Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 10.35.13 AM

So I’ve been working on a side project in the style of the old 16 bit SNES JRPGs, and I came across a pretty cool tool called Pixen. If you use a Mac for development like I do, Pixen is a pretty good alternative to Graphics Gale, and you can pick it up from the app store for just $10!

My opinion? A worthwhile purchase, you could do a lot worse for ten bucks. For pixel animations, the featureset is solid although I think the UI could improve in a few key ways (details below).


It’s your standard pixel editor with all the usual tools (draw, erase, fill, eyedropper, etc), hotkeys, multi-button editing and wacom support. The preview window can be toggled on and off, and there are various methods of choosing colors based on your preference.

The Features:

  • Preview mode to view your animations in real time
  • Onion skin! (toggled with Animation -> Show Previous Frame Overlay)
  • Color palettes are generated automatically, can be changed at any time and can also be imported/exported, which works super well for palette swapping with some limitations (see gripes)
  • Exports neatly to a sprite sheet (PNG), like so:
  • ChloeSprite


The Gripes:

    Color Picker

  • It’s hard to tell what the color editor is modifying. There is a subtle effect that determines which tool has the active color, which is reliable EXCEPT when you are changing a palette color. Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 1.34.55 PMTo change a color in the palette, you have to double click that color and a faint blue outline will appear around it, like so:
    Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 1.25.01 PM
    HOWEVER, only the first change you make modifies the actually palette color (the rest go to your primary/secondary). So for example, if you are modifying colors based on RGB color value input, you have to double click the palette color three separate times to input each number. I almost always find myself changing palette colors in Spectrum mode, where one click can get you to any color you need in the RGB spectrum except gray.

  • In animations, palettes are bound to a specific frame, rather than the entire animation. I have no idea why they choose to do it this way. There’s a uservoice request to change it and I hope they do. In the meantime, there are 2 workarounds to palette swap an animation:

    1. You can change the first frame and save your new palette to a file (Palette -> Export Document Palette). You can then re-import that palette (Palette -> Install Palette) to your color selector. Looks like this:
      Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 9.39.15 PM 1
      The problem is that you have to go through each frame and change that color in the local palette (by double clicking it and selecting the changed color from the color selector). To make matters worse, palette order is not usually preserved between frames, making it harder to match the colors with their new counterparts.

      The upside of this method is that you preserve the frames, meaning that you can view the animation in the preview while editing your colors.


    3. You can take each frame and paste it as a layer on top of the first frame (see example below). To do that, click on each frame and select everything in the window (cmd+a), then copy it, click the first frame, and paste (it’ll automatically generate a new layer).

      The nice thing about this method is you now have one-click animation palette changes, but the tedium is in copy/pasting all those frames to layers and vice-versa. You also lose preview functionality while everything using layers. I still prefer this method though.
  • Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 6.27.39 PM

  • The one other thing to watch out for is saving. When you open a character project, every action is saved automatically to that project, so when you want to make alternate versions from a finished character (like palette swaps) you have to be VERY careful.

    They do have a versioning system in place (File -> Revert) that will allow you to access previous versions of your work. You can choose to revert to your last save, or browse older versions and select the one you want. The problem is that reverting a) is very slow and b) only appends the original content to your changes. It does NOT remove your changed content.

    The workaround? When I’m making ANY modifications to a finished character, I save it to a new file as soon as I open it. That way the original is preserved, and the new one has autosaves, okay that’s cool. Just don’t rely on the ability to make large “throwaway” changes. If you want that, you’ll have to rely on a third party system like source control.

The good news is Pixen’s still a young piece of software, and updates seem to happen fairly frequently. I’m pretty confident these issues will improve over time. Especially if you all go and upvote that uservoice ticket! 😉

In the meantime, Pixen is a pretty sweet way to make pixels happen on the quick and cheap on your Macs and iDevices.

    Has Pixen development picked back up enough to feel like bugs are actively getting fixed? I remember using it back in 2007 or so and feeling like development had stalled.

    Charles: I’m not sure! I was trying to track down an update log but there doesn’t seem to be one readily available. Their uservoice seems to have a lot of unaddressed fix/feature requests so far.

    I do know a new version has been pushed recently- yesterday, actually.
    So I’m not sure how responsive they are, but they’re at least pretty active.

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