Anime Vice News

Capcom Vs. Alex : In Defense of Sprites! - - OTAKU COMING HOME

Alex picks a fight with the king of fighting games! Will 2D sprites finally win over 3D models? Just how much personality can you draw into this carnage?!

Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...

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…

The Japanese box art for X-MEN VS. STREET FIGHTER versus the clumsy montage thrown together for MVC3.
The Japanese box art for X-MEN VS. STREET FIGHTER versus the clumsy montage thrown together for MVC3.

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.

Some examples of the dynamic designs from MVC2.
Some examples of the dynamic designs from MVC2.

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.

The image says it all. Two wildly-different characters stand perfectly upright, arms at their sides with almost identical posture. It's BLAND.
The image says it all. Two wildly-different characters stand perfectly upright, arms at their sides with almost identical posture. It's BLAND.

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).

Kyo from the cover of KOF '95. I love how simple and iconic the image is.
Kyo from the cover of KOF '95. I love how simple and iconic the image 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.

Some Shinkiro's new work for MVC3. I like the green/blue color scheme and how he's using it in the back to help push the warm colors of Iron Man and Ryu forward.
Some Shinkiro's new work for MVC3. I like the green/blue color scheme and how he's using it in the back to help push the warm colors of Iron Man and Ryu forward.

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...

Four silhouettes from UMVC3 as they appear in the game. Aside from clothing, these are really similar and totally unimaginative.
Four silhouettes from UMVC3 as they appear in the game. Aside from clothing, these are really similar and totally unimaginative.

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.

Facial expressions and nuances play a big part in giving SFIV its own unique look. You can really feel the impact in just this image!
Facial expressions and nuances play a big part in giving SFIV its own unique look. You can really feel the impact in just this image!

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.

Really great colors here, subtle light design, lots of personality - - this is more like it.
Really great colors here, subtle light design, lots of personality - - this is more like it.

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.

Ugh. This character art. I don't know where to even begin...
Ugh. This character art. I don't know where to even begin...

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

sickVisionz moderator on Oct. 30, 2012 at 2:28 p.m.
I was upset at the move from sprites at first but once I played them it's hard to go back. Ultra combos and the like are soooo much better in 3d because of the camera angles. Kinda unfair on the character outlines though. There are a lot of MvC2 characters whose outline would be just as similar. Plus it's not like every character is similar. You'd have a hard time confusing the outlines of say T. Bonne, Zero, Hulk, Amaterasu, X-23, Mojo, Darmamu, She Hulk, etc for each other.
AlexEL staff on Oct. 30, 2012 at 2:58 p.m.

@sickVisionz: Yeah, there's definitely a wide variety of characters in UMVC3, but the point of the silhouettes is that they chose not to make those characters look interesting in profile. They also happen to look really similar, but the real problem for ME is that they're just standing there in completely bland poses. shouldn't Super Skrull stand with different posture than Wesker and Dante?

you're right about the ultras though. there's definitely no way to do that with sprites!

AgentJon Oct. 30, 2012 at 7:56 p.m.

I too miss sprites. As nice as the new Phoenix Wright looks, there is something unmistakably different about switching to 3D. Such is the nature of progress. 2D sprites are far more expensive to create, even when you are talking about meh (Scott Pilgrim) versus gorgeous (Prince of Persia 2008).

I'm not sure that 3D will ever be able to properly replicate, say, any of the Vanillaworks games, and so it would be one of my great pleasures to see there become a larger nitch for the hand drawn market.

sickVisionz moderator on Oct. 31, 2012 at 3:57 a.m.
@AgentJ I'm a little confused. PoP 2008 isn't a sprite based game. Also, Scott Pilgrim the game didn't cost anywhere near as much to make as PoP 2008.
AlexEL staff on Oct. 31, 2012 at 12:49 p.m.

@AgentJ: Prince of Persia wasn't made with sprites, but i agree that it is gorgeous. really great color and character designs in that, plus the environments look fan-fucking-tastic. thats exactly the kind of game that i whole heartedly support being in 3D, since the focus is mostly on exploration and adventure.

if you have a PS3 you should check out JOURNEY. most beautiful game i've seen in years.

EamonBDocon Oct. 31, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.

The sprites versus character models (or whatever they are called in MVC3 )thing really bugs me too...I mean of course a character that is a dog isn't going to be confused with a human character, but I am fairly confident that each silhouette from MVC2 would be immediately recognizable, those 4 above from MVC3 are all so similar...and I can't really tell who any of them are aside from Dante. Also, just on a personal level, I was never great at 2D fighters, but always found myself buying them (guilty gearX, and a few other guilty gear games, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, MVC2 twice, for PS2 and 3, SF alpha collection...etc etc) because of the animation and personality of the sprites. They were all different and interesting....the animation of the Amingo Sprite in MVC2 alone is full of personality...something MVC3 really lacks.

No_name_here staff on Oct. 31, 2012 at 7:46 p.m.

What's more important than any discussion of sprites versus models is an assertion and clarification that I would hilariously punk @AlexEL in every fighting game he discusses here. He'd be combo'ed into oblivion and back.

