Mass Effect Trilogy: From the magic of an interstellar community to the action blockbuster

Mass Effect was a beloved franchise for many. We’re jumping straight into past tense here, as it’s one of many franchises that just got worse every iteration and jumped off a fucking cliff when it was time to end the (planned) trilogy.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Today you’re treated with an guest post from the editor / proofreader, A9. Hello again, it has been a while.

This whole article will assume you’ve played Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 and various plot details will be spoiled if you still want to play it one of these days. I won’t go into any of the side material such as the comics, or the newest game in the franchise, Andromeda.

I will have to apologise to the reader ahead of time for the ramble that is this post, as this whole post was inspired as it were by the soundtracks of Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. It’s not meant as an informative post, but more as a critique and my frustrations with the series. Or more informally, a ramble that was created out of endearment for the first game.

Mass Effect: An Introduction

Mass Effect is a third person shooter role playing game set in a semi-hard science fiction setting. What is hard science fiction? Without getting too much into it, a science fiction story that abides to the rules and logic of the world and can explain why certain things work the way they do, for example faster than light travel. Why do I categorise it as semi? It all hinges on the ‘discovery’ of a fake element, element zero.

Throughout the Mass Effect trilogy you follow John or Jane Shepard, commander of the Earth’s Systems Alliance Navy on his quest to stop the Reapers, a highly-advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships. Why does he want to stop them? Because they want to erase all organic life in the galaxy, and that’s a pretty big deal.

The thing that actually made the series so beloved for many was the world in which this story takes place, with a vast amount of different and unique looking aliens, each with their own cultures, interesting locations to visit and with some nice space politics sprinkled on top. For example, the colossal space station called the Citadel, which houses tons of different aliens and hosts the Citadel Council, which is the ultimate authority of Citadel Space (the space inhabited by all members who recognise the authority of the Council). The galaxy itself worked even if the threat of the Reapers wasn’t there and it’s clear a lot of time and effort went into making this galaxy feel ‘real’.

This combined with the fact that save files could be transferred to the next game, made players quite invested into their character and choices. A decision made in the first game could have repercussions in the next two, or if a quest hadn’t been completed in the first game the quests also won’t pop up in the later games.

The main theme for the Mass Effect games, from which melodies will carry through to the soundtracks of the sequels in diluted form.

Commander Shepard

The most important thing that separates Mass Effect from movies or books is the interactivity with the protagonist. With a selection of three backgrounds (sole survivor, war hero and ruthless) you start your journey. While still limited by a binary good vs evil alignment system (paragon and renegade) which lock some conversation options, from then on you choose most of your dialogue options. Within the confines of the story of the games, you choose who to ally yourself with and who to piss off. You get to know your crew, which consists mainly of humans (you are in a human space navy after all), with a couple of aliens you pick up on your travels, each with their own goals and motivations. They don’t just join because the plot demands it, they all have their own goals and tagging along with Shepard will get them closer to their goals. To top it off, most of these motivations tend to intertwine with other crew members offering different perspective on the problems of others and span over three different games.

Take the character Garrus, an ex-space cop who investigated the top special agent of the Citadel Council but kept being blocked on every corner, despite any evidence he had. After having made no real progress (since everything was classified), the case was ordered closed. Not satisfied with this, he teams up with Shepard to bring this agent to justice. But on this journey, he will have to learn what justice really is when not simply backed up by laws and regulations and he will often lean to the darker side of ‘justice’, to get the job done even if it means killing the suspect. Shepard can influence him, by encouraging this, ignoring it, or reminding him that just killing guilty parties isn’t true justice. This provides the basis of their cooperation and friendship.

The role of humankind

The universe Mass Effect is very comparable to the likes of Star Trek (but not constrained by costume budget). As a video game, the lore and setting had to be established right away, instead of getting the opportunity to create a basis and gradually building upon it episode after episode.

The biggest parallel between Mass Effect and Star Trek is the intergalactic community. You have the Citadel with the Council on one hand, and the United Federation of Planets with the Federation Council on the other. Yet the key difference here is the role humans play, and how we get to those end points. In Star Trek, humankind starts World War III, after which First Contact with the first alien race happens, the Vulcans. With their advice they band together within a hundred years into one United Earth. The humans then play an integral role in the foundation of the Coalition of Planets, which will grow into the Federation.

Yet in Mass Effect, humankind is the new kid on the block. While the early history of the Systems Alliance (the name of the united earth government) isn’t exactly clear, the foundation is: the discovery of a ruined alien research station, which revealed humankind wasn’t alone in the universe. This discovery sent Earth almost into a panic, as there was no telling if the aliens were still out there, or whether were hostile or not. This provided the cornerstone for the nations of Earth to band together, in a “us vs them” kind of way, which took only less than a year since the discovery. The Systems Alliance was formed, and the Mass Relays were discovered allowing interstellar travel, but even then there were no aliens to be found. Only after years of rapid expansion featuring many new colonies did they encounter their first aliens, the Turians. According to the interstellar laws created by the Council (which was all unknown to the Systems Alliance) randomly exploring Mass Relays was forbidden and a battle ensued, with only one human ship surviving and limping towards the closest human colony. It got followed, and subsequently the whole colony got invaded.

Only after a short war (that was lost) did the Systems Alliance get introduced to the galactic community and only then did they realise that other races have been gallivanting around the galaxy for hundreds of years already. Humans were just so insignificant up till that point, that the other races just didn’t bother. During the course of Mass Effect trilogy the humans climb in the ranks (quite quickly) and join or lead the Citadel Council, almost turning it into a Humanity Fuck Yeah story.

