Just like people in real life, video game characters come in just about every size, shape and color possible. Unlike in real life, intelligent characters are not limited to being purely humans. In fact, the video game industry is filled with examples of intelligent robots, aliens, animals, mutants, monsters, and other similarly non-human characters. One of the more interesting types of non-human characters found in video games is anthropomorphic characters.
For those unfamiliar with the word, an anthropomorphic creature is an animal with humanoid characteristics. Once relatively common in video games, the use of anthropomorphic characters has steadily declined over the years. In early games, when graphical quality was much less life-like, anthropomorphic characters were a staple of the gaming industry. But, as graphical quality has improved to nearly realistic levels, the use of anthropomorphic creatures has decreased steadily.
While the correlation is apparent, the actual cause is probably more complex than the improvement in graphics. To truly understand the history of anthropomorphic creatures in video games, it is necessary to look at the history of video games.
The most recognized anthropomorphic character in video games is, without question, Sonic the Hedgehog from the series of the same name. This anthropomorphic blue hedgehog has been the main character of his series for well over two decades and was the iconic character for the Sega Genesis game console. Sonic has been a character in every generation of gaming console since the Sega Master System until the Nintendo Wii.
Sonic is not the only anthropomorphic character to be found in the early generation of consoles. Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games often included these characters. Popular games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Battletoads, Mega Man 3, and Goonies II all used anthropomorphic creatures. In addition, many early games were based off of television series that showcased anthropomorphic characters, including Duck Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The NES wasn’t the only platform to use these characters. The highly popular arcade game Altered Beast was based around the concept of anthropomorphic creatures. And, when the next generation of consoles was released, Earthworm Jim, Star Fox, and Breath of Fire were all video game series that made significant use of anthropomorphic protagonists.
Likely one of the major reasons for the early use of anthropomorphic characters in video games had to do with the target audience. Early on, especially on Nintendo consoles, video games were primarily targeted to pre-teen and young teen audiences. Anthropomorphic characters generally are considered child friendly and this made the inclusion of such characters work well in early games. But, as the gaming industry aged, so did the target audience.
This isn’t to say that anthropomorphic characters disappeared entirely from video games, just that their inclusion became less common. One of the prime examples exists in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IX is considered by industry insiders to be a game designed to hearken back to the early days of the industry. It uses cartoon-ish graphics, old-school game play mechanics, and recycles many old ideas. In conjunction with this, it is possibly the only game in the series to ever include an anthropomorphic main character: Freya.
In fact, between the 5th generation and the 8th generation of gaming consoles, very few examples of anthropomorphic characters exist and nearly every such example is either a sequel to an earlier game, a video game based off of other media, or involves lycanthropes. The arcade game Killer Instinct stands out as a major exception to this and even one of two such characters in that game is actually a lycanthrope.
In the current gaming market, nearly every anthropomorphic character that exists can be found on a Nintendo system. The massively popular GameCube game Animal Crossing, and its Wii sequel, is a perfect example of the type of game that currently tends to include these characters. Such games are often casual and aimed at younger audiences, both of which are things that Nintendo systems, especially the Wii, specialize in.
One other major exception exists and this exception is surprising in that the game is not aimed at children. Roughly 10 million game players worldwide are familiar with the anthropomorphic Tauren race in the World of Warcraft video game. In this case, the use of such characters is most likely to represent the fantastical creatures often found in myths and lore, rather than as a way to make the game more child-friendly.
While the decrease in anthropomorphic characters in the video games is understandable, it is something of a shame. As the depiction of the Minotaur in God of War III proves, modern graphics technology has the ability to make these types of characters look significantly more impressive than at any previous point in the gaming industry. Where early depictions of anthropomorphic creatures often looked like nothing more than humans with animal heads, the current graphical technology would allow games to make these characters look much more realistic and impressive. And, the few games that continue to use anthropomorphic characters provide ample proof.