I was blissfully nodding off to sleep when a terrifying thought jolted me into terminal consciousness:
I am an adult man who, at one point in his life, had very passionate opinions about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic canon.
To be clear on the circumstances of this horrifying reflection, my thinking went something like this: I had recently(ish) subscribed to HBO Max, now Max Headroom or whatever Warner Bros. AOL Discovery has determined it shall be named for tax purposes. After initially absorbing all the prestige, adult content that was advertised (Succession, Sopranos, The Beach That Makes You Old), my infantile brain decided it was time to watch/rewatch all the content on there that was clearly intended for children and/or people that never stopped collecting action figures. I watched my Justice League, Batman, and Teen Titans like nobody’s business. At some point in there, the HBO Go algorithm figured I was a 12-year-old boy, and started recommending shows like Batwheels. Batwheels, if you are unfamiliar with the concept, is an animated program wherein the Batmobile and other bat-vehicles are sentient, have Cars-esque faces, and help Batman fight crimes (that must occur on the road a lot more often than usual). To tell you everything you need to know about the intended demographics for this show, an episode description immediately available on Google reads, “In this country-inspired music video, Buff the Bat-Truck shows off his strength.”.
And my reaction to Batwheels? “Well, at least these are separate vehicles, and they didn’t try to turn the actual Bat-family into cars. That would be silly.”
Now, to be absolutely clear on the history of Batman, we are talking about a fictional character that has been around since 1939 and is not in any way based on any real-life person living or dead. In the last near-century, Batman has gone through many permutations and versions, with a continuity that only makes marginal sense at the best of times. He has been a friendly cop playing dress up, a living urban legend, and whatever homicidal maniac Frank Miller churned out. He has always been one of the more “mortal” DC Comics characters… except on those seemingly annual occasions when he dies. One time Batman died just to give The Atom something to do during a team up, and ol’ Bruce Wayne was better the next month. Oh! And we are only thinking about the times Batman was Bruce Wayne here. There was a seemingly endless period when “Batman” was James Gordon in some manner of robotic bunny suit. But back to “regular” Batman, the Caped Crusader has appeared commonly as “the night” in his contemporary appearances, but there is also conceited Lego Batman, overcompensating Harley Quinn Batman, and apparently always high Teen Titans Go Batman. Batman is an archetype and part of our culture, so why can’t some writers “have their fun” and make a Batman that is dramatically different from his “canon” appearance?
So what would be wrong with Batman being a friggen’ car? And, while we’re on the subject, what would be so bad about six pony friends being teenage humans?
Let us migrate from Batman over to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Like a number of impressionable not-at-all-young males of my age, I was enrapt in MLP:FiM when it was first released. If I had to point to a reason for imprinting on this show, it would likely be its unusual combination of kinetic animation, a dry sense of humor, and an unrelenting feeling of love between the main characters. It was an extremely tight balancing act, but you could simultaneously state the twin truths of “Twilight Sparkle would die for Pinky Pie” and “Twilight Sparkle is so tired of Pinky Pie’s shit” while enjoying the fact that these ponies occasionally bounced around like Looney Tunes. And combine this all with a surprisingly rich world of mythical creatures (my pet theory is that the MLP:FiM world is Hyrule if Epona got a hoof on the Triforce), and I was hooked. I never really waded into the bogs of “brony-ism” or other overt online communities based on talking about children’s talking horses, but I definitely enjoyed the show, and told my in-real-life friends about my not-real pony friends. Oh! And my facebook icon was DJ Pon-3 for a while. She wears goggles. I’m sure you understand.
So My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was a runaway success not only with lonely adult males, but also its target demographic of preadolescent girls. Either because its producers recognized that its biggest fans (well, the biggest intentional fans) were gradually growing up, or simply because there was an easy avenue to sell more toys, MLP:FiM gained a movie that tested the waters of a spinoff series a scant three years after the ponies first premiered. It was well-received, and a year later, we had a full series order of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. MLP:EG ran for five years and eight seasons (though a few “seasons” had, like, three episodes), and survived on the hook of taking the characters/relationships we recognized from the horse show, and transplanting them onto multicolored human teenage girls. This allowed for more “grounded” stories like… let’s see here… “Rainbow Dash and Trixie compete over a guitar.” Well! There you go! Ponies can’t play guitar! Those hooves are terrible for nailing an F-chord!
