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Maverick Hunter: The Mega Man first-person shooter that could have been

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

By Michael McWhertor and Wes Fenlon

In 2010, Capcom tapped the talent behind Metroid Prime to bring Mega Man into the modern age — only to have the game suffer the fate of similar recent attempts to find a new audience for the 8-bit hero.

Codenamed Maverick Hunter, the first-person shooter had the blessing of Mega Man's creator and a talented team tasked with attracting a new generation of fans. But the departure of Keiji Inafune likely killed the most interesting take on the 25-year-old character to date.

Mega Man's foray into the first-person shooter genre looked, at least on paper, like a formula for success. One of a handful of collaborations with Western developers kicked off by Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, the Mega Man first-person shooter was in development at Austin-based Armature Studio, the promising developer founded by Metroid Prime's creators. The new Mega Man would have been redesigned by the concept artist responsible for adapting Iron Man's armor for Marvel's successful film franchise. Thematically, the game would have built upon the mythology of Mega Man X, a series that was a darker, more mature spin-off of the cuter, classic Mega Man franchise.

The game would have stayed true to core Mega Man X gameplay concepts, re-imagining his X-Buster arm cannon, his dash and his ability to appropriate the special powers of his fallen enemies. Platforming elements, including X's wall jump, and classic Mega Man X characters would have been re-imagined in new ways.

Unfortunately, Armature's Mega Man first-person shooter, Maverick Hunter shared the fate of the Blue Bomber's other recent projects — Mega Man Legends 3, Mega Man Universe, Mega Man Online — and was canceled before the public ever had the opportunity to see it.

According to a number of Capcom sources, Armature's Maverick Hunter was prototyped and playable. It had a short lifespan, only about six months in the first half of 2010. It showed promise, sources said, but was deemed a significant gamble, and quietly killed before Inafune publicly exited Capcom in late 2010.

Reinventing a classic

Today, gritty reboots tend to raise the ire of fans, as Capcom has recently learned with DmC: Devil May Cry. In most cases, sequels to colorful, nostalgia-tinged games alienate old fans rather than winning new ones; for every successful Jak 2 and Tomb Raider, there's a Bomberman Act Zero, Shadow the Hedgehog or Prince of Persia: Warrior Within lurking (and moping) in the shadows.

In 1993, Capcom was ahead of the curve, and it helped that Mega Man X's melodrama was still rooted in a kid-friendly anime aesthetic. On the NES, Mega Man's design was simple and cartoony by necessity. The series' move to the Super Nintendo demanded a more detailed character, and along with that design Inafune and the development team crafted a more "mature" world around their new protagonist X.

In the Mega Man X universe, which was set 100 years after the classic Mega Man timeline, humans and robots called Reploids lived and worked side-by-side. Some bots turned to crime, becoming Mavericks, and a special task force of bots — the Maverick Hunters — took them out. The first game in the series saw villain Sigma incite a Reploid war against humanity, with Mega Man X and Zero, leader of the Maverick Hunters, out to stop him.

Armature's take on the X fiction would "be like taking an 8-bit game that doesn't have a very deep story to it, and then building around it and keeping some of the key pieces intact" according to a source familiar with the game. Those pieces included X and Zero, and Mega Man would have a new human sidekick, a Bruce Willis-like police officer. The man versus machine contrast between the two was meant to be an overarching theme of the game, with Mega Man's personality sometimes making him seem more human than his sidekick.

The original Mega Man X series naturally touched on heavier themes than its predecessor. X grappled with the morality of fighting against other Reploids — thinking, worrying, and caring about humanity were the traits that supposedly made him unique. Zero sacrificed himself more than once to save X's life and struggled with his origin as a murder-happy Maverick. By the end of the series, major characters had died and wars had decimated the Earth's surface, driving humanity underground.

Those bits of story, told in modest text scrawls and atrociously dubbed anime cutscenes, were early, awkward attempts to work moral issues into Mega Man's straightforward action framework. The collaboration between Armature and Capcom would, theoretically, handle that storytelling with a more nuanced hand as it built on the Maverick Hunter foundation.

The story started in the east and progressed west: Capcom Japan developed the basic plot off key story points and twists from Inafune, but ultimately the plot would be in the hands of a Western scenario writer.

Capcom and Armature had planned out a trilogy of Maverick Hunter games that would culminate in a third game in which the player would assume control of Zero, forced to destroy a Mega Man who had grown incredibly powerful and infinitely intelligent over the course of two games.

As crazy as switching protagonists mid-series sounds — nevermind tasking players with killing Capcom's most iconic character — the idea is actually foreshadowed in Mega Man X's opening text crawl, a message from Dr. Light:

"'X' is the first of a new generation of robots which contain an innovative new feature — the ability to think, feel, and make their own decisions. However this ability could be very dangerous. If 'X' were to break the first rule of robotics 'a robot must never harm a human being,' the results would be disastrous and I feel no force on Earth could stop him."

No force other than Zero, that is.

