Fan games are amazing. So amazing that my first Destructoid article ever was about fan games. So amazing that I wrote a second article nearly four years later. So amazing that I'm following up that last article with another one.
That's pretty amazing!
In "The joy of fan games, pt. 1," I explained how the best fan games can surpass the efforts of the major devs, then I shared a few such examples. Today, I wish to focus on two notable members of the fan game community, whose work has caught the eye of the companies they were inspired by. I decided to reach out to these fine gentlemen -- Philippe "MegaPhilX" Poulin and Christian "The Taxman" Whitehead -- so that they may share a little bit of their story.
Professional Quebecer game designer Philippe Poulin is the man in charge of my most anticipated fan game at the moment, Mega Man Unlimited. Whereas Minus Infinity was an evolution of Classic series gameplay, Unlimited is staunchly adhering to the Classic formula. What sets Unlimited apart from the countless other Mega Man fan games and hacks, however, is the incredible amount of polish throughout, so much that it could pass as an authentic sequel. Even Capcom was fooled into thinking it was legit!
Shortly after the release of Mega Man 9, Capcom-Unity held a contest asking readers to prove that they were the ultimate Mega Man fan. Philippe was one of the four winners thanks to his avalanche of submissions -- art from his youth, photos of his Mega Man collection, etc. -- which included a banner for a proposed "Mega Man 10." For kicks, he decided to create a pair of rough Flash animations of this "Mega Man 10." That's when the ball started rolling.
"After the relative success of these vids, [fan game maker] StarsimsUniverse and [game engine designer] N64Mario contacted me and convinced me to try and make an actual game with these ideas," Philippe explains. After gathering a small team together, development began using N64Mario's Multimedia Fusion 2 Mega Man engine. Eventually, the engine was switched to one based in C++, designed by two of the (former) project coders, Gabriel and Jocelyn. Progress has been slow and steady these past three years, but with additional programming help from childhood friend Jean-Simon, Philippe is determined to release the game on PC as soon as possible.
During this time, Capcom announced and released the true Mega Man 10, prompting Philippe to change his game's title. But before he could do so, some of the art assets available on his deviantART gallery were accidentally incorporated into the official MM10 homepage, some of which still remain to this day! "I was excited and I thought it was awesome, to be honest," Philippe muses. "I didn't really think about what to do. It all happened so fast that I didn't really think about contacting [Capcom]. Fans of the project online had already noticed the similarities ... before I knew it, one of my fans told me to contact [former Capcom community manager Seth Killian], 'cause he was looking for me."
Rather than informing Philippe that he had to drop development of Unlimited -- which the company had every right to do -- Seth instead invited him to Capcom's Captivate in Hawaii, where he got to rub shoulders with big dogs like Mega Man daddy Keiji Inafune and Street Fighter IV producer Yoshinori Ono. Imagine that! Confuse Capcom into thinking your work is official company materials, then get treated to a vacation! "I was not told exactly how my stuff ended up there," he chuckles. "I guess some web designer hired by Capcom didn't know what he was doing."
Unlimited, as I've already mentioned, is incredibly polished. It's even more vibrant and detailed than MM9 or 10, which were visually a step down from MM6 on the NES. "I know that if I impose too many limitations on my work, I won't have fun doing it. So what I did is, I took a look at the limitations, but I don't try to stick to them too much. If I want to put more vibrant colors, I go right ahead. I limit the number of colors but I won't lose sleep over every single detail relating to those limitations. I want to have fun making the graphics, because if I don't, I won't be motivated."
More than anything, Unlimited is a true childhood dream turned reality for Philippe -- most of the Robot Masters were inspired by designs he had been doodling ever since Mega Man 4. Naturally, some tweaks had to be made, such as changing "Nitro Man" to "Trinitro Man" in order to avoid confusion with the MM10 boss of the same name.
"When I decided to make it into a actual game, I changed the lineup a bit, and I removed Hammer Man because I didn't think his gameplay would be interesting. Also, Nail, Hammer, and Glue is very redundant. This is where new ideas such as Comet Woman and Yoku Man came in. Rainbow Man and Yo-yo Man are the most recent of my 'old' design." Some of the bosses may sound strange, but when has a Mega Man cast ever not have an odd duck or two?
