the artistry and psychology of gaming


Enemy Design

Enemy Design

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read.  You may also wish to read the previous article.  If you missed the featured image when this article was on the front page, check it out here; it took me an entire afternoon to make!

The monsters in an RPG define most – if not all – of your conflict, so it’s important that they look appropriate for the game’s tone.  You can’t have a post-Apocalyptic war zone’s most dangerous creatures being cute little bunnies.  Yes, I am aware that the hamsters are the most dangerous things in all of Valkyrie Profile, but that’s stupid.  Likewise, you don’t want a lighthearted adventure with high octane nightmare fuel attacking you at every turn, though, yes, Earthbound did that and it worked very well.  You’re going to fight a lot of battles over the course of the game, so it is only fitting that the monsters set the tone of those encounters.  I could easily make a long list of cool looking enemies that could be a gigantic tome unto itself, but I think that rather than just gush about all of the great monsters I’ve battled over the years, I’ll pick out a few games with exceptional monster design instead.

Beginning with a game that lets you convince most of its monsters to join your party, I’d call Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne a difficult game for which to design monsters.  You want them to look badass, but also like something you’d have fighting alongside of you, so there are two dynamics at work, and a harmony between them is necessary.  Now, you’re a half-demon yourself, so there’s a lot more leeway, but conscious design is still necessary.  It is also of a series that really does its homework as far as learning about different creatures from mythologies both dead and alive all over the world.  How often do you see Atavaka, Samael, and Rangda in the same game?  Indeed, how often do you see Atavaka, Samael, or Rangda in any game?  It was this series that taught me the angelic orders, and I’m sure it taught many Final Fantasy enthusiasts that Shiva’s not a girl.  The only real problem is that, while their descriptions and synopses are spot-on, they sometimes ignore them when designing the creature.  The Throne, in particular, doesn’t match its description at all.  Still, there is an incredible variety of monsters in the game, almost all of which are based upon some real world mythology, and I find that impressive.  Besides, the first Shin Megami Tensei on the Super Nintendo was able to accurately depict how the cherubim are supposed to look, so I can let a few indiscretions pass.

This is how a the Cherubim are supposed to look. A lot cooler than those creepy naked angel babies, wouldn’t you agree?

While the previous game takes place in a shattered world, the truly horrific creatures exist in Sweet Home, a game based upon a Japanese horror movie.  You really have to give it to Capcom; they know how to handle a license, often making it superior to its source material.  They took something as simple and ubiquitous as a ghost and turned it into something that’s truly horrifying to behold.  The dolls are creepy, the zombies are just the upper half of a rotting corpse scraping its way toward you, and the mirrors (an enemy) display a reflection that you don’t want to see staring back at you.  Since the game is a prototypical Survival Horror title (executed as an RPG), the enemy encounters should be dangerous and terrifying; that’s good art direction.  My sister is still scared to play this game for long periods of time; she’s twenty-two, can see ghosts in real life, and can wrestle her boyfriend – who’s roughly twice her size – to the ground with little effort.  That’s when you know you’ve done your job when creating a horror game.

Come play with me!

The Breath of Fire series always knew how to deliver some impressive enemies.  The first installment used the isometric perspective in battle to deliver enemies in ways you’d rarely seen them before.  They used a lot of impressive visual effects, like flickering flames, creative shading, and even the occasional transparency to create monsters that really made you notice their presence.  Each one of them was animated and in constant motion, even when idling. For its time, it was very progressive.  The second game took it even further.  The enemies were more detailed than before, and many of them were far better looking.  The trademark slimes began to look more like gelatin and received their characteristic bug eyes, and the large, Balrog-like demons erupting from the ground just made you stop and stare in awe of their design.  The bosses were even more bizarre and impressive.  This tradition continued throughout the series, though Breath of Fire 4 began to incorporate some unimpressive polygon work that just didn’t look quite as good, proving that 3D is not always superior to 2D.

