Pixelart Vs. Modern Graphics: A Comparison In Gaming

Both pixel art and modern graphics have their merits when used in video games, and each art style offers distinct advantages and disadvantages. Pixel art rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s with gaming systems like the NES and SNES, relying on a limited color palette and pixel resolution to evoke character and aesthetic. With advancements in graphics hardware and 3D rendering, modern games are capable of incredibly lifelike visuals and complex physics – but many players still prefer the charm and nostalgia of pixel art’s retro style.

This article will compare pixel art and modern graphics through examining their histories, artistic merits, and limitations. While 3D realism allows modern games a level of immersion not possible with pixel art, pixel art offers artistic cohesion and allows more focus on mechanics. Both styles continue to coexist in the gaming world today.

History of Pixel Art in Games

Pixel art began in the 1970s and 80s when graphics capabilities of video game consoles and computers were extremely limited. With only a small number of pixels available onscreen, artists had to carefully place each pixel to create characters, environments and animations (source). Early consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System could only display simple 2D graphics with a limited color palette.

pixel art of mario jumping from the super mario bros nes game

Despite the constraints, skilled pixel artists managed to create iconic games with memorable visual styles. Super Mario Bros on the NES relied on pixel art for the characters, tiles and animations that defined the Mario aesthetic. Other influential NES games that used pixel art include The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man and Final Fantasy. The simplicity of form imposed by pixel art lent these games an abstraction and timeless quality.

Artistic Merit of Pixel Art

Pixel art has a charming retro aesthetic that many find nostalgic and timeless. The constrained palette and resolution breed creativity within developers, resulting in visually striking games that make the most of limited resources. As one Reddit user noted, “I agree completely about the artistic merit of pixel art, especially for its limitations. Celeste (as one example) is enriched by its pixel art style” (source). The nostalgia factor gives pixel art games a special appeal, transporting players back to the early days of gaming. Titles like Yume Nikki showcase “the artistic merit of pixel art games in the pursuit of abstract storytelling” with their dreamlike visuals (source). Despite technological advances, pixel art remains a creative and stylized artform.

Limitations of Pixel Art

Pixel art was constrained by the technical limitations of early gaming hardware and platforms. Most notably, pixel art had to work within very low screen resolutions and limited color palettes. The Nintendo Entertainment System was limited to a 256 x 240 resolution and a palette of 52 colors (Kristine. “The Color Palette and Limitations of the NES.” The Video Game Art Archive, 15 June 2012, www.videogameartarchive.com/blog/15/the-color-palette-limitations-of-the-nes). This pales in comparison to modern HD resolutions and millions of colors.

The low resolution made it difficult for pixel artists to depict complex themes, detailed environments, and large animations. As one Reddit user pointed out, “It’s not very flexible. Changing the color on a character would require going into every animation and updating” (u/tmachineorg. “Limitations of Pixel Art?” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/6gyars/limitations_of_pixel_art/, accessed 1 Mar. 2023). The time required to animate was prohibitive.

While pixel art has an undeniable retro charm, it was limited in its ability to showcase complex and detailed graphics on the technology available at the time. Modern game graphics overcame many of these limitations.

Rise of 3D Graphics

The 1990s brought a revolution in 3D graphics and gaming that took the experience to new levels of immersion and realism. New graphics standards and hardware allowed developers to create expansive 3D worlds and characters with incredible detail and fidelity.

Early 3D games like Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992) and Doom (id Software, 1993) showed the potential for first-person 3D environments. But it was titles like Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996), Tomb Raider (Eidos, 1996), and Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997) that demonstrated the ability to build expansive 3D worlds and cinematic gaming experiences.

This leap was enabled by new graphics libraries like OpenGL that allowed for real-time 3D rendering. And new GPU chips like the 3dfx Voodoo brought dedicated 3D acceleration to home computers. These technologies worked together to make complex 3D graphics possible in mainstream gaming (A History of 3D Graphics in Video Games).

The impact was transformative. 3D graphics allowed for deeper immersion, more lifelike characters, and greater creative freedom. It opened the door to expansive open worlds, cinematic cutscenes, and visceral first-person experiences that made games feel more real than ever before.

Capabilities of Modern Game Graphics

Modern video games feature incredibly advanced graphics capabilities that were simply not possible in earlier eras. Some key capabilities of contemporary game graphics include:

HD and 4K Graphics: Today’s games can display crisp, highly detailed visuals in high definition formats like 720p, 1080p and even 4K resolution (Wikipedia, 2023). This allows for greater visual clarity and realism compared to the low resolutions of older games.

