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You have a set of characters. They work well as an ensemble; so well, in fact, that they can be slotted into just about any scenario you care to imagine, within the constraints of genre (fitting an ensemble into a different genre is a completely different trope). So you can see them, identical but for different trappings (he was wielding a sword, now it's a blaster pistol...), in places as diverse as Feudal Japan, the Modern Era, Space Opera, etc., etc., etc.
What you have is a Universal Adaptor Cast: found anywhere that an ensemble is cast into an odd situation and yet fits in perfectly because their roles and characters are so well-defined. The best example is Commedia Dell'Arte, an Italian theater tradition that uses a group of characters whose characteristics and attributes are so well-known that the entire play is ad-libbed. Many Moe shows are practically Merchandise-Driven versions of the Universal Adaptor Cast. Separate Scene Storytelling is often done this way.
The Magnificent Seven Samurai is a specific subtrope of this.
Anime & Manga
- Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito is a straight Anime example; this one a Yuri series set in a bunch of settings with the same basic characters due to reincarnation.
- Every episode of Abenobashi Mahou Shoutengai has the characters playing different roles in a parody of a given genre.
- The various incarnations of Tenchi Muyo!, exemplified by the spinoff of the Pretty Sammy series.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
- This dates back to the beginnings of anime, with Osamu Tezuka's troupe of characters. They were a little more versatile than the standard commedia troupe (several of them "played" both heroes and villains), but the idea remains that they are "actors" portraying characters.
- Code Geass spinoff manga Strange Tales of the Bakamatsu places the cast of characters in pre-Meiji Japan, with La Résistance being the nationalist rebels and Lelouch himself leading The Shinsengumi as a cover identity. Oh, and in this universe, "Geass" means the ability to summon Knightmare Frames.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion has two Alternate Universe / Alternate Continuity spin offs: Angelic Days and Gakuen Datenroku, the former being a fluffy shojo manga and other one being an X Meets Y scenario with Persona.
- There is also the radio drama Shin Seiki Evangelion, which is where the characters are trying to create a new show so they can continue after, you know, all of humanity is destroyed at the end. As the title sounds, Asuka wants a sentai show.
- One Piece frequently puts the Straw Hats into alternate universes, such as one in which they are all fantasy monsters and another in which they -- even the males -- are middle-aged women. The most frequently used setting is one in 19th Century Japan, in which Luffy is in the police force of Japan under the rule of Cobra. The Chopperman setting, in which Chopper acts as a superhero with Nami as his assistant and Luffy as his Humongous Mecha against Usopp, Franky and a Quirky Miniboss Squad composed of the rest of the crew, initially started out as special that was a few minutes long, but got a full-length filler episode after the Ice Hunter Arc.
- School Rumble tried this a few times as well. Even more so in its short sequel of sorts, School Rumble Z which was mostly composed of the cast in various different alternate universe or possible future settings.
- Urusei Yatsura has its large cast take on the roles of Japanese historical figures like Miyamoto Musashi, or fight in the Heian Self-Defense Force. Of course Kintaro is an recurring character in the modern age, so yeah... As usual, Hilarity Ensues.
- In the past twenty-plus years, the cast of Ranma One Half have been slotted into every possible scenario, ranging from bizarre fusion fics (The Wheel of Time, Star Trek) to original plots of every possible stripe.
Comics -- Books
- Most major superhero teams have had "imaginary stories" where they were medieval knights, steampunk warriors, etc.
- Marvel Fairy Tales retells various Fairy Tales with the X-Men, Spider-Man and The Avengers.
- Marvel Noir does the same, but with film noir-style tales.
- Sam and Max. It helps to be the Freelance Police.
- Disney comics often feature the characters in various different settings, such as medieval fantasy, science fiction and parodies of famous books or movies. In one Mickey Mouse story, Mickey and pals performed what was supposed to be a play by Molière but was actually a parody of one.
- The Archie Comics gang. Including for a while, various spinoffs were they were in space, in the past, or superheroes.
Films -- Live-Action
- The Carry On movies are a great example of this. A group of comedy actors (that did change gradually over the years, as people joined, left, or came back) made films together in a wide variety of settings and parodying a wide variety of genres.
- Likewise, the Marx Brothers. The brothers, plus Margaret Dumont, always play the same basic characters under different names, transplanted into any number of settings -- racecourse, opera house, a very thinly-disguised Nazi Germany, and so on.
- The Three Stooges!
- Crosby, Hope and Lamour in the Road To ... movies.
- French comedic foursome "Les Charlots" played basically the same characters within several movies during the '70s/'80s, in various settings. Among other things, this included them fighting Dracula (Les Charlots contre Dracula), a spoof of James Bond flicks (Bons baisers de Hong Kong) or a retelling of The Three Musketeers (Les Quatre Charlots mousquetaires and its sequel).
- Abbott and Costello meet...
- Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung & Yuen Biao.
- Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels do this explicitly. Many of the characters are clearly identified with their original Commedia dell'Arte counterparts, with Jerry as Harlequin, and swung through a wide variety of settings and situations without clear explanation.
