One wonders what Pac-Man looked like at first. Was he the round cartoon character he eventually became, or was he simply what we saw on the screen the first time, a yellow pie with a piece cut out of it?
Looking back, of course, Iwatani had it easy either way. Simple technology made it easy to power a game with simple characters, even if they were as simple as a pie with a piece cut out of it. The art and science of videogame character design has come a long way since then, and so since it's one of those lazy afternoons, I thought to take a look at some of the highlights, and also the lowlights, of videogame characters. Who became an absorbing avatar with which to explore a virtual world, and who was just plain painful to look at?
It is most likely the hair that does it.
Adrian "Alucard" Tepes (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)
The Castlevania series has always featured some fine visual artistry, but its characters never seemed to benefit from it as much as the world around them. From the first game all the way through to its 16-bit descendants, the Belmont clan all looked more or less the same -- a guy dressed in generic medieval garb and carrying a whip. Serviceable, but not what you would call inspiring.
When fantasy artist Ayami Kojima began designing the characters for the PlayStation's Nocturne in the Moonlight (which would become Symphony of the Night in the states), she obviously decided that this would not do. Out with the fashion-impaired Belmonts, in with the supremely stylish son of Dracula. Alucard's flowing hair, 18th-century haute couture, and inexplicably attractive pallor made him an enduring favorite with fans on both sides of the Pacific.
The original [insert animal here] with attitude.
Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog)
Shigeru Miyamoto's Mario was the first platform hero, the one who started it all. In his footsteps follow all the other stars and has-beens of the genre, from Kid Icarus to Boogerman. Only one other has managed to stand on an equal footing with Mario, at least as far as recognition is concerned -- Sega's own Sonic.
A good character's appeal is hard to pin down sometimes. Is it the speed? Is it the smile? Is it the spiky blue hair? Perhaps everyone likes something different, but whatever he's got, it's made Sonic one of the most successful mascots around, enduring though Sega's many troubled years.
Iori Yagami (King of Fighters '95)
The 2D fighting genre offers perhaps more opportunity than any other for an artist to see his creations properly realized on the screen. Big sprites mean more detail and more faithfulness to the original concept. Thus, it's not surprising that character design flourished on all sides of the lines during the years when this genre dominated arcades.
Truth to tell, any number of creations by Capcom and SNK's artists -- Akiman, Bengus, Eiji Shirai, Senri Kita, Shinkiro -- could fill this space. Personal bias, however, gives the nod to Iori Yagami, introduced in 1995 to give SNK's King of Fighters series a little bad-boy edge. Iori even managed to seemingly prefigure some current fashion trends -- perhaps it's his fault you see raver kids tying their pants together these days.
Kain (Final Fantasy IV)
The Final Fantasy series, throughout its history, has benefited from some of gaming's most popular artistic talent. It's a bit ironic, though, that Yoshitaka Amano's intricate work would appear in the earlier, more visually simplistic games in the series, while Tetsuya Nomura's more iconic designs would take over just when Square's technical capabilities leaped forward.
Nomura has built a massive fan following around his creations, ever since Cloud Strife became an icon in Final Fantasy VII. Cloud's predecessors still bear mentioning, though -- he wasn't the first time an FF game featured a hero with a bit of a dark side. Which is why we recognize one of Amano's finest designs, and a sharp bit of sprite artwork as well: Kain, the Lancer who became Cecil's nemesis in Final Fantasy IV. He combines an original look (even in such a low resolution) with a distinctive personality and a set of unique fighting skills.
He also provided some fine raw material for Akihiko Yoshida's redesign in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Mio Kisaragi meets a really big sword.
Philia Felice (Tales of Destiny)
Despite their popularity, the Final Fantasy games actually go somewhat against the grain when it comes to the style of their characters, at least as compared to the Japanese RPG market at large. While Amano's delicate style was guiding the first six games in the series, most other developers favored a more familiar style based on Japanese comics and animation.
This of course led to some pretty questionable pieces of artwork, and perhaps even worse, a lot of simply generic-looking heroes. As time went on, however, more talented artists lent their abilities to videogame design, and developers had the technology to do justice to their work. Representing the classic big-eyes-small-mouth style, then, is Philia Felice, supporting heroine of Namco's Tales of Destiny on the PlayStation. Mutsumi Inomata created an excellent cast for the second game in the popular 2D RPG series, although she never seemed to match that success in subsequent installments.
Yes, I am biased in favor of girls with glasses. You can come hit me if you like, it would probably do me good in the long run.
Terran Wraith (StarCraft)
Blizzard Entertainment is home to some of the most talented artists in the American games business, and as many have observed, they're especially good at making sure those artists' creations survive all the way into the finished product. The beautiful WarCraft III is only their latest example of fine designs finely rendered by the game engine.
