Aeonite writes "According to the Introduction, Character Design For Mobile Devices is 'the first book on the designs, the technologies, the issues, and the techniques behind character design for mobile devices and games.' Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting and unique coffee table book suffers from an unclear message, poor design, bad editing, and an authorial voice that is rather too present at times, and too oblique at others." Read below for the rest of Aeonite's review.
|Character Design for Mobile Devices|
|author||Nfgman, Lawrence Wright|
|publisher||Elsevier Science & Technology Books|
|summary||A book for truly die-hard and extremely nostalgic fans of pixel art|
The title of the book can be read in at least two different ways. First, it could refer to character design from the perspective of the fan, as in "I will read ABOUT the design of these characters." Secondly, it could refer to character design from the perspective of a prospective student: "I will learn HOW to design characters." While this book occasionally dips its toe in the latter waters, the technical tidbits are not plentiful enough to warrant the book being sold as a "How To" guide to character design. The ambiguousness of the title might be overlooked if it was not coupled with a misleading back cover blurb, apparently written by someone who didn't read the book. "Learn to design vibrant, identifiable graphics and recognizable characters with only a few pixels at your disposal!" boasts the first line on the back cover. You will not learn any such thing from this book. This is not in any way a guide on how to design pixel art. It is a coffee table book about pixel art, and it must be reviewed in this light.
After briefly covering introductory topics like "What is a pixel?," the book quickly moves into the much meatier Chapter 2, which covers the "History of Portable Devices." Often repetitive (e.g., the same information about Nintendo's Game & Watch appears several times), it is nevertheless a pretty good overview, covering everything from the aforementioned Game and Watch and Microvision to the current generation of portables and everything in between (e.g., NeoGeo pocket, Atari Lynx, Wonder Swan), including a two-page spread about some Lego-like Pixel Toys.
Chapter 3, "Changing Hardware," is not so much about hardware changes (Chapter 2 covered that), but about the impact of changing hardware on what designers are able to achieve. The first few pages cover cellular phone games, and how they differ from consoles (vertical orientation, color and memory sizes), but the discussion seems unnecessarily (and somewhat archaically) tilted in favor of ye olde CRT monitors, only at the very end reversing course and saying that "The little LCD is tried, true, and able to keep up..." Pages 58-59 are probably the crunchiest in the book — covering graphics tools such as Graphics Gale, Corel Paintshop Pro, and Grofx2 — but the information is unfortunately less than clear. The author states that "Photoshop... is inappropriate for pixel art" but then two sentences later points out that "Photoshop is nearly ubiquitous and very popular with pixelers." How can this truly be the case?
The chapter then changes gears to present a series of Artist Foci, which are less focused than one might think. The first piece on Henk Nieborg mentions that 'His next game was Lionheart, which sold well considering its platform...' but we are not told what platform. Later, the author says of another game that '..the final effect is almost reminiscent of Metal Slug.' And what is Metal Slug? We're not told here. Fewer problems appear in the Army of Trolls Focus, aside from the underlying problem that this is a book about mobile devices, and Army of Trolls don't design for mobile devices; they work on "pixel art."
One of the quotes in this section is quite telling when you consider the back cover's claim that this book will help you "Learn to design": 'If I am working on a cityscape, I'll copy and paste buildings into the image and mess around with them in Photoshop layers until I am pleased with the layout.' Somehow this is less than enlightening, although it's still much more so than this Zenlike piece of insight from the Chris Hildebrand Focus that says nothing about anything: 'Chris has a broad range of skills and methods that have allowed him to produce an incredible range of graphics in many styles. He works with whatever speeds his methods require, creating pixel graphics from a number of sources using various techniques.'
Chapter 4, covering "Mobile Developers," mingles the author's own words with quotes from others in the "pixel art industry," and it's often confusing who's saying what until you get to the end of a paragraph and find someone's name in bold. Sometimes there are multiple quotes from the same person (as with Charles Barnard) but rather than being arranged in any particular order — like, say, alphabetically, or by subject matter — they are just dropped into the text seemingly at random. The material here is interesting and often insightful, but even when the book is at its best, it's stumbling; page 98 contains a "How To" from Capybara's Nathan Vella and Anthony Chan, but the name in the chapter title is misspelled numerous times as "Cabybara." Later, in a discussion with Sato Takayoshi, "palette" is misspelled as "pallet" numerous times; forgivable elsewhere, but not in a book about design.
