So if you're any sort of fighting game fan, you've probably heard the news: Sony is creating its own version of Super Smash Bros. entitled PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale. It's releasing next Tuesday, in fact.
You've probably also heard that a good many people are none too happy about its existence. Journalists, pundits, and gamers alike have written the game off as poor mimicry, an obvious cash grab, intellectual theft, you name it. The general consensus appears to be that no developer as ever copied Nintendo as wholesale as Superbot and Sony have done with their new party fighter. Except...plenty of developers have...at least a half dozen times since the original Smash Bros. released in 1999. The difference between those times and now is that, prior to the announcement of PlayStation Allstars, nobody had kittens over any of the other Smash-alikes. In fact, people were even excited for some of them.
This is troubling for several reasons and hits me on several levels. First and most obvious, is that inarguable bias has crept into people’s minds. The rancor over Sony creating a mascot fighter appears to be outweighing the better judgment of critic and gamer alike. The criticisms hurled at this game from all sectors - professional and enthusiast - have ranged from the nonsensical (the cast is mostly non-exclusive, characters can’t dodge) to the purely personal (only Nintendo has a catalog capable of supporting an ensemble fighter, etc.). The more personal reactions don’t bother me - you like what you like and feel how you feel, end of story. It’s the nonsense criticisms I find alarming - because those suggest a more groundless, irrational dislike of the game coming from people who should no better than to start sounding off on a topic without doing a lick of research. And while certain people may relish the idea of PlayStation Allstars getting reamed on Metacritic, let me remind them that it’s a slippery slope. Fanaticism in gaming journalism - particularly at a time when the legitimacy of game reviewing as a whole is being called into question - doesn’t do anyone any favors. Today it’s a mascot fighter from Sony. Tomorrow it could be Virtua Fighter 6 because it launched on the “wrong system”.
And that brings me to my next issue: as a longtime fighting game fan (seriously, I imported an Arcade Card way back when so I could play the PC Engine’s superlative NeoGeo ports), it’s troubling to see most people’s negative reactions to a Sony-branded mascot fighter for little reason beyond “it’s Sony”. This is a small community, people. And it’s a genre who’s heyday was well over a decade ago. Thanks almost entirely to Capcom’s efforts with Street Fighter 4, the fighting game has seen a resurgence in popularity and mainstream attention the likes of which it hasn’t seen in years. And sure, rivalries have always existed. Whether they were drawn along developer lines (Capcom and SNK, Namco and Sega, namco and Tecmo) or manufacturer lines (Nintendo and Sega, Sony and Sega, Sony and Nintendo), the assorted franchises and their adopted homes have always had their champions and detractors. But as fighting game fans, we still had a common ground in the arcade. A place where it didn’t matter if you owned a PlayStation or a Saturn because everything was right there in front of you - waiting to played and dissected and mastered. A neutral ground where the flagship fighters of PlayStation and Saturn, Dreamcast and Gamecube could stand side by side, free of those divisions, and considered on merits beyond their home version’s platform. Sure, there were console exclusive fighters - Bushido Blade, Guilty Gear, Super Smash Bros. - but the neutral, friendly territory provided by arcades made attitudes towards them far more democratic.
“As a Nintendo fan, this literally makes me sick.”
The above quote was a NeoGAFers reaction to the announcement of PlayStation Allstars Battle Royale. It’s since become a minor meme within NeoGAF’s community of PlayStation Allstars fans. But it shows just how much things have changed over the past console generation or two. There’s never been a more divisive time in the entire history of gaming, and it could be absolute poison for fighting games. What kind of message does it send when the community as a whole says “no” to a game based on nothing more than brand preference? SNK’s entire fighting dynasty started as nothing more than a handful of Street Fighter 2 clones - games that were solid and fun, if slightly unoriginal. But look at what it all became. What if people’s reactions to the original Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, and World Heroes had been as visceral as those for PlayStation Allstars? What would we not have seen as a result?
People, I like party fighters. Guilty Gear and Virtua Fighter are amazing games, but I need the Tech Romancers and Power Stones of the world to balance them out. The fighting game renaissance we’ve experienced over the past several years is wonderful, but incomplete. Because with rare exception, the bubblegum and midcore fighters that gave the genre so much flavor in the nineties are absent. And guys, Smash Bros. can’t be the sole bearer of that burden - not when we get one once every five or six years. There needs to be more than that. Period. Full stop. And when Capcom, Sega, Square and anyone else responsible for those goofy, enjoyable experiences see people beating their chests over a high-profile party fighter coming from someplace other than Nintendo, it’s going to give them pause. It’s going to tell them that the best and only place for their Rival Schools revival is a Nintendo platform. And when it fails to generate multi-platform caliber numbers it will tell them that people aren’t interested in bubblegum fighters so much as they’re fans of Smash Bros. And then we’re right back where we started this generation.
Finally, as a fan of many PlayStation properties - I need this game receive a fair shake (and ultimately succeed) because I want to see some of these franchises live again. It’s no secret that the reason we have a new Kid Icarus game at all is due to Pit’s inclusion in Brawl. A sequel was rumored years ago, prior to the Gamecube launch, but nothing came of it - and no mention of the franchise was made again until the third Smash Bros. game. Likewise, Melee was instrumental in providing long suffering JRPG fans with their first chance to play Fire Emblem outside of Japan. And it’s so very awesome that Smash Bros. was able to blaze those trails. The thing is, I’d like to see Medieval receive the same treatment Kid Icarus got. I want Ape Escape 4 green-lit. I want a the roster of a potential sequel to make the honchos at SCEJ reconsider Legend of Dragoon 2 and Wild Arms 6. There are more unjustly dormant IPs out there than those made by Nintendo, and if mascot fighters are a way to reawaken them, then by god, I can think of a few developers besides Sony I’d like to see make the same effort.
In the end, I don’t expect PlayStation Allstars Battle Royale to do well critically. As I pointed out in the beta impressions thread, this game will have to be significantly better than Smash Bros. just to save it from a litany of tepid reviews, punctuated by 5s, 6s, and 7s. I don’t believe that most journalists will be able to leave bias at the door and give something as mechanically sound as Smash Bros. an equivalent score. And it’s too bad, because there are precious few casual fighters of quality released these days (and make no mistake, PlayStation Allstars is of exceptionally high quality) - and seeing one potentially eviscerated because it’s made by Sony and following a template created by Nintendo is a bummer on multiple levels.