Kaze and the Wild Masks: Designing a great pixel art character
Nostalgia can be very powerful, but historical limitations don’t need to curb your creativity. Vox Game Studio shares their experience of designing a 16-bit character that references classic 1990s platformers while also taking advantage of all the tools and options today’s developers have at their disposal.
When the studio decided to develop a down-to-earth and straightforward side-scrolling game, they knew they needed an original character that would be more interesting than a standard walking-jumping hero.
After some initial research, they settled on a female hare with long and powerful ears that help her glide, attack, throw and more. They named her Kaze.
“Of course, we did a lot of exploration before we created the final character, so we want to share our design process to help other game developers with their decision-making,” says Rodrigo Spilimbergo of Vox Game Studio.
Determining pixel size and colors
While 1990s TVs and computers supported far fewer pixels and colors than today’s technology, the team didn’t want to be limited by these restrictions while they created their retro art style. Instead, they wanted to raise the vintage platformer bar a little by introducing a few modern elements to the classic pixel-art rulebook.
Studying their 90s references, they noticed most games used an average 40×40 pixel canvas for the characters. On today’s hardware, that would result in oversized pixels on the screen. Therefore, the game creators decided to use an 80×80 pixel canvas for Kaze.
Most of the classic 1990s pixel-art platformers use just 16 different colors for their characters. For Kaze, the team chose a broader color palette. The end result hits a balance between classic and modern, without losing the essence of the perfect pixel style.
The importance of silhouettes
If you look at classic platformers, you’ll notice that even if you remove the color of a character, you can still identify it by its shape. This technique helps develop a character’s identity.
“You know Sonic by the spikes on his back, Donkey Kong by his broad and curly shape, and Mega Man because his plasma arm is always pointing forward. With Kaze, we wanted her ears to stand out, as they are super relevant to the gameplay,” says Spilimbergo. This is the first draft of Kaze’s run cycle and the pixel-art prototype:
Shaping the character
The team always starts by creating the character without any color, and then the team checks every position in the animation to see if it still matches the character style.
The team also wanted to ensure the silhouette first to check the geometrical shapes evoked by the animation and the character actions.
“Generally speaking, rounded shapes tend to make us think of fragile objects, while triangular shapes make us relate to aggressive and powerful ones. We took this into consideration while creating Kaze’s animations. That’s why we made her body look a bit rounded, while the ears, the source of her power, look a bit pointed,” says Spilimbergo.
She looks like a triangle while spinning/attacking.
She has a rounded shape while bouncing.
Other animations in the game use the same logic:
Making Kaze pop in her environment
The levels in Kaze and the Wild Masks are colorful, multi-layered worlds. The individual layers are also pixel art, but the team added a blur effect on the third layer to heighten the illusion of depth. The environment also uses a wider color palette than the character.
Fine-tuning her facial expressions
A lot of Kaze’s personality is in her ears, but the game’s cutscenes also include different facial expressions. Here are a few concept sketches of Kaze’s face in different situations.
Coming soon: How Vox set up Unity for importing Kaze’s art and designs levels
In the next post about the Vox Game Studio team, we’re going to explore their process for creating levels and setting up the animations, art and environments for the game. The team is also updating to a newer Unity version so that they can benefit from our new Pixel Perfect for 2D tool. We’ll talk about that too.
Finally, check out the game’s Steam page for regular updates on Kaze and the Wild Masks currently available on Early Access.