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Originally published April 2015.
If any one person could be said to be the father of Mega Man, it would be the outspoken Keiji Inafune. Perhaps he's not Mega Man's true father, but he's certainly been a loving foster parent, having taken responsibility for the character and franchise in the wake of original character creator Akira Kitamura's departure from Capcom.
Aside from Inafune, though, no one person or group has been as deeply involved in the series' evolution as Inti Creates, a mid-sized studio of former Capcom designers who split from the company 20 years ago but soon returned to the fold, where they collaborated with Inafune on the best-loved Mega Man games of the '00s. And in many ways, Inti Creates owes its entire existence to Mega Man.
"When I was at the [company I worked at before Capcom], I was already a fan of the Mega Man series," admits Inti Creates president Takuya Aizu. "I was playing Mega Man games and really wanted to create one myself. That’s why I interviewed at Capcom in the first place! At the interview, Inafune was like, 'OK, I’ll let you create Mega Man.'"
Aizu moved to Capcom and immediately began working on the games he'd enjoyed until that point as an outsider. "Capcom was the second company I'd worked at," says Aizu, "The first title I worked on was Mega Man X2, where I served as a concept designer. After that, I worked on Mega Man 7 as a designer and directed the team. I was also was involved with other titles that were never released, so I can’t really talk about those! But basically, back in those days, we didn’t really have titles, so the people who created the concept of the game would direct the game, and other people would be directing as well with you. It was kind of like every title was co-shared by several people."
Around the same time Aizu joined Capcom, another of Inti Creates' cofounders — Yoshihisa Tsuda, director of Azure Striker Gunvolt for 3DS — took a job with the Osaka-based company as well.
"At first, I worked as the programmer for Breath of Fire 2," Tsuda says. "After that, I served on the team for the PC port of the original Resident Evil PC... I was basically the person who produced the game. We didn’t have titles as producers or directors, as [Aizu] mentioned, but basically I was told to lead the team.
"During that time, I often spoke to the president of [Japanese PC publisher] Softbank, along with Capcom President [Haruhito] Tsujimoto — basically, management. Going along with Capcom's management to talk with Softbank’s management has given me the experience I need for managing Inti Creates. I was only at Capcom for three years, but I learned a lot there."
11 not-so-angry men
In fact, both Aizu and Tsuda had each only been with Capcom for three years when they banded together with nine of their coworkers, left Capcom, and established Inti Creates.
"When we created Inti Creates, it wasn't out of any frustration towards Capcom — not at all," Aizu explains. "It's just that there were some of our fellow creators at Capcom at the time, people in the same company as us, whose work we'd noticed. We all wanted to work together, but at a company like Capcom you can’t really decide who you work with — the company forms the teams, and then that’s who you're working with — which meant we weren’t always able to work with the people we wanted to. So we all began talking with each other about the idea of collaborating, and kind of created our own team together.
"So we had our ideal team, but we didn’t have any sponsors — a publisher. Around this time, though, Sony had this program going, the Playstation Club DP, which sponsored teams or individuals who wanted to create games. Well, one member from our group of 11 had won the award for best creation in the professional category, and Sony gave him a million yen [approx. $10,000]. However, that was not enough for 11 people to create a game, so we went and negotiated with Sony.
"Basically, back in the day, Sony Music was the parent company and Sony Computer Entertainment was more like their kid. So we negotiated with Sony Music to get the money to create a game. But Sony Music was not able to provide the kind of money we were asking for to an individual, so we ended up forming a company. All of us put in $10,000 apiece to form this company, Inti Creates. We became a Sony second party and created our first game, Speed Power Gunbike."
A fairly obscure (though not especially rare) Japan-only PlayStation title, Speed Power Gunbike marked Inti Creates' debut as a studio. "It’s a 'mission clear' type game, and the main character rides a motorcycle through a big, big map," explains Aizu. "The player can transform into a robot, so you could be in human form or robot form to clear the missions."
While boxy and afflicted with the warped, stuttering graphics that characterized all PlayStation games, Gunbike features fast-paced action and surprisingly fluid transformations. It feels in many ways like the auto-scrolling bike chase sequences from Mega Man X converted into the Mega Man Legends style, but with better and more responsive controls. However, it never found much of an audience, perhaps because its arcade-inspired simplicity had fallen out of favor during the late '90s PlayStation era.
