Why do people still care about Mega Man? Capcom's diminutive action hero hasn't had a brand-new game since 2010's Mega Man 10. But the fans refuse to give up, crafting their own games to keep the spirit of the beloved series alive even as Capcom mostly lets it sit on the shelf.
"The fans have made the franchise their own," says Brian Austin, who runs the fan website Rockman Corner. "They won't let it die."
In the '80s and '90s, Mega Man was one of gaming's hottest properties. Major entries like Mega Man 2 and Mega Man X were huge hits, and later cult classics like Mega Man Legends and Mega Man Battle Network took a variety of new, modern approaches.
At the opening of this decade, the series' future looked bright. Capcom was planning Mega Man Universe, which would let players create their own levels, Mega Man Legends 3 for Nintendo 3DS, and Maverick Hunter, a first-person shooter from the creators of Metroid Prime. But when longtime series shepherd Keiji Inafune left Capcom in 2010, the company cancelled all of those projects.
Since then, it has only re-released older Mega Man games, and announced no new ones.
Last spring, a teenager from the Netherlands started a project that would soon fill that void. Known only by the online handle WreckingPrograms, the 17-year-old released the Mega Engine, an open-source plugin for the game creation tool GameMaker that allows aspiring designers to build their own Mega Man games using assets ripped from the classic NES titles.
Would-be dev teams used the engine to develop fan games, but soon that wasn't enough for WreckingPrograms. He wanted to bring a Mega Man creation suite to the masses, and even something as simple as GameMaker requires a basic understanding of coding.
Enter Mega Maker.
Released in July 2017, Mega Maker is a creation suite that allows anyone to build and share their own Mega Man levels. Think Super Mario Maker, but released by fans on the internet for free.
"The Mega Man fan gaming community is still actively working on creating new games, Mega Maker being one of them, to give the community some new content despite Capcom not doing much with the franchise anymore," WreckingPrograms told me.
When WreckingPrograms uploaded a trailer to YouTube, the video immediately went viral and garnered coverage by major media outlets, including this one.
With that much hype, one might think that WreckingPrograms would have been better off simply replacing Mega Man with a character who only looks like Mega Man so he could actually sell his creation. But for him, it's about the character, not the money.
"We just really like the Mega Man franchise," WreckingPrograms said, "which includes its characters, weapons, bosses and more. Changing these assets would take away an important element of the game. Plus, we're not in it for the money, and we're completely fine with not making a profit from our fan game."
WreckingPrograms says he has no plans to go into the game industry after college. "I plan to become a software engineer, but not for video games. I'd prefer to keep that as a hobby."
As a thirty-something who cut his teeth on the 8-bit Mega Man installments of the '80s and '90s, I'm astonished that a teen from the Netherlands would care about Mega Man when Capcom hasn't released a new game in years.
"I simply prefer it over other classic 2D platformer franchises," WreckingPrograms says, noting that the series "offers a lot of replayability due to its non-linear stage select, on top of self-imposed challenges such as perfect runs."
Another reason for Mega Man's enduring popularity routinely tossed out on forums is that the series provides so many points of entry. Want a candy-coloured platformer? Try the NES games. Want a moodier, anime-inspired story? Go with Mega Man X or the Zero spinoffs.
How about a 3D adventure somewhere between Ocarina of Time and Armoured Core? That's Mega Man Legends. An action RPG with a sprinkle of Pokemon? There are literally six Mega Man Battle Network games just for you.
Like Mickey Mouse or Mario, Mega Man is constantly reinvented for new generations. And if Capcom refuses to craft a Mega Man for millennials, the fans will take that work onto themselves.
Although only in its infancy, Mega Maker is already a compelling addition to the Mega Man fan scene. The creation tools are intuitive and addicting, and a tongue-in-cheek tutorial starring Drs. Wily and Light explains everything players need to create their masterpieces.
Unfortunately, many of the levels shared during the early days of the game's release fall into the same trap of Super Mario Maker's disappointing stages -- puzzle levels overstuffed with enemies that bear little resemblance to the finely tuned battlefields of the originals.
I rolled my eyes at attempts to recreate Castlevania or levels built solely of leaps of faith.
But there are also stand-outs that feel like they could've easily slipped into the NES games. One of my favourites, KnightNapalm Fury, is a perfectly tuned mix of platforming and run-and-gun gameplay.
By the time I defeated the boss, my controller was slippery with sweat, and I felt a legitimate sense of accomplishment. Similar levels like The Lair of the Royal Knight or Tower Above the Forest give me hope about the future of Mega Maker and tough-as-nails 2D gameplay.
But WreckingPrograms and the Mega Maker crew aren't the only ones keeping Mega Man alive. Chris King's game 20XX also feels like a spiritual successor to Mega Man, but unlike Mega Maker, King built his entire game from scratch with original art, so he can sell it.
