That little extra spice that makes video games very nice
Writing about Super Smash Bros for an article covering fan service is a bit of a cop-out. The series is literally nothing but fan service. Since Melee, every Smash game has dived deeper and deeper into the history of Nintendo, pulling out references from nearly every product Nintendo has put out. There are callbacks to characters from games we haven’t seen in years and products Nintendo hasn’t made in decades, with Smash for Wii U and 3DS featuring the most extensive historical record the series has seen yet.
Really, going into this topic I was planning to write about Duck Hunt Dog calling in the NES Zapper Posse to blast his opponents away. As much as I love that, it ain’t got nothing on Mega Man. Mega Man’s Final Smash is a celebration of a series people assume Capcom didn’t care about for the longest time. Hell, Mega Man’s appearance in Smash is the most love and care given to the character in nearly a decade. With his unique move set, Mega Man easily outshone the other 3rd-Party guest characters. With his Final Smash, he outdid the rest of the cast.
I don’t remember where I was when I first saw his final smash, but I do remember my jaw dropping and nearly crashing my browser reloading the YouTube clip. Even though I prefer other characters, I made myself get good with him just so I could see Mega Man, X, EXE, Volnutt, and Star Force come together in one spectacular finish. It’s so frickin’ good that if Mega Man returns in Smash Switch, I wouldn’t mind if his Final Smash was left untouched.
I’m not really a fan of fan service in anything. Most of the time it just feels like a forced reminder of past events with no real connective glue. The worst example would have to be the Professor Layton anime film that throws in characters for a couple of lines just to tug at your fandom. Just bleh!
Nintendo seems to get this bit right more often than not, even if they prey on nostalgia. Last year’s Breath of the Wild was a mish-mash of literally every Zelda game, throwing that whole timeline theory into complete disarray by having conflicting timelines appear in the same universe. While I don’t care about where the game takes place, what I did love seeing was the Korok Forest.
If you remember from Wind Waker (one of the very best Zelda games), Link goes on a quest to plant various deku seeds around the world of Hyrule in the hopes of restoring the Great Deku Tree and allowing the Korok’s to live on. While I should have figured the inclusion of Korok’s was building to this moment, I was definitely taken aback by seeing the forest and its splendor.
With a lot of sequels to games (and movies, honestly), all of the progress a hero makes gets reset because how else are you going to drag out a finished plotline? Zelda does a somewhat decent job of taking place in various different time frames, but this was the first time in the series where I felt like my time spent doing things in the past was respected.
This is putting aside how Wind Waker might not even be on the same timeline, but I felt like everything Toon Link did finally came to fruition. It was a callback in the greatest sense of the word and I loved every second of it. Well, other than the poor framerate.
Capcom has always relied on its wealth of history to produce callbacks and fanservice that is, admittedly, really cool. No matter how often they do it, seeing Capcom characters dress up as other characters in different contexts never gets old for me. The biggest one for me being Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3.
Remember how everyone hated the Bionic Commando who came to Marvel was the one we didn’t want? He can dress up as Nathan “Rad” Spencer if you want. You know how Amaterasu is a wolf? Why not get her to look like Jon Talbain from Darkstalkers? Speaking of Darkstalkers, what about getting Arthur as Bishamon? Get Jill out of that dumb skintight outfit and into her RE3 tube top and mini skirt? The Marvel side, of course, has a long history of older costumes to rely on themselves, from Scarlet Spider, Weapon X, and Master Mold series Sentinel models.
It’s about to happen again too, with Street Fighter V’s extra mode missions. Have you ever wanted to see Viewtiful Joe in normal proportions? You’ll wish you hadn’t!
I think we’re going to see a lot of Capcom on this list.
The Dead Rising series has always been about absurd tongue-in-cheek fun, evidenced by the very first game encouraging you to plop Servbot helmets on zombies and take humorous photos of them. The second game featured a blueprint for a craftable weapon that combined a Blanka mask and a battery to make a mask that would fry dozens of zombies at once. The third game had a full-on fan service DLC mode, Super Ultra Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX + α, with such a ridiculous and self-referential name that even though I didn’t play the game, I couldn’t help but admire how far the team was willing to make fun of both itself and Capcom in the name of pleasing its fans. And now, with the fourth game in the series seeing its multiplatform release (dear Capcom – please stop gating these games behind console exclusivity) we’ve gotten Frank’s Big Package, a new mode that essentially rehashes the themes of the third’s DLC. But now with Frank in Cammy’s thongitard.
It’s stupid and ridiculous and even after the sour taste left in my mouth from reviews and word of mouth from 3 and 4, it makes me really, really love this franchise.
So few games are willing to put their main characters in stupid situations like this, and it’s a real shame. Say what you will about this level of fan service, but it’s the exact sort of thing I like to see in a video game.
