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Fighting Games Have Basically Always Been Multiverse Stories

Long before Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield portaled into the MCU, Super Smash Bros. brought characters from different universes together. Though Mario, Link, Nes, and Captain Falcon existed in their own worlds, through the sheer power of Nintendo owning the rights to them all, they could be smashed together on one small stage and forced to do battle until even the gentlest flick from a paper fan could send them flying like a Babe Ruth homerun ball.

Decades before Marvel and Warner Bros. realized there were wheelbarrows of money to make by putting unrelated characters together in one piece of media, fighting games like Super Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, and X-Men vs. Street Fighter (which eventually became Marvel vs. Capcom) were bringing characters together for a few rounds of fisticuffs.

Though J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009) was likely the first time many people began thinking about the concept of the multiverse, gamers had intuitively understood its implications since the '90s. X-Men vs. Capcom paired the two rosters against each other in 1996, Smash Bros. brought Nintendo's mightiest heroes into competition in 1999, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe put blood on Batman's knuckles in 2008, and now, in 2022, MultiVersus is slamming all of Warner Bros. best brawlers together for a ride in the Mystery Machine. MultiVersus isn't doing anything new, but it’s the first fighting game to put the concept of how it's all happening right in the title. While in the '90s, it was exciting to see two worlds collide; in the '20s we're focused on how and why they collide.

Nintendo offered an answer via the way it framed the Super Smash Bros. series, with the characters shown as toys played with by a Master Hand, representing a child at play. Late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata laid this out explicitly in an interview with TIME Magazine.

“What’s interesting about the Smash Bros. games, is that the Smash Bros. games do not represent the Nintendo characters fighting against one another, they actually represent toys of Nintendo characters getting into an imaginary battle amongst themselves,” Iwata said. “And frankly that has to do with a very serious debate that we had within the company back then, which was, ‘Is it really okay for Nintendo characters to be hitting other Nintendo characters? Is it okay for Mario to be hitting Pikachu?'"

What's interesting about this approach to the "multiverse" is that it's closest to hitting on the appeal the multiverse holds for both children and executives. Marvel may fancy it up and present the multiverse as an opportunity for new kinds of stories, but at a base level, multiverses are often just wealthy dudes pushing creatives to smack the toys they own together in the way that will generate the most return on investment.

Though Nintendo's framing — that Smash is the result of a child playing with toys — is wholesome, there's an inherent cynicism to the reality of the situation. While there are undoubtedly creatives like Masahiro Sakurai hard at work to make these crossovers happen, the indefatigable Smash director ultimately has little sway in the face of companies like Square Enix and Disney who must decide if it's worth it to loan out their IP. Money, not kids at play, controls which toys get to enter the toybox.

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