Looks aren't everything, though -- what Blizzard does well extends to other aspects of character design, though. It's not just their appearance that brings them to life, but their voices and their style of communicating with the player. Which is why we recognize a lesser-known star here, the pilot of the Terran Wraith. His calm, collected Chuck Yeager drawl symbolizes StarCraft's remarkable achievement in combining visual design and voice acting.
Da Vinci goes a little Retro.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
Mario and Link are doubtless Nintendo's most well-known characters. Metroid isn't quite up at their level -- its sci-fi style and complex gameplay make it more of a serious gamer's game. Serious gamers would likely agree, though, that Metroid's heroine (and what a surprise it was, when you found out she was a she) is perhaps more memorable than her better-known brothers.
Retro Studios went as far as it could with the concept of a woman under the armor, building Metroid Prime's interface so as to always remind the player that there's a human under there. Along the way, its artists also created some frightfully beautiful interpretations of the character, like the "Illustrated Samus" shown above.
The eternal question -- what is it?
Headdy (Dynamite Headdy)
Treasure has never espoused quite the same style as other action developers. Usually, when designing a platform hero, the goal is to create a simple character, one with universal appeal. Sonic and Mario are classic examples -- they have their own individual traits, but not so many as to create too wide a gap between the character and the player. When Treasure made its most memorable entry in the 2D platforming genre, though, its artists created one of the oddest heroes in history.
What is Headdy? He's a puppet, in fact, although the game doesn't do such a good job of explaining that -- the idea is that he's hanging on strings as he hops and head-bashes through the constantly shifting levels. But that doesn't entirely answer the question. Even if he's a puppet, a puppet of what? The world may never know, but we certainly won't get tired of wondering.
There is, and always will be, only one.
Solid Snake (Metal Gear)
Snake looked good even in his earliest days -- whoever Konami employed to do its NES box art, they certainly got their money's worth -- but it was actually a while into his lifetime that he got his proper artistic due. For that we can naturally thank Yoji Shinkawa, the artist behind the Metal Gear Solid games, whose distinctive style gave new life to both Snake and his myriad opponents.
When you think about it, Snake's actually a pretty simple character. He's almost as close to the archetypal tough-guy as you can get. But Shinkawa's design lends him just enough individual detail to balance his universal qualities. The bandanna, for instance -- the bandanna is obviously key.
Videogames have produced their share of great art and design over the years -- the above only scratches the surface. But like any popular artform, games have seen their share of ugly over the years. We recognize the following not out of malice (well, not entirely, anyway), but in the hopes that they might not happen again, and that we all might be the better for it.
Ugly guy, ugly chick, and their ugly dog.
Juno, Vela, and Lupus (Jet Force Gemini)
It has become a truism among gamers that you should never, ever let Rare design its own characters. Unfortunately, it has never become an article of faith in the minds of publishers, which is why we anticipate Grabbed by the Ghoulies with the entirely wrong kind of dread.
The emperical evidence is clear, however -- of those games where the British developer created the characters without aid, only Battletoads and perhaps Conker's Bad Fur Day have heroes that you can remember even a little bit fondly. And the games that we most respect Rare for -- GoldenEye, say, or RC Pro Am -- obviated the need for original characters.
Then, in the other pile, you have stuff like Jet Force Gemini. The surprising thing about this game's astonishingly ugly trio of heroes is that they actually looked worse at one point, before massive outcry forced the developers to age them up from their original Sanrio-reject style.
"We need sales! The only solution is breasts!"
That Everquest Chick (Everquest)
American role-playing games have, for whatever cultural or coincidental reason, never been thoroughly character-driven as their Japanese counterparts. Perhaps it's a consequence of American RPGs' strong roots in tabletop games, which have always emphasized creating a character for yourself rather than accepting one presented by the game's scenario. In any case, though, this trend is particularly evident in online RPGs, which are populated in the main by characters of each player's own design.
Which would not be any big problem if they weren't given such aesthetically backward raw materials with which to design them. Everquest, even putting aside any considerations regarding its aging graphics engine, looks bad thanks to the lowest common denominator of fantasy artwork. One can imagine the conversations that led to the adoption of the Everquest cover star:
Marketing Person A: Our game looks like hell. Is there something we could put on the cover to distract people from the actual graphics?
Marketing Person B: Geez, I dunno...how about breasts?
Marketing Person A: My God! That's the answer! Breasts it is!
And the situation naturally got worse with the development of Everquest Online Adventures for PlayStation 2. But I've probably said enough at this point.
And the cover actually looked good by comparison.
Everything (Shadow Madness)
Then again, it may be for the best that American RPG developers have never favored the Japanese approach towards character emphasis. One of the few times they've tried it produced this nightmare, which spent a good two years of heavy hype in development and wound up selling approximately 7,000 copies. Why did it sell so badly? Well, the gameplay was pretty badly broken, but before you got to that bit, you had to get past the fact that it was so disgracefully ugly.
