Given that we spend a lot of time talking about fanwork and writing about it on this blog, and several fan-made games have been going viral recently (or at least within certain subcultures), I thought it might be worth talking about these. This post may end up being a bit disconnected, as there are a few different games I want to talk about and they’re not really related to each other in any way.
This is primarily a review of “AM2R”/”Another Metroid 2 Remake” and “Pokemon Uranium”.
Firstly, there is “AM2R” , short for “Another Metroid 2 Remake” (a fan-made remake of the 1991 “Metroid II: Return of Samus” for Nintendo Game Boy), by Milton Guasti aka DoctorM64. It was apparently in development since 2006, finally released this year on August 6 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Metroid (and was immediately threatened with legal action and taken down, though it continues to circulate on the internet and isn’t hard to find if you look for it). From what I understand it was highly anticipated, although I only heard of it recently after its release. Honestly, it’s a fantastic piece of work and I cannot find enough good things to say about it; if you have any interest in platform games and Metroidvanias at all, or more specifically the Metroid series, it is definitely worth tracking this down and giving it a try.
The creator somehow managed to combine the best gameplay elements from the 2D games (the visual style and sprites draw heavily from Zero Mission and Fusion), with the worldbuilding and lore of the 3D Metroid Prime series, and while I won’t claim to be an expert on the story and lore of the series, everything they added seems to fit in seamlessly and matches the style very well while fleshing out the Metroid II setting. At the same time, the updated versions of mechanics unique to Metroid II make it feel distinct from those and like its own thing (unlike, say, the myriad Super Metroid romhacks which mostly focus on remixing the level design and could never hold my interest). The music is also fantastic, combining remixes of tunes from the original series (including but not limited to Metroid II itself) and original pieces that fit the tone and atmosphere well.
While it may seem like a small thing to some people, the other thing I absolutely loved about AM2R is that the ending graphics were tastefully and respectfully done. So many of the official Metroid games end up resorting to sexualised images of Samus (see Anita Sarkeesian on “Women as Reward“) in the tradition of showing her outside her suit, which I always thought was disrespectful and untrue to the character. This game chose instead to, while still acknowledging and continuing the tradition, show her relaxing and drinking beer in a realistic pose while reporting on the status of her mission. I also appreciated that they went with the older version of her character design (which I described flippantly to Loten as “more muscles, less boobs”, though that’s actually a serious point, a badass athletic warrior who spends most of her time heavily armoured is not going to look like a 1950s pinup girl). This is how you do it right, game designers; are you listening?
It was that, more than anything else, that motivated me to actually attempt speedrunning the game to qualify for the best ending (most Metroid games do this, the “better” endings – which usually meant Samus removing more clothing and/or posing more sexily, sigh – are given for faster times and better item completion percentages), which was never something I bothered with before. Once again: game designers, are you listening? Feminists like me are more likely to put more effort into playing your game if you make an effort not to be stupidly sexist and objectify your female characters. I’ve already done three full playthroughs – my initial one, 100% on hard mode, and a pathetic attempt at a speed run (2 hours was the time limit for the best ending, I ended up barely managing at 1:59:12 with 67% items). I’m not particularly good at Metroid, but I wanted to pull it off out of appreciation for their treatment of the ending images, and was pleasantly surprised I was able to.
Overall it was an absolutely fantastic experience: it’s immersive and addictive, it’s easy to pick up, and I can’t recommend this game enough if you like the genre. (There were a handful of bugs, including one that was gamebreaking if you had certain graphics cards, but these have been fixed in the 1.1 update.)
Unfortunately, while it is a fantastic game, I can entirely understand why Nintendo were quick to assert their intellectual property rights and have the official download links pulled (though thus far it doesn’t seem like they’re pursuing legal action further than that). The game relies very heavily on Nintendo IP, from game mechanics to setting and lore to many of the actual sprites and visual assets used. And while it’s distributed for free and the creator does not seek to earn profit from it, it’s still beyond the scope of Fair Use laws. Like so many good fanworks, it would be impossible to do a “Fifty Shades of Grey” and file the serial numbers off, it’s far too closely tied to the source material. Transformative works tend to be. (For what it’s worth, the creator himself has encouraged people to purchase the Virtual Console version of Metroid II from Nintendo if they liked this game to show that there is still an appreciation for the series.)
