The resurgence of ’80s-style pixel art and gameplay mechanics should come as no surprise; surely, many, if not most mid-career developers came of age during the long dominance of the NES, SNES, and Sega systems. Yes, 3D game engines have changed the face of the industry, but as powerful tools expand the realm of possibilities for first-person shooters, so do 8-bit game developers benefit considerably from software advancements (think Game Maker, Unity, and Godot, to name a few).
By way of example, look at the range of player experiences present in Stardew Valley (a farming simulation RPG), Hyper Light Drifter (combining Zelda and Diablo elements), and To The Moon (a non-traditional RPG focusing on character development and memories); each of these games possesses a singular aesthetic, a unique identity, a world to lose yourself in, with interactive elements working to produce something special and unique.
Studios aren’t simply making sidescrollers because they have faster development times in an attempt to ride the wave of ’80s nostalgia (at least, the progressive, visionary teams aren’t). Watch the trailer for Narita Boy; the highly stylized aesthetic combining magic and early home computing isn’t merely a rote rehashing of familiar tropes. Robot monsters seem new, familiar, exciting. Riding a floppy disk feels natural.
Pixel art feel dated? Go even further back. Studio MDHR’s upcoming game, Cuphead, emulates 1930s cartoons and animation techniques, like jumping into the world of Betty Boop or Popeye, complete with pirates, monster carrots, mermaids, and any number of mischievous enemies in a run-and-gun experience.
The number of titles produced by up-and-coming studios is on the rise, and we’ll likely be mining history for a long time to come; I imagine we’ll be fighting Ganon, Bowser, and Dr. Eggman in our dreams, even as we explore new worlds populated by yet-unimagined cartoonish villains.