Pixel art Platformer level design - Full Guide

Sandro Maglione

Sandro Maglione

Pixel art

How can you make the levels in your platformer game look professional? It may sound complex, but in reality, even the most beautiful platformer games are made of a collection of small details well placed together.

This post explains how to plan and design a platformer level. We go over all the possible details and layers that compose any platformer game.

For each of them I will present some examples of assets that you can create for your projects ๐Ÿ‘‡


Background and foreground details

A platformer level is made from different layers placed on top of each other to compose the environment of the game.

Each layer plays a unique role in the gameplay. Composing layers helps to give more depth to each scene, as well as conveying details of the story.

These layers are:

  • Foreground: Shows some subtle details on top of all the other layers. This can contain objects that may react to the player, for example some grass that moves as the player passes by
  • Main layer: this contains the player, enemies, platforms, walls, and intractable objects (ropes, collectibles, chests)
  • Close background: details of the environment that add more atmosphere and interest without being intractable
  • Multiple backgrounds (parallax)

Example of a simple yet complete platformer level: main layer is clearly visible (character, walls, statue, grass), the brick wall close background, and a parallax backgroundExample of a simple yet complete platformer level: main layer is clearly visible (character, walls, statue, grass), the brick wall close background, and a parallax background

This screenshot shows a simple and clear example of platformer level design:

  • The main layer contains the player, the walls, the statue, and the ground. The sprites in this layer have a solid black outline that makes clear the distinction between this layer and the others
  • The close background contains the brick wall pattern and the vegetation on top of the ground. The bricks are used to give the impression that the character is entering a tower. Notice how this layer has no outlines and more saturated colors
  • The background contains multiple parallax layers. The colors have an high saturation and low contrast to avoid distracting the player from the main gameplay

As a pixel artist, you are responsible to know and create assets for all these layers and different environments.

For each of these layers, it's important to have a catalog of ideas for possible objects and sprites.

The next sections are an overview of sprite examples found for each layer.

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Foreground

The foreground contains:

  • Small objects placed on the player's path
  • Bigger sprites used as decorations for places that the player cannot reach

The most common example is grass. The grass is displayed on top of the player to give a sense of depth, as if the player is standing behind it in a 3-dimensional world.

Notice how the rock formations at the left of this screenshot are placed on the foreground, on top of the main gameplay. This addition makes the cave look more realistic and deepNotice how the rock formations at the left of this screenshot are placed on the foreground, on top of the main gameplay. This addition makes the cave look more realistic and deep

Foreground decorations must never hide the main character

Since the foreground is displayed above the main layer, the main objective of the foreground is to convey more depth and details to the scene, without taking away space from the main layer and the gameplay.

That is why foreground decorations are usually added on the margin of the screen, generally in places that the character cannot reach.

These decorations can therefore have a higher resolution since their main objective is to give more interest to the level.

Look at how the rocks on the ground and floor overlap the characters in the scene to form the foreground layer directly integrated with the game tilesLook at how the rocks on the ground and floor overlap the characters in the scene to form the foreground layer directly integrated with the game tiles

Some examples of foreground elements are:

  • Rocks and bricks
  • Chains
  • Grass (flowers, bushes, vines)
  • Light sources (lamps, bonfires, torches)
  • Non-intractable creatures (fireflies, pixies)
  • Tree branches
  • Decorations depending on the environment (benches, chairs, tables)

The wooden poles are placed on the foreground. This transforms a 2D asset into a 3D object, giving the impression that the player is walking inside the standThe wooden poles are placed on the foreground. This transforms a 2D asset into a 3D object, giving the impression that the player is walking inside the stand

Main layer

The main layer is the focus of the game. The objects in this layer usually have a solid outline with high contrast compared to the other layers. They also have brighter colors with less saturation.

It must be clear which are the object in the main layer, so that it's obvious for the player that she can interact with these objects (enemies, walls, collectables)

Every element in this layer should be something that the player can interact with: from a simple collision (walls and ground) to collectibles and enemies.

Notice how all the main layer assets have a clear and solid black outline: the player, the platforms, the cannons, the collectible flower, and the cannon ballsNotice how all the main layer assets have a clear and solid black outline: the player, the platforms, the cannons, the collectible flower, and the cannon balls

Since this layer is the core of the game, it's worth adding more details, animations, particles to the objects to make them stand out from all the other layers.

The sprites in the main layer vary depending on the game. Some common examples are:

  • Player
  • Enemies
  • Platforms
  • Walls
  • Doors
  • Collectibles (chests, resources, coins)
  • Intractable objects (portals, ropes on which the player can swing, everything that the player can hold, grab, push, throw)

It must be obvious the distinction between background and main layer objects. A good strategy is to make the background darker, with less contrast and more saturation. In the example a shadow separates the tiles of the main layer from the backgroundIt must be obvious the distinction between background and main layer objects. A good strategy is to make the background darker, with less contrast and more saturation. In the example a shadow separates the tiles of the main layer from the background

Examples of tiles

The most prominent sprite in the main layer is the tileset.

