What is Cel-shading? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

A Different Type of Graphics

While 3D has been the progressing norm for the past 20 years, 2D is also still here to stay thanks to rereleases of old Street Fighter II games for present consoles. However, cel-shading is a distinguishing kind of rendering that combines the best of both worlds. Cel-shading works by taking 3D models and having them appear to look 2D, which allows a different kind of animation that represents a distinct gimmick in relation to the game. The process of this rendering requires precise calculation of lighting and shadows in order to get its desired effect.

First, the models are drawn entirely in black as an outline. Then the model is given its texture and shading by using texture mapping in order to make the effects. Thanks to this process, cel-shading is usually presented in high-resolution to give it its own identity compared to other forms of graphics either in games or anime.

The Start of It All

Jet Grind Radio (Jet Set Radio)

  • Platform: Dreamcast
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Smilebit
  • Release Date: Jun 29, 2000 (Japan), Oct 30, 2000 (US)

Most gamers can agree that Jet Grind Radio is the game that introduced cel-shading to the mainstream. It is undeniable that upon its release, it was considered groundbreaking for its graphics and resolution alone. Cel-shading didn’t apply exclusively to the character models but with the Tokyo that you play in. Due to the nature of rollerblading and tagging walls to claim as your group’s territory, its themes of being anti-establishment, the dancing, music, and expressing yourself just somehow worked hand-in-hand with the visuals to give it a universal appeal. The contrast was on your face, the animation was smooth and while playing it, it was just very easy to pick up. It was definitely the game for the MTV generation during a time when that label actually meant something cool.

The game is pretty fun in itself with the rollerblading through Shibuya by jumping on bus platforms, avoiding oncoming traffic, grinding on rails, and doing all kinds of tricks you see in a parkour video using skates. But be careful, just like in Grand Theft Auto, your tagging will catch the attention of the police who will come after you in riot gear! While it isn’t a detailed open world game like Grand Theft Auto and/or Shenmue, it is still a nice representation of modern Japan’s trendy districts.

Jet Grind Radio Trailer

The Next Stages of Evolution

The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild

  • Platform: Wii-U, Switch
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Release Date: Mar 3, 2017

In case some of you youngsters didn’t know, Breath of the Wild isn’t the first Zelda game to utilize cel-shading (with that distinction being given to Wind Waker for the GameCube). While Wind Waker was cartoony with its presentation, they were a great representation of cel-shading in its infancy. With the technology now evolved to the point that you can use more realistic renderings to represent more realistic body proportions and imaginative and immersive environments, and Breath of the Wild is a great example of finally demonstrating that.

Breath of the Wild feels a lot like a Ghibli anime with its cyan color palette, costume, stage, and character designs, and story. While the world of Zelda has always been vast and wide, Breath of the Wild takes it to new creative extremities that makes you wonder how the next Zelda game is going to top it.

Beyond its visuals, there is so much to appreciate about Breath of the Wild regardless of your familiarity with the Zelda franchise. How you travel Hyrule through gliding, riding horses, and climbing mountains are all wonderful gateways to the beautifully diverse world you are about to see from deserts, mountains, forests, volcanoes, kingdom villages, and so on.

Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild Trailer


  • Platform: Wii-U
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Release Date: May 28, 2015 (Japan), May 29, 2015 (US)

Though Zelda and Jet Grind Radio have looks that are more in-tune with 2D and anime, Splatoon’s presentation of the cel-shading novelty comparatively has a 3D vibe that feels like a Pixar film. If you’re the type of person who loves playing with paintball guns, then Splatoon is probably within your tastes. While realistic paintball is rather tame with the messes you can make, making the biggest mess is the name of the game in Splatoon. Through the respective color of your paint, you can “swim” through the stage as opposed to running and walking. The stages have a 3D look, but the paint emphatically adopts a cel-shading look to represent it looking wet and appropriately providing a more fluid texture.

