Pixel has had a very rough life
The charm of this game is immediate. For those who grew up in the ’80s — and those who missed them the first time around — Life of Pixel lets players relive the age of 8-bit gaming. Graphics and sounds are taken from antiquated hardware such as the Atari 2600, NES and Commodore 64, giving the game a very authentic retro flair. However, when it comes to gameplay, Life of Pixel borrowed a little too much from the outdated practices of the games it is styled after.
That’s partly because Life of Pixel is an extraordinarily simple platformer focusing on collection. You play as Pixel, a solitary square block who can do nothing but jump around. By collecting all the gems in a level, the exit will open, allowing the player to move on to the next stage.
Along the way, monsters, spikes, traps, lasers and even deadly water will stand in the way of Pixel’s goal. Which is too bad, because Pixel cannot attack or defend. Enemies must be avoided instead of defeated, and Pixel will die after just two hits. The decision to completely omit combat from the game is an interesting one; it gives the platforming a chance to shine, but the game suffers from a lack of intricacy.
This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if the game had just one other gameplay element going for it. Maybe Pixel could transform to earn new powers, or maybe Pixel could use a variety of items to navigate his world and solve puzzles. Anything that added to the game, a time travel mechanic or multiplayer or, yes, combat, would have went a long way to giving the game much-needed depth.
It seems Life of Pixel actually did try to add more interest to the game, though in a very confusing way. There are a handful of odd and usually useless power-ups hidden in a tiny number of levels. A potion, which I found twice, gave me the power for a few seconds to kill enemies by jumping on them. The first time I found it there were no enemies nearby. Later, a few levels required the use of a bomb to progress, where I had to carry the bomb to a wall to destroy it and move on. I didn’t see the point of this at all, especially since the bombs weren’t hidden and it was very obvious what I had to do.
A jetpack in one level was initially fun to get, but the level wasn’t designed with a jetpack in mind and made the entire level annoyingly easy. I also found a car twice — once in the final level where it served no purpose and once in a hidden location in an early level where it served no purpose. Pixel can just hop in and ride back and forth. Whee?
The platforming itself, however, is solid. Elements like moving platforms, labyrinthine stages and retracting spikes made jumping around — even though that’s all you do — rather fun. No two levels are alike, and the uniqueness of each one is refreshing and compelling, giving me a reason to play on. They are also pretty hard; my Pixel died hundreds of times, causing me to start each level over again and again with renewed determination.
A big part of the game is finding the hidden collectibles. One special gem appears on each stage, and if you find enough, you’ll unlock access to 16-bit machines with new levels based on them. Then there is fruit (an odd word choice, I thought, since it also includes things like vegetables, ice cream, a cheeseburger and a golden goblet). While special gems are easy to find and reach (I never missed a single one), the fruit is hidden in the far corners of only some stages, and at times can only be accessed via hard-to-find teleporters. If you collect all the fruit, you’ll unlock another 16-bit machine.
It’s unfortunate that to play the 16-bit stages you have to replay the 8-bit stages repeatedly until you locate and collect enough special gems and fruit. Instead, they should probably be unlocked as soon as you complete enough 8-bit levels. Some of the levels with fruit have very tricky platforming, and replaying the level can be frustrating and eventually dull. Other times, however, searching for fruit gives the game that small element of depth that is missing from the basic jumping gameplay. It also gives you something to do after completing all the levels, a task that only takes 3–4 hours.
And, well, that’s the game in a nutshell. There are a few other pros and cons to consider before deciding to pick up this game or not. Let’s start with a pro: graphics. The retro levels perfectly recreate the graphics from old machines — from the awful ability of the ZX Spectrum to render more than two colors in close proximity, to the Game Boy’s famous four shades of green. Sound effects are true to their source as well. In a stroke of genius, the developers also gave players the ability to apply analog TV filters to their game, which curve and distort the image around the edges of the TV screen and apply raster effects. I highly recommend giving them a try, just to more accurately simulate what playing games on these systems was like back in the day.
I wasn’t overly thrilled with the controls. You cannot regulate the height of Pixel’s jumps; he will leap the same height no matter how long you hold down the button, which limited my ability to navigate the stages. However, the second mid-air jump has a bit more control, though oddly its height depends on when during the first jump’s arc you press the button. Although there are no motion or touch controls, the GamePad will display a real-time leaderboard for the level you are currently playing, which is a nice touch.
Gaming has come a long way in the last 30 years. There are many incredible experiences available today that were simply not possible on the NES. Life of Pixel does not deliver those experiences. Instead, it is a very dedicated tribute to the legacy of early gaming history. It’s stitched together with difficult — yet hollow — platforming and a handful of bizarre power-ups and collectibles which do little to enhance the gameplay. Still, the game has moments of fun, and may be a worthwhile purchase for those interested in the retro graphics and history lessons alone.
Review copy provided by Super Icon