The Art of...Lunar: Eternal Blue Review
The Lunar series holds an especially poignant place in the history of game art, especially in the way it landed in the West. It was many years ago that I first saw screenshots of the original, Lunar: Silver Star Story and its sequel Eternal Blue in magazines. I was immediately struck by its aesthetic, using classic Japanese RPG sprites in a world that seemed to be brimming with detail and life. The Sega CD was so obscure at that time in PAL territories (and expensive!) the games for me became the stuff of legends, something I always had in the back of my mind as a blueprint for what 2D RPGs could be but never got around to experiencing. It was only recently that I managed to finally boot up Lunar: Eternal Blue and from an artistic standpoint it has been a very powerful (dare I say spiritual) journey into the very qualities that uplift such games into true works of art and transport us to a time where there was such powerful synchronicity between creative ideas and the visuals we are treated to.
Before delving into the art that defines so much of the game, we have to talk about how the game penetrated the Western conciousness at the time and changed the way RPGs were perceived. While Japan has had a long tradition of using game art to promote products in all fronts, much of the cover art we received in the West (especially America) opted for more action orientated scenes that were sometimes completely redrawn. For many games, even the popular Final Fantasy series, gamers simply did not get see the majority of art that was directly tied to the game. Consider the original Final Fantasy 3 logo as an example. Lunar: Eternal Blue changed this in a BIG way when Working Designs released its Limited Edition Box, which is covered in art from the inside and outside. The art was eveywhere on display, on the cd box, inside the cd box, on the cds, the hardcover booklet etc. The care Working Designs showed in its translation was also in evidence in how the game was presented, not just as another game box to be thrown out once the game is playing, but as a unique item that reflects the richness of the game within. Box sets were also very rare at the time but what was even rarer was gamers being able to feast their eyes on so much original art and information from just buying a game. If RPGs became more of a special genre, it is because Eternal Blue set an altogether different bar for packaging, visual integrity and the consumption of games as art.
With that out of the way, how is the actual art featured in the game? The overall style of Lunar reminds me of a more adventurous and innocently toned style of Manga and Anime that we see in works such that of Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind. It is indeed very classical in that sense although it is full of details and colour that pop out. Hiro, the protagonist, is a great example of this and what I would call the perfect character design for an RPG, balancing well-known traits and unique ones. The cape and youthful appearance easily identify him as an RPG protagonist while his boomerang and green face paint add to his intrigue without going overboard with outlandish apparel. Jean, the caravan dancer, is another great example with her stylish white, red and blue dress while her green hair provides just enough mystery surrounding her origins. It's fascinating how all these characters work together so well, both narratively and visually and the secret ingredient from a character design perspective seems to be that less is more, something that is easy to overstep in a pure fantasy setting.
Much of the location and item art seem to be characteristic of the early to mid 90s, with softer and more pastel hues which might not impress when compared to later games. A reason for this might be that the classic top-down view of RPGs required less details to be drawn and was actually helped by sketching layouts as in the panorama example before. It is definitely a more economical approach to what we often see in concept art today, with whole cities or scenarios being painstainkingly created to not even be included in any way. This part of Lunar: Eternal Blue definitely gets the job done and I mean that in the best sense possible. It seems completely unnecassary having detailed drawings that need to be converted into pixel images. Having said that, there are so many wonderful details throughout, especially with everything from the Blue Star civilization. Check out those save points, with the goddess caressing the moon, which perfectly translate to pixel art.
While many of the games at the time of Lunar: Eternal Blue were emphasizing the use of CGI, the animated cut scenes in the game give it a completely different feel. Playing it alongside something like Final Fantasy 7 now gives you that warm feeling akin to watching your favourite cartoon or anime series back in the day, while watching CGI cutscenes leaves you feeling distant and a bit disorientated without the technological 'wow' factor present. The Art Director, Toshiyuki Kubooka, stated that 'The combination of hand painted drawing and the cell are things that people are familiar with. Therefore, this combination doesn't create any uneccessary negative impact.' It's interesting to think about the art of the game in this way and how it influences all other aspects. As gamers we often negate comfort to get the best graphics or graphical fidelity but the experience of playing Lunar: Eternal Blue is foremost a smooth and comforting one throughout. While a lot of CGI cutscenes might leave us wondering what we actually saw, the slower tempo and animation style of Lunar lets us take in the story another way. As I sat back to watch the many cutscenes I felt like seeing a cloud slowly make its way across the sky: you know where its going but you take comfort in the fact it's all so clear to see.
The art present in Lunar: Eternal Blue, be it character potraits, animated cutscenes or even the box art is really indvisible from the game and what a game, a really polished gem that gives of that indescribable RPG aura from the 90s. Saying that something is a classic these days gives the impression that it's positively nostalgic but I feel that the art of Lunar in general deserves to be seen as some of the finest and most significant to complement a game. This is a game and series that bets on its art and suceeds brilliantly in taking over the imagination.
THE ART OF...RATING: 10/10