These are strange times for a fan of Mega Man, the little blue stoic who—for a period in the late ’80s and early ’90s—jumped and slid through eight new obstacle courses on an annual basis. After decades of hit-and-miss spin-offs and diminishing returns, his corporate masters at Capcom have abandoned him. Keiji Inafune, one of his creators and most lasting caretaker, has left the company, and multiple Mega Man games have been canceled in the last several years. The plucky robot’s plight seems dire, but if you don’t limit yourself to officially sanctioned games, Mega Man is more alive than ever. Few series have ever been better loved by its fans. There are literally dozens of fan-made Mega Man games released every year, ranging from the faithful (Mega Man Unlimited) to the whimsical (Mega Man Christmas Carol, which pits you against a robotic Ghost Of Christmas Past) to the baroque (the extravagant Rockman Minus Infinity, seen below).
Why are Mega Man fan games so abundant? One possible explanation lies in the original series’ structure, which is so consistent in both construction and style that more games in the same mold seem as inevitable and necessary as the next beat on the dance floor. It’s always the same: Fight eight robots, in any order, in arenas themed after their designs, and then, tackle a final, more challenging fortress. There are already 78 of these robots, from Bomb Man of 1987 to Solar Man of 2010. Why shouldn’t there be more?
Since the formula is straightforward, it figures that amateur Mega Man designers proliferate. Parents’ attics all over the country are probably filled with yellowed drawings of invented robots—Crab Man, Wizard Man, Laser Man. A friend of mine once brought “Bad Drawing Of A Cow’s Butt Man” to life on the page. Now that Capcom has stopped bringing its own dangerous Men to life, it’s only to be expected that fans jump into the fray. Besides, how hard could it be? By the early ’90s, the games press was treating Mega Man’s recurrent arrival with fatigue and skepticism. If Inafune and company could churn these things out year after year back then, why shouldn’t his fans do the same today?
Yet what may be most interesting about Mega Man fan games is how much they can increase the value of the genuine article by comparison. On the surface, replicating Mega Man seems easy. Tapping into what actually makes the little guy tick, though, turns out to be more elusive. That’s not to say fans haven’t accomplished some remarkable things. One game called Mega Man Rock Force features crisp graphics, catchy retro-style music, and the perfect precision movement that Mega Man players remember. It’s also filled with clever ideas of its own, such as the persistent, pesky Vaudeville hook of the theatrical Charade Man stage, but it often discards them before they’ve had a chance to make an impact.
Another glaring quirk is Rock Force’s tone, which brings the childlike Mega Man experience into adolescent territory. This fan gamefeatures a comically morbid stable of Robot Masters including Crypt Man, Terror Man, Plague Man, and ultimately Death Man. (Who invited these people, and what have they done with Bubble Man?) To match, the plot gives Mega Man a Robin-style sidekick, Justice Man, then turns him against our hero in the lachrymose style of fan fiction everywhere. (“But Justice Man! Why?” “For freedom, Mega Man. Freedom.”)
This twist probably wouldn’t feel out of place in the Mega Man X series, a spin-off/evolution of Mega Man that launched in the ’90s and grew hammier with each installment. But Rock Force mimics the aesthetics of the simpler, cuter original series, and in that context, its incongruity elevates the delicate tone of those classics. The emotional undercurrent of old Mega Man, to the degree that there is one, comes not from melodramatic plotting but from a weird kind of pastoral melancholy. Part of what makes Mega Man 2 so beloved is its unplaceable feeling of timelessness, underscored by the mysterious settings, plaintive melodies, mostly wordless plot, and unforgettably left-field ending. It’s minimal yet oddly affecting and meditative. By comparison, Rock Force is just goofy.
A more knowing goofiness is at the heart of Street Fighter X Mega Man, a fan game that got elevated to semi-official status last year when Capcom noticed they’d forgotten about Mega Man’s 25th anniversary. Given how neatly Mega Man’s duels with his robot adversaries fit into Street Fighter’s one-on-one fighting design, it’s surprising that no one thought to combine the two universes before, replacing Mega Man’s usual end-of-level opponents with the likes of Ryu and Chun-Li.
The idea is rich, but the execution is lackluster. Where Inafune’s games presented a series of carefully tuned obstacles, turning each screen into a puzzle to be solved, Street Fighter X Mega Man features long stretches that pass without incident, punctuated by seemingly random spikes in difficulty. In contrast to the inventive challenges of the official games (and even Rock Force), it repeatedly rolls out the same handful of enemies, most with little character or charm. In terms of level structure, Mega Man 2 speaks in complete sentences, while Street Fighter X Mega Man sounds like Gertrude Stein on an off day.
The most impressive fan game by a wide margin is Mega Man Unlimited, designed by a small team over five years and released last summer to wide acclaim. It’s a remarkable homage, with great graphics, plenty of new ideas, and the right tone: half silly and half wistful. Here, instead of Rock Force’s Plague Man, you’ll find Glue Man, for instance. Clearly a labor of love, Unlimited is loaded with understated nods to individual moments in the classic series, but its greatest tribute is its deep understanding of Inafune’s design philosophy.
Yet even this remarkable effort is not without flaws, one of which is the game’s occasionally grueling difficulty. Contrary to the perceptions of more recent gaming generations (coddled into slower reflexes by hours of cutscenes and tutorials, no doubt), Mega Man was never the game that made you throw your controller. Unlike the brutality of games like Battletoads, it was judiciously balanced, delivering challenges in manageable chunks. Unlimited is sometimes more in line with the way the people imagine Mega Man today—a spike- and pit-filled gauntlet evoking modern masochistic games like I Want To Be The Guy. Levels drag on (compare the sprawling Jet Man stage in Unlimited to the tidiness of Mega Man 2’s Metal Man level), slowly eating away Mega Man’s life bar and the player’s patience. Where Mega Man 2 plays like an album of preened pop gems, Unlimited at times balloons into a collection of wearying progressive rock.
Still, Unlimited is the Mega Man fan game to play. It’s a generous piece of work (not least in that it’s free). In 2014, it’s the closest we’ll get to the “true” Mega Man experience, and it’s pretty damn close. That might change in 2015 when Inafune releases what is essentially his own Mega Man fan game, Mighty No. 9, but at the very least, Unlimited and its peers act as foils to the original texts, games that remain delightful as they age. If we’re lucky, maybe the dedication and respect apparent in these projects will remind Capcom that Mega Man at his best can be more than the little blue cash cow they have recently stopped milking.