As written in our Top 10 of 2019 list, we’ve entered a reality where Fate is one of the biggest franchises around. Fate/Grand Order (the gacha-based mobile game) alone passed the $3 billion marker in gross revenue in 2019, meaning it’s made about as much money as the entire Legend of Zelda game series combined. How did this franchise, unknown in 2010, become an international juggernaut?
The secret, of course, is that the Fate property was always popular in Japan, starting from its very first installment. The original 2004 Fate/Stay Night erotic visual novel (yes, The One What Has Fuckin’ In It) sold 400,000 copies, largely due to the popularity of parent company Type-Moon’s earlier work Tsukihime. Tsukihime‘s bizarre tale of vampire wizards, demon hunters from the Vatican, and twin redhead maids could charitably be described as “janky as hell”, but it was compelling enough to gain a notable fanbase and multiple spinoffs, including an infamously maligned animated adaptation and the Melty Blood fighting game series. More importantly for our purposes, Tsukihime‘s success meant Fate started its commercial life as an already anticipated sophomore work.
To those who have somehow avoided knowing what the Fate franchise is about… I envy you. Here are the basics: mage lineages secretly live in the modern day and do battle in a ritual called the “Holy Grail War”, wherein the spirits of ancient heroes are summoned into reality (within RPG-job-class-like containers) to act as proxies in battle, “Servants” to their magus “Masters”. The details vary from spinoff to spinoff, alternate timeline to alternate timeline, but the core conceit of the Servants remains the same. On some fundamental level, part of the franchise’s appeal is the smashing together of hypothetical action figures. Who would win in a fight, King Arthur or Arjuna? Leonidas or Lu Bu? Beowulf or Billy the Kid?
The original Fate/Stay Night takes place in world with only one Holy Grail War, tied to a specific location in – naturally – urban Japan. Protagonist Shirou Emiya is a seemingly ordinary high school student living alone after his adoptive father and magic teacher passed away a few years ago. Of course, it turns out that the calamity that orphaned Shirou and destroyed half the town ten years ago was the previous Grail War, and Shirou’s self-destructive delusions of heroism compel him to fumble his way into the latest one: the Fifth. He manages to summon the seventh and final Servant allotted to the conflict – a beautiful young woman of the Saber class – and the usual spread of magical action girlfriend tropes proceed from there.
2006 saw the first of many animated adaptations, this one by Studio DEEN. Almost 15 years later it’s regarded as one of the worst – largely in unfair comparison to the overproduced recent installments, and also because of the “people die if they are killed” meme – but it has a special place in my heart as the work that got me tumbling down the slippery slope. It’s the reason that Fate has shortcuts to activating my brain in ways that only something you discovered in high school and thought was super cool can have. I own the DVDs. I’ve talked people into watching it against their better judgement. My Twitter bio still says I’m a Writer-class Servant for fuck’s sake (I should probably change that).
By the end of the 00s, Fate was doing pretty well for itself, with a metric assload of merchandise and a number of spinoffs, including video games Fate/Unlimited Codes and Fate/Extra. But you have to understand the state of the western fanbase: in terms of official releases by 2010, we had the DEEN anime, Unlimited Codes, and… pretty much nothing else. There were fan translations, of course; by 2008, the entire original visual novel was in English (and the additions from the ’07 PS2 all-ages version patched in), and the Fate/Zero translation progressed slowly but surely. Information from artbooks and interviews were treated with reverence, snippets of canon to add to our understanding of the “Nasuverse”, so dubbed after Fate and Tsukihime‘s original writer, Nasu Kinoko.
DEEN was finishing its turn with the franchise in January of 2010 with their Unlimited Blade Works film, adapting a fan favorite plotline from the visual novel that had merely been alluded to in the 2006 show. The real rise started in December, when the news hit that the Fate/Zero anime adaptation was in production. Animation studio UFOtable (also known for the Tales of Symphonia OVA) already had a reputation among Type-Moon fans for their Garden of Sinners movie series, adapting pre-Fate novels by Nasu to critical acclaim. The question was not if, but how well they’d be able to work their magic on the material.