- Hal Duncan's The Bookof All Hours does this extensively with its central cast. This is an interesting case, because each character is the living embodiment of an archetype superimposed upon multiple realities. So by the second book, where reality has degenerated into isolated wells of time and space, and the characters move from one reality well to another, they all become Dangerously Genre Savvy, having absolutely no qualms about screwing all possible realities to their advantage. This results in them routinely sitting around a table and leafing through the "script" for the next reality, deciding who is going to play what.
- "The Years of Rice and Salt" is an alternative history of the 700 years following the Black Death, the "alternative" being thrown in by the idea that all Europeans died, not just 1/3 of them. The same group of characters are reincarnated as characters with the same first letters of their names, until 2002 CE.
- The Blackadder series, including the final movie.
- Northern Exposure did this a few times, once casting all the series regulars as the turn-of-the-century founders of Cicely, and once all showing up in a dream sequence Joel had about returning to New York.
- The cast of El Chavo Del Ocho enacted different roles in other shows (most notably in El Chapulin Colorado) but often looked and acted almost the same as their Chavo characters.
- Both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, with their frequent crossovers and overlapping supporting casts, did this from time to time, setting stories during the French Revolution, 1930s Adventure Archaeologist stories, bizarre mermaids with human husbands soap opera, or having the supporting cast playing the production staff.
- The Goodies had several episodes in which the usual modern day trio were inexplicably transplanted to some historical era and played characters from that era.
- Kamen Rider Decade offers an interesting interpretation of this: the title character is meant to wander between the parallel universes, becoming whatever each needs in time: hero or villain, savior or destroyer. His abilities actually include Undead Tax Exemption, which gives him a role to play in each new world like policeman, lawyer, door-to-door salesman, etc. When he dies in the Grand Finale, his friends are told that this means he's Killed Off for Real, but they say Screw Destiny and find a way to revive him.
- An in-universe example in a Twilight Zone episode in which a prisoner on Death Row states that it's all his dream, and the people in his dream are all from his waking life - and they swap roles every night. (ie. The Judge becomes a guard, the priest becomes his lawyer, etc.)
- The Muppets, who manage to play themselves whether on a vaudeville stage or in Treasure Island.
- Yet, and this is the unique part, they still capture the roles they're playing. The Muppet Christmas Carol is widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of the book ever made.
- The Goon Show has the same troupe of characters in a different setting every episode.
- As mentioned, this is the whole point of Commedia Dell'Arte.
- The Sera Myu has a sequence where Chibi-Moon and Saturn are transported to the Edo Era of Japan. The other characters show up as apparently past life versions of themselves. Usagi and the Inner senshi (sans mercury) are a group of noble thieves, Setsuna appears as a traditional comedian/announcer complete with a paper fan, Mamoru as a local playboy who is secretly the magistrate, and Ami as a village girl who has a crystal ball similar to the one carryed by the Inner Senshi and is thus destined to be their companion. One of villans shows up as an apparently time-displaced Mexican named "This is a pear".
- The Beatmania series has background animations that show the same characters in different settings.
- Each Mecha's Story Mode in Tech Romancer basically features them as if they were the star of their own Mecha Show, with the other fighters as secondary characters.
- Mega Man; particularly the original, Mega Man Battle Network and some parts of Legends. (Let's not get into continuity, please.)
- The various Super Mario Bros. spin-offs provide the best video game examples; to name just a few settings that have been done by the Italian Plumber and his friends:
- Sports Games, including Tennis, Golf, Soccer, and Baseball;
- Role Playing Games (Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga)
- Party Games (Mario Party)
- Kart racing (Mario Kart)
- Fighting Games (Super Smash Bros)
- And those are just the popular ones that got sequels.
- Plus the cartoon series did this, similar to the animated examples below.
- Moreover, the series has been doing this from the very beginning. Donkey Kong was about a mean ape tormenting his owner Mario, where the second game cast Mario as a cruel owner who caged DK. The player controlled DK Jr. to save him.
- The Sonic Storybook Series has Sonic the Hedgehog characters filling fairytale roles (save Sonic himself, who gets pulled into the adventures as himself). For instance, Knuckles is Sinbad the Sailor in Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sir Gawain in Sonic and the Black Knight.
- In The Legend of Zelda series, there are many different incarnations of Link and Zelda that occur in different time periods. Fans have come up with numerous explanations for why Link and Zelda reoccur such as reincarnation, descendants, or just some sort heroic spirit that reappears when evil threatens Hyrule. However, on a meta-level, Miyamoto says that he sees Link and Zelda like old theatrical cartoon characters like in Popeye who can be recast in many different situations.
- Team Fortress 2, especially in the Vidding community, which makes surreal animations using the characters in stock roles based on how they're played in the game. For instance, the Spy is usually a violent sociopath, and Heavy has a rivalry with the Scout and a friendship with the Medic.
- Homestar Runner, as seen by the many many alternative settings (futuristic Japan, medieval times, 1800s US just to name a few) and premises.
