As a child, one of the features of 8-bit gaming I most enjoyed was a well illustrated instruction manual. For those of you who are too young to remember when games included a physical book inside the box, a book that contained more than just a seizure warning and an advertisement for another game, let me fill you in a little.
Inside each instruction manual was so much more than just instructions on how to play the game. Honestly, with two buttons and a d-pad, there really wasn’t a lot you couldn’t figure out just by popping the game into your NES and sussing it out. The real beauty came in the illustrations. Japanese style art accompanied most manuals, with pixel monsters or in-game objects having a cartoon-ized entry in the book.
This was the 1980s. There weren’t large swaths of the internet dedicated solely to the pop-art coming out of Japan. The manga and anime style were totally foreign to most everyone. NBC even ran a piece on the nightly news about this new “Japanimation” style. The style instantly clicked for me and thousands of other kids. Some of those kids turned their fascination with it into a lifelong obsession. Others simply appreciate it for what it is, a clean, colorful style that seems paradoxically simplistic and complex at the same time.
For some reason, game companies were convinced that American kids were repulsed by the Japanese art style, and often replaced it with amateur, soulless “Westernized” depictions of the games. The first Mega Man box is easily the most famous example of this misguided belief that kids were turned off by the cutesy designs of Japanese, but honestly there are a lot of other reasons the first Mega Man box art is bad. It looks like it was drawn by a very earnest, but ultimately less-than-talented, western artist whose grasp of proportions, anatomy, and direction was sorely lacking. It’s like Napoleon Dynamite penciled it, spending three hours on the shading on Mega Man’s upper-lip.
We didn’t want that. We wanted the original art. Not only did it represent a style unknown to us, it just looked cool. It’s amazing to me how off-the-mark publishers were with their internal notions of design. From a strictly design viewpoint, the original art is just better. It evokes feelings of action and movement while remaining simple. There are no extraneous lines or unnecessary shading. Each stroke of the pen or brush is no more and no less than exactly what is needed. It’s a style that hearkens back to traditional Japanese art styles like Sumi-e, where a single stroke by a master artist can quite literally paint an entire picture.
This isn’t to say Japanese pop art can’t be complex. Look at the works of Studio Ghibli or the infinite complexities of 1988’s “Akira.” But there is little in the way of waste. Each line is effortlessly and efficiently placed. The results are visually captivating.
UDON Entertainment’s release of MM25: Mega Man and Mega Man X: The Complete Works, aside from being very heavy on the use of colons in the title, is over 400 pages of nothing but art. Every Mega Man and Mega Man X game is represented here. Each boss, character, set designs, and promotional illustration from the series’ 25 year history is presented in a dense volume that begs to be pored through by anyone and everyone who has an interest in the work Keiji Inafune began when asked to translate the pixel drawings from the development of the game into illustration. The process folds back in on itself when Inafune sketches first the designs for bosses and characters who then become pixel drawings, and the book charts the process from the Mega Man’s beginnings to the present.
As someone who spent so much time appreciating the limited amount of Japanese art, particularly Inafune’s art, in those early days of instruction manuals and hyper-kinetic Nintendo Power layouts, this book is like an overload of child-like wonderment. There are no screen shots here, no photos of designers or artists. Mega Man and the cast of hundreds and hundreds of characters spawned over the years are in the book. There are comments from the artists and producers of the game, outlining or explaining the design process. Like a DVD commentary, they are chances to see into the minds of creators, to understand their motivations. In understanding the process and motivations of artists, appreciation of art is increased.
The bottom line: I cannot say enough good things about this book. I have my wishes: that it could have been hardcover, that the black ink wasn’t so prone to fingerprints, but I am still satisfied with my purchase. I feel that anyone who appreciates art or the creative process should have a copy of MM25 on their shelf. Fans of Mega Man should absolutely love this incredible chronicle of 25 years of artistic development.
The book is available on Amazon and other fine retailers.