“Hey, take it easy. My name is Leon. I’m under the President’s order to rescue you”
Leon S. Kennedy, Resident Evil 4
Continuing a celebration of Japanese gaming and culture in August following our recent trip to the Manga Exhibition at the British Museum in London, this week we decided to review a great art book from Japan and a celebration of the early design work from Capcom, a treasure trove of concept art and development sketches from its earliest and well known franchises. Released in 2004, this compendium to the earliest titles of the Studio is a fascinating insight into the development of their most acclaimed characters, from concept sketches and design to their final realisation. Certainly, in contrast to the more realised and graphically improved titles released in the last decade such as Resident Evil 5 that we reviewed recently there is a great sense of fun and levity in the design work behind its earlier work missing perhaps as the studios process and vision matured and developed towards a traditional western audiences expectations. Looking back now reveals the evolution of some of their most well known franchises and characters from Bionic Commando to Street Fighter, how and why they came to resemble their final presentations. As an avid fan and aficionado of fantasy world building and creation, over the last year I have come to admire and champion this form of creation and design, singing high praises when opportunity affords to the various art books and series that detail and breakdown how this process formed and evolved to its final state.
As a studio, but perhaps more as a general observation given the relatively brief history of this genre of entertainment and the large incremental steps in design and presentation there would be perhaps a temptation to showcase and bring to the public awareness a plethora of its most recent images and creations, the push for realism and graphical prowess an overwhelming force and impetus. What I’ve come to appreciate in recent times and certainly since the beginning of the year as I write this, the titles and software that repudiates this technological arms race towards realism and opts to focus centrally on the narrative and the emotions and feelings they elicit in their user base. I won’t for a moment prescribe towards the motivations or intentions of the studio who were creating these titles long before I had any awareness of their existence in the industry however there is an earnest truth and joy in studying and looking at these images that allude to an innocence and purity in their design. Looking at the design of the Street Fighter characters for example in these initial titles, long before the current iteration was even conceived, consideration into whether to go for the more honest and ‘real’ presentation of the human form or instead the more recognisable cartoon based approach. That these characters and designs have become iconic mascots and representatives of the industry of this era is testament to the design work of Capcom as a studio in this period of time. This Art Book very much feels like a celebration of its past, the origins and foundations of a path the studio opted to pursue but one that shares a celebration of the joy and merriment in the formative years.
‘True victory is to give all of yourself, without regret’
The concept art that stood out in its magnitude and detail was the development work for the earliest Street Fighter games, combining a mixture of black and white sketches to the more illustrated and coloured final presentations, I adore this insight into the creative process whenever I come across it. I’ll openly admit for a long time as someone who grew up with gaming as past time I was as guilty as anyone else of always, pushing for realism in the experiences I played, opting for the graphical prowess and presentation, loudly exclaiming to anyone that would listen the virtues of these graphics over those. When you take a step back, and certainly with the prevalence of open world games in the last decade which at times present these forlorn, repetitive virtual worlds to discover with no drive or impetus to progress, I personally, have found myself longing for a return to the experience, the power of gaming to present worlds beyond imagination, a sensation I recall in my earliest days when completing World of Illusion with a friend on the Megadrive 2 and just being in wonderment at these landscapes and stages you found yourself before being quickly ushered on. Today in the absence of drive and purpose, when you have art books such as Watch Dogs which instead opts to present the final, realised product, you do lament not being able to peak behind the magicians curtain and study the concept and design process.