In Chapter 5, titled "Genre/pixel Histories," the book devotes some twenty-five pages to an exploration of RPGs, Fighting Games, and Platformers, and the remainder of the chapter to "Sprite histories" of characters like Mario, Sonic and Bonk. This is all fascinating stuff, and in many ways this is the most interesting part of the book, but the problem is that this is a book called Character Design for Mobile Devices, and nothing in this chapter has anything to do with handheld gaming aside from a few sentences that vaguely hint that it's 'only a matter of time' before a good mobile RPG game is created, and that such a game 'could be impressive indeed.'
Despite the fact that it's interesting and engaging, the content is not without flaw. Page 147 spends an entire paragraph discussing Konami's 'first modern fighting game' but the author fails to mention it by name at any point. This is followed on page 148 by a mention of "Garou: Mark of the Wolves" and its 'visually incredibly evolution,' but there are no pictures of it or further discussion. The next page mentions 'a short-lived fighting game that never disappointed in any category, especially the visuals,' but your guess is as good as mine as to what game that was. A few pages later, the author discusses three characters from SNK fighting games without mentioning what games they're from.
The Sprite histories are often just as confusing. The evolution of Mario contains a cascade of images, some of which are not clearly labeled — page 160 shows six sprites and four captions; page 162 shows eleven sprites and only one vague caption. The histories of Donkey Kong and Castlevania are a little clearer, but confusion returns with the Sonic, Arthur (of Ghouls 'n' Ghosts fame), and Bonk histories, with the latter at one point referencing the image that is 'second last on the column below' on a page with three rows of images, the first two in four columns and the last one in six columns.
It's worth noting that this problem with captioning occurs elsewhere in the book, too:Page 15 has twelve images in six rows but zero captions. Page 23 has three images and two captions. Image 1 is of the TurboGrafx 16 and is so labeled. Image 2 is of the Turbo Express and is unlabeled. Image 3 is a close-up of the TurboGrafx 16 clearly showing the logo of the TurboGrafx 16; it is labeled "Turbo Express". Page 33 has seven images and three captions but two of the images are labeled with the number 1. Page 43 has fifteen images and five captions but only the first five images are labeled. Page 118 has screenshots from two different game platform versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, and two captions both labeled Sonic the Hedgehog, with no indication of which is which.
It is, frankly, a mess.
As with the title of the book, "a mess" can be read in two different ways: as a synonym for "a lot," or as a reference to clutter. In this case, it refers to both, which is to say that this book contains a whole lot of pictures, and they're very messy. Were this a book about HOW to design characters, poor design decisions would be less important than the content, but for this type of book it matters a great deal, as the design and the content go hand in hand: only 25% of each page (on average) contains words.
The nineteen images on the cover seem haphazardly and randomly chosen, including fifteen pieces of random pixel characters, three shots of miscellaneous handheld devices, and one icon which simply reads "Character Design Library." Described in this way it's a bit difficult to get across exactly why this is a bad idea, so perhaps an analogy is in order. Imagine a book about American History, with a front cover consisting of fifteen images of Presidents, three pictures of sailing ships, and a photo of a Stop Sign. Random, much?
Between the covers, the design is also a scattershot affair. The book's chapters are color coded (Pink, Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange, in that order), with color coordinated boxes at the bottom of each page which sporadically mirror the topic. In the second chapter, the chapter title consistently appears in the box on the left hand page, but in the third chapter the title only appears maybe half the time, with the page subtopic sometimes appearing instead, or even the title of the second chapter. In addition, these colorful boxes skitter wildly across the page, sometimes flush left, sometimes centered, but mostly just sprinkled hither and yon.
As one might expect in a book about pixel art, the pages are filled with screenshots and other bits of artwork, but unfortunately many of these are oddly chosen or placed. In places, paragraphs describing a particular product go on and on, but the photos that should accompany them are one or two pages away. For example, on a two-page spread that discusses the Nintendo Gameboy are a large photo of a PlayStation Portable and a Nintendo DS. This occurs again a few pages later, where GameBoy Advance and the PSP are pictured on a two-page spread that covers the GameBoy, GameGear, Genesis and TurboGrafx. Later, more of the same: a discussion of Final Fantasy is graced with images from Dragon Warrior; a paragraph about Karate Champ is accompanied by a shot from Street Fighter; and a page about Super Mario Bros has screencaps from Super Mario World.