20XX marries classic Mega Man gameplay with the random, procedurally-generated roguelike systems of Spelunky.
"I've played through all the games several times each," King said. "I've always just wanted more Mega Man, and endlessly replayable Mega Man X sounded like a pretty solid hook to me, so I went for it as soon as I could afford to. I built a garbage-art prototype, hired [Zach Urtes] to do our not-garbage art, and got chugging."
King started 20XX in 2013 when he decided to leave the corporate world and follow his dream of developing a commercial video game. He unveiled 20XX on Kickstarter a year later, and fans shelled out $US20,000 ($25,462) to make it a reality.
"20XX is another one of those 'million dollar ideas' that a fan just so happened to make," Rockman Corner's Brian Austrin said. "It feels like a natural extension to the Mega Man formula. I'm happy it's seen such success not only within our community, but gamers as a whole."
Applying roguelike mechanics to something ultra-tough like Mega Man sounds like a recipe for a game only the hardcore could love, but 20XX wisely adapts to the skill level of the player.
Before each run, you can modify the difficulty or opt into a program where rewards like extra health or stronger attacks carry over, allowing casual players a sense of progress. Unlike Keiji Inafune's much-hyped but ultimately disappointing Mighty No. 9, which feels like a weaker instalment of the Mega Man X series, 20XX takes the feel of older Mega Man games and meshes it seamlessly with 2017 game design.
Both 20XX and Mega Maker scratch a gaming itch Capcom seems to have given up on. Like Brian Austrin told me, "Where Capcom slacks, fans are more than happy to pick up the pace."
In 1992, the noted media scholar Henry Jenkins published a book about participatory fan culture called Textual Poachers."Fans do not simply consume preproduced stories; they manufacture their own," he wrote.
This "manufacturing" is an appropriation of media, a remixing that serves the fanbase even if it resists the media producer's intent.
Although Jenkins was writing about television, you can easily apply his analysis to gamers. What is Mega Maker if not an appropriated remix of media that stands in stark contrast to the goals of Capcom?
"Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media," Jenkins writes.
"The fans' response typically involves not just fascination or adoration, but frustration and antagonism, and it is the combination of the two responses which motivate their active engagement with the media."
Adoration mixed with frustration? That's Mega Man fandom to a T.
Brian Austrin launched Rockman Corner in 2008, when he was 17. Today, it's been accessed over five million times. "The Mega Man brand is so diverse it invites many different kinds of people," Austrin says. "I don't think it's a stretch to say Mega Man fans are some of the most creative artists, musicians, programmers and fan-game designers out there."
Google Mega Man songs and you'll stumble across the Protomen, Megas, Minibosses, and dozens of bearded guys on YouTube strumming the series' greatest hits on acoustic guitar. A search on Fanfiction.net produces 808 Mega Man stories. You can also sample tons of fan games in addition to Mega Maker -- Mega Man Ultra, Mega Man 2.5D, Mega Man Rock Force, Mega Man Unlimited, and so on.
"Fans possess not simply borrowed remnants snatched from mass culture, but their own culture built from the semiotic raw materials the media provides," writes Henry Jenkins. These fan products are not simply funhouse mirror regurgitations of Mega Man."
"They build on the foundations established by Capcom and twist them through the cultural lenses and influences of the fans. The longer Capcom goes without continuing to generate "official" new Mega Man creations, the more the franchise begins to become defined by the fan creations.
For the future, Capcom's committed to at least doing something with Mega Man. In 2018, Cartoon Network will air a new Mega Man series starring an ugly version of the character complete with a brand-new alter ego named Aki Light.
Predictably, the fans slammed this revamp all over the internet. Capcom has also said that it is in talks with the directors of Catfish and actor Masi Oka write and direct a Mega Man movie. No matter how ill-conceived a live-action Mega Man film is, that has to mean more games, right? Not necessarily.
Mega Man Legacy Collection 2.
Since 2010, Capcom has trickled out the occasional Mega Man rerelease. Some of these have been sublime like the recent Mega Man Legacy Collection in which development studio Digital Eclipse took a Criterion-style approach to the original six Mega Man games.
The recent smartphone releases of those six games, on the other hand, were not nearly as good -- they're just reworked versions of old Japanese flip phone games and play as terribly as they sound.
So, with a TV show and film on the horizon, Capcom may capitalise on the Mega Man franchise and develop new games. But so far, all we've seen are compilations of varying quality. Both WreckingPrograms and Chris King say they don't see a true sequel happening any time soon -- in fact, King says, he wouldn't have started 20XX if he thought Capcom seemed even remotely likely to make another Mega Man.
Brian Austrin, though, hasn't given up hope for an official revival. "Mega Man is ... just as iconic as Mario, Link, and Pikachu. It's loved by many, but I think it can be so much more," he said. "Of things I should be hopeful and optimistic for in my life, my faith in a new Mega Man game is unwavering."