"Back in the days when we first started creating games as Inti Creates, we assumed that whatever game we want to create would be the kind of game that consumers would enjoy," says Aizu. "So, we basically just created the game we wanted to create without worrying too much about its appeal. Unfortunately, Gunbike ended up not selling very well, not being accepted well by the users. And honestly, we felt like we didn’t have enough time to fully complete the game and realize what we had wanted to create. Because of that, our first game wasn't something that they were happy with, nor was it something that users really accepted, either. This was a really important lesson for us, and we learned a lot from that project. We realized that producing a title that'll appeal to others is actually quite difficult, and that we really have to think about our audience instead of just think about what we want to create."
So what was it about Gunbike that failed to resonate with audiences? The problem wasn't the idea behind it, Aizu insists. "It’s not that the concept wasn't good — it's something we think would sell in Japan. However, around that time, people overseas were saying the mech fad was over, so it didn't get released in America because it probably wouldn't have sold there.
"Really, I think the problem was that the people at Sony Music who were doing the marketing and us as the creators didn’t have a good flow of communication. The Sony Music people wanted to sell it to people who like military games, to that kind of crowd. But we were thinking, 'No, that’s not the audience.' We weren’t agreeing with each other on those basic levels, and from there Sony Music began to think that, OK, maybe this isn't an important title, so shouldn't waste our time getting behind this title. When the people responsible for selling a game don't have any enthusiasm for it, it won't sell too well."
Even if Gunbike never found much of an audience, it still holds an important place for the team at Inti Creates. "The people who created Gunbike, the original 11 members of the company, we have a special feeling towards the game, because was our first title," muses Aizu. "Every now and then, we talk about how it would be kind of cool to revisit that concept. But I think that the game would change a lot. Maybe not the concept itself, but we'd still make a lot of things different.
"To be completely honest, though, it's not something we've thought about too deeply, because the property is owned by Sony. Revisiting it would be difficult, you know?"
Requiem for a lost friend
While Aizu and company initially went solo to design their own original projects, they eventually drifted back into Mega Man's orbit. Between its founders' time at Capcom and their collaborations with Capcom under the name Inti Creates, the studio has a nearly 20-year history with the series. In fact, Inti Creates' staff have contributed to nearly every iteration of the Mega Man franchise and its myriad spinoffs over the years. They worked on Mega Man X2, were the sole developers on the Mega Man Zero and ZX games, designed Mega Man Battle Network spinoff Battle Chip Challenge, and even contributed to the revival of the classic incarnation of the character with Mega Man 9 and 10.
For the moment, however, Capcom has effectively shuttered all thing Mega Man in the wake of Inafune's departure from the company in 2010; following his resignation, every Mega Man project in development (including Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe) was cancelled. Currently, the character lives on strictly through cameos in other games, an array of merchandise, frequent Virtual Console rereleases, and one officially sanctioned fan-made game (Mega Man X Street Fighter).
Yet while the true Mega Man series may be dormant, Inti Creates keeps its spirit alive. Currently, the company is working on Inafune's Mighty No. 9 (which calls back strongly to Mega Man X) and a sequel to Azure Strike Gunvolt, a game that for all intents and purposes may as well have been Mega Man ZX 3. There's a certain irony in the fact that Inti Creates currently is working so diligently to keep the Mega Man tradition alive, because they've helped kill off the hero more than once in their own games — beginning with Mega Man Zero, which presented a fairly bleak and fatal future for both heroes of the Mega Man X games.
"Inti Creates actually didn’t develop any of the X games," says Aizu, dispelling a popular Internet misconception. Instead, he explains, the studio struggled to find work in the wake of its first two projects, and their first Mega Man venture as a company was 2002's Mega Man Zero.
"After creating Speed Power Gunbike, we had to find another sponsor. We ended up working with Sony Computer Entertainment on a PlayStation game called Love & Destroy."
Inti Creates' second project for Sony arrived at the very end of the '90s, and it seems every bit the part: It basically feels like everything about "cool '90s Japan" rolled into a single video game. You've got cute girls in giant robot suits, fighting bizarre otherworldly creatures in a third-person shooter format. Like some sort of harem anime meets Neon Genesis Evangelion meets Omega Boost. Like Speed Power Gunbike, it may have been just a bit too Japanese for its own good, as it never made its way into English.
