Octopath Traveler (Switch)

Octopath Traveler (Switch)
Octopath Traveler (Switch)
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 13th Jul 2018 (USA) / 13th Jul 2018 (UK/EU)

Octopath Traveler invented HD-2D, a unique art style that seems to capture how you remember 16-bit RPGs looking, rather than how they truly look. Detailed sprites are used around the world in a Paper Mario-esque style, juxtaposed against 3D objects in the environments.

Objects in the background and foreground blur in and out of focus as you grow nearer to them and lighting is handled in a realistic way, whether it be the long shadows cast on the walls of caves or the specks of light reflecting off the water in a rushing creek. The world is as colourful as it is diverse in environments, and a big motivator to explore it further is simply the joy of seeing what other gorgeous locales you can stumble upon. This is one of the best looking ‘retro’ games we’ve ever seen, and the novelty of the unique 'HD-2D' being achieved here never wears off.

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Children of Morta (Switch eShop)

Children of Morta (Switch eShop)
Children of Morta (Switch eShop)
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios / Developer: Dead Mage
Release Date: 20th Nov 2019 (USA) / 20th Nov 2019 (UK/EU)

Children of Morta's retro-pixel graphics are excellent across the board; everything is lovingly crafted and detailed, and there are more than a few hints of Hyper Light Drifter here – in the characters and isometric level design, in the way nature tends to pulsate with mysterious neon light, and in the rolls and thrusts of the Bergsons in combat.

Wargroove (Switch eShop)

Wargroove (Switch eShop)
Wargroove (Switch eShop)
Publisher: Chucklefish / Developer: Chucklefish
Release Date: 1st Feb 2019 (USA) / 1st Feb 2019 (UK/EU)

Wargroove goes for a rich, pixel-heavy art style that wouldn’t look out of place on the Game Boy Advance, characterised by chunky, colourful character sprites on the battle screen and more realistic and detailed ones during cutscenes.

This pixel art is not a particularly innovative look — it's more than a little inspired by Advance Wars, after all — but it absolutely nails the same level of charm and detail as Wargroove's writing; a strategy game such as this is at its best when it goes with a simple art style, and Wargroove utilises one that helps to give it some memorable identity.

Blasphemous (Switch eShop)

Blasphemous (Switch eShop)
Blasphemous (Switch eShop)
Publisher: Team17 / Developer: The Game Kitchen
Release Date: 10th Sep 2019 (USA) / 10th Sep 2019 (UK/EU)

Blasphemous won over its many Kickstarter backers with screenshots of the sumptuous pixel art-style which brings to life its incredibly detailed world, a world filled with twisted religious iconography, grotesque enemies, brutally warped boss battles and imposing landscapes dripping in blood, filth and decay.

From its opening level set around the dusty Spanish-styled village of Albero and onwards across the Wastelands of the Buried Churches to the Desecrated Cistern – a festering, toxic labyrinth that descends into the foreboding depths of Jondo – this really is spectacularly well-realised stuff.

Moonlighter (Switch)

Moonlighter (Switch)
Moonlighter (Switch)
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios / Developer: Digital Sun
Release Date: 5th Nov 2018 (USA) / 9th Nov 2018 (UK/EU)

Will's storybook rise to legendary Hero-Merchant in dungeon crawler-meets-shop sim game Moonlighter is gorgeous all the way through. The pixel art is not just charming, but imaginative, and executed well on a technical level. Explosions are epic, liquid has a signature flow, enemy designs are indelible, and the tile art is meticulously well put-together. You may think 16-bit “retro style” graphics are old hat for indie titles, but Moonlighter manages a fresh, lively presentation.

Inmost (Switch eShop)

Inmost (Switch eShop)
Inmost (Switch eShop)
Publisher: Chucklefish / Developer: Hidden Layer Games
Release Date: 21st Aug 2020 (USA) / 2020 (UK/EU)

In Inmost you take control of three very different characters, a little girl exploring a house full of secrets and terrible memories, a battle-hardened knight making his way through the treacherous bowels of a foreboding castle in the service of some otherworldly evil, and a troubled middle-aged man whose scenes make up the brunt of the game’s clever platforming and puzzling action.

There’s sumptuous detail here in how characters move and interact with this grim maze in which they find themselves trapped. Books fall off shelves as you clamber in and around them, locked doors strain as you push against them, rain beats atmospherically off windows and every weapon slash or interaction you have with a piece of machinery, blocked path or enemy feels weighted and hefty.

UnderMine (Switch eShop)

UnderMine (Switch eShop)
UnderMine (Switch eShop)
Publisher: Thorium Entertainment / Developer: Thorium Entertainment
Release Date: 11th Feb 2021 (USA) / 11th Feb 2021 (UK/EU)

UnderMine's compelling roguelite systems are backed by a 32-bit art style that’s masterfully executed. Environments are rife with all sorts of fine details, like the somewhat warped real-time reflections of objects near pools of water, and the sprite-work and animation are full of expression.

Pixel art may be seen as kind of trite these days, but it’s abundantly clear that the developers were anything but lazy in going with this direction. The only downside is that the general ‘underground’ aesthetic slightly dampens the visual diversity of each area, but this is really just a nitpick.

The Messenger (Switch eShop)

The Messenger (Switch eShop)
The Messenger (Switch eShop)
Publisher: Devolver Digital / Developer: Sabotage
Release Date: 30th Aug 2018 (USA) / 30th Aug 2018 (UK/EU)

The Messenger's presentation is second to none — except maybe Sabotage Studio's follow-up, Sea Of Stars, when it comes out later in 2023.

To emphasise the difference between the past and future, the art style switches between 8-bit and 16-bit visuals, an innovative decision which goes a long way towards establishing some memorable imagery. There’s detail and care put into all the sprites and animation whether you’re playing in the past or the future, but it’s the late game areas where you can see that the developers really cut loose, with masterfully-crafted environments that are full to bursting with colour and spirit.

Chained Echoes (Switch eShop)

Chained Echoes (Switch eShop)
Chained Echoes (Switch eShop)
Publisher: DECK13 Spotlight / Developer: Matthias Linda
Release Date: 8th Dec 2022 (USA) / 8th Dec 2022 (UK/EU)

About seven years ago, a solo indie developer named Matthias Linda began working on an idea he had for a new RPG, itself likely the product of many years of producing fan games based on his genre favorites in RPG Maker. After a successful Kickstarter in 2019 and who knows how many hours of painstaking iteration, Linda has finally seen his vision realized with the release of Chained Echoes. Luckily, this one turned out to be well worth the seven-year wait.

Chained Echoes sticks to a faithful 32-bit art style that does an impressive job of capturing that retro aesthetic without feeling cheap. In the best kind of way, one could say that Chained Echoes feels like a modern remaster of a classic JRPG—one which aims not to replace all the previous art, but to sharpen it and present it in the best possible light.

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider (Switch eShop)

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider (Switch eShop)
Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider (Switch eShop)
Publisher: The Arcade Crew / Developer: JoyMasher
Release Date: 12th Jan 2023 (USA) / 12th Jan 2023 (UK/EU)

Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is absolutely stunning. The 16-bit pixel art style here is reminiscent of classic side-scrolling games like Castlevania: Bloodlines and has a timeless quality we can't get enough of. There’s plenty of visual variety on offer, including cyberpunk cities, murky underwater passageways, and digital spaces that reminded us of the VR missions in Metal Gear Solid.

Also, a CRT filter can be applied at any point — one of the more successful uses of the effect we've seen in quite some time.