Video games are an interesting art form when it comes to appearances. Mario has a bright, carefree and cartoon-like aesthetic. Meanwhile, Naughty Dog games like Uncharted or The Last of Us prefer a more realistic graphical style. Many games share the same style, but no two styles look similar.
Anime games are an odd exception. No two anime games will look the same unless they’re made by the same developer or are in the same franchise. Pick a photo-realistic game, you know what it will look like. Pick an anime game and you’ve just entered a visual lottery!
There are three types of anime aesthetics in video games. The first and most common being the anime-likes. These are the games that heavily invoke an anime style while taking advantage of a video game’s different capabilities. Games like Persona and Fire Emblem come to mind for this subsection, though games like the Naruto Ninja Storm series and the upcoming Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot also count.
This is the style that has had it the roughest. 3D anime struggles to avoid falling into a strange and uncomfortable uncanny valley. Even in video games, the models used range from nice looking and convincing to visually unappealing clay action figures.
It has definitely improved with the passage of time. Modern technology is taking strides to make anime models look better and better. But we still have a long way to go before they can all be consistently good.
The next is one that has been mostly abandoned: the sprite-based games. These are games that use highly detailed character sprites to create the look of a moving drawing. This style is typically used by indie games such as Dust: An Elysian Tale, or fighting games such as Blazblue or the early Street Fighter games.
This style is consistently decent. A well-crafted sprite can flow even better than they would in an animated show. This creates a smooth and beautiful look like you’re playing through an animated film.
There are downsides to this style. Sprites are forever locked into 2D, which keeps them away from the numerous advantages of 3D games. Animating the sprites also takes a huge amount of time, which could stretch the budget or the creator’s patience.
This is why Street Fighter abandoned its 2D anime roots for 3D character models and a comic book style from Street Fighter 4 onward. It’s easier to make smooth animations in 3D, which can save both on time and money. I don’t think it’s nearly as charming, but it is a logical leap.
These two styles are the most common in anime games. The former is effective, but the former is better at invoking the look of anime. But there is one style that surpasses both of them. One that only one studio has managed to figure out.
Arc System Works with their Guilty Gear style.
When they set out to make Guilty Gear Xrd, Arcsys had one difficult objective: make their leap to 3D as invisible as they could. Therefore, they had to do the impossible. They had to make 3D anime that convinced your brain you were looking at a 2D image.
This is, as you may imagine, really god damn hard! The amount of man-hours and force needed to make that work was intense! Honestly, the methods themselves are a work of art!
If you’re curious about said methods, then you should check out the video in the link below. It breaks down how Arcsys made Guilty Gear, as well as Dragon Ball Fighterz, look as good as they did.
Sorry I forgot it earlier, I’m a stupid.
And here’s the craziest part: it’s still getting better! Just look at these screenshots for the upcoming Guilty Gear 2020!
However, just like the other two styles, this one does have some issues. Creating the character models, cutscenes and… everything takes a long fucking time, not to mention money. Plus, it’s a style that only works in the genre that it’s being implemented into: fighting games. If any other game tried to use the aesthetic, it wouldn’t’ work even half as well!
Still, it is worth noting that is is an amazing style! Often times, I couldn’t even tell it was a 3D game until the camera moved! It perfectly takes advantage of the benefits of both the 2D and 3D styles!
Anime visuals in video games still have a long way to go. They’re getting better by the year, don’t get me wrong. But they still have a far way to go before the video game industry truly masters the look.
Again: unless you’re Arc System Works. They’ve already figured it out.