Every Pixel Perfect 001 – The Evolution of Cecil

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The evolution of dot/pixel/sprite art in the Final Fantasy series is a topic that I plan on returning to plenty of times throughout this series – there’s 30 years worth of material there to work with after all. Particularly relevant to my interest is the work of artist Kazuko Shibuya. She’s been with Square since the very beginning and is responsible for such designs as the iconic job sprites from Final Fantasy I as well as the enemy sprites she transposed fro Yoshitaka Amano’s original concept art. She’s one of Square’s unsung heroes and continues to oversee art and design elements for Final Fantasy to this day.

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I’ve decided to start my analysis of the evolution of Final Fantasy sprite art with everyone’s favourite good boy, Final Fantasy IV’s Cecil Harvey. Since 1991 Cecil has appeared in spin-offs, sequels, remakes, ports, mobile games, etc., and continues to be the poster-boy for the paladin job class. Though Cecil’s original in-game sprite wasn’t designed by Shibuya herself, she did create the artwork that inspired it. You may recognize the trademark chibi style from the covers of the Japanese version of the game:

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From this illustration came the in-game battle sprite for Cecil that everyone knows and loves. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to pin down exactly who on the FFIV team made this sprite; the titles of the staff members in the credits are vague. Even Shibuya was only mentioned in the SPECIAL THANKS category. The best bets for the original artist are Hiromi Nakada, Ryoko Tanaka, (both listed under MAIN GRAPHIC) or Tetsuya Takahashi (with the equally vague title of BATTLE GRAPHIC). Masanori Hoshino is also listed under BATTLE GRAPHIC but when he is encountered as an easter egg in the Developer’s Room he asks the party if the monster designs were to their liking. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had a hand in designing the characters, but at the very least his focus was enemy design. Curiously, even recent entries like Record Keeper haven’t gotten much better at making their credits known.

Since then many different artists have taken a stab at representing everyone’s favourite repentant Dark Knight. If you have any info feel free to reach out to me @victorehunter. With that in mind let’s take a look at how Cecil has changed through the years.

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Final Fantasy IV – SNES – 1991

Here’s the OG. After shedding his Dark Knight armour Cecil becomes the first Final Fantasy character to take on the job title of Paladin. Here we see the debut of elements that would become synonymous with the job throughout the series: the suit of knightly armour, the saintly diadem. Cecil looks virtually nothing like his Amano concept art but is still distinct and colorful. Of particular note is how the sprite stands; legs and face in side profile, but with the chest in a ¾ view where both shoulders can be seen. Though Shibuya herself didn’t create these first 16-bit battle sprites, this stance with the single visible leg would become her standard style; a style that she would return to in 2008 with her work on The After Years following a ten-year hiatus. Also of note is that much like Link in A Link to the Past, Cecil’s hair colour is a radical departure from any of his other appearances. Those crazy 90s kids.

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Final Fantasy Chronicles – PS1 – 2001

Cecil and several other characters were given re-drawn sprites during the loading screens of the PS1 port included in the Final Fantasy Chronicles compilation. It’s the only time these specific sprites make an appearance and they feature some unique poses like Cecil running, Kain holding his lance, and Rosa kneeling in prayer. It’s only marginally different from the SNES original on the surface, but the subtle changes are interesting. Notably it’s the only sprite that softens the outline of features the character’s features – the face, hair, body, and hands are still distinct but with more subtle shading than the cartoony black outline of in-game battle sprite. With all the tiny differences in shape and outline I can’t help but think that perhaps the artist whose job it was to redraw these sprites didn’t have any reference to work from other than looking at the game on a CRT screen. They may have adapted it as closely as they reasonable could without a pixel-by-pixel example and understandably created some discrepancies. You end up with a sprite that for all intents and purposes would have looked the same on a blurry 90s television. That’s just my theory though.

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Final Fantasy Record Keeper – Mobile – 2014

I’m jumping a bit in the chronology with this one but I think it’s fun to look at next to the SNES original. Final Fantasy Record Keeper is a free-to-play mobile game that has survived almost purely on the novelty of seeing characters old and new in the 16-bit style. To the average player it may seem that the sprites were ripped directly from the original but side-by-side you can see a distinct difference. Record Keeper’s sprites actually crib their style from Final Fantasy VI – note that the face is still in profile, but both the chest AND the legs are in ¾ view. This was standard for Terra and friends but they were the exception in a series that refused to show us anyone’s upstage leg. This sprite economizes space a little better as well; Cecil’s face is one less pixel tall and wide. This gives more freedom to detail things like the hair and pauldrons. His left and right fist use three pixels and one pixel fewer respectively. This may not sound like much on paper but when you’re working with a 16×24 canvas it can make a world of difference. All the visual information of the original is still conveyed here but in a more efficient way. Seeing the upstage leg doesn’t just help the viewer get a better sense of depth by matching the perspective of his torso, but it helps Cecil appear balanced – the original’s slightly larger head and fists make him appear top heavy and pitched forward.