The other fangame that’s been going viral this month is “Pokemon: Uranium Version” or just “Pokemon Uranium” (Official Site, Wiki). This was made by a two-person team and was in development for a similar length of time, something like nine years, and is a very ambitious project. Like AM2R, official download links have unfortunately been pulled after legal threats were issued, but the game can still be found without too much effort.
(I’m playing this one too, so I can have an opinion here, unlike the previous game.)
It’s a standalone Pokemon game, set in an original region with a cast of mostly-original monsters (I counted 34 that are actual official Pokemon, and nine ‘fake’ new evolutions of official pokemon; it contains 200 pokemon in total). It seems to be designed for veterans of the Pokemon series: the game difficulty is significantly higher than especially the recent games, and the ‘fake’ pokemon generally place a bigger emphasis on dual types (including a lot of type combinations that still have yet to exist in official games); I think the selection of monsters in this game looks like what a lot of players always wanted, or may not have realised they wanted. Building a team in this looks like it should be challenging and nuanced.
The good first: this game really looks and feels like a Pokemon game. Aesthetically it’s very pretty, the sprites are well-drawn and colourful (I’m pretty sure the style is based on the “4th generation” Nintendo DS games), and the original ‘fake’ pokemon look like they could fit in naturally with Nintendo’s official offerings. The music is fantastic, again mixing remixes of classic tunes (mostly from the original red/green/blue/yellow games, for nostalgia factor) with original offerings (including original battle themes, which are quite catchy and might be my favourite tracks so far). The creators definitely did their homework. Most of the menus are comfortable and intuitive, despite being original designs rather than lifted directly from the official games (although some of them still need work).
The bad: I said earlier this game was ambitious, and I think it may have overreached a bit. The version currently extant as I write this is 1.0.1, which they claim is a “full release” (there were prior beta versions, which I shudder to contemplate), but the truth of the matter is that it is still quite buggy and feels much closer to an early beta than anything. Now to a certain extent I realise that, in today’s world where “release early, release often” is a dominant software design framework, it’s fair to release something and fix bugs as they appear. And as the creators are only two people and fairly young, it’s harsh to expect a perfect product from the get-go, or bugfixes to come quickly and frequently. But the way this was being talked about and heaped with praise, there was next to no awareness of just how many issues there were, and I do not think there was any beta testing phase at all before they went public with the “full version” (the impression I get is that previous “betas” were demos in which all the content had not been fully implemented, and I don’t want to imagine what those might’ve been like to play). I think I would have been much happier with this game if I’d been able to go into it knowing that.
Also, I see signs of bloated/inefficient coding, perhaps a consequence of the RPG Maker XP engine they built it in: the game is subject to a lot of lag and slowdown in places. This doesn’t help, especially when the natural pace of the game is already quite slow: I think the battle animations in this are even slower than the slowest of the official games, which gets quite tedious at times.
(The lag can be very painful. It can also cause you to run into event flags before you’re ready. And once you realise how buggy and crash-prone the game is, each lag spike is a moment of fear.)
It could be worse; for the most part, the game is playable, and when you’re lucky enough not to run across bugs or lag it really is quite enjoyable. But at the same time, there are a large number of moves and abilities that just don’t work or don’t work correctly, there are frustrating cosmetic issues with several menus and such (some of these have been fixed in an unofficial patch), and there are quite a few game-breaking bugs which can completely ruin your file. I ran afoul of one of these after 12 hours of logged gameplay time and lost everything; suffice it to say that if you’re going to play this, you need to back up your save file regularly. I had just been starting to get into the game when that happened, and it was frustrating enough that I’m seriously considering giving up on it entirely.
It also offers online play – as I said, this game is very ambitious – for trading and some forms of battling, but right now the server(s) are plagued by “hackers” distributing glitched monsters that can corrupt your file. On top of that, the interfaces for all of the online content are among the worst in this game; we found them clunky and awkward to use, though with enough trial and error you can eventually muddle through.
