During my sixth grade year, two things happened that would change the direction of my life forever: I saw my first anime (Lodoss War) and I played my first RPG (Final Fantasy VI). Both were gateways to expansive realms filled with amazing stories. And in my adolescent mind, a dream coalesced, "What if you combined anime and games to make an anime you could play?"
As a middle schooler I was certain that a game of this type was not far off. After all, Don Bluth's Dragon's Lair had been in arcades since before I was born. Growing up I remember scores of people gathering around the arcade to watch "that one guy who had spent hundreds of dollars and memorized the game" play it straight through to the end. Of course at home, the best I had was the Super Nintendo.
In the days before 3D graphics, there were a lot of Japanese games that attempted an anime style through the use of their pixel-based sprites—the results of which varied, to say the least. But unbeknownst to me, however, there was already a game that would have blown my mind: Tales of Phantasia. Though I did not actually play it until I was in college, Phantasia took the idea of "playing an anime" to a whole new level. On the world map it was nothing special, but in battle, the characters looked closer to anime than I would have ever believed the SNES was capable of (even if they were all "chibi-fied").
But with the release of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 a few years later, sprites were slowly but surely dropped by the wayside in favor of 3D polygons. While many games attempted an anime style with these polygons (which felt like a step away from the dream rather than toward it), some continued to use sprites but now superimposed over 3D animated backgrounds. Popular JRPGs Valkyrie Profile and Xenogears used this technique to great effect. Yet, by the time the PlayStation 2 rolled around, the only games that continued to use sprites and non-polygon animation were fighting games like King of Fighters.
But just when I had given up on the dream of playing an anime, I found some solace on the PC. By far the most popular PC games in Japan had long been visual novels, even though they were largely unknown outside of Japan. Over time I played a few, but they always seemed more like interactive manga than interactive anime. Sure, voices were added eventually, but the on-screen characters remained a series of static images that would swap based on the character's emotion. It was close, but still a long way from what I dreamed of. And then I played School Day's HD earlier this year. It was the first time in my life I ever felt like I was playing an anime. When I booted it up for the first time, I actually missed the first few choices in the game as I was still waiting for the opening cutscene to finish playing—and it never did.
But while School Days HD was visually the closest to what I wanted as a kid, the gameplay (aka, "choose your own adventure" style) was nothing like the epic RPG I had always imagined. The closest I have ever gotten to that perfect mix of anime and RPG is Tokitowa. Going back to the techniques of the original PlayStation, it uses a fixed camera angle to make the 2D sprites look as if they're interacting in the 3D cell-shaded world. Conversation scenes are often on par with School Days and in battle—where animated characters face off against animated monsters—it looks amazing.
But as close as Tokitowa and School Days are to my childhood dream, they still don't quite match what I had in mind—a game where I feel like I am truly inside an anime. But is that even possible? Maybe so. Ninokuni and Tales of Xillia both press the boundaries of how much you can make 3D models look like anime. So perhaps we are just one cleverly built graphics filter away from making my dream into reality.