This style that embraces a ¾ chest and leg view only appeared in the main series for Final Fantasy VI and wouldn’t see a return until All The Bravest and Record Keeper used it from 2013 onward.

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Final Fantasy IV The After Years – Mobile – 2008

Before Square discovered the gacha model could be used to milk nostalgia for all it’s worth, Final Fantasy came to mobile phones in the much-maligned FFIV sequel, The After Years. This was Shibuya’s first pixel art in ten years after working on UI and other graphic design elements for the series. This Cecil is thirteen years older than in FFIV and bears little resemblance to his younger self. What’s interesting here is again the stance he’s in. Shibuya returns to the simpler body shape of the single-leg view with the ¾ chest. Remember that FFVI had expanded on this over a decade earlier and was praised endlessly for being the zenith of pixel art for the time. It could be argued that this was done to preserve the look and feel of IV’s style but I’m not convinced. Just look at the drastic difference in proportions between The After Years and FFIV — nearly half the pixels that were used for SNES Cecil’s face are used here, the shoulders are dropped to give the figure a more human silhouette, the arms are extended further and at different lengths, and the hands are smaller. It seems less like an insistence on a return to the SNES style and more Shibuya finding a style that appealed to her the most, consciously disregarding the changes that had been made for VI.
This is also the first time we see Cecil’s headwear represented as it is in his concept art – a single blue pixel gives us all the visual information we need to infer his kingly circlet. Another version of this sprite exists on the cover of the album FINAL FANTASY TRIBUTE ~THANKS~ from 2012 with a few single-pixel alterations and a decidedly more angry facial expression. Shibuya herself drew all the sprites for the cover and there’s an incredible interview with her around the time of the album’s release at shmuplations.

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FF DOT. CALENDAR 2018 – 2018

A little out of chronological order again but this one is interesting to look at next to After Years Cecil. This sprite was created by Shibuya for a 2018 pixel art calendar sold on Square Enix’s Japanese online store and is the most recent interpretation of the character. Because no bitmap of this sprite is available I created one myself using images of the calendar as a reference.

Here Cecil is depicted as his younger self and more closely resembles his concept art than ever before. The yellow lining of his cape, the pauldron spikes, and his purple circlet show us the essence of Amano’s paladin. It also bears the distinction of being the angriest Cecil of the bunch. In fact many of Shibuya’s recent work has depicted a large number of Final Fantasy protagonists with the American Kirby angry eyes. Maybe she’s going through something.

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Final Fantasy Record Keeper – Mobile – 2014

The “Cosmic Paladin” costume from Record Keeper is meant to depict Cecil as he was seen in Dissidia which in turn was meant to evoke the feeling of Amano’s original concept art. Like Shibuya’s calendar piece this Cecil tries to portray his white flowing tresses, his purple and ivory palette, and the intricacies of his armour. Unfortunately it tries to be a bit too literal with some of the representation and winds up being a bit muddy. Without prior knowledge of Cecil’s Dissidia outfit there’s just not enough space in the 16×24 pixel canvas to translate the design this literally. It was ambitious though and I’m glad this little piece exists.

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Pictlogica Final Fantasy – Mobile – 2013

I admit that the Pictlogica design for Cecil was not my favourite at first, but I’ve warmed up to the slightly vacant expression and less intricate colours. Despite having a similar palette it’s hard to find anything distinctly ‘Cecil’ about this sprite. The elements are there but he feels the most generic of the bunch.

Comparing the in-house styles of Pictlogica and Record Keeper is one of my favourite things when it comes to Final Fantasy sprite work. Both are mobile games that feature constantly updating rosters of Final Fantasy characters old and new, but that’s where their design similarities end. Where Record Keeper’s sprites carry on the visual elements of Final Fantasy VI, Pictlogica seems to be doing it’s own thing entirely, for better or worse. It still gives us the upstage leg for added depth but it also opts for much simpler colour palettes and bolder outlines. Lighter colours are used to give the black outlines a higher contrast than the more visually complex Record Keeper sprites. Go search for your favourite Final Fantasy protagonist from both games and you’ll see just how differently their design can be interpreted. It’s especially interesting for characters from IV and V; comparing the originals, their VI-inspired Record Keeper counterparts, and their Pictlogica versions is an interesting study.

The fact that Shibuya didn’t create a sprite based on his concept art until 2017 shows that the skill required to interpret Amano’s art into such minimal real estate is an incredibly difficult undertaking. That’s almost certainly one of the reasons that so many liberties were taken when he first appeared in 16-bits with his short purple hair and golden armour.

