At a press conference last month, Fukuoka-based game studio Level-5 dropped an unexpected bombshell. Its upcoming “Professor Layton” puzzle game would have a very different feature from its previous games: the appearance of Capcom’s lawyer sleuth, Phoenix Wright. Fans of the series were reeling.
The “Professor Layton” games are incredibly popular in Japan and have already spun off a feature animated film. Likewise, Capcom’s “Ace Attorney” series is a hit within Japan and abroad. The franchises are unrelated and both companies are independent. But the Nintendo 3DS collaboration makes sense: Professor Layton solves puzzles, Phoenix Wright solves cases. Perfect!
Capcom is on a roll with high-profile collaborations. Earlier this year, monsters from the Osaka-based Capcom’s hugely successful PSP franchise “Monster Hunter” popped up in Konami’s PSP stealth game “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.” (This is hardly a first for Konami, as back in 2008 the “Metal Gear Solid” character Snake popped up in the Nintendo fighting game “Super Smash Bros. Brawl!”). The addition of “Monster Hunter” characters to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” isn’t an ideal fit. Both are big PSP games, but the swords and fantasy “Monster Hunter” monsters seem out of place in the military setting of “Metal Gear Solid.” It was as if Konami just hoped to jump on the “Monster Hunter” bandwagon. Yet, the collaboration won fans over and “Peace Walker” ended up a hit. Mission accomplished.
The crossovers don’t end there. This summer, Capcom also announced that it is working on a “Street Fighter” fighting game with Namco’s fighting series “Tekken.” Capcom will develop “Street Fighter × Tekken,” while Namco Bandai will create “Tekken × Street Fighter.” Details on the games are still fuzzy, but the titles are expected to combine characters and elements from both franchises.
Next year, Capcom will release “Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds,” featuring Capcom characters battling Marvel comic-book characters.
However, there is a precedent for these particular crossovers. During the late 1990s and the turn of the century, Capcom worked on fighting games with Marvel as well as cross-town rival, SNK. “The King of Fighters” franchise from Osaka-based SNK squared off against Capcom’s brawlers. The trend continued with the more recent “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom,” a game that featured Tatsunoko anime characters such as Casshern duking it out with iconic arcade characters such as Chun-Li and Ryu from “Street Fighter.”
Namco has also stepped into the realm of crossovers, with titles such as 2005’s “Namco × Capcom” and the 2008 fighting game “Soulcalibur IV,” which surprised gamers with appearances by “Star Wars” characters such as Yoda and Darth Vader, wielding lightsabers against the sword-swinging “Soulcalibur” heroes and heroines.
Nintendo was actually one of the first Japanese companies to cast its various characters into roles in other video games on a wide scale. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Nintendo put its iconic mascot, Mario, in a ton of different video games, making the Kyoto-based company one of the first Japanese developers to cast its characters in different titles on a wide scale.
In the past several years, though, Nintendo has focused less on giving their characters cameo roles in their own games and more on having them appear in crossover titles such as Square Enix’s 2007 title “Itadaki Street DS,” which features characters from “Dragon Quest” and “Super Mario Bros.,” and 2009’s “Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.” Throughout the 1990s, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were fierce adversaries during the Sega and Nintendo console war — a fight Sega ultimately lost. A crossover collaboration between the two characters would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, but it seems now that gaming’s biggest foes have become allies in the battle for customers.
The Japanese game industry is increasingly sluggish, with much cheaper social networking titles vying for players’ attention. Crossovers aren’t new, but the recent economic malaise hanging over gaming is. Players need excitement, and these games provide a much-needed injection of that. During the last decade, Hollywood also went crossover crazy with movies such as “Freddy vs. Jason” in the hopes of reviving slow box-office sales. The latest round of video-game crossovers aim to do the same. Gimmicky, sure, but these crossovers turn “what if?” conversations into reality.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.