Life of Pixel

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Super Icon for PC, Mac, Wii U, and Playstation Mobile, originally released in 2013.
Life of Pixel is a fairly straightforward platformer, but more than that, it is a history lesson. The game features more than a dozen real-world game systems – most of them from the 8-bit era – with levels built around the basic aesthetics of the games on those systems, and some themed after specific games. The available systems include the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Amiga, Apple II, Game Boy, NES, SNES, Master System, and Mega Drive/Genesis systems, and given that the developer is based in London, there several UK-based home computer systems in the mix as well.

The game begins with a gallery of 10 systems, with three additional systems that must be unlocked. Selecting a system gives the player a brief history of the device, including the year that the system was introduced, its hardware specifications, and any notable attributes that set it apart from other systems of the day. Notable details include the colors transferring to other objects in ZX Spectrum games, ZX81 graphics being limited to the system’s built-in character set, Mode 7 scaling and rotation on the SNES, and the fact that games for many old systems had to be loaded (slowly) from cassette tapes.

Generally, these hardware specifications play directly into the design of the levels, most notably the color limitations of each system. However, for a game that establishes itself as a historical look at the classic systems of old, there are a number of inaccuracies. For instance, the history of the C64 states that games came on audio cassette tapes that took several minutes to load. While it is true that cassettes were a means by which to play C64 games, the system also had a built-in cartridge slot and the ability to add on a 5.25” floppy drive, which is how most games were played on the system.

In addition, many of the listed hardware specifications don’t carry over faithfully into the games themselves. For instance, the Game Boy’s notoriously cramped 160x144 pixel screen is represented in the game with a much higher resolution and a widescreen format, as is the case with games from all of the systems. It’s certainly forgivable that games in the collection eschew certain hardware restrictions, such as sprite flicker or motion blur, but it’s strange that the developers ignored native hardware resolutions, particularly when going of their way to showcase them prior to playing.

The game stars a little green square named Pixel who decides to study his own history and learn more about an era where the pixel was king. This is done by navigating a series of platformer-based environments, with eight levels appearing on each of the consoles. Early experiences feature very limited color palettes and single screen levels, with later systems allowing for multiple single-screen environments in a single level, and eventually multidirectional scrolling levels.

Each level has a number of crystals that must be collected in order to open the exit door, and this number increases as the player reaches more modern consoles with larger and more complex level designs. In addition, each level contains a special gem that may be collected, and many levels feature a hidden piece of fruit or candy that may be collected to unlock the remaining consoles. This was emphasized more heavily in the game’s original Playstation Mobile release, in which most of the consoles had to be unlocked. In the updated release, 10 of the 13 systems are unlocked from the start, and the first of eight levels may be played on each of these systems from the beginning, with additional levels opening up as the ones prior are completed.

The pixel has a high 5x nonvariable jump, as well as a double jump. The double jump is a bit complicated in that your secondary jump height is determined by the timing of your second jump. Hitting the JUMP button at the apex of the leap causes Pixel to soar into the air, while hitting the JUMP button on the way back down just results in a small hop. This gives the player a bit more control over his otherwise nonvariable single jump.

Pixel only has two units of life (as opposed to the 1-hit deaths in the Playstation Mobile release), allowing him to take a single hit of damage from any patrolling enemies in the level, while a second hit will kill him. Touching spikes or falling into water or lava will kill Pixel instantly. In early stages, this extra hit of life allows the player to recover from a single mistake without having to return to the start of the level, but in longer levels, this means that the player must be very careful to avoid damage, lest he be left to repeat a large chunk of gameplay. And unfortunately, the level designs often work against the player…

Problems arise immediately upon venturing into worlds with more than one screen, as the developers often place spikes or patrolling enemies directly on the other side of screen transitions, letting players dive face-first into death with no warning. While this is technically an accurate representation of the level design in some of the games that the developers are attempting to emulate, this doesn’t make for satisfying gameplay in any format.

Things are further exacerbated in longer levels where players are forced to make leaps of faith and blind falls that often result in them landing on jutting spikes. While the game does feature the ability to stop and manually scroll the screen up or down, this only allows the player to view their surroundings by the height of a single screen in either direction. Often, players must make blind falls down two or three screens into formerly unexplored territory with no way of knowing what they will encounter.

This often spells instant death, returning the player to the start of the level and forcing that he memorize the locations of the pitfalls in order to continue… except that this doesn’t always work, since some dangers come in the form of scrolling enemies that the player won’t know the location of until he’s already smashed into one of them. Some paths even lead to dead ends, stranding the player at the bottom of a shaft with no way to get back out without restarting the level.

