Pixel Report.

To What Extent Are the Stereotypes seen in the Creation of Pixel Art Harmful?

By Nicholas Friesen

Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Sarah Scott.

Friday, December 1st, 2016.

The Stereotypes Seen in the Creation of Pixel Art



This report will be on the topic of the extent of stereotypes seen in pixel art and whether they are helpful or harmful.  We will be tackling this topic in order to prove that the limitations of a medium are discouraging if forced, that the assumptions made from lazy work are damaging, and there is work that can be used as great examples of what should be done in this medium.


Data was retrieved from both primary and secondary sources. My primary sources include an interview with the creator of ‘A flip of a Coin’, Kayla Albanese. The largest secondary sources used include a report by creator Keith Burgun, a founder of Dinofarm Games and ‘Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future’ Sam Byford on July 3, 2014 11:15 am, located on The Verge.


First and foremost, we will be discussing how and why the limitations of a medium are discouraging to its growth; in order to make proper opinions on the subject, we must first figure out what these limitations are and how they apply specifically to pixel art as a medium.


“In the earliest days of game art, the extreme technological limitations created serious adversity.”(Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) 8-bit graphics were used during the beginning of videogames because it was one of the only ways at the time that a computer could affectively represent an image. Videogame companies saw what we know as a retro classic style as a necessity because it was easy to produce, simple and comprehensible, and it took up a fraction of the memory space and processing power as other alternatives. When people state how Videogame classics like Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Kirby have all moved onto other mediums, the thought most are left with is, why use it now? However, it just so happens that the reasons why they used it then, are only a few of the reasons it is used now. A great reason pixel art is a justified form of creation is because of how intentional the symbols must be. Back when 8-bit was the main form of pixel art, changing a single pixel meant whether or not Mario had eyes or not. “Good artists looked at the display like a mosaic artist” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015). The pixels formed the very symbols themselves. Characters and creations could not have even been conceived without the jagged edges and the cubic structures which limited the creators. Not only do you have to be intentional with what you are making, but you must also be intentional with why you are making it as well. Any idea gets across far better when it is thought out. “Cartoons hit the sweet spot between the pure representations of photographs, which are extremely specific, and the pure abstractions of symbols, which are extremely generic, […] Pixel art hits this same expressive sweet spot, but in a purely digital way.” (Scott McCloud, 1993) Pixel art forces symbolism which inherently produces better work.

“They [Classic Videogame Designers] were simply working in the “H-est D” available to them.” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) This is a common misconception many people make when looking at pixel art. In fact, the first videogame ever created was by a physicist named William Higinbotham In October, 1958. As seen in Figure. 1, the first videogame ran off of projected lights rather than console displays. This proves that videogame designers had the choice to follow by example and chose to a different route. Pixel art is sometimes under credited for being a unique way to show others an idea. There are always advantages and disadvantages to each and every medium.

Figure. 1

(William Higinbotham, October, 1958)

A photo of the very first videogame being played. The Graphics used were created with projected lights, rather than with monitors.

Benefits of an Older Medium

A medium holds inherent sentimental value to those who saw it formed. “Only now, after the fact, is “pixel art” an elective aesthetic style.”(Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015). A medium for creation is similar to a brand for a business; it represents a larger entity and markets that entity to the world. When you think music, Bach comes to mind, with literature, Shakespeare, and sculpting, Michelangelo. The creation was used by the creator, and because of that, the creator was used by the creation. We can see that videogames not only used pixel graphics in order to make the stories we know and love, but these pixel graphics now have an automatic audience because of those touched by its early work. There is already a brand of classic videogames which have represented the art style before, so using it again brings back nostalgia for something that should have none otherwise. ”A computer divides a display into squares, and each square can be assigned one RGB value at a time. The total squares supported by the hardware is the device’s ‘resolution.’ ” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) we needed pixel art back when videogames were first being created because of how little memory and processing speed they took up. We still see this as a valuable resource because these things make for an overall faster game. The individual pixels can now be converted into code to take up even less storage space through converters like this one: https://codepen.io/shshaw/details/XbxvNj/. Size and speed are not the only benefits to the pixel art style. The limitation of pixels brings a component to the medium that most would see as difficult, frustrating and obtuse. Why would you purposefully tie your hand behind your back just to stick with a specific art form? What do you gain? The answer: intention.  When you have a limitation like this, you gain a new perspective on how you visualize the world. “Blending colors was impossible, so artists would “checker board” two colors together.” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) which is how people learned to shade with squares. “Anti-aliasing is the method of making jagged edges look smooth.”(Logan, ‘Cure’, 6:35am, July 28th, 2014)This is how people design round objects. “Noise is any sort of information that does not contribute to the piece and serves only to interrupt the area it inhabits and distract the viewer.”(Logan, ‘Cure’, 6:35am, July 28th, 2014)  Noise is eliminated in order for symbols and ideas to stay clear and concise. These are ways you may forget to. The pixel allows for so much because it is restraining you; you are forced to seek out solutions to questions that would not be pondered if not using this medium.

