The Ryan Lambie Column: celebrating Japanese game graphics

A blast of Chrono Trigger on the Nintendo DS has left Ryan musing about the graphical stylings of some Japanese games...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

This week, I’ve been playing away on the DS remake of the Japanese RPG Chrono Trigger with eager thumbs. I won’t say too much about it here (my proper review will appear on Den of Geek very soon), though I will mention one aspect which immediately struck me: just how ruddy gorgeous the graphics are, even fourteen years on. Colourful, perfectly formed and perfectly evocative, it’s easy to forget that every element was drawn by hand, one pixel at a time – every character, subtly hued hillock and wizened tree painstakingly crafted.

Chrono Trigger
It helped, of course, that the Super NES (the console on which Chrono Trigger originally appeared) boasted one of the most vibrant colour palettes of any nineties console; the Sega Megadrive may have been built for speed, but its tones appeared decidedly sludgy when compared to the technicolour majesty of the Nintendo. But the beautifully hewn sprites of Chrono Trigger weren’t a one off – exceptional they may have been, but they’re but one example of an artform that appeared to reach its zenith in mid-nineties Japan; games such as R-Type, Street Fighter II and Rainbow Islands all had one thing in common: some amazingly realised pixel graphics.

Playing Cave Story (a highly addictive game which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago), a 2004 platformer with graphics straight out of the halcyon days of the SNES, reminded me of just how good the Japanese were – and are – at creating memorable characters and environments from little more than a matrix of coloured squares.

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Miner Willy of Jet Set Willy
Don’t get me wrong, though – other countries were also respectable pixelsmiths in their own right; witness the skill our own national treasure Matthew Smith showed when he created an instantly recognizable Miner Willy from about thirty dots of chunky white phosphor.

But there’s something effortless about the design of Japanese sprites; like that country’s vibrant comic art or even the evocative shapes implied by their alphabet, it’s distinctive, with even the simplest shapes and blobs loaded with character and life.

Super Mario World
Personally, I have a little theory that this design prowess stems from the Japanese Shinto religion, which teaches that everything, whether living or inanimate, has a kami, or spiritual essence. The concept that inanimate objects contain a sort of lifeforce, a spark of life, seems to be what lies at the heart of the best Japanese design. Whether it’s a lovingly sculpted My Neighbour Totoro toy or the little clouds with eyes from Super Mario World, or even a stylish new MP3 player, they all positively sparkle with vitality.

Playing Chrono Trigger reminded me of something else: the timelessness of pixel-based games. The best hand-drawn sprites never attempted to be a literal representation of reality – they’re a visual shorthand for real objects rather than digital facsimiles. I think this is why – for me, at least – it’s far more comforting to play a 2D, sprite-based retro game than an early 3D game like, say, the original Resident Evil. For the most part, 3D games attempt a literal interpretation of what we see around us (or as close as technology of the time will allow). As the quality of 3D graphics improves, our perception of earlier efforts deteriorates; what seemed like an incredibly realistic environment ten years ago simply wouldn’t convince today.

Here’s a case in point: trawl through your gaming archive and play the original Sega Rally, a driving simulator that was once deemed eminently playable. By today’s standards, it seems archaic. Incredibly, Sega Rally was released in 1995, the exact same year as Chrono Trigger hit the Japanese Super Nintendo. Fourteen years on, and not only does Chrono Trigger still regularly top the polls of best ever RPG, its Nintendo DS port was among the biggest selling Japanese games of last year.

Of course, Trigger‘s enduring success isn’t just down to its graphics, but I’d argue that they’re certainly a large factor. While polygon- and texture-based games continue to throw up incredible new vistas, and create virtual environments with ever-ncreasing realism, old-school pixel-based games still offer something unique and often overlooked: their intimacy and vitality.

Now the 2D sprite has largely been left behind (even our mobile phones can throw a fair few polygons around these days), it’s easier to appreciate just what a marvellous artform they once were. Ugly sprite-based games undoubtedly existed too – particularly those that kicked against the limitations of nineties technology rather than worked around it (just look at the hideous digitized monstrosities in Pit Fighter or Lethal Enforcers) – but hand drawn graphics, particularly those from Japan, have a timeless quality to them.

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That’s why, in another fourteen years when the aura of newness surrounding Killzone 2 has long since faded away, we’ll still be playing Chrono Trigger.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.