Story, lore, codex

The story, which by some accounts should not be the focus of a video game was one of Mass Effect’s defining features. In principle, I am of the opinion that gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game (or computer game as this blog’s owner would say) and that story is complimentary. Yet some video games have a nice synergy between gameplay and story.

The entire Mass Effect universe has an immense amount of lore, filled with many different aliens and technology concepts. The first game makes ample use of that, yet so much stays just in the codex, the in-game encyclopedia. It’s nice supplementary reading for sure, but why wasn’t it tied into the main story? Did they just run out of time?

Rather than making use of the rest of the codex, ME2 supplemented it with extra material and new places. One cannot fault them for that, it’s normal to add new stuff, but so many things are left unexplored and rarely visited again. How do the species govern their own people, their own homeworld? What is really happening in the galaxy outside the reaper threat?

The introduction to the Reapers in general, and the reaper Sovereign. You won’t see this again in ME2 and ME3, unless you count the Catalyst which I hope you won’t.

The promise of a trilogy with a great story was there, as the set-up was very well done, with many story threads being left open and the real mystery of what the Reapers are. Yet main trilogy ends with such a wet fart, that the thing that most people enjoyed the most, utterly failed them. Hey, remember the threat from the first game? Yeah now they’re just everywhere but we’re doing OK. Oh, and by the way, we found an ancient superweapon design on Mars, so let’s build that. And before we forget, here have this utterly forced psychological trauma of seeing a kid die during the invasion of earth. We’re going to show it to you throughout the game, that kid that you saw for about three seconds.

Even the iconic dialogue wheel could be disabled at this point with the cinematic option to just watch cutscenes without any interaction. Let’s not even start the infamous “skip combat” button debacle again.

In Mass Effect 3 everything is action or drama, and the space adventure is only there as a legacy of the previous games. It’s replaced with doing missions for all alien races to unite everyone into building the giant superweapon to defeat the big evil badguys. But these missions feel insignificant and are just time wasters. Oh, thanks for unclogging our toilet Mr Shepard, I guess we’ll help you combat this galactic threat.

Gameplay, along for the ride

Gameplay has always been along for the ride in Mass Effect, yet even that gets worse over time. ME1 kicked things off as a fairly standard third person shooter with many abilities: biotics, tech skills, you name it. Each skill has its own cooldown, and ammo is unlimited. Run around the map, shoot enemies, hide behind cover, ignore your brain-dead teammates, drive a odd low-gravity moon rover, and repeat.

Gunplay is one of the most important aspects in a third person shooter, and my personal weapon of choice is the pistol in ME1. Accurate, fair fire rate and not bad reach.

Instead of polishing the combat options you had in ME1, BioWare decided to limit the player instead of making combat abilities flow better into each other. In ME1, each ability had its own cooldown, but in ME2 it’s an universal cooldown. BioWare thought it would be great to go from a cooldown ammo system to an actual ammo system with an hard cap on the maximum amount of ammo you can carry for a specific weapon. With just a small magazine of ~30 for the pistols, you’re fucked if you run out so have fun with the other weapons! Instead of giving the player an incentive for using the other weapons, they limited the better weapon to force you to use other weapons which were often inferior unless in specific situations. Except for the submachine gun, I hate everything about that popgun. The weapons are oddly distributed among the classes so good luck if you want the assault rifle, since you have to give up every interesting ability to get it.

Equipment was a big deal in ME1, thanks to it’s RPG roots, yet was found in such abundance that it boiled down to Weapon Model 1 to Weapon Model 10. Sure, there are different variants… but good luck with the inventory management system.

“One of the most controversial changes to the combat was probably how ammo works,” Hudson goes on. “It was something that wasn’t part of the main game design but instead was implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. The Lead Designer was against the idea, but tested the ‘ammo’ version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat.

GamesRadar+ – The Making of Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is the perfect middle ground between a game that needed a few more months in development, and a very polished turd that is Mass Effect 3.

New players in an ongoing story

Mass Effect 1 was a great starting point for a trilogy, but they never properly followed that up with anything substantial. ME2 has little to no relevance to the main plot, it only explores a single part of the whole story, and also establishes a minor ending point for ME3 to profit off. The series was constructed as a trilogy, but was this the correct idea in hindsight?

But I think mostly we wanted to create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience. That might be the theme behind everything. I’m not saying make the systems thinner or anything specific like that, but let the game get out of the way of the player having an experience. I think that’s the goal of any artist in any medium, to get out of the way of what the game is trying to be. To make it less mechanical and let people interact with it in a more natural way

JoystiqInterview: BioWare’s Casey Hudson on the making of Mass Effect 2

With the first game being a clear hit, how to approach the sequels? The first game wasn’t perfect by any means but things can be fixed with the sequel. But you still want new players to get into the series. How do you get new players invested in the second game while still understanding the story? In ME2 they used a interactive comic book, that would create a ‘save file’ for the game to import, along with Shepard having to answer a few questions to make sure he’s ‘alright’. The classic approach is giving the player a character that’s unfamiliar with the story at large, such as Jacob Taylor in ME2, and James Vega in ME3. They both serve the same goal, but are handled very differently.

Jacob is a former Systems Alliance marine that defected to the human-survivalist paramilitary group called Cerberus. His reason for joining was seeing an ineffectual bureaucracy in action against systematic attacks against human colonies by an mysterious attacker. Yet, he’s hasn’t disillusioned himself about Cerberus, which is commonly known as a humans-at-the-top group and frequently remarks how he doesn’t always agree with their philosophy and methods. He’s brought into the plot to comment on Shepard’s actions in the previous game, whether or not the player actually played it, and partially serves to introduce Shepard to this new organisation

James got fired from the cast of Geordie Shore and got chucked onto the Normandy since he was near Shepard when Earth got invaded. He’s a marine. And a meathead. Always describing and comparing things right in front of him. He gives stupid nicknames. It’s no secret he’s specifically made to cater to new players that would probably rather play Gears of War. Really, that’s all he serves for.

