Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a huge anime fan. Let’s be honest, video games and anime go together like PB&J. The action! The drama! Giant magical beams! Explosions! More drama!
Therefore, you could imagine my excitement when the Jump Force trailer first dropped at E3 2018.
Unfortunately, when the game released last February, it was met with mixed reviews. Some outlets gave it 5-stars, but others called it “disappointing” and “trite.” Additionally, several of my anime-loving friends expressed to me that they wanted to love it, but just couldn’t. That the game “let them down.” So I waited until after the hype (or anti-hype) died down, in order to approach Jump Force with a clear head.
What I found is that sometimes, a game can be enjoyed in unexpected ways.
What is Jump Force Again?
Jump Force is a celebration of the golden anniversary of Japanese manga juggernaut Shonen Jump, developed by Spike Chunsoft and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. Exhibiting a Marvel vs. Capcom take on fighting games, Jump Force is all about taking three-man teams cherry-picked from Jump’s vast roster and pitting them against each other, each character loaded with specialized attacks indicative of their manga/anime canon. In addition to online play, the game features a single-player story mode in which the player’s avatar joins beloved characters from Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, and others to (what else?) save the world.
A simple enough premise, given that it’s a fighting game. However, I can understand many of the complaints that came out after its release in early 2019: earning a 56% Metacritic score, Jump Force has an incredibly simple fighting system that doesn’t offer much of a challenge. Without the satisfaction of executing complicated combos to take out opponents, a la Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, Jump Force plays as an out-and-out button masher. I’m not exaggerating: “combos” consist of holding the right trigger and one of your four main buttons. This completely deprives the tried-and-true tradition of mastering one character’s moveset. While there are some nifty aspects, like utilizing “escape” and “rush” abilities or countering combos, Jump Force doesn’t offer much in the quick strategization department.
Additionally, the story mode is incredibly repetitive. Choose mission, beat your opponents, maybe watch a text-heavy cutscene, repeat. Combine that with PS1-level load times, an “advancement” system of equipping “J-Skills” and abilities that don’t feel like they do much to strengthen your character? You’ve got a game that didn’t quite live up to its name.
The Power Of Fandom Compells You!
Let’s be honest: when I first booted up Jump Force, I wasn’t expecting the Citizen Kane of fighting games. This is a licensed video game, folks: tradition dictates we keep our expectations low. Therefore, I took Jump Force at face value, approaching it not as a game I’d spend a lot of time on, but a brief get-together with my favorite Shonen Jump characters.
The verdict? My time spent in Jump Force has not so brief. I’ve poured hours into this silly game.
What Jump Force lacks in gameplay, it more than makes up for in fan service. Sometimes, a game is meant for a particular audience, and I discovered that I am, in fact, that audience; Anyone who spent their after school hours watching Toonami is in for a real treat.
I started out by creating my avatar, which can be one of three classes: Saiyan, Pirate, or Ninja. Naturally, being a proud One Piece fan (watched all 900+ episodes to date!), my mighty avatar, NanaJae, is a pirate. The character creation isn’t incredibly expansive, but offers anime references in abundance. My husband and I spent a good amount of time playing “guess that feature,” testing our anime trivia by guessing which series the hairstyles, tattoos, and accessories were from. My particular avatar rocks the same eye tattoo as Bartholomeo -- one of my favorite One Piece side characters.
Again, the story mode is incredibly cliche: evil forces are attacking the world, and the heroes of Jump Force must band together, yadda yadda yadda. It would be boring, if that wasn’t what most fans love about anime. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but one of the aspects anime fans love is the warm blanket of familiarity it provides. It can be overdramatic, aesthetically flamboyant, and outright cheesy. Overblown reaction shots, screaming to the heavens while “powering up”, one-liners about victory and being the best: it’s all here. How about the gross overuse of unnecessary filler to pad out the story: Jump Force is unapologetically filled with it, and I love it even more for it. Whether I’m going on a quest to help My Hero Academia’s Deku gain more confidence, a ninja training mission with Naruto’s Kakashi, or observing JoJo’s Jotaro and Yu-gi-Oh’s Yugi decide who is the best gambler through combat (seriously), Jump Force is unintentionally (or maybe intentionally?) giving me the best and lovingly worst of anime.
Also, Can we talk about that cast? Whether you are a young fan just sinking their teeth into newer series like Black Clover and My Hero Academia or an OG like me, there’s something for everyone. Seeing a “young gun” like Baruto (a “next generation” saga following Naruto, first released in 2016) paired up with the likes of Kenshiro from 1983’s Fist Of The North Star is quite a sight to behold. Sparking a joy akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s incredibly fun to watch these characters from across the anime catalogue interact. Sure, there are a few more familiar faces I’d love to see (how is Gintoki Sakata -- the fourth-wall breaking, Shonen Jump reading samarai of Gintama NOT in this?!?!), but maybe Spike Chunsoft / Bandai were saving some fighters for an expanded sequel roster or future DLC.