Occams Electric Toothbrush
When I think fan service, my thoughts tend to drift toward subtle nods and references peppered throughout gaming. A costume here, a line of dialogue there. But, taking a step back, I see it clearly. How could I miss it? It’s been right there all along. The best and brightest example of fan service has been near and dear to my heart for almost twenty years and felt so natural as a gaming experience, I didn’t even consider it at first. That’s right, it’s the Versus series.
Starting with X-Men vs Street Fighter, the Versus series would go on to spawn five sequels and leave a legacy of legendary moments, personal triumphs and crushing defeats for many gamers out there. I can remember going to the run-down dollar cinema on Sunday mornings with a $5 bill and my shitty Circle K off-brand cigarettes. It was dead inside apart from the church who held service in one of the theaters as their building had recently burnt down.
I’d cash in the five for quarters and get an ice cup to ash in. Then, for the next few hours, it was just me, trying to master Wolverine and Juggernaut while simultaneously trying to dangle a cigarette loosely out of my mouth. I never got the hands-free cigarette thing. (The smoke gets in your eyes. How did folks do that?) There were a lot of weekends where the best moment I had was in that theater. Alone with the game, I felt free. Well, as free as a teenager wearing a Weezer ringer tee and cargo shorts could.
After X-Men vs Street Fighter, the series just kept getting better. Peaking with the first two Marvel vs Capcom iterations, it currently sits somewhere between alright and okay. But what it created has lasted for years and will continue on as some of the finest bits of fan service ever created.
Smash Bros. is the undisputed king of fan service, there’s no doubt about that. But if Smash is the king, then Hyrule Warriors is his trusted lieutenant. Between all of the playable characters, alt costumes and their various weapon types, there’s hardly an element of the Zelda series that doesn’t get a nod.
Nowhere is this more obvious or more cleverly conceived than with the Great Fairy. After encountering her several times throughout the adventure and after going through a fair bit of difficult Adventure Mode missions, you finally get to unlock the Great Fairy…as a weapon for Link.
Then again, she isn’t so much Link’s weapon as she is her own playable character. In fact, she has completely turned the tables on the legendary hero by finally putting him in a bottle for once. I think this might be the first time ever that an official game in the Zelda series actually references the somewhat unsettling trope of Link casually stuffing living sentient creatures in air-tight bottles only letting them out when he needs them to restore his health (or in Breath of the Wild; to cook them).
The Great Fairy has another neat reference though. For most of her attacks, she’ll be doling out sweet, sweet justice on Link by chucking bombs at him, sending the moon his way, or nicking his sword for a quick attack. However, she also has an attack where she plays a short round of Dead Man’s Volley with Link. The very same tactic that Link has used against Agahnim, Ganondorf, Phantom Zelda, and so many other bosses is now being turned on him by his supposed ally.
Hyrule Warriors is chock full of great references to almost everything Zelda. But there’s no sharper reference than Link getting his long-overdue comeuppance courtesy of the Great Fairy herself.
I found myself thinking hard about this question, particularly because, as an irredeemable anime weeb, the term “fan service” tends to mean different, specific things than the more prosaic implication of “throwing in something for the fans”. That is to say, for myself and the kinds of folks that rented poorly translated VHS tapes of Neon Genesis Evangelion back in the day, “fan service” is equated to sex appeal and the sort of juvenile stuff that makes you want to hide your phone screen when watching things in public.
Of course, fan service means more than that, even in anime, and one franchise for me that provides handily no matter what definition of the term you want to use is Super Robot Wars. It’s literally “Fan Service: The Game”, as it brings in a ton of mecha and characters from multiple series and crushing them all together in increasingly convoluted multiversal conflicts. That the franchise has enough of its own original material to constitute a set of actual standalone games (the OG spinoffs) is just icing on this delicious cake. There’s so much fan service in the SRW series that it’s impossible to isolate just one bit, but the recent Super Robot Wars V does manage to recreate, in detail, the Wave Motion Cannon firing sequence from Space Battleship Yamato 2199, and that ain’t nothin’.
As for the weeb definition of “fan service”, the SRW games also have many booby anime ladies (and smooth anime boys) to gawp at, including a dedicated spinoff line called Endless Frontier whose dialog is about 70% innuendo.
Everything everyone here has said is great and I love them, especially the Capcom shout-outs, but nothing competes with the first, best, and most surprising Mega Man crossover of all time.
In the original Mega Man X, there is a secret so deeply hidden, but so clearly desirable that none of us kids at the time believed it was real at first. If Capcom was going to give X a Hadouken power-up, why would they force us to die 3 times, with full health, on a stage we’ve already beaten just to unlock it? That defies all logic, video game or otherwise.
