Man, I really hope Koji Igarashi (and Keiji Inafune, among others) play Odin Sphere. Because I want them to experience the bitter taste of eating their own words.
For years, IGA has been telling us that making a console-based 2D Castlevania would be prohibitively expensive, and Inafune said something similar regarding classic-syle Mega Man games when we interviewed him last month. It’s nice that they’ve explored moving to 2.5D fixed-perspective polygons as a compromise between cost and gameplay (although given the sales of the PSP Mega Man titles we’ll quite possibly never see anything else along those lines for that particular series). And for the most part, I think everyone’s been content to accept their word, because — after all — they are the guys dealing with the realities of game design and budget management.
But then Odin Sphere comes along and makes liars of them all. Here’s a 2D game whose visuals totally shame everything pretty much ever. You may not care much for the style (given the abundance of morons guffawing “HAW HAW LOLI PEDO FURRY PORN HUURRR” any time a screen shot is posted); but even a complete Internet retard can’t deny the sheer technical panache that Odin Sphere displays. It’s pretty much completely amazing to see in motion. Yet — it’s all 2D. Hand-drawn, two-dimensional, sprite-based gameplay. So how did a little never-heard-of-them developer like Vanillaware pull it off where major studios like Konami and Capcom throw their hands up in despair and settle for churning out the likes of Curse of Darkness and Mega Man X7?
I think the trick is twofold. One, Odin Sphere makes abundance use of jointed characters.
Basically, every body in the game moves like an action figure — limbs are connected independently, and a lot of the animation is simply the motion of individual body elements in relation to one another rather than multiple hand-drawn frames. It’s not a new concept! In fact, it’s basically little more than a new application of a fundament of sprite-based gimmickry. Konami’s been dabbling with it for years in games like Lifeforce and Contra — create the illusion of large-scale, sinuous motion with small, linked sprites. Treasure pretty much made a cottage industry of it.
If you ever go ROM-diving to look at sprites, you’ll even discover that the sprites of old NES characters like Mega Man are actually made of multiple smaller sprites. The NES could only generate 8×8 pixel sprites, so something 24 pixels high and 16 pixels was assembled of an array of sprites two wide and three high. Even sprites for later systems, which weren’t hampered by such harsh size restrictions, generally built characters from smaller components so that not every single body part had to be redrawn for every frame of motion.
Jointing characters is simply an extension of that concept, except that than building characters out of smaller pieces serves as the entire foundation of the character’s animation rather than simply being a cheat that allows them to fit them into memory or lets the spriter save himself a little extra work. Symphony of the Night was the first time I ever saw this concept in action — which isn’t to say this was the first time it was ever done, of course. The result was that certain large characters like Galamoth and the Hammer/Blade/Sword animated beautifully even though each of their component elements only had a single bitmap frame. Their animation was in the motion of their limbs parts rather than in those limbs’ changing details. It worked well since it was limited more or less to armored or undead characters whose bodies naturally consisted of static, jointed pieces.
The technique is pretty common in Flash now, but it generally looks awful, like a cheap digital puppet show. Or it looks extremely stylized, as in the Paper Mario games. Odin Sphere does not look cheap, and it’s stylish but not strictly stylized.
That’s simply a matter of quality control. The characters’ joints blend seamlessly, and their animation occurs on two levels: The gross motion of body segments, and the bitmap art within those segments. The animators also make use of subtle tricks like warping and distorting sprite chunks to give a semblance of movement for things like breathing and the like. It’s very sophisticated, and executed with such quality that you really have to look closely to see the man behind the curtain.
So why can’t we have a new Castlevania or Mega Man or Mario (or whatever) that looks like this? Therein lies the second trick: Odin Sphere is a tiny game that no one cared about except its creator. I’ve heard that it’s been in the works in various forms since Princess Crown was released, which pegs this as a decade-long labor of love. Generally speaking, major publishers aren’t crazy about letting their franchises lay fallow for ten years. Hell, Capcom doesn’t seem to want to let Mega Man lay fallow for ten months.
So basically, those classic series which used to represent the bleeding edge of console game design are doomed to future mediocrity because they belong to publishers who find it easier to strip-mine them for easy profits than to give their creators the time they need to create something truly amazing. As development costs rise, I suspect fewer and fewer series will be allowed the downtime it takes for a proper reinvention — if indeed those franchises are ever reinvented at all. Changing a successful formula is a risk, and for every Resident Evil 4 that remind people why a series was so popular to begin with, there are a dozen Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarters — games that take too many risks and despite their quality drive away the fans who just want to replay the same exact game they had last year (but with new graphics) and ultimately flop. We’re in a world of Final Fantasy XIIIs (it’s not a sequel, it’s a brand in and of itself!) and 30 Mario spin-offs for every one game that carries the Super Mario Bros. torch of innovation and creativity.
That’s why Keiji Inafune can create something radical and new with Dead Rising, but has to keep churning out Battle Network sequels on the Mega Man side. If a Mega Man game with the budget of Dead Rising flopped, it would kill the series forever. But low-maintenance repetition, while unsatisfying for everyone, at least keeps the name alive, and profitable. Which in a publisher’s mind is infinitely better than simply making the name prestigious. You can’t take prestige to the bank.
So cherish your Odin Spheres when they come around. George Kamitami and what I assume is a very tiny crew of dedicated auteurs have gotten away with someone here that most developers couldn’t, and most publishers wouldn’t allow. And who knows if they’ll ever manage to pull it off again? The same developer’s upcoming Grim Grimoire is reputed to be a great RTS… but its iteration of the jointed-sprite graphic style looks much cheaper and simpler than Odin Sphere’s. I guess everyone has to pay the bills somehow.