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I don't play games anymore, but I'm interested in the dynamic between animation and games. Games owe a lot to animation. Yoichi Kotabe brought Mario alive. Animated openings to games remain common, and many narrative-style games incorporate cut-scene animation (Popolocrois IMO being the crowning example), but most interesting to me are games where the actual game play consists of hand-drawn animation. LD games were the first of this kind.
After the release of Don Bluth's groundbreaking Dragon's Lair laserdisc arcade game in 1983, there was a brief fad for this new format up until about 1985, when it fizzled out due presumably to the limitations of the gameplay. Between 1983 and 1985, several Japanese games were made in the same mold as Dragon's Lair using LD technology. Although obviously none of them were anything near the level of the amazing animation in Bluth's game, some of them had impressive animation.
Initially, in 1983, the releases were hacked together from previously extisting movies: Cliffhanger from bits of Cagliostro (and also Yuzo Aoki's car chase scene from Mamo) and Bega's Battle from Harmageddon (Yamato and Galaxy Express 999 also later got this treatment), but in 1984 they started putting out original titles. Some of these like Ninja Hayate and Badlands had bad animation and generally sloppy production of the kind you'd expect from a cheap knockoff made as a quick cash-in, but Cobra Command, Road Blaster and Time Gal had impressive animation.
|Time Gal (1985, Taito/Junio, Arcade LD Game)|
|Character Designer:||我妻宏||Hiroshi Wagatsuma|
|Animation Director:||毛利和昭||Kazuaki Mouri|
Time Gal is my favorite of the Japanese LD games. It features a girl travelling around different eras of history, riding on the wings of Zero fighters, fighting pirates, dodging asteroids and aliens and dinosaurs and giant robots. Stylistically it's closest of the Japanese laserdisc games to the Don Bluth originals. It's a lighthearted romp starring a spunky heroine running around evading various colorful enemies, whereas the other games tend to be dry affairs without humor or personality, with you just driving or flying around shooting things. The creators admit to deliberately modeling Time Gal after Space Ace.
Time Gal also has some of the best animation of any of the Japanese LD games. The animation comes courtesy of none other than the selfsame Kazuaki Mouri I just talked about, who was the animation director. In addition, the animators include no less than Toshiyuki Inoue and Satoru Utsunomiya. The animation appears to have been produced by Studio Junio (The Fox of Chironup, Hermes, Wings of Love), although they are not credited, because the director and animation director are Junio people, and of course Toshiyuki Inoue was at Junio at the time. As it happens, so was Utsunomiya. He had apparently just joined Junio because he admired Inoue's animation on Gu-Gu Ganmo and wanted to work near Inoue. These two had an interesting rivalry going at the time. Inoue had similarly become aware of Utsunomiya at the same time. He had wondered who the amazing animator was behind the good genga he'd seen turned in on Around the World in 80 Days, whose chief animation director was Junio founder Takao Kosai, and later discovered it to be Utsunomiya.
The game has 16 stages, five each of which take place in the past, the present and the future. Satoru Utsunomiya's section is Stage 4 with the mammoth, while Toshiyuki Inoue animated Stage 7 with the god of death, as well as possibly Stage 13 with the giant robot in the tunnel and Stage 16 with the last boss.
I particularly like Inoue's stage with the giant zombie skeleton swinging a scythe. The forms are beautiful and the timing feels incredible, and the whole thing takes place in the middle of this slow animated panning effect, as if it wasn't challenging enough to just draw the action by itself and he wanted to pose himself the further challenge of maintaining proper proportion and perspective in motion. It's a great snapshot of just how amazing an animator Toshiyuki Inoue already was at this early stage in his career. (he had just debuted a year before)
Satoru Utsunomiya's brief but intense segment with the mammoth is quite an eye-opener and reveals a side of him that we're not used to seeing anymore. This was before he developed the distinctive solid style for which he's become known. At this stage he was still drawing very wild and free animation full of comically exaggerated effects and timing.
I suspect Kazuaki Mouri may have animated some of the other sections, but I don't know for sure. The very first stage with the dinosaurs, for example, has some very nice movement that was perhaps of Mouri's hand.
|Cobra Command (1984, Data East/Toei, Arcade LD Game)|
|Animation Director:||亀垣一||Hajime Kamegaki|
|Assistant Animation Director:||今隅眞一||Shinichi Imakuma|
|白浦烈||Baik Nam Yeul|
|Road Blaster (1985, Data East/Toei, Arcade LD Game)|
|Chief Key Animator:||稲野義信||Yoshinobu Inano|
|Background Design:||Yoshiyuki Yamamoto|
|Animators:||白浦烈||Baik Nam Yeul|
|金大中||Kim Dae Jung|
These two titles were produced by Data East, who farmed the animation out to Toei. Toei had actually prior to this been put in charge of the animation of Ninja Hayate, but they had really botched that one. These two are in a different league. Both are challenging and fast-paced games packed with nonstop action. The animation also doesn't stop in either one. There isn't a still moment - every moment is animated, because the motion of the vehicles is all depicted by hand-drawn animation.