Fate/Zero, for context, was a 2005 series of light novels detailing the Fourth Holy Grail War, ten years before the main plot of Fate/Stay Night. More to the point, it was penned by Gen Urobuchi of Nitroplus, another notable company in the 90s-00s Japanese VN scene. Urobuchi (nicknamed “Urobutcher“ by fans) was infamous for his dark and bloody narratives, particularly the 2003 erotic visual novel Song of Saya, where the eponymous female lead is an eldritch horror from another dimension who consumes human flesh. While F/SN had a foot firmly in high school harem tropes – teens, domesticity, romance – F/Z was cooler and grittier, about adults waging a truly violent shadow war with dangerously powerful spirits. It featured gun porn rather than actual porn; a whole generation of anime fans can now recognize a Thompson Contender or a Walther WA 2000 on sight. Basically everyone who knew anything about Fate/Zero was highly anticipating the possibility of a new, “actually good” Fate anime.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica aired in Spring of 2011, exploding in popularity in part due to an excellent tonal bait-and-switch constructed by head writer Gen Urobuchi. Any anime watcher who didn’t know his name, now did. The same went for the composer of Madoka‘s soundtrack, Yuki Kajiura, who had also composed for the Garden of Sinners movie series. Both of them were due to work on Fate/Zero, which aired in October of 2011. A dedicated fanbase spreading word of mouth, a highly reputable studio, some of the most notable current names in the anime biz, a free English-sub simulcast on NicoNico; it was a perfect storm.
Fate/Zero was a huge success (in our first ranked list, it was #1 of 2012; Jel ranked it as #9 anime of the decade) and was a major stepping stone for both the Fate franchise and those who worked on it. F/Z‘s director, Ei Aoki, founded his own company at TROYCA, an animation studio responsible for Aldnoah.Zero, RE:Creators, and Bloom Into You. Urobuchi’s newfound mainstream fame led to a string of notable projects, including Psycho-Pass, Gargantia on the Verduous Planet, Kamen Rider Gaim, and a trilogy of animated Godzilla films. Yuki Kajiura lent her talents to a third explosive hit in a row – Sword Art Online – as well as Glorio crew favorites such as ERASED and Princess Principal; she continues to compose for Fate shows and films to this day, making her unique sound a core element of the franchise.
With a substantial fanbase full of familiar Fate fans and fresh faces, follow-ups were inevitable. The reputation of the nearly decade-old DEEN anime had only diminished with time, so a new adaptation of the original Fate/Stay Night was the obvious next step. UFOtable’s version of Unlimited Blade Works aired from the latter half of 2014 into 2015 to yet more critical acclaim. For the sake of completeness (and more merchandising opportunities), the third and final major plotline of F/SN – the “Heaven’s Feel” route – was finally adapted into a trilogy of animated films through 2017 into 2020; the third film is due for release a few months from when this post is being written.
And that’s just what I might charitably call the “main series”; other spinoffs are numerous, due to the versatility of the franchise’s core conceit. The previously mentioned Fate/Extra sub-series deals with a Holy Grail War inside a computer simulation on the moon. Fate/Strange Fake‘s Grail War happens in the Nevada desert, where an imperfect ritual leads to numerous “True” and “False” Servants breaking every rule they can think of. Fate/Apocrypha involves two full teams of seven Servants going head-to-head in the Romanian countryside. Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files is a detective series following a secondary character from Fate/Zero as he investigates other magical phenomena. Carnival Phantasm is a sketch comedy starring characters from both Fate and Tsukihime series with some truly hilarious deep cut gags.
The gold-plated, jewel-encrusted, makes-more-in-a-week-than-I’ll-probably-make-in-my-entire-life elephant in the room here is Fate/Grand Order, the immensely popular mobile game that released in 2015. The specifics of its plot are less important than what they facilitate: the opportunity for the blank-slate protagonist to travel to various locales across various time periods and meet various Servants. The original Fate/Stay Night had about ten total distinct Servant characters; Fate/Grand Order, including different variations of the same character (summertime promotions invariably add sexy swimsuit versions, for instance), has 275 and counting. Gotta catch ’em all!
The gameplay involves forming a team to fight battles, and every single Servant is distinct in a mechanical sense, ranging from their basic attributes to their unique skills. The primary way to gain more characters for your collection is via what is effectively a slot machine, where in-game currency (gained through play, or available for purchase with real-ass currency) is spent for a random Servant or item of varying rarity. At the best value, you can buy about 60 pulls of the slot machine for around $80. Dozens of the strongest and most popular Servants are in the 5-star (1% chance) rarity tier, so if you’re trying for a specific 5-star Servant – damn the cost – that sliver of 1% would statistically require you to pull hundreds of times.
Out of some sick sense of obligation, I played Fate/Grand Order at launch for about 18 months, looking up stat blocks and story summaries written by those who understood Japanese. I stopped right before a US release was announced, and chose not to play in English because my collection wouldn’t carry over; I’d have to start from a clean slate, and certain fundamental game mechanics had also changed from how they existed at launch. I never spent a single cent, and over all that time I managed to snag only two 5-star Servants. They weren’t even characters I liked.
