One of the most appealing elements of the Neptunia series for fans is its consistent and instantly recognisable aesthetic.
This is largely the work of artist Tsunako. In fact, the Neptunia series at least partly came about as a result of developers Idea Factory and Compile Heart wanting to give her artwork a more prominent role after her previous contributions to games such as Cross Edge and Trinity Universe.
We shouldn’t understate the other aspects of Neptunia’s aesthetic, though; it’s not just about visuals. It’s also about how the games sound, and between the soundtrack, voice acting and even sound effects, it’s clear that the team behind the series has thought about this just as much as the art style.
Tsunako’s art is best described as vibrant and lively; she makes use of bold, striking, bright colours, contrasting strongly with backdrops.
Let’s look a little more closely at that art style to begin with, though, because it’s one of Neptunia’s most distinctive features.
Tsunako’s art is best described as vibrant and lively. Both within and outside the Neptunia series, she makes use of bold, striking, bright colours, contrasting strongly with backdrops where appropriate — either through bright colours on dark backdrops or complementary colours where the background is also bright, such as in the perpetual blue skies of the Neptunia series.
Tsunako’s character designs for Neptunia make use of a few key characteristics to make each individual immediately recognisable, even if you can only see part of them. First and perhaps most important are the main “theme” colours of the character. Given that the “goddess” names of Neptunia’s characters are all based on a single main colour, this is understandable, but it’s not as simple as just making the character’s design based around that single colour, particularly as each of the characters has three forms to consider in Megadimension Neptunia V-II thanks to the new “NEXT Form” incarnations of the central goddesses.
Noire has her main theme colour of black in evidence most prominently in her hair; in her various human incarnations, splashes of contrasting colours such as red and blue are used to stand out against the deep black that dominates her design.
The use of colour for Neptunia characters falls into three main areas: hair, eyes and clothing, and different characters use their theme colours in different ways. Noire — “Black Heart”, goddess of Lastation and personification of Sony’s PlayStation range — for example, has her main theme colour of black in evidence most prominently in her hair, but also throughout her costume. In her various human incarnations, splashes of contrasting colours such as red (seen in her eyes and her Hyper Dimension default costume) and blue (seen in her Ultra Dimension outfit) are used to stand out against the deep black that dominates her design through her hair and clothing.
Her Hyper Dimension HDD incarnation takes a much simpler approach. Her base costume is black, and the colours on her head are inverted; her red eyes become turquoise, while her black hair becomes white. This gives an immediate contrast to her human form and a striking design for her HDD form in its own right as well as looking very much like the glossy black of the original PlayStation 3 models on which she was based. Meanwhile, the Ultra Dimension version of her HDD form is more evocative of the original first-generation PlayStation’s design thanks to its use of lighter shades of grey; this is in keeping with Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory’s focus on gaming history and retro consoles, and indeed the other characters also maintain this: Blanc’s HDD design in particular is strongly reminiscent of the red and white tones seen on the original NES/Famicom.
To analyse each character’s designs in depth is probably a little beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth also taking a specific look at Vert, Leanbox’s goddess Green Heart and personification of Microsoft’s Xbox brand.
Vert’s human form is a play on the common anime trope of representing “foreign” characters as blonde-haired, blue-eyed and amply-chested.
Vert’s human form, regardless of dimension, is a play on the common anime trope of representing “foreign” (i.e. non-Japanese) characters as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, amply-chested and usually American. Neptunia at least resists the temptation to have Vert spouting Engrish, but she certainly fits the other aspects of this common design trope.
Her costume, too, is evocative of more Western designs, particularly in her Hyper Dimension incarnation. Clearly inspired by popular depictions of fantasy princesses — likely a reference to her stated preference for massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as the fictional 4 Goddesses Online that is frequently alluded to in the series — her costume is flamboyantly feminine and graceful as well as being considerably more revealing than those of her counterparts.
It should be pretty apparent that Vert’s key theme colour is green, since she is Green Heart in her HDD form. Unlike Noire, though, this theme colour is not used for her hair while she is human (though it is in her HDD incarnation) and is instead the most prominent colour seen in her clothing, particularly in the Ultra Dimension. Splashes of red in her Hyper Dimension costume are a reference to the Xbox 360’s infamous “Red Ring of Death” problem it had in early models, and indeed in the earlier Neptunia games Vert as a character was often prone to overheating and being incapable of functioning for a short while if she got too excited or stressed out. In later installments, this directionless excitement transitioned into a somewhat overbearing desire to act as a “big sister” to Neptune’s sister Nepgear, as well as a borderline obsessive interest in Boys’ Love manga, anime and games.
In her HDD incarnation, meanwhile, Vert’s design is clearly based more around the hardware of the Xbox platforms rather than her theme colour, which is only seen in her hair. Her Hyper Dimension incarnation is strongly reminiscent of the early white Xbox 360 models, while her Ultra Dimension form, like Noire, looks back to the past by being strongly evocative of the original Xbox hardware with its heavy use of deep black and bright green. In both cases, her almost-exposed breasts (along with her apparent older age than the other characters) can be seen as a reference to the Xbox platform’s ongoing and not always entirely successful struggle to be seen as a platform for “grown-up” games.
Where characters have a relationship with one another, aspects of their silhouette are often used to demonstrate this relationship.
