Between a Rockman and a Hard Place: The Fan-made Mega Man

Hell hath no fury like a fanboy scorned.

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Using message boards, angry comments and vitriolic editorials as their weapons, disappointed gamers can (and do) wage wars to avenge their hurt. But for one small team of Canadian game developers, the answer to post-fandom depression was going to be very different. Team Reaverbot, disappointed and despondent after years of letdowns from its hero, Mega Man, and his creator, Capcom, decided to make love, not war. If Capcom wasn't going to bring back the Mega Man that team members knew and loved, they'd do it themselves. They'd pick up where their heroes left off.

A light in the dark

At the start of 2010, it was a good time to be a Mega Man (or Rockman as he's called in Japan) fan. Capcom's retro-revival of the franchise, starting with Mega Man 9 in 2008 and continuing with Mega Man 10 shortly after, had received both positive reviews from critics and a great deal of adulation from players. The diminutive, gun-armed protagonist first appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, and the success of these new games meant a greater possibility of more Mega Man to look forward to.

When Capcom announced plans during the 2010 New York Comic Con to revive the Mega Man Legends series with a new Nintendo 3DS game, it seemed as if the company was treating this return as more than a trifling affair. Production on a new, ambitious project called Mega Man Universe that would allow fans to create and download user-made levels was already underway; Capcom was putting a legitimate investment back into the Mega Man franchise.

There was hope for these fans, for the first time in a long time.

The video announcement for the Mega Man Legends 3 project featured one of his creators, Keiji Inafune, almost giddy about the prospects. "I can assure you that no one has looked forward to this project as much as I have. I've been wanting to do another Mega Man Legends like you wouldn't believe, but as a company, without strong sales of the previous games in the series, it's a difficult proposal to make." That difficulty surmounted, Inafune later expressed that the game would be a genuine pursuit of passion. "I personally want to be involved with this game more than any other game."

Tarot Man concept art

Perhaps it was the earnestness of Inafune's enthusiasm that fueled their own, but fans flocked to the internet with optimism that the series wasn't dead. There was hope for these fans, for the first time in a long time, that the glory days of Mega Man's peak were coming back. However, nobody could have predicted just how fragile all of these promises were, and just how much Capcom would wind up disappointing fans over the next few years.

Barely a year after development had started, Capcom canceled Mega Man Universe and, a mere four months later, revealed that the Mega Man Legends 3 project would meet a similar fate. For all the fanfare both games had received, Capcom stated that neither game met the specific internal criteria to make it to launch. The graves had been dug and the coffins had been lined; the dream was officially dead.

With Rockman's 25th anniversary the following year, it would have been a depressing end to such a storied franchise. Not content to let this be the final chapter in the Mega Man legacy, a team of game industry veterans from Toronto took it upon themselves to give their hero the sendoff he deserved. And if they were lucky, Capcom would look the other way when it came to the use of their intellectual property.

We can rebuild him...

The plan was simple: Team Reaverbot, consisting of veteran talent from within the games industry, would start work on a brand new Mega Man game that recalled the best parts of the NES classics. It would be a labor of love called Mega Man: 25th Anniversary.

Team Reaverbot would build the whole game, down to the start screen, to be a tribute to Capcom's property

The team of six started development in late July 2012, giving themselves a five-month crunch to ship the game in time for the otherwise uncelebrated anniversary. Jason Canam (DrinkBox Studios) headed up design. His brother Jeff Canam (Independent) and Dan Ochoa (Vast Studios) handled the art. Julian Spillane (DHX Media, formerly Silicon Knights) and Tim McLennan (Gameloft, formerly Capcom Mobile) contributed to the programming. Orie Falconer (Vast Studios) composed a chiptune soundtrack. To these professionals, the goal seemed lofty, but manageable.

"The impetus for the project was that we all realized how much we truly love Mega Man," says Spillane. "We all loved it growing up and it was kind of a very influential game for all our careers and we weren't sure what was going to happen for the 25th anniversary."

The team's love for the franchise is undeniable. Nobody — especially not professionals with hectic day jobs — devotes this much time to a project without significant emotional attachment.

