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Top 5 2D Game Art Pieces in Recent Years

Behind every successful 2D game, there is masterful 2D art drawing done by professionals. Let’s check some of those masterpieces together.

The Role and Prime Examples of 2D Art Drawing in Games

If you take a closer look at the variety of popular game art forms, you will see that two-dimensional art remains in the top tier. This form of art has been known to humankind since the dawn of the ages, but today, instead of prehistoric rock drawings, we mostly enjoy digital 2D art. It is perfect for convening complex ideas or concepts and never fails to entertain us. In today's blog entry, we are going to explore the world of two-dimensional art, talk about its makers, name our favorite 2D games with incredible visual style, and give tips on how to find a reliable 2D art outsourcing partner for your project

Basics first: what is 2D art?

There cannot be a video game without visuals. Even if it is a good ol' text-based adventure, you still need to show at least letters to the player. In modern games, graphics is the very first thing we notice and make our impressions on. It is not a rare occasion when a project with really interesting mechanics is filled with questionable art forms that make playing painful for the eyes. And vice versa – when a graphically gorgeous game turns out to be a broken piece of code or just contentless.
Fan-made 2D art for Portal by Trent Kaniuga
2D game art is one of the prevalent types of art despite lacking one dimension (depth). Don't be fooled by its seeming simplicity – in the hands of the master, it can convey any idea and show things from with different perspective. 2D art can often be seen in various indie games, but it does not mean big studios ignore 2D in favor of 3D. For instance, a few years ago, Microsoft published a critically acclaimed Ori, and the Will of the Wisps that was entirely made in two dimensions (and looked gorgeous too).

Peculiarities of 2D art

The main differences between 2D and 3D art are volume and depth. But that barely scratches the surface. With two-dimensional art for games, an artist has to deal with various specifics inherent to flat art. The nature of 2D affects game mechanics, movement, and environment.

It is true to some extent that in 2D games, mechanics are simple, just like their art. However, a professional artist can transform even depthless concept art into something truly unique and inspiring. Thus making the audience forget that everything happens just in two dimensions.

Making characters move in 2D is usually all about shifting a model horizontally and vertically. Because everything around the character is flat, exploration capabilities can be somewhat limited. Smart game designers and artists must improvise and invent special tricks to create memorable levels. For example, they often try to put less emphasis on landscapes/backgrounds and focus more on gameplay.

Two-dimensional art forms have three main advantages from the producer's point of view. First, they are generally faster to draw because one dimension is taken out of the picture literally. Sure, some 2D pieces can be extremely detailed and complex, but their production is easier overall. Second, updating/remaking such imagery is not difficult as well. On top of that, hiring a 2D artist is cheaper, especially an outsourcer. The main drawback of using only two dimensions in art is the lack of realism. But if your game does not care about being real, then 2D offers even more possibilities to go wild with your visual style.

Popular 2D art styles

At the dawn of the gaming industry, the first video games barely had any details and had to use primitive shapes like triangles or squares. There was neither powerful hardware to process better graphics nor adequate software to accompany it. As technology advanced, game designers finally got a chance to realize their ideas and channel their creativity into new projects with fascinating art, both 2D and 3D. So let's take a quick look at the most used 2D art styles.
  • Pixel art. A pixel is the smallest piece of a digital image that can be displayed on the screen. All artwork in games with this art style is made from pixels: characters, landscapes, VFX, etc.
  • Cutout art. Imagine a hand-drawn image that has been cut out from a piece of paper and put in another environment. It may seem alien to the new world, but that's the main idea of cutout graphics.
  • Cel shading art. It is more of a special technique that makes 3D look flatter, more like 2.5D. Involves the creative use of lighting and sophisticated color blending.
  • Monochromatic art. This art style ignores most colors, intentionally focusing mostly on black and white (with some exceptions added to these two). To make this work, artists utilize shades, tints, and clever lightning.
  • Flat art. Not a sign of depth in the artwork; volume is taboo. Flat art is a natural enemy of realism and cares little about physics, so it is often used for fantasy games with wild and unrealistic imagery.
  • Geometric art. Uses various geometry objects to draw a scene. With geometric art, the entire world can be made of cubes, for example, or your protagonist can be represented as a wild prism.
Which style do you fancy?

The job of a 2D artist

Artists are responsible for any game's appearance and what we see on the screen. This includes working on character models, their weapons and equipment, the environment where the action takes place, small objects in the world, lighting, and more. Each 2D piece of digital art is created individually with the help of advanced software like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, and others. Artists must not only be experienced with digital tools but also be familiar with traditional drawing techniques and have basic knowledge of anatomy, perspective, and lighting.