Much of the artwork also seems randomly chosen, rather than illustrative of a particular topic, or even indicative of a game's main characters or features. Page 86 contains three images from an unnamed "Military Game," two of which show the same empty warehouse (or possibly the back stockroom at a McDonald's). An artist focus on Chris Hildebrand contains numerous references to his most successful release, Heli Attack 3, yet not one image from this game appears in the six pages devoted to him; instead, two pages show us generic landscapes called "Mangrove Swamp image," "Waterfall image" and "Tropical image." The cream of the crop is page 128, which contains the following note: 'The Super Nintendo Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts (left) was a visual marvel when it was released, with colors so lush and vibrant they rivaled arcade games at the time.' The stunning "image on the left" is the game's title screen.
Every graphical sin is committed somewhere in the book. Numerous pages (particularly in Chapter 2) suffer from "random cropping," where large images are cropped square with no attention to what's being cropped out; in one instance, a discussion of the Turbo Express contains an unhelpful close-up of the Select and Run buttons. Page 82 and 92 contain duplicate artwork, and the latter also contains a horribly oversized pixelated pirate that serves no purpose but to look ugly and fill space. Page 94 features the infamous "marketing image masquerading as screenshot," notable here because this is a book about pixel art, and this is not a piece of pixel art.
The book ends abruptly, sans conclusion, before diving into a Glossary full of unnecessary editorializing to put Wikipedia to shame. The entry on "2D" refers to them as 'often more vibrant than 3D,' and 'pure and fun,' whereas the entry on "3D" refers to how 3D games 'killed off pixel art,' 'require an incredible increase in computing power,' and how 'many older players blame the rise of 3D games and a new push for realism over style, and accuracy over creativity, for ruining games.' Is this a glossary, or a pulpit? It seems we are to believe that 2D gaming seems to represent elegant perfection, and 3D gaming represents all that is wrong with the world.
The book's introduction opens with a statement that 'this book is a tribute to 2D gaming graphics and portable game graphics.' Why the word "Design" is in the title, and "Tribute" is not, I don't know. There's nothing wrong with publishing a tribute to days gone by. 'There will hopefully always be a place for a simpler style of art on cellphones due to the small screen resolution and limited palettes', says Henrik Pettersson on page 86, before adding 'If you're looking for a lifelong career within visual arts, I wouldn't recommend pixel art as your only skill.' Not that Pettersson's point of view is the only one; Gary Lucken of Army of Trolls insists on page 65 that 'pixel art is a viable career move again for budding artists.'
So which is it? This author seems to imply that the latter is true. 'Looking forward isn't always the best way to advance an art form,' he says, adding that 'the pixel is not seen as primitive, but rather as a way to express a simple artistic elegance rarely seen in today's complex jumbled gaming landscape.' However, it's worth noting that one of the tutorials in the book is Ian McPherson's guide to designing games for the PC Engine system, a defunct console that hasn't seen an official game release in nearly a decade.
In this light, my earlier comparison to American History is worth coming back to. Character Design for Mobile Devices could (and perhaps should) have been an excellent history book, a nostalgic tour of days gone by. Instead, it doesn't quite know which hat to wear, combining tangential discussions on console gaming, conflicting "How-To" advice from pixel artists, and repeated pro-pixel commentary from the author which is akin to wishing for another Boston Tea Party, just because it was kind of cool the first time.
The book is far from a "Jumbled-Up Piece of Crap" (to use a term mentioned on page 88), but it would definitely benefit from a "new and improved" second edition that cleaned up its many problems. With more appropriately chosen art, more consistent captioning, and a clearer message, it would find appeal with a broader audience. As it stands though, the book really only has appeal for truly die-hard (and extremely nostalgic) fans of pixel art, those thirtysomethings who own Atari 2600 T-shirts and have Ms. Pac-Man cabinets in their basements. You know who you are.
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