How anime and videogames work in tandem

With the design of Skyward Sword showing a distinct anime influence, we look at how Japanese animation and videogames have continued to inspire one another…

The gradual evolution of videogames, from the two-dimensional, warbling games of the 70s to the vibrant 3D worlds of the present, is the result of a constant exchange of ideas. Those ideas, as they’ve been handed back and forth between East and West, have given us a medium that carries distinct echoes of cinema, music and literature from Japanese, American and European cultures – and Japanese anime has long been a key to the look and design of videogames.

Since the dawn of arcades in the 70s, designers sought to bring a cartoon-like look to their games. The low-resolution screens and limited colour palettes of 70s and 80s technology meant that the style of cartoons was far easier to mimic than reality, which resulted in games such as Warren Davis and Jeff Lee’s Q*bert in the West, and Mr Do!, Mappy and Pac-Man in the East.

In 1983, however, an event occurred that would change the landscape of videogames for more than a decade. In the US, a sudden profusion of consoles and games brought about a market crash, resulting in the closure of many smaller games companies, and a financial blow to the American industry as a whole from which it would struggle to recover for two years.

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As the American games market collapsed, Japanese consoles soared in popularity. Atari, once the makers of the biggest selling console in the US, found itself fighting against two new competitors – the Sega Master System and, most prominently, Nintendo’s Nintendo Entertainment System.

Already a colossal success in the East, the NES (or the Famicom, as it was known in Japan) was launched, coincidentally, in 1983 – the same year as the game crash in the US. Launched in North America in October 1985 and Europe a year later, the NES went on to sell a remarkable 62 million units.

From an industry standpoint, the NES is perhaps the most significant console ever made. It rehabilitated the reputation of videogames in the US – a market that had dismissed the medium as a fad after the 1983 crash – and marked the beginning of Nintendo’s transformation from a comparatively small manufacturer of playing cards to one of the industry’s leading names.

The NES was also important from a cultural standpoint, too, which is something often overlooked. The console’s success meant that, all of a sudden, youngsters all over America and Europe were introduced to a distinctly Japanese style of videogame. While US developers also made successful games for the NES, none were as extraordinarily successful as Super Mario Bros, Metroid, Castlevania and The Legend Of Zelda.

The names may have been changed (Castlevania was called Akumajo Dracula in Japan), the often beautiful Japanese box art ditched in favour of a more Western package design, but those 80s NES games introduced a subtly different visual style that is unmistakeably Japanese, and clearly influenced by anime.

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In fact, it could be argued that the NES inadvertently paved the way for the success of anime outside Japan in the early 90s, with videogames forming the first wave of Eastern culture to proliferate in the US and elsewhere, swiftly followed up by the unexpected cult success of the legendary Akira.

In Japan, meanwhile, the popularity of videogames led to numerous manga, anime features and television shows appearing on consoles throughout the 80s. Many of these, such as the little-known Akira game for the NES, were never released in the West, while others, such as Hokuto No Ken for the Sega Master System, were heavily edited and released under anonymous titles such as Black Belt.

The increased technological prowess of the 16-bit generation of consoles in the late 80s and early 90s saw the unique style of Japanese game designers more strongly in evidence than ever. US distributors may have played around with names and box designs, but the distinctive, anime-style look was there for everyone to see in Super Nintendo games such as Final Fight and the enormously successful Street Fighter II. The shooter Area 88 may have been renamed UN Squadron for its Western release, but the distinctive character designs of Kaoru Shintani were all over the game itself.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the fascinating cross-over between anime and videogames continued, while at the same time, the distinctive look of Japanese design continued to grow in popularity in the rest of the world. Some videogames even became popular enough to spawn their own animated TV shows. While some of these varied in quality – the Legend Of Zelda series of short animations bore little resemblance to the classic games that inspired them – some were excellent, such as the rather obscure Salamander OAV (original anime video) based on the Konami shooter of the same name.

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By the late 90s, anime and videogames had become so intertwined that we ended up with Pokémon, a multimedia phenomenon that quickly spread across the entire globe. It could be argued that the influence of both Japanese game design and anime reached its zenith here, with the eyes of the franchise’s mascot, Pikachu, staring out from a legion lunchboxes.

While Western game design has come to dominate the industry over the last decade, the influence of anime can still be seen in videogames from all continents. The distinctly Japanese design of robots and mecha, exemplified in such classic series as Gundam and Macross, is still a common sight in games created by Western studios, from the exotic war machines in the Command And Conquer series, to the svelte ships of Mass Effect. And just to prove that the link between videogames and Japanese animation is as strong as ever, there’s currently a Mass Effect anime in the works, due out next year

Naturally, anime continues to exert a strong influence over Japanese game designers. The latest Legend Of Zelda game, Skyward Sword, to cite a recent example, contains many elements of Studio Ghibli’s classic movies. The game’s floating city, Skyloft, is extremely similar to the flying utopia in Laputa: Castle In The Sky (an idea taken directly from Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels), while certain character designs later in Skyward Sword bear a striking resemblance to the organic mecha seen in Ghibli’s film.

Japanese developer Platinum Games’ Vanquish, meanwhile, was not only influenced by anime, but also managed to inspire designers in the West, in spite of its comparatively slow sales. Although the look of Vanquish is unmistakeably Japanese, with its insanely intricate walking tanks and armour designs, one play mechanic was directly inspired by an animated TV show almost unknown in the West.

In an interview with Joystiq, Vanquish creator Shinji Mikami revealed that the unique sliding mechanic, where the player uses a turbo-powered suit to boost around levels, was influenced by 70s anime Casshern. This simple concept immediately shook up the third-person shooter genre; instead of merely ducking behind low walls, waiting for a break in enemy fire, players suddenly had the ability to zoom around the battlefield at breakneck speed. This sliding mechanic immediately struck a chord with Western designers, and variations on it can be seen in games such as Bulletstorm, Killzone 3 and Crysis 2.

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While the videogame landscape has constantly shifted over the last few decades, that same exchange of ideas between anime and videogames, and between East and West, still continues. And Vanquish is proof that inspiration can come from unexpected sources, resulting in new concepts that will themselves inspire designers all over the world.

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out now on Nintendo Wii – you can read our review here. Lots more exclusive Zelda content can be found here.