- The Something Awful Peezle Ward series of Flash Tub cartoons are various movies that place the same four characters in various movie "adpatations" of a fake author's stories, ranging from Fire Fighters to Astronauts to Time Travelers.
- Arthur, King of Time and Space slots its cast into science-fiction, the contemporary world, super-heroics, and various more specific parodies (i.e. MASH), and it always works. How much of this is the versatility of the cast, and how much is not stretching settings farther than it works is debatable. Still, just as impressive, either way. In some settings characters are gender-flipped, and still work just as well.
- The "Stick Figures in Space" Filler Strips from Sluggy Freelance take this approach, transplanting the main Sluggy cast into a space opera spoof.
- Lightning Made of Owls may well set the record for range of different settings used. In theory, at least; its small archive size might not give it room to be there in practice, yet.
- Aaron Williams' Q-4orce: The Mighty Moderately Average Superteam converts the cast of Nodwick from a Dungeons and Dragons adventuring party to a City of Heroes superhero team.
- AH Dot Com the Series likes to do this with Something Completely Different episodes such as "Story Hour" (which inserts the cast into The Wizard of Oz) and "Movie Night" (which inserts them into a 1950s B-movie). There are also full-fledged spin-offs starring the same cast, such as AH Dot Com Wars (Star Wars parody) and Luaky Commer (Harry Potter parody).
- Many characters originating in animated shorts have this ability:
- Tom and Jerry.
- The Warner Bros. Looney Tunes stable, along with the Animaniacs.
- Can't forget Pinky and The Brain, who would appear alongside Samson one episode, then encounter Robin Hood, and then attempt to take over 1946 Los Angeles by shrinking people's hats.
- Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and pretty much anyone from the Classic Disney Shorts, as quite completely proven by Kingdom Hearts.
- Perhaps the most What Do You Mean It's for Kids? is "Mickey's Inferno". Yes, Mickey travels through hell.
- The whole series of French animated TV shows Once Upon a Time... is a definite example of such a cast. It started with Once Upon a Time... Man, which followed a cast of similar characters throughout the ages (though with variable nationalities and ethnicities). The same cast was then used in a Space Opera (Once Upon a Time... Space), as anthropomorphized cells in the human body (Once Upon a Time... Life), and other edutainment entries.
- The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo has Mr. Magoo (and a few other recurring "actors") play various well-known stories, like The Count of Monte Cristo, King Arthur or Robin Hood.
- Weirdly, the Super Mario Bros Super Show tries this route in its animated version... though all of the different settings remains in the Mushroom Kingdom.
- Made even weirder by the fact that Mario and his crew were always unambiguously themselves--while Koopa and his Troop more often then not completely built themselves around the theme of that episode's world. Some themed version of Koopa was used far more often then the simple 'vanilla' one.
- Ren and Stimpy
- The central cast of The Simpsons is often worked into the central cast of whatever they're parodying in the Treehouse of Horror specials, such as the episode where Bart has
The Shiningthe Shinning. Also the Bible stories episode and the tall tales episode.
- Another episode featured Homer as Odysseus.
- Family Guy
- Barbie become this with her series of 3D movies. She has been Rapunzel, Odette, Clara, a genderflipped Ebnezer Scrooge, D'Artagnan and Prince and the Pauper.
- Not to mention all the different professional Barbies that have been produced over the decades. Doctor, nurse, dentist, vet, rock musician, scuba diver, geisha (Japan only), RCMP officer (Canada only), infantryman, fighter pilot...
- Walter Melon, from the Animated Adaptation of Achille Talon. That "hero for hire" does replacements for heroes (like Superman, Casanova, Luke Skywalker, Tarzan, Rambo...) and (in later seasons) historical figures, despite the fact that he's overweight and don't look like a typical hero. His friend Bitterbug is the usual sidekick, and Walter's nemesis, Sneero, is playing the villains (Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, The Joker, Captain Hook, Doctor Octopus...)
- In an example that's half In-Universe and half straight, the core cast of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic put on a pageant about the founding of Equestria, and the historic figures they play all have exaggerated versions of their own personalities.
- In any given episode in the Veggie Tales series, most of the characters will be played by one of the stock cast members.
- In the 90s X-Men series, Jubilee tells a fairy tale with her as an In-Universe self-insert character, Magneto as the villain, Scott as a prince, Jean as a Princess (in pink even).
- This was pretty much the point of Hello Kitty Furry Tale Theater," a short-lived cartoon where Kitty and her friends played out various stories like the Ugly Duckling.
- While Phineas and Ferb is not entirely this trope, certain episodes have seen the cast living in ancient china, the stone age, a swords-and-sorcery fantasy, a Indiana Jones-like setting and Oz.
- Each episode of Dino Babies has a character read a story won't be written for billions of years, even taking place in the future setting, and the Dino Babies play the characters in the story.
- Vocaloid characters. De-facto, they are tabula rasa and it's up to the producers just what they are supposed to be-- which is largely the point of having virtual songstresses. Even the official merchandise is in it: the sheer variation of Miku figmas is staggering, and these are based on the most popular imagining of Miku.
- ↑ Miku did have a manga series, though