The Layers of Care in Great Palettes: Exploring the Defining Features of Alternate Colors

By on March 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm
Mortal Kombat Ninjas

We’ve talked about both good and bad palettes on this site before, but we’ve neglected to really get into why this topic is so important in the first place, or how it has the effect it does. We briefly touched on this in previous articles, but today we’ll be making this the focus of discussion.

Identifying Others with Colors

Much of our personal association with what’s happening in-game is determined before the match even starts. The first thing we see before each fight is which color we are using, and which the opponent is using. This connection persists through every match we play, helping form a bond between the player and the character on the screen. We sometimes get territorial over our palette choices (has someone ever “taken your color”…?), and even use them to identify top players. All of this feeds into the idea of unique colors being “signatures” for different players, which, when combined with play styles, can become a clear identifying feature.

Mortal Kombat Ninjas

Mortal Kombat is famous for its ninja clones, which originally changed very little about the sprite other than one detail each. The colored ninja outfit was still enough to instantly tell you which unique character was playing, and which distinct moveset they had. This correlation is reinforced thanks to the powers of each ninja matching their palette: green for Reptile’s poison, blue for Sub-Zero’s ice, yellow for Scorpions’s fire, etc., making it that much easier to remember each ninja through just their color.

Despite the impact palettes have, not every player gives much thought to them. Some see alt colors as no more than a way to tell which player is which, letting their conscious connection end there. Other players don’t care about alternate colors at all, and specifically choose a character’s original palette, as it feels like how the character “should” look. Neither of those types of players are wrong of course, but there is a third type of player that enjoys a varied palette to play and identify with. Luckily, alternate colors can be constructed in a way that satisfies all three types of players, if done correctly.

The Basic Layers to a Good Palette

The most vital factor is being able to differentiate between Player 1 and Player 2. If both players pick Ryu, being able to tell which is which means the palette succeeds at this most basic level. While that level of success is the most important, more can be done than simply distinguishing between two characters. Changing the colors of minor details—belts, gloves, shoes, headbands, buckles, etc.—can do a lot to make an outfit feel fresh. Below you can see Hazama from the BlazBlue series, who benefits a lot from these subtle changes.

Blazblue Hazama Palettes

Hazama doesn’t have a single color on his outfit that doesn’t change with each new palette: from his buckles and his tie to all three colors on his shoes, a lot of little changes help make the bigger and more obvious changes stand out and appear more distinguished. He also regularly changes hair and skin tones–going from light skin to dark a few times, and even having several shades of light skin–which is a big boost in making each interpretation feel brand new.

Attention to the small details helps to make each alternate color more unique and personal for players; some players enjoy being able to pick palettes that match their own skin tone. In addition to giving players more of a choice to enjoy, these changes can also make matches more interesting for spectators.

Not all games and characters have the wide a range of details to change that Blazblue does, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of feeling diverse. Below you can see a selection of Sean’s and Ryu’s outfit from Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.

Though Sean shares a base with the original Shoto–the only visual difference being a new head–his outfit is completely anomalous thanks to one simple change: Sean achieves his varied palette by coloring his pants and shirt separately, giving him a wide range of variation. That’s not to say that Ryu’s outfit is terrible, Ryu does cycle through several distinct skin tones and gloves in addition to his gi, but this is the kind of variety that an alt color can have by changing just one additional detail.

The Effect of Extra Attention to Detail

The next major aspect of palettes that can change is the special effects on attacks. These effects changing can be big contributors to how characters look and feel. Let’s look at a good example in the form of Rival of Aether‘s Orcane, and how the combination of only three colors is used to great success.

All of Orcane’s attacks’ coloration are also based on what color has been selected, and changing that greatly influences the interpretation of his moves. The default blue/white makes his attacks look like water, while changing to a black/gray can give the appearance of oil, tar, or smoke. A red/black theme can look like he’s wielding fire or lava, but he can also appear to be made of candy with pink/light blue, or like he’s some kind of swamp monster with black/dark green. It’s a small touch–but it makes a huge difference.

