A fan-made tribute becomes an impromptu anniversary celebration.
On December 17, 1987, Rockman – known in the west as Mega Man – was released on the Famicom. Some 25 years later, Mega Man is still a household name (well, in nerdy households, anyway). Capcom’s Blue Bomber is one of the publisher’s most recognizable mascots representing one of its most important franchises, and, until recently, Capcom managed to give gamers lots and lots of Mega Man. Many would argue too much.
These days, in the wake of the Mega Man mastermind Keiji Inafune’s exit from the company, Capcom seems at a complete loss as to what to do with the series. After cancelling two far-advanced projects in the form of Mega Man Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe, all has been silent as Capcom has focused much of its energy on the sustained revival of Street Fighter, the rebooting of series like Devil May Cry and the refocusing of its survival horror tour de force Resident Evil.
With Mega Man’s 25th birthday nigh, Capcom has remained quiet, giving players paltry crumbs consisting of 3DS rereleases of the NES games and little else. But there is an exception to Capcom’s complete mishandling of what should have and could have been a great celebration of Mega Man’s 25th birthday: Street Fighter X Mega Man. This game, released for free on PC, is a fan-made project latched onto by Capcom only recently to have something, anything, to show the increasingly frustrated Mega Man fanbase.
As its name suggests, Street Fighter X Mega Man celebrates both Capcom franchises, but it’s far slanted towards the latter. Its look, style and gameplay are directly derived from the classic 8-bit Mega Man games of yore, complete with non-linear stage progression, an arsenal of devious weapons and old-school gameplay that will rip you apart if you’re more used to the difficulty of modern games. All of this is exactly what Mega Man fans (and old-school gamers in general) demand more of.
The curveball thrown into the mix comes by way of the boss enemies you’ll be fighting, which aren’t Dr. Wily’s Robot Masters, but Street Fighter characters in sprite form. So instead of the likes of Elec Man, Magnet Man or Dust Man, you’ll be fighting Ryu, Chun-Li and Blanka. New Robot Masters would have of course been preferable in a game that celebrates Mega Man’s anniversary, but as this game was designed to invoke Street Fighter in addition to Mega Man, this setup doesn’t prove to be too problematic. And the fact that these enemies can use super attacks just like their Street Fighter forms is a pretty cool design decision.
However, some problems begin to emerge almost immediately. In short, Street Fighter X Mega Man isn’t even remotely up to the same level as the classic Mega Man series (or its modern reincarnations in the form of Mega Man 9 and 10). Yes, this is a free game made by amateur developers, but if Capcom is going to affix its 25th Anniversary banner to the game, plaster its logo all over it and push it out as the Mega Man celebration, shouldn’t you expect something at least on par with – if not better than – the games it’s celebrating?
Instead, Street Fighter X Mega Man suffers from strange flaws that none of the classic games fall victim to. As I explained many times around the IGN office over the past day, the game looks and plays like Mega Man, but it doesn’t feel like Mega Man. It doesn’t have the soul of a Mega Man game. It’s somewhat unbalanced, not all that challenging and woefully short, everything a Mega Man game shouldn’t be. It plays most specifically like Mega Man 4, with both the ability to slide and charge your Mega Buster, but Mega Man 4 – or any other classic Mega Man game — it isn’t. (As an aside, Rush isn’t in the game either, with the exception of one small section of a single stage where you use him in Rush Jet form.)
For instance, the game’s stages are easy. Too easy. They’re also suggestive of order, something you really don’t see in any Mega Man games except for the original. Stages like Chun-Li’s and Ryu’s are blatantly easier to complete than others, suggesting that you should conquer them first. Just think about Cut Man’s and Bomb Man’s stages in the original game. This practice was abandoned almost immediately afterward – and balance was stressed far more in later games – so why isn’t it stressed here? Why tip your hand so obviously before you even begin testing out weapons or other enemies?
Compounding the easy stage problem is the fact that the Robot Masters – well, Street Fighter characters, actually – are all programmed without patterns. The beauty of 8-bit Mega Man games is your ability to jump into the boss order in certain places and try your hand. In Mega Man 3, Hard Man, Top Man and Magnet Man are formulaic, easy-to-defeat bosses that will give you a leg up on the more unpredictable Robot Masters like Shadow Man or Needle Man. But all of the bosses in Street Fighter X Mega Man are programmed with no patterns. There’s no mixture, nothing to really make you fear certain bosses over others. For unskilled players, there’s no Toad Man, no Star Man, no Gravity Man. They’re all varying degrees of Quick Man and Pharaoh Man: totally patternless and daunting to the uninitiated (though still pushovers if you know what you’re doing).
In other words, the stages are way too easy and the bosses — while not all overtly hard — are all nonetheless of the same mold.
The good news is that even with these fundamental design choices that are so profoundly un-Mega Man, Street Fighter X Mega Man still has a great deal of charm. The soundtrack didn’t blow me away, but it does mix up familiar songs from both Mega Man and Street Fighter while utilizing some new chiptune tracks that are true to form. The stages, even if they’re way too easy, are still nicely designed. They appear to reuse few assets from old games (though some of the enemies you’ll encounter are foes from the past). There was love put into these levels, even if one of them in particular – Dhalsim’s stage – uses a sort of misguided non-linearity best reserved for Mega Man 6.
Street Fighter X Mega Man is disappointingly short – Mega Man fans will be able to blaze through it in no more than 40 minutes – but then again, beating Mega Man 2 in a half an hour isn’t a problem, because the game design is so solid. Street Fighter X Mega Man also totes some secrets worth uncovering, including a boss you’re not guaranteed to see. The overall product therefore comes off in the exact fashion it was initially designed: a fan-made project made with care, but one that doesn’t match the quality of the classic series in even the remotest terms.
The problem with Street Fighter X Mega Man is that Capcom has portrayed it as a celebration of two key franchises’ coinciding 25th birthdays, but doesn’t hold a candle to the games it celebrates. It’s an iteration of the formula that made classic Mega Man shine – and it’s a good game – but it’s not what the most hardcore Mega Man fans clamoring for some love want. They want something fleshed-out and official. Instead, Capcom gave them something picked out of the fan community because the company wasn’t ready to deliver a product of its own.
Capcom has emblazoned the game with its logo and its employees’ names are in the credits. The game is distributed through their official website and they stand behind it. As such, it can’t be judged as a ROM hack or a fan project at the end of the day, but as a final product meant to be played by ardent Mega Man freaks. The end result is a fine game that Mega Man fans will enjoy once or twice, but one without that special something that would allow it to rise to the greatness Mega Man so regularly reached in its heyday.