Fate/Grand Order can only be called a massive success for all parties involved. As mentioned, it’s made over $3 billion to date, allowing Type-Moon and Sony to fund new, increasingly lavish projects in the franchise, bringing in more fans to spend more money, and at some point the growth simply cannot be stopped. As of this writing, the Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front Babylonia TV anime (praised as an “exceptional production”) is about halfway through its run. The first of two films adapting the game’s Camelot chapter is due to premiere in 2020. At Comiket (the biggest fan-based convention in the world), Fate as a franchise has topped the charts for multiple years running.
So, pretty decent performance for a porn game based on some guy’s high school scrawlings.
It isn’t a coincidence that I started dropping off of the franchise midway through the decade, when UFOtable’s Unlimited Blade Works was over, Grand Order was ramping up, and the Apocrypha anime was right around the corner. Tsukihime, once a core pillar of the “Nasuverse”, now goes practically unknown; its remake – announced in 2008 and still MIA as of this writing – has been an in-joke for years. Another long-awaited visual novel, Mahoutsukai no Yoru, released in 2012 with loads of implication and references to the wider lore. To my knowledge, every attempted English fan translation was abandoned due to lack of interest in a non-Fate franchise installment. But there’s always room for more officially released Fate! More Grail Wars, more Servants, more spinoffs, more more more.
I imagine it’s a different story for other fans, but for me personally, a sense of mystery is part of the franchise’s core appeal; a drip feed of “confirmed” information, the hidden iceberg of interconnected canon, not knowing what absurd situation might pop up next. It’s hard to picture now with FGO‘s growing laundry list of characters, but there was once a time when the total number of Servants numbered less than twenty. Still, the framework existed: the Servant classes, exactly 7-ish of them; the ridiculous stat arrays, quantifying abstract concepts; the rules of the setting, no matter how often they were broken in canon. The spark was there to light my imagination. What would any given mythological figure look like as a Servant? What class would they be? What would be their special abilities, their Noble Phantasm, their reaction to fighting in the Holy Grail War?
A specific example genuinely obsoleted by FGO: Celtic hero Cú Chulainn is a major character in Fate/Stay Night as a Lancer-class Servant, meaning he uses, well, a lance (namely the barbed spear Gáe Bolg). Other Fate installments stated that he was also eligible to be summoned as a Caster or Berserker class, due to his magical prowess and his frenzy in battle. So the fanbase could discuss, and theorize, and just enjoy thinking about what these hypothetical Servant versions of Cú Chulainn would be like. Of course, FGO introduced both Caster and Berserker versions, effectively laying down the law and forever taking that specific realm of discourse off the table. The imagination space of the franchise is permanently lessened as a result, and more’s the pity.
This is why 2019’s Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files is actually my favorite Fate spinoff in recent memory. Rather than hyper-focusing on endless variations of Servants and the Holy Grail War, it explores other aspects of the universe, adding breadth to the wider “Nasuverse” setting. The show’s protagonist is one of the only characters who survives the events of Fate/Zero, and while the Fourth Holy Grail War a major turning point in his life, it was still ultimately a two week period that happened ten years ago. Other characters wonder what was so big a deal about “some minor ritual in the Far East”, since there are much more immediate concerns: a portal allowing an invasion of the fey into the English countryside; a string of murders in London that seem suspiciously like human sacrifices; and the nefarious machinations of Doctor Heartless, the Mage’s Association’s former Dean of Modern Magecraft.
The story arc that was adapted into animation focuses on the “Rail Zeppelin”, an invisible, magic-powered train, on which is held an invitation-only auction for wizards where Mystic Eyes are bought and sold. Mystic Eyes of varying innate ability were a concept introduced in Tsukihime and expanded in Fate/Stay Night, so the idea of them being a hot commodity for magi both ties back into the “mainline” stories and creates more possibilities for the universe as a whole. And it cannot be left unsaid that the Rail Zeppelin’s engine contains a giant wave-motion energy cannon that apparently uses Mystic Eyes as ammunition charges, used to shoot a living vampire forest at the show’s climax.
I don’t think I’d ever call it “logical” or “consistent”, but I find this specific kitchen-sink approach to worldbuilding to be – dare I say – fun. What kind of other crazy shit is going on in the world if King Arthur shooting a giant laser beam from Excalibur at the earthly incarnation of the Zoroastrian devil at the same time as the Sumerian demigod Gilgamesh and a teenage wizard whose sole magic spell is creating a pocket dimension made out of swords duel for the fate of the all humanity is considered a minor conflict? The specific sensibilities of how the “Nasuverse” evokes a wider world is what sold me on the concept on a broad, interconnected franchise. Sorry Marvel movies, sorry Brandon Sanderson, sorry Gundam; Fate was the first one for me.