Original Sound Track

The decline of this series can be seen, or more appropriately heard in the soundtrack. A funky, somewhat slow electronic sound filled with synthesisers gradually transforms to a overly forced dramatic slow piano piece that changes to generic action music. The thing that is missing is the spectacular. The focus isn’t on the spectacle of the galaxy anymore, the focus has shifted to solving the problems in the galaxy. The spectacle is almost taken for granted and takes a back seat, or gets stashed in the trunk.

An example of the main theme being used in other pieces can be heard in The Lazarus Project, in which the deceased Shepard is being rebuilt. It has the uplifting notes of the original theme, but goes downward from there. This is in line with the themes of the game, working for a dark organisation and also turning your back against the people you’ve worked for in the first game.

Where the soundtrack begins to decline in the second game for me, is the more frequent use of the piano. Just as the same main theme gets reused around the rest of the soundtrack, so does this piano theme. It’s not an overly emotional theme though, it does sound a little sad, but for me this captures mystery and having questions.

And then we have the main theme of Mass Effect 3, a theme that just uses the fucking piano while tooting a harsh horn throughout the theme. It’s forced, there is no subtlety. Hell, is this even science fiction anymore? ARE YOU FEELING SAD YET? I’m struggling to make clear how much I absolutely detest this theme.

For me, it comes down to the following: While the first game does has its dramatic themes, they’re better built up to.

The past and future of Mass Effect

As Aalt wrote in this post:

The worst decision that franchises like this do is writing prequels. By doing that, the staff is essentially tied to defined future of the story. If they break the future, the overall story and canon makes less and less sense with each little breakage. One drop doesn’t break a damn, but enough drops turn into a tidal whale. For long time fans of any franchise, they know how prequels often turn out. Not all that great, sometimes even sullying the story they’re based on.

Yet I cannot help but wonder, if you have a legitimate starting point for such a prequel, can you fault them? The biggest event in the Mass Effect universe is the discovery of the effects of element zero, the mass drives, the Prothean beacon and then the Turian war.

But what about the future in-game? The way ME3 ended the trilogy was a real letdown, can you follow it up with anything good? The rebuilding of the citadel was already done in ME2 and 3. Do you just want to skip ahead a hundred years and introduce a new bigbad evil guy? Or will all the mass relays be rebuilt? As faster than light travel is gone from the galaxy, the story would have to be a very contained one that’s restricted to one solar system.

Finally, the future of the franchise. With the disaster that was Andromeda, it will be a while before we will get a new game. Won’t this be the perfect moment to translate the games to TV or a movie? This way, the ‘cumbersome’ gameplay won’t get it the way of the story. I’m only being semi-sarcastic here. With a bit of luck, they’ll pull a Witcher success story (yes, I know that’s also based on a book) and they can even diverge from the ME2 and ME3 script and take a look back at their original plans for the trilogy.

I might just come back to this post to clean it up some more and include elements I dropped in the end. A lot of development stuff, gameplay changes and stupid corporate decisions.

 

GDP – Gabumon Design Progression

Sorry, no Aalt today, A9 to the rescue. You guessed it, time for another Digimon design post.

1 Gabumon Digivice

What a cute little bugger. Like all early Digimon, Gabumon had its sprite designed first. The actual drawing and finalised design only comes later. As usual, the first sprite comes from the Pendulum toys with its small displays. As we don’t have the official design yet, this is the most basic image that exists, and it looks like a weird bunny that’s standing up, ready for a fight.

2 Gabumon

And there we go, the actual design. Naturally, the first thing that springs out here is the pelt, a new addition compared to the sprite. Other features have been exaggerated: a longer snout, large teeth, bigger horn, thicker legs and bigger ears. The sprite already featured stripes of some sort, but now they are transferred unto the fur and boy howdy have they multiplied. Giant claws extend from the fur, with two extra (empty) arms hanging in the back. Another new addition is the tail, which seems quite reptilian (which Gabumon is, underneath this fur). Finally, there is the egg shaped mark on its belly. Personally, I see some small resemblances to Agumon here as well, the yellow colour of the main body, the small feet and the somewhat protruding snout with higher placed eyes.

3 Gabumon_ver_s

Games time: Digimon Ver. S. Although our friend got squashed a bit, most details remain, although the fur colour got quite a bit darker. Most of the stripes on the fur stay in approximately the same place though, which surprised me of a sprite of this size. Furthermore, the toe claws are a bit sharper instead of the dull ones from above. The only other major change is the belly, only because there was no enough room to properly put that whole design in such a limited space.

If there is a chance to talk about the V-Tamer manga, I’ll take it. It’s one of my favourite pieces of Digimon media, but that’s something for another time. This is not quite the Gabumon you know, yet he appeared a few months later than the sprite above.

Disregarding the ladle and pan as props, it’s a more simple design with a cute charm. While Gabumon still wears his fur, it has a more smoother look. This manga isn’t really clear on his extra arms though, as they can sometimes be seen (as in the picture above, below his left arm) but on other drawings they are completely missing. The overall shape of a lot more simplified, with the snout being much more flat and wide (yet retaining his teeth). The very small tuft of hair that was present in the original design has grown quite a bit, even surrounding his horn. The belly markings are still there, but have seen a bit of a redesign giving the top marking extra curves while giving the lower ones pointy edges. To top it off, its feet have also shrunk considerably so the for actually drags over the ground a little.

Very noticeable is the fact that its claws turn into digits, allowing it to grab things. Previous incarnations actually have hands hidden inside the fur, making the claws part of the ‘wearable’ fur.

