It's easy to claim "laziness" or "unoriginality" when talented garage developers apply their skills towards a take on a preexisting IP, but I contend that the best among them possess a great sense of direction for where said IP could go. Whether it's a previously unexplored mechanic in the context of the series or simply a streamlining of familiar concepts, fan games present a wealth of potential, thus it would be foolish to simply brush them aside offhand.
More impressive than a great fan game, however, is a great fan game that completely deceives you into thinking it's an official product. There's usually a "tell" that betrays the illusion -- original art assets that clash with the style of any borrowed assets, an overabundance of recycled music, controls or physics that feel uncomfortably off, etc. But if the deception is successful....
Mega Man Unlimited (PC) [Available on the MegaPhilX website]
Developer: Philippe Poulin, Jean-Simon Brochu, Gabriel Leblanc
Publisher: Philippe Poulin
Released: July 14, 2013
Rig: Intel Core i3-380M, 6GB of RAM, GeForce GT 425M, Windows 7 64-bit
First, let's revisit Mega Man 9, as Capcom's retro revival is directly responsible for Mega Man Unlimited's existence.
Fans were no doubt surprised when Capcom announced MM9, the first Classic series entry in over a decade. Even more surprising was that it would return the Blue Bomber to his 8-bit NES roots. True, this could be considered a cost-saving measure, but the bigger reason for the throwback style was that the simpler the game was structurally and aesthetically, the easier it would be to represent the core values of challenge and accessibility.
Former Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune and his development team specifically used Mega Man 2 as a baseline because it's considered by many to be the best in the series. They figured that by isolating what made that particular entry so fun and pure, they could make something that rivaled or even surpassed the legendary Mega Man 2.
MM9 turned out fantastic, but it did so by ignoring many of the valid strides made in the post-MM2 sequels. Among other elements, it disregards the slide ability from Mega Man 3, the charge shot ability from Mega Man 4, and the gradual improvements in NES graphical quality -- compared to Mega Man 6, MM9's level of environmental detail falls woefully short.
So while I can't stress enough that MM9 is an excellent game, it nonetheless feels like it held back too much, even within the forced limitations of the pseudo-NES framework.
In honor of MM9's release, Canadian game designer Philippe "MegaPhilX" Poulin whipped up a couple of rough Flash animations for a dream sequel. He was later convinced to turn this "Mega Man 10" into an actual game, over which he and a small team of coders labored for nearly five years. During that time, the official Mega Man 10 was announced and released, prompting Philippe to change the name of his game to Mega Man Unlimited.
The final product is a realization of a fan's childhood dream, one that has translated the traditional Mega Man experience so accurately that any existing faults will be revealed only under the most anal-retentive scrutiny. But despite adhering so closely to tradition, Unlimited doesn't restrict itself like MM9 did and manages to raise the quality bar. It is a true successor to the NES lineage.
Most noticeable out the gate is the phenomenal pixel art that gives each level such depth and vitality. From a sprawling cityscape to the Earth looming in the distance, the environments are anything but barren. Even the all-new enemies, from the smallest cannon fodder to the most imposing mid-boss, express a wealth of personality and strike that trademark Mega Man balance of looking threatening yet adorable.
The Robot Master lineup in this outing is not without a few curious representatives. Jet Man, Tank Man, and Comet Woman exude "cool" and "dangerous," but guys like Yo-yo Man and Rainbow Man do not. And check out Nail Man, who is literally a giant nail with legs! I wouldn't consider that a mark against them, however. Think about past bosses like Top Man, Toad Man, Centaur Man, Spring Man, Clown Man, Pump Man -- Unlimited's cast is in welcome company!
Do not be fooled by their names and appearances. Each boss possesses a unique yet deadly set of skills that will keep you on edge. For instance, Comet Woman casts a pair of energy spheres that persistently orbit Mega Man, and when they stop moving, they will converge on his location unless you jump at the precise moment. All the while, Comet Woman will be zooming across her chamber, generating energy waves in the wake of her flight path.
The weapons earned from these encounters are some of the most useful in the series. The aforementioned Comet Dash has offensive capabilities and doubles as means of mid-air travel, similar to how the air dash from Mega Man X2 and onward functions. The Glue Shot generates footholds on walls and also freezes enemies in place, allowing you to switch to a separate weapon and plug away at your immobile foe. And the Yo-yo Cutter can be tossed in any direction like the MM2's Metal Blade, and if it hits a wall or ceiling, it will travel along that surface.
I can't say for certain if the levels are in fact longer than those in previous Mega Man installments, but they are definitely much more concentrated with enemies and hazards. I particularly enjoy the original stage gimmicks, such as Glue Man's adhesive floors that prevent you from running and Tank Man's conveyor belt ceilings that launch you like a slingshot if your head makes contact.