Fun fact: I didn’t realize how many of Shonen’s big, beefy men are voiced by women over the age of 40. That’s a fun discovery; thanks Jump Force!
Shonen Jump's Mightiest Men... The Power! The Prestige! The pre-pubescent voices!
With such a rich roster, Jump Force provided a dazzling showcase for it’s vast array of rich series. Since playing this game, I found myself adding the classic 1986 series Saint Seiya to my Netflix queue, as well as actually taking the time to watch Naruto, which I previously never had interest in.
Game Design For A Different Audience
As stated earlier, the attacks are boring to execute. However, they certainly are not boring to watch. Prepare to watch your favorite faces of Shonen Jump deliver their signature power moves in all their glory. Kamehamehas, thunderbolts, raining punches, the works. This game is meant to be a feast for the eyes, a rare chance to see some very signature attacks displayed in a totally different medium. The joy of watching Straw Hat Luffy throw down in “Gear Four” made me giddier than a kid in a Skittles factory.
We all know anime attacks are supposed to be ridiculous - it just feels nice to be able to execute them yourself sometimes!
Those aforementioned J-Skills not only strengthen stats, but unlock character quotes, which can be accessed at the J-Skill Viewer in the hub world. I’ve had more fun unlocking these quotes than equipping their abilities, especially since many are Easter eggs that reference the source material.
At this point, I started to realize something: this is a game playing by a very different ruleset. It is absolutely a fighting game, and by fighting game standards, it doesn't hold up. If you are lore hound and someone that likes spectacle however, Jump Force has both of those things in spades.
Get Your Baskets Ready: There Are Easter Eggs Aplenty
In the One Piece series, Sanji -- Straw Hat Pirates’ badass chef -- has a strict code of never, ever hurting a woman. This is mostly because he can’t see a member of the opposite sex without devolving into Tex Avery cartoon, but it’s also just a strong part of his conviction. Jump Force doesn’t deviate from this. If Sanji is faced with a female opponent, a trademark giant heart appears over his eye, and his entire arsenal of attacks change to grandiose expressions of love, which do not inflict a single bit of damage to said opponent. He remains this way until the opposing party switches to a male character. If you are playing as Sanji, yes, this is absolutely crippling, but if you’re a diehard One Piece fan, you won’t even care. The fact that they put that much detail into his character is so rewarding.
Furthermore, observing the design changes certain characters undergo when you use “Awakened Abilities” is a real treat. Zoro puts on his “I mean business” bandanna, Saint Seiya’s Dragon Shiryu and Pengasus Seiya upgrade to gold armor, Hunter X Hunter’s Gon Freecs goes into his “adult” form, Goku or Vegeta go super Saiyan, and so on -- they’ll remain in this form until the end of the fight. Doesn’t change your stats, but it looks damn cool.
Another bit of fun is the opening cinematic to each fight. Naturally, the “main” characters of each team will sling some sort of taunt before the battle begins. The developers clearly had some fun with this, as characters will say certain things depending on who they’re facing. For example, if Naruto faces Baruto, Baruto will comment that he’s seeing a young version of his father, while Naruto retorts he won’t get beat by his own kid. Swordsmen will compliment each other and ask where they have studied their techniques. Lovesick Boa Hancock insists that she will be Luffy’s wife. It’s fun to pair up characters to see what they’ll say.
Oh, and how about the fact that you could travel the hub world via bike (Dragon Ball), frog (Naruto), or my favorite, boat (The modified #2 Going Merry from One Piece)?
It's stupid how much joy I got out of this.
The hub world itself features three “headquarters” for Shonen’s big three heroes: Goku, Luffy, and Naruto. From the Hoi Poi capsule in the Dragon Ball HQ, to Nami’s tangerine trees in the pirate HQ, and the ramen shop in the Hidden Leaf Village, Jump Force put in small but satisfying nods to each of these big franchises. Check the shops, and you’ll find a plushie of Kon from Bleach, or Gaara’s sand gourd from Naruto. The amount of fan nods that have been packed in the game feel endless.
Jump Force Reminded Me There Are Different Ways To Enjoy A Game
I have to echo the internet here: if you aren’t an anime fan, don’t bother plunking down your hard-earned cash on this one. Save it for the next Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, which will actually satiate the hunger for a challenge. It speaks volumes that I’ve sunk hours into this game and didn’t bother playing online even once. From another perspective, Jump Force is like video game junk food. The lack of difficulty and simple controls lends itself more to the casual crowd, which is perhaps why it tanked so hard with serious gamers. But what it doesn’t offer in gameplay, it more than makes up for as a love letter to the genre.
If anything, Jump Force reminded me that games can offer flavors of enjoyment outside their standardized intentions. It’s like watching a movie: they can’t all be Oscar winners, but that doesn’t mean a “bad” movie like Reefer Madness or Plan 9 From Outer Space isn’t enjoyable. So yes, I didn’t enjoy Jump Force as a fighting game... but I sure as hell loved it as a lifelong anime fan. For me, that's more than enough.