6 DMW

As can be seen here, in a screenshot from Digimon World. A very faithful model, with only the smallest details left out or simplified such as the bumps on its tail, no small tuft of hair around the horn and the lack of extra arms, the rest is fully visible. The aforementioned hands within the fur, the belly design, the horn and the long ears. Its teeth are even protruding giving it a bit of a savage look.

7 Gabumon Anime

Time for Adventure. This design is a whole lot more rounder and cuddlier, with the savage details being toned down for a cuter look. Let’s start from the top, the horn. It is almost completely identical, save for a few missing lines on the top and bottom and the colour. The original horn had a lighter shade of yellow than the main body, but those are minor things. The fur has gotten a bit lighter and the purple stripes have turned dark blue. Most of the markings are in their original place, but some are missing like on his ears and his extra arms. Now for the most major change, the face. Just like in the manga it is shorter and wider, giving it a cuter look. This is also made possible by making the teeth smaller and making them stick out less. Because of these changes, this reptile head looks more like a weird dog.

The eyes have changed ever so slightly, with a little less eyewhite being visible. This also contributes to the cute factor, has it is less of a predatory look. The mouth is changed in a very subtle way, by giving Gabumon a chin of sorts clearly defining the head by adding an extra line above the markings on its belly. This gives off the idea of it having a very fat neck.

Yet again we have to look at its belly markings, because they have changed again. Just like the rest of the design, they got smoother and lighter, but more importantly it got symmetrical. You can argue that the original design has no clear perspective for the belly markings, but it’s also possible it’s just a very weird shape in general. The arms lack a few veins as is common with the early designs, but they’re also slightly longer and more importantly closer to the actual claw part of the fur. Ending at its feet, we have smaller toes (claws) that are more removed from each other while also being sharper.

9 Gabumon_dgp

Honestly, we cannot tell all that much from this image. I just really wanted to include it, since he looks baller as fuck.

11 Gabumonx

X-Antibody time. As always, these designs are complete overhauls being based more on nature and ‘realism’ as far as that’s possible. In the case of Gabumon, that means that it’s no longer a reptile, but a beast, drawing more inspiration of a giant ferret. Its horn size (heh) increased and the fur changed to a darker shade of blue / purple. It covers almost the same area, except for the snout and one of its arms with a different pattern. This also reveals the way smaller teeth and a snout that’s not on the fur. Claws have formed at the end of his hands, and the claw on the fur has drastically increased in size. According to the lore, it picks up pieces of fur left behind by Garurumon and shapes it into his fur pelt. He keeps one arm bare to set it on fire to punch others with (we can only hope it’s magical fire). It’s unclear if this form has two extra sets of arms as well, as images are scarce of Gabumon-X. The tail has changed from a reptilian tail to a furry one and the other big change his the belly markings. The belly itself is a dark purple instead of teal, and the markings itself have a drastic different form with very sharp corners. As far as I know, the markings have no meaning but it’s still interesting how they even changed that aspect.

13 Gabumon_redigi

We also got a slight redesign in Re:Digitise. This one is fully based on the original design and doesn’t have too many differences except for some minor ones. The horn is sharper at the end, and the markings are more subtle and thin. The fur is almost the same, except that it looks raggedy and worn. The darker stripes are also a little lighter while being in the same places as before. An extra detail is revealed at the mouth however: since the mouth is open, we can actually see the teeth of Gabumon itself and not the fur. The reptilian side comes more way strongly here and is a nice touch. The muscular legs are more defined, and end it sharper claws. All in all, this is personally one if my favourite designs, even is it starts to look a bit like Agumon with a cloth over its head. In all essence, this is not as much as a redesign, but more of an update.

 

Two more 3D models, from Digimon Masters Online and Digimon Allstar Battle Arena. Both are based on the anime version of Gabumon, but they both show one important change: there are straps beneath the fur to hold unto. It actually makes sense, how else would Gabumon use the claws without them flying off his hands? Nevertheless, it’s seen after. The only other major difference is from the first 3D model, where the belly marking has gotten significantly smaller.

 

Gabumon from Cyber Sleuth and Cyber Sleuth Hacker Memory. These games share the same artstyle, hence them being grouped together. As you can see, no straps to hold unto, but there is another change: big hands. The size of the hands has increased, causing them to not be fully enveloped by the fur and ‘pop out’ a little. The fur got some extra detail as well, causing it to look a little bit more rugged. To top it all off, and this is a pretty strange choice, the eye colour starts to turn a little brown.

Even though they are basically from the same game, there is one other change between them, although I suspect it’s mostly artstyle related: the first one has a very clear defined tongue while the other goes with a more ‘the inside of the mouth is just red’ approach. Maybe a little mundane to focus on, but at least I mentioned it.

17 Gabumon_tri

Yet again we wrap up with Digimon Tri, and yet again the fur looks a little bit more shabby. Moreover, the colours have turned a little bit less saturated. The tuft of hair as increased at the base of the horn (it hit puberty) and the eyelashes are way more defined. Funnily the eyes itself have turned a little bit more red again, but not as red as the original.

With that we come at the end of some of Gabumons designs, but we have our first bonus feature here: peltless Gabumon!

 

Only a few images of peltless Gabumon exist, and they vary in colour. This is the true reptilian form: no teeth shown, droopy ears, no beast-snout. You can see the scales on its tail moving along its spine, but the most interesting detail are the markings on its arm. It almost feels out of place, as it looks to me like a military rank tattooed on its arm. But hey, I won’t judge.

Greymon Design Development

Welcome back to guest-post hour, I’m your host, the digi-destined A9. Since we left off at Agumon, it makes sense to go to his most commonly known evolution: Greymon. So let’s not waste any time.

