Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Review - Life Of Pixel (PS Vita)

8-bit Gaming History - One Pixel At A Time

Hot on the heels of MURI, a new PC indie title that perfectly encapsulates the look, sound and feel of late 80's and early 90's PC gaming, I bring you another game that aims to recreate the style of old systems. This time, not one, but eight different gaming platforms. Life of Pixel tells the tale of a tiny computer pixel who wishes to see the sights and broaden his horizons. So he takes a trip across a wide range of 8-bit home computers and consoles, on a platforming adventure that will see him navigate the black and white worlds of the ZX81 and the colour-bleeding, flick-screen world of the ZX Spectrum, to the more vibrant, smooth scrolling environments of the Nintendo NES. And if he gets rich along the way by grabbing the diamonds littering each stage, then all the better.

Life of Pixel traces the roots of videogaming through these 8-bit systems, each featuring eight short, single-screen stages to complete. The objective is as simple as the visuals in the first few worlds, requiring nothing more than jumping and double jumping around the platforms, avoiding the hazards and collecting all of the diamonds to open the exit door. A flashing diamond can also be grabbed as a bonus, usually located in more tricky to reach parts of the stage. After completing a few levels the next computer world is unlocked - meaning you don't have to finish every stage in each world to be able to progress to the next. After the initial black & white ZX81 stages, Pixel visits Atari's 2600, providing some colourful, Lego-like screens to navigate. British wonder-computer, the ZX Spectrum appears next, with the gloriously grainy colour scheme and well drawn sprites that blend with different coloured backgrounds as they pass. These levels upgrade to flick screen stages, much like the famous Jet Set Willy games that were a highlight on the original system. 

Next on Pixel's travel itinerary is the BBC Micro - a computer system was was incredibly popular in the UK due to it being the go to system for schools around the country - followed by the Amstrad CPC64, which introduces proper scrolling to the stages - though here it's much smoother than the fairly jerky movement that plagued the actual hardware. Commodore's 8-bit behemoth - one of my favourite retro computers of all time - is the next system to play host to Pixel, before things take a turn for the monochrome as he visits Gameboy world, a land of green and yellow backdrops featuring detailed sprites that ooze charm. His final destination sees him take in the sights of Nintendo's insanely popular NES console. Every world really does look the part, and sent waves of nostalgic glee through my body as I explored the familiar looking retro worlds. This has clearly been a labour of love, and pays fitting tribute to every machine featured, with accurate colour palettes and sprites - Actually, they look even better than you will remember as the picture quality is sharp and the scrolling far smoother than it ever was on the original systems. The enemies - which include bats, crabs and blobs - evolve through the worlds, from blocky, single-tone creations, to far more detailed representations, as do the collectibles and hazards that stand in your way. 

Accompanying the simple platform action is an authentic chiptune soundtrack. While the first few systems bend the rules slightly by having jaunty tunes that could never have been produced by the original soundchips, things become far more authentic with the Commodore 64 and beyond, with the C64's SID chip and the Gameboy and NES equivalents sounding just how you would expect. Unfortunately, these worlds feature the worst tunes in the game, a real shock considering the C64's SID chip has produced some of the greatest videogame music of all time. Regardless, this otherwise wonderful presentation is what elevates Life of Pixel from a fairly generic platformer into something that makes the memory banks tingle, and also provides a playable history lesson through the home videogame systems of the era. Sure, it's a shame there are no worlds that cover Sega's wonderful Master System and Game Gear, nor a trip through the Apple II or DOS platforms, but what is on offer here is so captivating it can be easily forgiven.

While a wonderful trip through a small part of gaming history - including visits to some familiar looking locales that mimic titles such as Exolon, Castlevania and Paradroid - Life of Pixel is not without its flaws. For one, it features some exceptionally poor level design, with many levels featuring leaps-of-faith that are extremely unfair. I can't remember a platform game with so many sections in which you simply have no idea what awaits you off-screen. It could be an enemy that suddenly appears out of nowhere or, more frequently, a drop onto spikes or water, killing you instantly. These poorly thought out stage layouts take some of the shine off the experience, causing unnecessary frustration and repeated trial-and-error attempts before you finally succeed. It's a shame really, as the controls are super tight and the jumping (and double jumping) is quick and precise, often feeling like masochistic platformer Super Meat Boy - Heck, even the little specks of dust (pixels?) that spray from our hero remind me of Meat Boy's gory footsteps.

These irritations aside, Life of Pixel remains an essential title for anyone who grew up playing, or has an interest in, 8-bit videogame systems. It's certainly not the best platformer out there - to be honest, it probably only just makes the 'average' grade - but it does provide some fun, is challenging and, more importantly, is full of heart and charm. It also costs next to nothing, so it feels almost Scrooge-like to criticise it. Head on over to the PlayStation Mobile section of the Vita's store, and pick up a delightful romp through gaming past. Here's hoping we see a sequel featuring 16-bit systems sometime soon.

Title : Life Of Pixel
Developer : Super Icon Ltd
Year : 2013
System : PS Vita
Price : £1.79 (via PlayStation Mobile on Vita's store page)