The idea of the shared universe has become a hot commodity in pop culture. It's fun to take a recognized character and have them cross over into another beloved face's world. It's been done in television for decades, it's become an occasional gimmick in movies, and universes have collided in fiction for centuries. In video games 25 years ago, the idea of two major properties crashing into each other was relatively new. That's why it was so much fun to see the world of Street Fighter, riding the high of some of its record-breaking arcade titles, collide with the Saturday morning cartoon world of the X-Men. X-Men vs. Street Fighter not only brought a lot of fantasy matchups never before thought possible to life but it also introduced the gaming world to a new way to play fighting games.
Before the MCU...
Younger players may not remember that there was once a time when Marvel not only wasn't a box office juggernaut, but the company was on the verge of total collapse. This year also marks a different sort of anniversary for the House of Ideas. It marks 25 years since Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy.
Here's a brief explanation of the speculator boom, courtesy of a Slate feature from earlier this year:
Marvel's heyday began to fade over time. In the 1970s and '80s, Stan Lee tried to expand the Marvel Universe into television and films, but he mostly failed. There was a terrible Spider-Man TV thing. There was also a terrible Captain America TV thing. And then came the first major attempt at a Marvel movie. It was executive produced by George Lucas in 1986, fresh off the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Sounds promising, but this cinematic disaster featuring an oddball Marvel character called Howard the Duck was a total flop.
But Marvel rebounded again, just as it had in the 1960s. While it found little success on screens, its comic book business was thriving thanks to a new kind of comic book buyer: the collector. In the 1980s, comic books, like baseball cards, suddenly became investments. The right comic carefully kept in mint condition inside a plastic sleeve might be worth a fortune. Speculators bought up special issues like they were initial public offerings. Marvel put out more and more series, again drawing on its strengths: creating powerful characters and crossing them into one another's plotlines.
Marvel was a hot property that got bought and sold a couple of times in the 1980s. It went public in 1991 as the collector boom was at its peak—and then, as with tulips and Beanie Babies, the comics bubble burst. Sean Howe says that with the speculator market gone, many comic book shops closed their doors, and many readers left the hobby as the excitement fell away. "When in the mid-'90s the market crashed, comics became more miserable than they had been in the '70s, as miserable as they had been in the '50s, after the churches were burning comic books and the Senate was investigating comic books. It really seemed like this time the writing was on the wall for good. It seemed like this is truly the end of comic books as an industry."
Marvel needed to bounce back in a big way. Part of their road to recovery involved licensing the company's comic book characters to anybody who would pay handsomely for them. At the time, Capcom had been producing arcade games featuring Marvel's finest heroes. X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes were acclaimed fighters in their own right, but as Marvel had fallen into bankruptcy, Capcom stepped forward with one of its boldest ideas yet.
The previous Marvel fighting games had utilized the voice cast of the popular early 90s X-Men animated series, so they came across as playable versions of the Saturday morning cartoon. Capcom retained that idea but also wanted to cross them over with its most popular fighting franchise: Street Fighter. While Street Fighter 2 was still popular in arcades, Capcom was also putting together a new take on the franchise, which ended up being the more anime-stylized Alpha series. The Alpha and Children of the Atom art styles were similar enough that mashing the two together ultimately became the game everyone knows and loves today.
Marvel's characters were now crossing over into a whole new world. Ryu was throwing down with Wolverine, Zangief was going toe-to-toe with the Juggernaut, and Magneto and Bison had created an unholy evil alliance. This idea was cool in itself, but that wasn't the only way that Capcom planned to make this game stand out.
Teamwork makes the dream work
With characters from two universes colliding, having them face each other wasn't enough. Capcom wanted them to team up in order to make the most of the crossover concept. Therefore, X-Men vs. Street Fighter became the first of the publisher's "Versus" series. Two characters would take part in a tag team battle, where players could switch fighters at will. Rather than go with the classic "two-out-of-three rounds" format, the last team standing would be declared the winner.
