Top Ten Video Game Character Designs

The importance of good design is especially important in something like video game character design, as characters do hold the personal link between the game and the player. I mean, if you don’t care about the character, why would you need to see to it that he succeeds?

I took on the nearly impossible task of trying to come up with my list of the Top Ten Video Game Character Designs. Please note that my selections were based purely on the character designs and how they relate to the game, rather than for their popularity and general success in the consciousness of the gaming public.
The definition of good design varies from selection to selection in my list, as great designs need not follow one set of rules. Various factors can make a design good, such as overall aesthetics, practicality within the confines of the game they’re set in, to just plain looking awesome.

With that said, here are my top ten choices:

10. Hotsuma – Shinobi (PS2)
He’s just a beautifully designed character in general. But what sets him a cut above just being a “cool character” is the way his long, flowing red scarf plays an integral part in the flow of the character’s every move. It’s not as if the scarf was tagged on as an afterthought so he looks good, but rather plays a definitive role in the general aesthetics of the character, in a lightning paced hack-and-slash game which finds the character dashing and rolling through the air over chasms and obstacles regularly with exquisite grace.

9. The Long Block – Tetris

I know, I know. There’s nothing that should be aesthetically pleasing with the “l” block in Tetris. Say what you will about this choice, but when you’ve been building up your stack with only layers away to certain doom, there is no more beautiful sight in the world to see than The Long Block.

8. Earthworm Jim
Many years ago, I remember reading about Dave Perry who left Virgin Games to start Shiny Entertainment. Totally enthralled by the fluidity of the graphics in his previous games (Aladdin, Cool Spot), I couldn’t wait to see what he developed with Shiny. Not long after, the company released several concept sketches for Earthworm Jim, and I was ecstatic. The character held all the virtues of what made classical cartoons of the 70s and 80s great, while the facial expressions, and most importantly, the dramatic body language deployed by the character, while donning the space suit, created one of the most “readable” characters in video games.

7. Sackboy – Little Big Planet
The most recent of the selections in this list is of one of the most gorgeous games ever created on any console. There is no character more perfect to take the helm of this multimedia world than our wool-knit hero. Textures aside, the character works even as a 2-D cartoon because the facial aesthetics of the character are so whimsically proportioned and comical that you can’t help but smile when you see him in his various forms.

6. The Cast of Team Fortress 2

My inclusion of Team Fortress 2 echoes the sentiment of Avi’s post on Half Life from a while back. Basically, if you’ve never played a First Person Shooter in your life and picked up Team Fortress 2, you would have to have no prior knowledge of the game, characters, or mechanics to know what every character’s role on the field is. The designs behind the characters draws from our own graphical associations and stereotypes as good, if not better, than any other game out there.

5. Pac Man

To the irony of many jokes on the design, the creator of Pac Man’s design, Toru Iwatami, did, in fact, conceptualize the character while looking down on his pizza with a missing slice. I’m not going to sit here and say that Pac Man is a brilliant design by any means, but with all practicality, game context, and platform limitations considered, there could not have been a more perfect character design for the game. Not to mention, Pac Man still holds the highest brand awareness to any video game character in North America.

4. Sonic the Hedgehog

With the progression of 3D games in the industry near the end of the 90s, we saw the dramatic downfall of one of video games most beloved characters. But I am keeping Sonic on this list because there are not many who parallel his relevance in his prime than Sonic did in the early 90s. Often imitated, no other character quite embodied the quick, snarky, Generation X attitude befit for the 90s the way Sonic did. Perhaps it’s in part due to the way he perfectly captured the attitude of the times why he couldn’t carry through the turn of the century as his base of fans grew up.

3. Solid Snake – Metal Gear Solid

The baddest character design in video games. Ever. From his constant furrowed brow due to his low worn sash, to being covered neck to toe in some of the most recognizable bodysuits designed since the costume worn by Spiderman, Snake embodies everything “cool” in a character design. So recognizable are his suits that anyone who dares put it on is instantly distinguishable as Snake, regardless of who has it on.

2. Mario

No video game list would be complete without him. It’s interesting to note that a lot of Mario’s most synonymous features were elements designed out of necessity over design strategy. His trademark hat was added as a means to forego added work of animating hair when the character jumped, and his moustache was only added in to avoid the need to detail facial expressions under low resolution pixels. Ask a million designers with all the resources at their disposal to design an Italian plumber for a video game and I would bet not one of them would ever come up with a character design stronger, more recognizable over nearly thirty years, and iconic as the Mario we know today who was designed out of necessity and limitations.

1. Amaterasu - Okami

I said I wasn’t going for most famous or iconic, but rather the character I felt embodied all the elements of great design. Sure, a character like Mario works well in nearly any game (not produced for the Cd-i that is!) from platforms, to racing, to RPGs, so doesn’t that make him the more versatile of the two, while the white wolf of Okami would not work in nearly the same myriad of genres? My reason for picking the lead character of Okami is that it is because she fits so perfectly within her game that she becomes synonymous within the context of the world in which she is existing. Not to mention she is a gorgeous work of design to begin with, in maybe the most visually appealing games I’ve ever seen. Heavily inspired by the Japanese art styles of Sumi-e and Ukiyo-e, Okami is a game that literally paints a work of art from one scene to the next, with the white wolf, Amaterasu, at the forefront. My choice for this character as my top pick for best character design lies on the fact that, from a visual standpoint, you can pause the game during any frame and not only read the character’s body language, but experience a new work of art one would desire to frame and hang on their wall.

Of course this is only one person’s opinion.
The next time you’re playing a game and find yourself fascinated with the character on the screen, try asking yourself why that character holds appeal to you.

Are there any video game characters you find well designed? What makes their designs great in your opinion?]]