It can be easy to take excellent pixel art for granted when game stores are lousy with throwback merchandise and each week sees a new retro-inspired platformer. With Final Fantasy having recently celebrated it’s 30th birthday there are plenty of avenues for Square to capitalize on series nostalgia. But even taken out of context it’s easy to see what makes these designs so evergreen. It’s the limitation of resources that forces an artist to make bold choices about how visual information is presented. This isn’t a new idea to anyone familiar with pixel art, but to see how many different artists (or even the same artist over many years) can interpret a character using the same limitations is endlessly exciting. And Cecil, as the white knight that introduced RPGs to a significant audience in the west, is a perfect example of how varied these interpretations can be.

Licensed Repro Carts Could Breathe New Life Into the Retro Market

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It’s no secret that SNES nostalgia is strong; The SNES Classic was one of the hottest items of the past holiday season and it doesn’t show much sign of slowing down. The inclusion of the Star Fox 2 turned the plug-and-play mini-console into more than just a totem of consumer nostalgia; it’s the only way to play an officially licensed version of one of the most famous unreleased games of all time. And being a physical release means that it will more or less be available to the people that absolutely need to have it. Nintendo’s previous venture into unreleased game territory was Earthbound Beginnings for the WiiU Virtual Console and as such is subject to the unpredictable whims of digital platforms – and judging by how quickly the WiiU has been abandoned it’s not hard to imagine that the digital storefront won’t be around much longer.
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On the side of physical releases Retro-bit recently revealed the next two pieces in their line of licensed reproduction carts — Holy Diver for NES and R-Type Returns (containing the duology of Super R-Type and R-Type III) on SNES. Retro-bit’s line has already released several game compilation cartridges like the Jaleco Brawler’s Pack and the Data East Classic Collection. The latter featurs a translation of Magical Drop 2 originally made by prolific fan-translator Aeon Genesis. But this is the first time they’ve given individual games the full-package treatment and in the case of Holy Diver this is the first time that title has been officially released outside of Japan.

The combination of ‘releasing physical copies of games for legacy consoles’, ‘releasing games that were previously unreleased’, and ‘licensing fan-translations’ is setting a precedent that could easily lead to a golden age for fans and collectors of physical media that have grown tired of the increasingly frustrating retro market. There’s only so many retro game expos one can attend before the “$1000 CIB Earthbound and Friends” get tiring.
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In 2017 Iam8bit brought reproduction cartridges of Street Fighter II into the world and they’ve already become a sought after collector’s item. The packaging is lovingly crafted, it contains a full-color manual with a foreward by Seth Killian, and even comes with a voucher for a free fanny-pack to really hit the 90s nostalgia on the head. It’s still vanilla Street Fighter II however so the odds of it getting a lot of play when better versions of the game are available on every system under the sun are slim. But again, it shows that there is still a market for physical media in an industry where licenses can expire and games can disappear from digital storefronts with little to no warning. It’s a rejection of the service platform model and all the trappings that come with it. There’s comfort in knowing that a piece of media can be owned, not just licensed from a provider, and companies like Retro-bit and Iam8bit are embracing that.

Timed Hits List Review: SQUARE ENIX JAZZ -FINAL FANTASY-

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The world of Final Fantasy arrange albums is as complex as the franchise itself; replete with nearly as many masterpieces-that-shouldn’t-be-missed as there are one-offs-that-you-could-probably-live-a-satisfying-life-never-experiencing. It’s not unreasonable for someone to see the dozens upon dozens of albums released in the past 20+ years and be intimidated enough to leave the whole darn thing alone. But for fans of Final Fantasy, fans of the music of Nobuo Uematsu and his successors, and those who are interested in videogame-adjacent music, there’s a lot to love if you’re willing to take the dive.

There’s no doubt that I’ll be covering many of these albums throughout the years but the first on the list is the most recent;

SQUARE ENIX JAZZ –FINAL FANTASY—

Released: November-22-2017

World-renowned jazz musicians, Eijiro Nakagawa and Ryu Kawamura have taken well-known tracks from nearly every game in the main series (sorry, fans of VII, XI, and XII) and infused them with the horns, swung rhythms, and improvised solos that make jazz what it is. But ‘jazz’ is a broad term and just slapping it onto some of the most memorable tunes in videogame history doesn’t necessarily mean instant success.

