By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Super Smash Bros. Marvel vs Capcom. Street Fighter X Tekken. Crossover fighting games have almost become a genre unto themselves, and short of another true milestone on the level of the long-wished-for Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat face-off, they aren’t ever going to draw much special attention again.
But in 1996, the concept of taking characters from completely separate franchises and pitting them against each other in a single game was still a novel one. Nobody had really done it on a large scale except for SNK and their King of Fighters series, which matched up characters from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting franchises. They were also forward-thinking in that they added additional non-fighting game characters to KoF‘s roster which of course would later become a staple in similar titles, most notably the Marvel vs Capcom games. Still, with the original King of Fighters at the time only being released in arcades and on Neo-Geo home systems, its reach was limited to arcade fighting game aficionados and the relatively small number of people who owned one of the expensive Neo-Geo platforms. The follow-up, King of Fighters ’95, would spread its wealth to the Saturn (and later the Game Boy), but only in Japan and Europe, leaving the series slightly off-the-radar in terms of mainstream American gaming. So if you were an American gamer going into 1996, the concept of a “crossover fighting game” was likely still foreign to you. But that would soon change.
Technically speaking, X-Men vs Street Fighter beat Fighters Megamix to the punch, hitting arcades worldwide in the fall of 1996. Still, it would be an entire year before it came to a home system (and two years before it came to a home system outside of Japan), so much like KoF it largely existed within a specific bubble of hardcore fighting game fans. It would also be quickly overshadowed by its own follow-ups, 1997’s Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter and then finally the inevitable progression to Marvel Vs Capcom in 1998, with the home releases always frustratingly hitting just in time for the next one to be coming to arcades. So when Fighters Megamix was released for the Saturn in Japan in late 1996–and more specifically in North American in the spring of 1997–the idea of a crossover fighting game still felt fresh and special, specifically in how it teamed up characters from multiple games rather than just two different “universes.” At that point, the Vs series was two years away from going full Capcom and was still stubbornly sticking to only using Street Fighter character.
Another of the interesting facets of Fighters Megamix that made it unique beyond just its crossover conceit was that it was the only game of the era developed by AM2 that didn’t begin as an arcade game. In fact, Fighters Megamix was never released in arcades even after the fact, and has only ever been 100% exclusive to the Saturn. That wouldn’t become the norm for the company until well into Sega’s changeover into a third-party publisher in the early 2000’s. The outlook for the Saturn in Japan at that point was still relatively optimistic, but in the U.S. things were quickly taking a turn for the worst. The PlayStation’s market share was strengthening by the minute, and between that and the huge success of the recent Nintendo 64 launch there was less and less room for the Saturn in what was looking to soon become a two-console race if the Saturn couldn’t turn things around. So Sega needed to pull out a big gun for the Saturn, something more noteworthy than just another arcade port. They decided to combine two of their key franchises – one of their biggest at the time, and one they had recently launched and had high hopes for – and put them together in one game along with some other iconic Sega stars. Fighters Megamix was the result.
In retrospect, one of Sega’s biggest miscalculations with Fighters Megamix was in hanging half of the game on Fighting Vipers, a new fighting game franchise Sega had only just launched the previous year (and only hit the Saturn in North America about 6 months prior). It was essentially a grittier counterpart to Virtua Fighter 2 (even down to sharing its engine): the fighting was more brutal, there was a little blood, the women were tattooed and busty, and the caged arenas evoked more of a WWE-style vibe than a high-class martial arts tournament. It had been fairly well-received, but not on the level of a Virtua Fighter or Tekken. It was definitely a B-level 3D fighter, at least in terms of popularity, and again it was still relatively new. People who did take a chance on the fledgling franchise likely felt burned to have the entire game essentially transplanted into a better, more robust game just a few months later.
That isn’t to say it didn’t make any sense for Sega to go that route. From a technical standpoint it was a no-brainer, as Vipers was made with Virtua Fighter 2‘s engine so the two games could easily be meshed into one. And again, Sega was trying to give the Saturn a fighting (pun intended) chance, and Fighters Megamix was meant to get gamers excited for both its newest franchise and the upcoming sequel to its flagship fighting series, Virtua Fighter 3 (which was already out in arcades but a Saturn port was expected eventually). Even though the game was billed as a compilation of Fighting Vipers and Virtua Fighter 2, the VF2 characters in the game had a lot of the new moves that were added to their VF3 counterparts, and the game contained some stages and music tracks from VF3. So Megamix was intended to be something of a stealthy teaser for the Saturn version of VF3 (which coincidentally would end up never being released, with the game not coming home until its Dreamcast port). It was actually a pretty shrewd marketing decision, but also a risky one, releasing a compilation of two games with vastly different popularity levels and specifically hoping the more prominent one would bolster the lesser one.
