The Pandemic by Pixels
From one pixels to the other
Video game development has hit plenty of strides over the past decade, and video games that were independently developed without the help of a big publisher behind them are becoming increasingly common. Along with an increase in accessing video game development tools, the various digital marketplaces have also helped ease indie games into the mainstream market.
And while there are plenty of visual styles that indie games tend to go for, the most common direction that they tend to skew towards is pixel art. Although it evokes the right amount of nostalgia within the players while also tending to have a more timeless look than 3D graphics, the amount of indie games that utilize pixel art also make it pretty difficult for players to pick out which game to pick up and play, especially when the world has been stormed with plenty of problems in the middle of this pandemic.
Fret not, because today, we will be listing ten of our favorite indie games released during the time of the pandemic that utilize pixel art. And while this selection is not a definitive list of the best games that use the visual style that seem to never get old, these games are definitely no slouch in terms of quality gameplay.
For someone who has an extremely short attention span, I appreciate games that deliver a unique experience in a short amount of time, which is the main reason why I usually stay away from grandiose triple A titles with long hour counts. So when this top-down action adventure game about an anthropomorphic turnip who commits tax evasion in a world of fruits and vegetables turned out to be a short experience, my heart was caught in its colorful world.
The game never outstayed its welcome and moved at such a brisk pace that I was able to finish it in one sitting. And with plenty of creative boss battles and a charming cast of characters, it’s easy to see why Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion was such an indie darling when it was first released. Here’s to hoping for more adventures within Turnip Boy’s world.
The only game in this list that I purchased twice, this entry into the long running Mystery Dungeon franchise was first released for the Nintendo DS before being ported over to the Nintendo Switch and Steam with additional content. The series as a whole revolves around various stories of a central character who needs to traverse various dungeons in order to make progress within the game’s narrative. While that seems like traditional RPG fare, the biggest draw for most players who love the series is its extremely random nature, with procedurally generated dungeons, items with vague descriptions, and a respawn system that forces you to start back at level one if you perish.
Since this entry doesn’t really mess with the series’ gameplay loop of figuring everything out for yourself and trying to be extremely careful with how you move across dungeons or consume items, it may not be for everyone. But for players who are well-versed with how the genre works or are simply seeking to give a true rogue-like RPG a shot, The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a great entry point to the series and to the genre as a whole.
If you ever wondered what it would be like to play a farming simulator with some action elements, then you might have already tried any of the Rune Factory games before. And while that spin-off of the Harvest Moon franchise is a great way to release some steam after farming, Atomicrops certainly pumps up the adrenaline elevenfold. Providing a unique mix of twin stick shooters and farming simulators, you’re constantly spraying bullets at enemies while dodging theirs, and you’re also trying to till the soil and water crops all at the same time.
Atomicrops never lets up on the action, with only brief intermission sections that let you shop for upgrades and interact with NPCs as a short breath of air. And then you try to do it all over again the next day. So if you’re feeling extra fidgety and want to release some peas onto mutated monsters, Atomicrops might just be the game for you.
Growing up with the original Castlevania games, I was very hyped up when the first Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was released, and it delivered the promise of harkening back to the great atmosphere that the Castlevania games provided while also removing most of what makes them frustrating if you play them today. Imagine my surprise when a sequel was announced and it doubled down on all the good things that the original possessed.
Featuring great 2D platforming action, remarkable sprite work, and creative boss battles, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 also adds new playable characters into the fray. You can switch between any of them at will, and with each of them having a unique skillset, this adds an extra layer of strategy on top of an already superb game.
I’m usually not someone who likes survival games in the vein of Don’t Starve or Raft, but The Survivalists stood out for me not only because of the beautiful pixel art, but also because of a unique system that let me train monkeys to mimic my actions, which provided the game with a much quicker pace compared to its cohorts.
Aside from that, the combat is more nuanced than the usual survival affair, but overall, despite The Survivalists remaining to be the only survival game that I liked, and it is one that I have sunk in more hours than I should have, your mileage may vary on how much you would love the changes that it brought to the genre. But it sure did convert me into a believer.
Going back to games that try to emulate a specific game from the past, Cyber Shadow is basically Ninja Gaiden with modern game design sensibilities. Even though it is as hard as the game that it tries to mimic, the amount of assistance that the game provides actually makes it a more enjoyable experience. With save points, purchasable upgrades, and a better sense of progression, the game just doesn’t let up with its momentum.
And you better ride that momentum, because this is another one of those experiences that is relatively short in its overall play time. Despite that, Cyber Shadow remains to be one of the most memorable side-scrolling games that I have played in recent years, and definitely one of the hardest.
From one familiar video gaming experience to another that just seems to burst at the seams with weirdness, Everhood is an incredibly surreal RPG about a red doll looking for his lost arm. And while that may seem to be a fairly barebones narrative thread to follow, it’s not too deep into the game that you feel that there is definitely more to the story than a simple lost arm.
Besides the story throwing plenty of curveballs at you, the other notable aspect of Everhood is the combat, which is presented in a similar manner to a rhythm game. Consisting of five lanes akin to the style popularized by games like Beatmania or Guitar Hero, notes will be falling towards the player, and it’s up to you to be able to either hit or dodge the notes, depending on the type of note that is approaching. It’s all a very refreshing take on the typical RPG battles, and I’m all up for more of this style.
If you’re looking to experience an action RPG with all the pixel art goodness, The Slormancer might just be what you’re looking for. With gameplay reminiscent of something like Diablo or Torchlight, the game ultimately delivers on the action and all the skill tree shenanigans while mixing in rougelite elements.
And while the number of playable classes is pretty thin, The Slormancer makes up for it by having more than 150 skills to choose from in its skill tree, allowing you to create your own unique playstyle even within the game’s limited classes.
If you want your action to be more about guns and twitch reflexes, then Orbital Bullet has got you covered. A platformer that plays very similarly to something like Contra or Metal Slug, the game’s unique 360° perspective will suddenly have you rethinking how you shoot your way through the various levels.
Most games of this genre simply allow you to shoot what’s directly on your screen, and what Orbital Bullet does is take on this formula head on by actually presenting most of the level via a single screen. This means that if you can see an enemy in the background and there are no obstacles in between you and that enemy, you can shoot it from where you’re standing, because your bullet will curve right around the level until it hits the background. This is something that sounds confusing, but you’d have to experience it to see how unique the gameplay is.
Finally, we end this list with probably one of the quieter experiences in the form of Inmost. Although the game mostly looks like a 2D platformer, there will only be quite a few sections that actually allow you to fight enemies with a weapon. Instead, the game relies on puzzle platforming most of the time to deliver an emotional story with plenty of themes that may upset some players due to how real the feelings depicted within the game’s narrative are.
In Inmost, you play as three different characters with interconnected stories, with each character providing a unique set of actions that they can use. And within this unique framework, it is able to tell its story successfully, utilizing the said framework to allow you to connect with each character in a meaningful manner.
Pick your Pixels
With an astounding amount of games getting published every month, with the actual number averaging around 300-500 games per month, it’s easy to overlook plenty of the games released each month that are actually good. These games are simply ten of our favorite ones that saw the light of day during the pandemic, so if you don’t see a game here that you would’ve included on your own list, feel free to tell us about it at https://twitter.com/megacatstudios or head on over to https://megacatstudios.com for more retro gaming goodness.