Multiversus (a free-to-play, Super Smash Bros.- like platform fighting game starring famous WB characters) recently began its closed alpha period, and the reactions have been largely positive. It’s a little too early to tell if the game can become a legitimate Super Smash Bros. competitor (the alpha only features a handful of fighters and a couple of modes), but the game appears to be on the right track. At the very least, it doesn’t look like we’ve got another Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl situation on our hands. The project has a few problems that still need to be solved, but Multiversus looks, sounds, and feels like a proper platform fighter.
Yet, the thing that has impressed me most about Multiversus is the way its developers have managed to jam so many characters from so many different properties together without turning the whole thing into a dystopian reminder of the fact that WB essentially controls the rights to so much of our nostalgia. Well…mostly.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really looking forward to Multiversus. A few of my hesitations can be traced back to the fact that we’ve seen so many failed or disappointing Smash Bros. clones over the years (the aforementioned Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is really just the tip of the iceberg), but more of them were based on fatigue towards the fairly recent onslaught of big-budget projects featuring character mashups. Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, and even WB’s own Space Jam: A New Legacy are all recent examples of projects that prominently featured cameos that were actually a big part of their draw. Some of those projects are better than others, but they’ve all at least partially relied on the “thrill” of seeing established characters share a screen. The problem is that it’s a lot more difficult to become excited about that novelty when it’s becoming far more common.
Few works in any medium exemplify the extent of that problem quite like Fortnite. While gaming’s biggest virtual billboard has long relied on the appeal of character crossover skins, the recent addition of a Robocop skin to the game’s massive online shop was particularly odd. Not only does that microtransaction further the original Robocop’s bizarre legacy of being misremembered (or just widely misinterpreted), but it drives home the point that most properties are now whatever their rights holders need them to be. Robocop is no longer a darkly satirical version of capitalism’s own personal Jesus; he’s a recognizable character with a gun, so he can be shoved into a game with guns.
To be fair, Multiversus isn’t immune to that problem. For instance, there was even a recent controversy about the game’s inclusion of the Iron Giant as a playable character despite the fact that part of what made that character so memorable and lovable was his determination to remain a pacifist. The Multiversus team tried to brush aside the issue by saying this was a version of the Iron Giant from a different universe, but that initial concern remains valid. Too many mashups are content with ignoring the things that make the characters they feature…well, characters in the first place. They’re made (or approved) by those who are perfectly fine with jamming famous faces into whatever corners they can technically fit in. Not to mention that you’re always going to have accuracy issues when you’re talking about a fighting game built around the idea that Velma from Scooby-Doo can go toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman. Those kinds of issues come with the territory.
That’s the thing about Multiversus, though. If you’re able to brush aside the natural problems that arise when you try to put mascots into a fighting game (as well as some of the issues that plague most modern mashups), you’ll find that a surprising amount of care went into making this game’s characters feel distinct and relatively true to some of the things that actually define them (within the context of a fighting game, of course).
For instance, Velma is a support character who uses her deductive reasoning to buff her team and gain advantages. Batman has to rely on his tools and agility during most fights. Jake from Adventure Time morphs into various forms, while Arya Stark relies on complex movements and “face steals” to overcome most foes. Even heavy hitters like Superman have to pull out their full bag of tricks. As we previously discussed, Multiversus even features a version of Shaggy that is somewhere between the original incarnation of the character and the anime fighter that some fans have seen fit to turn him into in recent years. I found myself wanting to play as new characters just to see how they stood out from the rest of the roster. I was often surprised by the ways their moves, movements, quips, and looks exemplified the developers’ love and understanding for their source material and other famous works.
There’s a level of care that went into Multiversus that could have easily been ignored in favor of letting some famous names punch and kick each other while everyone behind the scenes hopes you care enough about Steven Universe to buy a game that he makes an appearance in. Instead, it’s clear that the game’s developers went into this project with questions about who these characters are, what makes them unique, and how they’re going to fit into this mad science mashup in the first place. While I can’t say I agree with all of the answers they’ve found so far, it’s certainly better than the world where all of these characters were just shoved into the background and we’re expected to care about them just because we recognize them. If you think that’s an exaggeration, you obviously didn’t see Space Jam: A New Legacy.
I’m not thrilled about the fact we seem to be hurtling towards a future where character cameo blitzes become far more common and a reminder that a few major companies control the rights to nearly the entire history of notable pop culture characters, universes, and properties. However, at a time when the apparent biggest advantage of such crossovers is the fact that they help eliminate the costs of original thoughts, there is something vaguely optimistic about the idea that the Multiversus team seems to be concerned about giving their famous fighters an identity that feels true to the reasons many of us fell in love with them in the first place.
Multiversus has a very long way to go before it can become that viable Super Smash Bros. competitor many have waited for. Still, I can think of few better ways to praise the game’s potential than to say it feels like a fighting game made by a team who is genuinely interested in turning it into so much more than the marketing-fuelled meme it could have easily been.