Also On: PlayStation Mobile
Publisher: Super Icon
Developer: Super Icon
Before you read this review any further, you need to pause for a moment to do one of two things: either a) go and buy Life of Pixel (if you have a PS Vita or a PlayStation Mobile-compatible device), or b) go and donate to Life of Pixel's Kickstarter (so that, if you don't have one of those aforementioned devices, developers Super Icon can port the game over to a system you do have). Or, if you're feeling really charitable, do both.
Done? Good. Because if ever there was a game that deserved more recognition than it has gotten, Life of Pixel would be it. You have have your Okamis and your Zach & Wikis and whatnot; when a game is hidden away in an easy-to-overlook section of the Vita's PlayStation Store, and it sells so poorly that its creators take to Kickstarter to try and bring it to other platforms, and said Kickstarter campaign does so poorly (as of this writing, at least) that it looks like it'll be lucky to reach one-quarter of its goal, I'd say that game makes a pretty strong argument for being one of the most unjustly overlooked gems ever.
Because make no mistake, Life of Pixel really is a gem. It's a love letter to games of twenty and thirty years ago that never feels like a slave to the past. It's a genuinely fun game that manages to take all of its influences — specifically, every insanely difficult platformer that graced systems from the Atari 2600 through to the Game Boy and the NES — and make them seem fresh and new again. It shows that even if those old systems may not have had the best graphics or sounds, they still looked and sounded pretty great in their own ways.
Admittedly, it's a lot easier for those old graphics to look great when they're recreated for a Vita screen. At the same time, however, that Vita screen also shows all the little differences between the old systems; as easy as it is today to just think of 8- and 16-bit gaming — and earlier — as one giant, monolithic block (literally), Life of Pixel shows how each system built on and evolved from the last. You might not think of those old games as visually impressive, but this makes for a pretty convincing counterargument.
One other argument that Life of Pixel makes pretty well: those early games were hard. Unrelentingly, unapologetically hard, to the point that you sometimes wanted to throw your controller against the wall in frustration. This, obviously, comes as no surprise to anyone who lived through those earlier eras, but Life of Pixel just helps drive it home — again…and again…and again.
In fact, if there's one drawback to the game, it would be its level of difficulty, because make no mistake: Life of Pixel is insanely hard. It took me at least five tries to pass most levels; while there were one or two levels I cleared with little difficulty, far more common were the ones where I lost track of counting after dying for the 30th or 40th or 50th time. Every enemy kills you with one touch and almost everything in the environment is deadly, and if you don't memorize and time each and every jump perfectly, you'll touch something that kills you instantly. (Thankfully, the one area of the past Life of Pixel doesn't borrow from is the limited number of lives. You'll die a lot as you play through, but the upside is that you'll never lose all your progress and have to start over.)
Here's the thing, though: as difficult as Life of Pixel may be, it never ceases to be fun — and I say this as someone who generally shies away from overly challenging games. Much like you'd keep playing that hoverbike level of Battletoads (if you've ever played it, you know the one) in the hopes you'd make it a tiny bit further each time, the levels in Life of Pixel are all short enough that you feel compelled to make it just a little bit further every time. That's an important feature in any game, obviously, but in one that you can download right now for $1.99? If you have a PS Vita, there's no reason not to own it.