Bandai Namco recently unveiled a new video game based on the hit One Punch Man series. While this might have come as a surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with the premise of the franchise (i.e. a guy who is basically unstoppable to the point of boredom that he can end a fight in one hit), this had a lot of potential to separate itself from everything else the company has published. Instead, it’s another damn Arena Fighter:
Bandai Namco Entertainment America describes the game as a three-on-three action-fighting game that will allow players to control characters such as Saitama, Genos, Hellish Blizzard, Speed-o’-Sound Sonic, Mumen Rider, and others.
The developer is Spike Chunsoft, who you might remember developed the recent Jump Force; another arena based fighter featuring various characters from across Shonen Jump. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably played something very similar at some point in your life. Bandai Namco (or “Bamco” as I will refer to them) publishes some of the most popular and profitable video games based on Anime and Manga series in the world, specifically those based on Shonen Jump properties. And while they’ve published various titles for other franchises, it seems they cannot get out of the arena brawler think-tank when it comes to their anime dealings (again, see Shonen Jump).
This is the same publisher that just released Jump Force this year. The year before that was My Hero Academia: One’s Justice (I’m not dropping the Academia part) and The Seven Deadly Sins: Knights of Britannia. Going back even further, Bamco has released at least six Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm games, more than a handful of Dragon Ball video games (many of which are fighters), and quite a few other notable anime based brawlers ranging from Jojo, Gundam, and more.
That is not to say this always a bad thing. Let’s take One Piece for example. A lot of folks come in with the expectation that they should be able to play as the entire Straw Hat crew given amount of focus they are given. It takes a lot of time and development effort to incorporate several characters into one game, so an easier way to do this is to make sure they follow a certain ruleset or play “identically” from a gameplay perspective. In an arena fighter or a Musuo/Warrior game, this usually ensures at least some balance and a decent sized roster to keep people happy that their favorites are playable.
The problem is that many of these titles feed into this expectation that we need to have an expansive roster for an anime game to exist. The recent One Piece: World Seeker game actually attempted to break the mold by doing an open world game with Luffy as the sole character. This ended up being a sour point for many people as based on some of the comments in the official YouTube trailers. The fact that the fandom felt strongly enough about it that the game is getting additional paid DLC characters/episodes fuels that narrative which in turn leads to more of the same games across other major franchises.
The Naruto and Dragon Ball series are more prime examples of this. Given the number of games and excessive characters that have been featured/playable, at some point its not surprising that developers opt to simplify or reuse assets once you have a roster numbering in the double digits or hundreds. Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 had 106 fighters as the last title in the franchise. The franchise might have ended following the conclusion of the source material, but its lingering shadow continues in the video game world with an excessive need to apply this template elsewhere.
That said, there is hope. In the same way many licensed based properties such as comic book superheroes are finding success by mirroring other established genres, some existing Anime IP are looking to other games and developers that might be a good fit. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, is pretty much a Yakuza game in all but name, complete with over the top animations, sidequests, and minigames with a Fist of the North Star makeover.
Dragon Ball FighterZ was an actual honest to good 2D fighter more akin to Marvel vs Capcom than any other DBZ or anime based brawler before it with Guilty Gear/BlazBlue veterans Arc System Works at the helm. Though the roster is smaller, the gameplay is mechanically deep, yet simple and still pays homage to its source material. Even better is we’ve got a new action-RPG from CyberConnect2 coming next year with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot following the story of Goku.
At the end of the day, these franchises are just ways for Bamco to print money regardless of actual quality. There will always be an audience for games of any kind on name alone. There is still a lot we don’t know about One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows. If nothing else, it may end up a decent game to pass the time and relive some of the show’s greatest moments.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop pressing for better and more varied anime based video games. Experiment beyond arena brawlers and the need to have “everyone” playable, find a reputable developer (bonus if they are anime fans), and encourage creativity as opposed to having them check off a fandom’s wish list at the cost of fun and engaging gameplay.
When it comes down to it, all we really want is to be able to play inside our favorite anime worlds. But that doesn’t mean it should come at the price of gameplay.