Pixelart Archetypes: Iconic Characters Through History

Pixel art is a form of digital art where images are edited and created on the pixel level. It originated in the 1980s with early video games and graphics that were limited to low screen resolutions. Some of the most iconic pixel art characters were born out of this limitation, creating memorable images with very few pixels such as Pac-Man, Mario, and Link.

As games advanced into the 90s and 2000s, pixel art continued evolving and gained depth, stylistic diversity, and expression. Characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man pushed pixel art techniques forward while retaining a distinctly retro flair. Beyond gaming, pixel art became a popular art form with a unique aesthetic. The constraints of limited resolution forced pixel artists to master visual storytelling techniques.

This article will examine the progression of pixel art through its most iconic character designs across history. Despite technological advances opening up new possibilities, pixel art persists through its ability to capture imaginations with seemingly simple forms. The evolution of these characters reflects broader pop culture trends as creators invented new styles and techniques to work within the pixel format.


examples of iconic pixel art characters from the 1980s like mario and link

The 1980s was a pioneering decade for pixel art and interactive entertainment. Two of the most iconic pixel art characters that emerged during this era were Mario and Link.

Mario first appeared in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong as “Jumpman”, and later became known as Mario beginning with the 1983 arcade game Mario Bros (source). With his red cap, mustache, and blue overalls, Mario has become one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world. What began as a 16 x 32 pixel character sprite has grown into a globally beloved mascot for Nintendo. Beyond originating in classic games like Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World, Mario has starred in over 200 video games and sold over half a billion units total as of 2021, and featured in various tv shows, movies, and merchandise.

Another iconic character from the 8-bit era is Link from the Legend of Zelda series, first appearing in the 1987 game The Legend of Zelda on the NES (source). With his green tunic, long hat, shield, and sword, Link epitomized the adventurous hero archetype. The Zelda franchise pioneered expansive open world exploration and puzzle solving in games, with Link adventuring through the kingdom of Hyrule. Much like Mario, Link and The Legend of Zelda series exploded in popularity over decades of titles and cross-media adaptations.


The 1990s were an iconic decade for video game characters. Three characters that stand out are Sonic the Hedgehog, Lara Croft, and Crash Bandicoot. Sonic originated in 1991 as Sega’s mascot and flagship character to compete against Nintendo’s Mario. With his speed and “too cool” attitude, he became an instant hit. Sonic was seen as a symbol of the console wars between Sega and Nintendo and his edgy style resonated with older kids. He starred in numerous games throughout the decade and still persists as a pop culture icon.

Lara Croft first appeared in 1996’s Tomb Raider and is considered a breakthrough female character. She was one of the first female protagonist in gaming and her tough, fierce persona appealed to both male and female gamers. Lara Croft became a symbol of girl power and independence. She paved the way for future strong female characters. Crash Bandicoot also debuted in 1996 and served as Sony’s answer to Mario and Sonic. As a goofy, mutant marsupial, Crash had tons of personality. His self-titled games were iconic platformers for the original PlayStation. Though not as popular as Mario or Sonic, Crash remained a beloved mascot of the 90s era.


The 2000s brought many iconic video game characters that would come to define the decade. Two notable characters introduced during this time were Master Chief from Halo and Kratos from God of War.

Master Chief, the protagonist of the Halo series, made his first appearance in Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. As a super soldier codenamed “Master Chief Petty Officer John-117,” he battles alien threats as Earth’s last hope for survival. Master Chief became an iconic mascot for the Xbox console and is renowned for his mysterious persona hidden behind his armor. According to WatchMojo, Master Chief was one of the Top 10 Memorable Video Game Characters of the 2000s due to his lasting cultural impact.

Kratos, the main character of the God of War series, made his debut in the 2005 game. As a Spartan warrior, he embarks on a quest for vengeance against the gods of Olympus. Known for his vicious fighting style and tragic backstory, Kratos helped redefine action games through the series’ visceral combat. Rolling Stone ranked Kratos as the 39th most iconic video game character of the 21st century for his enormous popularity and influence on gaming culture.


The 2010s marked a continued evolution in pixel art game archetypes. Two of the most iconic pixel art characters that emerged during this decade were Geralt from The Witcher series and Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed.

Geralt is the protagonist of The Witcher series, based on the fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. With his distinctive long white hair, facial scar, and piercing eyes, Geralt embodied the role of the hardened monster hunter. His morally ambiguous nature and dry, sarcastic wit made him a compelling and layered character. As the star of The Witcher games developed by CD Projekt Red starting in 2007, Geralt’s iconic look and personality resonated with players worldwide.

Ezio Auditore was the protagonist of the earlier Assassin’s Creed titles developed by Ubisoft Montreal. As a nobleman’s son inducted into the Assassin Brotherhood in Renaissance Italy, Ezio sported the iconic white Assassin’s hood and hidden wrist blade. His visual design and charming yet rebellious nature made him an instant icon. Over the course of multiple games, players followed Ezio from brash young man to wizened mentor, cementing him as a legendary assassin figure.

