Unsurprisingly, there’s an immense crossover of fandoms between video games and shonen anime. The two are alike in many ways, being cartoonish but earnest parodies of real life. They’re beloved for their gratuitous violence, over the top characters, and untold capacity for societal introspection.
If you ever want to experience being at the heart of a colourful new world, both are valid avenues. But while their audiences cross over on many occasions, the mediums themselves aren’t quite as willing. Aside from a few high-profile exceptions, all of which fall under the fighting game category, anime adaptations are rare.
While combat is an inherent part of shonen-style anime, it’s not the totality of their appeal. The worlds and characters found in series like Naruto, Bleach, and Dragon Ball are equally central to their success. Fighting games may explore the power sets of these characters, but it doesn’t bother with the personalities that make them so appealing. It takes more than a cool move set to make a compelling character — otherwise Janemba would be king.
With the arguable exception of Dragon Ball, these series could fit a number of compelling game moulds. RPGs, strategy games, stealth-action titles, spectacle fighters like Bayonnetta, anything. But the only differentiator between anime games is whether they’re 2D or 3D fighters. For a genre that offers such depth of character and lore beyond who chucks the biggest fireballs, it’s depressing. So, why do anime games find themselves in such a rut?
They Don’t Bother with Stories
The inherent appeal of fighting games, from a cynical perspective, is that you needn’t bother with story at all. Most have a lacklustre narrative, as the appeal is entirely confined to its gameplay. And the willingness of anime adaptations to write a decent story is clear, despite their shoddy attempts.
You need only look at the self-insert fanfic characters of Xenoverse and FighterZ, with stories to match. The best they’re willing to offer is a direct translation of the anime’s story, as you’ll find in games like the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series. And while I enjoy them from a gameplay perspective, it’s problematic that they set this standard.
There’s so much more you could do with the universes and characters these series create. A Dragon Ball story that doesn’t doggedly follow Goku around like an obsessed voyeur would be great. But they don’t think anyone will buy a game without Goku front and centre. The same goes for a series like Naruto. There’s plenty to do with the universe itself beyond the main cast. A game as a random Anbu operative operating abroad, something in the style of Dishonored, would be brilliant. The world is more than rich enough to support it, and the power set translates almost directly.
It’s not hard to make something unique out of these universes and these characters. But it’s far easier to just retell and retrace the anime’s story over and over again. Because you can sell the game on the merit of the series, rather than letting it speak for itself. You might think that’s the point of a licensed product, but it doesn’t have to be.
‘What If’ Scenarios in Shonen
You don’t have to veer away from the series entirely to make it your own. You can still use its world and its characters to advertise yourself while creating a unique experience. The anime community is ablaze with different interpretations and variations of the core series’ canon, so they’d buy a game that plays off that principle in no time. But it’d need proper re-interpretations, and not just the Dragon Ball Xenoverse version. ‘What if the Frieza fight happened but Cooler was there and also died’ is not good enough. It would need something that properly alters the entire dynamic of the series.
A Dragon Ball game where Raditz survived Goku’s suicide and supplanted him as the series protagonist would be cool. It could follow his rebellion against Frieza, and the fallen Saiyan prince that doggedly serves him. A Naruto game where Yahiko survives the fight with Hanzo, making him, Konan, and Nagato the protagonists. The game could then follow the formation and plight of the original Akatsuki as an organisation seeking peace.
It’s reasonable to doubt the potential success of a game entirely your own, but set within someone else’s universe. But if you won’t write a story in the universe, write one with the universe. In the same vein as comic book games, the pieces have already been created. The work is already done. You need only arrange it into something unique. But they’re not even willing to go that far, and there’s one company to thank for the monotonous cycle of repeating the events of the main series canon.
The Power of Monopoly
The reason most major anime adaptations are so similar is because there’s a single company behind their creation. Bandai Namco holds the licenses for most major anime in gaming. If you can think of a recent anime title, chances are that they’re the ones who published it. Their output is consistent in quality, but I’ve long held a grudge against them for their awful PC ports. The stagnant nature of anime adaptations in gaming is a result of their influence as well.
Their model exists as it does currently because it works. They can create consistently decent titles based on their engines, while selling them using other people’s work. Why did people buy Xenoverse 2? Not because it was better than the original — both the combat and narrative were nearly identical. They bought it because it boasted an expanded roster of characters.
That’s all Bandai Namco does with their anime titles. They’ve doubled the price of Xenoverse 2 by peddling Dragon Ball Super characters two at a time. They cut core characters like Madara Uchiha out of Jump Force to resell as DLC. They’ve resold variations of Goku and Vegeta for Dragon Ball FighterZ because they know people will pay for it.
These fighting games are capable of making double their resale price based on other people’s characters. And that’s why they’re all we see out of Namco. They’ve got an earning potential to rival most triple A titles, with half the sodding effort. There’s no point acting like it doesn’t work, either. I’d give them ten pounds to play as Dosu, the random soundwave ninja from the Chunin exams. The guy that Gaara killed offscreen. It’s the kind of trick no other genre can pull, and it’s one that works.
Underestimating the Shonen Audience
There’s no disputing the popularity of shonen manga and anime in the west. Shonen Jump’s big three, Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece are all landmarks of western anime culture. Every Dragon Ball Super movie has topped theatres and matched far more elaborate productions. Even people entirely ignorant to the culture behind the titles know the names.
They’re household names, and more than popular enough to warrant a big-budget single-player RPG style game, like something in the vein of EA’s upcoming Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. But Bandai Namco either doesn’t understand its audience or doesn’t want to publish a title proportionate to the interest. They’d rather recycle the same engines and the same stories across endless sequels rather than take a risk.
The very fact that people bought Jump Force in spite of how blatantly atrocious it looked is proof enough. There’s an audience crying out for something new in this area. People want decent, thoughtful anime titles, but no-one’s providing them. And those who would are being smothered by Bandai Namco’s monopoly over the licencing.
I want a Bleach game in the style of the Witcher 3 where you master swordsmanship as you venture across a new land, slaying strange hollows all the while Aizen and the Espada loom over you like the Wild Hunt did. Give me a One Piece game akin to Assassin’s Creed 4, flowing seamlessly from ship combat to land fights. Give me Parasyte but in the style of Prototype 2. Code Geass but it’s Advanced Wars.
There’s so much you could do with these licences that just isn’t being done. Fighting games are far from the pinnacle of the potential these series have to cross over with gaming. But unfortunately, they’re all that’s being made and they’re completely smothering the market for decent adaptations.
I genuinely enjoy every title I’ve mentioned here (except Jump Force) but they’re the best of a bad bunch. They’re a stagnant, gross oasis in the middle of a desert. Because it’s the only thing around, I’ll take it. But I’d rather something so much better.