Greymon Prototype

Wait a minute”, I might hear you say. “That’s not Greymon! That’s Rhydon, or Nidoking!” And it’s true, all of those have a very similar shape. But consider this: it’s a rough dinosaur sketch, that’s all that was needed at the time since Greymon wasn’t exactly a poster boy for the Digimon Pendulum series. That spotlight went to Tyrannomon, the true and honest evolution of Agumon. Still, the most prominent features are there: fat belly, three horns and a tail. The only thing that’s missing is the skull that the other versions are wearing over their heads, so let’s take a look at those, shall we?

Continue reading “Greymon Design Development”

ADD – Agumon Design Development

Hello again, guest post writer A9 here again, bringing you more Digimon goodness. This is a followup on my previous post, Digimon Design Evolution, but it’s not required reading or anything. It’s a free country, man!

In an ever-changing franchise, a design is never final. No matter how iconic a character may be, it will change over the years for better or worse. Pikachu got slim, Batman tried on different suits and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got fucked up.

But this post is, as the title suggests, about Agumon. I already touched a bit upon his changing designs in my previous guest post on here, but now it´s time to take a more in-depth view of this yellow dinosaur over the years. In this post I’ll mainly look at video games, the anime series and the various movies with an other source now and then wedged in. Please note I won’t review the games and such, just the designs.

Agumon PrototypeDuring the production of the Digital Monster toy, sprites were drawn first, followed up with drawn artwork. Only the most basic shapes are recognisable, and they’re so-so as well. The sprite has a big head, but with what looks like a beak. It has quite small arms as well, and no tail can be seen. With the first prototype drawing his head and feet are already fairly similar to his final design, but he’s not as menacing. A friendly upright standing crocodile that lost its tail.

His official design enlarged the arms by adding forearms with large claws for hands (just like his feet in the prototype), giving the feet a little more bulk and giving the head the detail it deserves for it to become a dinosaur-like creature. The nose is raised a little above the rest of his jaw and the head itself is more thick. The eyes clearly have sockets, and has more room at the brow for that dinosaur look. Additionally he got very small ear holes which is always kind of amusing to me even though is makes perfect sense. Such a logical addition, but easily forgotten as most other Digimon don’t have clear defined ears. To finish the design off, add a very small tail (or more like a stub) and send the lad to the gym for some weight training. Huzzah, we got our official Bandai art version of Agumon.

This official art will keep in use over the years (especially merchandise such as the trading card game), but different artists create different Agumon. Imagine, that when his final design was being developed another artist had a crack at it? That’s what probably happened when the publisher of Weekly Shōnen Jump (Shueisha) made a small manga to teach kids how to take care of their Digital Monsters.

Agumon 1997 Manga

Forget dinosaur, welcome dragon. Way bigger, cuter eyes along with a more round face. Thanks to the shape of his head Agumon can still be recognized, but his body is totally different. His chest is white and his arms are miniature sized and on top of that he’s left with a three-fingered claw as hand. This Agumon also went to the gym however, but really seemed to like leg day, almost having rabbit-like features if it weren’t for the actual tail. All in all, I’d say this was a way more conventional design for dragon-like creatures instead of the western comic based one we got.

It was time for a new medium, however. So when the Digital Monster Ver. S got released on the Sega Saturn in 1998, they reused the pixel art from the tamagotchi release, but made a new drawing of Agumon to put on the cover.

This Agumon completely forgot to go to the Gym and looks way more like the prototype. No muscle, no veins, a cute smile and a round body. Perhaps even the only cute thing on the cover at all, as the rest of his fellow Digimon look a lot more like their final designs.

PS1 Digimon World

Welcome to the Playstation 1 era, welcome to Digimon World. This game brought the pet raising and the battles to the third dimension so here we have our first 3D model. The standard pose is relatively the same as the Bandai artwork, but there are some differences. First of, the most glaring one in my opinion, is his colour: a weird shade of yellow has taken over. The reason for this is unknown, it could either be hardware limitations or a design choice (as there have been other yellow Agumon. However, I’m inclined to think it’s hardware limitations since the Playstation uses 24-bit true color to render its colours, and that palette lacks a good shade of orange. Going with yellow is not a bad compromise in that case.

The other glaring difference is the slope of his nose towards the head. Before it was just a minor thing, but here it’s overdone in such a way that the whole skull looks different. He lost his thumb as well, and we won’t be seeing that again. Part of me feels they did away with it for simplicities sake, but one cannot be sure in these things. The earholes and teeth are also not visible anymore, also most likely due to hardware limitations. He is still a little jacked though and his arms are still buff.

Just a few months after his debut on the Playstation, Agumon appeared on TV in the movie Digimon Adventure and a day later in the series also called Digimon Adventure. Even though they were aired a day after each other they actually differ a bit because of the story and tone. As the movie was set mostly during the night and had to fill the role of introducing kids to the franchise on TV it was a bit more darker and mysterious. This was a dinosaur, no talking, just destructive fireballs. Very noticeable is his size though, as he’s almost twice the size of his series counterpart. If we compare this to his Bandai design, we can see he lost most of his muscle again and in exchange lost a little neck fat and received a toothy smile (in the series, at least).

TV Digivice

The anime was a big hit, and that means merchandise. A ‘real’ Digivice was released in which you had multiple Digimon to choose from to fight other Digimon. This toy had more screen space than the original Digital Monsters and along with the success of the anime came an updated pixel art design of Agumon. And really, what is there to say? They absolutely nailed the head, but in my opinion the arms are a bit weak. I don’t want to hammer in the gym references, but he wasn’t feeling it.