2D artists, just like their colleagues that work with 3D, have specializations. Usually, on big projects, all drawing tasks are divided into the following categories: concept art, character design, environment design, prop/equipment creation, and UI.
Concept art. One of the most popular specializations in gamedev. Designers that work on concept art are practically free from most boundaries and limits so that they can put their creativity to good use. They set the tone and draw basic sketches that will serve as a foundation for the game art.

Environment design. Game worlds consist of unique locations, zones, and landscapes that may include mountains, forests, buildings, rivers, and other things to explore. Environments can be inspired by real-world architecture from the past and present or be completely fictional and bizarre.

Character design. These guys are masters of anatomy, and they must have good knowledge of various living species to be able to recreate not just humanoid characters but alien life forms as well.

Prop makers. Props are small objects that fill game worlds to make them look livelier – buckets, sconces, chests, etc. This category includes weapons and armor, and in most cases, there are dedicated artists to work on those.

UI design. Interfaces play a major role in modern games, although not everyone pays attention to their design. A good UI must have all icons, windows, pop-ups, and other minor details in order and fit in the overall design of the game. It assures continuous immersion in the process.

Top-5 stylish two-dimensional games

Today the overwhelming majority of AAA games prefer to go the 3D way and usually rely on hyper-realistic graphics. However, it is not always the case, so let's not forget about amazing games with hand-drawn and unique 2D art that makes your jaw hit the floor. Traditional art is still alive and kicking, delighting us with modern art masterpieces. Check the games below to understand what we are talking about!

Streets of Rage 4

The very first installment of the series happened 31 years ago when Streets of Rage was released for Sega Genesis. The last part took whopping 29 years to get to the market, but it managed to recreate that unique 2D art style and capture that good ol' arcade flavor. The title brings back not just classy 2D art upgraded for the XXI century but also modernizes the traditional gameplay with new characters, upgrades, and visual effects. Every fan of the beat 'em-ups should not miss this amazing game.

Banner Saga

The game is best known for its meticulous depiction of the Viking theme and incredible 2D art that you wouldn't expect to see in a top-down strategy. Sure, the gameplay is also nothing short of excellent, but it is the epic visuals that grab your attention from the very first second. There is probably just one legendary adventure inspired by Norse myths that beats Banner Saga in art style – the last God of War released in 2018. But it is kinda unfair to pit a huge AAA title against a small project crowdfunded through Kickstarter. Anyhow, if you are into strategies and love strong narrative in combination with stunning visuals, then the Banner Saga series is your choice.

Mark of the Ninja

The undisputed "must-play" title for all Metroidvania/stealth fans. This is arguably one of the best games about ninjas we have ever seen. And it is made in 2D! Mark of the Ninja captivates players with a well-arranged combination of stylish visuals, clever stealth mechanics, and a variety of deadly tools for neutralizing opponents. The developers from Klei Entertainment managed to produce an original project with a unique 2D art style: sharp lines, smooth animation, and intentionally gory kills match the atmosphere perfectly. Also, if you feel like stealthing your way through the levels without leaving bodies behind and sounding alarms, you can totally do that!

Hollow Knight

This is another magnificent game in a fantasy setting with all artwork done by hand by two (!) designers. You may think that locations in Hollow Knight must be cloned or copy-pasted with minimal changes, but you will be wrong. Each zone is different not just visually but mechanically as well – the gameplay is changing according to the environment! The beauty of this grim, cold, but still enigmatically attractive hand-drawn world is unparalleled. We bet you will be making random stops throughout your journey just to take a closer look at the environment. Just like we did.

Guacamelee! 2

Guacamelee! 2 is created with vector art, which is not an art style but rather a visualization technique that utilizes high-quality images with advanced scalability. That's probably why the game looks so fresh and original (not belittling the artists' talent here, of course). Each new zone in Guacamelee! 2 is unique in all aspects and drastically differs from the previous one. You will find yourself cruising through fields, tropical forests, and jungles, all green in their natural beauty, and even visit the land of the dead, where the environment is designed literally with skulls and bones.

Final words

Two-dimensional artwork is a special kind of art. It encompasses a multitude of digital techniques and opens endless horizons for creativity and self-expression. It is a good option for a game project when either time or money is limited. But you will still need at least a small team of dedicated creators: concept artists, environment designers, prop makers, and so on. If you are planning for something bigger and more complex, then you are going to need a considerable number of specialists to achieve decent results.

Here at Argentics, we have an entire department of talented 2D artists that have worked on many projects (you find them in our portfolio section). They are always ready to take on a new development endeavor to bring your ideas to life. Anything you may need – from concept art and character design to full-cycle game development – we can provide!
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