What is the problem with cell-shading?

5 min read

Cell-shading is a rendering technique used by game developers to give their games a stylized, cartoony look. This interesting visual style has been in use since the dawn of the last generation of consoles, and it’s produced some of the best-looking games on the market in recent years. Unfortunately, it also bears an unjust stigma with a large portion of the worldwide gaming community.

Say what you like about the game, but Afro Samurai has some nifty cell-shading. Rather than flat fills for shadows, the engine fills shadowed areas with western-style cross-hatching. Cool, huh?
Say what you like about the game, but Afro Samurai has some nifty cell-shading. Rather than flat fills for shadows, the engine fills shadowed areas with western-style cross-hatching. Cool, huh?

For those who don’t know, cell-shading is a method of rendering objects – in a game engine in our case – in such a way that the gradients of mid-tones and shadows are replaced by single colours. This gives the impression that characters/objects are filled with flat colours, just like painted cell-animation. Its primary use is to make any given game look more cartoony or comic-book-like, but a worryingly large percentage of gamers out there see it as some kind of cop-out or “an excuse to avoid creating decent visuals”.

This is not something I’ve ever seen among professional game reviewers, who all seem to know what cell-shading is all about and rate cell-shaded graphics on their own merits, often measuring them against paradigms of the technique, like Gungrave. Rather, it’s a large percentage of the gaming community that seems to dislike cell-shading, and I can’t figure out why for the life of me. Every time a game appears on the horizon, and the first shots indicate the use of cell-shaded visuals, the associated message boards and forums come alive with swearing, moaning gamers wailing about how they were looking forward to the game, but not any more, because of the visuals.

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Maybe this wasn't the best racing game ever, but hats off to Capcom for even trying to make a cell-shaded racing game.
Maybe this wasn't the best racing game ever, but hats off to Capcom for even trying to make a cell-shaded racing game.

One of the best cases I can think of in recent gaming was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the first Zelda game for the Gamecube. Nintendo loyalists and Zelda fans had no doubt been licking their lips in anticipation of Link’s first outing on the Cube, but when the first shots were revealed, showing a super-deformed Link in a cell-shaded world, the howls of protest were deafening, and they didn’t stop until the damn game was actually released. After all their bitching though, the fans eventually had to admit that the game was actually superb in every respect, and that the graphics were actually pretty good, once you got used to them. This grudging admission that the graphics in The Wind Waker were “pretty good” belied the fact that the game featured some of the most impressive and artistically apt use of cell-shading to date. This is just one example however, and I’ve seen the same ill-reception for many a cell-shaded game.

Showing us all how cell-shading should be done, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's graphics were a hotly debated topic when it was in development.
Showing us all how cell-shading should be done, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's graphics were a hotly debated topic when it was in development.

Just what is it about cell-shading that makes some gamers rush to the forums to vent their snarling condemnations months before the game in question is even released? Are they primarily what we like to call “graphics whores”? You know? The guys who only buy the games with the best ratings for graphics and cannot see something which doesn’t employ the latest advances in graphics technology, like cell-shading, as a game. Do they feel that a cartoony appearance makes things seem trivialized or dumbed-down? Are they not able to appreciate something that is more artistic than realistic? Or is there something else at play here that I’m not considering?

The new Prince of Persia features some of the most dreamy cell-shaded visuals ever.
The new Prince of Persia features some of the most dreamy cell-shaded visuals ever.

At the end of the day, cell-shading is used with a specific visual style in mind, and not just on the whim of some stoned creative director or to “avoid creating decent visuals”. The technique has been responsible for some of the most phenomenal-looking games in recent years, and in some cases it definitely gives the creators more artistic license than a hyper-real style ever would.

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Your thoughts?

Last Updated: March 25, 2009

  • RivaZA

    Wind waker art style was great! I don’t know why the went back to “traditional” graphics with Twilight Princess!
    Here’s hoping that Gears3 is cell shaded.

    • dave

      I still don’t understand why many people are so crazy over wind waker… majora’s mask was way better and twilight princess was more succesful, plus for a darker zelda like twilight princess cell shading would’ve looked simply ridiculous… just my thoughts

    • dave

      btw I don’t mean to argue… I just think cell shading fits some kind of games, not all of them… and I’ve always leaned towards darker-creepy-scary zelda games 😉

  • DarthPenguin

    Gears 3 should not be cell shaded!!!!

    Games are an artform… and Cell-shading has helped prove that. The Prince of Persia game uses Cell-shading to give the game a persian painting look.

    The Afro Samurai and Naruto games look like the animes they based on thanks to Cell-shading.

    Zelda Twilight needed to go back to traditional graphics as the story called for a more serious tone.

    When used properly, cell-shading helps, but extremely serious and gritty games (like gears of war) would not benefit from Cell-shading. Thats not to say that you can’t have a cell-shaded serious game, but the way it is put accross is very important, and not all games suit it.