WC - Digital Monsters Ver Wonderswan

Enter the WonderSwan, Bandai’s own portable gaming device. Sadly never released in the west, because it’s filled with Digimon games. Digital Monsters Ver. WonderSwan was the pet raising experience ported to the WonderSwan with enhanced graphics. Clearly based off the Bandai art it’s nearly a replica with some very minor differences. Firstly, and I really need to address this: the eye. He’s either high as fuck, or he has seen some bad shit. Secondly his face seems to be a little less long. This could certainly be explained by the perspective, but it still feels a little different regardless. The last change are his veins yet again. His health is improving.

PS1 Digimon Card Battle

When I first laid eyes upon this monstrosity from Digimon World: Digital Card Battle, I felt severe disgust. Mostly because of the veins. Changing your medium really changes the look of things, since that’s all that has really happened, it’s almost precisely the Bandai design, except for the fact that he’s standing up a little more straight. Oh god, the veins.

WC - Digimon Anode - 2

Oh my God, what’s wrong with your face? In Digimon Adventure: Anode Tamer Agumon appears again, but I have to say that the art style in this game is a bit inconsistent. For some reason, his face is about twice the size that it should be in his introductory scene. This game is set in the same world as Digimon Adventure, so it’s no wonder the art style is the same. Besides that huge head.

Even after branching off into other media, the Tamagotchi line was not given up on. Why would they, since they were still successful? Meet Pendulum ZERO Virus Busters.

P Pendulum ZERO

An honest to goodness redesign of the Agumon sprite. Bigger and longer head plus longer arms. A very straightforward update and a lot more recognisable.

WC - Digimon Medley

Another WonderSwan game, Digimon Medley. I felt like this one was notable for featuring one very anime-like design (albeit very, very orange) and one squashed design. Most likely one is used for cutscenes and whatnot, while the other is used for gameplay. It’s still an odd choice however, since the head is actually taller than the full sized one on the left, but a little less wide. His arms and legs are both shorter, and his tail is also a little longer since it´s pointing upwards instead of to the side. In the end, most of these are probably due to gameplay mechanics and system limitations, but it´s still interesting to see.

Hello again, Playsation. Here we have a game with both 2D and 3D Agumon along with a cover appearance. The only reason I mention the cover is because for some reason Agumon’s eye is brown instead of green. Absolutely unbelievable. The 3D model is looking pretty good for the PS1 (if very yellow again and without veins), but the real highlight it the 2D sprite. So small and adorable (and in the right colours as well). Just comparing that to Digimon Medley, what a difference. And to think Digimon World 3 only got released one year later. I know it’s on different hardware and probably made by a different team. But still.

Agumon X

And now we arrive at the fabled X-Antibody Agumon. All X-Antibody Digimon are essentially redesigns with some sort of focus in mind. For our orange friend, it was the dinosaur route, not completely unlike the odd 1997 manga design. He has gotten elements of the Greymon line already: Bigger claws on hand and feet, still no thumbs, a tail and the blue stripes across his body. It also has more than 4 teeth, which should make eating easier.

The similarity with the manga are pretty interesting, as it too has three ‘fingers’, a longer tail and a different coloured chest. I can’t help but wonder if they took a look at that design when working on Agumon X.

Digimon World 4 (or Digimon World X in Japan), released on the PlayStation 2 is certainly an odd one. I have no idea if the weapons make sense in the game in some manner, but I used to see this game on the shelves and it left me very confused.

The left image is from the Japanese game cover having a shorter head than usual and quite big eyes. In contrast with that is the western Agumon (also on the cover) with a longer head. What is it with this weird contrast? Also, big surprise, the ingame model is yellow again. At this point you cannot blame hardware limitations anymore so I’m having trouble determining why they’d stick with yellow at this point. Well, that and why in hell they made this a weird action game with weapons?

Agumon 2006

Happy new year, this is 2006. The year this haunting image was created. I’ll be honest, I hate everything about the redesign. He face got wider and more flat, moving the nose downwards and redesigning them like a power socket. His body is way more round and gone are the muscles, as he got some noodle arms and legs instead. The feet look like balls of clay with some sharp Tic-tacs (the breath mints) shoved in. The whole hand design is gone, and got replaced by a three-pronged claw with some red leather bands strapped around them. Finally, yet again, he’s yellow. According to the lore, this Agumon is still growing and thus weaker than the normal Agumon.

The final detail that I noticed are his teeth. In his previous designs, even with his mouth open you could only see a couple. When his mouth is closed, the traditional design usually shows four teeth sticking out of his mouth. This time, we got a mouthful, just like the Agumon X design.

DS - Digimon World DS agumon

Now that’s a vast improvement since last time. From Digimon World DS, here is Agumon yet again. In these games, Agumon can digivolve into either Greymon or Geogreymon and there is no distinction between the ‘normal’ Agumon and the redesign. Maybe that’s why this sprite is kind of a blend as well. He got some muscle shapes back, longer feed and the nose isn’t a power socket anymore. One thing that does become apparent with this sprite is his longer tail which has been all over the place by now.

Now it´s time for some 3D models from over the years. The Agumon most to the left is from the Japan only PSP title Digimon Adventure (yes, a very original name) which follows the story of, you guessed it, Digimon Adventure. It raises the question why he has the power socket nose and the multiple teeth however. Another mix of the designs? Does Bandai even know anymore?

The following two models are from the PC MMO Digimon Masters Online, which does feature two Agumon designs. The 2006 design looks a lot more like its original design with its noodle arms and smaller feet, but surprisingly it does not have the larger amount of teeth like it should have. To finish it off it’s even a little bit more orange than the original one.

The last render (excuse the seam) is from a multitude of games by now, from the PlayStation 4 titles such as Cyber Sleuth till the mobile game Digimon Links. By far most resembling the original anime design and throwing everything about 2006 out of the window, except for the somewhat weak upper arm.