And then there’s the writing. Oy vey.
In fairness, it’s not all bad: they’re attempting a more serious plot than many of the official games manage, which is honestly something that would be nice to see in a Pokemon game if done well. I didn’t get far enough to see how it all played out, but there were some nice touches (such as the opening, in which your character is actually explained as taking a job as the professor’s assistant, which gives a justification for many of the random tasks you’re asked to do). And it was very refreshing to see a gender-neutral/androgynous player character option being given in addition to the typical male and female (I was initially even more impressed that they used ‘they’ pronouns for this character, until I realised that actually they used them for every character so as not to need to rewrite the dialogues. Laziness or inclusivity? You decide!). There are also some genuinely cute nods to the original games, such as a running gag where characters talk about playing the Red and Blue versions (which apparently exist in-universe as a simulation of the real battles that also go on); it’s a tad clunky, but I’ll take it. And there are a couple of fantastic puns in the original pokemon names; we both laughed out loud at Daikatuna, for instance.
We also really appreciated the design of one of the legendary pokemon, Seikamater, which is flavoured as a queen of several related bug pokemon lines, and you have to obtain by killing the previous one (it cannot be captured, though I suppose that might annoy people who think any wild pokemon should be theoretically catchable) and receiving a royal jelly item that will allow you to evolve a juvenile into a new queen. That’s genuinely original and clever, and feels like a good fit for the Pokemon universe. Although we found it strange that they made the queen unable to breed, rather than having it produce juveniles of all three lines as the writing surrounding it suggests it ought to be able to.
On the other hand, oh gods the sexism. The first gym leader scenario is cringeworthy (she’s a former champion who retired to become a gym leader, but doesn’t want to do the job; you have to convince her to return to the gym by getting a house key from her stalker and literally breaking into her home while she sleeps). To be fair, it doesn’t present stalking as a positive thing, but at the same time it came across to me as being played for laughs. Neither of us were amused, to say the least. And it gets worse.
If I wanted to be charitable I’d speculate they were doing this as a nod to the original Red/Blue/etc, where it was also depressingly common, but in any case the vast majority of female trainers you fight talk about stereotypical feminine things (boyfriends, clothes, that sort of thing) in a really cringeworthy way, while the male trainers/NPCs have more varied dialogue (until you get near the beach town, where all of them start talking creepily about how there are “hot girls” everywhere and how attractive the female gym leader is, metaphorically rubbing their hands together about skimpy swimwear, etc). It’s gross. And so far all nine of the rematch trainers I encountered were male, and I’ve read documentation that suggests that trend continues through the entire game. I reiterate: there is apparently not a single female rematch trainer in the entire game. This game has a sexism problem. This game has lots of sexism problems, which is even more disappointing when you consider one of the two creators is female. (Turn on the Farla signal!)
The rival, Theo, is an amalgamation of the worst aspects of rival characters in the official games: the arrogance of Gary/Blue (without his competence to justify it), the irritating hyperactivity of Barry, and the incompetence of Bianca, with a veneer of whiny entitled child to finish it off. It’s incredibly irritating and downright painful to read. In fairness, I think this might’ve been a deliberate writing choice (and if they were trying to annoy the hell out of us they undoubtedly succeeded); I just don’t think it was a good one. Small favours, at least they didn’t make the incompetent moron a girl this time?
(Thus far Theo has been the worst part of the game for me. I haven’t progressed as far as Mitchell has, so outside of the stalking subplot of the first gym I haven’t seen as much sexism yet – it’s a treat yet to come, lucky me – but I want to punch Theo’s creator every time he shows up. The player character is stated to be somewhere around 12-13, and Theo is meant to be at most a couple of years younger than that, but he comes across as 6 or 7 years old and spoiled to boot. He literally cries every time he loses, constantly whines about how unfair everything is, and has terrible pokemon so there’s no challenge whatsoever. He is honestly worse than Bianca, who is definitely the low point of the series.