The only character in Shadow Madness who looked even remotely interesting was the disembodied head, and he wasn't all that cool as disembodied heads go. The rest were thoroughly forgettable, if you even played the game long enough to get to know them and forget them afterwards.
It's worth pointing out that there has at least been one example of Westerners doing a proper job with a Japanese-styled RPG. Tom Hall's Anachronox stands out almost alone in that regard, thanks in part to a very inventive cast.
Pardon me while I puke on your shoes.
Bo Rai Cho (Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance)
Above, I talked about how 2D fighting has contributed so many fine character designs to the videogame artwork archives. Amend that statement to note that I'm only talking about Japanese games. Americans, for whatever reason, like their fighters damned ugly, and no more evident has this always been than in the Mortal Kombat series.
On the one hand, at least Midway gave up those nasty digitized sprites after the series' first three installments. On the other hand, the creation of purely virtual characters allowed them even freer rein to create downright stomach-turning characters. The epitome of this trend is Bo Rai Cho, who seems to have been inspired by the belief that gamers would enjoy using a big vomiting fat guy in a 3D fighting game.
Upon reflection, there are probably people out there who enjoyed playing as the big vomiting fat guy, but on balance we'd rather not know them.
Why would you want to play this? Why would you want to look at it?
Boogerman Boogerman: A Pick and Flick Adventure
Interplay had its biggest hit in history with Earthworm Jim, which took the market by storm thanks to Doug TenNapel's artwork and the game design that made Shiny famous. Jim also had its share of slightly off-color humor -- not of the conventional variety, mind you, but a little slimy nonetheless.
Boogerman appears to have been an accidental consequence of Jim's success. Someone thought Shiny's occasional foray into mucus humor meant that you could build an entire game around those gags, led by a hero who was bad habits personified, and create an equally monstrous hit. It didn't happen -- Boogerman had not even a fraction of Jim's style, being only an ugly potato-lump stuffed into a neon parody of a superhero costume. Instead, this game became only a footnote to history, one ignored by those who would continue to try and push the envelope the wrong way.
Such iniquities done to the girl with the glasses...
The Whole Cel-Shaded Cast (Tokimeki Memorial 3)
What on earth went wrong here? Konami had remarkable success with the first two installments in its ground-breaking simulation of teenage life and love. You may find it a little silly, but five million Japanese geeks can't be wrong. And while all those eager consumers stayed for the deep simulation gameplay, the initial hook was the cast, which Konami designed and rendered in fine, flat, animation-inspired style.
Then, someone had a very bad idea -- take those girls and render them in 3D. This may have sounded alright in concept, but Konami should have pulled the plug as soon as it saw the first demonstrations of Tokimemo 3's cel-shaded character models. The character designs had to be substantially simplified to match the lower level of detail the 3D engine could render, and the cel-shading simply didn't work.
Fans of the series voted with their wallets, as the third installment sold a small fraction of what its predecessors managed. It's very telling that the next game in the series, Girl's Side, went right back to the traditional 2D presentation.
We want the robot, not the strange rat-man.
Ratchet, to be honest, is not that bad a design. He would be a cut above average during the era of nonstop 16-bit character clonage. But his basically generic style and personality sticks out far more than it might, because he spends the whole game next to a character who should be the real star.
Yeah, we mean it. Clank should be the one getting top billing. Ratchet has stupid ears and no personality. Clank has all the brains and all the attitude. If he were a few feet taller, we'd be calling this game "Clank and Ratchet," and the stupid furry elf-boy would be the glorified backpack.
With luck, Insomniac recognizes this as well, and we'll get to play a Clank solo adventure one of these days. In the meantime, we can at least play the Giant Clank levels over and over again.
Plok the first. Implying there would be more of them...
We've saved the best, or perhaps the worst, for last. You almost certainly don't remember who Plok is. Most people don't. However, we certainly remember the trend he represents, which so thoroughly dominated the latter half to two-thirds of the 16-bit age.
It was a strange and terrible time. Publisher after publisher assumed that they could take a lumpish hero, give him a silly name, slap him into a generic side-scroller, and make their money back. Hence, you get games like Plok, perpetrated upon the gaming public by now-defunct Tradewest.
Who is Plok? What is Plok? Why do we give a damn one way or the other if Plok saves the princess or not (providing he's supposed to save a princess, which we're not sure of, but there's a better than 50-50 chance that was the goal of his adventure)? Unlike more successful abstract designs -- the above-mentioned Headdy springs to mind -- he has no personality filling his curiously-shaped body.
The answers to these questions, or perhaps the lack thereof, may be discerned by the utter and complete disappearance of Plok from the gaming landscape. He now resides in the same circle of hell as Bubsy and Aero the Acrobat.
We'll miss you, Aero. Well, no, not really.