We´re done with the game models! ..so let´s look at the game covers. Ha ha, I tricked you.

PSV - Next Order

Digimon World Next Order features a fairly normal Agumon, except for his teeth. I swear I didn’t expect to spend so much time about Agumon’s teeth, but he got one extra tooth on each side, and they got bigger. Why, we will never know.

Digimon World Re:Digitize Decode features an Agumon that almost looks like a plushy toy in contrast to Veemon. All of his features are vastly deformed± a smaller, shorter head with a smile, bigger and mostly wider hand and feet but with way shorter claws. I´m not sure which one is cuter, this one or the overworld sprite of Digimon World 3. I´ll let you be the judge of that. All I know his in game mugshot is not a contender. Did he get jacked up too much? Did he inject his forearms? Is this the sloth version? Is this an Agumon with a disability?

Agumon Tri 2

Let’s wrap this thing up with some nostalgia pandering in a very nice way. As a continuation on Digimon Adventure (and Digimon Adventure 02) comes Digimon Tri with a much older original cast and new art style, and that includes the Digimon. Agumon is a bit slimmer, and has a more pointy tail to compliment this. His neck did get a tad longer to keep the size of the head consistent and not turn him into a midget, but that begs the question why he doesn’t just start leg day. Hit the gym, bro! Overall, this design reminds me a lot more of the Adventure movie, albeit much, much smaller.

If only he’d hit the gym.

Digimon Design Evolution

What’s this? No Aaltomies? No! A guest post by some random internet dweeb. The name is A9 and I sometimes work behind the shadows to read some posts over from Aaltomies before they are published. A while ago he asked me to write my own thing, and after postponing it for a long time (sorry Aalt!) I finally wrote this down. I have probably forgotten a few elements, so please bear with me.

So, how did the design of Digimon evolve over the years? For that, let’s look at the very first one created, the famous Agumon (and also a little at the often overshadowed Tryannomon).

As is often the case with any project: it changes over time. Kenji Watanabe, the longtime designer of the Digimon franchise revealed a lot about the series roots in a recent interview. Just like how Pokémon was more a dinosaur catching game called Capsule Monsters, the Digimon franchise started as a dinosaur themed tamagotchi aimed at younger boys (first named Otokotchi and then Capsule Zaurus). However, since these names would infringe on other companies’ products the name was changed to Digital Monster, which was then shortened to Digimon. This also marked the shift from just dinosaurs to the literal digital monsters, a real genre shift. There was a bit of a hurdle to overcome though: Pokémon had really kicked off and they would really have to differentiate themselves. A lot of designs, mainly of cute creatures with elemental colourings had to go due to this and this caused to have Watanabe free reign over the new designs. His inspiration: American comics such as Spawn.

Since these were the first designs, they were fully drawn, converted to pixel art, and then the drawings were tweaked again. In the future releases, the pixel art would come first.

As an example, let’s start with Agumon, since he’s undoubtedly one of the most famous of our Digital Pets. In essence, it’s a tiny dinosaur with oversized claws.

Quite the different look than we’re used to and very close to the pixel art look. This makes sense as the sprites were used on a very small screen, so making it too detailed would give you a pix elated mess. Something that was important though, was that even if some Digimon were cute, they had to have an element of fearsomeness to it. Otherwise it would just be cute critters beating each other up, which felt a bit sad to the development team.

The Virtual Pet proved to be quite successful, as they made five series of these between 1997 and 1998. Because of this, it sprouted two mangas and eventually an anime.

The series first had a one-shot in the 1997 summer issue of Akamaru Jump as C’mon Digimon: The capering monster BUN, featuring the still-popular Greymon, but also two Digimon who made their debuts. Now, even though these two haven’t been seen again since, they were both important building blocks for other Digimon.

Comparison Digimon
Design elements from Deathmon can be found in Evilmon and Gran Kuwagamon.

Let’s start with Deathmon, looking kind of different than the Agumon we’ve seen before. Deathmon, well, his design just screams ‘super evil’. In all honesty, it reminds me of a Super Sentai villain.  Deathmon can be seen back in Evilmon when you compare their mouths and general head structure, plus some nice spiky hair. The body, but mostly the arms and claws can be found back in Gran Kuwagamon. Obviously, it’s possible that this is a coincidence (since there are many, many different Digimon) but even if that is the case, it shows that some designs stick with the series.

Bun
Bun the special baby.

The other new Digimon is Bun, a small character with baby features (huge eyes and head), weird antennae and a weird dinosaur shaped torso with tail. According to its designer it was supposed to look a little bit like a very weird dog. But where does his design return? The serialisation of a manga.

That manga being Digimon Adventure V-Tamer 01, a creation by the aforementioned Watanabe and the artist Tenya Yabuno. Although a lot of Digimon were already made for the Virtual Pet series, this manga introduced new Digimon as well through the joint effort of Watanabe and Yabuno. For example, the V-dramon line which stemmed from Bun.

Zeromaru
Zeromaru the V-dramon. The cutest fat fuck in the whole universe.

Now, I can’t lie, this manga made me appreciate V-dramon to such an extent it’s my personal favourite at this point. As its designer, Yabuno explains:

I did design [V-dramon] using C’mon Digimon as a base, so the keyword ‘pet dog’ still stuck with me. […] The Digimon Kenji-san (Watanabe) designs usually sport solid-looking legs, but I designed V-dramon with the image of a small, carnivorous dinosaur in mind. I had initially wanted to design it like a fluffy dog as well.

At the time, most Digimon could digivolve to quite different forms regardless of initial form (Agumon to Devimon for example). During the run of the manga, many more Digimon were created such as Angemon and HolyAngemon. This kind of changed how some forms would really resemble the Digimon from it’s previous level.