Every 2D platformer is made of tiles that form the ground and walls where the player stand and collides

It's therefore worth spending more resources on designing a rich tileset.

You can learn how a tileset works and how to create one yourself in the following article: How to create a Pixel Art Tileset - Complete Guide

The tiles, walls, and platforms in the main layer should blend with the designs of the environment. Some common examples of tile designs are:

  • Bricks
  • Rocks
  • Concrete
  • Grass
  • Vines
  • Ceramic
  • Glass (long and short)
  • Dirt
  • Mud
  • Wood

The outermost layer where the player walks should have more details.

Inner tiles should have less contrast, more saturation, darker colors, and less details to avoid distracting the player

A small but unique detail in your game may be to have different sounds and effects for each terrain as the character walks on it.

For example, you may show a cloud of dirt floating behind as the character walks on a trail (using particles), while instead showing a splash of water when the character walks over a puddle

Close background

A Close background aims to represent background objects that are close to the main layer, while at the same time being simple non-intractable decorations.

Notice how there is an additional layer of vegetation before the actual background. This "close background" is a decoration connected to the main layer tiles but it is not-intractableNotice how there is an additional layer of vegetation before the actual background. This "close background" is a decoration connected to the main layer tiles but it is not-intractable

Note: Multiple close background decorations can also be placed on top of each other, similar to a normal background

An example is the walls of a castle. As the player enters the castle it can interact and collide with the main layer's walls, which correspond to the internal walls of the castle.

In this scenario, you could add a close background representing the outer walls of the castle. On these walls, you could add windows, decorations, chains, grates.

The top path has a close background decoration made of bricks, while the path below shows a normal background. The path with the close background gives the impression of being "inside" the castle, while the other makes it look like the path is open outsideThe top path has a close background decoration made of bricks, while the path below shows a normal background. The path with the close background gives the impression of being "inside" the castle, while the other makes it look like the path is open outside

This addition gives more depth to the environment, making the player feels as if she were inside a real castle.

Outer walls must have lower saturation, less contrast compared to inner walls, and no outline. The player should not mistake them for real collidable walls โ˜๏ธ

Another example may be a forest. In the close background layer, you could add some trees, rocks, bushes, statues.

In some games it is also possible to find animated enemies lurking around, giving the impression that you are observed from all directions (background included).

A close background is more detailed compared to a normal background.

While the objective of a close background is to give more visual depth to the scene, it can also be used to convey details of the story.

Imagine your character entering a mysterious and silent village. In the close background, you could show some ruins and broken objects to inform the player that something happened here. Where is everyone? What happened here? What is coming ahead?

Other examples of scenarios may be:

  • A cave, for example showing the walls with some drawings or symbols related to the story of your game
  • The sky, with clouds and floating ruins
  • A temple, with paintings on the walls, pillars, statues, animated torches
  • A church, with giant glass windows, benches, animated candles
  • Underwater, with corals, seaweed, small animated fishes

A close background has no parallax movement. Since a close background extends the objects, walls, and platforms from the main layer it should move without delay with respect to the player.

Multiple backgrounds (parallax)

The last layer is the actual background.

A common strategy to give more depth to the environment is to use a parallax effect.

This means creating multiple backgrounds, each moving gradually away in the distance from the main layer.

Notice how there are multiple layers of trees in the background: the closest ones have more vibrant colors and more details, while the tree farthest in the distance are made using a single color with high saturationNotice how there are multiple layers of trees in the background: the closest ones have more vibrant colors and more details, while the tree farthest in the distance are made using a single color with high saturation

The closest background should move nearly as fast as the movement of the player, while the farthest background should have nearly no movement at all.

Backgrounds far from the player should have more saturated colors, as well as less amount of different colors overall (possibly even showing a single color outline, for example the silhouette of a mountain in the distance).

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Light effect

A common effect that gives more depth to the level is adding a light source coming from one or multiple directions.

The light interacts with platforms and walls to create a unique atmosphere:

Example of light source coming from the outside and shining inside a cave. This effect makes the level look alive, as if the player is entering a real dark dungeonExample of light source coming from the outside and shining inside a cave. This effect makes the level look alive, as if the player is entering a real dark dungeon

You can use this light effect to guide the player.

For example, the goal of the player may be finding a way out from a cave by following the direction of the light coming from the outside.

Another light source can be attached directly to the player. This consists in a circular light that extends out in all directions from the player.

This light effect helps to give more emphasis to the main character. It can also be used to contrast the darkness of a cave.

Notice how a subtle light is added to the player to give him more emphasis inside the caveNotice how a subtle light is added to the player to give him more emphasis inside the cave


Now you know how to make your levels stand out. If you plan, design, and implement each layer correctly, your platformer will look more professional and polished without doubt.

This article is mainly intended as an overview of some sprites that you may need to create for your projects. You can revisit this post every time you need some ideas on new assets to add to your game.

In future posts, I plan to go into more detail for each example presented in this overview. Meanwhile, you can check out the full list of Pixel art tutorials.

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