Both Geralt and Ezio gained immense popularity and became among the most recognizable pixel art characters of the early 21st century. Their gripping stories and complex character arcs showed that pixel art could effectively convey immersive narratives and nuanced personalities. These characters demonstrated that the pixel art style still had powerful expressive potential decades after its emergence.

Pixel Art Outside of Video Games

While pixel art originated in video games, it has since expanded into other mediums like webcomics, mobile games, and indie games. Some of the most iconic and influential pixel art characters come from outside the traditional console space.

Webcomics like Homestuck featured detailed pixel art characters that attracted legions of devoted fans. Mobile gaming hits like Clash of Clans brought pixel art to the mainstream through widely popular character designs. Indie darlings like Stardew Valley and Terraria further cemented pixel art as a staple of independent games.

There’s also been significant crossover between pixel art characters in different mediums. Webcomic characters often make guest appearances in indie games as playable fighters or cameos. Popular mobile game mascots get pixel art tributes built into indie titles. This intermixing of pixel art across genres demonstrates the universal appeal of the style.

While pixel art has its roots in classic gaming, it has grown far beyond those confines to become a versatile art style used in webcomics, mobile apps, and indie games alike. Its longevity speaks to the nostalgia and charm pixel art evokes.

Evolving Art Styles

Pixel art has advanced significantly alongside improvements in technology, while still maintaining its distinctive retro aesthetic. Early pixel art was constrained by the limited screen resolution and colors of platforms like the NES and Game Boy. Artists worked within a palette of 4-16 colors and pixel dimensions as small as 64×64 or 128×128. This required painstaking attention to detail, using minimal pixels to convey intricate sprites and backgrounds.

Modern pixel art benefits from the HD resolutions of current platforms, with dimensions commonly exceeding 1000×1000 pixels. Artists now have hundreds or thousands of colors to work with. This allows for remarkably sophisticated art while preserving the pixelated style. Clean lines, shading, lighting effects and more are possible. So while today’s pixel art remains low resolution, it has evolved to offer greater detail and nuance than the pixel art of old.

Yet limitations still exist compared to non-pixel art. The regulated dimensions and colors force artists to carefully plan compositions and leverage what’s available. This creative restriction pushes innovation – finding new techniques to maximize expression. The evolution of pixel art has been a balancing act, leveraging better technology while maintaining constrained retro appeal.

Impact on Wider Culture

Pixel art characters have had a significant impact on wider culture beyond just video games. Many iconic pixel art characters have become ingrained in pop culture and internet memes. Characters like Pac-Man, Mario, Link from Zelda, and Space Invaders aliens frequently appear in memes, fan art, cosplay, and merchandise.

The simplistic and nostalgic pixel art style gives these characters an endearing, retro appeal. As this article discusses, the pixel art and storytelling of games like Undertale sparked a renewed interest in the style. Fans constantly recreate and remix classic pixel art characters in new memes, art, and games.

The iconic pixel art also inspires creative merchandise like t-shirts, collectibles, and decor. Both individuals and major brands leverage pixel art versions of beloved characters for branding and products. The nostalgia for early video game graphics and characters also fuels a vibrant retrogaming community.

As pop culture continuously recycles and reimagines content from earlier eras, pixel art characters maintain their cultural relevance and nostalgic appeal decade after decade.

Why Pixel Art Persists

Pixel art has maintained its popularity over the decades thanks to its nostalgic, retro appeal. The pixelated style immediately transports many gamers back to the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, triggering fond memories of classic games. As one Twitter user noted, “Creating pixel art on a small canvas is very challenging, I think this is also one of the reasons why pixel art remains popular to this day.”1 The constraints of low resolution and limited color palettes forced developers to get creative within tight technical limits. This bred innovative character designs and memorable virtual worlds that still hold up today.

In addition, pixel art’s simplicity makes it accessible for small, independent developers. With just basic software and artistic skills, a single creator or very small team can design a pixel art game. This low barrier to entry has enabled indie developers to create fresh gaming experiences while tapping into the retro aesthetic. Overall, the nostalgia factor, creative constraints, and ease of production help pixel art maintain its appeal after so many years.


Over the past few decades, pixel art characters have had a profound impact on gaming and pop culture. From the iconic Mario and Sonic to more recent indie darlings like Undertale’s Sans, these low-resolution sprites have left an indelible mark.

Though technology has evolved to allow for highly detailed 3D and photorealistic game graphics, pixel art endures as an aesthetic choice that speaks to nostalgia while also feeling fresh and contemporary. The constraint of working at low resolutions forces pixel artists to convey emotion and personality through minimalist design.

Looking to the future, it’s clear pixel art still has a devoted following. New games continue to employ pixel art for its retro appeal. Meanwhile, pixel art characters adorn apparel and accessories as brands tap into gaming nostalgia. While the medium evolves, core archetypes like the hero, villain, and damsel in distress endure as testament to the storytelling capacity of seemingly simple pixelated sprites.

Whether conjuring feelings of childhood or appreciating the craft required, pixel art icons feel as relevant as ever. As technology marches forward, these digital time capsules preserve gaming history and demonstrate how a few thoughtfully placed pixels can create magic.