Unfortunately, Love & Destroy didn't fare well for the studio either. The fallout of this second release's middling performance was made worse by a change in the political landscape at Sony as the Computer Entertainment division gained influence in the wake of the PlayStation's success. As a result of the shift in Sony's business, the company reorganized. Inti Creates was left out in the cold.
Returning to the fold
"The relationship between Sony Music and Sony Computer Entertainment had reversed," says Aizu. "Sony Music had basically decided not to sell games anymore. Because of that, we had to find another sponsor — so it was kind of a rough road for us for a while.
"We were struggling to find our next publisher until I went to E3," Aizu recalls. "Again, I had always been a huge Mega Man fan, and when I saw Inafune at E3, I told him that I wanted to create Mega Man again. So Inafune-san said, 'If you want to work on Mega Man that badly, bring me a concept and I’ll consider it.' That’s how we ended up creating the concept for Mega Man Zero.
"Around that time, Capcom had just released Mega Man X5, and also they were prepping Battle Network. So Inti Creates ended up joining the team to create the Zero games."
Mega Man Zero was a break from previous Mega Man games in many ways. While the story offered a logical follow-up to Mega Man X5's various endings (all of which saw the heroic Zero either die or go missing in the final battle against the evil Sigma, leaving X to carry on the fight against Sigma's rogue Mavericks alone), it also changed the status quo radically and abandoned the cut-and-dried level select structure the franchise had made its formula. The new series leapt ahead hundreds of years in the timeline, leaving a weakened Zero to reawaken in a world in which X had put an end to the Maverick uprisings, but had swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. X, now seemingly the human race's self-appointed guardian, had replaced the Mavericks' deadly threat to humanity with a totalitarian regime in which enforcer droids created in his image protected mankind with oppressive and deadly force.
The fourth Mega Man spinoff series, Zero presented a clearer line of continuity to its predecessors than any previous offshoot in the franchise had. Where X had only vague connections to the NES games, and Legends initially appeared to be an alternate reality (later revealed to be Mega Man's far future), Zero followed directly from X5. But for the first time, we saw X's comrade Zero as the sole protagonist; while Zero had shared top billing with X in the PlayStation games, here he became the star of the show.
As for X, the peace-loving robot hero had shockingly turned into a robo-totalitarian. His message of coexistence between robots and humans had swung to the opposite extreme of the Mavericks, who posed a tremendous threat to humans; X instead watched over the world from his home, Neo Arcadia, protecting his human charges from cybernetic threats at any cost. Eventually, the big twist revealed itself: The real X had vanished, and this oppressive version was merely a twisted copy. In effect, after 15 years of Mega Man games, Inti Creates had killed off the lead character.
Fittingly, Mega Man Zero played differently than previous games in the series as well. While not quite open-world, it treated the game environments as interconnected, with Zero returning to a central base after missions, and missions themselves usually playing out in areas adjacent to the base. Mega Man Zero also included some deeper mechanics, like a limited form of base-building reminiscent of Breath of Fire II's faerie village, as well the convoluted "Cyber-Elf" power-up system.
Most memorably, though, the Zero games were brutally hard, with limited lives, limited continues, and strict punishment not only for failure but even for relying too much on supplemental powers acquired in the course of normal play. Between its challenging design and radical shakeup of the narrative status quo, Mega Man Zero felt like an attempt to break away from the stagnation of design that had come to define the franchise.
Life beyond death
Mega Man Zero followed directly from the events of Mega Man X5, but the connection was entirely a concept of Inti Creates' own making, not some greater plan for the franchise. This became clear when Mega Man X6 was announced shortly after Zero's release, despite the seeming finality of the X series between X5's endings and Zero's picking up of those plot threads.
"Capcom, the company itself, wanted to keep on creating the X series," says Aizu. "That’s the reason why both the X series and the Zero series ran in parallel. Our two teams had no communication with each other, so literally we would see the press releases and read them and be like, 'Oh... OK, this part is overlapping too much, so maybe we should change something,' or, 'Oh, our concepts are too far apart, so maybe we should make it a little closer to what they’re creating.'