"If you look at Zero's backstory, even back in the day, he's considered to be like a virus," explained a source familiar with the proposed story outline. "The only reason he exists is that he has some trait that allows him to defeat Mega Man. So he's like the virus that can stop Mega Man's power ultimately."

The plot of Mega Man Zero, released on the Game Boy Advance in 2002, takes the concept of a corrupt X a step further. Summarizes the Mega Man Wiki:

"Zero is sealed up, having been in stasis for a century. The world that Zero is brought into is one drastically different to the one from a century earlier--Reploids are living under constant oppression at the hands of a maniacal ruler who can call them 'Maverick' at a whim, and the ruler is none other than his former partner, Mega Man X. Zero fights X's forces...and then learns the truth from Ciel: The current ruler is not the original X, but rather is a 'copy.' Copy X was created when the real X went missing some time ago."

Mega Man's Misfortunes

Mega Man Legends 3
announced Sept. 2010 - canceled July 2011
Announced just prior to the departure of Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune from Capcom, Legends 3 was intended to be created using a "new style of game development," with the Nintendo 3DS title co-developed with fans. A playable demo, dubbed Mega Man Legends 3: Prototype Version, was promised alongside the launch of the 3DS eShop, but neither the demo nor the full game were released. In announcing Legends 3's cancellation, Capcom said the game failed to meet the criteria for it to go into full production.

Mega Man Universe
announced July 2010 - canceled March 2011
Planned for release on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, Mega Man Universe would have allowed players to build their own stages and customize their own robots. It would have seen various Capcom worlds collide, bringing Ryu from Street Fighter and Arthur from Ghosts'n Goblins into Mega Man's world. Capcom ultimately canceled the game, offering little explanation.

Mega Man Online
announced May 2010 - canceled March 2013
A game developed by South Korean social game maker NeoWiz, Mega Man Online was announced only for Asian markets. Characters and enemies from the Mega Man and Mega Man X series were featured in the online game, a 3D platformer. Production on the game was reportedly halted in the wake of NeoWiz's restructuring and Mega Man Online was pronounced officially dead in March 2013.

When Capcom first began developing Mega Man X, Inafune actually envisioned Zero as the new hero of the series. Speaking to Play Magazine in 2004, he said:

"When the X series came out, I really wanted to redesign Mega Man. I wanted a totally different Mega Man. I'm a designer, a creator; I wanted something new. I didn't want to use the same old Mega Man. And so I made this new character, and of course I knew the character I created, Zero, wasn't anything like the old Mega Man and people were going to say, ‘That's not Mega Man!' So I redesigned Mega Man as well, and we had this other new high-techno sort of Mega Man, and then we had Zero. I really liked this character, so I used him as a sub-character in the game."

In an interview with Polygon at Tokyo Game Show last year, Inafune discussed his idea of a Mega Man first-person shooter, but would not acknowledge the existence of Capcom and Armature's collaboration on Maverick Hunter. Inafune referred to the Mega Man shooter as little more than an idea.

"At the time, I thought about the good old Mega Man fans from the past, that was an audience from 20 years ago," Inafune explained. "They've grown up. They're adults. And when I thought about what people were enjoying the most right now, especially in the west, the answer was first-person shooters.

"That's why I thought the people who grew up with Mega Man might like it. I felt that it would be a huge hit for Capcom."

Development of the game was to be overseen by Ben Judd, producer of the Grin-developed Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Capcom's earlier attempts to modernize a classic franchise.

Like several other Mega Man games in development at the time, Maverick Hunter was canceled upon or around the announcement of Keiji Inafune's departure from Capcom, and the game didn't progress much further beyond a playable proof of concept — as seen in video clips herein — created by a small team in a few short months.

"The playable was a proof of concept build rather than something intended as the real game or even a vertical slice," a source said of the prototype. "This is sometimes done to explore a new concept for games before they are approved for full production. You see some of the core ideas in action, and extrapolate based on that to what it could become."

According to sources, while the game had strong support internally, Maverick Hunter was ultimately scrapped in greenlight meetings.

Priming Mega Man

When Nintendo tasked Retro Studios with adapting the Metroid series into a 3D first-person shooter, the developers turned to established weapons, enemies and abilities to serve as the game's foundation. Samus still had a charge beam and an ice beam and missiles. She could still roll into a ball and use bombs to open up hidden paths. She still battled Metroids and Space Pirates. In other words, Metroid Prime felt right because, despite the added dimension, it was still Metroid to the core.

Armature and Capcom planned to give Mega Man the same treatment. In the prototype, Mega Man's more realistic, humanoid character design grips a menacing gun that forms around his hand — his armor transforms to create the gun, instead of morphing his entire arm into a cannon — but he still mixes rapid fire attacks with more powerful shots. He dashes forward along corridors and in the air, evoking one of Mega Man X's signature moves. He even throws a grenade that resembles the Gravity Well from X3.

