May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
Who doesn’t wish they could give Totoro a hug in real life, or taste the tantalizing breakfast cooked on Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle? We may not be able to enter the worlds depicted in Studio Ghibli movies, but many game designers have hoped to get at the next best thing, creating experiences inspired by the studio’s beautiful, haunting tableaus. From A Boy And His Blob’s hug button to Battle Chef Brigade’s glorious meal platters, here are some examples of video games that have taken inspiration from Studio Ghibli films.
A Girl And Her Totoro
The original 1989 NES game A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia had more in common with E.T. than with My Neighbor Totoro. In it, a gangly tween boy went on adventures with a shape-shifting alien blob that loved jelly beans. Years later, the indie studio WayForward secured the rights to remake the game for mid-2000s audiences.
Marc Gomez, the art director on the project, decided to take it in a new Miyazaki-inspired direction that made use of 2D hand-drawn animation. While the E.T. vibes of the original game worked well in 1989, gamers in 2009 were just as likely to have grown up watching Totoro on VHS. The softer, cuter coat of paint on the 2009 Nintendo Wii remake incorporated that influence.
“When making Boy and his Blob, I thought a lot about My Neighbor Totoro and the connections between Satsuki, Mei, and Totoro,” Gomez told Polygon. “I wanted to capture as much as possible that connection without words, as well as the childlike wonder of exploring your own backyard.”
A Boy and his Blob has very little dialogue. The protagonist can call out “Come on!” to his blob, and it will respond with a merry bounce back in the right direction. Where the original NES version of the blob looked like a pixelated snowman, the re-imagined 2009 blob looks as cuddly and huggable as Totoro, even though it’s much smaller in size. A Boy and his Blob even has a dedicated “hug” button, allowing the boy to squeeze his new friend close.
The visual style was a new frontier for the team, said Gomez. “Boy and his Blob was a big step that I wanted to take WayForward in the direction of traditional animation. We did all the animation with pencil and paper with a janky webcam setup as our animation test machine.” The result was a game with bespoke animations that were as striking and and as immediately accessible as Totoro, a fairy tale for the whole family.
“What I love about Miyazaki films are the subtle details you see in a character just through their movements and animation,” Gomez went on. “The visual aesthetic is also one that is welcoming to a broader audience than just children.”
Over a decade later, A Boy and his Blob still serves as a foundational example of how a game’s visual design can set a distinct mood. As it happens, Gomez has been thinking back on the lessons he learned from that project while working on B.ARK, an upcoming 2D animation game for the Nintendo Switch. “It’s just very coincidental that you ask about Boy and his Blob,” Gomez said, “Since this current game is my first big jump back into 2D animation in an original IP that I want to take down the same direction we went with Boy and his Blob.”
Ori and the Forest Spirit
It was Christmas morning in 2010 in Vienna, Austria. Thomas Mahler, who earlier that year had departed Blizzard Entertainment and co-founded the indie venture Moon Studios, was “still lying in bed. I switched on the TV and, lo and behold, one of the channels ran Princess Mononoke.”
This, he told Polygon, would be “the very day when the idea of making Ori was born.” That would be Ori and the Blind Forest, Moon Studios’ critically acclaimed 2015 platformer, as well as its beloved 2020 sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
But back in 2010, Mahler was just hanging out, whiling away his holiday break with a great Studio Ghibli movie. “With nothing better to do, I watched it for a while,” he said. “Then the scene where Prince Ashitaka is being helped by kodamas, little forest spirits, to cross a forest appeared, and I was just enchanted again.”
Those moments ended up serving as key influences for the Ori design team. “We got influenced by the whole package,” said Mahler. “The way kodamas are introduced, the chimes in the forest, the mystical feel of it all … and naturally also the visuals.”
The Moon Studios team even went so far as to place their lead character, a little guardian spirit named Ori, into the world of Princess Mononoke as a design exercise. “One of the very first tests we did for Ori and the Blind Forest back then was to actually take one of the concept art pieces from Princess Mononoke and slap that into the engine to have our little, white character walk on top of those, just to get a feeling of how this all could work,” Mahler continued. “That in itself also influenced what style we’d be using for Ori, since it became obvious that we’d want to create something that can match what Studio Ghibli has been doing in their films. So it became clear that we had to painstakingly paint every single little detail.”