Street Fighter 2 was, by far, the most popular game series in the world back in 1993, with both live action and animated films in the works, a line of G.I. Joe action figures, etc, etc. Mega Man was doing alright by himself, but there’s no doubt that Street Fighter was the bigger draw. If Capcom wanted Mega Man X to sell to its fullest potential, they would obviously advertise the game’s Street Fighter connection front and center, right?
Actually, that probably what modern Capcom would do, but 1993 the company was more subtle than that. They hid Mega Man X‘s hadouken so effectively that it was months before I heard rumors of its existence. This was, of course, back before the internet changed the way we exchange information forever, so it often took a while for this kind of video game urban legend to spread. The fact that the whole idea sounded totally fake (Dr. Light wearing Ryu’s karate uniform and headband? Yeah right…) only worked to the feeling of awe and amazement to be more incredible when it all turned out to be true.
One part Minus World, one part cross-game universe building, the hadouken in Mega Man X is the pinnacle of fan service; a truly sincere, guileless and earnest attempt to make fans happy for happiness’s sake.
The best example I’ve ever seen of “fan service” in a video game wasn’t from some random character making an appearance in another game, series mishmash, or nod to another franchise. Instead, my personal pick is big and hairy, spans multiple games, and didn’t actually exist to begin with.
What I’m referring to is the mythical Bigfoot, Sasquatch, or Yeti, that many believed stocked the woods of the Back O’ Beyond in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I still remember watching dozens of poorly made videos with Unregistered HyperCam 2 watermarks of folks trying to find the mythical beast in the game and the all so familiar X-Files tune that accompanied those videos. Of course, once the PC version released and data-miners found nothing (except a certain hot coffee mini-game) — our hopes of finding a definitive answer were dashed.
But, Rockstar definitely took notice of the mythos their game had created and decided to capitalize with Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare by giving players the chance to finally hunt down tall and hairy himself in the stranger mission “Birth of the Conservation Movement.” After hunting down a number of Sasquatch during the mission, John Marston would confront one of these baby eating monstrosities for good.
Then, with the release of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar would take this to a whole new level with multiple nods to the big guy (or gal?), including a brand of clothing known simply as “Yeti”, and another bizarre stranger mission. With Red Dead Redemption II coming out this year, let’s just say I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for anything big and hairy.
You can’t stop the shilling for The Big O. Can’t stop, won’t stop, don’t stop.
Pixie The Fairy
As fanservice goes, I think the Dissidia: Final Fantasy games do it as well, if not better than Smash.
It really comes down to how the characters interact and despite being from entirely different entries of Final Fantasy, they behave and relate to each other like they would people from their own games. What’s more is the protagonists progress similarly in narrative to their native games.
Squall puts up his introverted walls and wants to go it alone, but competitive extroverts Zidane and Bartz won’t let him be. Vaan treats Onion Knight like Larsa Solodor, but has a Locke-like situation with Terra. Terra goes from protected to protector. Lightning sulks. Laguna gets leg cramps and otherwise gets the group lost. Tidus hates his dad. Kain plays the traitor under the advisement of frenemy Golbez.
And it is also fun to see how the big bads really just seek to undermine or one-up each other. I love how Kefka is rather frustrated with Ex-Death and Cloud of Darkness’ motives. It’s always “The Void” this and “Nothingness” that with those two. Kefka lives to destroy things and what good is power if there’s nothing to destroy with it?
He might get on better with Shantotto, but despite her lust for destruction, she’s with the good guys.
It should be interesting to see how Y’shtola and Noctis fit in during Dissidia NT. My guess is Y’stola will become the brains behind the good guys then pull some big risk with her magic that separates them all while Noctis pretends to care about people talking to him.
Since someone mentioned the best crossover series of all time as an example of great fan service, I’m going to go with my backup plan. When it comes to making its audience smile, Ganbarion’s JUMP 2D brawler games for the DS capture this feeling for shonen anime and manga lovers.
While the story isn’t impressive, there’s something amazing about creating a team consisting of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo’s hero, Yoh from Shaman King, and Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. Instead of selecting your characters like your average multiplayer game, JUMP Super Stars and Ultimate Stars have you create your own manga panel from different illustrations. The cool part about this system is that you aren’t limited to one version of a certain character. Whether it’s the hero at the start of an arc or at his/her prime, you’re given a ton of options to create various combinations.
Another way how it expresses its fan service is through the cast’s ridiculous attacks. One great example is Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh!, since stands around while his Duel Monster cards do the fighting for him. Then there’s Gintoki from Gintama beating up people with moves based on his odd jobs and antics.
As a fan service title, Ganbarion did an amazing job with giving us the essence of the JUMP’s manga titles. You’re treated to actual illustrations from the source materials, and the large roster doesn’t hinder the combat system. Even if the game gets chaotic, you’re still having a blast with your dream team from your favorite shonen stories.
All good examples of great fan service, but I’m a little shocked with all the love for Capcom here nobody went with Sheng Long.