I enjoyed the sketches and concepts in this particular art book as it attempted in its brief scope, to present the development cycle from concept to final realisation of its characters, the crude pencil based sketches, the final formed personas experienced by the gamer. It doesn’t necessarily add to the final experience of the game, indeed seeing why one particular character is designed or shaped a certain way doesn’t impact on their ability as warriors and fighters or how you play. I guess, ultimately it comes down to the subjective and the connection you form with these individuals. Of course, if you follow an entirely objective path and have no attachment its a lost point but I would argue to some degree these strength of games such as Street Fighter comes from the emotional attachment you show to one particular fighter over another, the time and dedication into learning their particular skills set and abilities forms an attachment that has no practical or objective measure of success or output but does exist to some extent. The merit then and purpose of artbooks such as these is abundantly clear. If for example you hold a certain, penchant for Chun-Li and have dedicated time and effort to learning her craft and abilities, there may then form an attachment to discovering her history and creation, at the very least a fascination into why her particular appearance was chosen and conceived. A lament from me, in the modern world where character creation and design is now entirely at the user discretion, so the art books and design process has instead opted to focus on the secondary characters to some degree but primarily on the equipment and peripheral items the user has at their discretion to equip and choose. In an era where this level of customisation was a distant dream the fighters in this particular game had a specific design and appearance. We came to accept them, choosing them for whatever reason whether there was an element of representation or just a recognition of a great, design, whatever the reason we would invest time with them, it’s understandable to enjoy seeing how and why they appeared as they did.
As alluded there is a nice contrast between the line based sketches and the final marketing representations as shown above with the development marks and angles for Chun-Li contrasting to the coloured and stylised poster image shown. It would be disingenuous not to comment on the design process for this particular female character having discussed and analysed the furore with the release of Dead or Alive 6 and the conflicting narrative in relation to overt sexualisation and the clash between Eastern and Western sensibilities. Purely from the imagery and design process shown, there doesn’t seem to have been an explicit push to design her appearance in a hyper-sexualised way, objectively she shows as much flesh given her costume as Ryu or Ken as shown however there is a danger to project modern sensibilities onto historical art and design which in turn distorts the narrative of the subject matter. This is very much a celebration and recollection of the early Capcom designs, for the most part they do use a similar art style as found in Manga and other Japanese media. I do enjoy the clean and sharp lines of this particular art style and the use of shading to accentuate certain features and characteristics. Given the restrictions of screen size and rendering in that era of gaming, to project the perception of strength in a character model would require increased muscle tone and appearance, Bison as pictured above and Chun-Li to a lesser extent certainly had exaggerated muscle mass and slightly disproportionate body mass however as a concept it projects an image and perception, her appearance suggests agility, his, a more weighted approach. Where today we can freeze and capture images of our digital heroes even at that point the screen appearance would be remarkably simplistic to these development sketches so its enlightening to see their intended finalised version and contrast this to how they appeared in reality on our screens.
“We’ll have to do this some other time, Bass”
Beyond the Street Fighter franchise one of the studios other iconic characters is of course Mega Man on his quest to stop the nefarious Dr Wily, a series known today more for being one of the innovators of the non linear level selection process that has become a custom feature of modern day gaming titles. In contrast to other series which have attempted to relaunch themselves for a modern audience, Mega Man has continued to follow a linear release schedule with the latest, Mega Man 11 released in 2018 although the series has diversified into other genres and formats, notably Street Fighter x Mega Man in 2012 and Mega Man & Bass for the Game Boy Advance. Given the characters prominence and appearance in games going back over three decades he doesn’t perhaps have the same cultural resonance in the West as he did in his domestic market, perhaps ode to the more simplistic character design that hasn’t altered or changed to any great degree in that time. Unlike another blue mascot from the era, whilst there hasn’t been a great degree of evolution in the base games, there is perhaps a respect for the consistency in approach for this franchise and continuing to ensure each title remains true to the original game and ethos. When playing the most release, it opted to retain a more simplistic and cartoon aesthetic which whilst not pushing the curve of realism was consistent with the design of the original character. It did not look dated or basic, the platforming was challenging in parts and chose to go for the 2.5D perspective approach utilising a front on view with characters given depth through presentation. I do enjoy this perspective in games when I play it, giving them depth and contrast to earlier titles that used an entirely 2D perspective whilst retaining resonance to the original design.