Ori and the Blind Forest had its share of game design influences as well, from Metroid to Super Meat Boy, but its visuals pay clear homage to Princess Mononoke, in particular the ways the movie made its forest “like just another character with its own overshadowing powers,” as Mahler put it. “The forests in Princess Mononoke seem almost lifelike, but they’re so lush and beautiful, almost like a glorification of real life instead of just a depiction of it.”
Like A Boy and his Blob art director Marc Gomez, Thomas Mahler also admired the ways that Studio Ghibli movies resonate with a broad audience. “I’ve always found it inspiring how animation was perceived in Japan in comparison to the U.S. and Europe,” said Mahler. “Because of Disney’s strong foothold in the latter regions, I think the public perception here is that animation is a medium for kids and kids only. That’s never really been the case for Japan. Over there, it’s just another medium to tell stories.”
Often, Studio Ghibli movies depict something like a youthful coming-of-age story, even while also tapping into something much darker. That’s something the Moon Studios team drew from in making the Ori games. “In terms of storytelling, we’ve also always been heavily influenced by Grave of the Fireflies,” said Mahler. “That film shows the difference in perception regarding animation cross-culturally very nicely. Grave of the Fireflies isn’t a ‘kids film’ at all, it’s a harsh and true portrayal of how children lived through events during the second world war.”
The Ori games are about spirits, just like so many Studio Ghibli movies, but they tell a human story. “While we use fantastical creatures within the Ori series, it’s all allegorical,” said Mahler. “The story itself is actually very grounded and deals with extremely human themes, so that people could actually empathize with our characters.”
Battle Chef’s Delivery Service
From the fresh-baked golden bread displays in Kiki’s Delivery Service to the too-good-to-be-true meal Chihiro’s parents eat in Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli films have depicted some visually stunning feasts. Eric Huang, art director for the 2017 cooking puzzle game Battle Chef Brigade, cited those tasty-looking animated delights as one of his design inspirations.
“Kiki’s Delivery Service was the primary Ghibli movie that provided inspiration for me while working on the game, but there are touches of Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away as well,” said Huang. “From Kiki’s, I really loved the European setting and especially the bakery Kiki works at. I made a similar-looking storefront to house our game’s gastronomer, Belchior, and he even has plenty of cats living in his workshop.”
Just like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Battle Chef Brigade blends the ordinary with the extraordinary. In the game, chefs compete with one another in a cooking competition, but also, the chefs have fantastical powers. They’ll run off to battle monsters to get the strange ingredients required for their dishes, while also taking care to zip back to the kitchen competition floor and ensure their pots don’t boil over.
“Ghibli films also have a real charm and wholesomeness that I think was a strong current throughout creating Battle Chef overall,” said Huang. “The common presence of magic and wonder is also something that had influences on me, even if they were more subtle and fed into our game’s overall fantasy setting. I also must note that Miyazaki’s amazing protagonists gave me a high bar to aspire to for creating our lead, Mina Han.”
Huang also noted that “a lot of the inspiration was applied to the environment art, from the color choices to the painting style.” Battle Chef depicts heaping plates of food as well as cozy-looking cottage homes and storefronts for its colorful cast of culinary magic-users.
“Howl’s further added to our environmental aesthetic and helped give me direction for animating some of the cookware in the game, such as the cooking flame and boiling water,” Huang went on. “There’s this breakfast scene [in Howl’s Moving Castle] with sizzling slabs of bacon and sunny-side-up eggs that I just love and studied. Speaking of food, there’s a ton of gorgeous food in Spirited Away that was inspiring and informative.”
Nausicaä of the Island of Mutazione
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, an early Miyazaki film that paved the way for Studio Ghibli’s founding, is set a thousand years after an apocalyptic war. The 2019 indie gem Mutazione, from Danish indie studio Die Gute Fabrik, is also a story of a girl navigating a post-apocalyptic world. The game took several of its design cues from Nausicaä and other Studio Ghibli movies, with its designers citing parallels in terms of the visuals, the narrative, and even the sound design.
“I know Nausicaä specifically was a key reference point that [creative director] Nils [Deneken] and I discussed, especially in the early days of the project,” said game designer Douglas Wilson. “Actually, when we finally finished the game last year, I gave Nils a gift — a special Nausicaä soundtrack vinyl set I picked up in Japan. So I guess that’s pretty symbolic.”
