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July 6, 2005

I never used to like 3-D graphics very much, as a general rule. For years, technical limitions made them far too blocky in games, turning people into painted boxes with stickers pasted on them. And for pre-rendered movies which did not suffer from real-time rendering limitations, 3-D people almost always looked like plastic figurines and moved like clumsy robots. So either way, you could never really sell me on a game by its graphics. I always prefered the fine-tuned quality of hand-drawn 2-D graphics; 3-D graphics lose detail when the camera is too far away, and generally were unsuitable for anything viewed at any sort of distance.

All of that is beginning to change, though, as hardware is becoming powerful enough to handle better 3-D graphics. For me, the first sign of this was Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64. It was not only the first 3-D platformer game that I’d ever played that had actual play control, but the graphics weren’t bad for the time either. At least the characters looked round and were animated well. Say what you will about the actual game play, but it was the first game that made me realize that maybe a 3-D platformer could actually be playable.

Later on came Mega Man Legends. The graphics were a step backward from even Mario 64, but perhaps that was because they were designed for the PSX instead of the N64. MegaMan still looks like he’s built out of boxes, but to Capcom’s credit, he animates pretty well. Also, I really love the facial expressions and the way the characters’ mouths move when they talk. It’s amazing how many high-profile games (such as Zelda 64 and Perfect Dark) are lacking this simple feature.

Even so, it’s hard to call the graphics in the Legends series “good” with any sort of credibility. They are sufficent and they have their charm, but they still wouldn’t sell me to the games if it weren’t for the fact that the games are just plain fun to play, ugly graphics aside.

And then along came Mega Man X7. I’m ashamed to admit it, but Mega Man X7 is a game I would play just for the graphics. The character models are amazing. They even look fairly good when scaled down, which is rare for 3-D graphics. And when cell shaded, the models look almost like the hand-drawn artwork that Capcom has been using for their last few X games. The quite impressive hand-drawn artwork, I might add. Combine that kind of cell-shaded art with cinema scenes, and you practically have an animated cartoon. This is one of the few times when I found myself saying, “There aren’t enough cinema scenes, darn it!”

Even better, some of the cut scenes (the ones that don’t use cell shading) are rendered in real-time. This means if you give Zero the V-Hanger and then trigger a cut scene...yep, he’ll be carrying the twin purple blades during the cinema. This is one of the advantages to real-time rendered cinema scenes, but for a long time the hardware just wasn’t powerful enough to make good-looking movies in real time.

Looks like times are beginning to change.

Mega Man X7 isn’t perfect; in the cell-shaded cinema scenes, the characters’ movements are still a little stiff and artificial. But give them a bit more time to figure it out. 3-D graphics have made great strides since the days of boxes and plastic figurines, and sooner or later, 3-D animators will figure out how to make realistic human motions.

And maybe soon, we really will be playing an interactive cartoon...

Isn’t it funny how 3-D has come full circle? 2-D animation figured out a long time ago how to make human and animal characters move realistically. When 3-D animation does the same, this knowledge, coupled with cell-shading, may well render 2-D animation obsolete. We go through all this time and effort just to duplicate what we have been doing for years in 2-D. That, perhaps, is what is most ironic of all.

But dang, it looks nice.

- The MegaMaster



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