Basing off the Classics

There is no problem with being intentional when designing a characters physical appearance, but far too often you see videogames with beefed up characters for no reason. A game has to do more to build on the character. “Not that I’m saying the characters in those games [retro classics] are one dimensional, but they can get pretty predictable from game to game –“ (Kayla Albanese, November 17th, 2016)  There is nothing wrong with giving a character muscles, but doing so does not automatically mean he is strong. Utilizing physical traits can be done well. Allowing a character to hurl giant lizards around (seen in figure. 2) displays real strength. There is a clear difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. The character has to be the things you represent them to be, or else their design is simply pointless. Not only is it redundant, but the character design is also confusing and hinders the games overall gameplay. No one wants to play a game with a poorly developed theme. “We must establish meaningful intent as close to instantaneously as possible.” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) Theming allows for a game to give you the feeling that you are actually there; that you are present in the location of the setting described. Theming is what makes you cheer when Mario finally rescues Princess Peach, and what makes you mourn when you hear Toad say she is in another castle. The game works on telling you a story, while not relying solely on the design to do so. Design alone cannot create well-constructed character. You must add a story to whatever you do in order for true empathy to occur. The reliance on physical traits should only be to accent the story, not the other way around.

Figure. 2

(Nintendo, June 23, 1996)

A Photograph of Mario 64. Mario is spinning Bowser around as if he were a ragdoll.

Creating a Classic

No one wants another Mario, we already have one. There are certainly ways to re-create a game that makes the design feel similar to the classics, but copying is not one of them. Attempts to copy are so sad to see because the rules most of these developers are following are not even ones they themselves particularly like; they simply do it because they feel they have to. People do not always know when to add physical traits to a character. “By meaningful intent, I simply mean that the audience has to internalize the concept, motion, emotion, perspective, etc. of a piece right away.” (Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) Meaningful intent should always be up to the creator. Do not let rules or guidelines tell you that you cannot do anything. If the rules do not work, make your own rules. Do not settle on something just because it is easier than getting what you want. “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon, April 9th, 1626) Guidelines are just guidelines. Letting someone tell you how to design takes away from what you could have made by yourself. Just because you put in a lot of thought and effort into your work, does not mean everyone automatically will like it. If something is not working, then you have two options: either change something, thus changing the result; or keep failing. Failing is beneficial because you can learn from it, but it stops being beneficial when you stop learning. Failing is not bad, but failed work is bad work. After a little while, you grow your own style and taste, making your work look and feel different than anyone else. In order to get better in anything, you must search for solutions on how you can improve.

The Pixel Art Definition

One of the most hindering stereotypes seen in pixel art is the actual definition of pixel art itself. People have idolized the 8-bit style of pixel art to the point that they discredit any spin offs what so ever. “The biggest sticklers and purists consider the use of alpha (semi-transparent pixels), or software-side lighting/shadow/particle effects a form of cheating.”(Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) This not only hinders the acceptance and spread of all pixel art, but it also hinders the artists in their attempts to create. Before we can talk about what ‘cheating’ consists of, we must first define pixel art. “Pixel art is a form of digital art wherein images are created and edited at the pixel level using a graphics editing software. What defines pixel art is its unique visual style, where individual pixels serve as the building blocks that make up the image.” (Techopedia Inc., 2016).  These are the only requirements for a piece of work to be considered pixel art, that is it. We throw so many other disclaimers onto the style only because we have seen these disclaimers there on previous pieces; now just subconsciously assuming that they are automatically essential. A very easy way to see if someone is a cult follower of the 8-bit style of pixel art is if they count your color palette. Having a color palette is not and never will be a bad thing; in fact, it forces thought and intentionality to your work and to what you are trying the make.  Color counting becomes hindering when you must follow this rule no matter what. Remembering that a color palette is a guideline is super important when making anything, not just pixel art.

