Pixels are the building blocks of video games. Without them we wouldn’t be able to see anything we’re doing on the screen. By themselves they’re not entirely impressive or exciting. Put a bunch of them together, however, and you can get anything from Mario to Master Chief.
Life of Pixel is a game brought to us by Super Icon Games. In theory it’s simply a platformer that is similar in style to games like VVVVVV or 1001 Spikes. It’s going to test your platforming skills, your reflexes and your patience at times. In reality it’s that, but it’s also a history lesson in video game form. You play through levels based on a number of different video game consoles ranging from the black and white display of the ZX81 all the up way through the 16 bit era with the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis.
You play as a pixel that evolves in shape, complexity and detail as you progress through the game. From the beginning I was impressed with just how differently each system played. They’re obviously not going to be perfect representations of each system as the Wii U is simply more powerful than all of them (probably all of them combined), but they’re pretty spot on as to how each system felt, which in the end is all that you really need. The visual style and sound design from each of them is a near spot on representation to how they looked. Things like slow down or screen flicker are not reproduced, however.
If you’ve played games like the platformers I mentioned earlier you know how incredibly difficult they can be. Life of Pixel is very similar in that it requires very precise timing and control of the character. You’re going to die, and you’re going to die a lot. Many times, however, in those games it felt like you were the one ultimately responsible for your death. That’s not always the case here. Sometimes it feels like Life of Pixel is trolling you. For example there are some instances where you’re walking along a pretty straight path only to have spikes suddenly sprout up beneath you, killing you instantly. There’s no way to tell those spikes are coming, nothing in the background to show that you might be coming up to something to pay attention to. They just pop up and kill you. You have to remember that for your next run through the level. It requires a lot of trial and error to complete some of the levels.
The game progresses much like the systems it’s trying to emulate. From the beginning with the ZX81 you’re limited to single screen areas with few enemies on the screen. Obstacles like pits of acid are simply represented by checkerboard patterns in the ground. As you progress through the various eras of gaming history the systems got more complex and more things can occur at one time. Screens begin to scroll and levels take up more and more “space” many times requiring you to travel through multiple different areas to complete one level. This can also result in some frustration as well. The systems that don’t scroll with the character make hard cuts between levels and you have no way of knowing what’s coming. Some of those require leaps of faith (not anything like you’d find in Assassin’s Creed), or memorizing where a platform is on a second play through of the level. It doesn’t always seem fair and you don’t always seem in control of what’s going on. While it can be frustrating it’s also very representative of those eras of gaming as many games from those various systems had similar features.
While it does have moments of frustration there are far more moments where you feel incredibly satisfied at finishing a level. In each of the eight levels from any given system you’re required to find a number of gems to open the door to take you to the next level. There are secrets hidden in each many levels and it rewards you for paying very close attention to the level design and going out of your way to walk down a corridor that seems to lead nowhere. If you see something on a wall that looks slightly off, such as the color being slightly different or a texture looking just a little strange, you might want to check that out. Chances are there is something waiting behind those pixels. There are achievements for finding many of the secrets in the game.
It might be tempting to jump in and just play the systems that you’re most familiar with. Try to resist that urge as playing through the game in the proper progression really gives you a good sense of growth. You see the systems growing more complex as you go along. It really is a nice crash course in the history of consoles, and both sound and visual design.
While, yes, there are those moments of frustration I found myself becoming more and more enamored with the game as it went along. I learned the little quirks of each of the different systems in the game and how they work. I found those few moments of frustration were far outweighed by the sense of accomplishment I got as an achievement popped up saying I’d found all the secrets for a given system. I found myself wanting to actually look into some of the systems I knew little about. Before you start the first level of any new system it gives you a brief history of the console, when it was released, how powerful it was and such. For anyone that’s even remotely interested in the history of video game consoles Life of Pixel is worth checking out. For anyone looking for a challenging platform it’s a no brainer.