The history of video games is built on pixel art classics like Super Mario Bros., Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI, but the graphical medium has made its way back to the forefront of gaming thanks to a booming interest from indie game creators.
Building out of the success of game sensations like Cave Story and Fez, indie games have been revitalizing pixel art for over a decade, opening the doors for an artistic revolution that embraces gaming’s history while pushing the art style to its limits.
These games aren’t only feeding our hunger for nostalgia — they’re creating modern experiences, with gameplay and audiovisual elements every bit as impressive (and popular) as their flashier 3D counterparts. With more than 15 million sales worldwide, indie hit Stardew Valley is just one example of pixel art games’ rising popularity over the past decade, opening doors for a whole new generation of creators to build off of classics from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. They look retro, but offer new experiences impossible to replicate on old hardware.
So let’s take a look at some of the best modern pixel art games you can play right now.
This indie darling mixes pixel-perfect platforming with a genuinely touching story about identity and perseverance. Made by Extremely OK Games, the creators of Towerfall (another great pixel art game), Celeste’s gorgeous pixel art graphics hide a challenging experience that rewards player patience with tightly designed levels, snappy controls, and addictive action-platforming puzzle solving. Best of all, it’s loaded with accessibility features, so gamers of all experience levels and tastes can see the beautiful ending.
Price: $29.95 (Xbox)
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia
Kick back with a cuppa and some good company in this social simulation game from Toge Productions. Step into Coffee Talk, the eponymous coffee shop in a fantasy-fied version of Seattle full of all sorts of humanoids — from elves to orcs — and solve their problems while brewing them the perfect hot beverage. As you navigate Coffee Talk’s various relationships, this visual novel delights with its rich characters, incredible art style, and relaxing gameplay.
Price: $20.95 (Xbox)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, macOS, Nintendo Switch
Cosmic Star Heroine
One part Chrono Trigger, one part Phantasy Star, and one part Mass Effect, this polished gem from Zeboyd Games takes all the good parts from the JRPG golden age — colourful characters, a twist-filled story, and memorable dungeons and towns to explore — and adds a modern layer of polish, for a slick RPG experience. When interstellar secret agent Alyssa L’Salle discovers the secretive “Project Lumina,” she kickstarts the most dangerous case of her career. Cosmic Star Heroine lures players in with its lush pixel art visuals, but it’s the combat system that really shines, dropping the genre’s traditional grind approach for a strategy-first formula that restores the player’s health and abilities after each battle, encouraging players to go all-out in their fight for victory.
Price: $22.95 (PlayStation)
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch
Developed by Brazilian studio Long Hat House, Dandara is a whole new take on the traditional Metroidvania formula. Unlike most games in the genre, Dandara’s eponymous heroine — based on a popular Brazilian historical figure — can’t freely move throughout the world, and instead relies on her supernatural ability to teleport between surfaces, forcing the player to completely rethink how they navigate its striking world. Hope dwindles in the oppressed world of Salt, but Dandara brings light to the darkness as she explores the world seeking a way to free her people for good. Backed by tight combat, clever puzzle solving, and impressive art design, there’s always something exciting to discover around Dandara’s next corner.
Price: $19.95 (Xbox)
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Controlling a gelatinous ooze capable of commandeering corpses known as “The Prisoner,” players battle through various levels and big, bad bosses as they attempt a deadly escape from a mysterious island prison. Where other Metroid-inspired games on this list lean into that series’s progression systems as you slowly explore a huge map, Dead Cells blends it with a roguelite death mechanic and randomised levels, to great effect. Death’s the name of the game (literally) in Dead Cells, but in typical roguelite fashion, each time you die is an opportunity to bolster your inventory, nail a boss’s attack patterns, or try out a new build. Dying’s never been so fun.
Price: $30.95 (PlayStation)
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Android
Thanks to its stylish pixel art graphics, you’ll find yourself constantly stopping and staring at Eastward’s colourful and whimsical take on dystopia. After discovering an effervescent and shockingly magical child named Sam, grizzled miner John sets out to escape the clutches of his subterranean society as they search for the fabled lands above and uncover the secrets behind the deadly miasma spreading across the world. Every map is bursting with personality and detail, and nooks and crannies just waiting to be explored, plus a cast of characters so wacky they’d fit right into Shigesato Itoi’s classic Earthbound. You explore Eastward’s world in a Zelda-like adventure as you tackle puzzle-based dungeons, big bosses, and a sprawling adventure that’ll take you over 20 hours to beat.
