Anime is popular all over the world. It is something so distinctly Asian, yet resonates with people everywhere with its melodrama, over-the-top action and infrequent comedy. One quality that is ubiquitous among all animes is the visual element. Character designs and the fluidity of action is handled with the utmost care and work ethic. Unfortunately, games created from these great sources have had trouble replicating the source materials and have been confined to just a few game types. The most common of these are fighters, which make the most of the action-packed comics and cartoons. These fighters allows fans to live out their own power fantasies with their favorite characters. As consoles have increased in power, developers have taken advantage to create some incredible images that please fans and authors alike. We take a look at a select few animes with their games throughout the years.
We start with the Super Nintendo and Genesis era for a few reasons. Anime games were a bit rare in America before this, mostly confined to the Japanese market. Also, the technological restrictions were too great to attempt to recreate something easily recognizable as an anime game. There are anime games for the Nintendo (NES) and Japanese PC’s worth mentioning, but this article is meant to be an overview rather than a full retrospective.
Dragon Ball Z: Hyper Dimension (SNES)
The increase in power on the 16-bit systems allowed characters to have more recognizable shapes and animations, along with a much larger color palette. Game genres didn’t expand much. The majority were 2D fighters, especially after Street Fighter II became such a hit. Less frequent were side-scrolling action games and even the occasional RPG. Animations and in-game cutscenes (if you could call them that) became flashier and more reminiscent of their sources. Another great technological feature was transparency. The best games used it to great effect, making screen-engulfing energy blasts and massive explosions even more dramatic.
Though the increased color palette and transparencies helped, games were still limited as to how large their sprites could be. The SNES could only display 256×224 while the Genesis could handle 320×224. The visuals are amazing for how limited the games were. We’re talking about a screen that is around the same size as the on-screen map in a Call of Duty game. The absolute pinnacle of the anime game for the 16-bit era was on the Super Nintendo with Dragon Ball Z: Hyper Dimension. Released in 1996, it had a reworked combat system, beautiful sprites and animation, stages with multiple areas, a story mode that covers almost the entire anime and a faster pace than any game prior. The game was way ahead of its time, but never made its way to the States. Released only in Japan, Spain and France, it is one of the best anime games of all time.
Gundam Battle Assault 2 (PSX), Mega Man Legends 2 (PSX)
Polygons, who knew you could look so bad? Some games were able to pull off the 3D look using a super-deformed art style, like the Mega Man Legends series, while others like Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout just looked silly. The 3D fighter was the hot new craze. Games like Vampire Hunter D for PlayStation used a more realistic art style and was able to hide the ugliness of early polygonal games, but sacrificed any resemblance to an anime to anyone giving a passing glance. Even the sprite-based games, now with even more resolution to work with, had difficulties with creating something resembling hand-drawn animation. Pixels were apparent in any sprite despite their size. The density just wasn’t there and the consoles couldn’t handle something that took up the entire screen.
Two of the best anime games on the PlayStation were Gundam Battle Assault 2, a 2D fighter and Mega Man Legends 2, a 3D action-adventure game. “But Mega Man isn’t an anime!” you say. While not based on a specific Mega Man series, the game’s art direction is based on anime styles and the overall art direction of the game is meant to resemble a cartoon. The Mega Man Legends series pulled off a look that most anime games had failed to achieve.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Hero 3 (PS2), Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 (PS2)
The PS2/Xbox/Gamecube generation popularized the cel shading render method. It most closely replicated the hand-drawn visuals and the increase in polygons gave most games a smoother look and reduced the noticeability of the joints between the polygons that composed each character. The DVD disc format increased the storage capacity almost sevenfold and the empty space that is usually filled by complex texture packs in other games left space for higher quality sound and tracks with the original Japanese voice actors. Anime aficionados could play the games subtitled and enjoy the voices they had become used to, further selling the look and feel of the game, no matter how different it may appear from the source. Sound was and still is a huge factor in anime games.
