Most games choose only retro or modern graphics, but this indie platformer attempts to show the entire evolution of gaming in one go.
Gaming has always had an awkward relationship with its past. As prevalent as HD remasters are at the moment, they’re clearly only a quick and dirty attempt to prop up empty release schedules. Normally publishers will abandon older games as soon as a more profitable alternative arises, in favour of either a new sequel or a more fashionable genre. As a result it only tends to be indie games that celebrate older gameplay and art styles, and nowhere is that adulation louder than with A Pixel Story.
A prototype version of A Pixel Story was originally nominated for a ‘One to Watch’ award at the 2012 BAFTAs, after which the young Manchester team won a Channel 4 Award – which gained them £25,000 in prize money and a publishing deal for the final version you see here.
Although there is a rather obscurely told plot underlining the action, the real narrative of A Pixel Story is told through its visuals. Your game character begins his journey escaping from a Pong style world, before emerging into a world that looks like a cross between Super Mario Bros. and Jet Set Willy.
Starting with the early 8-bit era, A Pixel Story attempts to chart the visual evolution of gaming through its earliest origins to the modern day. However, apart from the odd segue into bullet hell territory it remains a 2D platformer throughout. So the final levels look like something out of Rayman Legends, rather than some sprawling 3D game. The levels are open world though, in the 2D sense, with a sprawling map that only heightens the obvious comparisons with fellow indie games such as FEZ and Cave Story.
There’s no real combat in A Pixel Story and instead the focus is on puzzle-solving and precision platforming, although the game never indulges in anything horrifically difficult outside of special Challenge Rooms. Instead, its focus is on using A Pixel Story’s most unique mechanic: a teleporting hat. Drop the hat anywhere you want and you can instantly return to it, which seems simple enough at first but is used for some enjoyably Portal-esque puzzles.
Not only can the hat be used for basic tricks such as jumping higher and further than normal but it’s also the basis for more complex puzzles that often involve you essentially being in two places at once. All of which is very enjoyable at first, but the game is in trouble of being a one trick pony even before it starts repeating some puzzles.
This is a problem exaggerated by an awkward checkpoint system that always seems to put you back one puzzle too many, forcing you to repeat otherwise trivial sections before you get to the bit that actually killed you.
In another game these would seem relatively minor niggles but as amazing as the artwork (and the soundtrack) in A Pixel Story is the gameplay never quite makes the most of the amazing presentation. You could see this as a fault of the whole platformer genre, which despite the improvement in graphics has changed relatively little since inception. As a result the shift in art styles is matched by only much milder changes in gameplay.
If A Pixel Story is trying to illustrate how little games change despite the increasing complexity of their graphics then its point is well made, but we don’t get the impression that was supposed to be the point. Either way though, from a gameplay perspective the game isn’t quite as interesting as either its historical inspirations or more modern indie variations.
A Pixel Story is certainly worth experiencing purely for the graphics and soundtrack. But while the gameplay is also enjoyable it does feel a little underwritten compared to the rest of the game.
A Pixel Story
In Short: A fascinating journey through the visual history of 2D platformers, although the gameplay doesn’t always match the quality of the many classics it relies on for influence.
Pros: Superb mix of pixel art styles and a great soundtrack. Some clever platform design, particularly with regards to the teleporting hat.
Cons: The gameplay never evolves at the same rate as the graphics and the hat isn’t quite enough to hang the whole game on. Frustrating checkpoint system.
Publisher: Channel 4
Developer: Lamplight Studios
Release Date: 30th March 2015
Age Rating: N/A