In addition, the characters cute designs are wonderfully rendered and represent its wacky gimmick. The arsenal at your disposal isn’t your typical paintball gun to be replicate an M-16, but you got guns that take influence from other high-powered rifles and shotguns to claim your territory. Though Jet Grind Radio and Breath of the Wild are more single-player oriented, Splatoon is the ultimate party game to see who can paint the town in their color.

Splatoon Trailer PV

Play As If You’re Watching the Anime

Dragon Ball FighterZ

  • Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
  • Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
  • Developer: Arc System Works
  • Release Date: Q1 2018

In recent years, many Dragon Ball Z games have done an excellent job in representing the hyperactive and destructive nature of its battles. Many of these games such as Raging Blast have been in 3D while the Budokai games have a cel-shaded look but with a more 3D texture. With the upcoming FighterZ, its presentation feels as if you’re playing the anime itself and in HD! Compared to other recent Dragon Ball games, FighterZ is more in tune with King of Fighters with 3 on 3 fighting.

The frame rate is not only amazingly smooth but masterfully flows in a manner that compliments the anime. In intros and victories or for charging up supers, it knows how to change the camera angles for dramatic emphasis in the same manner of Street Fighter IV and V and then revert back to the standard fighting game camera angles to transition back to gameplay. The fighting styles of the characters are accurately represented with Freeza’s confident and cocky style and Vegeta’s all-out offense.

In other great news, the Japanese version has the voice cast from the original series reprising their roles. So if you love Marvel Vs. Capcom and Dragon Ball Z, then 2018 can’t come soon enough!

Dragon Ball FighterZ Trailer

Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite

  • Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release Date: Sept 19, 2017 (US), Sept 21, 2017 (Japan)

Though Dragon Ball FighterZ tends to use the cel-shading to represent it as 2D, Infinite, the latest installment of Marvel Vs. Capcom uses the style to present itself as 3D rendered and yet still remain faithful to its origins as a 2D fighter. While the second and third installments of the franchise were 3 vs. 3, Infinite goes back to the 2 vs. 2 from the first game and reintroduces the Infinity Gems, which was previously used in an old Capcom fighter, Marvel Super Heroes, with each gem giving characters its respective power-ups.

Since Capcom cast comes from video games and with the Marvel side coming from comics, the present use of graphics finds a way to combine the best of both of art forms. Last, we cannot overlook the controversy that this latest release omits characters from the X-Men. There are stories that X-Men characters are no longer popular but Marvel fans know that it is out of spite from Marvel to Fox for not giving them the X-Men movie rights back. While their absence is largely felt, the game is still a lot of fun for veterans and newbies alike.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite Trailer

Cel-shading in Anime

Considering how quickly the style expanded in games, it was only a matter of time before anime would catch on. Initial D 4th Stage was one of the first animes to adopt this with their car racing scenes as opposed to 3D graphics in previous installments. In the mid-2000s, Freedom became one of the first known anime series to fully adopt cel-shading as its primary style and the recent Berserk anime openly uses it. Last, we cannot deny that the upcoming Godzilla anime movie is going to be cel-shaded.

In context of anime, most notoriously the newer Berserk installments, the utilization of cel-shading has been subjected to some criticism. Due to the contrast, rendering, and frame rate, it does make the movements look stiff and unnatural. While it does add some nice and shiny gloss to the lighting, many Berserk fans feel it doesn’t exactly capture the gritty look of the original manga. Some who have viewed the Godzilla anime trailer feel the same way, but on the other hand, it does represent its futuristic setting in the same style of Knights of Sidonia.

Final Thoughts

While the gaming industry has had more time and money to perfect the use of cel-shading, it is still relatively new to anime, and anime tends to have lesser money and stricter deadlines in comparison to the gaming industry, which is why some of their attempts still tend to look a lot cheaper, and not as smooth and natural as what you see in recent games. As time goes on, the look will continue to evolve on all levels for something realistic, and yet still represent the imagination that only games and anime can capture.

Splatoon-Wallpaper-700x495 What is Cel-shading? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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