January 29, 2014

Review: Street Fighter X Mega Man

A couple years ago, Capcom's acclaimed Mega Man and Street Fighter franchises both celebrated their 25th birthdays. Around this time, Singaporean fan Seow Zong Hui wanted to pay homage to these two classic series by means of a nostalgic mash-up -- a traditional, NES-style Mega Man game which pitted the eponymous boy in blue against a roster of Street Fighter characters in place of the usual "robot masters." Rather than remain content to quietly release the fan project as a risky, underground diversion beneath Capcom's radar, Zong Hui approached the company for their blessing. As a result, Capcom not only approved of his fan game but also cooperated through funding and promotional efforts. The completed project, Street Fighter X Mega Man, remains a highlight of the Mega Man section of the Capcom-Unity website, available to download and play for free.

As anyone familiar with the NES Mega Man titles would expect, this is a traditional 2D action platformer. You start with a selection of 8 characters to go after in the order of your choosing, each with their own themed stage and a signature ability to bestow upon defeat. After defeating all 8, Mega Man is whisked off to a final multi-tiered series of challenges culminating in a tense duel with M. Bison. For better or worse, Street Fighter X Mega Man follows the tried-and-true formula of previous Mega Man iterations, with few twists. Let there be no confusion about it: you'll get exactly what you are expecting with this one.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, SF X MM isn't on par with series high points like Mega Man 2, 3, or 9. I'm not sure it's even as good as the "just okay" titles like Mega Man 4 or 5. It's still a fun, smart game with a few of its own ideas to bring to the table -- but the novelty of the character cross-over gimmick is going to be what drives most players to completion.

Some unwise decisions keep this title from being as good as it could have been, not the least of which is the inclusion of the "Mega Buster" charge shot. It's extremely over-powered, and is the most effective way (or only effective way) to dispatch any regular enemies, and arguably most bosses as well. Sure, Ryu's fireballs can be reflected back at him using Urien's Aegis Protector -- but instead of bending over backwards to make it happen, it's probably simpler to just hop over the fireballs employ the Mega Buster. Nobody in the game isn't weak against it, and as a result there's little reason to experiment much with the earned special weapons.

Other quirks range from questionable to outright irritating. Life-restoring Energy Tanks seem more plentiful than in most Mega Mans, but won't re-spawn even after a Game Over. Stage intros suffer from a lack of character animation. Completed stages can't be re-played. Life and weapon energy capsules seem to drop too often, and weapon reserves fill completely with each death. If you enter a boss room with a fully-charged Mega Buster, but let go of the button while the boss does his intro animation, the charge is simply lost without firing anything. Scrolling between single-screen rooms is much more frequent than in most games, and the unusual ability to backtrack to a previous room results in unfortunate accidents that re-spawn defeated enemies. While the stages are generally well-designed and feature unique tricks and platforming puzzles, they can also feel oddly "un-Mega Man" at times, and lack polish. For someone who has played a lot of old-school Mega Man and knows its ins and outs, these transgressions can be irksome.

The controls are mostly spot-on during gameplay. Mega Man runs, jumps, slides and shoots as responsively as he does in the "real" games. The menus and "meta" aspects of the interface are uncomfortably fussy, however. All menu selections must be confirmed with the Start button. Even after assigning buttons on the gamepad, there is no way to quit the game without reaching for the Escape key on the keyboard. In fact, there's no way to reset the game to the title screen at all, without quitting and rebooting the program entirely.

On the positive side, the game looks and sounds great, for what it is. The visuals are 100% faithful to their NES inspirations, the level environments are distinctive and detailed, and the enemy sprites are cute and inventive despite a few too many cheap palette-swaps as stand-ins for "new" foes. The sprites used for the Street Fighter boss characters are probably as well-made as can be expected, considering they were never originally designed or proportioned for an 8-bit world. Some of them look suspiciously like Mega Man in cosplay, but perhaps it can't be helped.

The music is superb, with familiar Street Fighter character themes re-thought as 8-bit chiptunes. More than a literal transcription from one medium to another, each track takes the core melody of the original and rethinks it in a genuine style and instrumentation suitable for a Mega Man soundtrack. Dhalsim's stage music actually borrows heavily from the music of Snake Man's theme in Mega Man 3, becoming a clever and fitting tribute that marriages the sounds of both series admirably.

The standard sound effects of the Mega Man series are all here, with no real surprises. One creative touch that I really enjoyed was the digitized, squeaky half-speech the Street Fighter characters blurt out when performing some of their special moves. It's adorable!

It feels petty to criticize a free fan tribute game for lacking substance, but despite Street Fighter X Mega Man being a well-crafted effort it does feel like a spartan, bare-bones affair. For one thing, the game is quite short -- and for another, it's relatively easy. Experienced players will breeze through most stages, and likely defeat most bosses with minimal snags.

There's also no story to be had -- not just minimal story, but literally none. Granted, no one plays Mega Man or Street Fighter for the plot, but there's usually at least some facade that seeks to justify what is going on. When you start the game, you're immediately brought to the stage select. No intro, no explanation for why Mega Man would want to fight these people, no anything. Again, I feel silly for faulting what is essentially fan service, but the lack of even an attempt at a premise makes the game feel like cheap fluff that the designer didn't think was "worth it." Literally anything would have been enough.

Street Fighter X Mega Man is good, but not great. If you enjoy retro gaming or the Mega Man series at all -- but, like me, you passed this one up when it first surfaced -- it's definitely something you should try. The Street Fighter cameos alone make the experience worth it, but some well thought-out level designs and inspired aesthetics keep things engaging and addicting from start to finish. While there's nothing here that exemplifies the best of either series, I'd say it's a success as an old-school action game, definitely worth a few hours to plow through.

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