Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...
- How FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Saved Anime (For Me) *** SAILOR MOON is for Boys (Too)!
- KINGDOM HEARTS Rescued an Anime Fan *** The Art of the Remake Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3
- The Do's & Dont's of Conventions *** For Under-Rated "Japanimation"
Editor's Note: Like I said in the last Vice Pit, I don't see too much delineation between anime, manga and Japanese video games, so we're opening the discussion a little wider this time. Enjoy it.
Fighting games are enjoying a bit of a Renaissance lately. The past couple years have seen long-awaited sequels and updates to old favorites like STREET FIGHTER (SFIV) and MARVEL VS. CAPCOM (MVC3). There are suddenly a ton of options for a dedicated video pugilist such as myself. Since MARVEL VS. CAPCOM: ORIGINS has just hit the virtual arcade, I thought it'd be a good time to talk about the evolving look of these games, specifically Capcom’s switch to computer modeled characters from 2D sprites.
It sounds like progress, but I can’t help but notice some artistic choices that feel like a big step backward…
I do want to briefly mention that I happen to love MVC3, and I think the updated ULTIMATE MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3 (UMVC3) is even better. It’s a well-balanced, intricate and rewarding game, with fun to be had for serious and casual players alike. That said… the game is ugly!
Every character looks stiff and bland, softly lit with no actual personality. The backgrounds are nice but often overdone and distracting, so much so that they can actually hurt game-play. Quite often, UMVC3 looks like an action figure commercial - - lifeless, colorful and loud, without character or style. The gesture isn’t there, the faces are mostly expressionless and there is no attempt at a unique style that sets the game apart from other incarnations.
The old sprites have so much life to them! Cyclops’ chest heaves heroically. Gambit’s trench coat billows in the wind behind him. Spider-Man bounces around with nervous energy. Wolverine splays his claws and rolls his shoulders as he stands.
These characters are fun to look at even when they’re sitting still! More importantly, they convey the personality of the character. All I know about Dante from looking at him in MVC3 is that he wears a coat. That's really it.
One of the exciting things about the VERSUS series for big fat nerds like myself is seeing how a different set of artists - - specifically a Japanese set of artists - - reinterprets the cast of characters. In MVC2, the artful reinterpretation was impossible to miss.
Then, MVC3 came along and simply teased about offering a daring new spin. The lead Japanese illustrator on MVC3 is Shinkiro; a name you might not know but whose work you’ll probably recognize if you’ve been a fan of fighting games for a while. His designs are beautiful and unique - - but they don’t show through in the game at all!
Shinkiro worked for Capcom's biggest rival, SNK, back during the 2D days. Most notably, he was on the KING OF FIGHTERS series, though he did some memorable and iconic work for SAMURAI SHOWDOWN and METAL SLUG, as well. His SNK work distinguished itself by being extremely realistic, softly shaded and full of character. He often drew Japanese characters so that they actually looked Japanese (and, as fans of anime, you should know how rare this is).
Shinkiro's work is gorgeous and polished, and the new style he’s adopted for his job at Capcom is really interesting. He’s combining his old technique with a more graphic approach, using flat color and thick black outlines. It’s a nod to American comics and the inking style of superhero books, as well as contemporary anime, while still remaining completely recognizable as Shinkiro.
It works really well as representative of the new incarnation of the VERSUS series, and it definitely makes me think that a 2D MVC3 would have looked amazing. Because we instead got a great big pile of artistic meh on the screen and some mostly terrible digital paintings by less accomplished artists in the booklet.
I touched on this in my last article, but I happen to be an old timer who prefers 2D animation to 3D models in his anime, and this is true for video games, as well. I think its easier for artists to get personality, life, gesture and character into drawings. I find with 3D designs, artists do a great job making models and beautiful textures to wrap around them, and less time thinking of the character as a whole.
This frequently leads to a pretty but lifeless piece of art - - kind of like painting a hundred tiny details without worrying about the composition or structure of your image. I’ve noticed that even the silhouettes often suffer from this, too. Ask any animator or illustrator and they’ll tell you a strong silhouette is one of the most important things to consider when designing a character.
Then look at these...
By comparison, SFIV is actually far more successful in its visual update because it actually has some amount of unique style and personality. I’m not talking about the Sumi-e ink splatter gimmick; I mean the cast has actual facial expressions, there are some nice color and lighting decisions and the game has a style of its own.
The ink splatter serves littler purpose in the game beyond frills, but it does metaphorically suggest the progression from 2D to 3D. The new 3D models are shaking off and tearing through ink, leaving these 2D vestiges splattered behind them.
Being an old man, I happen to prefer STREET FIGHTER III, but I can respect SFIV for what it is - - an earnest attempt to update the franchise for a new era of players that still stays true to its visual roots. I still think many of the characters look a bit stiff, but the visual style has undeniably been considered at length.
The truth is, a lot of great looking 2D games are still being made - - just not by Capcom.
KING OF FIGHTERS 13 (KOF13) is a gorgeous game, through and through, thanks to its recent visual overhaul. The entire cast has been redesigned with a slicker anime style, and they look and move beautifully. The lighting is particularly impressive on these sprites, with lots of nice shadows cast across their bodies, and interesting color within those shadows. The game has a style of its own, and the characters’ gestures are really well done. The problem is, the look of the game is undeniably anime, and that doesn’t seem to sit well with the most western gamers these days.
2D games like KOF13, PERSONA: ARENA and BLAZBLUE look great, but wind up getting relegated to the “anime game” category (check out the latest Vice Pit for more on this), and passed over by Joe Q, Gamer. It’s unfortunate that a focus on art and design in a 2D package immediately pigeonholes a game as fringe and distasteful to the common gamer. I know sprites are the language of the last generation, but I’d like to think the general public would care enough about the artistic merit of the entertainment they consume to look a bit more closely at what its strengths and weaknesses really are.
So take a look at your games! Pay attention to the same stuff you would when watching anime, or looking at any piece of art. The point of this article is not that 2D games always look better - - because they don’t. I just want informed audiences to look critically at the art in their video games. Don’t accept something as superior just because it’s slick and complex, and don’t hesitate to support the guys who do get it right!
I’d hate to think that Capcom could continue to sit unchallenged at the top while resting on such mediocre visuals - - especially when they used to set the standard. And if you’re still not convinced of Capcom’s former glory, check out the DARKSTALKERS RESURRECTION collection coming out early next year. It doesn’t get much punchier than that.
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - - dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn