At 2007’s San Diego Comic Con, Cartoon Network revealed an ambitious project to the world: an MMO called FusionFall based in a universe inhabited and shared by past and present Cartoon Network characters, which was threatened by an alien invasion that only the players and their customizable avatars could defeat. Infused with console platformer mechanics, the fun of seeing your favorite cartoon characters interacting in the same universe and an art direction that applied some anime aesthetics to characters like Dexter from Dexter’s Lab, FusionFall was an appealing if unexpected concept.
Thirteen years later, what’s most striking about FusionFall is its position in pop culture history. Looking back, the game stands as a time capsule of a period in which the relationship between American and Japanese pop culture was beginning to shift, eventually leading to the mainstream popularity anime now enjoys in the West.
Cartoon Network FusionFall was developed by the now-defunct Korean game studio, Grigon Entertainment, and was directed by Levon Hakobyan and Greg Grigon, both of whom also wrote the game alongside Erab Azraeu. Work on the game began in 2006, culminating in its release in 2009. The premise and gameplay centered around Planet Fusion, a mass of planets led by Lord Fuse, who wants to take over and absorb every planet in the universe. With Fuse’s sights set on Cartoon Network Earth, the players had to suit up, gear up and rise up to save the day.
Players would receive missions from various Cartoon Network characters, and defeating evil Fusion versions of CN characters would rewards nanos, mini versions of the character they defeated, which would aid them in battle with various powers and customizable features. Puzzles, platformer elements, raids and exploration were thrown into the mix to make for one of the more substantial kids’ MMOs at the time. Games like ToonTown Online and Club Penguin didn’t have nearly as much going on as FusionFall.
The world of FusionFall was basically a sci-fi-action makeover of the CN City bumpers that graced the network a few years prior to the game’s release — every Cartoon Network character lived together in one big world, but now that world was nearly destroyed by the ongoing fight with Lord Fuse. This action-packed story played a major role in FusionFall‘s appeal to older teens, which MMOs like ToonTown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean severely lacked. The aim for an older audience is very likely also the reason behind FusionFall’s most notable feature, its anime-inspired aesthetic.
A Fusion of Styles
Led by Sung il Ji, FusionFall’s 2D art team gave every Cartoon Network character featured in the game an anime-inspired makeover. The result was a unique look that was ahead of the anime-influenced curve soon to hit American media. There were hits and misses with the revised designs, but the choice was a bold move, and it more or less worked.
It would be wrong to say that FusionFall was responsible for anime permeating American media — the seeds had already been sown some years earlier with Pokemon and Digimon. It did, however, embrace anime influence around the time that other American media began to do the same, welcoming the coming sea change. As a result, FusionFall serves as a time capsule of the era — one you can still play in the form of its fan recreations, FusionFall Retro and FusionFall Legacy, which have restored and updated the game for anyone wanting to time travel back to the late 2000s.
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Entering the Mainstream
During FusionFall’s lifespan and in the years after its 2013 shutdown, fansubbing communities began to thrive, finding hubs to upload content, including Crunchyroll, which went legit around the time of the game’s launch. Additionally, shows like Death Note, Bleach and Code Geass began airing at this time, all three of which became touchstones for a new generation of anime fans. It was as though FusionFall, with its anime-influenced redesigns of famous Cartoon Network characters, knew that America was due for another anime boom and geared the game towards audiences hungry for it.
When I first went down the rabbit hole of FusionFall, I intended to write a piece about the plain strangeness of its existence. But as I dug deeper, I found that there was a reason it was so weird, a reason it attempted to connect with anime-loving audiences — or rather, audiences growing out of cartoons and looking towards anime. It was because the developers of FusionFall and Cartoon Network as a whole, for that matter, were forerunners of the increasing influence anime was having on American pop culture.
During FusionFall‘s lifespan, and in its wake, we would see shows like Sym-Bionic Titan, Thundercats (2011), Steven Universe and OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes hit the airwaves, all of which are infused with anime influence and further mark anime’s entrance into the American mainstream. Today, the game is an odd little relic of a time when American creators were still trying to figure out how to incorporate anime’s dynamic visuals and more serious themes into their work. At a time when everyone was asking “what if ____ was anime,” FusionFall was bold enough to show us.