Speaking of Yoku Man, he may very well be most devious Mega Man boss ever conceived. So devious, in fact, that he's holds the distinction of being the game's super special ninth Robot Master!
A "Yoku," you might be wondering, is one of several names for the Appearing Blocks that have plagued Mega Man players since the day one. The concept behind Yoku Man, who was originally conceived by StarsimsUniverse, is that he is the source of those infernal obstacles and litters his domain with the damn things. If you get frustrated by having to navigate a single room of Yoku Blocks, imagine a level chock full of them! You've just imagined platforming hell.
But the best part is Yoku Man's level theme -- composed by musician Kevin Phetsomphou -- which incorporates the "buuuuun!" sound effect into the song. Just listen to it above and make note of when the "buuuuun!" comes in. That little addition is bound to throw players' timing off as they carefully hop from block to block. I love it! It's but a sample of the chiptastic soundtrack being worked on by Kevin, musician Yan Thouin, and Philippe himself.
From the teaser videos to the updates on his deviantART and Facebook accounts, Philippe's creativity and passion is apparent. Mega Man Unlimited is proof that Mega Man will be in good hands should Capcom ever decide to pass the torch on to a new generation of talented young developers. Especially during this gray period in the franchise's history, it's good to know that the nostalgic spark is alive somewhere.
I'm dead serious when I say that Capcom ought to give somebody like Philippe the reins for a change. That's what Sega did with Christian Whitehead, and the results were phenomenal!
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Christian is a 3D animator and freelance developer who first sunk his teeth into game making with Klik & Play, the ancestor to Clickteam's Multimedia Fusion 2, when he was about 12 years old. You may most familiar with his handiwork if you played the recent Sonic CD remake, which runs on a custom engine that accurately recreates the original game, physics and all.
When Christian entered the Sonic fan game scene in the early 2000s, he didn't just want his project to look like Sonic. He wanted it to feel like Sonic! The tech that eventually came to be known as the "Retro Engine" powered his Retro Sonic, a game that mimicked the capabilities of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Development took a few slight detours as Retro Sonic merged with two other games: Sonic XG and Sonic Nexus.
"With Sonic XG," Christian explains, "the merge was done because we felt that the pooling of talent would result in a better game. As a favor to my friend [fan game maker Brad Flick], I also took over as the lead programmer for Sonic Nexus, which was a separate (more Sonic CD-styled) game. Over time, a few team members from both projects left and I was basically the programmer for all this stuff. Since I only had a limited amount of hobby time, I felt it made more sense to go back to the drawing board and take the best ideas from all three games and make it one game. The other guys agreed, and working up until the latter part of 2010, we aimed to finish the first half of the game."
The new amalgamation, dubbed Retro Sonic Nexus, incorporated elements from all three sources, though Sonic XG was the dominant third. RSN was to follow the story and level structure established by XG, which was conceived as a direct continuation of the events of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, as you can see in this early XG footage. In a sense, it was a much more logical Sonic 4 than the actual Sonic 4!
Over this period, Christian had rewritten his engine so many times that none of the original Sonic logic remained. That's when he started considering future applications: "I wanted to create an engine that specifically targets pixel art games from the early 8-bit era to the more lush pixel art seen on the Sega Saturn and PSX. This meant having a custom software renderer that allows a mix of palettized and hi-color graphics, an array of tiling modes (including everyone's favorite, Mode 7) that could imitate some of the neat raster effects that developers exploited on game consoles, and a scripting system that was simple and flexible enough to create game objects and logic faster than coding it directly in C / C++."
After playing an iOS port of Sonic 1, Christian saw an opportunity to demonstrate his Retro Engine directly to Sega. Now, you have to understand that Sega has not had much luck porting its legacy software onto newer platforms. While many players may not necessarily notice the changes, there are always a few hiccups in the emulation process. This wouldn't be much of an issue if Sega still had access to the original source code and could adjust it accordingly, but that sadly doesn't seem to be the case.