Common Rule Misconceptions

The reason why a color palette is such a foundational piece to pixel art is because of memory space. The color palette played a huge role in limiting the amount of storage needed for the first running videogame consoles because pixel graphics allowed for fewer moving parts and less processing needed to bounce back and forth from color to color. The original pong classic only contained a color palette of 2 because of the amount of processing the game took the run.  Games relied on a limited color palette back then, but we now have the luxury of adding in any colors we want. Why limit ourselves now? The photo seen in figure. 3 depicts a pixel art piece that could not be run on the first leading consoles because the game could not take the amount of data given. ‘Rust Mesa’ follows all of the basic rules of pixel art and design, while having a larger color palette then most classics.  Most can clearly see that the picture is in fact pixel art, so if Oli Lee would have stopped himself and only used a limiting color palette, he would have simply been limiting his art piece and nothing more. Sometimes it is ok to break the rules, when there is a reason to.

Figure. 3

(Oli Lee, Nov 6th, 2006)

A piece called ‘Rust Mesa’ that contains a larger color count and canvas size then the first gaming systems could take.

A classic disclaimer that creates a headache for any pixel artist is the canvas size you choose to work with. “If you can create the image without zooming in, chances are it isn’t pixel art.” (Logan, 6:35am, July 28th, 2014) This is one complaint many pixel designers have to face; the answer is: technology. We now have the tools and resources needed to take pixel graphics to a much more advanced level, while keeping the intentionality that most people love about the style. The technology advancement is seen to some as a setback, because they believe that the use of tools or software takes away from the amount of care that is placed into each pixel at once. The idea that tools always disqualify is simply ignorant to the ways new tools help pixel artists. Gaining needed help from tools and resources we now have does not discredit or take away from the artwork that is made. The time and energy spent in a project is not the only factor to its success.

Successful Disregards of Misconceptions

Getting down to brass tax, it is cheaper to cut back on time by creating graphics using programs rather than forcing ourselves to stick with a cult classic viewpoint.  We see that with games like Stardew Valley. No one would argue that Stardew Valley is not using pixel graphics, but you can tell by playing that not all the things in the game follow the mediums rules. As seen in figure. 4, the lighting is a filter added on after the graphics. One by one the slight details of the game are shown and the player sees that not everything in Stardew Valley is pixel art. The most interesting piece of information from this observation is that the graphics are still beautiful. The artists behind the project felt it was a smarter move to enforce well designed graphics rather than following needless rules. The guidelines were hindering progress, so they chose to ignore them with reason. There is nothing wrong with realizing something is not working. Skewing the rules of pixel art is also used by the animators at Dorkly. They create pixel graphics, and then animate them with fixed shapes, but without a limiting grid. They chose to make a change to the rules in order to continue making animations in their own unique style. These changes still fall under the definition of pixel art, but they are opposing the stereotypes to the medium. The animators at Dorkly remove normal rules used when designing pixel art and the end product still works. They are gaining fans, revenue and success without holding themselves back with guidelines. The stereotypes seen in pixel art are hindering because they do not allow for exploration in the medium. “Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and, above all, do not let anyone limit your dreams. “ (Donovan Bailey. n.d.) We should not limit ourselves to the past simply because the past was limited. If something is redundant, remove it. We must always strive to better ourselves in what we do.


(Stardew Valley, February 26, 2016)

The lighting in the background displays a clear violation of standard pixel graphics, yet it still possesses synergy with the rest of the art style.