The Ifeleet stands before you

The first game I remember that truly impressed me with its monsters, though was the first Final Fantasy.  I’d played Dragon Warrior before, and the enemies were big and visually interesting, but the monsters in Final Fantasy were masterpieces.  Every single creature looked like a great work of Fantasy art, even in eight bits.  Compare the original NES versions of Final Fantasy 2 or 3 to them, and you’ll just laugh at how pathetic they look; somehow the monsters in the original were superior to those found in its next two installments.  Things got back on track with Final Fantasy 4, and continued to become more detailed, though I find most of the enemies in 6 to be grotesque and unpleasant to look at, which is an art style continued in Bahamut Lagoon, a Strategy RPG by Squaresoft.  No monsters in the series impressed me quite like those in the first game, though there’s a spinoff that did something unusual with them.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, as I have already mentioned, is big on feedback.  You know when you’re striking a weakness and when your just throwing toothpicks at a brick wall.  As it was a more lighthearted game, its monsters looked a little goofier, especially when you whittled them down a bit.  That’s right: as an enemy weakens, it changes its appearance.  The Brownies lose their hats, revealing a mohawk and a bandaged scalp.  The minibosses have three images, perhaps the most amusing of which is the Medusa that loses her “hair”.  The chapter bosses have a full four images, showing that the more HP an enemy has relative to the damage you’re dealing, the more feedback you receive as to just how far along they are.  It’s goofy and a little geared towards amateurs, but it’s nice to know how close you are to victory without having to cast a scanning spell every round or so.

My hair! I know it was a serpents’ nest, but still! You know how hard it is to find a natural-looking snake wig these days!?

The Mother series has long had goofy enemies to fit the nature of its games.  One of the main premises is that ordinary animals, people, and even inanimate objects are being corrupted by an alien presence, causing them to become aggressive.  This means that you’ll be fighting neighborhood dogs, New Age Retro Hippies, and even street signs.  It’s comical and quirky, but that’s par for the course with the Mother series.  The first two games used this to fill their bestiaries, the latter of which, Earthbound, often being sneaky about it; enemies are everyday objects, so they can sometimes take you by surprise by suddenly jumping you.  Mother 3 took things in a completely different direction: chimeras.  Almost all of the enemies are random plants and/or animals and/or machines Frankensteined together to make something completely ludicrous.  You’ll encounter Pigtunias, Zombie Shrooms, Rhinocerockets, and all other manner of absurdity along your journey, and again, it is part of the plot, so there was some thought put into it.

Watch out; those dice are loaded!

Legend of Dragoon also had some very unique monster designs.  Unlike Final Fantasy 7, it had relatively clear 3D monsters, so you could usually tell what they were supposed to be, barring perhaps the stranger enemies.  You had things that looked completely badass, like the Virages; things that looked like creatures of Earth that had taken a different evolutionary path, like the unicorns with fur in their faces; things that were oddly cute, like the fuzzy spider things; and things that were just too strange for words, like those spinning robots with bowling balls on strings for arms.  The regular monsters, as well as the bosses, were all very imaginative.  They served to do what environments, lore, and many other elements of an RPG aim to accomplish: create a new, fascinating world not our own.

So, while it may seem at first that enemy design serves no higher purpose than to “Make some cool things to destroy”, it does, in fact, have a great importance both in that regard and in creating a game with sufficient depth to be considered art.  This is why we at Gaming Symmetry so adamantly insist that video games are art against the flow of all of the naysayers; art can be far more subtle than just a painting.  Art began as drawings, but as culture advanced, things like sculpture and pottery were perceived to be art; representations of their time period and its contextual intricacies.  Further down the line, literature – the art of the written word – became recognized as an art. Movies, once regarded as “just another entertainment fad” are also considered art; apt, as they embody both the visual arts and the literary interpretation of the term.  Video games are such a medium; many do not recognize them as art for the same reason that movies, literature, and sculpture were once not regarded that way: they do not understand how the medium’s subtleties add up to create a work of great depth.


Works Cited:

Format: Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

Bahamut Lagoon. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/09/1996.
Breath of Fire (Breath of Fire: Ryuu no Senshi; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/03/1993.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Final Fantasy. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/18/1987.
Final Fantasy 2. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/17/1988.
Final Fantasy 3. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/27/1990.
Final Fantasy 4. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1991.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (Final Fantasy USA; Japan). Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/05/1992.
Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Mother (Earthbound Zero; North America [Prototype]). Pax Softonica, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/27/1989.
Earthbound. (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Shin Megami Tensei. Atlus, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/30/1992.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 02/20/2003.
Sweet Home. Capcom, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/15/1989.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.

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