The internet is a weird place. It allows us to connect to each other over vast distances, instantaneously share information, be with our loved ones across the ocean, and, sometimes, introduces swaths of people to a bizarre VN/fighting game hybrid that is tangentially related to one of the most massive anime-media empires we’ve seen since the inception of Dragon Ball. Of course, I’m talking about the expanded universe known as the “Nasuverse”.
Included under its ever-widening umbrella is the hugely successful Fate franchise, in which Heroic Spirits of history’s greatest warriors duke it out for their respective Masters to secure the Holy Grail, and grant both of their ultimate wishes. Starting with a visual novel and spawning endless anime adaptations, games, and fan works, Fate is a series one is quick to encounter when dipping their toe into the vast sea of anime.
Enter developers French Bread, and their cult classic Melty Blood.
Before diving too deeply into that can of worms, we need to take a step back. In the early aughts, developer TYPE-MOON released a visual novel titled Tsukihime: a sweeping epic about Shiki Tohno and his journey with a newfound ability to see the Points of Death which tie all people inexorably to their mortality. With his “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception,” Shiki uncovers a deeply guarded mystery surrounding our Earth and Moon, involving cosmic beings and vampires. Written by Kinoko Nasu, it would be the beginning of a very illustrious career for him.
During this time period, it should be noted that visual novels were hugely popular in Japan, mostly chalked up to the fact that the vast majority of them featured adult content involving their respective casts of female characters. Beyond this, fans of various releases partook in the act of creating doujins, or amateur works frequently tied to existing franchises or special interests. With the relative ease of developing a VN, fans flocked to the genre as a way to create their love letters to series or titles they enjoyed, expanding on universes, or creating new ones wholesale. These unofficial entries to established franchises would be sold and circulated on what was essentially an out-in-the-open grey market through conventions.
When Tsukihime dropped, it created a huge wave of popularity. Differentiating itself from other VNs at the time by not focusing on the more explicit aspects of the genre, the game crafted a world drenched in lore and complex, branching storylines. Players could pursue a multitude of alternate paths to the plot, each crafted with the same love and care. It become a sensation among the community and garnered a stream of fans clamoring for more content within its world.
Immersed in the burgeoning community around doujins, developer group Watanabe Productions (later becoming French Bread) took part in creating a multitude of these fan works, much to the delight of otaku culture. Wanting to leave behind the somewhat legally tenuous world of fan doujins, Watanabe began brainstorming ideas that could be taken more seriously. Approaching TYPE-MOON, Watanabe Productions pitched a fighting game based on the Tsukihime license and were met with a go-ahead from Nasu and the team.
Released in 2002 on Windows, Melty Blood was a worrisome endeavor. So much so that TYPE-MOON removed themselves from credits, as they feared what fan reactions would be like to the game, as it poised itself to be a somewhat direct sequel to Tsukihime by following an alternate ending that couldn’t actually be achieved in the game, and thus fell afoul of tenuous canonicty. However, the game was a rousing success in otaku circles, and was championed for its fusion of VN and fighting game elements. Featuring a characteristically branching path through the story, Melty Blood is less a fighter than it is a VN, but was revered for its performance in both aspects.
Following the success of the game, Watanabe transformed itself into French Bread, the developer we know for the series today, in part to distance itself from its somewhat seedier history within the doujin scene. Today, we can see their latest fighting game, Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late[st], on the main stage at EVO 2019. Something of a niche title, it’s shocking that it found a place amongst the more mainstream fare of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
That popularity, however, isn’t unfounded. Thanks to mid-2000’s online forums and imageboards, Melty Blood wormed its way West due to its unique blending of genres as well as playing a part in introducing the world of Tsukihime to the West at large, a game which requires at least a PhD in anime to understand.
You see, Tsukihime hinges upon the revelation to Shiki that the eponymous character is a “True Ancestor,” one of those overwhelmingly powerful entities created in the image of the Crimson Moon. The Crimson Moon, naturally, is the Ultimate One of our humble satellite, a type of being all planets (besides our own) have that embody the will of the celestial bodies themselves. Hearing the cries of Gaia, an aspect of the Counter Force of Earth that takes shape as a survival mechanism for the planet itself, the Crimson Moon reached out to forge a pact with Gaia to protect Earth.
In doing so, the Crimson Moon creates beings known as “True Ancestors”; these incarnated nature spirits served to desiccate mankind in an effort to return Earth back to its original state, prior to the corruption of humanity spreading like a blight across its surface. In exchange, the Crimson Moon was granted a life on Earth as Brunestud. The True Ancestors have inside of them a Reality Marble which, once they ascend to a power level comparable to their shared ancestor, allows Brunestud to take over their body. Ultimately, they end up as clones of the Crimson Moon, allowing Brunestud a form of effective immortality
It’s around Arcueid (the Tsukihime of titular fame) that many events unfold in both the world of Tsukihime and Melty Blood, as she is a True Ancestor with enigmatic motives. Her existence serves as the only real example of a successful copy of the incarnation of the Crimson Moon, and much of the conflict across the series revolves around Brunestud attempting to take her over.
I should also note that True Ancestors are basically vampires, suffering a psychological compulsion to suck blood. This is due to the original, Brunestud, drinking the blood of a powerful mage (Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg) before Brunestud was killed. Afflicted with this need, True Ancestors would turn humans to Dead Apostles, lesser vampires, and grant them longer lives and greater abilities in exchange for serving as blood bees; feeding on behalf of the True Ancestors so that they may slake their bloodlust without the need to give in to their desires (Some of this may possibly be iffy on my part, as I only minored in the Nasuverse for my anime degree) (Editor’s Note: I majored in the Nasuverse, and as such am aware of nearly 50% of it, and can confirm that this is mostly correct).
Upon falling to their bloodlust, True Ancestors would become Demon Lords who were even more powerful, becoming not only threats to humanity, but also other True Ancestors. It is for the destruction of these dangerous entities that Arcueid was created, and by the time Tsukihime starts, all the Demon Lords are long dead.
Oh, also, it’s worth mentioning that True Ancestors can bend reality to their will through the use of their “Marble Phantasm.” I don’t… I don’t really know, anymore. (Editor’s note: Just read the visual novel.)
It’s because of this off-the-rails plot that Melty Blood builds off of that it was met with such a positive reaction in the West. Its sleek animation for characters, impressive narrative design, and enticing gameplay proved a potent mixture that nestled it deeply in the heart of many an otaku. As the game saw further refinement in the fighting department with arcade releases and home console versions, it became something more notable within the Fighting Game Community and spawned an ever-growing fandom that would see Melty Blood featured on EVO side-streams during the event.
After all of this absurdity, French Bread have quickly amassed a fervent following ready to preach the good word of their games. Starting from such humble beginnings peddling smut to the masses, they now find themselves front and center in the mainstream with Under Night (basically Melty Blood 2 but with original characters) on the main stage of EVO. It just goes to show: a baguette in the right place, at the right time, can slake any hunger. Even that of the FGC.
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.