The joy of fan games, pt. 1

Nearly four years ago, when I was but a fresh-faced Destructoid community member, I submitted my very first feature-length article in response to that month’s musing assignment. I wrote about fan games, unofficial software based on official works, because I strongly believed that fans are driven by a level of enthusiasm and creativity that the major property holders no longer possess.

Since then, my feelings have only strengthened. Many companies can no longer provide — or are no longer willing to provide — the kinds of experiences we crave out of our favorite long-standing series. In response, that gap is being filled by passionate individuals who truly understand these games’ essence.

I believe it’s time to remind everyone why fan games are amazing.

The ill-fated Streets of Rage Remake

Whenever a promising fan game is shown, there are always bound to be a few people who insist on spoiling the merriment with misplaced fears and concerns. Rather than appreciating the talent and ambition being poured into these projects, they worry that “these guys are going to receive a cease and desist,” or insist that “they should use their talents to make original games instead of leeching off the ideas of others.”

To the naysayers, what do you think of fan art? Of music arrangements? Of web cartoons and movies that draw directly from major videogames? How are any of these in any less legal hot water than fan games? The harsh truth is, unless you have received express permission from the license holders, it’s almost always copyright infringement.

So why do fan games seem to catch more flack than any other derivative work? Obviously, it’s because they exist in the same medium as the source material. By and large, however, fan games are of no greater concern to a publisher than any other fan-made content. Sure, you could point out the rare case of a company’s flexing its legal authority, but there are likewise similar cases when it comes to productions in other mediums. Such instances are are so sporadic that they’re not worth the concern.

Besides, all that worry gets in the way of the fact that fan games are just another form of artistic expression. In fact, I believe them to be the ultimate form of fan expression, since they combine art, music, design, storytelling, and technical know-how in celebration of the game or series that inspired such dedicated effort.

Catrap on Game Boy, my introduction to stage editing

Just as games leave an imprint on gamers, gamers wish to leave their mark in turn. As a child, did you not fantasize about working on the next Mario, Sonic, or a dream Mario / Sonic mash-up? Have you ever played a game and thought of ways to improve it? Deep down, we all share a desire to shape our experiences beyond the traditional controller-avatar interaction.

Mod tools and stage builders are always met with appreciation. Using a simplified template, gamers are able to realize their dream, even if only to a small degree. Full-blown fan game creation is merely the next logical step — a means to make you favorite game or hero completely your own. There are no limits save for your own patience and skill.

Not bound by the shackles of official game development, fan game makers are free to craft that sequel or genre spin-off they always imagined. The results aren’t always pretty, and many promising fan games are ultimately shelved due to the frustrations of long development cycles, incompatibility with the developers’ lives and jobs, or sheer boredom. But when that one jewel finally shines through, it is truly a marvel.

There was a time when disgruntled gamers would piss and moan about missteps they saw in once-revered franchises, only to be chastised for not understanding the complexities of software development. These days, independent devs have the chops to do something about it. And since fan games by nature attempt to emulate the look and feel of older titles, they are the perfect means by which to showcase the superior skills of the indies.

Recall Rockman 4 Minus Infinity, a ROM hack of Mega Man 4. Typically, “ROM hack” is associated which cheap, low-quality efforts that only slightly modify the originals’ data, but none of that applies in this case. Developed by Japanese hacker PureSabe, MI throws out everything you know about Mega Man to the point where you forget that it was repurposed from an earlier game. The result is hands down the most creative and ambitious Mega Man — official or not — in the past decade.

Such an infusion of fresh ideas really drives home just how safely Capcom has tread over the years. An entire company with all its millions churns out carbon-copy sequels with little variation in style and format, yet a single guy is able to evolve the franchise in a direction that retains the core of what made the classics so great while also challenging our expectations of what Mega Man can be.

For a similarly extensive hack, take a look at Sonic the Hedgehog Megamix. A total modification of the first Sonic the Hedgehog, Megamix has been in production since at least 2005 — Destructoid even discussed an early build way back in January 2007! Since then, it has undergone a drastic transformation.

In the beginning, Team Megamix rearranged the zones of Sonic 1, expanding the each area’s map and switching up the game flow for a more Sonic CD flavor. The levels were tweaked further as items from Sonic 3 were incorporated and characters such as Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, and even Mighty the Armadillo were made playable. Eventually, the team decided to move all development to the Sega CD to make use of the additional capabilities — the side benefit is that you can easily download the hack’s ISO file, burn it onto a CD, then play it on actual Sega CD hardware!

From the most recent build, it’s still obvious that Megamix was once Sonic 1, but that soon will change. The team is in the process of replacing all the old stage objects with completely new assets, adding new bosses, and composing an original, CD-quality score. New production footage reveals a game that is a far more proper Sonic CD follow-up than Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II ever was.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard news of Project AM2R, the fan remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus. According to developer DoctorM64, the game is still coming along, so hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer for a new trailer or demo.

AM2R fills two particular roles. First, it’s a remake of the least lauded (not counting Other M) entry in the Metroid franchise. Personally, I’m a very big fan of Metroid II, and it disappoints me that others can’t see the game’s value. A well executed remake can address the shortcomings in the original while introducing the spirit of Metroid II to a new generation.

Second, AM2R is a 2D Metroid in a landscape begging for a new 2D Metroid. The Prime series was fantastic in its own right, and Other M was … well, the Prime series was fantastic, but we haven’t had a traditional Metroid since Fusion in 2002. Ever since sweeping Metroid Dread under the rug, Nintendo has been tight-lipped on any future 2D romps. Hell, the company couldn’t even be bothered to celebrate the franchise’s 25th anniversary! AM2R is just picking up Nintendo’s slack.

Let’s not forget about Super Mario Bros. Crossover, the brainchild of Jay Pavlina. The concept is so simple — take the classic Super Mario Bros., but give gamers the option of playing as other NES stars such as Ryu Hayabusa, Mega Man, Contra‘s Bill Rizer, Simon Belmont, and others! And as of version 2.0, you can alter the music and tilesets to emulate other NES, SNES, or Game Boy games.

Could such a game ever exist in the professional sphere? A few cross-company cameos in Super Smash Bros. Brawl or PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is one thing, but there is a reason you don’t see more of such collaborations. Each party involved has to be willing to play ball and consent to their characters’ use in scenarios that they weren’t designed for. For instance, you will never, ever see a Mario game in which Contra heroes shoot up the place — not on retail shelves, at least.

And then there’s the big daddy: Mushroom Kingdom Fusion.

The concept is similar to that of Super Mario Bros. Crossover, only taken to the extreme and beyond. In fact, it’s so ambitious that it would be a miracle if the damn thing ever got completed. It’s a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and I fear that its massive scope could be its undoing. Nonetheless, even in an unfinished state, MKF handily puts other fan games to shame.

It would be foolish to try to list every notable fan game in existence, so I’m not going to, especially when there’s so much else left to discuss that a single article couldn’t possibly contain my enthusiasm! Tomorrow, I’d like to share the stories of two heroes from the fan game community, people with such skill that game companies had no choice but to acknowledge their talents.

For now, I’m sure you’d like to discuss your favorite fan games in the comments. Which did I miss?

Tony Ponce