Funny how the pendulum swings. A couple of years ago many of us were waxing poetic about the lovely hand-drawn visuals of Odin Sphere, describing it as a visual throwback to games like Beneath a Steel Sky (with Dave Gibbons' remarkable backgrounds) and the hand-drawn animations of the original Broken Sword games. Last year, World of Goo and Braid further demonstrated how a carefully crafted art style can convey a signature visual aesthetic.
Now it appears the hand-drawn floodgates have opened, and we're seeing a mini-renaissance of games with a singular, decidedly non-CG look and feel. Aside from demonstrating the continuing viability of 2D games, these titles suggest that hand-crafted visual artistry is alive and thriving in modern video game design.
Here's a list of my favorites. I'm not suggesting these games are perfect (although I am crazy for A Boy and His Blob at the moment). I chose them because I believe their visual designs do an especially effective job of serving and communicating the spirit of these games. I also think they're beautiful, each in its own way, and that's no small thing. Click on each image for a larger view.
A Boy and His Blob (Wii)
Publisher: Majesco Games
Original designer (NES): David Crane
Machinarium (PC, Mac)
Developer/Publisher: Amanita Design
Distributor: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Jakub Dvorsky
Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
Publisher (NA): Ignition Entertainment
Designers: Yoshifumi Hashimoto (producer), George Kamitani (director)
Trine (PC, PS3)
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive
Designer: Lauri Hyvärinen
Blueberry Garden (PC)
Publisher: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Erik Svedäng
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS)
Designers: Akihiro Hino (producer), Tatsuya Shinkai (director)
Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Designers: Jeremiah Slaczka, Marius Fahlbusch
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS) **
Designer: Hiroyuki Kubota (director)
I obviously can't play every game (and I've only just begun Machinarium), so if I've omitted a recent game that deserves to be on this list, please let me know.
**Mario & Luigi: BIS has some of the best-looking 2D sprites and most funkadelic backgrounds I've ever seen, but I can't say for sure if they're hand-drawn or not. I recommend this article by Jeremy Parish for a more educated rumination on the subject.