What’s better than a rainy neon scene than a rainy neon scene set with pixel art?
Cyberpunk seems to be the hot theme of video games at the moment, with everyone wide-eyed with anticipation about the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077. Retro-styled pixel art releases have been popular, too, with Thimbleweed Park and The Darkside Detective among my personal favourites.
So it makes sense to combine these genres. What’s more, pixel art really lends itself to dystopian, cyberpunk universes; it’s jagged, unclear and ‘broken’ like the societies it presents. To me, a smooth, glossy finish is at odds with the murky underbelly of abandoned towns, suspicious characters and creepy backstories. Cyberpunk is in its very nature a juxtaposition of dank drizzly realities set against neon lights and modern technology, and pixel art really brings those elements together.
Created by Stockholm-based Hi-Bit Studios, the story of 198X follows a teenager, Kid, struggling through the coming-of-age journey to adulthood. In his search for something meaningful, Kid finds it in an unlikely place.
‘The story unfolds when Kid discovers the local arcade – finding new worlds, and new meaning, in video games. For every visit to the arcade – every game uncovered, every move mastered, every demon defeated – Kid grows stronger.’
– 198X Kickstarter campaign
198X boldly features five retro gaming genres – beat-em-up, shoot-em-up, racing, ninja and RPG – all of which Kid must play through and master, with each victory making our protagonist stronger. It’s quite a nifty way to experience classic old-school genres in one game, all encased in a neat storyline. The action is accompanied by a nice retro soundtrack courtesy of Yuzo Koshiro, famed for creating scores for The Revenge of Shinobi and Streets of Rage, among others.
The creative team brings together an eclectic group of pixel artists from around the world. The artwork looks promising, boasting a slick, futuristic shine with just enough pixelation to give it a blurred, retro feel. Some of the close-ups border on anime, but it’s complementary to the sentimental storyline, and provides a stylistic contrast to the fast-paced arcade action.
The unique format of the game is ambitious and attractive to old-school gamers in pursuit of a nostalgia fix. And who knows, maybe this will show new generations of gamers what real arcade gaming was about.
198X is scheduled for release in early 2019 (Playstation 4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch and PC).
Tales of the Neon Sea
Set in a definitively cyberpunk society where humans and robots begrudgingly co-exist, Palm Pioneer’s Tales of the Neon Sea is a side-scrolling adventure puzzle game. It follows a hardy, trench-coated retired detective who is dragged out of his weak existence and into a new investigation.
‘…Our hero becomes entangled in a missing person’s case, one which holds the key to tracking down a monstrous killer who long ago escaped justice. Unlock your memories, decode the truth, and resist drowning in the wave of conspiracy that grips the city!’
– Tales of the Neon Sea Kickstarter campaign
Gameplay is a mixture of classic 2D platform dynamics, point-and-click and close-up puzzle solving. In fact it looks like there are a lot of different puzzle constructs, from classic visual challenges to mazes, interacting with inventory objects, and interrogating witnesses to solve the main investigation. There’s also the opportunity to play as the detective’s cat to reach deeper areas, which sounds quite fun.
While the trailers don’t give much away at this point, the artwork samples are so cute and retro, and the characters detailed and comical (check out the alien sprites on their Kickstarter page). I’m seeing a lot of similarities with The Darkside Detective (not least the music), but that can’t really be a bad thing.
There’s currently no specific release date, but Kickstarter rewards point towards late 2018.
Not wanting to discredit the first two titles, it’s possible I’ve saved the best until last. This one really knocks the ball out of the park.
Eggnut’s Backbone is set in futuristic Vancouver, and follows private investigator Howard Lotor on the trail of the city’s crimes of power, corruption and social decay. Granted, it’s yet another detective protagonist… but did I mention this one is a raccoon?
The anthropomorphic society in which Lotor resides could be what sets this game apart. The Kickstarter updates tease other characters in development including a mouse called Sooz (‘she will cut you’) and a taxi driving beaver, Anatoly. The art style is such that, far from being ‘cutesy’ animal characters, the sprites are dark and edgy and somehow believable. Sure, the flick of Howard’s tail when he turns away from you is amusing, but the humour is so subtle that it adds to the atmosphere instead of diluting it.
The world Backbone conjures has been well thought through. Ruled by The Great Apes, all species roam the rainy, dismal streets in glorious pixel detail, passing actual, real-life streets, landmarks and places of interest. The atmosphere is really gripping right from the first animations on their Kickstarter page, evoking a moody, grainy noir ambience using carefully tuned 3D lighting techniques, fluid movements and painstaking animation processes.
‘Every character and environment element is animated frame by frame. It is a tedious process, but creating life and charisma out of a collection of pixels is magic we wouldn’t trade for anything else.’
– Backbone Kickstarter campaign
Clearly a lot of work has already gone into their venture, and I expect this will be a strong contender when it’s released.
Backbone is scheduled for release in late 2019