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Awhile back, I was having one of those crotchety old gamer-type conversations with a friend of mine, lamenting how kids are never going to know so many of the great game characters from the 80s and 90s. My friend quipped how sad it is that kids today probably only know Mega Man as “that character from Smash Bros,” a sentiment I also found disappointing. However, I’m starting to see things like that a bit differently. The alternative is that kids wouldn’t even know who Mega Man was at all, and that would be a far bigger tragedy than them only knowing him for his role in Nintendo’s fighting game franchise.
This phenomenon is most common in fighting games, where franchise cameos and crossovers have been the norm in the genre for the last two decades. Sure, at one time, Marvel vs Capcom was a celebration of mostly “current” Capcom characters, and by the time part 3 rolled around, many of the returning characters felt more akin to tributes to retired or “indefinite hiatus” types of franchises. It’s easy to take the pessimism approach when you see characters like Morrigan and Felicia in MvC3 and be reminded of how Capcom has let the Darkstalkers series fall by the wayside. But I’m beginning to change my tune about that. At least we’re seeing those characters at all. Think of how many countless franchises have died off over the years, and had their entire casts of characters die right along with them, never to be seen or heard from again. Marvel vs Capcom 3 has several characters who would’ve suffered that fate, only they got a renewed dose of relevance and the chance to appear in a game for the first time in a decade in some cases. Instead of being cynical about things, we should’ve been looking at the plus side of getting to play as characters like Viewtiful Joe, Tron Bonne, Amaterasu, Mike Haggar, and Arthur in a new game in 2011, rather than only using their appearance as an excuse to lament the dormancy of their respective franchises.
In some cases, people who were involved in the characters’ original franchise have returned to help shepherd them into their new roles in other series. Dead or Alive 5 features four classic Virtua Fighter characters in its roster, and not surprisingly, two are women and both feature costume choices that amount to Victoria’s Secret underwear. For one thing, those that think Sega never sexed up the VF gals before DOA5 never saw the official Sega-issued “CG portrait” series that were released in various forms in Japan and Europe. And for another, DOA5 was actually developed with help from Sega AM2, meaning that Sega didn’t just give away their characters–they personally helped integrate them into the game. I’m as sad as anyone that Virtua Fighter appears to be on the list of Sega franchises that the company isn’t interested in reviving anytime soon, and DOA wouldn’t have been my first pick as the franchise to house castoff VF characters. But again, the alternative is that we’d just never see any of those characters again, and jiggle physics and wet t-shirt tech aside, the core fighting mechanics of the DOA series are legit and it’s a respected fighting game franchise. Besides, nobody is forcing you to choose the skimpiest possible outfits for Sarah and Pai if you have a problem with that type of thing.
Just think about the alternative. Capcom has plenty of characters they don’t put in Street Fighter or MvC games, like the entire casts of the Rival Schools and Power Stone franchises that have been out of commission since their last dedicated installments. For every Mega Man or Pac-Man that shows up in Smash Bros, there are countless more 80s and 90s game stars that haven’t been heard from in 10, 15, even 20+ years in any form. I’m not saying that it’s a complete consolation to having those characters’ original franchises be left to die as long as they make cameos in other games, but it’s definitely better than the characters dying as well. An appearance in a different game is better than a complete disappearance altogether, which is what ends up happening to most of these characters. It’s no big secret that the high costs associated with modern game development mean that it isn’t financially viable for most companies to have 20 different active franchises going at once like they used to. Bringing it back to fighting games, that genre just can’t sustain the plethora of separate franchises that it did in its 1990s and early 2000s heyday. More cameos and crossovers are a way for characters from some of the B- and C-level franchises of the 90s to live on even when their series can’t.
The same goes for characters from non-fighting game franchises, and even non-fighting games. We shouldn’t be so quick to groan when we hear that Crash is going to show up in a new Skylanders game or be completely crushed that a Battletoads tease just ends up meaning that Rash is a character in Killer Instinct or whine because the F-Zero tracks in Mario Kart 8 aren’t a new F-Zero game. Not only do things like that mean that dormant characters/worlds/etc are at least being seen again, but in some cases, companies are testing the waters to see if we’re still interested in those things at all. If all we do is complain, then they may take that to mean that we don’t actually want a new Battletoads or Crash Bandicoot or F-Zero or Virtua Fighter or Darkstalkers or whatever else. Game companies tend to misunderstand negative buzz and don’t always dig deeper to find out the specific reasons for it–they just equate complaining with don’t want. “Gee, all these people so angry over Rash being in Killer Instinct, maybe they don’t want a new Battletoads after all.” After years of Ryu Hayabusa being a well-liked character in Dead or Alive, it eventually led to a huge AAA reboot of the Ninja Gaiden franchise. Those types of things do happen…so long as we look on the bright side and support it when it does, rather than just dumping on it, boycotting it, and so on. Yes, I know you’d rather have a whole new [insert name of game franchise]. So would I. But I’d also rather not [insert name of game character] just die off completely.