Review: Life of Pixel (Wii U)

An interesting but frustrating journey through the history of video games.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 07/01/2015 07:00 3 Comments     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
A cool history lesson that captures the look of classic consoles; fantastic chiptune soundtrack; plenty of hidden goodies and unlockable extra levels
Poison Mushroom for...
Stiff jumping mechanics; too many cheap and frustrating levels; power-ups used too infrequently

I’ve started to lose track of the number of indie titles I’ve reviewed that have required me to talk about how the developers have used 8- and/or 16-bit graphics in some sort of unique or clever way. But here we are again, because Life of Pixel uses 8- and 16-bit graphics, along with several other numbers of bits, in a noteworthy way. Of course, clever art direction is but one aspect of creating a good game, and it is far from the most important.

Life of Pixel is a rather straightforward platformer at its core, but its visual approach is what defines it. The story goes that you are Pixel, a little green pixel who visits a museum featuring many video game consoles and computers of yesteryear. Pixel jumps into these consoles to experience platforming levels designed to emulate the look and sound of each system. What’s really cool is that all these systems are real, and going into each console presents some interesting facts about the history and technical specs of each system. It’s also nice to see that the developers didn’t go with just the obvious systems; yes, there’s a set of levels based on the NES, SNES, Atari 2600, and Commodore 64, but there are also consoles I had never heard of like the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX81, or Amstrad CPC464. The visuals do look cleaned up a bit compared to the actual consoles, but I’m perfectly okay with that because we are playing on a modern HD console.

While Life of Pixel might be a 2D platformer, it does things a bit differently than the usual get-from-point-A-to-point-B formula. Scattered throughout the stages are gems that must be collected in order to open the exit door, a task that grows progressively more difficult as the in-game systems grow more powerful and more capable of generating larger, more complex levels. Of course, you also have an assortment of enemies and obstacles getting in the way as well. You can survive two hits from most enemies, though obstacles like laser barriers, spikes, and pools of water will kill you instantly. Death simply sends you back to the beginning of the stage. Aside from the aforementioned jewels, there are also hidden items to collect that unlock additional goodies like extra levels.

In addition to the usual running and jumping, Life of Pixel also has an assortment of power-ups that are used either to make things easier for those who track them down, or are necessary for beating the stage. For example, bombs need to be picked up and carried to destructible obstacles blocking your progress in some levels, while hidden jet packs or bubbles can be used to more easily float through areas that otherwise might be quite challenging. These features are nice when they pop up, but unfortunately it often feels like a rare occasion when they do because they are utilized way too infrequently, especially in the first half of the game. Most of the game comes back to running and jumping, and that reveals some of the game’s major faults.

This might be more of a personal issue with Life of Pixel, but I really don’t like the jumping mechanics. In most of history’s best platformers, you have significant control over how you jump, from the height to mid-air changes in direction. Life of Pixel gives you the latter, but jump height is fixed, so regardless of whether you tap the jump button or hold it, your initial jump will always be the same height. I could maybe understand this in the early stages when we are “playing on older systems” but the developers keep that feel throughout and it just makes the game feel incredibly stiff and non-communicative. The mechanics are made all the more frustrating by the fact that your double jump height is hugely dependent on precise, pixel perfect accuracy, and if you do it even the slightest millisecond too late you are punished by a significantly shorter jump. Some might see these design decisions as part of the challenge, but I think they combine to create frustration.

Preferences regarding jumping mechanics is one thing, but they ultimately fall by the wayside when presented with Life of Pixel‘s biggest fault: the level design. To put it concisely, Life of Pixel is inexcusably cheap. Early levels are often constrained to a single screen, but it doesn’t take long for larger to levels to show up and they are presented in two different ways. Some levels scroll along with your movement, but there are others that only scroll as you cross over the edge of the screen and they are terrible. You will die numerous times in these stages because the developer decided to put some sort of obstacle on the other screen that you had no way to know about.

You’ll be jumping along and then all of a sudden find that you overshot the platform you were supposed to be aiming for on the next screen; and it’s not because it was a difficult jump, it was just because you couldn’t see anything. The levels that scroll along with you don’t have as many issues like this because you have the ability to scroll the screen up or down whenever you want, but even then you will encounter downward leaps of faith because where you need to jump is further down than you can scroll the screen. I understand that level memorization can add a wrinkle of difficulty to a game, but this just feels like bad design. Were this a faster paced game with shorter levels, fast respawns, and quicker movements like Super Meat Boy or Cloudberry Kingdom, I think I could accept these flaws more easily, but as it stands it is a massive oversight that absolutely kills the game’s flow.

Of course, not all levels suffer from this problem, but that sort of brings us to another, harder to define problem. Compared to other platformers, Life of Pixel’s level designs generally just don’t feel as well executed. Some levels are perfectly fine, but some feel like they just stretch on too long; others suffer from a relatively poor sense of direction, and many just feel kind of generic. Like I said earlier, I think using the power-ups more frequently and creatively would have been a great idea. Instead, it just feels like you have a handful of genuinely good levels and an equal number frustrating levels scattered among a collection of mediocre levels.

And in keeping with tradition, I must compliment Life of Pixel for its fantastic chiptune soundtrack. Some of the tunes are a little forgettable, but when the soundtrack is at its best it is really quite astounding. The group of musicians who contributed music to Life of Pixel deserve major props. However, I must also point out the complete lack of sound from the GamePad speakers, which is something I hope they fix with an update sooner or later.

Life of Pixel is ultimately a game that looks and sounds the part, but really can’t walk the walk. The game is perfectly playable and there will undoubtedly be more than a few moments of genuine platforming pleasure, but along the way you’re going to have to make your way through a lot of ho-hum running and jumping that’s occasionally punctuated by bouts of frustration due to stiff mechanics and needlessly cheap level design. I really want to be able to recommend Life of Pixel if not just for its cool concept of looking at different systems through early ages of gaming, but when you look at the number of great platformers on Wii U, it doesn’t do in terms of actual gameplay to stand out. If you’ve played every Wii U platformer and/or have an unhealthy obsession with all things retro, Life of Pixel might be worth checking out, but everyone else would be better suited sticking with Mario, Donkey Kong, and Rayman.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

3 Responses to “Review: Life of Pixel (Wii U)”

  • 0 points

    I agree with this review, it pretty much nails it. I have it and have sampled several of the levels and the things he mentions can be frustrating. However this is how the older games used to be in a lot of ways. I suppose I would recommend it to anyone if they can accept these issues, it’s got a healthy amount of content for the price. Of course a person could always wait for a sale on it, but for $10 I don’t feel ripped off or too disappointed at all. I wouldn’t pay $15 or $20 for it to be sure. I’m still debating on that High Strangeness game. It hasn’t got the best reviews, but it just seems kind of cool. Citizens of Earth is pretty fun, weird, and unique in spite of the bugs the game has. It’s worth getting that one, if it’s on sale. Which it has been a few times recently.

    • 57 points
      Andy Hoover says...

      I had the opportunity to review High Strangeness and if you value bang for your buck, then I can’t recommend it without a steep discount from its usual $10 price. The premise is great, the mechanics are solid, and the story starts out as really cool and quirky, but when you think you’re maybe 1/3 or 1/2 way through the game it hits the afterburner and rushes you into an end that feels premature and half-baked. There really isn’t after game content or replay value so you can easily see everything it has to offer in just about three hours.

      • 0 points

        Wow, ok thanks. It looks so promising but if it’s only three hours then I will definitely wait for a sale. I’ll just leave it on the wish list and keep an eye out for a discount.

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