When it comes to long-standing franchises, especially in the realm of blockbusters, it’s never much of a surprise when some fresh excitement is injected by a different franchise. The crossover is a process/marketing trick older than the medium of video games, time-honored and tried in every variety: in the history of cinema, you can’t take two steps without tripping over an Aliens v. Predators or even something more esoteric like Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. Godzilla has endless fights with characters from other kaiju material. Even the modern zeitgeist of the Cinematic Universe is a dedicated extension of the crossover, fostering the Ultimate Crossover Experience by building up a series of one-offs to culminate in a climatic finale.
Video games are certainly no stranger to this phenomenon. There are the obvious Smash Bros., Super Robot Wars, or Marvel vs Capcom; ranging to the the more surreal, such as Pizza Hut gear showing up in Phantasy Star Portable 2 or KFC sending actual chicken dinners to viewers of various PUBG streams. In recent years, though, we’ve seen this cease to be the exclusive domain of AAA, as the crossover finds its way into the indie space. Every time a new game is released on itch, there’s at least a 65% chance that Shovel Knight will somehow show up in it. The fellow has now been in over ten different titles, with myriad cameos to back that up. He doesn’t even stick to his genre, showing up in Cook, Serve, Delicious! Battle Kitchen as a chef. Outside this, other indies have been bubbling to the surface with crossover titles, especially those from Nicalis, as of late.
Not only did they put together a MvC of their own in Blade Strangers, featuring the likes of characters from Cave Story and The Binding of Isaac, but followed it up with Crystal Crisis, taking a note from the pages of Super Puzzle Fighter and making these characters duke it out via competitive block dropping.
Now, a lot of these games or films tend to simply take the characters or settings of one universe, and mix them in with another. Sure, Shovel Knight may still be locked into a 2D plane in Blade Strangers, but ultimately he’s being changed to suit the needs of a fighting game over the retro platforming of his own title. The same can be said of all the characters of Smash Bros. as well, involving characteristics or quirks relating back to their source material, yet not quite what they were.
Where crossovers become truly interesting though, is when we begin to see mechanics fuse into something new. Take, for instance, Monster Hunter: World.
Throughout its life thus far, MHW has seen a multitude of quests and monsters added to the game, and has had special events with ultra-rare monsters that only appear for the duration. In the end, though, they still play the same as the rest of the game. It’s just adding in more Monster Hunter to further flesh it out. However, there are two quests that stand out in particular: one related to The Witcher 3 and the other to Final Fantasy XIV. For both of them, we get introduced to mechanics that don’t show up anywhere else in the game, because they’re specifically being made to carry over a feeling related to the franchise being represented.
For the Witcher quest, the player winds up in control of Geralt himself, having teleported from his own world to this one. To really bring home the sense of worlds colliding, it introduces a basic dialogue system, one that exists only within the confines of this single quest. Its presence is truly welcome, though, and it ekes out a taste of Witcher gameplay into the trappings of Monster Hunter. You aren’t just going out and hunting; you’re now investigating with Geralt’s Witcher Senses to track down the beast. You discuss with NPCs not only what it could be that’s going on with regard to your prey, but also why it is they became an herbologist, or if they enjoy working for the Research Commission. These tiny details add to the depth of the world, and help to sell this crossover as special, beyond a character skin.
In the case of the FFXIV quest, your fight against the Behemoth takes a cue from the mechanics of fights in XIV itself. Not only do you need to worry about dodging the normal attacks of this monster, but it has special moves that then require you worry about specific positioning to avoid an attack, such as calling down meteors that you have to hide behind to avoid being fried to a crisp in an insta-kill. God forbid you wipe and have to start the Duty, er— Hunt over again.
That’s another point of note about these quests: the aesthetic changes to reflect the other games. In The Witcher, you’re specifically on a Quest, not a Hunt, and this is denoted with on-screen updates when you gather new details, in the fonts from TW3, similarly-constructed to that game’ handling of quest notifications. FFXIV’s Hunt is referred to as a Duty (the instanced, group-based content of XIV), and similarly uses fonts or music from the MMO to change up the standard Monster Hunter World.
Such attention to the minute details goes against the notion that crossovers necessarily simply consist of importing a model into another game, adapting its art style to whatever yours may be; instead, it can be something that shows reverence for the foreign material. By doing so little as changing menu fonts, a real sense of respect is communicated to those players that care about both ends of the crossover. It makes it all just a little more special.
This sense of care can be found outside of one-off instances within other games, too, as evidenced by Cadence of Hyrule. Taking the motifs and basic rhythmic gameplay of Crypt of the Necrodancer and turning that into a Zelda game couldn’t have been an easy task, but it shines with polish and an endearing love for the material being used. What’s more, it never feels too much like it leans one way or the other, taking this opportunity to create something different and fresh from these ingredients.
For me, that’s what I love to come across. Sure, Rathalos in Peace Walker is cool, but you’re not doing anything particularly different from the base game. It never feels like a “Hunt” any more than any other boss mission does. In the end, aren’t these sorts of things supposed to be celebratory? Illustrations of the differences between these entities or franchises, coming together, forming something wholly new out of seemingly disparate parts? To find fertile ground amongst the scorched earth that is the well-trodden path? I, for one, look forward to further blends of my favourite titles, and hope, as any fan would, that they do justice to one another. When Shovel Knight shows up in your next game, make sure you do right by the lad.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.