    • Taiwanese Guy

      BURNED FOOD is an ART FORM, too! I really like to stuff that BURNED FOOD down your throat until YOU throw up and die off CANCER! I know that YOU are really BLIND on CEL-SHADING kind of CRAPPY VISUALS, but how MANY PEOPLE IN YOUR ARTsy-FARTsy Retarded CAMP can actually see that BICYCLE in Capcom racing game, Auto Modellista, have NON-CURVE wheels? It is FUGLY and simply BREAK IMMERSSION of any VIDEO GAMES, which would made them looked rather CHEAP by today’s standard not to mention a hit of 10 to 15 Frame rate Per Second off PERFORMANCE on any GAMING SYSTEM (should be 60 at all time)! BTW, Capcom do not make Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, Colin McRae: Dirt, RalliSport Challenge, and so on! Even Mario Kart is MORE FUN and BETTER LOOKING than that Capcom CRAPS pretended to be RACING VIDEO GAMES these days! Anyhow, Capcom is going under these days for continue to pander to your CASUAL Anti-Gaming PARASITES not to mention DUMB-DOWN 3rd rated GAMEPLAY!! {roll my eyes}

      PS. Wind Waker is really one of WEAKER GAMEPLAY of The Legend of Zelda SERIES! GAMERS actually drop their CONTROLLERS out of BOREDOM while SAILING AT SEA in Wind Waker vs any LAND ADVENTURES of earlier SERIES and later on such as Twilight Princess, Ocarina of Time, and so on! Prince of Persia 4 really kills off that SERIES! GAMERS have really come to associate CEL-SHADING RENDERING with POOR PERFORMANCE and CRAPPY GAMEPLAY unfortunately, but that is going stick with me and other HARD-CORE GAMERS as far as our concern!! >=P

  • Matthew


    Motion seconded.

  • Lupus

    Tongue was firmly in cheek there Darth, there is no way Riva would want Gears of War 3 to be Cell shaded :-D. There have been a few serious games that were cell shaed, Killer 7 if I remember correctly was one, though it was semi serious 😀

  • mastershredder

    Cel-shading otherwise known as toon shading in 2D or 3D NPR realm.

    Looks cool. Limited color pallet since there are many hard colors on characters and backgrounds, which also make them harder to separate the more detailed they get.

    The thing is that cel-shading is a great alternative visual form for lower horse power machines like the PS2 or Wii. There are some great PS3 and 360 games with cel-shading, but since you are talking about dropping details to get the visual results you want, that does not sit well with some graphic snobs in the gaming community. I love it and want more of it!

  • Matthew

    Don’t forget XIII, Lupi-chan. That was definitely made to be as comic-book-like as possible. Had a hint of spy-thriller and film noir in there, too.

  • Matthew

    Nice points, all of them.

    Still, I would like to see the reaction of the worldwide gaming community if they did announce it to be cell-shaded. Could be a real hoot.

  • DarthPenguin

    The thing that most people don’t understand though is that cell-shading is not a cheap way out. Not many games look as good as Prince of Persia does, and I can guarantee you it is a lot easier to get a game looking like Killzone 2 than it is to get a game to look like Prince of Persia.

  • WitWolfyZA

    Probably, but a change of gaming art does give it the edge too from time to time.. me myself thought that POP would flop big timke because of the shell shading.. Boy was i wrong

  • Ace-ZA

    Great game… it really sucks there wasn’t a sequel though! it ended on such a cliff hanger

  • Fluid

    Windwaker had great art-style………..bad character design. Cell-shading doesn’t automatically make your game look good. Your character designs and stage designs still have to be remensicent of the tone/theme/content/maturity of the game.

    It’s like a game that has a SUPER high polygon count. Sure the game will look realistic…..that doesn’t mean the game will look GOOD.

  • Dirk

    I don’t have a problem with cell shading. However, my preference is for graphics to be more realistic than cartoon like. A game tends to be more immersive with graphics that are as close to realistic as possible. Taken an FPS with cell shaded graphics. If it has a good story the game will probably do well, but if the story is bad (a lot of those) then the game needs something else to fall back on in order to save it. Usually that is audio and/or visual aspects of the game.

  • Darthpenguin

    Agreed… but then again… that can be said about RPGs. I find RPGs that are cell-shaded and set in a rich fantasy world are more immersive.

  • S|-|a|)er R/i|)er

    Having done Shaders and texture mapping in programs like Maya, Blender, and 3D Max to name a few I can say that there is just as much work involved in making quality Cell Shaded materials as there are in any other medium. I think the general public views Cell shading as a cop out but honestly I feel to achieve consistency across an entire game can be just as trivial. I also think that those who think they are in the know also have seen plug-ins for cell shaders in a lot of the 3d apps out there and what they don’t realize is that a lot of game devs make their own from the ground up and it’s really not that simple.

