Video games are doing an injustice to some of the most beloved fiction out there.
Why are we putting up with bad video game adaptations of the anime we love? That question has been stuck in my head, so think of this as my attempt to untangle some thoughts, vent a bit, and maybe come to an understanding. Because anime games are bad, and it's really, really frustrating.
I think what rubs me the wrong way the most is the frequent reliance on arena fighters, and because of that, I guess what I'm saying is that the shounen genre deserves better--though other genres aren't entirely free from shoddy adaptations. The arena fighter is, I think, a poisonous gameplay template when it comes to anime and manga adaptations. It emaciates its source material, reducing intricate stories, nuanced characters, fascinating worlds, and emotionally resonant themes into button-mashy pugilism.
I'll say up front that, no, I'm not saying every game based on a shounen property is bad. Dragon Ball FighterZ stands out as a recent exception, but the rule it defies still exists: The vast majority of anime games are disappointing. And for some reason, we just seem to put up with it.
Every time I play one of these games I feel like I'm at school again, desperately trying to convince friends that there's more to Naruto, Bleach, or Hunter x Hunter than screaming dudes, boasting about power levels, and sticking fingers up butts.
I'm not trying to incite a weebvolution here, but I found myself quite upset with Dragon Ball Kakarot recently and finally snapped. I was Goku, Krillin was my feelings being lifted into the air as I watched in horror, and Bandai Namco was Frieza laughing and shouting, "Pop goes the weasel" as it crushed Krillin/my feelings. And you know what happens next...
I know some people really enjoyed Kakarot, and to those people I want to say: I'm glad you did, I respect that, and I can even understand why. The nostalgia of watching iconic moments like Gohan exploding out of Raditz's ship, the epic Vegeta Oozaru fight, or Goku's first time turning Super Saiyajin is incredibly powerful. And to its credit, Kakarot is a nice-looking game. But there was something cynical to me about how moments that Dragon Ball fans have held dear for so long were being used as bait to move us from one repetitive gameplay sequence to the next.
Kakarot is a game that garnered a lot of interest because it touted semi-open-world environments and RPG-like quests, luring longtime fans into thinking this was the grand video game Dragon Ball Z adventure they'd been dreaming of. Seeing fans show so much love for the attention to detail that Arc System Works put into FighterZ gave me hope that, finally, developers and publishers would see the value in actually investing in making these games good. But in the end, I felt that the execution was just lip service yet again. To me, Kakarot's world felt like an empty artifice; flying around it at high speed felt clumsy and unsatisfying, it was choked with garish item pickups, the quests were mostly forgettable busy work, and the core of the game and the Dragon Ball Z experience--combat--was the same tired model that we've been playing since the PlayStation 2 era. In Dragon Ball terms, it was Hercule--talking a big game but with little there to back up the bluster.
Recently we've had Dragon Ball Kakarot, My Hero Academia: One's Justice, One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows, Jump Force, and probably some others I've pushed out of my mind. These games all basically play the same, and in the process, surgically remove everything that makes their source material special. Jump Force is particularly vicious in this regard, as it brings together characters from numerous beloved properties and dumps them in one tragically poor game. It honestly felt like an attack on my entire teenage years as a shounen fan.
Yes, the shows these games are based on certainly make it easy for developers to orient their games around the arena fighter mold. These franchises do often use bombastic battles to push crucial narrative beats forward, but the Shounen genre has also moved past violence for violence's sake, and it feels like the people that make the games either willfully choose not to or aren't given the opportunity to explore that.
Take My Hero Academia for example. It's currently one of the most popular shounen anime worldwide. The game, My Hero Academia: One's Justice, predominantly involves characters circling each other in an arena and kicking the crap out of each other by spamming special moves that, in the show, would demolish city blocks or comprehensively defeat a target in just one hit.
Contrast that with the All Might Versus Nomu fight in the show, during which a beleaguered All Might, on borrowed time, pushes past his limits against an enemy engineered specifically to defeat him. Using what little energy he has left he delivers a brutal barrage of strikes at the expense of his degrading body. All the while, dozens of teenagers that have grown up idolizing him and wanting to be a hero like he is look on, unaware that his story is coming to a close and his battle to save them from invading villains would be one of his last.
When you see that final, destructive punch, coupled with a triumphant shout of "Plus Ultra," it's emotionally crippling. It makes your nerves tingle, your breath shorten, your heart race, your palms sweat, and if you're like me, you might even tear up a bit. And there's more: Deku's first Detroit Smash to save Uraraka; Kota realizing Deku is a hero he can believe in; Todoroki coming to terms with who he is--My Hero doesn't just have these moments, it is entirely about these moments. And yet, where are they in One's Justice? Where is even a fraction of that feeling? It's just not there.