"Those X games were not created by Inafune. He was working on the Battle Network games at the time. Maybe it's not appropriate for me to talk about this, since it's more of something Inafune should discuss himself, but my perspective as an outsider observing the situation is that it was kind of like he wanted to continue working on those side scrolling Mega Man games, but they were kind of taken away from him. So that’s why he started the Zero series."
In order to set Zero apart from what had come before, Inti Creates decided to take a radical approach with the game, pitting the new protagonist against the old. While the two had clashed before, with an alternate story path in X5 even resulting in a fatal showdown, Mega Man Zero's battle was meant to bring a sense of finality to the conflict.
"The main concept that we wanted to explore was Zero killing X," says Aizu. "We wanted to come up with something really sensational. There was something about Mega Man Zero at first that we felt wasn't quite right — it wasn't true to our idea of the character. So we tried to resolve that by coming up with this dramatic concept.
"Also, there's a manga series called Kikaider which really influenced me, and Inafune happened to like the concept, too. The Kikaider manga had an anime spin-off called Hakaider. There, the bad guy, Hakaider, becomes the main character and defeats the main character of Kikaider. That struck me as really sensational and stuck in my mind, and that's what inspired me to take the direction we did with Mega Man Zero.
"Originally, Inafune had simply requested a game built around both Zero and X. But I wanted to do something with more impact, so that’s why I came up with this idea."
Surprisingly, Aizu says, this radical rethinking of the series' main cast was met with enthusiasm by the Mega Man fans at Inti Creates — though not everyone shared their feelings.
"Within the team, there was no resistance at all," he recalls. "In fact, right up until we went to master the game, the plot played out with Zero defeating X.
"However, Capcom as a company... it didn’t serve well for the company to have a series in which X is the hero and then another title where that same hero gets killed off. And so because of that, at the very, very, very end, like right before we sent the game to be manufactured, we had to change it so that the X that Zero kills was actually a copy. We didn’t have time to change the game play, though, so just the story changed slightly."
The Mega Man Zero series comprised four games, the last of which brought the series to a final and definitive close. But time and franchises march on, and Inti Creates was soon tapped to develop a successor to Zero. The result, Mega Man ZX, strayed even further from the Mega Man formula while still revolving around the core mechanics of jumping, shooting, and acquiring new powers.
But this time, Inti Creates broke even further away from the level select construction, placing ZX's heroes in a fully open, interconnected world. Meanwhile, the two selectable protagonists — one male, one female, both experiencing very different and mutually exclusive storylines — had very little power themselves. Instead, they used something called "Biometals" which contained, in effect, the robot "souls" of characters from the Mega Man X and Zero games. In a sense, X and Zero themselves lived on through these spiritual reincarnations.
This concept also informed the core play mechanics of ZX and its sequel ZX Advent. Rather than simply acquire new weapons from defeated bosses, the protagonists instead gained the ability to temporarily transform into those enemies or the Biometal souls they possessed. While uneven in its application throughout the games, this power-up concept finally gave fans the opportunity to play as Neo Arcadia's generals, fan-favorite warriors like Harpuia and Fafnir.
Ironically, while Inti Creates fought to close the books on both the X and Zero series, working at cross purposes to Capcom's plans, the reverse turned out to be the case for the ZX games. ZX Advent began to draw together plot threads from throughout Mega Man's history, reflecting not only on the X and Zero games, but even laying down groundwork to connect the original NES games to the far-flung future of Mega Man Legends. But Capcom never gave the go-ahead for a third ZX, leaving all of those tantalizing hints and apparent links incomplete.
Capcom's last-minute revision of Zero's storyline opened the door for more Mega Man spin-offs, but it also made a mess of Inti Creates' plan for the games.
"When we first created Mega Man Zero, we were not planning to make sequels," says Aizu. "After Zero's release, the sales were strong enough that Capcom wanted us to create the sequel. When we began planning the sequel, we decided to make two games. So as we began developing Mega Man Zero 2, we also had had the story for Mega Man Zero 3 in mind for the series."
In expanding Mega Man Zero beyond a standalone title, Inti Creates looked to the time-honored tradition of the trilogy. In their minds, the climactic events of Zero 3 — which involved the true and final death of X's spirit, as well as that of his four guardians — brought that saga to a close. Capcom, however, disagreed.