This has been an issue in every game since Generation One, honestly. Gary is the best rival, without question. He was genuinely difficult. You had to work to beat him. His dialogue acknowledged that you’d won but shrugged it off saying you got lucky and he’s totally going to beat you next time (which he might do). Rivals since then have been getting progressively easier and more one-dimensional and forgettable, to the point where I don’t even remember most of the names of the group of ‘rivals’ in X and Y and the ones that I do remember were bad.)
The originals also benefitted from not having a female rival or player character, honestly, because the sexism in these games is ridiculous. Every female sprite is sexualised, including the trainer classes meant to be young children, to the point where everyone greeted the short-lived trainer customisation in X/Y with OH THANK GOD I CAN WEAR LITERALLY ANYTHING BUT A MINISKIRT AND CROPPED LOW-CUT SHIRT NOW. The dialogue changes more than you’d think when you play as a female compared to a male, and never positively. Mitchell linked to Farla earlier and she’s done a few comparisons.
I’m wandering off the point. Uranium has improved slightly on some of these issues, but one suspects by accident more than design. Some of the sexism vanished because they didn’t create separate dialogue to acknowledge the player’s gender, and I’d like to think this was a conscious choice but I suspect it was lack of resources, given that they found plenty of ways to include it elsewhere. Some sprites are better, though many have just been taken from the originals. And while Theo is weak and one-dimensional, he’s not forgettable, though frankly he ought to be.)
There’s a subplot with the common fanfic device of a prototype “translation system” that purports to interpret what pokemon say into English. Except, conveniently, it only works when talking to specific NPC-pokemon who are plot-relevant or sidequest-relevant, which raises so many more questions than it could possibly answer. I think this device could potentially work in a prose story, where you can craft the story around it and treat every pokemon as a character, but in a game where the player apparently possesses this device and yet cannot use it to talk to your party or any of the random pokemon that attack you in the wild? It’s just an enormous plot hole, and I don’t think you can paper over that with the excuse that “well, it’s a prototype, it doesn’t always work”. I think they thought they were being clever, but this should seriously have been cut, because it wreaks havoc on any sense of immersion.
(You can’t talk to any of the pokemon sprites you encounter in towns either, unless they’re plot-relevant.)
And then there’s the setting, and the ‘radioactivity’ subtheme that’s laced all through this. It’s not all bad, and I’m not completely averse to e.g. theme naming based off the periodic table, but it feels forced in places and you can kind of tell the creators were thirteen when they started working on this. The game adds a “nuclear” type to the Pokemon type chart, which is basically super-effective against everything but itself (and steel, I think; both of those resist it) and weak to everything but itself. (Which also means it will do 4x damage against dual-typed mons, which are the vast majority of things in the game.) It reminds me of nothing else but young children on the playground who are convinced they’re brilliant for adding nukes to rock-paper-scissors and completely trivialising the game balance in the process. But at the same time, gameplay-wise this might actually be interesting (whether or not it’s actually good game design; sometimes bad/unbalanced design decisions on paper still end up making for good gameplay, I’ve thought that for a while).
(If I manage to get through the game without it breaking, or if Mitchell forgives the corruption of his save file enough to start again, we’ll probably do an updated post about how the rest of it pans out. Most of the story is yet to come, I’m not even at the third gym yet.)
So overall, I’m not sure what to say about this game. It’s ambitious and working from some promising ideas, and the good bits are very, very good. But it’s buggy as hell and the writing is problematic in so many places, and I find several of the design choices questionable at best. I’m not entirely comfortable recommending it, but I won’t warn people away either; just go in with your eyes open and don’t let great expectations and hype get the better of you. I do feel a bit guilty being so hard on this game, because I can tell it was a labour of love, the creators are still quite young (from what I understand they’re early twenties now), and there are definitely a lot of good and creative ideas there. It’s definitely better than a lot of fanworks and romhacks I’ve run across, though that’s not necessarily saying much. And perhaps I’m being harder on it because of the contrast with AM2R, which was damned near perfect and happened to come out at the same time; that has occurred to me. I also think I may have been deceived a bit by the insane levels of hype Pokemon Uranium was getting, and felt more let down as a result (in contrast, I went into AM2R with barely any expectations at all, so all the surprises were pleasant).