Its easy to forget and to presume the Marvel franchise in recent years has shown no great interest in gaming with precious few releases as of late, astonishing given the culture awareness of the brand with the MCU over the last decade. Yet looking back it did surprise me to find the concept art for a number of notable Marvel titles released by Capcom in its formative years, X-Men Children of the Atom being one before they focused their attention on games such as Marvel vs Street Fighter in later years. When looking through the book it was the image of the Punisher that jumped out to me, the iconic skull adorned vest of his an easily recognisable part of pop culture today. Whilst I’ve never been a huge fan of Frank Castle and his alter ego The Punisher to any great degree, it is interesting to view the design approach of the studio in contrast to Western comics and their approach. Of course, long before studio licensing issues existed and certainly within the gaming world the characters of the X-Men were co-existing beside their other Marvel peers on a regular basis and it was fun to see the designs of the mutants contrasting to the more bold, clean cut image of Captain America who has re-emerged over the last decade as a fan favourite thanks in no small part to the success of the Avengers. In the images within the book released, you do have a great final form version of the ‘cap in his American flag regalia with more muted down sketches of Hulk, Iron Man, Magneto and Spiderman in the background. It does serve to remind you as a fan that despite their more recent prominence in the cultural zeitgeist, these individuals have been on our pages and in our lives for many decades. As a fan of both gaming and movies, its always exciting to see their presentation in this format.
“That’s why J.J. pays me the big bucks”
What value you place upon this book is entirely a subjective choice, I personally enjoyed some of the earlier Capcom titles to varying degree so a chance to review and enjoy this particular book was a treat. With prices ranging from $30 to $60 from second hand sellers clearly there is a demand for the title and whilst purchased in Japan, in the West, clearly a market to. For me, if I’m being honest being the niche aspect of the title and the limited scope of characters chosen and games represented does narrow the appeal somewhat. I did enjoy looking at the sketches of the Street Fighter case as well as the early Marvel titles and the Capcom originals such as Mega Man and Bionic Commando. As previously discussed, I do adore the design and creation aspect in titles such as these and lament when Art Books opt to only show the final, polished spoils of their endeavours. I want the art design work, the pencil drawings, the alternate perspective and in an ideal world a rationale or reasoning why one approach was taken over another. With this particular book, I would probably suggest it was presented very much as a showcase of its earlier titles using what concept art it could find that would be of interest to a specific target audience, not an extensive breakdown of every character, every stage. That I would find interesting but I’ll accept i’m an audience of one that perhaps finds this world creation and building of any real interest.
Capcom in many ways presents themselves on occasion as fans of the Manga and comic book genre first, at least in their formative years with characters clearly inspired and influenced by that iconic art style, understandable given its prominence in that culture throughout its history. As the studio has shifted its focus to appealing to a more Western audience over the last couple of decades so its art style and design and shifted to varying degrees. Would the Resident Evil games as they progressed have had such an impact or connection if they characters were hyper cartoonish in contrast to the more earnest attempt to present realistic graphics and environments? arguably not. It’s enjoyable to see the studio in these formative years transitioning away from the comic book pages into the digital arena, you can see the influence when they present the comic book strips of these games how big an impact Manga hand on the developers. I am perhaps grateful the tone and design changed over time, in an international market whilst there is a growing appreciation of Japanese art to appeal to a wider base audience does require growth and evolution of practise. Ryu in the latest iteration of Street Fighter certainly has some resemblance to his original design but certainly the character has evolved, equally Chun-Li and the other cast members. The book serves its purpose, in presenting the early days of the Capcom design work, to use an old adage, it sets out to accomplish what it states in its title. A book you can in all good faith take quite literally at face value. What value or worth you find in studying and enjoying the early works of Capcom is entirely at your judgement, for me, for any fan of world building and creation it’s certainly of interest and has a fine balance between final promotional imagery and development sketches. Should the opportunity present itself to study the next chapter, it’s one I would look to explore further.
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