Most observers agree that the lack of a core Sonic game on the Saturn, on top of just a relatively small number of appearances by Sega’s mascot on the system, was one of the main contributors to the Saturn’s early demise. So the fact that Sonic wasn’t one of the bonus characters in Fighters Megamix is inexcusable. That bad decision sounds all the more absurd when you learn that one of the designers at AM2 put Sonic and Tails into Fighting Vipers during its development mostly just for fun, but when Yu Suzuki saw them in action he decided that a 3D fighting game revolving around Sonic and pals should be a thing. So AM2 then went about creating Sonic the Fighters, a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game built with the VF2 engine starring Sonic characters. So all of the work of making Sonic a viable fighting game character within a VF2-based framework was already done! Why not just throw him into Fighters Megamix then? No, instead Sega decided that Sonic the Fighters – and therefore, the entire Sonic universe – should be represented in Fighters Megamix by way of Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite, two of the original characters created for StF. Not Sonic, not Tails, not Knuckles, not Dr. Eggman, not even Amy; two completely forgettable “new” characters instead of two established ones. Maybe this was something of a third prong to Megamix‘s marketing strategy, to tease people with the idea of a Sonic fighting game but figuring they wouldn’t buy one if they could already just play as Sonic and Tails in Megamix. Unfortunately, Sonic the Fighters also never came to Saturn so even if appetites were whetted it for it after people played Megamix, they’d have to wait until a Gamecube Sonic collection a decade later to have it on a home console.
The D-list “Sonic characters” weren’t all that comprised the bonus roster of Megamix, thankfully. In fact, there were a few really interesting additions: Janet from Virtua Cop 2 (with a move set completely stolen from one of VF3′s two new characters, keeping that synergy going); Rent-A-Hero, who had previously only appeared in Japan-exclusive titles, Siba, a character who was cut from VF1‘s roster and remained unused until Megamix; Hornet, literally the car from Daytona USA who stands up on his rear wheels like hind legs and punches with his front wheels because why not?; and the super deformed versions of Akira and Sarah from the previous years’ odd Virtua Fighter Kids, which surprisingly actually came to the U.S. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the rest of the cast consisted of new character Deku, a sombrero-wearing bean with arms and legs; Mr. Meat, a “character” who is literally a floating hunk of meat on a bone; and the palm tree logo for developer AM2. Literally just a palm tree. Named “Palm Tree.” And that’s it. In spite of the many, many memorable characters Sega had created up to that point, including some that would’ve made perfect sense in a fighting game (Streets of Rage characters, perhaps? Or Golden Axe characters? Or Eternal Champions characters?), that is as creative and far-reaching as the cameos got in Fighters Megamix. To be fair, hindsight is 20/20 and with later crossover fighting games like Marvel Vs Capcom doing such a stellar job at including interesting and novel characters from all across that company’s roster, it is easy to compare that to Megamix’s weak star power, perhaps unfairly so. There wasn’t much precedence for that type of thing in 1996, and the KoF series hadn’t done much better at that point, making odd choices for its bonus characters like the main character from the obscure 1987 (pre-Neo Geo) platformer Psycho Soldier. Still, even with no frame of reference, it was hard not to be baffled by some of the choices AM2 made for its bonuses characters (especially, again, not including Sonic).
Maybe Sega would’ve done it better if they had another shot at it. Had Fighters Megamix been a bigger hit, and the Dreamcast had lasted a bit longer, and Sega’s fighting game presence remained strong, perhaps they would’ve eventually done a second Fighters Megamix. Look at how varied the rosters have been in games like Sega Superstars Tennis and the Sega All-Stars Racing series; wouldn’t it have been cool to see a Dreamcast fighting game with characters from not only the Virtua Fighter series but also Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5, Skies of Arcadia, Crazy Taxi, House of the Dead, Shinobi, Shenmue, Golden Axe, and so on? It would’ve been Sega’s answer to Super Smash Bros. but within the framework of a more traditional, less frantic fighting game. Thinking about the possibilities gives this Sega fanboy equal feelings of fuzzy nostalgia and pangs of disappointment. I suppose it isn’t necessarily too late, though. Yu Suzuki has obviously moved on to other things, and AM2 is likely no longer staffed by most of the people who made Sega fighting games so great in the 90’s, but that doesn’t make it impossible for Sega to take another crack at a Fighters Megamix game…and to do it right. It’s been nine years since the last Virtua Fighter but only three since AM2 teamed with Team Ninja on Dead or Alive 5 (and lent the franchise some of its own VF characters), so they obviously still have some fighting game energy left in them. I’ll add it to the seemingly endless list of dream games I’d like Sega to make and just hope for the best, I suppose.
One final footnote to this story is the strange decision to port Fighters Megamix to Tiger’s troubled Game.com handheld two years later in 1998. Not surprisingly, the port was an extremely watered-down version of the Saturn original, with far fewer characters, 2D visuals (though a semi-admirable attempt was made to replicate the 3D caged stages), and extremely poor gameplay. Think the Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2 only far, far worse. Here is how it looked:
Of course, a screenshot doesn’t do it justice. You need to see videos of the game in action to really appreciate just how unnecessary its existence was and how unfortunate it is that that was the note that Fighters Megamix ultimately went out on.