While I’m at it, over the past few years, there have also been a lot of fan-made games for the Mega Man series. I don’t necessarily want to go into a lot of detail about these, this post is long enough as it is and I wanted to focus on the recent fangames, but quite a few of these are fantastic. There is Megaman Unlimited by “megaphilx”/Philippe Poulin, probably my favourite of them (though also quite challenging and definitely aimed at series veterans), in addition to Megaman: Rock Force, Megaman: Super Fighting Robot, and Street Fighter x Megaman (the last of which was even officially endorsed and supported by Capcom, though ironically it’s by far my least favourite of them). These all are quite faithful to the series and I enjoyed playing them.
In terms of actual writing, I think Unlimited is the most successful, by actually placing itself within the official series and trying to fill in gaps in the storyline; it ends up feeling the most polished to me. Although there’s also something to be said for a game that knows what it is and doesn’t even pretend to care about storyline (for example: why is Mega Man beating up Street Fighter characters? Why are those characters lurking in Megaman-style levels? Because both games were having an anniversary and someone thought it would be fun, of course; it’s not supposed to make sense, so just play the game and don’t think about it). As far as gameplay goes, I think all of these ended up feeling superior to Capcom’s parallel attempt to return to their roots in Megaman 9 and Megaman 10; not that those were bad, but these were better.
Youtuber RoahmMythril (whom I like) has also done Let’s Plays for all of these, if anyone is curious but wants to look before touching.
I think Megaman fangames end up working especially well because the original series was so formulaic (some might say repetitive), which makes them more straightforward to replicate, and by definition the target audience for fangames is the people who liked the original formula. Of course there are still twists to put on it, but I do think that plays a role.
One thing I do find interesting about these fangames is that, while there are a lot of surface similarities to fanfiction, the multi-media nature of video games ends up requiring a lot more to come together to make these things work (e.g. visual aspects, music, level design, etc in addition to worldbuilding/story/writing in general), and to be successful it’s important to be stylistically faithful to the original in all of these areas. So it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that they often fall short in at least one (which seems most often to be writing/storytelling in my experience), and when they don’t it’s usually because they’re made by teams bringing together diverse skill sets. A great deal more work ends up having to go into these things than the average fanfiction, I suspect, but there’s definitely something to be said for fanwork that takes the same form as the original medium of whatever it’s imitating.
It has also been observed in various places (I can’t claim credit for this insight), that by dint of being produced by fans, these kind of games end up being better-attuned to what the fandom of a particular series actually want, and as such are better received by the fandom than official games. It’s especially obvious in the case of AM2R, when there has not been a proper Metroid title since 2007 (excepting the insulting, sexist and demeaning Other M in 2010), or arguably 2004 if you’re talking about 2D titles. Whether that means they are superior to official games is an open question, because appealing to longstanding/hardcore series fans is a very different thing than appealing to a general audience (and not necessarily a good business decision for a company seeking profit), but there is definitely a niche audience made very happy by these which does not tend to be served as well by traditional, commercial offerings.
At the same time, there are obviously legal issues. Even when distributed for free, a fangame which eclipses official offerings and satisfies fans is going to negatively affect the company who owns the IP, because those fans will be less willing to pay for lacklustre official IP (though the same sort of thing can be argued for fanfiction as well). The cultural popularity of many video games may make them feel like public domain, but they certainly are not and there is really no argument to be had against a company that wishes to shut these things down. In terms of maintaining goodwill with their fans, I might argue that (for example) Capcom’s approach of accepting the existence of, and even adopting or endorsing, fanworks is the right strategy, but that cannot necessarily be the only consideration.
So while I think a lot of these are really impressive works that engage well with the source material and provide positive experiences for fans, it’s hard to find fault with the companies for not appreciating them. (Though one could argue that these companies should be trying to learn from them. If your fanbase are gushing over something made by amateurs, your R&D team should be playing them to find out why and perhaps even offering the creators jobs, because clearly they’re doing something you aren’t.)