Outside of colour, the other thing that makes Neptunia characters immediately recognisable is their distinctive silhouettes. Each character can be spotted and recognised without seeing their face, just their outline. This is part of the reason why all the characters have unique hairstyles, as this is an important identifying characteristic. Even where characters have similar haircuts — such as Noire and Uzume’s use of twintails — Tsunako and the team have taken care to ensure that they can be clearly distinguished, both through differences in the hairstyle itself (Uzume’s twintails are somewhat stiff and gravity-defying, while Noire’s are long and flowing) and in other aspects of the character such as the shape of their body, their posture and their clothing.
Where characters have a relationship with one another, aspects of their silhouette are often used to demonstrate this relationship, too. Compare the spiky sides of Neptune and Uzume’s hair, for example — a reflection of their shared heritage — and the fact that Older Neptune’s hair, first seen in Megadimension Neptunia V-II, is effectively a blend between that of regular ol’ Neptune’s hair and that of her sister Nepgear.
Tanaka’s performance as Neptune is particularly impressive, demonstrating her versatility as a voiceover artist.
But as we mentioned at the outset, visual design is just one aspect of a game’s overall aesthetic: it’s just as important to consider the auditory aspects, and Megadimension Neptunia V-II in particular has a very strong identity in this regard.
The first matter to mention with regard to sound is that of the voice cast. The original Japanese voice cast is made up of well-known and prolific Japanese voice actors, including Rie Tanaka as Neptune, Asami Imai as Noire, Rina Satou as Vert and Kana Asumi as Blanc. While these voices may be a little less-known in the West — particularly to those who aren’t heavily involved with broader Japanese popular culture — suffice to say that to refer to them as the Nolan Norths and Jennifer Hales of the Japanese voice acting business isn’t an unreasonable comparison.
Tanaka’s performance as Neptune is particularly impressive, demonstrating her versatility as a voiceover artist. The strong disparity between her loud, energetic and ear-splitting performance as the chaotic figure that is human Neptune and the rather more refined, serious and understated tone of her Purple Heart HDD form really highlights the dichotomy between the two sides of Neptune’s character. The other characters also do this to a certain degree — Noire becomes more boisterous as Black Heart, Vert becomes more serious and domineering, Blanc becomes more angry — but it’s most apparent in the case of Neptune, and Tanaka’s depiction of the character is, for many, a big part of her appeal.
Neptunia music is an interesting phenomenon to explore. The first game’s music, while suitable enough for the game, was fairly unmemorable, and led to a reboot of the game’s overall audio style with mk2, along with pretty much everything else about the series. Since mk2, though, a number of themes, particularly those used in event scenes, have recurred throughout the entire series. Kenji Kaneko’s composition $100, heard in the video above, is perhaps the closest thing that the series has to a “main theme”, since it’s been in pretty much every game including the non-canonical spin-off titles such as Producing Perfection and Hyperdevotion Noire.
Megadimension Neptunia V-II’s soundtrack adds a number of brand new tracks to the mix. It still reuses some old ones, but its new are particularly noteworthy for how evocative they are of classic gaming hardware. Take Drive Away, heard in the video above, for example. This is the music heard when you unleash one of the character’s powerful EXE Drive attacks. While unquestionably modern, making use of wailing electric guitars and pounding drums, there’s more than a hint of “chiptune” about the main melody, entirely in keeping with the series’ setting.
Likewise, Will Be Venus, the theme which plays when the characters transform into their HDD incarnations, is a delightfully cheerful and triumphant theme that has a strong feeling of Sega Mega Drive-era FM synthesis compositions about it. There’s even one of the instrument sounds in the background that sounds very much like the waveform that Sonic the Hedgehog’s iconic ring-collecting sound was based on. Given the main characters’ connection to Sega, it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t entirely intentional.
Let’s Bake the Cookie!, meanwhile, a piece which accompanies the very obviously Super Mario-inspired dungeons in Lowee, is strongly reminiscent of classic Nintendo soundtracks, particularly those from the N64 era onwards. The use of steel drums in the accompaniment in particular is classic Mario, though the occasionally discordant nature of the clashes between the melody and harmony reminds us that we’re looking at a somewhat twisted, parodical depiction of something we know well rather than the genuine article.
A more overt reference to retro gaming comes in the form of O-Ba-Ke featuring Spelunker, which, as the name suggests, incorporates the instantly recognisable melodic motif from questionably “classic” retro title Spelunker. This music is heard in the two Neplunker dungeons, both of which incorporate the most irritating, frustrating elements of that game — the fact that falls from higher than about knee-height kill you, the fact that bats want nothing better than to crap on your head and that the game just outright seems to hate you — and is perhaps a reminder of just how far we’ve come over the course of gaming’s history.
The final track worth highlighting for now is Dimension Zero, the first battle theme you hear in the game. This is another song that, like Will Be Venus, makes use of Mega Drive-style FM synthesis to evoke a feeling of “classic Sega”, and once again it makes use of the Sonic rings sound very subtly in the background to further reinforce this feeling. The driving rhythms and ostinato synth bassline also make the track somewhat reminiscent of the music heard in classic shoot ’em ups and other arcade games.
Like many other modern Japanese games, then, it’s clear that the Neptunia series as a whole — and particularly Megadimension Neptunia V-II — has been designed with a clear, consistent audio-visual aesthetic in mind. While the games may not have the high production values of today’s triple-A titles with multi-million dollar budgets, the team clearly knows the constraints within which they must work, and as a result have created not just a single game, but an entire series with an immediately recognisable look and feel to it.
And this, I feel, is a key part of Neptunia’s enduring appeal.
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Megadimension Neptunia V-II is available now for PlayStation 4, and is on the way for PC at the time of writing. Find out more at the official site.