"After we finished creating Zero 3, we actually didn’t want to create a fourth game," muses Aizu. "Scenario-wise, the story was complete in our minds, and we felt the ending to Zero 3 was a really clean way of completing the scenario. But then Capcom approached us to create another game in the series.
"Our initial plan was to create a game which was basically Mega Man Zero 1.5, a story between 1 and 2. That was our way of compromising. But, Capcom wanted us to create a true Zero 4 instead of 1.5, so we started to rethink things. We're happy with the result — the game we created is very satisfying, in our opinion.
"But we also decided at that point that we didn't want to create a Mega Man 5, so what did we do?" Aizu laughs. "We killed Zero off, so we wouldn’t have to make a fifth game."
While Comcept's Keiji Inafune sat in the executive producer role for Azure Striker Gunvolt, the game actually marks a significant milestone for Inti Creates: It's the first project they've produced entirely to their own specs since Speed Power Gunbike. It's a landmark, Aizu says, that was years in the making.
"2015 is actually the 20th anniversary of Inti Creates," says Aizu. "Because of that, we wanted an original title to put out in celebration. I asked Tsuda to create this game, which became Gunvolt, and a small group of people worked on it for a pretty long time. My concept for the game was that since Gunvolt was to be their 20th year anniversary title, I wanted as many people in the company to be involved in the title as possible.
"We're a [work-for-hire] development company, so we have titles we work on for clients, but here and there we have gaps where we don’t have anything in the works. During these gaps, we'd work on Gunvolt. As it turns out, Gunvolt actually got completed sooner than we expected — a year earlier than we expected! But that means we've had a lot of development gaps, which means we need money. So because of that, we decided to release Gunvolt a little earlier than we were originally expecting to."
Tsuda adds, "From my point of view, this was something I really needed to have total freedom on — no politics or anything else to worry about. I had three big ideas when I came up with the concept for Gunvolt. The first one was that I wanted this game to be something that anyone can understand at its most basic level. Secondly, I wanted to figure out the most efficient way to use our manpower within the company, so I thought a lot about creating the atmosphere in the game system around what their manpower’s best performance would be. And finally, I wanted to make a game that would be accepted among a wide audience. From these three pillars, I came up with the concept of Gunvolt."
Following the lackluster reception of Mega Man ZX Advent, Capcom decided to rekindle the franchise by commissioning Inti Creates to design the retro-style Mega Man 9. While this meant the ZX series will never reach its intended resolution, most Mega Man fans would agree that the tradeoff was more than worth it. Mega Man 9 deliberately reached back into the franchise's past in order to build on the strengths of the most popular game in Mega Man history: 1989's Mega Man 2 for NES. The results were excellent.
Unfortunately, the sudden spike in interest that followed Mega Man 9's announcement didn't prove long-lived. While some see Capcom's decision in 2011 and 2012 to can its in-progress Mega Man titles as an act of spite directed toward Inafune, a more likely explanation is that Inafune's intervention was the only thing keeping Mega Man projects running. Given the franchise's flagging sales and increasingly limited audience, it made sense for Capcom to cancel projects on which it likely would have seen small returns at best.
The end of Mega Man wasn't the end of Inti Creates, though. The studio has worked on a number of non-Mega Man projects through the years, including licensed titles based on anime properties like Naruto and Crayon Shin-Chan as well as the notorious camp import "classic" Gal*Gun. And, of course, given his history with the studio, it made sense for Inafune to bring them into the fold when he began planning his Mega Man-inspired crowd-funded action game Mighty No. 9, due imminently on a variety of platforms.
And even in these post-Mega Man days, Inti Creates' relationship with the character and franchise continues to inform their work, as seen in the recent Azure Striker Gunvolt... though Gunvolt's director is quick to point out the fundamental differences between that project and the Mega Man Zero and ZX games.
"The Zero series and Gunvolt are based on two very different concepts," says Tsuda. "When we created the Zero series, our mission was to create a difficult action game — a really satisfying, difficult action game. So we had items like the Cyber Elves that would help you out, but using them would incur penalties. So basically to be able to accomplish the game, you have to become a better player... a good action game player.