Alas, it can’t help but fall prey to the same pitfalls as any franchise that’s big enough. Just like how Star Wars can’t take two steps without flashing Darth Vader, the Millennium Falcon, or a Mandalorian, Fate has bits of iconography that are too lucrative to go unused. The original Saber character is so popular that to my knowledge, every single installment in the Fate franchise contains either her, someone who is conceptually connected to her via shared elements, or someone who literally just looks exactly like her. Even Case Files has one! The OG Saber herself isn’t a shallow or bad character, no matter what some fair weather fans may have to say, but frankly I’m almost insulted that I’m expected to keep caring about all these other “Saberfaces” because of some imagined association.
In fact, I genuinely prefer the original Fate/Stay Night‘s cast, making me an easy mark for Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family. While half of FSN was certainly cool life-or-death battles, the other half was almost bizarrely concerned with domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, so I was downright tickled when this show aired in 2018. Taking a few cues from more comedic spinoffs, there is no Holy Grail War in (on? heh) Today’s Menu, even though all its players are present. Each episode features Shirou (or one of his friends) cooking a meal and just… hanging out. Instead of, uh, trying to kill each other. Granted, a lot of what made the show work was the fact that I’d known this cast for a decade already, but for a weird cooking spinoff it stays remarkably true to their original characters.
While I absolutely do want to explore new facets of the setting, I suppose on some level, what Fate is to me will always be Shirou, Saber, and those present for the Fifth Holy Grail War. I’m sure for others, Fate will always be Grand Order‘s Ritsuka Fujimaru and Mash Kyrielight. Is it hypocritical of me to dunk on the franchise for being too mired in its own bullshit when the original version is still probably my favorite one? I guess that’s the kind of balance that all long-running franchises have to grapple with. Without staying too close or straying too far from the things that made Fate so popular in the first place, where do we go from here?
The newest major Fate work as of this writing is a light novel series called Fate/Requiem, and it’s described as taking place in a supposedly peaceful world where everyone has their own Servant and battle for amusement. Frankly, it seems to be the logical conclusion of Type-Moon’s fixation on the Holy Grail War, much like how Gundam Build Fighters was for the Gunpla toy empire. I won’t say it’s impossible for it to be an enjoyable or compelling story, but I’m just not sure how much enthusiasm I have left for another story about Masters and Servants duking it out without some really solid hooks.
As for what else is on the horizon… the Heaven’s Feel movie trilogy is ending soon, and I don’t know that Aniplex would dare enter the new decade without more notable Fate anime projects. While Glorio crew member Jel insists that UFOtable will re-adapt the eponymous primary “Fate” plot route of Fate/Stay Night and complete the trifecta, I’m secretly hoping for an adaptation of Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, a visual novel sequel to the original that takes place within a mysterious 4-day time loop. The story’s format can work with an episodic structure, and there are plenty of opportunities for solid character interaction and cool action scenes alike. It’s also honestly a bit of a conspicuous hole in the lineup of big official anime adaptations.
My deepest, darkest hope is that of a Nasuverse fan rather than merely a Fate fan: as recently as October 2019, Type-Moon said that the Tsukihime remake is still in active development. Fucking release that shit already. Hell, Tsukihime 2 has been teased even longer than the remake, and it’s ripe for opportunities to pull in characters from practically every spinoff. It will obviously never happen, but I can dream; as I said, that wiggle room to imagine things is part of why I still stick with this damn franchise. Also, as we near the 20th anniversary of Type-Moon, dare I say it’s time for more Carnival Phantasm? I certainly wouldn’t say no to another batch of Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family or a second season of Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files, either.
The fear, of course, is that Grand Order will continue to define all of Type-Moon’s output. I can’t necessarily blame them, considering the money to be made, but I would certainly be disappointed. The multiple FGO anime adaptations so far (including the upcoming films) cover only a portion of the game’s entire storyline, and I don’t know if they can resist the temptation to milk the game bloody. There are always more historical figures to transmogrify into nubile anime girls after all, and consequently always more people who dump thousands of dollars into the nubile anime girl slot machine.
Again, I kind of feel like a hypocrite for lambasting Fate‘s trend towards pandering and fanservice while also saying the best version is the original. I envy those who can unironically cheer for their favorite things, who can latch onto a property and keep on loving it through hell or high water. If I’d written a post in 2013, I’m sure I could have given a much more detailed, enthusiastic explanation of exactly why Fate is appealing, but its meteoric rise has left me in the dust. On some level, I don’t know what to think anymore. The more I hear about the franchise’s new hotness, the less I seem to care.
But it’s been a long decade, and I’m no longer a teenager, even if I don’t feel like I’m truly an adult. Are my feelings just to be expected with that growth? Perhaps it’s only true in my own head – my own little Reality Marble, if you will – but nobody hates Fate more than Fate fans do. And I think maybe that goes for just about any franchise, any property, any subculture. All I can say for sure is that as we move into 2020, both Fate and I are still here, and we’re not dead yet.