    Personally I enjoy a game for many reasons and the choice to make it cell shaded or not can give me reason to choose it over another cookie-cutter game on the shelf. Have some appreciation for artistic style people!

  • Matthew

    Good argument. I’ve also done my fair shair of shader creation – more in Blender than Maya though. The real trick is getting is so that the cell shaded objects don’t look plain weird. In animation or comics, the shading is usually an artist’s take on reality, whereas in a renderer, the light is usually calculated fairly accurately. Sometimes the two don’t mix, and we’ve all seen some iffy examples of cell-shading. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter being one of the least impressive examples I can think of.

    The developers also seem to struggle in getting decent outlines, when they want them. I think this is because almost all of the renderers at this point are able to trace outlines around entire objects, but it’s difficult to get them to know when its appropriate to draw outlines that penetrate into the actual figure – like in a real drawing. Have any games actually cracked that?

  • Matthew

    Touche, Penguin.

    I often wonder if perhaps it’s the same thing that happened when the PlayStation, Saturn, and N64 were released. At that stage, ever dumbass completely turned their backs on the 2D games of old because 3D gaming on home consoles had arrived, and they didn’t want the 2D games any more.

    Perhaps it’s the same thing today. We have all this cool stuff like bloomed lighting, HDR, detail textures which allow use to see ever pore on a character’s face… And people want these, because it’s what puts current gaming ahead of the last generation.

    So even though a game like Prince of Persia or Street Fighter might be more of a feat to create, visually, gamers in general don’t want something that apes being 2D, no matter how impressive it is. It’s sad, but I think that might account for a lot of it.

  • WitWolfyZA

    Some games just look better cell shaded. period

  • mastershredder

    Yeah that is true.

    It never really has been an easy way out. Even if the visuals were simple, it usually was done so intentionally for the artistic style of the game. I did cel-shading on a few projects. I would not say that it took hearty effort, but when choosing to go with complex models and environmental assets, using a broader color pallet and thinner outlines, then yeah it can be a real bitch. Plus any particle emitted animated effects are going to require a lot more work if you want to remove the “realistic” features to match those more befitting a cartoon-animated word. There is a lot of work to be done making the game cartoony and unrealistic in its own fashion. That’s pretty cool and something folks really need to recognize.

    Now the same could be said for Killzone 2, again a game that uses all originally created artwork for its models (not just characters). Conveying realism in your models can be just as hard depending on how real you are going. Particularly using no pre-rendered textures. It’s a different style but both can be a difficult depending on how far you want to go.

    Yeah well, I would not really put Killzone 2 up for any award as far as visual consistency goes, but it is damn consistent in its cruising speed considering the effects that cook off in that game. It has awesome atmosphere that marries its visual style, just like the original (gameplay aside).

  • Someguy

    I know that for me, personally, the reason Wind Waker’s cel-shading was such a disappointment when it was shown is because before that, they had shown a more realistic-styled grown up Link. I was really excited to play as that Link, so the new style was a real kick in the nuts for me. To this day, I still haven’t been able to beat Wind Waker, just because of that little bitter part of me souring my attempt to enjoy it.

  • Fox1

    For some reason HDR and Cell Shading looks so cool. I mean look at Naruto: The Broken Bond. Who would have thought that mixing old school graphics with the latest graphics tech would be so cool 😎

  • Matthew

    I noticed a lot of people mentioning something similar, things like, “how could you do that to Link?” and so on. What I can’t figure out is where this whole Link/Rambo idea came from. To me he’s always seemed like a bit of a pansy in Santa’s elf hat. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the games and all, but Link is certainly no attitude-packing badass, not by a long shot.

  • Matthew

    I find that Killzone 2’s visuals still blow me away every time I look at them. But I think a lot of people, particularly over-zealous PS3 fanboys who have been waiting for their bragging papers, are unjustly pinning saying, “You see that! That’s the power of the PS3!”

    In actual fact, it’s really more a product of impeccable art direction, uncompromising art direction, and carefully controlled cinematography with a minute attention to detail. The PS3 may be powerful, and so is the 360, but the machines can’t create a beautifully detailed world – it’s the programmers and artists who do that.

  • Matthew

    Unfortunately I never got around to finishing it. I wish I had, though. Still, fingers crossed that Ubisoft will give us a sequel some day. I’m just stoked that Ubi is doing a sequel to Beyond Good and Evil.

  • Matthew

    Why do you think the character design in the Wind Waker was bad?

  • Matthew

    That is true. I’m not a fan of Naruto, I must admit. I really don’t like the anime for any reason, but I find the games to be a lot of fun. Go figure. Anyway, in my opinion, the only thing they need to do is nail the outlines and then they’ll have a winner on their hands.

  • mastershredder


  • Kevin Thokchom

    love it, want more of it

  • bob bob

    I can’t take this article seriously because they spell cel shading incorrectly

  • Tim Stannard

    this guy’s self description is almost longer than the actual article itself.

  • Alex Guest


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