Unlike most platformers, Life of Pixel generally does not allow the player to destroy any enemies, and therefore he must avoid them instead. However, there are a couple of instances where the player is granted the ability to smash his foes into oblivion. In several of the levels, the player may collect a potion that temporarily allows him jump onto enemies’ heads to destroy them, and one level features a skateboard that can be used in a similar way to smash enemies from above. However, in both cases the collision detection makes it impossible to tell whether a jump is going to result in a killing blow, or whether the player will fall down into enemy's body and lose a unit of health.

You have – at a guess – about an 80% chance of killing an enemy based on any given jump, and since the game only forgives a single mistake, you’re better off avoiding enemies altogether. Had the game been built entirely as a hop-n-bop platformer, this would have rendered the game unplayable, but given that avoidance is otherwise the player’s primary means of dealing with enemies, this is ultimately not a game-breaking problem, even if it is frustrating.

Also problematic is the way in which the game handles temporary invincibility… When you make contact with an enemy, you become invincible to that enemy for as long as you are touching it, even going so far as to allow you to walk along its patrol route while making continuous contact. From a design standpoint, this prevents the player from being immediately killed by two successive touches of the same enemy, but this is not the same as a traditional invincibility period. Where this becomes apparent is in situations where you touch two enemies at the same time and therefore sustain two hits of damage simultaneously, or when a tank is shooting at you and you get hit by two of its bullets or get hit by a bullet and touch an enemy at the same time, resulting in a quick death.

Most of the levels are straightforward platforming affairs, but there are few levels that offer a change of pace, such as levels with switches that allow the player to flip gravity. These levels offer a bit of extra complexity as the player must use both sides of platforms in order to make progress, and must often make several gravity flips during the course of a single level.

The game also features a number of items that change how you navigate the level, although these appear in very limited supply. One is a bubble that lets you float slowly upward while holding the JUMP button, but it pops if you touch an enemy or a wall, offering a bit of extra challenge when navigating tight enemy-packed corridors. If you do manage to prematurely pop your bubble, you may return to where you picked it up and grab another… but they take quite a while to respawn.

Another handy device is the jetpack, which works in a similar fashion to the bubble, except that it is considerably more responsive, allowing you to move quickly upward with the press of a button, although you drop quickly when you let off the gas, making precision adjustments a bit erratic. The game also features a car and the aforementioned skateboard that allow you to move very quickly while still retaining the ability to jump.

Occasionally, the player will encounter objects in the environment that must be manipulated, such as blocks or springboards that must be pushed in order to reach a higher area. The SNES levels introduce bombs that must be carried through the level to reach destructible walls. Dropping the bomb lights the fuse, and the resulting explosion can damage the player and enemies alike.

Other objects are built around platforming challenges or environmental navigation, such as blocks that crumble under your feet when you run across them, or blocks that bounce you high into the air with the proper jump timing. There are also numerous hidden passages and teleporters (usually leading to fruit or candy pickups) that may be found by paying close attention to the construction of the environment to find patches of blocks that are out of place or discolored, or ones near platforms that appear to serve no other purpose. In addition, the player occasionally encounters a blue pixel professor who gives hints about how to complete the level or locate hidden areas.

The player also encounters a number of switches that make changes to other areas of the environment, such as opening a door or turning blocks into crystals (which must be collected), and often these effects are only temporary, presenting short time-based challenges. But here again, this is presented in a problematic fashion… When a switch is activated, the camera pans over to the affected area to show the player where he needs to go, but the action is not paused during this time. As such, the player is free to move around – for better or worse – while the camera is focused elsewhere, and the player may still be attacked by enemies during this time, leading to situations where Pixel may be killed while the camera view is not focused on the character.

In the end, the most notable aspect of Life of Pixel is its attention to detail when it comes to the color selection and soundtrack of each of the systems represented. While screen resolutions and other hardware restrictions are not incorporated, the palette limitations and audio in each are very much representative of the original systems. There are even a number of nods to the aesthetic design and atmosphere of specific games , which are usually hinted at by the level names.

Numerous enemies appear from the start of the game to the finish, and while they mechanically operate in the same way, they are visually redesigned to fit the consoles on which they appear. There are a few other nice touches as well, like how spikes operate differently based on the system of choice, moving from always-jutting spikes on early systems, to rows of spikes that pop out all at once, to later systems with spikes that jut out with varied timing for a more organic look.

Life of Pixel was developed by London-based studio Super Icon, headed by Claire and Richard Hill-Whittall, and the title was originally released on Playstation Mobile in 2013. The original release did not feature any 16-bit consoles and had most of the systems locked at the start, requiring the player to collect gems to slowly unlock them.

The studio employed chiptune musicians Eric Shumaker, Gavin Harrison, Rob Lynch, and Ashton Morris to create system-specific soundtracks based on their native hardware configurations. Super Icon has developed dozens of games across multiple platforms over the years, largely consisting of casual sports titles, including numerous billiards, snooker, and bowling games.