He's a real life Dan Hibiki.

TopHaZZardon Oct. 31, 2012 at 9:46 p.m.

Well even 2-D sprite games like Blazblue and KOF start with 3-d models and then trace over them to give them that sprite look. Capcom likes 3-d models because its easy to reuse animation and create costumes to sell. Its not something I find right but it makes sense from a developer stand point. There also a issue of people liking huge casts which is hard to do when you are working with sprites.

AlexEL staff on Nov. 1, 2012 at 11:54 a.m.

@No_name_here: I knew this was coming. I accept your challenge, Tom. film it unless you're scared.

GokaiRedon Nov. 3, 2012 at 6:47 a.m.

You guy's should buy the SF20: The Art of Street Fighter

I bought it a while ago and it's great, it has a lot of annotations by artist that worked on the franchise including Shinkiro. It's not just wicked to look at but a good read.

I'm a Sprites purist myself, i'm playing KoF13 right now and i think it looks better than MvC3 although Tatsunoko vs Capcom is rather excellent.

AlexEL staff on Nov. 3, 2012 at 10:43 a.m.

@GokaiRed: couldn't agree with you more, man! My buddy picked that book up for me and i love it. I'm actually a big enough nerd that i had the untranslated japanese "art of capcom" book from back in the late 90s as well...

tatsunoko vs capcom is fun, but it felt to me like warmup for MVC3 to me. I do like a lot of those crazy tatsunoko characters though!

GokaiRedon Nov. 3, 2012 at 1:13 p.m.

@AlexEL: Ha i've started collecting Guilty Gear books and they're all japanese, one day i'll start with KoF

Personally i'm of the opinion MvC3 is inferior, it's unbalanced and a bit of a mess but not in the fun way MvC2 was

"3 CABLE'S BITCHES!!!!"

Anyway, it just seemed the controls where a lot tighter plus it was a tad slower so it was easier for me to use :P

I never thought i'd officially play Lightan in a game :)

AlexEL staff on Nov. 3, 2012 at 3:38 p.m.

@GokaiRed: I've had a lot of fun with MVC3 but in a really different way. it's more focussed on mastering one team instead of having fun with the whole crazy cast. there's definitely a "top tier" that the intense tournament dudes use, but for the less serious players, i think most characters can compete if you play to their strengths. I'm with you on the control though. MVC2 feels great and never sluggish.

The old japanese Art of SNK book is awesome also! I'd definitely recommend checking it out if you can find a copy.

sickVisionz moderator on Nov. 3, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.

@GokaiRed: The thing I don't like about MvC3 is the combos. In Marvel 2 you could do crazy combos and the game was very much based around it and there were infinites and really cheap teams that could only really be beaten by Jesus Christ level play or picking an equally cheap team... but it at least made visual sense.

I hate the whole ground bounce thing in MvC3. It looks like the combo is over yet the opponent can kick the whole thing back up again. There's a ridiculous amount of downtime inbetween the hit and it feels very wtf for me. It's like they saw that people loved doing long combos in MvC2 so they built crazy long combos into MvC3 from the ground up.

I don't like games that are so combo based that the entire match is you trying not to get hit once because one hit and it's all over for you. There's people who have been playing these games non-stop since SF2 and that's probably the only type of fighting game that could come even remotely close to not feeling like a total cakewalk for them, but the genre has pretty much abandoned everyone not in that group.

Plus I was way more into comics back in MvC2 days and now I don't recognize even 20% of the folk in MvC3 so all of that fun is gone.

@AlexEL said:

@No_name_here: I knew this was coming. I accept your challenge, Tom. film it unless you're scared.

Gauntlet thrown! I think there's a few SSF4 and MvC3 players on AV... perhaps a tourney is due?

GokaiRedon Nov. 4, 2012 at 1:45 p.m.

@sickVisionz: It was fun seeing some characters that haven't appeared in a game before like Rocket Raccoon and they play surprisingly well but dammit I want them all in sprite form! At least that way there's no excuse for leaving out older characters.

I keep having to remind my mates that MvC2 is so broken because it's released unfinished XD Which is why you can even choose the same characters or have unlimited combos, like in SF2 they where glitches :P

I suppose my problem with them is that they're too user friendly my 7yr old nephew beats me at this blasted game and I'm not that old :$

No_name_here staff on Nov. 6, 2012 at 12:32 p.m.

@sickVisionz said:

@AlexEL said:

@No_name_here: I knew this was coming. I accept your challenge, Tom. film it unless you're scared.

Gauntlet thrown! I think there's a few SSF4 and MvC3 players on AV... perhaps a tourney is due?

I'll look into that. needs to be humiliated in public at every available opportunity.

AgentJon Dec. 15, 2012 at 2:10 p.m.

@sickVisionz said:

@AgentJ I'm a little confused. PoP 2008 isn't a sprite based game. Also, Scott Pilgrim the game didn't cost anywhere near as much to make as PoP 2008.

Perhaps Scott Pilgram was a bad example, but few companies do sprites anymore, and I was having a difficult time thinking of a set of poor sprites from a recent game.

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