The PlayStation 2 was home to an explosion of anime titles, mostly due to the huge install base and the popularity of the Shonen Jump comics in Japan. Huge names like Naruto, Bleach and Dragon Ball Z each had several games of their own, all with different styles to closely reproduce the look of the original artwork. The Naruto games, despite being an incredibly successful anime series, retained the look from the manga, complete with comic book panels in victory screens and sound effect text popping up when hits connected. The 2D fighter placed an emphasis on strategy, with ninja weapon loadouts, ultimate attacks that displayed beautifully animated cutscenes and a chakra management system that would become its defining quality in later titles. The best of the bunch is Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3, which offered the largest cast of fighters that spanned the entire Naruto series and some of the movies; it had the best looking graphics and a refined battle system that made every match incredibly fun. The other gem of the generation was Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3. Not only did it look great, but the game was super fast, including a dodge mechanic and combo teleportation that made the game play just like the anime. Touting a roster of 42 fighters, this was the most comprehensive DBZ fighter to date. The story mode covered the entire anime, the movies and some silly what-if scenarios. The battle system was fast and satisfying. Special techniques were executed in a multitude of ways rather than restricting it to a combo. Super moves completely destroyed stages. To put it plainly, it was the best Dragon Ball Z game since Hyper Dimension on the Super Nintendo.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (PS3/360), Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit (PS3/360)
As we come to the end of this generation, we can look back on some truly amazing looking games. The increase in console power and shading and lighting technology did wonders for anime games. Unfortunately for the American market, we’ve only been given the big names, not allowing for any discovery or experimentation. That being said, the Naruto and Dragon Ball Z games reached a level of spectacle that few others could hope to emulate. Both franchises experienced a strange reset, as the games released early in this generation took both series back to the early days of the anime, despite having games on previous platforms that covered currently airing stories (or the end of the series in Dragon Ball Z’s case).
Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit came out in 2008 and sold like hotcakes. Despite its amazingly smooth gameplay it had a lukewarm reception from critics. Every punch and movement is exaggerated and highly stylized, giving each of the fighters a more distinct personality than previous games had achieved. The special moves slowed down time and added a dramatic animation where the enemy would become helpless in the stream of energy. It was incredibly over the top for a series known for its excessive action. Although it is rather stripped in terms of content, the game should be seen for what it does in terms of character animation. Each time a character does a stun move to the enemy’s gut, their entire core is stretched as if it were rubber and as they recoil, they double over in pain and stumble backwards. The effect is sickening, and almost always results in players laughing in shock or sighing in disgust while turning their heads. Animation is a powerful thing.
Naruto. Oh Naruto. Since the first Ninja Storm game, which came out in late 2008 as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, the series has put an emphasis on animation, personality and recreating the beautiful battles from the source material with the most thorough attention to detail. The first game retold the story of the original Naruto manga and anime, while sequels picked up with Naruto Shippuden. It was a great display of what CyberConnect2’s new engine could accomplish, but was still an unwelcome trip to the past that had been covered in numerous games at that point. The last game in the series to be released, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is the absolute best an anime game has looked or played. Even without qualifying it as an anime game, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 may be one of the most vibrant and optically arresting games of the generation, making you forget why you ever cared about textures and hyper-realism in the first place. The game has to be seen to be believed.
This begs the question as to what we can expect from the PlayStation 4 and the successor to the Xbox 360. The boxes won’t be pushing anything higher than 1080p, which is still a large increase from what most games run at currently, but this also means more polygons, lighting effects and smoother frame rates. These games that focus more on how the characters move will reach a stage of ultra-smooth animation and pixel-perfect recreations of iconic characters rather than trying to sell you a new reality.
Anime is all about the characters and their journeys. While graphics are important, it is more about recreating a look that is already established and selling an interactive version of a passive medium. This lets players imagine they have taken an active role as they follow the storyline. Making the gameplay and cutscenes as close to the animes themselves helps to sell the illusion of an interactive anime episode. As the technology behind the games continues to evolve, so will the incredible visuals of your favorite anime characters. Expect to see them as you’ve never seen them before.