Parappa the Rapper slings a jab. Kratos takes it in the gut. Said jab leads into a slick combination — a flurry of one-twos that culminates in a tremendous uppercut, sending the God of War soaring impossibly into the sky.
Seconds later, Parappa hops onto a skateboard. He runs over a Fat Princess who, just seconds ago, was punching above(?) her weight against Sweet Tooth from Twisted Metal. Somewhere in the background Hades is under attack from a particularly belligerent group of Patapon.
This is madness, I think to myself.
This is the calculated chaos of PlayStation All-Stars.
The insanity erupting on screen is one thing, but the fact that multiple Sony brands — brands that exist in directly opposing tonal extremes — are co-existing? Well, that’s a different type of madness altogether…
“It’s definitely a challenge,” laughs Chan Park, Director and Studio President of SuperBot, the newly created development studio tasked with building PlayStation All-Stars. In a sense SuperBot represents a different, very real team of all stars, top developers who have worked across several pivotal fighting titles in the games industry — Mortal Kombat, UFC Undisputed — brought together for the express purpose of creating something special. All stars creating All-Stars.
The inspiration is also the competition: Super Smash Bros. But while Nintendo’s massive cast of characters fit snugly within the same family friendly universe, Sony’s IP blasts wildly across the radius. Kratos and Fat Princess? Sweet Tooth and Parappa the Rapper? Is it possible to shoehorn this wide cast of characters into a single game and have anything make sense?
We ask Chan.
“In terms of integrating them all into the same world, part of this is supposed to feel like a mash up,” he says. “We’re not just trying to sanitise everything, we kind of want them to stand apart from one another — that’s where the irreverence and the humour comes from.
“It’s a challenge, but ultimately we’ve found a pretty decent balance of getting them all to live in the same world.”
Another game begins, on a battlefield loosely based on LittleBigPlanet’s opening level. The battle starts auspiciously — PlayStation characters beat the living crap out of one another and all is right with the world.
But what’s this? In the background, LBP’s ‘pop-it’ appears onscreen, and starts randomly adding new platforms to the scenery, as if a user created LBP level is being constructed ad hoc. As we play, the terrain is constantly evolving. It’s crazy, but fun.
And that’s just the beginning. Seconds later Buzz turns up, on a massive projector screen behind the platforms. He is literally part of the level and he’s asking questions. 'This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,' I think to myself — but in context it somehow works!
Then I remember the last level I played — a schizophrenic Frankenstein’s monster of a stage featuring Quark from Ratchet & Clank being eaten by the Hydra from God of War. I wonder why I’m still allowing myself to be surprised.
I also wonder how the hell Sony managed to convince its studios to sign off on this collective madness…
“I’ve been at Santa Monica studio for a really long time so fortunately I know a lot of the people who have spent a significant amount of time creating these characters. They live and breath these characters and one of the really important things to establish with our content partners is — first off — thanks for your support!”
As Executive Producer at Sony Santa Monica, it’s Deborah Mars’ job to convince everyone that PlayStation All-Stars is a swell idea and their beloved characters should be involved. Deborah is friendly, but assertive. I suspect she rarely has to take no for an answer.
“It’s just incredible the amount of support we’ve gotten,” she continues. “I worked really closely on Fat Princess, so I know what it’s like to give up your baby, and have it live in this world and play in the sandbox with all the other characters.
“I’m just like, oh my god I don’t want Fat Princess to get beat up by Kratos!”
I smile to myself. Just five minutes ago I was playing as Kratos. And it was Fat Princess doling out the beatings.
“The thing is, no matter what, PlayStation All-Stars always makes you smile,” says Deborah “And this is one of the areas where SuperBot has done a fantastic job
“It’s never going to be a 1:1 representation — I think that’s one of the messages we’re giving when trying to get everyone’s support and approval. There’s no way the Fat Princess from the original game is 100% the same as the Fat Princess you’re going to play in PlayStation All-Stars. And it’s not supposed to be.
“At first they’re like, ‘that’s not the world my character is supposed to live in!' But once they get their hands on it, and play it, they just have a ton of fun.”
The characters are one thing, but it’s arguably the levels themselves that are most subversive: a calculated chaos where directly opposing IP intertwine in the strangest ways.
At first I wonder if this dilutes PlayStation's brands — does Kratos lose his menace after being hit over the head with Parappa the Rapper’s skateboard? Maybe. But perhaps the explicit tonal differences help define the identities of Sony’s finest. In stark contrast to one another they instantly become more tangible.
“That’s SuperBot’s goal,” says Deborah. “They’re taking these disparate worlds and characters and asking — how can they live and breathe in the same space? Well, it’s about the execution, it’s about the conscious decisions being made as to which worlds and which characters they’re going to merge together.”
“It would be kind of boring if we were too straight with the levels,” adds Chan. “We really saw an opportunity to celebrate PlayStation history, to draw from characters or lesser known characters, to bring in cameos in the background, so that people playing — and the people watching — can be like, ‘oh my god, I know that character!’ Look the Patapon just attacked Hades!
“To have that sort of interaction just makes the game a richer experience. That’s what it’s about — bringing in as much fan service as possible to try and spice up the game world.”
And it’s certainly spicy. It’s a sort of chaos, a calculated chaos of brands and mechanics, but somehow it makes sense. But even when it doesn’t make sense, it coasts easily with a light and breezy irony. You couldn’t imagine a cast of characters this broad co-existing in any other video game, or any other platform for that matter — and that’s a good thing.
“I think that’s what makes Sony so unique,” says Chan, finally. “The game, by virtue of the fact we’re dealing with the PlayStation universe, is just gonna be edgier and cooler, because there are so many different looks and styles. It just makes sense that you’d want to mash it all up and see what happens.
“And we’ve put a concerted effort into making sure that everyone can play nice together.”