Not altering effects to match the character’s palette can sometimes go beyond simply being bland, and can actually compromise a color’s ability to distinguish between the players on screen. Below you’ll see a short breakdown from Mike Z—Skullgirls‘ lead developer—on just how bad ignoring effect colors can be.

That being said, some games don’t need such effects, and may even be worse for adding them. Lets look at Ryu from Street Fighter: in every game Ryu throws blue Hadoukens, and the only time that changes is for his red Hadoukens–which have separate move properties. It makes sense to not tamper with the colors of his effects, as it would be cumbersome if the player had to remember two separate colors of fireball for each Ryu. By extension, it would be weird if each Chun-Li or Dhalsim palette threw different colored fireballs when Ryu teaches us that changing color changes the projectiles’ properties.

To summarize: a combination of variation on minor details, changes in skin/hair tone, and colored effects have a huge impact on making good palettes. Having each alt distinguish itself in meaningful ways from every other is the most ideal scenario.

A Decisive Palette with Purpose

There are still a few major factors that decide whether an alt is good. The first thing it needs to do after deciding on its overall scheme is ensuring the colors come across clear and readable. Having a crisp palette lets players and spectators tell at a glance what they’re looking at, which is a huge bonus–especially in fast-paced games where the audience is already expected to keep track of a lot of information at once. A good example of this is Leona, from The King of Fighters series. Below you can see her as she appears in both The King of Fighters XIII and The King of Fighters XIV:

Leona from KOF XIII has very clean colors. Her shirt and gloves are white, her pants are blue, and her belt/boots are black. There’s very little ambiguity. KOF XIV Leona, though? Her shirt is some kind of teal, or maybe a blue-ish or green-ish gray? Are her pants pink with tan patterns, or perhaps tan with pink patterns? Are her boots/belt dark green, brown, or maybe black? If it’s hard to tell what the colors are at a glance, it fails this check.

While not needed in most cases, there is another trick to making good colors that includes blending and hiding aspects of a color to create a brand new feeling. Looking below, you’ll see Yuri’s palettes in KOF XIII.

yuri compact colors v2

Her palette sections off her legs into four parts: upper thigh, thigh, knee, and her shins. This allows each to be colored separately, leading to a vast array of different options before even changing anything else. She can look like she’s wearing tights, shorts, knee pads, high socks, leg bands, or she can mix and match any of those options. Her arms are also sectioned, split into shoulder/elbow/wrist, and is used to the same effect as her legs. This is a really neat trick that can breathe new life into a palette in ways that it never could have otherwise.

The last issue we’ll cover is the concept of putting all of these colors together in a pleasing fashion. We talked a lot about how Street Fighter V‘s Balrog had good accenting details in a past article, but lets look at another recent example, in one of Benimaru’s KOFXIV outfits:

Here we have an outfit that was updated in the version 1.10 patch. The main alteration was changing his pants from black to white, but this alters the entire perception of the outfit. Originally it was split into a very binary pink shirt/black pants combo, with the pants drowning out the accenting colors in the boots/gloves/belt. Now, though? The white pants help accent the entire outfit much better: his pink shirt stands out much more powerfully in the update, his gold buckle and chains become noticeable, and the black is allowed to support the whole attire by accenting both the white and the pink. These changes arguably makes the palette much stronger than it was before.

That’s all for today; hopefully you learned a bit about what goes into making a good palette, and what makes an alt really stand out. We’d like to tackle some more of these topics soon, so be sure to let us know if you liked this topic and what you want to see in the future. Until next time!

John "Zidiane" Silvia is a big fan of classic fighters. Most well known for his efforts in the Skullgirls community, he spends his focus on approaching articles with fresh and unique perspectives. He prides himself on his passion and attention to detail on issues others rarely talk on.