Friday, April 23, 2010

Capcom’s Relationship with its Admirers

megamanposter1 In preparing to write this piece, I trolled through the Charge Shot!!! archives and was disturbed to find no mention of Eddie Lebron’s upcoming film Mega Man.  That’s right.  Dude made his own Mega Man movie.  And it looks like Capcom’s got his back: Mega Man hits ScrewAttack May 7th.

Video games have long played the muse to hosts of budding artist gamers.  I’m sure I could somehow trace my theatre roots back to lengthy afternoons spent enacting Final Fantasy IV in my neighbor’s backyard.  But games don’t just inspire individuals.  In his preamble to Wednesday’s Doctor Who write-up, Jordan pointed out the primary allure of nerd/geek culture: “it's like an instant community.”  Destructoid doesn’t post pictures of Post-It Note Mega Man simply because of its (albeit considerable) artistic value.  Sites like this share goofy gamer stuff because it’s community shorthand.  “You enjoy games?  Well here’s something mildly related.  We can enjoy it together.” 

So it’s no surprise that filmmakers, rappers, and others who play games want to contribute any way they can to their favorite niche culture.  It’s also no surprise that big game companies occasionally feel the need to shut down overly ambitious fan projects like full-scale reimaginings or unlicensed sequels.  They want to maintain control over their beloved content, even at the risk of spurning a few diligent fans.

What is surprising is that a company like Capcom – with its substantial history and pedigree – isn’t constantly unleashing its legal hounds.  In fact, it’s trained them to sniff out hardworking fanboys and bring their work into the most favorable light possible.

It’s hard to imagine why, given that similar companies have, in similar situations, gone the completely opposite direction.  In 2006, RPG giant and now publishing juggernaut Square Enix put the kibosh on Chrono Resurrection, fan Nathan Lazur’s project to update the SNES classic Chrono Trigger with modern graphics, sound, etc.  According to a 2006 1UP feature, not only did Squeenix shut it down, they spent three months prior visiting Lazur’s site and downloading various assets – presumably for evidence.  Despite their somewhat shady activity, Lazur bears no ill will toward the company, saying to 1UP, “Square Enix created a property that took time, money, and talent to develop, and it is their right to be able to say what does and doesn't fly.”  That’s very kind of him to say so.  Squeenix also sent a cease and desist letter to the folks behind Crimson Echoes, an unofficial sequel built using ROM modification.  It’s hard not to see this as an attempt to clean house before the inevitable occurred: Squeenix rereleases Chrono Trigger for the massively successful Nintendo DS.  It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.

So why does Capcom not care that fans are going crazy with Mega Man material?  I think I’ve got an idea, though Andrew may cover this further in a later post: nostalgia.  Save the relatively new franchises like Lost Planet and Dark Void, Capcom’s entire lineup consists of series firmly entrenched in gaming canon: Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Mega Man.  (They even make a killing throwing all of their mascots in a giant fighting game pot and putting the blender on high.)  Knowing this, Capcom’s cranked the nostalgia up to 11, releasing games like Mega Man 9 and 10 as downloadable 8-bit titles, designed to mimic what made the Mega Man franchise so endearing on the original Nintendo.

This nostalgia fuels the projects Capcom’s chosen to back.  Prior to MM9’s release, Capcom struck a deal with rapper Random – who’d already expressed his love for the Blue Bomber – and endorsed his sophomore album Mega Ran 9.  The record featured a track dedicated to Splash Woman, the series’ first female Robot Master, and Random’s excellent “Grow Up” lovingly co-opts a Mega Man loop for a song about game nostalgia.   Random told Wired in 2009 that at Comic-Con, Capcom blasted his music and gave him a badge reading “Raheem Jarbo (his real name): Capcom Entertainment: Exhibitor.”  I don’t know that you get any more legit than that.

Eddie Lebron’s Mega Man also relates to Capcom’s mascot tangentially.  First and foremost, it’s not a game.  It seeks to explore the potential for narrative in a series that often places story quite low on its list of priorities (Roboenza, anyone?).  And anyone who says the Mega Man cartoon already did that is a fool.  People only watched that to see Mega absorb dudes’ powers.  As for Lebron’s film, so what if the Robot Masters (see above trailer) look straight out of a SyFy flick?  Lebron’s vision hues as closely as possible to his memories of the game, complete with a crazy-looking Wily and a bizarre (if not genius) casting decision to have only Asian people play the robots.  I, for one, cannot wait until May 7th.

And lest you think Capcom only allows this material because it’s not a game, check out this fan-made “demake” of Mega Man 8, originally for the Playstation.  It’s been almost two years since Mega Man 7  received the same 8-bit downgrade (essentially the reverse of what Chrono Resurrection was attempting to do), with no noise made by Capcom in the intervening years.  Destructoid’s Jonathan Holmes seems to think Capcom could get away with rounding up these ROMs and making money off of them.  While I’ve no doubt Capcom could pull this off, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they’re just satisfied with the attention.  There’s no reason to upset the vocal minority of Internet Capcom fanboys, especially not when they’re pumping out their own retro-chic titles.

Capcom’s approach feels right.  I can understand the economic reasons why shutting down a remake just before you start production on a rerelease (here’s looking at you, Squeenix), but I simply can’t abide the stifling of creativity when it comes to works of tribute (thanks, Nintendo).  Foster the goodwill of your fans.  Let them play out their own stories with their favorite characters.  You’ve nothing to lose but them not loving your product more.