If you have not already figured it out, I cannot tell you anything about My Little Pony: Equestria Girls because I never watched the show. And I never watched the show because I was protesting this crass, exploitative spinoff of a pony-based program produced and distributed by a toy company.
I sometimes wonder if I have brain problems…
What I once considered to be very objective reasoning was thus: I have been a five-year-old ever since I was a five-year-old. As such, I have watched a number of franchises for children be rebooted over and over again. Some franchises seem to be treated with delicate care (any given Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series has more highs than lows), but many are not (I love you, Transformers, but you haven’t had an original concept for a series since Beast Wars… and now that has been mined for a movie). My Little Pony always seemed to lean into the “are not” column, and my encyclopedic knowledge of cartoons for children tells me that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a shining diamond (possibly the name of a pony) in a river of shit (probably not the name of a pony). The idea that Hasbro had a genuine hit on their hands thanks to the evident sincerity of its directors/cast, and then decided they needed to make a cash-in version of that… It felt unsavory. I was not going to support it. I was not going to watch a single episode, because I knew it was encouraging the wrong kind of behavior from a media conglomerate.
And now, roughly a decade later, I feel more than a little silly that I decided to put my foot down on “horses that can go to high school”.
A saner blogger might have devoted an article to the unicornian history of Them’s Fightin’ Herds. Originally conceived as a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fan project, “Fighting is Magic” was to be a fighting game featuring the stars of MLP:FiM. Early builds were released in 2012 (a year before Equestria Girls!), and it captivated the fighting game community with the unusual movesets that four-hooved creatures would demand. Unfortunately, it also caught the attention of Hasbro’s legal department, and a cease and desist was quickly issued. However! Lauren Faust creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (and, later, DC Super Hero Girls) took interest in the project, and apparently felt bad about her corporate overlords smooshing the project. As a result, a woman with an extremely successful television show or two under her belt volunteered to design new characters that would become Them’s Fightin’ Herds. Thus did TFH release for early access on PC in 2018, with a complete release in 2020. Then it stampeded over to consoles in 2022, with ongoing DLC characters releasing to round out the cast. In short, this game has come a long way from its origins as a fan project, and has now outlived its initial source material by a couple of years.
And I can’t shake the feeling that I never would have played it if it was available when I cared about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
The “main 6” of this Mane6 game are obvious expies for the unavailable main characters of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Arizona the cowgirl (literally) maps perfectly to ranch-pony Applejack, vain Velvet matches the personality of fashion-forward Rarity, Pom the sheep is just as frightened of interaction as Fluttershy and similarly uses her animal pals as a shield, Paprika the alpaca has the same “shatter the fourth wall just as long as it will be funny” abilities as Pinkie Pie, and Tiahuo the dragon-horse (my Dungeons and Dragons manual tells me this is technically a longma) shows the same flight abilities and dedication as Rainbow Dash. The only major outlier here is Oleander the unicorn, who has all the talent of Twilight Sparkle, but leans heavily into the “absolute power corrupts” trope of being something of a bad girl. But even that just shifts unerringly good canon Twilight Sparkle from her MLP:FM characterization to the darker interpretation of Twilight displayed in Friendship is Witchcraft (not going to lie: that might be the nerdiest sentence ever written for this blog). With support characters similarly being recognizable archetypes (paternal Texas just needs to talk a little less to be the fraternal Big McIntosh) it would be very easy to see Them’s Fightin’ Herds as not its own product, but a shallow rip-off of a franchise that was popular enough to feed into a political movement (not a good political movement). Even with the serial numbers filed off, this is just a shallow cash-in, and no more worthy of my precious time than that pointless program about pony-people prancing to prom.
