Pretty as a Pixel: The History of Cel-Shading in Video Games

(Written as of 2014)

Cel-shading, or toon shading as it’s alternatively called, is a non-photorealistic rendering technique used to make 3D computer graphics appear flat; most commonly used to imitate the visual style of a comic or cartoon. Becoming more commonly used in animation in the early 2000s, the world cel is an abbreviation of the word celluloid. Cels are clear sheets of acetate, painted on for use in traditional 2D animation.

First creating a black-ink outline of the animator’s desired shape, then having the shape subsequently drawn with a basic texture, and lastly adding the shading effect typically creates the effect of cel-shading.

The first video game to incorporate the use of real-time cel-shaded visuals was Jet Set Radio for the Dreamcast, released back in 2000. The game garnished a lot of press attention for implementing this unique visual style, when Sega, at the Tokyo Game Show of 1999, first unveiled it. The game was a critical success upon release, winning three major gaming awards. It won an E3 Gamer Critics Award for the best console game in 2000, a Game Developers Choice Award for excellence in visual arts and game innovation spotlights in 2001, and in the same year also won an Annual Interactive Achievement Award.

Jet Set Radio was so influential that many upcoming game developers began to use the cel-shading technique in their games as well as a number of developers implementing it for more long-running franchises, such as Bomberman and Harvest Moon. The next notable releases to use the same technique were of course a sequel to Jet Set Radio entitled Jet Set Radio Future and Sly Cooper & the Thievius Raccoonus, which were released to moderate critical success. But from there, however, the technique would prove to be even more popular. A lot of other titles were released for multiple systems over the coming years, including Dark Chronicle, Cel Damage, XIII, and the Viewtiful Joe series. But for all the critical acclaim that these games were met with at the time of their release, sales figures were less than impressive. That is until Nintendo took a gamble by taking this new visual technique and incorporating it into one of their longest-running franchises.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was released in 2003 for the Nintendo GameCube, and had a visual style rendered by using the cel-shading technique. At first, it was met with a particularly cold reception, which divided both game critics and fans of the series. A lot of people saw this style of graphics as an example of vivid artistry whilst others stated that the game lacked a sense of newness compared with the previous big-name entry in the series, The Ocarina of Time when that was first released. Many fans of the series saw the implementation of cel-shaded visuals as a step down from the more realistic look that came with its Nintendo 64 predecessor. However, the game was more importantly praised for having similar gameplay to Ocarina of Time and its heightened sense of freedom coming with players having a much bigger world to explore and a greater amount of side quests. Famitsu gave the game a perfect score (only the fourth game out of twenty-two to achieve this honor throughout the publication’s history) and Nintendo Power also ranked The Wind Waker 2nd only behind Resident Evil 4 in their list of best GameCube games of all time. IGN even advised gamers to forget about the fact that Wind Waker looks so dissimilar to Ocarina of Time and simply concentrate on the great gameplay. Nintendo has adopted cel-shading in the development of almost every single main entry in the Legend of Zelda series. Interestingly, the only main Zelda game not to have cel-shaded visuals since Wind Waker has been Twilight Princess.

The release of games like The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe would also prompt a huge influx of games using cel-shaded graphics in the next three years. 2005 in particular saw the highest number of games with this style of visuals released in a single year to date. By that time, developers found that licensed games could also be made using this method, as a lot of licensed games released were based on cartoons and what better way is there to make games based on cartoons than to use toon shaded visuals? 2005 saw the release of several licensed games, which would garnish both critical and commercial success, such as the Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi series. But I think the most significant success story to emerge concerned the Dragon Quest franchise. For many years, Dragon Quest had been one of the most successful video game franchises in Japan and still remains so to this day. But Enix had had less of an impact on the rest of the world with Dragon Quest, having initially had to release the game in North America as Dragon Warrior so as to avoid trademark conflict with the pen-and-paper role-playing game of the same name; Dragon Quest. Following the bankruptcy of the company who published the pen-and-paper game, Enix (who were Square Enix by that time) finally registered the Dragon Quest trademark in America and released Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, which used cel-shaded visuals and was the first Dragon Quest game to find both a great amount of critical and commercial success outside of Japan, with the game being praised particularly well in both America and Europe; it also remains to this day as the biggest selling PlayStation 2 game in Japan.

The influx of cel-shaded games would also continue throughout the late 2000s, with critically successful games like Okami, Crackdown, No More Heroes, Super Paper Mario, Team Fortress 2, Zak & Wiki, Afro Samurai and a direct sequel to Wind Waker released for the DS called The Phantom Hourglass. And the library of licensed games developed with cel-shaded visuals continued to grow with games based on big-name franchises such as Family Guy and The Simpsons. However, 2009 proved to be extremely significant, as another amazing cel-shaded game was to be released and take the gaming world by storm.

In 2007, Gearbox Software gave the public their first glimpse of a game they were working on called Borderlands. As with many science fiction-based first-person shooters, the game actually first adopted a more realistic look in contrast to what it would eventually become. At 2K Games’ E3 press conference in 2008, a brief demo of Borderlands was shown, but the game subsequently disappeared from public view. This prompted people to believe that Gearbox had maybe scrapped the project and that it would never have a release date attached to it. However, this was to be far from the case, as, in the early quarter of 2009, Borderlands re-surfaced again, but with a radically changed visual style rendered by using cel-shading techniques. It was cited by Gearbox themselves as being a huge gamble since it involved scrapping a lot of expensive work prior to this sudden change.

The game was released in the fourth quarter of 2009 and was met with overwhelming success. The game became a surprise hit in terms of both sales and reception, with some analysts comparing its release to that of BioShock, which also surprised a lot of people with how good a game it was. Since release, the original Borderlands has sold over 4.5 million units worldwide, received several game of the year awards, and having a game of the year edition released the following year with the four additional DLC packages along with it; The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot, The Secret Armoury of General Knoxx and Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution. A sequel was also released back in 2012 and had similarly great success, several DLC packages released for it and a game of the year edition released in late 2013. Borderlands has since become a fairly big franchise in itself, seeing the release of comic strips, novels, and even toys of characters in the series.

Since 2009, cel-shaded visuals continue to be a huge trope used in video games. Many notable games to use cel-shaded visuals since Borderlands include a re-vamp of the classic Nintendo arcade game Punch-Out for the Wii, sequels to both Crackdown and No More Heroes, a sequel to the Zelda game Phantom Hourglass called Spirit Tracks, Catherine, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Killer is Dead; even renowned Japanese film studio, Studio Ghibli, assisted Level-5 Studios in the development of a cel-shaded RPG called Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

All this just goes to show how far cel-shaded visuals have come in the world of gaming over the best part of twenty years. In my opinion, graphic styles like cel-shading are great ways to tell gamers that at the end of the day, games don’t have to look as realistic as possible for them to be any more enjoyable than others, as many people may think. Having specific styles can add artistic merit to games as well as make them stand out among others. Personally, I find that as long as a game has excellent gameplay and plenty to do in it, it doesn’t really matter if the game’s graphics don’t push the boundaries of a console’s graphical capabilities. The overwhelming popularity of cel-shaded visuals clearly gives testament to this, and I hope that tropes like cel-shading will continue to be used in future games to serve as this valuable reminder to gamers that realistic looks aren’t everything.

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