Homer Simpson was right when he said, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true!” When Louis C.K. rants about how disgusting a body gets mid-coitus, we laugh because, yes, bodies get pretty gross. Truth isn’t a perfect word for describing the soul of comedy, though. Familiarity is better. Knowledge, whether about the human condition or just plain old facts, is required before we can laugh at something.
By that measure, Project X Zone is funny as hell, but it’s also bad comedy because the familiarity its laughs demand is both vast and specific. Squeezing the most juice out of this chimera of old games requires an almost shameful familiarity with Japanese video game characters popular over the last 25 years. I don’t mean recognizing them. I mean knowing who they are, their theme songs, what games they’ve popped up in together over the years, and all their signature moves. The type of person that knows Tron Bonne from Mega Man Legends hung out with Chun Li of Street Fighter in Marvel Vs. Capcom will get the joke, and they’ll laugh pretty damn hard.
Project X Zone (pronounced “Cross Zone”) is the grand poobah in a loosely knit series of games co-developed by Monolith Soft and Banpresto on and off over the past decade. It started with Namco X Capcom and moved on to a game with a Dadaist title, Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: The Endless Frontier. All these games are about demons, aliens, or monsters messing with dimensional stability, causing people from all sorts of universes to collide. That’s why the dude from Ghosts & Goblins can hang out with the busty robots from Xenosaga.
Zone, a tactical role-playing game, goes a step further than past games, stuffing in dozens of characters from the archives of Capcom, Namco, and now Sega. The cast doesn’t just include the icons. Characters from famous games like Resident Evil appear alongside dudes from long lost footnotes like Fighting Vipers. It’s like an all-night college reunion party where everyone shows up. Half the fun is seeing who walks through the door next and watching all the characters make with the, “Hey it’s you! How the hell have you been?” Unless, of course, you don’t know who the hell just walked in, in which case you’ll probably feel left out, even if what’s happening can be hilarious.
The game is funny not because of the cheesecake pandering (another trademark of this quasi-series) or over-the-top anime violence, but because of the little touches it throws into the mix. Take, for example, the odd appearance of John McClane from Sega’s old Die Hard Arcade (his name is changed to Bruno, but he’s clearly an anime rendition of Bruce Willis). When you call him in for an assist in a fight, he’ll wail on a giant zombie for a second and then hit them with a grandfather clock. When the clock inexplicably explodes, you’re treated to a painted closeup of McClane as his clothes shred off his body and he yells, “Oh noooo, I overdid it again!”
Zone is dense with these absurdist moments, celebratory in their abject silliness. It also avoids the chief failing of most referential humor. It’s not funny because it’s an anime version of a movie star ripped out of a 20-year-old game; it’s funny because of the inherent goofiness of the game in total.
Those fights are also entertaining in and of themselves. Outside of dialogue, fighting is the only action. Locales like the zombie-plagued mall of Dead Rising are broken down into a checkerboard grid, and you move characters, in pairs, into position near enemies. Those pairs are locked, but you can toss in a third support character, which is how you end up with some of the more amusing combinations of characters.
When you actually pin an enemy down, the game plays more like paddleball then the fighting game it appears to be. The goal is to time your attacks to keep a foe airborne, juggling them and calling in your support fighter to help. Syncing up your hits properly will let you “Cross” attack, freezing the enemy in place. It can get repetitive at times, but there’s a deep well of contentment in just batting enemies in the air as long as possible, figuring out which characters work best together. It’s not enough on its own, though. If these aren’t personalities you enjoy already, the fights will feel empty all too soon.
This much is true: I love playing Project X Zone because I’m in that stupidly specific audience. My life has covered the 30-year period during which these characters came into being, and I’ve spent most of those years playing and replaying these games. It makes me laugh when the music from House Of The Dead starts playing inappropriately on a cruise ship, but only because I know it already. For anyone looking to play, stop if you haven’t heard this one before.