Another dose of fan service unleaded hit store shelves here in Japan yesterday. No doubt Super Robot Taisen Z will sell a couple hundred thousand copies, elicit squeals of joy from fans of implausibly huge robots (including myself), and bring out the grumbling about fanservice. Yeah, nothing brings out the rants about rampant fanservice in games quite like Super Robot Taisen. Unless, of course, you’re talking about Super Smash Brothers.
Fanservice seems to have gotten a bit of a bad rap in gaming circles. The epiphet “pure fanservice” brings with it the automatic assumption that there’s nothing to the game but pandering. Fans walk in, check their brains at the door, and happily settle into what amounts to gaming comfort food. Substance is optional, or so say the critics. But maybe there’s a little more to the “fanservice” experience then that. Fans can smell when a game with a lot of style but no substance tries to play that card. It’s what happens when latter day Simpsons episodes trot out Arty Ziff or Frank Grimes Jr. for the umpteenth time. Fans roll their eyes and move on because there really is nothing to see there.
Super Smash Brothers succeeds because it managed to graft a phenomenal tribute to Nintendo onto a highly entertaining party game. But even taking into consideration how stupidly entertaining Smash Brothers tends to be in large groups, it would have faded into obscurity if not for the incredible love and attention to detail given to every last stage, character and encylopedia entry.
It’s that attention to detail that drives successful fanservice and torpedoes others. For every SRW that brings a loving eye for detail to every frame of animation, we get a game like Namco x Capcom that not only whiffs on the gameplay, but completely omits more than a few beloved characters. Playing it, you can’t help but get the feeling that it was thrown together not because the designer particularly cared, but because people would buy it.
But when a designer’s interests align with the fans, and that fan service becomes a true labor of love, then you know that you’re in for something special. It’s what separates the Mega Man 9s of the world from the Gradius ReBirths. When you get a look at those Mega Man 9 press kits, or you hear about SRW producer Takanobu Terada gleefully inserting his childhood favorite Space Emperor God Sigma into Z’s series lineup, you realize that those games aren’t for you anymore. You’re just along for the ride as the design team takes ownership of their favorite property and lavishes on it all the attention it deserves.
That really is pure fanservice for you. We should be so lucky to play games crafted with that much heart.