Video games have been consistently weird since the dawn of time, or at least since 1999, but spin-offs are their own special beast. Spin-offs give developers the opportunity to create something unexpected, offbeat and unique by leveraging the cache and recognition of an existing brand. They’re opportunities to craft a genuinely innovative game that’s otherwise impossible with a new IP, or maybe something about an existing IP just naturally leads to something strange.
Whether they’re good or not is irrelevant; the fact that they exist at all can often be remarkable in its own right – or maybe it’s just gross, as this topic’s final entry reminds us.
But as strange as The Breakers is at a glance – and still is, despite what I’m about to say right now – a DBD spin-off actually makes a lot of sense. As a big Dragon Ball fan, one of the best and often forgotten parts of the series is just how bleak and scary it can be.
The Saiyan Saga ends with the brutal, heartbreaking and often literally pointless deaths of like, half of the cast, including the protagonist Goku. The Frieza Saga follows three of the weakest characters stuck on an alien planet who are trapped between a sadistic mercenary prince and a monstrous galactic dictator, rampaging through the native population in a desperate race to become immortal. Cell is a Terminator-inspired insect-like scientific terror who uses their needle-like tail to drink people like juice boxes. Buu is similar to Cell: a child-like, unsettling and nearly unstoppable cosmic threat who transforms people into candy, swallows people for their power, and casually eliminates most of humanity in an afternoon. In fact, Buu outclasses the cast so severely that the story revolves around how the cast – now without Goku to save them again – claws their way to absolutely anything that can stand up to Buu and fails over and over again.
When it’s broken down, Dragon Ball Z can be a remarkably grim and stressful story. So turning it into a horror game, where survivors sneak and hide from a solitary villain who gradually grows stronger and destroys sections of the map to corner their prey – it’s sort of brilliant. It’s one of those ideas you might dream up as a fan but you’re certain could never happen because it’s too out there and you’re not that delusional. Yet here we are, in a timeline where Dragon Ball: The Breakers exists.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure can be hard to explain, but I’ll try my best.
JJBA is a long-running manga and anime series made up of eight mostly-separate and distinct “Parts”, each with their own stories and characters. There’s some overlap between them but they largely stand alone from one another. But what started as a Fist of the North Star copycat about using breathing energy to kill vampires grew into a goofy supernatural saga that becomes more eccentric and flamboyant with every Part.
First, everything a player does, including footsteps but especially attacks, can be seen by other players through walls and obstacles from a distance. Every sound and action becomes visualised Katakana onomatopoeia, exactly like the dramatised sound effects of the series itself, which naturally pulls players towards each other.
Just like Dragon Ball: The Breakers, this spin-off was completely unexpected and totally works. Go figure.
Jake: Pokémon Snap is well-loved, but that doesn’t make it any less weird
Pokémon Snap is a genuinely beloved sub-franchise, for sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the weirder ideas we’d seen at the time.
Up until Pokémon Snap, every game that fell under the Pokémon umbrella bore some similarity to the original games, namely the fact that they were predominantly turn-based, combat RPGs. Pokémon Snap was a true departure from the Pokémon formula: an on-rails photography game that had you travel to a new locale to photograph Pokémon in their relatively natural habitats. As noted Pokémon photographer Todd Snap, players travel around Pokémon Island in his motorised buggy, with a number of tools at their disposal to help get the perfect shot: food, which can either attract Pokémon to it or stun them in place; Pester Balls, which can knock Pokémon out or flush them out of their hiding spots; and the Poké Flute, which can be used to awaken, hatch or irritate Pokémon… or to make them dance, because why not?
The best way I’ve ever heard Pokémon Snap described is as the lovechild of Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow’s Safari Zone and Time Crisis, and that’s exactly why it’s one of the weirdest spin-offs we’re going to see for a long time.
Jake: The Typing of the Dead, because the best way to learn to type is… to kill zombies?
Speaking of on-rails games, here we’ve got one of the most popular ones of all time, The House of the Dead, transforming into a typing tutor. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve read that right.
Back in 1999, after seeing House of the Dead 2 join forces with Resident Evil to make zombies mainstream again, Smilebit decided to turn the zombie apocalypse genre on its head by replacing the light guns — The House of the Dead 2’s main drawcard — with… keyboards. The result is quite literally a carbon copy of The House of the Dead 2 where, instead of shooting the zombies in the face with a light gun, players would simply need to type a word or phrase accurately in order to fight their way out of the zombie apocalypse. Which, incidentally, means I would have been absolutely screwed by the third phrase.
Funnily enough, The Typing of the Dead actually received favourablereviews, a number of ports and re-releases, and even a sequel because, let’s be honest… it’s actually a really cool idea when you think about it. Still super weird, though.
Ben: Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
Dragon Quest has the most weird spinoffs of any series I can think of. The mainline series has remained as staunchly traditional as JRPGs get: turn-based combat, gear, levels, et cetera et cetera. The spinoffs, though? We’ve had Dragon Quest: Builders, a Minecraft-style open world cube construction game. There’s been the on-rails FPS (that’s first person sworder) Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and The Tower of Mirrors. There’s even been the Pokemon analogue creature catcher Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker. The best of the best, though, is Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime.
It reads like a fever dream: what if the smallest, weakest enemy in the mainline series had its own game? What if the slimes had their own society? What if you had to stack other Dragon Quest enemies on your head and collect them to build a crew for your mega tank that you need to fight off Don Clawleone and the Platypunk mafia? For some reason this outrageous, pun-filled and insanely fun game was the only one in a three game series to make it out of Japan, and even then only released in North America. It’s joyous to play and if you can get your hands on a copy, still worth picking up today. I’ve just polished off an unofficial fan translation of the third game and it’s just as good (and pirate themed).
Ruby: Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball
Dead or Alive is a fighting game where a roster of heroes pummel the stuffing out of each other in pursuit of a large cash prize. It’s got the usual cast of fighting game tropes: your wise Chinese martial artist, your bolshy American, your good ninja, your evil ninja, and of course a number of gorgeous young women.
It’s no secret that sex sells, and by 2003, said young women had built up quite the base of admirers, with enough of them begging for more, shall we say, intimate content that developer Tecmo decided to take that (volley)ball and run with it. Far. And that’s how the world was blessed — and/or cursed, depending on your thoughts — with Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball.
The concept is simple — you play as one of the Dead or Alive beauties spending two weeks vacationing on a tropical island, with naught else to do but hang around in skimpy swimwear and play rounds of volleyball. The game also mixes in a basic dating sim-like element where you can give presents (including more skimpy swimsuits) to the other girls, ostensibly with the aim of making them a better volleyball partner. You earn money to purchase those gifts by gambling for them, because at this point… Why not? The game’s content earned the series’ first-ever “mature” rating (think about that carefully, it’s a series of fighting games), and it remains famous for being even more tenuously connected to the spirit of its parent series than the straps on Hitomi’s bikini top.
Look, I’m not here to judge anyone’s gaming choices, but all I can say is that if Tecmo applied its R&D skills to something like space travel rather than breast jiggle physics, I’d be writing this from Mars Colony Alpha.