Independent games are well-known for reaching into the early days of the industry for inspiration. Many indies borrow the retro style of chiptunes and pixel art, being an aesthetic that's easily created on a smaller budget, and titles like Shovel Knight have even elevated the look beyond its original form. Life of Pixel takes this philosophy and runs with it, giving us control of a smiley green square who takes a trip back in time to levels based on over 10 popular consoles and computing devices from the earliest era of video gaming.
Life of Pixel plays it pretty simple and straight in the gameplay department, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. After picking a retro console from the menu, you're taken to a series of levels themed around that system's visual and auditory style. Your goal in each stage is to collect all of the scattered items that open the door to the next level. There are usually a few secrets to unlock as well; there are hidden walls that can lead to new areas and hidden powerups, and each level has one of 72 gems to collect that, together, unlock a bonus world.
The game controls very smoothly, and the simplicity is refreshing. Searching for secrets in the levels, particularly ones that open up new areas and ability-granting powerups, is an absolute joy - if you only complete the main objective in a level the first time through, there are almost always plenty of reasons to go back and take a second look.
Fun though it usually is, there are a few serious issues with the level design, particularly in the latter half of the game, that can really make your time a miserable one. To be sure, Life of Pixel is intentionally brutal - likely a nod to the higher difficulty of games released in the era it was inspired by - but it doesn't earn some of its challenge. Specifically, it just doesn't play fair with the layouts of some stages: there will be many cheap deaths on your way to the end credits, and a good deal of trial and error is required.
The vast majority of these problems are caused by a disorienting screen change that occurs in some levels when you reach the edge of an area - it's infuriating to fall into a pit of spikes you didn't know was there. On top of that, some of the levels near the end are much too spacious and take far too long, and the penalty of having to start over from the beginning is a frustratingly steep one.
The best portion of Pixel's adventure is easily the presentation, which absolutely nails the general visual style found on each of the consoles it emulates. It's worth noting that none of these are technically accurate representations of what games on these systems actually looked like; they all run at a much smoother frame rate and higher resolution than what would have been possible on some of the earlier systems. Rather than go for a precise technical approach, the design borrows from a few of the most memorable titles on each console and uses them to form a wonderfully nostalgic pastiche.
For example, many of the elements on the SNES stage are reminiscent of the sprites and backgrounds of treasures like Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The Game Boy stage is another highlight, affectionately reproducing the green-tinted monochromatic colour scheme of the beloved handheld. There are plenty of other nods to legendary retro classics, as well, and it's well-nigh impossible not to smile and take in some of the joy that clearly went into this presentation.
The music is no slouch, either, affectionately reproducing the blips and bleeps of retro chip soundtracks. Unlike the graphics, the music here is technically accurate, having been composed by a number of talented chiptune musicians using either the original hardware or Virtual Studio Technology (VST) emulation. The results are remarkable, encompassing the full range of sounds that put a twinkle in the eyes of many a now-seasoned gamer - the composers themselves clearly included.
Life of Pixel has an infectious, boundless enthusiasm for the early history of video games; it was created with a drive and energy that's evident in every frame of animation and blip on the soundtrack. There's no denying the fact that the game itself contains a few serious issues - the level design doesn't always play fair and some stages run on for far too long - but gamers with a disposition toward the heady early days of the medium will find a lot to love here. If you fancy yourself a brutal challenge that hearkens back to gaming's days of yore, this is a one-way ticket to the 80's and 90's that won't cost you much more than a bad new wave CD.