"However, with Gunvolt, I deliberately changed the concept. We added game systems that would make it possible for anyone to clear the game. My image for the game was that people who can play halfway through Super Mario Bros. could clear this game. That’s the difficult level I was shooting for. However, I also wanted skilled players to be satisfied, so that was a secondary goal.
"But maybe it didn’t come through that way. Maybe it turned out to be a difficult action game. The whole team, everybody, we all love Mega Man. We're fans! So as we were working on Gunvolt, it just became more and more difficult. I had to be the one to try and pull them away from making it too difficult.
"But at some point, I kind of gave up. It was like, 'OK, that’s what the guys want to create, so let’s just do it that way.' I think because everyone loves Mega Man, if you don’t tame them, they end up basically just creating another Mega Man game! So really, my role with the team was pull them away from just making a Mega Man game," Tsuda jokes.
Aizu adds, "Basically, the Zero series are difficult games, but if you try really hard, they can become easy. However, with Gunvolt... Gunvolt is an easy game, but if you try really hard, it can get more and more challenging!"
Mighty No. 9 might be the most audactious "play-alike" game since Great Giana Sisters borrowed liberally from Super Mario Bros. But no matter how closely the game resembles the Mega Man X series, the courts have demonstrated time and again that you can't own the look and feel of a work. Besides, given the extensive history its creators have with the Mega Man games — Inti Creates is working closely with Inafune on this crowd-funded project — who would claim they don't have the right to iterate on their own creations?
While Mighty No. 9 hasn't been without its share of controversy since its Kickstarter campaign launched at PAX Prime 2013, the proof is in the playing... and the time for playing appears to be close at hand. The game's launch date was recently pushed back from this month to next, but such a short delay suggests that little more remains to be done to bring the game to a finished state. And regardless of the quality of the final product, Mighty No. 9 still has provided a valuable lesson in supply and demand: Demand for a series with a small but fervent fan base may not appeal to a company structured around selling multiple millions of copies of each game, but smaller and more agile publishers can step in to fill that vacuum.
In many ways, Aizu and Tsuda feel that Gunvolt represents an important test for the company. After all, Inti Creates' 11 founders originally left Capcom so they could collaborate on their own original projects. While the company has grown to roughly 80 employees, making it a successful venture by any definition, most of Inti Creates' output has been work-for-hire under the direction of other publishers. Gunvolt, should it prove a success, could offer Inti Creates an out — a way to go truly independent and self-publish more games.
"As a company and as creators, we feel really strongly that it’s important to put out original titles like this," says Aizu. "We want to move forward in a way that we can keep doing that. We’ve created Gunvolt totally, 100%, with our own money, without getting any help from other people, and because of that, it took us two years to create this game. Creating something original like this, from scratch, without any help from a publisher, has been incredibly challenging.
"And so, what we're doing now is holding our breath and watching how Gunvolt does. If Gunvolt sells well enough to bring us enough money to create more original titles, we might be able to create other games like this in a shorter time span, and to be able to deliver it to people faster.
"But right at this moment, it's difficult to say what the future holds. We're feeling really positive about the idea... but of course, money-wise, it remains to be seen."
Since I spoke to Aizu and Tsuda last fall, Inti Creates has announced a sequel to Gunvolt, so clearly they found some success with their bold gamble. But what else does the company's future hold? All thoughts were on Mighty No. 9, which seems likely to exist as a living, updated product even after its incipient launch, and whose success will probably play a large part in the studio's future plans.
But Capcom surely won't let Mega Man lie dormant forever. Whether a spark of internal inspiration reignites the franchise or they simply license it out to more enthusiastic hands, a series with such a long, enthusiastic legacy (not to mention one recently introduced to a massive new audience via Smash Bros.) is bound for a comeback. But will Inti Creates be involved? Aizu declined to comment on the prospect of future involvement with the series — but even so, it's not like he and his partners haven't made up with Capcom before.
But let's say Inafune gets custody of Inti Creates in the wake of his divorce from Capcom, and they never again go hands-on again with the series that helped bring the studio into existence in the first place. It's clear that Mega Man has been and will continue to be an inspiration to Aizu, Tsuda, and their partners. The name may change, but the Mega Man spirit, I suspect, will always permeate their work.
Special thanks to 8-4 Ltd., Hiroko Minamoto, and Susan Nguyen for their help with this piece.