Note: There’s an entry right below this one which I published this morning, but which didn’t appear on the site until just now for various reasons. Please read it before this entry, as it will help contextualize the bigger picture of this post. I was wondering why no one had commented on it, durrr.
As a wise man with a machine-gun arm once said, “[Mario & Luigi] jes’ full of surprises.” I didn’t expect to like Bowser’s Inside Story nearly as much as I did, for starters. Even more unexpected, though, was the fact that the game has some of the best 2D sprite work I’ve ever seen. Sure, there are more visually spectacular 2D games out there, but so far as I can tell Inside Story looks to be packing mostly old-fashioned sprites. Not much in the way of Muramasa-style jointed, rotating sprite agglomerations, and a refreshing lack of pre-rendered CG art, too.
Or am I mistaken? The animation demonstrated by Inside Story’s sprites is utterly impressive, and it’s so fluid that I actually have a difficult time discerning whether or not it really is all hand-drawn, or if Alpha Dream somehow managed to concoct some sort of impressive fakeout technique that lets them pass off prerendered CG as traditional art. Characters move with a classical cartoonish grace and exaggeration that few CG artists can duplicate; yet at the same time, each action is depicted through far more frames of animation than most developers are willing to invest in hand-drawn characters. It is a tiny conundrum.
I’d love to talk to the developers, but I fear that Nintendo likes to keep a tight lid on its first- and second-party teams. Heck, even third parties are shy when it comes to talking about their work for Nintendo and always insist on passing it through Proper Corporate Channels first. So, the prospects of a heart-to-heart on Bowser’s phenomenal animation are pretty slim, which means I gotta do the old-fashioned speculation thing.
Personally, I’m leaning toward the art being a mix of pre-rendered and hand-drawn art. The sprite silhouettes look very CG, but the fine details have a solidity and flatness that’s practically impossible with the interpolation and anti-aliasing that results from rendered sprites. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the character shapes were crafted via CG and fleshed out via hand retouching — which, I think, is given some credence by the fact that the thick outlines around sprites betray artifacts of careless antialiasing when seen against dark backgrounds (this being the game’s single visual flaw).
I suppose it probably doesn’t really matter, and it probably doesn’t interest much of anyone besides myself. But as someone who really loves the distinctive look of old-fashioned sprite work, I’m sincerely curious to know how they went about creating visuals that somehow demonstrate the best traits of both old- and new-school game art: It sports the smoothness of prerendering, yet it’s far more timeless and attractive than, say, the now-horriby-dated original Super Mario RPG. I’d love to know if this is the product of some clever tech trick, or just the fruit of simple labor and effort.
In any case, the results speak for themselves. There’s a ridiculous amount of animation for every single character in the game, including the most minor enemies. Yes, sure, it’s a (more or less) turn-based RPG, but every creature has lush idle animations as well as multiple attacks — and each attack is broadcast with some sort of tell to clue you in to the proper reaction to counter with. And then there are all the story graphics; Princess Peach alone — in her few brief appearances — has animation enough to put most action heroes to shame. And don’t even get me started on Bowser. And the backgrounds! And… yeah.
Secret best-looking game of the year?
(This is the part where some idiot brays like a jackass about how it totally looks like a primitive Super NES game, haw haw, and then I slap that fool so hard his teeth fly out and lodge themselves in the wall.)