Wilson worked closely with Mutazione’s soundtrack artist, musician Alessandro Coronas, to make the game’s audio as evocative as a Studio Ghibli film. “In the musical-gardens feature of the game, the ‘Wanderlust’ mood — its emotive texture and instrumentation — was explicitly inspired by Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks,” said Wilson, referring to the composer behind many of Studio Ghibli’s films. “When we were trying to define what each mood should feel and sound like, Nils would sometimes mention the scenes from Spirited Away where Chihiro and her family are walking in sunny, grassy fields in the abandoned amusement park. I think a lot about the piano and strings parts that Hisaishi tends to use.”
Studio lead Hannah Nicklin, who served as lead narrative designer for Mutazione, cited several slice-of-life story inspirations for the game, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to the entire genre of soap operas. She noted that the Studio Ghibli comparison was apt as well.
“I think that the strength of my favourite Ghibli works is how confident he is to let not very much happen,” she wrote to Polygon. “In writing Mutazione, I was given the genre ‘soap opera’ as a starting point, which as far as I’m formally concerned is the matching of the mundane/domestic with the sublime/dramatic. Ghibli luxuriates in the domestic — cooking scenes, cleaning scenes, walking down a street longer than a typical film of that time would linger on. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a fave of mine in this context, as is Totoro.
“The fantastical is woven into the everyday in a way which is confident in its right to co-exist, that chimes with common themes (coming of age, or being a kid with a sick mother) through that careful web of fantasy and doldrums. It’s also an air of something of its time—the late ’80s and early ’90s held a sense of technological wonder, but also long deep-summer boredom. The sense of a laid-back pacing, the confident pairing of the mundane and naturalistic with Nils’ wonderful fantastic backstory and artwork, that’s definitely a comparison you could confidently draw to my writing and the worlds of Miyazaki.”
Creative director Nils Deneken echoed Nicklin’s points, writing, “I believe that the mundane that she describes is what makes Miyazaki’s worlds so magical. I would call it grounding. The fact that characters are allowed to do mundane things in [Miyazaki’s] movies is also reflected in the environments. There are places that look like they’re lived in and used: kitchens, office spaces, bakeries, baths, etc.”
Deneken wanted Mutazione’s environments to share that same strength. “Since the village of Mutazione is such an improbable place (It’s a mutant village built around a giant tree in the ruins of an old holiday resort), a lot of effort needed to go into making it believable and grounded,” he said. “The homes and the places where the villagers met needed to feel lived-in, they needed to be an extension of individual characters, and represent the character of the whole community.” Deneken concluded by emphasizing that Miyazaki was far from the only influence on Mutazione, since the final game is a reflection of the team’s “own unique perspective,” but that there’s nonetheless “a lot to learn from Miyazaki when you create fictional worlds.”
Like so many Studio Ghibli films, Mutazione has the trappings of a coming-of-age story as well as that characteristic dark undercurrent, intermingling a repudiation of colonialism with its soapy, slice-of-life setting. “It’s easy to focus on all the heartwarming aspects of Ghibli films — a cute Totoro, Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service, etc. — but I hope people don’t forget about the darker and more pessimistic sides of many Ghibli films,” said Douglas Wilson. “And even Jiji is ultimately a somewhat sad character, in that Kiki loses her ability to communicate with the cat (I guess it’s a metaphor for the passage into adulthood?). I also think about how My Neighbor Totoro was initially released as a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies, which is so wild, and also so emblematic.”
Wilson went on to note how often he hears up-and-coming game creators citing Studio Ghibli as a touchpoint, speculating that it’s increased in the years since A Boy And His Blob got remade in 2009. As the examples in this story show, many game designers still cite Ghibli as an influence on the art they’re making today, signaling that these movies continue to ripple across popular culture, with those ripples only expanding as the years go by. Even if you haven’t seen Studio Ghibli’s movies, you’ve probably played a game or seen a piece of art that’s been influenced by one.
“It definitely feels like there’s been a big uptick of Ghibli-inspired games over the last few years,” he said. “I teach game design at RMIT University in Melbourne, and my students frequently mention Studio Ghibli as a reference point when building worlds. So, working with young creators on a daily basis, I see the lasting influence of Studio Ghibli.”