While the manga was being serialized, the anime got the OK sign (Digimon Adventure) and was starting preproduction, just like its first video game for the PlayStation 1 (Digimon World). These media really needed references, final designs to base itself on.

Three pretty different forms. Two new versions with their own sets of restrictions. Digimon World was a PlayStation 1 game, so the amount of polygons was severely limited. It’s still quite close to the official art, except for the colour which I’ve always found very strange. Now, for the anime there is obviously a lot less detail as is usually the case. This did cause this version to have less muscle and veins, so it appears a lot cuter than the original design: much smoother and more flat.

So when the game released on January 28 1999 and the anime started airing on March 7 of the same year, merch started to be pumped out. Figures, plushes, a trading card game, you name it.

The TCG and most of the toys are based on the official Bandai art. As a kid this always surprised me, as I got interested into the franchise thanks to the anime. Nevertheless, I have always thought that the cards especially were very striking.

At this point, there are already a ton of Digimon – but Bandai won’t stop, oh no. Even with its quite low budget, the anime was a good hit, and a sequel was made. I’m thankful I don’t have to discuss Digimon Adventure 02.

Let’s start with Veemon, the first critter above. He is in many ways a redesign of Bun from the one-shot manga and designed by working back from V-dramon and creating a more cute version. Heresy I say, V-dramon is cute enough.

One of the main themes of Digimon Adventure 02 was that Rookie Digimon could not digivolve thanks to the evil Digimon Emperor. Enter armor-digivolving, which give the Digimon.. armor. Usually very literally. Let’s not call it mecha, lets call it ‘tacking on random pieces on lengthened Digimon’. Wait, that’s the usual digivolve process now, isn’t it? Take a few pieces of the Rookie, put them on the adult, put it into the blender and presto.

All joking aside (mostly) the armor-digivolve process gave a different feel to the show, even if the show itself wasn’t all that great. Later in the show, everyone can normal digivovle again and Veemon can turn into.. oh, it’s XV-mon. No, no, that’s fine. Sure. Take away the stumpy legs and the big belly. Another redesign of sorts, more cool, more muscle. More importantly, more slim, no fatso’s allowed.

Moving over to the movies with unique visuals, the originally named Digimon Adventure (1999) and Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! (2000).

Both deviate from the main anime in their own way. As can be seen in these screenshots, the first Agumon is a bit bigger than in the anime (and for reference, that’s a baby so he’s not huge) and generally has a more scary, feral look by using more linework for detail in his arms, chest and neck. This is the case for all Rookie level or above Digimon in this movie. Our War Game takes a different approach, as they go for a lighter colour palette with an orange outline.

Now, a rather famous (or infamous) aspect of Digimon is born, the waifumon. Some would argue it would start with Renamon, but they’re a bunch of furries and I don’t want to talk about no damn furries.

Shutumon

Remember how Angemon and Angewoman were humanoids in Digimon Adventure? Yeah, now almost everyone is a pseudo-human. Thanks Digimon Frontier (2002)! Humans changing into Digimon! Bi-pedal, two arms, two legs, some very mild animal features and some element worked through in their design. Oh, and if its a woman, they have big tits. This trend will sadly continue for a while. I’m sure someone made a neat list of them, sorted by breast size.

Omegamon 3D

Another unique look, here is Digital Monster X-evolution released in 2005. Fully 3D, keeping true to designs but very, very far away from the American influence from where they were born. Not that I can blame them, it is more difficult to keep that style in a 3D environment. Also, I doubt that most people at Toei even like that style.

Talking about X-evolution also means talking about redesigns. In the extensive lore of the Digimon world, at one point there were too many Digimon so God decided to kill 99% of them with a virus. Certain Digimon managed to resist though, through the X-antibody, causing them to change appearance and power up significantly.

Take a look at these Metal Garurumon. The original design stems from 1999 and the redesign was made in 2003. And what a difference! It was important to really set the X-antibody line apart from the originals and give them a more unique look. In my opinion, they really succeeded with this one causing it to feel a bit more gritty. Overall, dinosaurs look more like dinosaurs, robots look more like robots, beasts look more like beasts. I don’t want to call it more realistic, but they are definitely set apart from the rest.

Shoutmon X3

Honest acknowledgement: I never watched this series, I just really didn’t feel like it looked like Digimon. Did someone mentioned Gundam yet? No? Good, cause Xros Wars (2010) looks like Gundam. Whole lotta robots, man-shaped machines, bug-shaped machines, but Digimon. Look, I like me some Gundam as much as the next guy, but I’ve lost the Digimon aspect here.

Agumon had many forms, in many games. Usually they look like.. well, a normal Agumon. Either more styled towards the anime, or the Bandai design. But sometimes.. sometimes it just goes wrong. Enter the PSP title Digimon Re:Digitised (2012).

Agumon (Re:Digitize)
“Please kill me.”

I like the shading and it looks like the original design. But why, do tell me, WHY is he slouching like this? Bad posture! Bad! Dragging his claws across the floor. He poses no danger at all, he’s a slouch. A sloth. Sloth Agumon to the rescue. Good thing the game is pretty decent.

Agumon Tri

Did someone say another redesign? Because Digimon Tri (2015) brought us another redesign and a very welcome one I have to say. More faded colours than the original Adventure, more scrawny arms but bigger claws. Not quite as bulky as the original Bandai design, but closer than before. A faithful remake, but I wouldn’t mind him looking a bit less friendly. Still, I cannot deny that I just love that cute little dinosaur.

Updated on 20-01-2018 to add the Gran Kuwagamon similarity to Deathmon (thanks Casp) and a small bit about the X-antibody Digimon that I forgot.