This new Versus fighter would also introduce some new mechanics. Hyper Combos were back, allowing players to show off some dazzling finishing moves. However, X-Men vs. Street Fighter took it to the next level with the "Variable Combination" tandem finisher. Defensively, players could trade in one level of super meter for a "Variable Counter," which would allow a fighter's tag team partner to deliver a counterattack and swing the fight's momentum in the other direction.
Everything about X-Men vs. Street Fighter felt "bigger" than any of Capcom's previous fighters. The character models themselves were larger than before. To keep up with the mutant roster, the Street Fighter characters upgraded their standard arsenal. For example, Ryu and Ken threw larger Hadokens to match powerful projectiles like Cyclops' Optic Blast. Even the single-player Arcade Mode was bigger in scale, culminating with an epic final battle against X-Men uber-villain Apocalypse, who was so massive that he took up the vast majority of the screen.
The arcade version of X-Men vs. Street Fighter would run on Capcom's CP System II cartridge, which opened the door to a full 16-character roster and the seamless tag team system. Characters could come in and out without any lag or loading times. Younger readers seeing that statement in 2021 are probably thinking, "Well, that should go without saying."
However, console hardware 25 years ago was much more primitive. Keep in mind that the first PlayStation and Sega Saturn were barely seeing the light of day. There were clear hardware limitations with the PlayStation and Saturn's hardware and CD-based media. (On another note, even attempting to run this game on a Nintendo cartridge was totally out of the question.) Capcom attempted to port X-Men vs. Street Fighter to PlayStation and Saturn, but the result was ugly. The PlayStation version couldn't incorporate the tag team mechanic at all, thus defeating a lot of the game's original appeal, and was also bogged down by downsized assets and frequent loading times.
The Saturn version was much better, gaining critical acclaim across the board. However, it required a 4MB RAM cartridge in order to run as an arcade-perfect port, an add-on that wasn't available in North America. Worse for American players, by the time the X-Men vs. Street Fighter port was ready to release, the Saturn was on its way out. Because of that, the North American version of the Saturn port proved incredibly difficult to find.
The rest is Versus history
X-Men vs. Street Fighter was the first game in the Versus series. It would not be the last. With X-Men vs. Street Fighter gradually growing more and more popular in arcades, Capcom saw room for growth. Sequels would include Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom, the latter of which would spawn an acclaimed trilogy. Marvel's most popular characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange would grace the Versus rosters, while Capcom would fill its roster with characters from their beloved library of games, like Dante from Devil May Cry, Frank West from Dead Rising, and Mega Man.
It should be noted that the Versus series would go on to stand as its own thing. Street Fighter would progress as its own series with the new Street Fighter 3 also debuting in 1996 and persists to this day with its own evolving style. The Versus series would offer a different kind of fighting game style, allowing for much faster-paced tag-team battles and more bombastic attacks that are more akin to an anime like Dragon Ball Z than the more grounded skirmishes that the Street Fighter series was originally meant to be.
The Versus games remain beloved by fans to this day, but the series, unfortunately, lays dormant. While X-Men vs. Street Fighter was released in a year where Marvel was coming off of bankruptcy, in 2021, the House of Ideas is at the highest point it's ever been. Following a multi-billion acquisition by Disney, Marvel is now a pop culture monolith that deals primarily in movies and television. Ironically, Marvel Comics has been rendered as a niche hobby. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite was evidence that any future Versus titles would work within and be stylized like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not the Marvel Comics world that made the crossovers such a big hit in the first place. Infinite had many problems, which is a story for another day, but it's a story that ends with the momentary demise of a once-great series.
Regardless of how the story ended, X-Men vs. Street Fighter has cemented its place in fighting game history as a genre pioneer. It's still loved to this day, so much so that Arcade1Up added it to its long list of home arcade cabinets.
There's little more exciting in pop culture than when universes collide and 25 years ago, the gaming world was indeed presented with "The Wildest Crossover You Have Never Dreamt" with X-Men vs. Street Fighter.