Jul 30, 2013

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Megaman Unlimited: Ode Of A Mega Fan

Megaman Unlimited: Ode Of A Mega Fan


They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and when it comes to video game fan communities, that certainly rings true. Modding has long been the cornerstone of many fan communities, taking old, treasured games and updating the graphics, adding new levels, items, or even entirely new gameplay systems. But it’s when fans of these games go beyond simply modding the games they love, and create all new experiences based on the original properties, that these games are given an entirely new life and vision well beyond that of the original creators’.

A fan game is an entirely fan-built video game based on an existing property. They are often made by amateur hobbyists on a shoe-string budget, and they are usually released for free, the motivation simply being a passion for the original games and a desire to see their legacy endure.

MegaPhilX, whose real name is Philippe Poulin, is a Canadian game developer who has been a longtime fan of Capcom’s flagship Mega Man series, that debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. Since then, Capcom has released over 50 games in the series and its many sub-series.

Megaman Unlimited's robot masters

After Capcom released Mega Man 9 in 2008, which was a throwback to the graphical and audio presentation and gameplay style of the classic NES games, Poulin decided to take his love of the original series and create his own Mega Man game, recreating everything he loved about the games he grew up playing.

Poulin began work designing what he called Mega Man 10, using old robot master designs he had made in high school as a jumping off point. “Mega Man 4, that was the first one I really liked, and I started to draw my own robot masters, and Nail Man is actually one of the first I made,” said Poulin. “The more recent ones are Comet Woman, Yoku Man, and Rainbow Man is kind of recent too. But Jet Man, Tank Man, Nail Man, Trinitro Man, Glue Man, and Yo-yo Man too are actually really old designs from when I was younger.”

While the eight main robot masters were designed by Poulin, Megaman Unlimited contains a secret ninth robot master called Yoku Man, who was conceptualized by a friend of Poulin’s who goes by the name StarsimUniverse. Poulin created the visual and game design of Yoku Man, whose gimmick centers around making heavy use of the series’ infamous disappearing blocks. He is designed to be especially challenging, but will reward the player with an extra special weapon.

Poulin is primarily an artist and designer, and went through a series of programmers over the course of development. At first, a friend who goes by the online handle N64Mario was programming the game, but momentum soon disappeared, and Poulin’s coworker Gabriel Leblanc asked to take a look at the code. “I was going on vacation and was going to China actually, and I gave him some of my assets and he started to do something while I was on vacation, and when I came back he already had the basic stuff done, so I was like ‘oh my god this is great,’” Poulin said. Leblanc continued to work on the game until he switched to work at another company, at which point Poulin contacted his childhood friend Jean-Simon Brochu, who finished developing the gameplay, enemies, and bosses.

While Poulin was working on the project early on, Capcom had begun working on a sequel to Mega Man 9 – that sequel was the official Mega Man 10. Fan games are often shut down by big companies even when they aren’t directly competing with an upcoming title, so the idea that Poulin’s Mega Man 10 would survive the legal hammer of Capcom was not likely. But instead of getting a cease & desist, Poulin found himself in a very unlikely situation.

“When the Mega Man 10 website came out, there were some assets from my game that were used on the website,” Poulin explained. “If you go to megaman.capcom.com/10, this is the official website of Mega Man 10 and if you take a look at the background, it’s from the background of Tank Man. And also the frames for the character’s mugshots are from the stage select of Megaman Unlimited. And if you go to ‘Overview’, the background is Comet Woman’s stage.

“At that point I had a bunch of screenshots on deviantART so I guess they took it from there. We were wondering what I should do about it, but at some point someone told me that Seth Killian, the community manager at Capcom, wanted to contact me, so I exchanged a few emails with him,” said Poulin. “Basically he told me that what they can do is they can remove the assets from the website and apologize, or they could leave the assets there and compensate me somehow. So I chose the second option and they invited me to Captivate in 2010. It was in Hawaii, and I got to try the games they were announcing there and ask questions and then I also got to meet Keiji Inafune.” Poulin then changed the name of his game to Megaman Unlimited and continued development without any problems from Capcom.

Battling Tank Man

When it comes to dealing with fan games, Capcom has a recent track record of being unusually supportive of the community as far as large studios go. A few months before Megaman Unlimited was released, Capcom stepped in and helped two fans release their fan game Street Fighter X Mega Man for Mega Man‘s 25th anniversary. “I think Capcom is pretty cool with the fan games because there has been a lot of fan games before that and ROM hacks and all that stuff. So I guess Capcom is pretty nice,” Poulin said.

Megaman Unlimited was created for longtime fans of the series. It adheres to all of the technical and gameplay strengths and limitations of the original NES, but also takes them to their iterative extreme, especially when it comes to the game’s difficulty. “Maybe it’s a little bit harder than I thought,” Poulin admits. “Since it’s a fan game I thought that the target audience would be a fairly limited number of people because not everybody knows about the fan game. So that’s why I guess I made it a little bit too hard.”

But Poulin promises he knows how to make easier games. “I’ve been in game design about twelve years at the same company. Before that I was doing some Starcraft missions back when it was Starcraft 1. I did some missions also for TIE Fighter and Doom II, I remember.”

Starting work on Megaman Unlimited meant getting it to look and feel exactly how it was in the NES originals. “The sprites of Mega Man himself and the original Mets and the health metre and the power-ups already exist. I’ve taken them from Sprites Inc. And as the other graphics go sometimes I use another robot master as the model, like for example Rainbow Man, I picked Gemini Man’s sprites and I just tried to use the same proportions.”

Sliding makes a triumphant return

Mega Man 9 & 10 were obvious throwbacks to the stylings of Mega Man 2, widely considered the best game of the original series. That meant eschewing the slide and charge shot abilities of the later games. Megaman Unlimited however retains the series’ slide maneuver, picking and choosing abilities from across the original series to create an entirely new experience. “Personally, Mega Man 2 I’m a little bit tired of,” Poulin said. “I decided to go more for a Mega Man 3 feel because I thought it was a really cool game. I think the charge shot kind of breaks the whole – you know, it renders the special weapons a little bit useless, and you always hear that charging sound all the time, and I always thought it was way better balanced with just the small shots and the special weapons, then you will end up using the special weapons way more. And I think that’s why Mega Man 5 and 6 in particular are not very good.”

A high difficulty is certainly one of the most defining features of the Mega Man series, but perhaps the most recognizable are the soundtracks. Mega Man games have always been praised for their catchy, high-quality chiptune soundtracks, and Poulin did his best to recreate that element in Unlimited. The majority of the game’s soundtrack was composed by Kevin Phetsomphou using Fruity Loops and Sytrus, while a few tracks were composed by Yan Thouin and Poulin himself using the FamiTracker music software to produce authentic-sounding NES music.

The tireless drive of Poulin and his small team of Mega Man fans speaks to the intense passion that drives fan game projects. And recently more and more fan games and mods are getting attention as communities grow and the tools to create games get easier to use and more robust. Megaman Unlimited has been reviewed on sites like Destructoid along with big budget major games, and projects like Skyrim‘s recent Falskaar mod have proven that sometimes the most exciting games can come simply from a lot of time and a lot of passion.

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“I’m actually amazed at how many players are playing the game,” Poulin said. “It’s amazing, I’m really overwhelmed. I have to take a little break from the internet sometimes because it’s just so intense.” For designers, sometimes the most exciting thing about creating these games comes simply from watching players play their games with as much passion as they put into creating them.