The Importance of Nintendo’s Character Design

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Happy 20th Birthday to Super Smash Bros.!

Nintendo has had an uncanny ability to make beloved franchises that last not just for years, but for decades and even generations. Their mascots like Mario, Pikachu, and Link adorn most store electronics sections. They’ve become synonymous with gaming in general. And while other companies have done similar things with one or two characters (Namco with Pac Man, Sony with Crash Bandicoot, and Microsoft with, uh… Master Chief?), Nintendo just has this way with churning out mascot after mascot. This becomes all the more apparent when playing Super Smash Brothers. Their characters have this endearing appeal across all age groups, and it all boils down to superb character design.

Basically, good character design means not just being cute; it also means clearly showing the character’s personality and (for video games) anything relevant to gameplay. For example, Mario has white gloves and gold overall buttons to show what direction he’s facing to help you make the right jumps.

So let’s apply this to some of Nintendo’s characters in Smash Bros., and show how their design is great not just as a mascot, but also for the rough and tumble gameplay.

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Luigi

Yes, Luigi, now is your chance to shine! The key element to Luigi’s design is his height. He is essentially a tall rectangle, which conveys to the player a bit of unsteadiness, as if he could topple over easily. Nintendo funnels this into his cowardly and comical nature. His green shirt directly contrasts Mario’s too, emphasizing his personality difference from the shorter but braver plumber.

But like Mario, he uses white gloves, a moustache, and bright colors to easily convey which direction he’s facing. His design was fit for a platformer, thus a platformer/fighter hybrid was already a good fit.

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Samus

Samus is a great example of how a mascot doesn’t need to be “cute” to be iconic or effective. Her orange suit contrasts well with her teal arm cannon, her main weapon. Her red chest and helmet contrast with her bright green visor, helping you stay oriented when she spins and flips through the air. Her combination of oval, circle and pointed shapes give a sense of stability, strength, and maturity. Like Fox and Link, she is a perfect middle ground between the “kiddie” designs of Mario and Kirby and the “edgy” or “adult” designs of Ryu and Cloud (yes I know they’re not “Nintendo” characters but they’re in Smash so they’re up for comparison).

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Captain Falcon

Another great middle-ground character, though he leans more towards the adult side of the spectrum. In his original game, F-Zero, you never actually see him. The captain was only shown in a comic for the game’s manual. And yet even then it’s like they designed him with platforming in mind.

He has a calming navy-blue suit that contrasts with his orange gloves, gold boots, and red helmet, perfectly orienting you to his location at all times. Notice a theme here? Contrast is really important for a video game character. It’s memorable from a personality standpoint, and useful in gameplay. The finishing touch to his design is the mask-like appearance of his eyes, which both takes the edge off his realistic design and accentuates the other pointy edges in his costume. In fact, his exaggerated punches and kicks make his whole body fit into pointed and triangular shapes, conveying action and strength.

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R.O.B.

Originally a toy/video game hybrid made to help sell the NES in the ’80s, R.O.B. was little more than an expensive Trojan Horse to let American kids and parents know that the NES wasn’t the Atari of the past. And he worked! And he works as a good design for a fighter.

Breaking our normal rules of color contrasts, R.O.B. instead uses unique shapes to help you orient his limbs in space. His arms are capped by big boxy hands, and his “foot” is one large hoverboard. His head features a black contrast around that adorable blank face. While his design does have edges, they are rounded off just enough to make him approachable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pixar had a R.O.B. in their studio when they were designing Wall-E.

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Pit

Pit’s an interesting case because his design was essentially re-made from the ground up to be in Smash Bros. The pixelated angel from the original NES game needed some key changes first before he could be translated into Smash.

Can you guess what they added? You’re right, more contrasting colors! While the gold wristbands worked alright, more dark colors were added to help accentuate where his hands are. A black and red… glove (I think?) can be seen on his hands, as well as a dark engraving running down the middle of his bow. He was given a gold laurel to contrast his brown hair, a colorful pin is put on his shoulder, and glowing bracelets were put around his wrist. Were it not for these additions, Pit would be harder to orient in space and his design would not have worked.

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Isabelle

Everyone’s favorite cheery assistant actually already had a good design for this brutal fighting game. Her design consists of simple circles and ovals, which makes her not only adorable but easy to read. Her yellow fur contrasts with her sweater and dark-colored skirt. Add this contrast with a colorful hair-tie on top and you have a character that’s easy to orient in a platformer-fighter. It’s also worth noting that many of her item attacks — the fishing rod, the net, the balloons — are all red, making them easy to see.

I think you all get the picture by now. If you’re interested, I highly recommend watching Brookes Eggleston’s videos on character design. I’ll include links to my favorites of his below. They are all quite interesting.

What are your favorite video game mascots, and what is it about their design that appeals to you? I’d love to hear more about peoples’ thoughts. This is a new sort of analysis, but I find it a part of gaming that goes underappreciated and it deserves more spotlight!

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