Every time I play a new or old indie game that has pixel art, I immediately brace myself before reading any reviews, because I know what is about to come next. The reviewer will begin to talk about the art style and say it is “retro-inspired”, has a “retro feel”, or similar chatter. Pixel Art is so much more than retro, and saying any game that has pixel art is inherently retro is the literal dumbest thing any human being can literally ever say. I used to think like this as well, using the term retro as a blanket for things I thought were old, until I got woke; and now I’m here to get you woke.
The important takeaway from this is that pixel art is not inherently retro, saying that an entire art style is locked to a time period is as silly as saying Rock and Roll is locked to the 80s. It is a gross generalization of an entire style of art used in a multitude of mediums. While it was created during the arcade era and perfected in the first few generations of home consoles, it has been improved during the past few years. It can be made to emulate a multitude of styles (like an NES style game), but it can also be its own thing. Recently, we have seen a surge of games who are completely their own thing, and not “Retro” style at all.
A good example of a game like this would be Owlboy. This indie hit had been in development for several years and released to critical success. The game employs extremely detailed moving sprites with high-quality designs that couldn’t be made on the old consoles of yore, but need a pretty beefy graphics card. You couldn’t run this on a SNES, even though it does use a pixel art style.
There also are multiple substyles of pixel art that make the blanket use of “pixel art’, semi-inaccurate. You have isometric and non-isometric styles that influence the perspective the game has. There are also 8, 16, 32, and 64-bit styles that are all reminiscent of different eras. These styles all developed at different times with different tech limitations, but with some modifications, can look completely different from their original style.
So while Pixel Art took a break in the early 2010’s in favor of more “realistic” 3d art. Now, the style is coming back better than ever, with some really talented people behind it. So while it might be tempting to label it as retro for convenience’s sake, know that it is much more than that.