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Before we even dive into this music I have a bone to pick. The history of jazz album art is as nuanced and beautiful as the music itself. It’s a history of high-contrast photography, energetic shapes and colours, high-impact fonts – it is mid-century graphic design at it’s absolute best. Maybe it’s too much to ask but SQUARE ENIX JAZZ –FINAL FANTASY- has easily one of the dorkiest covers I’ve seen in a long time, regardless of genre. Nothing to hang on the wall, that’s for sure. It’s too bad because Square has produced some excellent, if conceptually abstract, album art over the years. The cover features Vivi playing a saxophone over a blue background with the album title in a decidedly unattractive font in the top let corner. It’s criminally uninteresting. Nothing about this cover lets the listener know what they’re in for beyond the idea that Final Fantasy and ‘jazz’ are involved. It doesn’t take too long to discover that this lack of specificity and direction encompasses the style of (or lack thereof) jazz we’re about to experience.

The music starts off with a bang. A high energy, latin-infused rendition of Final Fantasy XIII’s “Blinded By Light” kicks things off and sets the stage for what we can expect from a lot of the tracks on this album; technically fantastic solo sections book-ended by well-trodden melodies. “Eternal Wind” from Final Fantasy III heads toward the more relaxed end of the spectrum but the instruments used give it an unfortunately “spa-waiting room” feel that rears it’s ugly head several times throughout the album. It’s unfortunate because “Eternal Wind” is one of my favourite songs in the series and I always look forward to a new arrangement of anything from FFIII. Luckily the melody is as infectious as ever and the drums and piano add interesting texture in the latter portions.

“Searching for Friends” from the tragically underappreciated Final Fantasy V falls into a similar trap as “Eternal Wind”; it’s a competent enough piece with excellent solos but the instruments chosen and the lack of contrast throughout the piece keeps it in the realm of background music. Final Fantasy IV’s famous “Battle With the Four Fiends” is the first track that feels at home. The bass is featured more prominently and the guitar takes a backseat to the tight shots from the horns. Everything backs off during the solos and gives the whole piece room to breathe, which is important when you’re fighting Golbez’s four best. Despite being a stressful song to listen to because of the memories tied to these moments in-game, this feels like one of the most fully realized pieces of music on the album.

Probably the most recognizable melody from Final Fantasy II, “The Rebel Army” takes the jazzier ideas from Four Fiends and runs with them; this tune gets swung to hell — where it kills the ruler of that fell place and returns even more powerful than before. Just bass, horns, piano, drums and backphrasing that won’t quit, this is one of the few tracks that would sit comfortable on anyone’s regular jazz playlist. It’s a genuine treat.

Kawamura’s call-and-response thru-line in Final Fantasy V’s “Clash on the Big Bridge” makes it a standout. This song goes plenty of fun places, none of which are expected from this boss fight theme. It builds to a fantastic battle between the piano and the sounds of the Super Famicom that culminates in Gilgamesh “running away” at the end. It suits the theme song for Final Fantasy’s most loveable villain.

“Serah’s Theme” from XIII is by far the most relaxing piece of the album and serves as an excellent intermission. Just some excellent jazz piano, a few bars of featured bass, the drums having a hell of a time, and one of Masashi Hamauzu’s finest melodies. This is another highlight that is bound to satisfy even those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy. X’s Zanarkand is a bona fide earworm. It seems a tad out of place with it’s Spanish guitar and oboe but it’s nice enough on it’s own.

The first of the back-to-back Final Fantasy IX tracks is the completely bonkers “Not Alone”. The original sounded very much like something you’d hear from a busker at the quay. This arrangement pays homage to that sound briefly and then proceeds to go all over the place. It brings in some New Orleans sound but drops it too soon. This song captures the feeling of the album almost perfectly: a lot of different components indicative of jazz that get abandoned too quickly to contribute to a theme. “Melodies of Life” is a lovely version of IX’s ending theme but it feels completely out of place. It’s a lovely ballad that unfortunately only adds to the confusion of what this album was trying to achieve. Certainly worth listening to if you’re a fan of that piece, but sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII is a sitcom theme song with a solo section. And it’s kind of great. Just imagining the cast of FFVIII in front of a studio audience is enough to sell this song for me. I don’t even care.

The album concludes with the tried and true “Final Fantasy Main Theme”. The wonderful solos are bookended by a guitar line that feels like a slap in the face. Though I suppose without a real theme for this album why NOT throw a rock ballad in at the end?

If the album’s goal was to create a Final Fantasy tribute that featured elements of jazz then I suppose it succeeded. Unfortunately it feels far too often like ‘jazz’ just happened to be a common denominator as opposed to the ethos of the arrangement process. Very rarely does this album explore interesting territory and when it does you’re bound to get a jarring return to “waiting room” jazz far too soon. Still, the handful of excellent tracks are worth listening to regardless of your familiarity with the source material. A lack of a cohesive thesis is what keeps the album as a whole from rising above it’s novelty.