New gimmicks are always introduced in isolation to give you ample time to plan ahead. Consider Rainbow Man's tower of pain, which presents a cruel twist on the insta-kill laser beams from Quick Man's domain in MM2. When you first fall down the first screen, a pair of lasers fire harmlessly overhead, warning you that you'll need to be swift on your feet in the rooms ahead. Later you encounter a turret that alters the trajectory of incoming lasers, and by shooting the turret, you can redirect the laser's path. Once you've familiarized yourself in this controlled area, the stage will start presenting multiple lasers and turrets at once, giving you only a couple of seconds to assess the environment and reroute laser paths accordingly lest you get a face full of death.
Though Mega Man once again lacks the use of his charge shot, his slide ability makes a triumphant return. Sliding has always been a helpful evasive maneuver in past adventures, but Unlimited goes a step further in providing opportunities to exploit the technique. One such opportunity is in Trinitro Man's level, where jumping onto platforms floating on a pool of nitroglycerin will trigger combustion and launch the platforms into the spiked ceiling above. Using the burst of speed provided by the slide, you'll be able to narrowly avoid impalement. Such scenarios demonstrate care in ensuring that the slide remains a crucial tool in Mega Man's repertoire rather than just a superfluous addition for the sake of inclusion.
The eight Robot Masters levels are tough enough -- indeed, on the higher end of the difficulty scale relative to its predecessors -- but for an even greater challenge, you can attempt the special stage. In MM9 and 10, special stages were purchased as DLC and became accessible immediately from the main menu. In Unlimited, you must seek four letter icons hidden within the main stages to unlock the special stage.
These letters are not sitting in plain sight, easily snagged with the use of the Rush Coil. They are located off the beaten path, dangling near the end of alternate stage routes. Sometimes the entrance to these secret areas are behind a shielded door that can only be opened with a specific weapon; other times the entrance is a suspiciously empty space where a wall ought to be. Once on an alternate route, you might even be greeted by completely new hazards or gimmicks not found anywhere along the normal route.
Once all four letters are collected, the ninth Robot Master, Yoku Man, invites you to dance.
Yoku Man is the master of the disappearing blocks that have hounded Mega Man players since the '80s, and his level is an illusory nightmare filled with false platforms, rooms that loop if you don't travel the correct path, and of course acres upon acres of those despised vanishing blocks. He's undoubtedly one of the most sinister yet inspired concepts for a Mega Man boss ever.
Beyond the Robot Masters is the usual castle, the ultimate test of players' proficiency with every acquired weapon and support unit. Unlimited keeps the momentum going into these endgame levels, pulling out tons of new surprises and homages to bits of Mega Man history. Even if you think you've seen all the series has to offer, I guarantee you'll encounter at least one or two "holy crap" moments during the final stretch.
And what would a Mega Man game be without an infectious chiptune soundtrack to tie the whole package together? The bulk of the music was produced by amateur musician Kevin Phetsomphou, Philippe himself provided a handful of tracks, and Philippe's friend Yan Thouin composed original melodies later rearranged by the other two.
Kevin's work is phenomenal; Philippe's contributions, not so much. There is a clear disparity between the their musical skills -- on one side is the delicious Yoku Man theme, on the other is the slightly grating Rainbow Man theme. As I said, Kevin takes point for most of the tunes, leaving the remaining music as the tiniest of black marks on an otherwise brilliant game. Can't give Philippe too much of a hard time for that!
The only other item of note is the control setup. Though you can play using a keyboard, purists will prefer the native controller support and its suite of customization options. However, I noticed with my Xbox 360 controller that certain actions would "stick," as though I hadn't lifted my finger from the button. Unlimited thankfully cooperates well with key mapping software like Xpadder, which completely eliminates the sticking issue. I don't own any other USB controller, so I can't say for certain if this problem only affects 360 pads or even just my pad alone.
The important thing is that the game plays exactly how a Mega Man should. It looks how a Mega Man should, sounds how a Mega Man should, and feels how a Mega Man should. Screens and videos can't accurately convey how meticulous and polished the entire product is. I don't even feel right calling it an emulation of the real deal; it is the real deal.
I don't make this statement lightly, either. Such skill and talent as went into Unlimited cannot be faked. Simply knowing the ingredients for a world-class chocolate cake doesn't mean you'll be able to bake a world-class chocolate cake. It requires something more.
Last December, Capcom surprised fans by announcing it would finance and publish the fan-made Street Fighter X Mega Man as though it were an official release. I thought, this game must be something special if it fills Capcom with so much confidence. Could this be the proof that fans are capable of standing on the same level as multinational software studios?
Sadly, it wasn't. Oh, it was decent enough game, but it suffered heavily, and I'm not talking about the rough patches born out of its being rushed to meet the release date. Some bland level structures, inconsistent visual design, and a host of minor oversights indicative of poor attention to detail -- these can be directly attributed to the developer's lack of skill in certain areas. A laudable effort, but not professional quality.
Unlimited expertly avoids all those shortcomings and then some. Philippe and his crew didn't stray from the tried-and-true Mega Man template, but their true accomplishment was in taking those building blocks and constructing a masterpiece, exhibiting the same pioneer spirit that launched the series in the first place. It's too early to determine exactly where it falls on the Mega Man hierarchy, but it most definitely deserves a high spot.
Mega Man Unlimited is a brilliant game by any measure. And I am in awe.
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