The alternative to porting is to attempt to completely remake the older games, but as was demonstrated by the abysmal Game Boy Advance remake of Sonic the Hedgehog, even that exceeds the company's abilities. Whether or not you mind the physics and game flow of the Dimps era of 2D Sonics, there is a kernel of truth to fans' complaints that those later titles feel "off" compared to the originals. How is it possible that not a single developer until now could properly recreate the Genesis style?
In June 2009, Christian sent Sega a video of a one-level Sonic CD iOS prototype. According to him, "I heard back pretty much the day after the video was up, from producers and legal stormtroopers alike, ha ha! But as anyone who works with a publisher knows, it's a lengthy process to form a new relationship, especially given my circumstances as a somewhat renegade indie dev." Though Sega was initially defensive, the company quickly warmed up to the idea and gave Christian the go-ahead to see the project through.
The experience with Sega was an overall positive one. "I worked from my own studio in Melbourne, while Sega and Sonic Team in Japan oversaw its development and provided feedback and guidance. Blit / Onan Games were also involved in the XBLA / PSN / Steam ports [of the mobile version], although my contact was limited." After years of tooling around with Sonic fan games, Christian was finally making some legit money for his efforts!
Since Christian's Sonic CD was built from scratch, he was able to make improvements over the original which wouldn't have been possible had this been a straight-up port job. Widescreen view, the option to switch between the American or Japanese soundtracks, and other tweaks make this Sonic CD the definitive version. And if Sega was smart, it would continue to use the Retro Engine for future Sonic projects.
Unfortunately, Retro Sonic Nexus has been indefinitely shelved as a result of this new working relationship. Development could resume, but it's highly unlikely. As Christian notes, "Wanting to exceed what I've produced professionally now doesn't make sense, especially without Sega's support. The other team members have also moved on with their own careers, so it's really a chapter closed now." Disappointing, certainly, but I can't see this situation as anything but a boon.
The Retro Engine has potential beyond Sonic games, but Christian isn't saying what's next in the pipeline just yet. If this tech born of from his fan game days could help to make the official Sonic series better, imagine what good it can do for other lagging franchises! Imagine what kinds of new experiences are possible! That's the power of the indie spirit!
Philippe and Christian both have experience in the professional sphere, so they possess a high level of credibility when discussing the importance of fan games in the greater gamer culture. In Philippe's case, working on an independent Mega Man game gives him the motivation to keep working day in and day out. "I work in the videogames industry the whole day, then the only time I have to work on a personal project is when I get back home. With Mega Man, the base is already there. I know it by heart. I've played it thousands of times. It's easy to get started. And I know I'll have fun doing it. If I told you for the next four years you must work an hour or two every night on something when you come back home from work, you'd want it to be fun right?
"But with an original project, there are more barriers to go through which take more effort, and I don't necessarily have time for that because of my work. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun, but you'd have to convince people your idea is good, preferably a good programmer ('cause I'm not a programmer), get things done, and keep the flow going." In other words, it can be harder to see the light at the end of tunnel if there isn't that familiar structure in place, guiding you along. However, Philippe later adds, "In the end, it doesn't matter if it's original or not, if people are having fun making a game, it will shine through and it will be fun to play. And I can't thank everyone who are helping me develop this game enough."
For Christian, fan games are wells of imagination in which developers can hone their skills without feeling burdened by obligations. "I see fan games as another facet to our culture that remixes, interprets, and builds upon works of the past. Bands cover their favorite songs, artists practice painting in other artists' styles, etc. Given game development requires a mastery of many different disciplines, fan games can be a way for programmers to build up their chops by borrowing preexisting assets. It can allow people to create games that would never be allowed by their franchise owners (just look at M.U.G.E.N fighting games where Homer Simpson can fight Optimus Prime), and finding people to work for free with is arguably easier than trying to convince people that your idea will be good.
"At the end of the day, though," he concludes, "probably the biggest driving force for fan games is 'for the fun of it.' Those that are serious about game development (myself included) will want to move on and create their own works."
Fan games are hardly the creative roadblocks that some make them out to be. In fact, the lessons learned from fan game development can serve game designers well when they eventually try to make their mark in the industry. Plus, the games themselves are pretty damn cool.
How is that not the most amazing thing ever?