Do Guest Characters Help or Hurt Games

Tale As Old As Time

For as long as pop culture has been a thing, one sentiment has always rung true: people love a good crossover. From Mad About You and Seinfeld to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doctor Who, there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing two characters from different universes meet.

In the video game world, crossovers have been a thing for quite a while and perhaps even longer than some gamers think.

What I don’t consider to be a crossover would be the early Nintendo games. Nintendo had a habit of putting Mario in various roles throughout the early days of the company. Not only was he a carpenter named Jumpman, trying to save Pauline from Donkey Kong, but also a referee in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and the star of Super Mario Bros.

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The first true crossover game was Battle Soccer, released exclusively in Japan in 1992. The game features quite a roster, boasting characters from Godzilla, Ultraman, Gundam, and more.

From there, crossovers have stretched from insanely popular to downright weird. A few more recent ones have even brought out the ire of some games’ communities.

Are putting characters from all these different franchises together a good move for games? Or do they hurt the games that they’re a part of?

Spider-Man: Pro Skater

One of my earliest encounters with character crossovers was with a friend’s copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 for the Sony PlayStation. The game was released in September of 2000 and was developed by Neversoft. Neversoft was the same company that developed Spider-Man, which had released a month earlier. As a fun little easter egg, Spider-Man was put into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 as a secret unlockable character.

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Incidentally, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise would go on to feature other hidden characters from comic books and science fiction films, including Wolverine and Darth Maul.

A Challenger Approaches

Another early experience I had with crossovers is one that sticks with me to this day: Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64. The game was quite an experiment for its time and included a number of popular Nintendo characters. As the games grew in popularity, so did the rosters.

The most recent installment in the franchise, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, featured a number of characters not owned by Nintendo. Among these were Street Fighter’s Ryu, Pac-Man, Mega Man, and Cloud, the protagonist of the iconic Final Fantasy VII.

There’s no definitive answer yet in regards to when the next installment of Super Smash Bros. will be released, but I can’t wait. Every game in the series has been a hit and that isn’t an accident.

On paper, the formula sounds great: take popular characters from a large publisher and mix them together on a fighting stage. Sadly this isn’t the case. Sony attempted this with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and the results were much less successful than expected.

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Super Smash Bros. as a whole stands as one of my prime examples of how to do game crossovers right.

Mega Man: Boy or Man?

Pac-Man and Mega Man are no strangers to the fighting genre either. Both characters, despite their appearances, were part of the roster for Street Fighter X Tekken. Let’s look at Mega Man first.

Mega Man is known for being an adorable little robot boy with bright blue armor and a fighting spirit. This isn’t the Mega Man that appears in this game. The Street Fighter X Tekken incarnation of the character did something unexpected: it used the box art Mega Man from the first game.

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There was a time in the video game world where the box art of a game was not representative of the graphics of the game. During this era, box art would display, in some cases, beautiful and completely realistic artwork of the scenario the games were based on. The actual games would have pixelated 8-bit graphics. Mega Man was one of the games that did this.

While the sprite of the character in game was small, cute, and cartoony, the Mega Man on the box is a much grittier and more rugged. While this incarnation of the character caught me off guard, he absolutely fit in with the game.

Pac-Man the Fighter

Then we have Pac-Man. I will give the developers of the game credit for this: it’s hard to make a large yellow ball with bright red boots fit in anywhere outside of a cartoony environment. The developers succeeded at this… kind of.

Unlike Mega Man, Pac-Man doesn’t have a gritty, R-rated counterpart. Pac-Man is a ball of joy that brightens any room he enters. The solution to getting Pac-Man to fit in with the rest of the roster? Give him a robot suit to control that allows him to fight like the big kids.

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I kid you not, they gave Pac-Man his own robot just to make him feel less out of place in an arcade-style fighting game. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

It was recently announced that Noctis, the protagonist of Final Fantasy XV, would be joining the roster of Tekken 7 soon, showing that the developers have no desire to stop experimenting with what characters will fit in alongside their fighting bear anytime soon.

Injustice 2’s Too Many Guests

The last game I need to talk about briefly is Injustice 2, developed by NetherRealm, the studio behind the Mortal Kombat games. Ever since Mortal Kombat, the 9th installment in the series, NetherRealm has made their love of guest characters known.

From Freddy Kreuger to Kratos, NetherRealm cemented that when they make a Mortal Kombat game, there’s going to be guests. Their second fighter, Injustice, which pitted DC heroes and villains against each other in the same arcade style, limited the guests to just Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion.

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When Mortal Kombat X was released, the guest list got longer. DLC fighters included a handful of additional characters from the franchise, but also included Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, the Xenomorph from Alien as well as the eponymous Predator.  Seeing all of these guest fighters made me wonder what the studio would do with Injustice 2. Well now we know.

Unlike the last game, which limited the DLC to one guest character, Injustice 2 went crazy with them. In addition to a handful of DC characters, the game now features Raiden and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat, Hellboy, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

With Mortal Kombat X, I don’t recall much of a negative reception to the game’s guest characters. This time the feedback was more vocal, especially against the two Mortal Kombat fighters. DC Comics fans claim that DC characters should be added instead. Mortal Kombat characters can be played in Mortal Kombat

It’s open to debate with what they should have done, but personally I’m completely fine with how the DLC roster turned out.

A Complicated Truth

The truth is that there isn’t a definitive answer to whether these guest characters help or hurt games. This is one of the few things that always needs to be examined on a per situation basis. Does the character’s visual style fit in with the world? What about their voice? Clothes?

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When Shovel Knight appeared in Yooka-Laylee, the character was built from the ground up  in a visual style similar to the game. His vocals were also made to sound like other characters of the world. This was a smart move by the developers and made his appearance work.

Pac-Man in Street Fighter x Tekken? Not so much. Sometimes character choices are crazy and off the rails and can be a lot of fun. Other times, the choices made are jarring and pull from the game’s experience to some extent.

Does a guest character ever massacre a game? No, but more often than not they also don’t make them Game of the Year.

What are some of your favorite guest characters in games? Let us know in the comments!

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