Price: $35.95 (Nintendo)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, MacOS
Hyper Light Drifter
Where games like Eastward and Iconoclasts (see next entry) pack their pixel art worlds with detail and wordy-scripts, Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter goes the minimalist route in creating its vibrant adventure. There’s not a single written word of dialogue, and the world is painted in broad strokes and eerie colours. But it’s not all style over substance — thanks to responsive controls and rock-solid 60fps gameplay, combat is fast and furious, the challenge never lets up, and exploration’s the name of the game as you unravel the world’s secrets, minus a lot of the handholding or railroading present in other, similar games.
Price: $28.95 (PlayStation)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, iOS, macOS, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, Linux, Nintendo Switch
This Metroidvania side-scroller has a surprisingly deep story to go along with its stellar sprite work and colourful world. Eight years in development, it is the work of Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg, and offers a balance of exploration and linear puzzle-platforming that helped it carve out a niche among similar indie games. With visuals that bring to mind a souped-up 16-bit game, Iconoclasts puts you in control of a mechanic named Robin who uses her trusty wrench to solve puzzles and bash heads as she goes head-to-head with a religious cult called the One Concern and their mysterious leader, “Mother.”
Price: $29.95 (PlayStation)
Platforms: PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
With its 2014 Kickstarter-backed release, Shovel Knight became a poster child for the pixel art revolution thanks to its NES-inspired graphics, clever platforming, and host of iconic characters, including the titular Shovel Knight. Paying homage to the classic Mega Man games of the 80s and 90s, Shovel Knight is a tough, action-packed platformer that modernizes the genre with great quality-of-life improvements — like a clever check point system that rewards you for skipping check points with copious amounts of in-game loot — and a bevy of great downloaded content that expands the game with new heroes, levels, and storylines. The complete “Treasure Trove” edition includes a whole host of spinoff games that let you take control of other protagonists in their own unique adventures, as well as some other unlock-able goodies.
Price: $57.99 (Xbox)
Platforms: Amazon Fire TV, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
From Eric Barone’s tiny apartment to international megahit, Stardew Valley is the textbook definition of an indie game that literally changed the industry, proving an intimate, slower-paced experience could have mainstream appeal. This farming and friendship sim matches adorable graphics, a fun Tower of Druaga-esque dungeon crawl, and chill exploration and relationship building into an experience that emphasises creativity and customisation. Build the farm of your dreams one pixel and potato at a time. You could probably play it forever, and many people are trying to.
Price: $19.95 (Xbox)
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android
Unsighted puts its own spin on the Metroidvanis formula with its top-down perspective, huge dungeons, and timer-based gameplay. Created by just two people at Studio Pixel Punk, Unsighted features responsive combat, a ton of customizability, great accessibility options (including one to minimise the impact of the game’s time limits) and a pixel art world that leans heavily into its eastern cyberpunk aesthetics. Players assume the role of a sentient automaton named Alba who seeks to end humanity’s subjugation of her fellow AI, and along the way gain access to new powers that allow you to delve deeper into a Blade Runner-esque world.
Price: $29.95 (Xbox)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch
This modern reimagining of Nintendo’s classic Advance Wars series from Chucklefish trades its tanks and bazookas for swords and fireballs, but retains all of the original’s charm, challenge, and compulsive just-one-more-turn gameplay. With a robust single player game, bolstered by great DLC, Wargroove’s turn-based strategy fun offers nearly endless replayability thanks to a huge library of player created maps.
Price: $28.95 (PlayStation)
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Calling on Nintendo’s iconic Earthbound with its blend of humour, RPG gameplay, and quirky characters, Toby Fox’s Undertale quickly established itself as one of the most beloved and successful indie games of all time. After a nameless child falls into the Underground — a magical, secluded realm sealed away beneath Earth — they set forth on a journey to find Asgore castle. Along the way, they discover how their forgotten past is the fulcrum on which the entirety of existence depends. (Heavy.)
With a killer soundtrack (which no less than the Pope himself enjoys), an unforgettable world, and multiple endings, Undertale’s a fan favourite for the way it pushes the limits of game narrative, characterization, and storytelling, and for its metatextual exploration of video game tropes and the relationship between video games and the people who play them. Few indie games have captured hearts to quite the same level as Toby Fox’s modern classic.
Price: $22.45 (Xbox)
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One