It would have been inconceivable to animate a conventional anime production the way these are. Storyboarding long shots that go on for upwards of a minute and consist entirely of nonstop animated backgrounds would have been a sure ticket to being fired. These games were in a unique position of being able to be lavished with an unprecedented density of animation for a Japanese production. There were occasional moments in TV productions where a wild animator like Masahito Yamashita would create a crazy sequence of background animation, but these games pushed background animation to a whole new level.
The person behind the quality of Cobra Command was Hajime Kamegaki, the Kanada-school animator who together with Hideyuki Motohashi (here also present as an animator) did so much good work on TV shows in the 1980s from their legendary Studio Z5.
The person behind the quality of Road Blaster was Yoshinobu Inano, one of the greatest animators nobody has ever heard of. He was one of the most talented animators at Toei in the late 1970s/early 1980. He pioneered a unique kind of quasi-realistic animation that went on to influence many later great animators including Mitsuo Iso. You can see his style most clearly in the opening of the game where the punks wreak havoc in the city, sending bystanders running.
|Captain Power: Battle Training (1988, 3 VHS tapes, AIC)|
|Animation Directors:||大平晋也||Shinya Ohira|
|Key Animators:||Vol. 1|
|Vol. 2 & 3|
By 1988 when the three VHS tapes of this game were released, LD anime games were dead. This game is basically just straight animation without any branching or death scenes. You were supposed to aim your toy gun at the screen and a sensor in the gun would detect when you had properly targeted the flashing missiles on the screen and eject the pilot from your toy if you had not.
Captain Power: Battle Training picks up where the latter two titles left off: it's one long, extended, nonstop torrent of background animation and explosions. I'd go so far as to say it's the crowning achievement in background/effects animation in anime. Where the previous two titles were actually pretty iffy in a lot of the background animation, almost all of the BG animation here is impressive, and much of it is downright stunning. I already wrote about this a long time ago, so I won't re-hash my gushing, but I really love this thing. It's my bible of anime FX animation.
Shinya Ohira is of course the big name behind the incredible beauty and power of the animation here, but the fact is that he was backed up by some of the best mecha and effects animators of the day. Most significantly, Anime R was behind the animation of parts 2 and 3. Hiroshi Osaka, Fumiko Kishi, Masahiko Itojima, Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Kazuaki Mouri - all the best Anime R animators worked on parts two and three. That makes this another great introduction to the style of Anime R at their peak after U-GAIM (and SPT Layzner if you have a little more time to spare), although in this one it can be a little difficult to distinguish between the Anime R bits and the Ohira bits.
Thanks to the miracle of the internet, the entirety of Captain Power: Battle Training can be viewed online.
Yarudora series (1998-2000, 6 volumes, Production I.G, PS & PS2)
Vol. 1: Double Cast (1998, PS)
Vol. 2: Kisetsu wo Dakishimete (1998, PS)
Vol. 3: Sampaguita (1998, PS)
Vol. 4: Yukiwari no Hana (1998, PS)
Vol. 5: Scandal (2000, PS2)
Vol. 6: Blood: The Last Vampire (2000, PS2)
Many years after the LD game boom, Production I.G. picked up the torch of animated games with their Yarudora series from 1998-2000, plugging animation into the popular formula of anime-styled but illustration-based sim games. Rather than a reflex-based adventure game where you were dodging foes like in the early days, this time you were guiding your character through a complicated story. You made choices at key junctures, which led to different possible outcomes: anime via Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. The stories were alternately psychological and violent. The last two volumes Scandal and Blood were action outings as opposed to the more psychological preceding quartet.
The highlight of the series is Yukiwari no Hana, which looked very different from all of the other volumes due to the beautiful Jin-Roh-esque pared-down realistic character designs and dark-hued visual concept of Masatsugu Arakawa. I'd still like to see more anime that look like this.
The last outing in the Yarudora series was a game tie-in with Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Blood: The Last Vampire movie. In a curious coincidence, it happened to be Shinya Ohira's comeback to animation after several years of absence. He animated the scene here and his style is unmistakable. The animation is reminiscent of Hamaji, which was the last thing he had done before leaving the industry a few years earlier. Anime games have marked two significant points in Ohira's career - the peak of his FX period and the start of his current character-as-FX period.
Bringing things full-circle, Ohira was even behind the next step in the evolution of animated gaming: He directed a playable animated stage of the recent Asura's Wrath game that is not only a monumental new piece of animation in its own right (a worthy companion piece to Wanwa), but that also pushes the neglected genre of traditional animated gaming forward into the new millennium, with its more involved gameplay and the fact that it is an online download. The short seems to hark back to the LD games of yore, since it involves an extended sequence of fast action requiring quick reflexes.