Breaking the rules: Undertale

Undertale is a unique pixel experience which ensures the audience in the first seconds that they have never played a game like it before. The game maintains a consistent design, follows all of the fundamentals, while breaking almost all the rules. “The style doesn’t have to signify nostalgia” (Sam Byford, 11:15 am, July 3rd, 2014) Undertale not only disregards classic videogame clichés on a story level, but also on the level of design. The story starts you off with a beautiful cut scene intro of the plot of the game. You are then introduced to, you. The main character has no distinct gender, no distinct personality, and no overarching physical character traits; these are three things most videogames rely on when telling their story and Undertale manages to use none of them.  The story immediately takes what people think they know about game design and spins them upside-down. The best part about the lack of character development through visuals is that it only enhances the game. For so long designers have relied of the look of the character to be the basis of who the character is, rather than letting the story and actions of the character be the deciding factors. Without spoiling the game or its mechanics, you are given options. Every action you choose to make effects the character you mold. This is why a relatable character is so desperately needed for Undertale. If you were an Italian plumber in the world of Undertale, not that there is anything wrong with our European tradesman, the story would have fallen short.  The design of the game needed to be simple, humble, and interpretable, because these characteristics mirror the story. If they had chosen a different art style, the game would not have been Undertale. The graphics were used on purpose to mimic the storyline presented. Even compared to its inspiration Earthbound, the art style draws no distinct resemblance. Undertale intentionally tried to stand out among the rest to add emphasis to the story. Its story is completely different only by changing one aspect at a time of the common videogame story formula; this is paralleled with the way the graphics are designed. Almost every single screen, character and layout is breaking at least one ‘rule’ of pixel art. There are some places that have dithering, others use colors to shade; some places have a fixed 2 color palette, while some follow no color palette whatsoever. The game manages to create a wide range of graphic style coherent, in order to add to the overall game. The synergy of the experience is only broken when intentionally needed. This style of coherence is an example of great design that breaks through the all of the stereotypes that are assumed to be essential to any pixel game. Undertale is a huge step in the right direction for the way we design and present videogames.

Sticking to rules: Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight is a great example of how to design a pixel art game with a retro feel. This game covers all of the basics. The graphics include spot on dithering, excellent sizing, and almost all of the key fundamentals hold true for how the graphics are designed. Shovel Knight takes their design a step further by following the guidelines of pixel art, but by limiting themselves to the world of retro. “A computer divides a display into squares, and each square can be assigned one RGB value at a time. The total squares supported by the hardware is the device’s “resolution.””(Keith Burgen, December 5th, 2015) This information was necessity for every game at the time because the consoles that would have run them could only take so much on the processing. The beauty of Shovel Knight is that they limited themselves on purpose, and it turns out better because they did. The retro aesthetic has an inherent plus to using an art style like pixel art, which adds to the praise Shovel Knight deserves. It is already hard enough to design characters in a pixel style because of the various limits the style puts in place. Shovel Knight rises above the sea of indie videogames by focusing on theming their designs and being intentional with how they do so.

Proper theming can be seen plainly with Shovel Knight. A huge benefit that Shovel Knight brings to the table is the design of the main character. They do not simply add bells and whistles for no reason. The designers stay focused in their efforts to making a relatable main character, which pays off tenfold.  An example of the excellent use of theming in Shovel Knight being properly executed is by the cohesiveness seen between the world and the characters. The creators do not simply throw in a random citizen to enter into the Shovel Knight kingdom. The designers do not choose to make a main character that looks good, but does not fit with the rest of the game. The characters are all set apart from each other and from any other game on the market.

The craziest part of the design of the Shovel Knight world is how well the game fits into the culture and era of early videogame design. “Some of the most retro games around eschew pixel art entirely, in fact. Shadow Complex has all the trappings of a[n] AAA title that uses the Unreal Engine and features the voice of Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, but it plays almost exactly like Nintendo’s 1994 classic Super Metroid.” (Sam Byford, 11:15 am, July 3rd, 2014) Retro does not translate to Pixel art; likewise Shovel Knight manages to prove this further. Shovel knight is retro not only because of its style, but also because of its theme. One of the most popular 8-bit characters we all know and love is none other than the turtle stomping plumber, Mario. His design is specific for the generated world that only fits him. He was made for the wacky crazy world in a way that any other game cannot simply repeat. The wacky world design of Mario is home to pixel design and early videogames; this is how Shovel Knight contains design familiarity. Shovel Knight accomplishes to create a world that is unique, original and completely different than the rest; while still being a clear retro comeback.

