They Bleed Pixels’ faux-retro look mirrors its masocore design -- necessity disguised as stylistic choice, more well-adapted crutch than renaissance. Put together a relatively cheap pixelated art style and a tendency to focus on fewer, harder challenges that extend a game’s lifespan through repetition, and you have a potent kick of faux-nostalgia.
To their credit, developer Spooky Squid Games introduces a bit of chaos to a genre that typically relies on rote memorization and execution. Longer levels, fodder enemies, checkpoints, and a combo system make They Bleed Pixels more like a regular platformer, and upset the “perfect run” mentality masocore games often cater to. Portions of pure traversal and fighting are mixed in directly with the masocore challenges, and makes the entire experience feel novel; at one point or another, most masocore games make you feel as though you’re just bashing your head against a wall, but They Bleed Pixels considers pacing more than you’d think.
The “flow” of difficulty in They Bleed Pixels, then, becomes more varied when it introduces adaptation as a necessary skill than when a challenge falls back on lessons from the masocore school of learning by dying. But this isn’t necessarily a positive. The zombies, bomb-spiders and Samara Morgan knockoffs complicate the precise, twitch-based challenges more than they should, and they can make success and failure seem based on chance. If, for example, a zombie guarding a ledge you need to hop on to proceed doesn’t attack you immediately after you land on said ledge, when it’s done just that every other time you’ve tried, it’s hard not to feel lucky (it’s conversely frustrating when the opposite happens).
Adaptation is certainly a skill. But the kind of challenge They Bleed Pixels is going for -- maneuvering through a sawblade-riddled obstacle course -- doesn’t benefit from ambivalent challenge. Here the unpredictable factors are frustrating for the wrong reasons, and when the obstacles are static, they’re unremarkable. The conflicting challenges of dealing with variables and mastering a challenge through repetition turn They Bleed Pixels into an uneven mess, and the game becomes even worse when they’re one in the same. If the “classics” They Bleed Pixels takes inspiration from were this fucked, then they probably aren’t worth revisiting, and there’s not enough faux-nostalgia in the world to fix that.