Ten gorgeous adventure game scenes from the pixel art era

An adventure game artist celebrates some of the finest backgrounds in the genre.

Low resolution adventure game scenery is a favourite subject of mine, and a field I've been working in for several years, and I regularly look to the adventure game art of the early 90s to study those graphics and see what makes them great. There are hundreds of excellent examples, but I've selected ten that I especially love—that have influenced, inspired and instructed me—to showcase here, and have summarised what it is about these scenes that inspires me.

Future Wars: Adventures in Time

Another World's Eric Chahi began this time travelling adventure with a stunning vista of a modern city shown reflected in the side of a skyscraper. Using just 7 colours to show the distant cityscape, it still has enough range to show reflections within reflections on the mirrored buildings, yet the use of separate palettes means that the playable area is never lost in these background details. This is aided by dark patches conveniently located right behind the much lighter character and window cleaner's suspended platform. An ingenious and evocative opening scene. 

The Dig

Towering stone formations beneath an alien sunset, reflected by rippling water lapping gently against an uneven shoreline—LucasArts was pushing VGA graphics mode to wonderful heights with this scene. The warm light from the horizon illuminates the edges of the rocky features in wonderful contrast to the cool blue shadows and is cleverly balanced by Boston's orange outfit. The large region of water is broken up especially well, forming a winding s-curve as it recedes, and the smooth animation of ripples keeps it dynamic and evocative. 

Simon the Sorcerer

Few were better at intricate, detailed pixel art scenes than Adventure Soft, and this location is a testament to their attention to visual detail. The way the treehouse bulges and looms over the water of the swamp gives it a hefty mass, and the winding roots and branches intersect many of the large areas of colour, adding superb diversity. Distant trees, wisps of fog and submerged stones in the water all add a profound sense of life, and the various grotesque faces hidden in the stones give a real sense of personality and character to this fantastic backdrop. 

Beneath a Steel Sky

Revolution Software's dystopian Australia of the future rarely looks as good as it does in this iconic scene near the very beginning. The high camera angle gives a wonderful view of the city; cars pass each other on raised roadways that cut bold angles through the distant landscape, while pollution and flames belch from industrial chimneys atop towering factories that clog the horizon. A bold rule-of-thirds composition frames this with Brutalist structures on either side, keeping this precarious vantage point feeling hemmed in by the crowding of a dense city. 

King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

The variety of The Land of the Green Isles leads to a darker, more sinister tone when the game visits the Land of the Dead. Serpentine foreground details frame a skull shaped cavern whose sickly yellow lighting makes it stand out clearly from the blue surroundings, and the winding path to it echoes these twisted features, aided by rib-like arches. Strong rim lighting from the moon leaves much of the scene in shadow, making this Stygian pathway beautifully eerie and evocative. 

Full Throttle

Peter Chan's vision of Melonweed utilises strong shadows punctuated by rich, warm light to create a wonderful nocturnal atmosphere, with twinkling stars and drifting clouds adding subtle, distant motion. The building's varied group of shapes and angles create a powerful silhouette, transforming a simple structure into something iconic and memorable, and uses a variety of textures to break up the larger flat surfaces. The slightly loose two point perspective gives a solid yet slightly ramshackle feeling, a perfect way to depict the decaying remnants of a town. 

Dune

Cryo's take on Frank Herbert's classic novel wouldn't have been complete without the sight of a massive sandworm bursting from the desert, truly a special moment. Here the rich reds of late evening evoke feelings of adventure and mystery like few other palettes, which, coupled with the unmistakable shape of the legendary creature, really captures the imagination, especially when seen in motion. Just as it's an important point in Paul Muad'Dib's growth, it marks a turning point in the game—and what a way to show it. 

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

The complex, varied layout of this bookstore is a testament to the skill of Sierra's art team's ability to transform everyday locations into something special. Foreground books frame the shot well, bringing us into the scene, and the high camera angle allows us to see much of the environment, without losing the feeling of a cluttered little shop. Disordered books against the back wall add personality, and cool lights from upstairs windows complement the warm chandelier perfectly, making it an evocative, memorable scene. 

The Legend of Kyrandia: Hand of Fate

It's hard to deny that Westwood were masters of pixel art, and Kyrandia 2 is a beautiful adventure. Though many scenes stand out, the bold, unusual forms here, coupled with an interesting palette, make for a distinctly memorable location. Curving lines and rows of holes accentuate the round forms of the boulders while a wonderfully crooked tree leans across the path, balancing out the largest of these. Subtle movements in the water, steam vents and lava pool add life, completing the scene superbly. 

Frederik Pohl's Gateway

Legend Entertainment’s intergalactic adventure is a wild ride to various exotic locations, but none capture the imagination quite as strongly as this underwater shot from a dream. Rich, warm light streams through the water, emphasising the elegant features of plants, and the surface of the water looms above, showing ripples and reflections. The glow of lily pads catching the sunlight tops it magnificently, nestling rich golds among the vivid greens and deep blues. A pixel art masterpiece in just 16 colours, and a perfect way to wrap up my list.

Ben Chandler is an adventure game artist who writes about adventure game art and composition on his 304 blog.