Nostalgia can take a lot of different forms for different people. Regardless, there’s something about pixel art games that can make even people who grew up with GameCubes or Xbox 360s feel nostalgic for a time in gaming they may have never really experienced. Pixel art is beautiful in its simplicity. You don’t need to worry about having the best PC possible to run them. It’s so much more about feel than looks. And PCs boast so many games of this style, so you’re guaranteed to never run out.
Pixel art has quickly become the way to make a game timeless, yet they manage to never feel dated. These games can be cute, funny and heartfelt, or grim, depressing and harsh. Sometimes, they can be all at once. Pixel art offers freedom for whatever story the developer wants to tell. You don’t always need high-fidelity textures to pull at heartstrings. You just need the right words.
10 Always Sometimes Monsters
Always Sometimes Monsters is an RPG that opens with a flashback to a birthday party, where you choose your protagonist and their significant other. Like many RPGs, Always Sometimes Monsters focuses heavily on player choice and the consequences. There is no supernatural angle to this game; it is just a high-drama personal tale where you will become highly aware of how your actions affect those around you. Whether you like it or not, sometimes you’re someone’s monster, and there’s no way to take that back.
Sometimes, you just want a game that expects nothing of you. Proteus has no plot, no goals, and you don’t even really interact with anything. You just walk on a procedurally generated island and find the beauty in that isolated existence, in the nature that surrounds you—every step punctuated by dynamic music that changes depending on your surroundings.
No two walks in Proteus are the same, and your sole motivation is the desire to keep going, to keep taking in the world, and to find peace. It is both endless and limited, familiar yet new. So if you are looking for a moment of tranquility after a difficult day, Proteus is here for you.
8 Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley is one of the most popular pixel art games for a reason; it’s a lush world full of characters you will come to love. After a long day, coming home to your Stardew Valley farm is the perfect way to unwind and reset. Not that everything is always calm and happy in Pelican Town — you’ll find your sprite neighbors have their fair share of realistic issues, issues that don’t just go away because you helped them once. You have to find a beating heart in Stardew Valley for yourself.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore how calming Stardew Valley can be. With its incredible soundtrack, numerous locations, and flexible schedule, it’s not hard to get lost in the game’s magic.
Some games take it easy on the emotional beats. Celeste is not one of them. Putting you in control of a young woman named Madeline who has resolved to climb the eponymous mountain, Celeste, this platformer expertly weaves its emotional core into its complex gameplay. It’s a game about the will to try, repeatedly, no matter how many times you fail. As Madeline climbs Celeste, you will find yourself growing with her as she grows more capable with every level. You and Madeline are in it together.
Of course, Celeste is also incredible to look at, boasts fun and challenging gameplay, and has a score that can draw tears from your eyes moments after making your heart soar. There are many pixel-art platformers, but if you’re going to pick one to play right now, pick Celeste.
6 Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami breathes neon pixels and speaks only in grimy synth beats. In it, you play as a nameless man who is on a rampage against the mob, and you follow him as he begins to lose his grip on the world. Hotline Miami is violent, unsettling, and very surreal, and it owes a lot of that surreal nature to its use of pixel art. There just are some things that hyper-realism just can’t portray, and Hotline Miami understands that.
There are many things to love about Hotline Miami if you can stomach the violence. The synth soundtrack is iconic, the gameplay is fluid and fast, and it manages to pull off an intriguing story. In the years since its release, Hotline Miami has proven why it’s a modern classic.
Deltarune, the kind-of-maybe sequel to Undertale, has all the charm of its predecessor, just further refined. It is more reminiscent of older JRPGs from the Super Nintendo era, especially regarding the turn-based battle sequences. Deltarune improves upon its predecessor in almost every technical way, though whether it will shake the world the way Undertale did is unclear.
Regardless of how it compares to Toby Fox’s first game, Deltarune is fun, heartfelt, and challenging. While Undertale was not shy about portraying dark themes even in pacifist runs, Deltarune fully embraces the shadowy side of its story. And it’s free, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.
Lisa is a hard game in a lot of different ways. A brutal tale of trauma and the post-apocalypse, Lisa puts you in control of Brad, a middle-aged man who has become the guardian to the last surviving girl on earth, Buddy. While Brad is not the first character in video games to deconstruct the concepts of paternal protectiveness and violent masculinity, Lisa pulls no punches when it comes to making you face the reality of Brad and your actions.
Lisa is a game about reckoning with pain, abuse, and generational trauma, held together by its strong setting and intense character work. It makes you sacrifice yourself and your party to meet your goals, and it never lets up. Lisa is not for the faint of heart, but it is well worth your time.
Eastward has a distinct Legend of Zelda feel to it, making it instantly familiar to anyone who has ever adventured in 2D Hyrule before. Armed with a frying pan, your main character John and his surrogate daughter Sam will travel through their underground home to the surface world and deal with obstacles, and the question of where Sam came from in the first place.
The art is gorgeous, still maintaining that nostalgic aesthetic while being smoother and truer to life. With its fun, likable characters, its just-difficult-enough puzzles, and its vibrant world, Eastward is the perfect game for a Zelda fan who wants to branch into something with a more modern yet still whimsical setting.
If there’s a game that begs you to go out and tell every one of your friends to play it, it’s Undertale. With its incredible art direction, lovable characters, and beautiful music, Undertale has never had trouble standing out. With an accessible, unique style, it’s endlessly endearing. But, of course, there’s so much more to it than just what you see on the surface — Undertale can cut deep when it chooses to.
There’s a reason Undertale became such a phenomenon when it was released, and it hasn’t lost any of its shine. If you somehow have avoided the nitty-gritty of Undertale’s plot and have never played the game before, it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon. You’ll be glad you did.
1 Papers, Please
Papers Please is unlike any game you’ve ever played. It immerses you in one of the most sadly satisfying tasks: being an efficient government bureaucrat. You work on the border of the nation of Arstotzka, which closely mirrors the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s, and all you do is ensure those crossing the border have all their papers in order. Meanwhile, your family’s survival hangs in the balance.
Every day, you are faced with new rules: ID cards, work permits, and entry tickets that soon become entry permits. Yet, there’s a strange pleasure in doing mundane tasks well, even though you may have to compromise your morals to succeed. The game’s dreary colors and stilted movements make you feel trapped in a soul-sucking monotony.