Los Angeles-based Nick Wozniak has a lot of game-development experience under his belt, and was able to give his pixel art skills an extensive workout on Contra 4 during his time at WayForward Technologies. More recently, though, as part of the compact team at Yacht Club Games, he helped to craft the critically and commercially successful Shovel Knight, which brought its 8bit stylings to everything from 3DS to Xbox One.
HISTORY “We’ve been doing this a long time! We’ve been making 2D pixel art games since the DS. Our approach has definitely changed over time. We put a lot more emphasis on creating art that leads to clear, concise gameplay, rather than art that’s only beautiful.”
STYLE “The style of Shovel Knight was inspired by old NES games. The NES has a very limited colour palette and pixel count, so artists in that period did their best to use the small amount of space to create visually compelling characters. There are a few styles of sprites that lend well to NES art restrictions. First: sprites that look very cartoony and shape-focused – examples being Super Mario Bros, Legend Of Zelda and Bubble Bobble. Then there are sprites that have real volume and textures and form – examples being Contra, Wizards & Warriors and Little Samson. We chose to go with something that was closer to the second option, to make the world feel real. That means the world is thought of as a set of pixel representations of an actual 3D place: there are real-ish looking mountains in the background; characters move, bend, and twist with believable deformation of volumes; things that are farther away are less defined and blend together more, etc. Actually, Little Samson is a great example of how this was done with the real NES hardware.”
KNOWING WHERE TO STOP “[With Shovel Knight] we tried to stick to NES limitations as much as we could, but we made exceptions when we were sure it would result in better gameplay or a better experience. For example, we thought using 16:9 would be more appealing as it’s more standard for displays nowadays.”
CHALLENGES “The hardest challenge that we faced is actually a struggle that we still deal with every day, with every new character and pose. The challenge is making the gameplay crystal clear while maintaining dynamic character animation and strong silhouettes. This mostly comes into play when trying to communicate the hitboxes. Shovel Knight may look like a collection of blue pixels, but the game engine sees him as a box – a box that is roughly 16 pixels wide and 32 pixels tall. In fact, everything is a box, with very exactly defined corners. The challenge comes for the pixel artist to communicate the extents of those corners while also making the art look natural and organic.”
STANDING OUT “It’s very difficult! A pixel art game today is usually pegged as an inferior, cheap game when it may be anything but that! Even we had – and still have – to deal with the stigma of creating an aesthetically retro title. We did our best to stand out by creating a loveable cast of characters, unique and memorable gameplay, and an experience we hoped would be as classic as the games we were inspired by.”
THE SCENE “We’re really excited by the amount of excellent pixel art that’s being made every day – we frequent pixeljoint.com, and we’re always impressed with the talent that’s out there; everything from early learning exercises to fully fleshedout pieces that grab our attention and force us to spend countless hours observing all their little details. I would highly recommend anyone wanting to get into pixel art to use that site as a resource. Copy the masters there, join conversations, participate in the weekly challenges, get feedback on your work, and develop your own voice in a vibrant and growing community.”