"It had always been one of those lifelong dreams for at least me personally." says Jason Canam. "Definitely since I was a little kid I recognized it was one of those games I wanted to be a part of. Designing Mega Man characters and drawing them out on paper [for me] goes back nearly the full 25 years."

"You're presented with this challenge that's punishing but surmountable. Very rarely was the game unfair."

Reaverbot's love for the series did not happen by accident; the near perfect structure of the NES games demanded the team's attention. When asked why Mega Man and not any other game, Spillane explains that, as a professional, the series had set a benchmark of quality that he aspired to.

"There's something about that experience that's very analogous to early gaming experiences where you're learning about games," Spillane says. "You're mastering some of [the stages] and start getting good, but then you're presented with this challenge that's punishing but surmountable. Very rarely was the game unfair; you'd fail, but you'd understand why and you could reproduce that, and get better and better."

A different drummer

In contrast to the rest of the team, the composer, Orie Falconer, has never really been a big Mega Man fan. "I grew up with a Genesis so I kind of had to enter into the series a little bit later on," Falconer says. "That was towards the time when I started game design in university and pursuing that as a career, so I got to go back and, in addition to having fun, got to analyze why this was such a great series and why there were so many sequels."

Falconer's roots led to the first point of contention for early fans of Mega Man: 25th Anniversary, who wanted Falconer's tracks to be as authentic as possible. The music for the game's Bio Man stage was released early on and immediately caught flack for being decidedly un-Mega Man. "Bio Man's theme was built in my head specifically as a Genesis song," he says.

Team Reaverbot's Bio Man level

"There were a lot of musical tropes and musical signatures that felt very Genesis," says Spillane. "They fell in line with that kind of progressive-rock mixed with dance-type music that was really pervasive of that era. It created a lot of dissonance. When we heard it we were all on board, but when we put it out to the internet they all went 'love this track, love that track, FUCKIN' HATE THIS TRACK!' That's how the internet is, though: people are very unwilling to consider something that doesn't match their expectations 100 percent." There was a positive side to this outrage: Falconer insists that it's helped him better understand the elements of a Mega Man track and the tools required to produce one more authentically. "I started to understand why [it didn't fit]. It wasn't just because of the musical style. There were also layering techniques that I was doing that didn't work on an NES and I didn't even realize."

Falconer is now producing the rest of the soundtrack to be as genuine to the originals as possible by limiting himself to the production process that would have been possible during the NES era.

Nothing ventured

If the reaction to Falconer's Bio Man track was indicative of anything, it was just how much Reaverbot's fans were clamoring for a game like Mega Man: 25th Anniversary. Most fan games don't get much flack (they are, after all, just fan games), but taking on the responsibility of delivering the celebratory game that folks in the Mega Man community wanted put Team Reaverbot in the limelight. Plus, the added weight of being actual industry professionals and not random nobodies meant higher expectations than normal for Mega Man: 25th Anniversary — and a lot more pressure.

The good news: this wasn't Team Reaverbot's first rodeo. Everyone on the team had dealt with professional demands far more threatening than angry commenters. "We accepted it. We knew what we were doing," says Spillane. "We're all big boys on the team and we've all been through rounds — especially myself — of harsh internet criticism so I don't really care if people say mean things. What we do want to do, though, is make a game for fans," he says, referencing the negative press he received during his days as project director at Silicon Knights while shipping critical dud X-Men Destiny.

Team Reaverbot's Tarot Man boss battle

One often repeated guideline for game development is "design something that you would want to play." Reaverbot was doing just that. As fans themselves, team members strove to deliver a game that delivered what the community craved.

Nobody on the team understood the risk this represented more than Jason Canam. During his time with Capcom Mobile, Canam had worked on one of the most obscure and unplayed Mega Man games in history: Mega Man Rush Marine for Blackberry. "It was based on the idea that you're always in the Rush Marine vehicle and every level was water-themed and you just travel along shooting. ... It held on to the core ideals of the franchise's mechanics and themes [while] presenting them in a new and unique way."

Convincing Capcom to allow for development of this aquatic offshoot took a lot of prototyping. Rush Marine was a significant risk for Capcom Mobile, which had previously been content doing low-cost ports. Canam's passion paid off. The game was greenlit in 2009 and released the same year as the first original Mega Man concept made outside of Japan.