Complex Physics and Animations: Advanced physics engines allow for realistic depictions of elements like cloth, water, fire, smoke, weather effects and detailed character animations (Resmilitaris, 2023). Game worlds can feel much more immersive and lifelike as a result.

Photorealism: With increasing computing power, some modern games strive for near photorealistic visuals, closing the gap between real life imagery and computer graphics. Though not all games pursue this, the potential for photorealism has grown tremendously.

Massive Game Worlds: Modern hardware can render sprawling 3D environments with huge draw distances, populated by numerous detailed objects and characters. This allows players to explore expansive, continuous game worlds.

Shortcomings of Modern Graphics

While modern 3D graphics provide greatly enhanced visuals and realism compared to older 2D pixel art, they also come with some drawbacks:

Pursuing greater realism can result in a lack of stylization. Games that utilize a highly realistic graphical style often end up looking generic and losing a sense of artistic personality (The Pros and Cons of Photorealism in Video Games). Pixel art allows for more abstraction and imaginative visuals.

As graphics approach photorealistic levels, they risk falling into the “uncanny valley”, where the imperfections and subtle unrealism create an unsettling effect for viewers (The Problem With Photorealism). Pixel art does not aim for realism, so it avoids this issue.

The development costs for modern 3D games are far higher than 2D pixel art games. Vast teams and resources are required to produce high fidelity graphics, whereas pixel art can be created by a few dedicated artists (The Problem With Photorealism : r/Games).

Art Styles in Modern Games

Modern video games employ a diverse range of art styles, including some that creatively build upon or reference pixel art’s limitations and aesthetic. One popular style is cel shading, which mimics the flat shading of hand-drawn animation cels. Examples of cel shaded games include The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Jet Set Radio, and Ni No Kuni. Impressionist rendering using painterly brush strokes is another art approach seen in games like Ōkami and Gris. While these styles aren’t pixel art, they simplify forms and use vibrant solid colors reminiscent of retro graphics.

Some modern indie games directly embrace a pixel art aesthetic as a deliberate creative choice. Titles like Hyper Light Drifter, Owlboy, Dead Cells, and Stardew Valley use detailed pixel art with expanded palettes. This allows greater expression while maintaining the handcrafted feel. Modern pixel art also takes advantage of scaled up resolutions, allowing for cleaner lines and more detail than was possible on older systems. So while limited compared to 3D, pixel art persists as an impactful artistic medium in the modern gaming landscape.

The Revival of Pixel Art

In recent years, pixel art has seen a major revival, particularly among indie game developers. This “pixel art renaissance” has been driven by several factors:

The rise of the indie game development scene and digital distribution platforms like Steam have allowed smaller developers to find success outside of traditional publishers. With fewer graphical limitations, indie developers have embraced pixel art as an aesthetic choice. Pixel art can allow a small team to create appealing, stylized visuals without the need for extensive 3D assets or rendering power. This has been key to the success of breakout indie hits like Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, and Hyper Light Drifter (https://www.reddit.com/r/GameDevelopment/comments/15lglxd/do_you_think_that_pixel_art_will_greatly_decrease/).

Nostalgia also plays a major role. Many influential early games used pixel art, so it evokes fond memories for longtime gamers. Using a classic pixel style taps into that nostalgia, while still feeling fresh and modern. This sense of nostalgia is part of why pixel art styles remain prevalent across various indie game genres.

Finally, while technical limitations necessitated pixel art in the past, many developers legitimately prefer the aesthetic style. Clean, minimalist pixel art has its own artistic merits. It ages gracefully, creates a strong sense of unified themes and color palettes, and allows more creativity within constraints. As such, pixel art is likely to remain a viable and appealing visual style alongside modern 3D graphics.


Both pixel art and modern graphics have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to gaming. Pixel art is known for its nostalgic, retro aesthetic and constrained yet creative use of limited resolution and colors. However, it can look dated to modern audiences and lacks the realism and high resolutions of 3D graphics.

Modern graphics allow for incredibly lifelike visuals with high resolutions, complex textures and realistic physics and animations. This provides immersive gaming experiences not possible with pixel art. However, modern graphics require powerful hardware and can sometimes lead to generic, overly realistic aesthetics lacking stylistic flair.

In summary, pixel art excels at evoking nostalgia and working within creative constraints, while modern graphics aim for cutting-edge realism and immersion. Going forward, both art styles will likely coexist in gaming – pixel art in retro and indie games, and 3D graphics in big-budget mainstream titles. The contrast shows how games can thrive with both simplistic symbolic art and technologically advanced visuals.