Mega Man's armor in Maverick Hunter was designed by Adi Granov, known for his sharply rendered comic book covers and work on bringing Iron Man's iconic red and gold suit to Marvel's film franchise. Granov, who once worked as a concept artist at Redmond, Wash.-based developer Nintendo Software Technology on games like Bionic Commando: Elite Forces and Wave Race: Blue Storm, brought his trademark aesthetic to Mega Man's appearance. The robot's bright blue armor integrated and modernized classic elements, resulting in something clearly Mega Man, accented with a glowing red X slashed across his face.

Maverick Hunter's approach to weapons and attacks were more grounded in realism. Mega Man's gunfire rocks with the metallic sound of a machine gun, and his more powerful shots are missiles, not charged up energy blasts from the classic X-Buster. He can charge into enemies, kicking the camera out to a third-person view as he demolishes them with a close quarters melee attack or energy burst. The core of Mega Man — gaining powers by defeating bosses and swapping out weapons on the fly — would be kept intact.

Mega Man would have been able to absorb the weaponized abilities of his foes after defeating rival robots. "Comboing weapons together" would have been part of Maverick Hunter's combat system, as would disposable weapons — bombs, sentry guns and tank turrets — that could be snatched from some enemies and used only a handful of times.

In classic Mega Man fashion, enemies would be weak against certain weapons, requiring players to switch weapons on the fly to take them out. And despite the linear path shown in the prototype, the full game would have included branching paths. The design of the original Mega Man X, with its upgrades and sub-tanks secreted away in various corners, influenced Maverick Hunter's. Branching pathways and context-sensitive areas that could be discovered by players would have offered variety to the game's level-based design.

All quiet at Armature

In April 2008, three of the key minds behind the Metroid Prime trilogy — director Mark Pacini, lead art director Todd Keller and lead technical engineer Jack Mathews — left Retro Studios. They departed after accomplishing something that seemed impossible, only a few short years before: they took a beloved Japanese series, reworked it into a first-person shooter, and won the adoration of fans who were at one point convinced Metroid would be ruined forever.

Pacini, Keller and Mathews stayed at Retro in lead roles on Metroid Prime 2 and 3; Pacini even moved from his role as lead designer on the first game to the position of game director for the sequels. Eight months after Metroid Prime 3: Corruption's August 2007 release, they were gone, and in September 2008 they announced what they were doing next. The trio formed Armature Studio in Austin, Texas, just a few miles away from their old Retro digs.

Metroid Prime environmental artist Elizabeth Foster and senior engineer Steve McCrea soon joined them, and in 2010 two more former Retro developers started working at Armature. Despite the obvious talent collected at the small studio, it's hard to tell, from the outside, what Armature has spent the past four years doing. The company website lists a single released title: Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for the PlayStation Vita, a port of Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater released in June 2012.

The studio seems to have been cursed with bad luck since the beginning. When Pacini, Keller and Mathews announced Armature's formation in 2008, they also announced an "exclusive publishing deal with EA" to develop games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Their plan was to serve as a prototype house under the control of EA's Blueprint division. Armature would develop ideas for new games, then hand them off to larger studios for full development while staying on in directorial roles.

Barely two months later, EA shut down the Blueprint division. Armature quickly faded from the public eye. Nothing came from their publishing deal. Vague descriptions on resumes and portfolios point to "a military FPS game for the Nintendo Wii system," an unannounced Unreal 3 based shooter and an unrelated project with Microsoft. Armature, or at least Keller, also contributed to Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Halo 4's multiplayer maps.

Representatives from Armature Studio declined to comment on the Maverick Hunter project, citing the confidential nature of its unannounced titles.

Reached for comment last night, a Capcom representative declined to comment directly about the details in the story or the video.

"Capcom has not made any announcements regarding a new Mega Man title," the spokesperson said. "However, Mega Man is an important brand for the company and we will share news when it’s ready."

A revival of the Maverick Hunter project — or any Mega Man first-person shooter — seems unlikely at this stage. Capcom senior vice president Christian Svensson said as much last year, telling a fan on the company's forums that a Mega Man first-person shooter "is not a concept I would be comfortable with given the current brand situation.

"It's not something I would advocate," Svensson said.

The current state of Mega Man at Capcom in the wake of multiple game cancellations seems to be a heads-down approach. The character's 25th anniversary came and went in 2012 with little fanfare. The company's recent output has consisted of Virtual Console releases of classic 8-bit Mega Man games and the release of the free, fan-made Street Fighter X Mega Man.

Armature never got the chance to prove it could handle another famous Japanese franchise with the care and creativity Retro Studios gave Metroid Prime. If successful, Maverick Hunter could've been a rare example of Japanese and Western developers collaborating on a shared vision. In November 2012, Capcom announced plans to hire more than 1,000 new developers over the next decade, declaring a gradual shift in focus from outsourced products to internal development.

With Keiji Inafune gone, Mega Man has lost his creator and champion. Capcom will only confirm it is having "ongoing discussions about Mega Man."