From day one Mega Man Zero series has been coloured by its then unique art direction. It was possibly the most distinct style ever shown in video games with it’s vivid colours and graphics that looked hand drawn. Mega Man Zero, the first of the series, still stands to me as one of the best examples of well directed art in any video game.
Toru Nakayama was little known artist with a distinct style until MMZ games. Nakayama’s previous works have been seen around the Internet and in some peculiar fan comics of erotic kind. It seems that Nakayama continued the proud tradition of CAPCOM artists having a fixation with rather young and undeveloped bodies. Given, Nakayama worked for Inti-Creates, but Inti-Creates worked for CAPCOM while doing the Z and ZX games. I have no idea what became of him afterwards, but I think he will not work for Mega Man games in the future any more.
If I had to call Nakayama’s style something I’d call it sketchy. It has the usual anime flavour that has coloured pretty much every oriental game ever made, but the certain shapelessness of the characters is hard to find anywhere else. The sketchiness completes the shape world overall. The lines and curves are well made and define the strange circling cubic designs Nakayama has. It is strange to see how strongly his lines of lights have affected some other artists and games, and it’s really funny to see coinciding similarities with past works and Nakayama’s. Nakayma’s handiwork evolved during the four games he mainly worked on, but I find it very distracting that the style got plainer and plainer as the games went on.
And by plainer I mean it lost the sketchiness that made Nakayma’s style look good. After it got streamlined and cleaned up, it began to look bad. All the shapes stood up, the misproportional bodies and weird design choices lifted their ugly heads and yelled “Look at me! I’m not that well designed after all!”
Above, from left to right, you can see in-game screens of event scenes used in the four games. As you see, there’s little change between MMZ1 and 2, but MMZ3 looks a little different already, and the last scene from MMZ4 just looks plain ugly. The sketchiness is lost, replaced by modern plastic anime looks. This is, as always with art, completely in the eye of the beholder.
The thing is this; Mega Man Zero as a series has very little of its own outside art direction and the insanely stupid difficulty. By lessening the unique qualities the games had, in this case the art direction own style, the quality of the entire series got lower. That’s one thing that plagued the ZX games as well; the art direction was pretty awful for the same reason. It might be that the top brass of CAPCOM demanded more mainstream look for the games, but then again, Mega Man has always been rather mainstream. Perhaps it was the violence in the Zero series that forced the art direction change. I for one never cared for it, thou it was neat to see that blood effect for the first time back in the day. Whatever the reason for the change in the art direction was, it was a misstep.
It’s insanely funny to notice that the Pixiv designed idea for the game Rockman CIEL surprasses that of Zero 4 or ZX series in terms of art direction. Granted, some of its designs are derived from the rather recent Remastered Tracks Rockman Zero MYTHOS music disc, but the point still applies. Why RM CIEL draws such attention is that it is quite well thought piece of fan fiction. Sure, it smells like any other hard core fan product, but it can’t be denied that generally it has pretty good art direction that follows more Z1/2/3 rather than the fourth or ZX games. Agreed, RM CIEL’s art is rather sleek and streamlined and sometimes completely void of said sketchiness, but it works for them because the other Pixiv artists use their own proportions and only use similar style of design. While we could argue that ZXA uses the sketchy style still, it only uses it for the cover. I bet other in-house artists made most of other images and only followed the general art direction. It’s pretty damn common all around.
No matter how you look at it, Zero series art direction continued into ZX while taking a dive in quality in the fourth Zero game. Most will not see it, some just don’t care about it. To some, like me, it hits like a million volts and can ruin the whole experience.