February 4, 2014

Review: Mega Man Unlimited

It's funny, how much longevity traditional 8-bit Mega Man games still have. For all the love and loyalty the original series gets from fans, the uninitiated might easily assume there simply haven't been any new installments in the franchise post-NES. Although there have been a ton of new titles since those days -- some stellar and some less so -- it's the classic, simplified approach that remains the most captivating for die-hard enthusiasts. Distilling this pure essence has become an art form in itself, producing games that synthesize the lessons learned from modern game design with "retro" limitations. Crafting a true-to-form experience versus resisting tired cliché can be a precarious balancing act, but it's a beautiful thing to play a game that really nails it. Mega Man 9 nails it. Rokko Chan nails it. And, I'm happy to say: so does the latest fan effort, Mega Man Unlimited.

Unlimited is an unofficial fan tribute, masterminded by Philippe Poulin a.k.a. MegaPhilX. Unlike Street Fighter X Mega Man, this is strictly an underground and unsanctioned fan game, created entirely without input or support from Capcom. You'd never know it, though -- MMU sits proudly alongside the best in the series. It follows the same "beat-8-robot-masters-and-steal-their-powers" format as any Mega Man adventure, but it polishes the gameplay to a mirror finish with an exquisite degree of challenge and ingenious stage designs. Rush the robo-dog joins the team, with his springboard-like Coil and high-flying Jet forms. Screws can be collected and traded in at Dr. Light's shop for energy tanks, extra lives, and upgrades. The old password system has been swapped out for a handy multi-slot save function. The slide move can be set to its own dedicated button, rather than the unwieldy "down + jump" combo. Special weapons can be cycled through on the fly, without the need to enter a separate menu screen. And best of all, no fuss over charging up a noisy, game-breaking Mega Buster!

Predictably, the story is the typical background fluff one expects from this series, rendered through brief dialogue scenes and cute stills. Robots are running amuck throughout the city, but this time the usual culprit Dr. Wily insists that he's not behind it. Wily promptly gets kidnapped by a shadowy figure, and Dr. Light sends Mega Man out to investigate. While the story remains very lightweight and is never the central draw, a handful of scenes are peppered throughout the game that develop things, and the ending actually offers a neat twist that leads into the future Mega Man X games.

Right off the bat, it's clear that a lot of work went into making this game as complete and full of character as possible. Both the graphics and sound are in keeping with NES-era Capcom, yet original enough that it doesn't feel derivative. The soundtrack's high points may not quite reach the bar set by well-known series favourites, but I caught myself rocking out at least a couple times while playing.

Visually, MMU is excellent, boasting a wealth of detail and animation in both sprites and environment backgrounds. While there are a few intentional references to familiar enemy types, most foes are original creations that really reinforce each stage's signature theme. Jet Man's stage features aviation and airport-themed scenery, forklifts that toss heavy crates, and my personal favourite -- a hurried traveler called Mr. Shin'iri who drops his luggage in a panic, releasing a flock of tiny birds for some reason. Glue Man's stage has sticky floors which prevent walking or sliding, and round Bulletraps that will absorb your shots and fling them back at you. Rainbow Man's stage is all about light, with several rooms that force you to move and think quickly in order to avoid instant-kill beams reminiscent of Quick Man's in Mega Man 2. These beams, however, can often be redirected or refracted through prisms to clear the way. Oh, also there are gold-tossing leprechauns, because RAINBOWS, am I right!?

Each stage is jam-packed with tricks, traps and interesting gimmicks to figure out, with hardly any wasted space. You have to be clever and careful to navigate this game, which ends up making each stage feel quite long. Some stages have hidden paths to alternate routes, where you may find one of four hidden letters spelling YOKU. Securing these letters grants access to a hidden, incredibly challenging stage guarded by Yoku Man, a master of illusion who gives up an optional bonus weapon. Extra touches like this, and superb level layouts, are what elevate Unlimited to the top echelon of Mega Man titles -- and even now, Philippe Poulin is actively preparing a future update that will add another stage and boss -- as if there isn't enough content already!

The bosses themselves put up quite a fight, often using the whole screen area to perform unique, characteristic attacks. Jet Man streaks across the screen, firing missiles and dropping bombs from above. Yo-yo Man tosses spinning projectiles that roll along the boundaries of the room before returning, all while swinging to and fro from the ceiling. Comet Woman harasses the player with pesky floating orbs that revolve around Mega Man himself like satellites, timed to crash into him unless he dodges at the last moment. Even the official, main-series MM titles sometimes had trouble inventing legit ways to represent its bosses' contrived themes -- a bewildering preponderance of plant life and yarn-tossing cats for Top Man's stage in Mega Man 3 comes to mind -- so it's refreshing to never have to wonder "What is this doing here? Whose stage am I in, again?"

Sometimes the game clubs the player over the head with the themes a bit too much, but it drives home how silly it all is, and the ability to laugh at what's going on is integral to enjoying oneself between fits of cursing and controller-throwing. A word of warning: Mega Man Unlimited is soul-crushingly difficult. It demands patience, precision and perfection from the player, and the punishment for a mistake is often a swift death. There seems to be an overabundance of instant-kill spikes and pitfalls, coupled with utterly inhumane enemy placements that offer a million ways to die.

That's not to say the difficulty in MMU is ever cheap, or unfair -- simply unforgiving. It is ultimately your fault, when you die -- and like in any great game, all challenges can be overcome with practice and skill. In fact, more than most Mega Mans, Unlimited often feels oriented around environment-based puzzles that demand wits over sheer reflexes. Trinitro Man's stage is especially taxing: tons of instant-death traps, jumps that require nimble movements and delicate timing, and platforms that explode when touched or shot at. As maddening as the incessant Game Overs might become, one can't help but grow to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship in these deadly chambers. The fact is, every dilemma has an elegant solution waiting to be discovered. Getting better and better at the game, and finding these "Eureka!" moments, is incredibly satisfying -- and it's the essence of what makes Mega Man tick.

Unfortunately, the final sequence of stages in Dr. Wily's fortress ramps up the difficulty to an overwhelming degree. While this is par for the course for a Mega Man title, MMU arguably takes it a bit too far. The average player simply isn't going to be able to complete this game, even with a full supply of energy tanks, weapon replenishment, and extra lives -- at least not on Normal difficulty. Again, it's not that anything the game throws at you can't be tackled, but the marathon of flawless performance necessary to finally succeed is unrealistic.

There is an Easy mode available which softens the damage taken from hits, although it also artificially injects safety blocks that close the gap on jumps and cover over some of the spike traps, making it feel more like cheating than a natural toning down of the real thing. Still, this game's Normal often feels like any other game's Hard -- so at the risk of sounding like a "filthy casual" I might have to recommend Easy mode for most people, especially newcomers.

Despair-inducing endgame aside, there really aren't any glaring flaws to Mega Man Unlimited. Overcoming the game's challenges is fulfilling, with the glory of victory and the agony of defeat always feeling justly earned. The special weapons are unique and useful, and finding ideal places to employ them can make a desperate situation more manageable. There's a healthy variety of enemies and set pieces, all organized smartly with nothing feeling superfluous or redundant. Unlimited is a celebration of all the greatest aspects of the Mega Man series, a testament to how far the classic formula has come over the years, and a perfect reason never to abandon 2D, retro-style gameplay mechanics. Any Mega Man fans who have yet to appreciate this gem should rectify that immediately.

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