But get past any hangups about horse-content, and you will find that Them’s Fightin’ Herds is a very unique fighting game. A tournament featuring nothing but quadrupeds is just the tip of the iceberg here. The actual fighting is fast and fun, the “magic” button and its myriad uses is something worthy of putting Blazblue to shame, and even the character victory taunts are something that makes recent Mortal Kombat releases look like… uh… Mortal… Borebat? Does… does that work? No matter! What’s important is that Them’s Fightin’ Herds can stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest fighting games out there.
And it even has something the big boys continuously flub: a memorable story mode. Rather than be a visual novel like BlazBlue, a “playable movie” like Guilty Gear/Street Fighter 5, or whatever the generally cringe comic-book-with-fights that Netherrealm usually has going on; Them’s Fightin’ Herds has a story mode that is an actual game. In presentation it is a pastiche of a 16-bit RPG, platformer, and fighting game. In practice it doesn’t always work (any time you try to do a platformer with beat ‘em up or fighting game mechanics, you’re going to have a bad time), but there are a number of challenges and scenarios that are rarely seen in the fighting game genre, story mode or no. There are boss fights that are more than just “a strong version of a regular fighter”! And an actual environment that makes the universe of TFH feel like more than a series of separate background illustrations. Them’s Fightin’ Herds’ story mode takes what could easily be seen as a silly pun attached to a wannabe franchise and transforms it into a living, breathing world all its own.
And I wouldn’t have experienced any of this if I just made up my mind without actually playing the game. I never would have enjoyed what may have been my favorite fighting game of 2022 (hey, it was new to consoles) if I treated it the same as Equestria Girls. All the pieces were there in my head to enjoy it already, but I could have rejected it immediately.
And I am very glad I tried it.
… So now I guess I have to watch the Bat-trucks show…
FGC #654 Them’s Fightin’ Herds
- System: Initially PC/Steam, but eventually hoofed it over to Switch, Playstation 4/5, and Xbox One/X/S. Note that I own the physical Playstation 5 version… because I think there was a discount for some reason. That usually sways me!
- Number of players: Two! It’s a fighting game! Let’s not reinvent the wheel.
- Story Time: The previously mentioned story mode tells the full tale of a magical world where only cool herbivores (and the occasional dragon) live, but an encroaching and vaguely magical gang of predators are due to arrive, and our heroes now need to repel a series of wolves, snakes, hawks, and bears. As a result, there is a lot more plot there than expected in a game that initially appears to simply be “sheep fight alpaca now”. My only complaint is that it makes the generally boring Arizona the main heroine, but concessions must be made when you get the inimitable Tara Strong to voice a character.
- Favorite Fighter (original batch): TFH currently has “OG Skullgirls Syndrome” wherein the cast is unique and cool… and there are only like six characters. Terrible! But I’ll choose Oleander from this limited roster, as her homicidal spell book (let’s call him Fred) is a fun game mechanic and a delightful excuse for a character to talk to themselves. Also: technically the only “pony” in the pony game.
- Favorite Fighter (DLC division): three add-on characters have been released as of this writing. Shanty is Grant Danasty in Goat form, and Texas is our federally mandated Juggernaut. But Velvet’s big daddy, Stronghoof is my favorite of the lot, as he remembered to bring a big damn ice axe to a hoof-fight. As someone that will eternally defend Soulcalibur’s Necron, I approve.
- Did you know? Legends claim that the My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic beta was made into a “complete” game, and is still skulking the hallowed halls of the internet to this very day. It’s worth looking up for the amazing custom fighting animations, but don’t tell this ghost story at Hasbro HQ!
- Would I play again: Yep! I am anxiously awaiting future DLC, and my only complaint is that we are likely going to have to wait another decade for this to reach the point that we can call it a 100% complete experience. We might be fighting against Arizona’s calves by then!
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 6! Or maybe Final Fantasy 3! Whatever number you give it, it is going to be responsible for a number of essays on the subject of my second favorite game of all time. So please look forward to it!