In spite of their boldness, Canam confessed that the game wasn't the success he'd hoped for and that now he at least partially understood what had led Capcom to cancel their later Mega Man projects. "I think the only press we received was when posted an article after we sent out our press release with a single screen shot and that's it. Jeremy Parish, who's a big Mega Man fan, made note of it and closed his article saying he really hoped it would come out on iOS someday and then he'd play it, but it never did. It had maybe a couple thousand downloads and so it didn't move."

"This project may still have existed, but I don't think it would have been as passionate, as organized, or as much of a concerted effort."

This experience is partially to blame for Canam's empathetic disposition toward Capcom and its decision to cancel their Mega Man projects, a disposition that's echoed by the entirety of Team Reaverbot. Rather than looking at the situation as a let-down orchestrated by an under appreciation for the franchise, they understood the financial realities the publisher had to face. More importantly, the team recognized the opportunity Capcom's decisions had provided them.

If there had been a consistent stream of Mega Man games, Mega Man: 25th Anniversary might still have existed. But, Spillane explains, "I don't think it would have been as passionate, as organized, or as much of a concerted effort." These are guys who recognize the true value of a silver lining, a trait that would prove necessary for the news that would follow its first public showing.

Embarrassment of riches

With their debut trailer launching on December 2, Team Reaverbot had less than a week to soak in the cheers and jeers from the rest of the Mega Man community. After working on Mega Man: 25th Anniversary for nearly half a year under the impression that Capcom had given up on any sort of celebration, they got the news that threatened to undo everything: On December 8, Capcom announced Street Fighter X Mega Man. The officially sponsored fan game would merge the celebrations of both Mega Man and Street Fighter's silver jubilee. The team's lack of faith in Capcom's ability to deliver had proven unwarranted.

Bio Man concept art

"I'll be 100 percent honest; my initial reaction when I woke up that Saturday morning was to text [the team] with 'Well, there goes our 15 minutes. …' It had been a good couple of days," says Canam with a chuckle. After all the effort and time they had put into their game on the belief that they'd be the only game in town, Capcom had sucked the wind completely out of their sails.

Able to find the bright side of things, Falconer rationalizes: "It clearly wasn't out of spite or anything, with both of us targeting the same window. The development process just naturally led to us being there at the same time."

Fans of the Team Reaverbot project didn't take as kindly to the surprise.

"There were a lot of people making comparisons [between the two games]. A lot of fans were saying A is better than B, or B is better than A, and they wanted us to comment," says Spillane." My only response to that is 'More Mega Man, I love it. More Mega Man for me to play!' They're both free, so all it's costing you is your time, and what a good time to be a fan."

If anything, Street Fighter X Mega Man has served the development of Mega Man: 25th Anniversary by extending Reaverbot's self-imposed deadline. With an official celebratory project already released, the burden to deliver a game worthy of the milestone has been lifted. For the team, this means they have the ability to produce the game without all of the baggage that had accumulated in the community before their debut.

"It was a relief because there was more to play, but it was also a relief in [other] ways because some of the pressure was now off us," says Spillane. "For a while the comments were getting heated. I think in the first day or so we got over 18,000 views and the comments were a mix of people loving it, people hating it, people getting into fights, and it became this microcosm of horrible internet craziness. When Street Fighter X Mega Man came out, we were able to take a step back and breathe. We got a chance to think about what we were going to do." No longer constrained by the expectations of fellow fans, Team Reaverbot is pushing forward with their project. Refocused and as energetic as ever, the team is happy to continue working on a project it loves and even happier to see more Mega Man in the works from Capcom.

As of now, those interested in the project can download a two-stage demo of Mega Man: 25th Anniversary, as well as part of the soundtrack, from Team Reaverbot's homepage. Development on the final version continues as the group finds time between members' professional work schedules, but their passion for the franchise remains a driving factor. Despite all the disappointments that led to and followed the game's development, the team is still satisfied with having an opportunity to build something they love, proving great things can come from having the right attitude.Babykayak

Image Credits: Team Reaverbot and Capcom
Design: Warren Schultheis and Charlie Hall
Editing: Russ Pitts and Charlie Hall