Saqlain Razee – Lemon8).

Notable Examples

Pixel art has been used to create some of the most iconic and beloved video game characters and worlds. The Super Mario Bros series made extensive use of pixel art, bringing to life the mustachioed plumber Mario along with other characters like Princess Peach and Bowser (Gamerant). The Legend of Zelda series, which began on the NES, also utilized pixel art to depict the fantasy world of Hyrule and characters like Link and Zelda. Pokemon, one of the most successful media franchises ever, got its start on the Game Boy with pixel art representations of the titular pocket monsters.

In recent years, indie developers have embraced pixel art for its nostalgic appeal, relatively low production costs, and artistic style. Games like Stardew Valley, Terraria, and Shovel Knight showcase retro pixel art while offering deep and engaging gameplay. Hyper Light Drifter, Fez, and Owlboy demonstrate how pixel art can convey imaginative new worlds and characters. Even major studios like Square Enix have returned to pixel art styles for certain games, such as Octopath Traveler on the Nintendo Switch.

Pixel art allows developers to focus on strong gameplay and storytelling rather than trying to achieve cutting-edge 3D graphics. It can evoke warm nostalgia while also providing opportunities for creative expression. Iconic characters like Mario and Pikachu helped popularize pixel art, while indie developers continue to use it to craft beautiful, distinctive worlds.


One of the biggest advantages of using pixel art in games is its ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia and retro appeal. Many iconic video games from the 1980s and 90s used pixel art, so it can remind players of beloved classics from their childhood. According to Quora, pixel art fits well with certain genres like platformers, RPGs, and adventure games that were popular in the early days of gaming. The simplistic pixellated style gives games an indie and retro vibe that attracts players who love old-school games.[1]

In addition, pixel art requires less production effort compared to high resolution 3D assets and textures. This makes it ideal for small or indie development studios with limited budgets and resources. Pixel art is much faster and cheaper to create than modern high fidelity graphics. A small team can easily craft all the visual assets needed to bring a pixel art game world to life. According to an article on LinkedIn, the simplistic nature of pixel art allows for quicker iterations and rapid prototyping during game development.[2]


Pixel art has some inherent limitations compared to modern, high-resolution graphics:Why can’t I do pixel art?! The low resolution means pixel art contains less detail and has a smaller scope than modern game graphics. The retro pixelated look can feel outdated to some players who prefer a more modern high-fidelity graphical style.

The limited color palettes and resolution make certain game genres like realistic first-person shooters challenging to depict in pixel art style. Complex scenes with many elements or characters on screen become cluttered. Animating a large number of moving elements smoothly can be difficult with pixel art’s constraints.

Modern Use Cases

Pixel art has seen a resurgence in recent years as both indie and major developers utilize it to evoke a sense of nostalgia. According to Best Pixel Art Games, many modern games employ pixel art for its “retro style” that reminds players of classic games from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. However, pixel art today is often mixed with modern techniques to create unique hybrid styles.

For example, one popular way pixel art is used today is by combining it with 3D graphics. Games like Octopath Traveler intermix detailed 3D environments with old-school 2D pixel characters. The blend of retro and modern creates an appealing aesthetic. Pixel art may also be used in modern games simply for certain components, like the user interface or text boxes, while the rest of the graphics are rendered in high fidelity 3D. Overall, pixel art persists today both for its nostalgic factor and ability to complement and enhance modern graphics technology when used strategically.

Tips for Developers

When implementing pixel art animation in games, there are some best practices developers should follow:

Use sprite sheets rather than individual sprites for efficiency. Sprite sheets allow you to store all the frames of animation together in one image file. This reduces draw calls and improves performance (1).

Keep animations short and looping. Pixel art animations tend to work best when they seamlessly loop and don’t drag on too long. This creates a smooth effect and reduces memory usage (2).

Maintain a consistent frame rate. Fluctuations in frame rate can make pixel art animation look choppy. Target a consistent 30 or 60 FPS for smooth results.

Use pixel perfect rendering to avoid blurring or distortion of pixels. This keeps the crisp pixel look intact during animations.

When animating large sprites, break them into smaller moving parts. This allows for more detailed and fluid animations.

Some common mistakes to avoid:

Don’t scale or rotate sprites. Pixel art looks best at its native resolution and orientation.

Avoid slow or choppy frame rates that break the illusion of motion.

Don’t overuse animation. Subtle and sparing use of keyframe animation works best for pixel art.

Don’t animate too many sprites on screen at once. This can impact performance and cause sprite overload.

With careful implementation, pixel art animation can bring retro characters to life in modern games.

(1) https://lospec.com/pixel-art-tutorials/tags/animation
(2) https://www.reddit.com/r/Unity2D/comments/14ooect/how_do_you_make_a_pixel_art_animation_like_this/

Notable Developers

Some of the most renowned pixel art game developers and studios include Toby Fox, the creator of indie hit Undertale; Motion Twin, the studio behind popular roguelike Dead Cells; Derek Yu, creator of smash hit platformer Spelunky; and Tom Happ, the one-man studio behind acclaimed Metroidvania Axiom Verge. These talented developers have mastered the pixel art aesthetic to create some of the most beloved indie games in recent years.

In an interview with PC Gamer, Toby Fox discusses his love for pixel art and how he created the retro look of Undertale https://www.pcgamer.com/how-undertale-creator-toby-fox-does-pixel-art/. He says “I pretty much only make pixel art. I really like the crispness of it, and how it forces you to convey as much as you can with limited resolution.” Derek Yu has also commented on his fondness for pixel art, saying in an interview “there’s something special about making elaborate animations in a small resolution that you just can’t get otherwise.”

These developers exemplify pixel art mastery, taking a retro aesthetic and transforming it into modern indie classics through their creativity and passion for the artform.

The Future

Pixel art has seen a resurgence in recent years, especially in indie and retro-inspired games. But will it continue to have a place in the future of game development? According to this article, the answer seems to be yes. The limited resolution and retro aesthetic of pixel art actually gives developers a lot of creative constraints to work within. This can inspire innovative game mechanics and clever solutions to work around technical limitations. So pixel art may evolve and be used in new or hybrid ways, but it will likely continue to have its place.

pixel art animation of mario jumping from the classic super mario bros game

There also seems to be a desire to preserve pixel art and its legacy. Newer games pay homage to classic pixel art styles from past consoles and genres. Game jams often challenge developers to create games with pixel art. And the indie game scene embraces pixel art as a way to create highly styled games with modest resources. So even as technology progresses, there will likely be a contingent of developers and fans who want to keep pixel art alive.