In praise of cel-shading

December 5, 2018
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I’ve been playing some of my old games recently, handling scratched and aging discs with great care. What I’ve found is that, for me at least, the best games to revisit years after they first came out tend to be those with the unique art style known as cel-shading. This look is sometimes referred to as toon-shading because of the flat, high-contrast colours which are employed along with black outlines around characters and objects, giving everything the appearance of a cartoon. As I remember it, cel-shaded games burst into the public consciousness with Jet Set Radio all the way back in 2000. At the time it was so jolting, so attention-grabbing, it felt like it might be a gimmick – but it doesn’t feel like that anymore. In fact, cel-shading now seems to have a rather timeless quality to it.

Funny how it works. You’d think games with colours that pop so brightly onto the screen might seem garish, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, probably because of the muted, grey look of many blockbuster games from the last decade. This may make the cel-shaded worlds of yesteryear even more emotionally involving and transformative. I had no idea revisiting the ambitious 2002 sequel Jet Set Radio Future last weekend would turn out to be the most fun I would have playing games…since the first time I played JSRF.

Aside from JSRF, many other cel-shaded games during the last decade made a similar impression on me. Ubisoft’s carelessly abandoned XIII, based on a Belgian graphic novel that started in the 1980s, still feels fresh today. Comic-style panels appear over the cel-shading during pivotal moments in the story, and onomatopoeic words splash onto the screen just as the sounds kick in, as if we’re reading an interactive novel. Because of this, I have no hesitation comparing it to other famous shooters like GoldenEye or Half-Life, especially with voice acting provided by David Duchovny, Eve and the late Adam West. It’s a classy product. Capcom went all in on cel-shading during this period too, with Killer7 (now thankfully available on PC), the Viewtiful Joe series and the cel-shaded racing game Auto Modellista.

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