What Can Be Learned: Shovel Knight

Other game designers and developers should look at Shovel Knight as a tool. Shovel Knight can be used as a perfect example of not only how to first of all create a well-designed pixel game, but also how to ignore stereotypes and focus on excellence. Shovel Knight would have never been finished if the developers chose to steer clear of any association of nostalgia. However, by embracing a stereotype that most people associate with pixel art, they managed to create a unique gaming experience unlike any other. Shovel Knight managed to do this while still bringing people a feeling of home. No one would call Shovel Knight a Mario rip-off, but by looking at the graphics, you can clearly tell where inspiration stemmed from. Shovel Knight focused heavily in proving that you can design a retro game without solely relying on a feeling of nostalgia to sell copies off of the shelves. Shovel Knight is an experience all to itself and should be in the back pocket of any game designers’ reference arsenal.


The Stereotypes in the creation of pixel art harm the overall quality and turnout of the creation. There are great examples of both retro throw backs, and of unique concepts; both should be made without fear of judgement. “I think as games and gamers age, some of the more jarring stereotypes will eventually fade out.” (Kayla Albanese, November 17th, 2016) Eventually we will reach a place where the buzz of this controversy will die down, and pixel art will be known for the truly unique medium it is. Many will still use pixel art and will continue loving it for a long time.


Table of Contents: (outdated)

Page One———————————————————–Title Page

Page Two—————————————————-Table of Contents

Page Three & Four——————————————–List of Illustrations

Page Five—————————————————List of Appendices

Page Six———————————————————Introduction

Page Six—————————————————————Scope

Page Six————————————————————-Method

Page Six———————————————————-Background

Page Seven & Eight—————————————————-History

Page Eight, Nine & Ten——————————–Benefits of an Older Medium

Page Ten & Eleven—————————————- Basing off the Classics

Page Eleven & Twelve—————————————— Creating a Classic

Page Twelve & Thirteen————————————The Pixel Art Definition

Page Thirteen, Fourteen & Fifteen——————— Common Rule Misconceptions

Page Fifteen & Sixteen———————- Successful Disregards of Misconceptions

Page Sixteen, Seventeen & Eighteen——————– Breaking the rules: Undertale

Page Nineteen & Eighteen————————— Sticking to rules: Shovel Knight

Page Nineteen & Twenty———————— What Can Be Learned: Shovel Knight

Page Twenty——————————————————-Conclusion

Page Twenty One————————————————-Reference List


List of Illustrations:

Figure. 1 (Page Eight)

(William Higinbotham, October, 1958)

Figure. 2 (Page Eleven)

(Nintendo, June 23, 1996)

A Photograph of Mario 64. Mario is spinning Bowser around as if he were a ragdoll.

Figure. 3 (Page Fourteen)

(Oli Lee, Nov 6th, 2006)

A piece called ‘Rust Mesa’ that contains a larger color count and canvas size than the first gaming systems could take.

Figure.4 (Page Sixteen)

(Stardew Valley, February 26, 2016)

The lighting in the background displays a clear violation of standard pixel graphics, yet it still possesses synergy with the rest of the art style.

List of appendices:

Number one———————————–‘A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art’:


Number two———————————————–‘Creating Pixel Art’: http://pixeljoint.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=11299

Number three——————— ‘Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future’:


Number four——————-Online Interview with the Creator of ‘A flip of a Coin’:

(Included with Report)

Number five—————————————–Dorkly Pixel Video Example:


Number six—————————————–Game Grumps Play Through:



Shovel Knight:


Reference List:

Donovan Bailey. (n.d.). https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donovanbai481374.html

Francis Bacon (April 9th, 1626). https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/francisbac132240.html

Kayla Albanese (November 17th, 2016). ‘A Flip of a coin’ Interview. Interview attached.

Keith Burgen (December 5th, 2015). ‘A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art’. http://www.dinofarmgames.com/a-pixel-artist-renounces-pixel-art/

Logan, ‘Cure’ (6:35am, July 28th, 2014) ‘Creating Pixel Art’. http://pixeljoint.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=11299&PID=139322#139322

Sam Byford (11:15 am, July 3rd, 2014). ‘Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future’.


Written by: Scott McCloud (1993).’Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art’.

Publisher: Mark Martin.

Shaw, ‘@shshaw’ (October 10, 2016). ‘Pixel to SVG’. https://codepen.io/shshaw/details/XbxvNj/

Techopedia Inc. (2016).Pixel Art: Definition – What does Pixel Art mean?’. https://www.techopedia.com/definition/8884/pixel-art