I get that I'm zeroing in on something that is not easy to replicate, but anime games of late don't feel like they're even making an attempt. Of course, there are business realities driving these creative decisions too--games are expensive to make and, for these kinds of licensed products specifically, harvesting the low-hanging fruit is the most efficient way to feed the hungry masses.
That approach, however, diminishes the licenses and fails to play to the strengths of video games as a medium. Games are more than capable of marrying sophisticated storytelling, world-building, and rewarding gameplay mechanics. But between the half-assed retellings of the same stories over and over, the squandering of charismatic characters, and the devaluation of awe-inspiring worlds, I can't be blamed for thinking this is more a case of won't do than can't do.
These adaptations may not be able to transmute the soul of the source material, but they don't even try to jumpstart the heart of it. They take the essence of something great, and use it to give life to a chimera that is just sad to look at. There's no equivalent exchange.
It's a huge shame because, at one time, we had a small taste of what an anime adaptation can be if treated with some respect. For my money, one of the best anime-to-game adaptations of all time is Ubisoft's Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. It came out at the height of Naruto's worldwide popularity and, although it wasn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, Ubisoft Montreal paid attention to the spirit of what makes Naruto interesting and made strides in presenting that in video game form.
The most obvious example of this is its recreation of Konoha, the village where protagonist Naruto is from and where the early part of the series takes place. In the game, players could explore Konoha--and areas beyond--on foot, running through its streets, brushing shoulders with citizens. They could use ninja abilities to scale buildings and platform around structures to reach new areas. For me, being able to move around a world that I had grown to know intimately through manga and anime was an amazing feeling, and I remember really appreciating that Ubisoft had put in the effort to let me do that.
Similarly, the combat system had enough depth to keep me engaged and thinking about what I was doing. Since it functioned more like a fighting game in the vein of Street Fighter--albeit not as complex--there was a need to consider strategies more carefully, use timing to my advantage, and execute jutsus at opportune moments. It was a far cry from the basic spamming of most arena fighters of today. Like Dragon Ball Z Kakarot, it also allowed players to take on missions--but since the world felt populated and interactive, and there was gameplay variety in these missions, the act of working towards those hits of nostalgia felt smoother and I daresay enjoyable.
In the years after Ubisoft stopped making Naruto games, we were pummeled by a procession of arena fighter Naruto games. Developer CyberConnect2's efforts in making these look the part can't be understated or swept aside. The Ultimate Ninja Storm series has some of the most jaw-dropping visuals around and that did a lot of work in drawing fans to them. But a look behind the traced images revealed that the important details were crudely copied if not completely missing.
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When playing Kakarot, all I could think of is the cycle of incremental updates these arena fighters undergo. All those years of Budokai titles and the Dragon Ball games we have today aren't all that different from it. The almost identical Naruto and One Piece series of games. The extremely forgettable Bleach games. Another samey My Hero Academia title is on the way, and I expect another One Punch Man game will follow suit, barely changed from its predecessor. This led me to think about the next few years of Kakarot iterations that we'll settle for until the next baby step in the evolutionary chain. Is that what we really want?
Again, it's the squandered potential that hurts the most. Anime is a fertile ground for video game developers and publishers to plant seeds in. More so than movies, TV, and any other medium, video games are suited to leveraging what anime has to offer; they're replete with possibilities. I can't help but fantasize about what a One Piece game made by Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Black Flag team could be like. Or Capcom's Dragon's Dogma team doing Hunter x Hunter. Imagine Platinum Games on JoJo's Bizarre Adventure or Remedy Entertainment on Full Metal Alchemist. Insomniac Games Presents My Hero Academia.
Of course, I'm not saying those specific studios should be the ones to do it, I'm more speaking to what could be made if a studio had a willingness to come at an anime property with respect and the desire to do right by it. It doesn't have to be a big name team, it just needs to be one willing to think outside the same old box. That's what Rocksteady did for its landmark adaptation of the Dark Knight. By current standards, Rocksteady was an unknown developer before Arkham Asylum, and what it did in that game wasn't particularly innovative or revolutionary on paper. Even if the ideas were familiar, it was smart about adapting them for the character and the universe, and did so in the smartest way, from a place of passion and reverence. The results speak for themselves.
So, when will anime get its Batman: Arkham Asylum? It deserves better than arena fighters. Video games can do more than arena fighters. And we shouldn't just keep accepting arena fighters.
Weebvolution, rise up!