The Problem with Capcom

[Ed. This was originally to be posted yesterday but I had to delay it as I received a Fathers’ Day gift that was relevant and I needed time to read it, Mega Man & Mega Man X Complete Works 25th Anniversary Art Book, in order to make appropriate statements regarding the franchises.  Also, please let me reiterate that this blog is my opinion and even when I make declarative statements they are based on conclusions that I have drawn based on my understanding of any given situation.  If I make a point that you disagree or have a problem with, then please by all means bring it to my attention and we can discuss it, I’m not above being corrected or educated.]

Recently Capcom announced that they would have to release Street Fighter V this year.  A title which was only just officially announced this year.  In the article covering this press release, the company listed all of their most successful franchises.  Suspiciously, or not so much depending on what you have heard, Mega Man (known as Rockman in the East) was absent from the list, despite appearing in Nintendo’s most recent entry in the Smash Bros. franchise.  This isn’t terribly surprising when you consider that just a couple years ago several different Mega Man titles across the various established series were in the works and suddenly, quietly, cancelled over night.  The reasons, which I’ll go into more detail on later, seemed specious at best and downright mean at worst.

In the ongoing war between creativity and nostalgia, Capcom seems to be the most lost on the battlefield.  Street Fighter maintains its popularity by staying true to its two-dimensional roots even while the visuals and complexity continue to improve.  The anime-inspired aesthetic reaching across national, cultural and even generational boundaries.

Meanwhile Resident Evil  evolves, from survival/horror to third-person tactical shooter and the fans cry foul.  Though RE5 would sell well and DLC would bring back a fan-favorite character in classic form, RE6 took another step further into the realm of too much of a good idea, by splitting the campaign up across multiple selectable characters, each with his or her own dedicated story and largely unrelated plots in an effort to deliver both experiences.  Then they would hand the property to a Western developer known for portable tactical shooter experiences on the PlayStation Portable to make a first-person tactical shooter for the major home consoles.  Aside from playing as villains whose mission it is to eliminate a fan-favorite hero in the past and thus violating established canon, odd gameplay mechanics and level design choices would prevent it from achieving more than moderate success.  All the while, the series creator teased a portable console exclusive. A full console generation later it would surface on a different handheld than originally indicated and closer in theme to the series’s roots.  It managed to achieved major critical success despite the choice of platform (3DS) and so the game would later be released on home consoles in an “HD” edition. This past year it even received a sequel and Capcom had already announced the franchise would now exist as two separate series for the forseeable future in order to provide both experiences without forcing one or the other on the audience.

Mega Man, depending on how long you have been following the franchise has been all over the map in game design and rarely ever failed to yield a solid and fun experience.  Yet to hear certain portion of the hardcore audience, you would be forgiven for thinking any game in the franchise to come after 1995, were the worst thing to ever happen to the character.  At this level the audience fractures into so many different subgroups it’s nearly impossible to find anyone that isn’t overly enthusiastic about one and overly critical about another.  The most recent sequels in the “classic” series revisited the design esthetic  of the late 80’s/early 90’s era and delivered gameplay and graphics right off of the NES.  9 was cheered for the decision which also contained two other landmarks:  the first female “Robot Master”  and the first time players could play a classic series game with another character.  Unfortunately 10, while just as solid an experience, offered nothing new except the inclusion of a third playable character available via premium DLC content and the progress of a female “Robot Master” already forgotten.  In both cases, the full price of admission after the purchase of all DLC brought these “budget titles” to a price that exceeded most digital only games of the time and even today.  Games that offer much more in terms of content and complexity.  By all apperances, 10 appeared to suffer from the same “sequelitis” as the original six NES titles; twelve to sixteen new levels with accompanying bosses, a couple new power-ups that may or may not be recycled from earlier games and no upgrade to graphics to speak of.  The kind of content you could get away with charging full admission for once a year in 1993 but which would be considered a budget DLC campaign level today.  Despite this, a certain subset of hardcore fans would argue, and have, that 9 & 10 are the most true games of recent memory in the decades old franchise and to deviate from that tradition would be sacrilege.  Those same fans mostly unaware that each game took no more than three to six months to make, certainly a contributing factor to their lack of evolution.  The very same philosophy would hold true with multiple alternate series in the franchise over the years like the X titles on the SNES and PS1 or the GBA Battle Network and Zero series.  Sadly, the head producer of the franchise, Keiji Inafune, would leave the company, reportedly under a cloud of bad blood, and multiple highly anticipated, in-progress games would be cancelled with no explanation.  (Ed. Keep an eye on this space for more in-depth look at the problems I perceive with the Mega Man series specifically. )

Recent new properties like Dead Rising and Dark Void continue to display the company’s apparently unclear understanding of what their audience wants versus what they think they think they want.  While Dead Rising began as a send-up of zombie apocalypse films and its own Resident Evil series, the most recent installment has taken on a darker edge, shedding most of the humor present in the first two games and focusing on the violence and gore.

Dark Void on the other was an attempt to return to the company’s roots: a nonsensical science-fiction story that exists solely to facilitate the action.  In this case, you play a character with a jetpack and a laser gun who can hijack any flying vehicle in the game, be it retro-futuristic jet airplane or UFO, in an alien environment.  The marketing of the game included the development, marketing, and release of an 80’s-style arcade platforming-shooter titled “Dark Void Zero”.  Touted as a “lost” title from the company’s archives and intended as a prequel to the big brother console game; someone obviously felt strongly about the main game’s impending popularity.  In the end however a glitchy experience on the home consoles and the marketing tie-in being Nintendo DS only, at the time, killed both games before they ever had an opportunity to gain a following.  (Reviews of both games will be posted here soon.)  Even more unfortunate, this was not the first time the choice to release a game on a single, niche system would end unhappily.

Then there’s the Devil May Cry series which spanned five titles across two console generations, all of which were moderately successful.  The final title, “DMC”, however was a reboot that was so reviled by fans of the previous games you would be forgiven for not knowing that aside from a change in art and visual style, the gameplay remained largely unchanged and was a solid entry in the series.  Capcom’s decision to let a new team tackle the development and take it in a new direction would likely be decried no matter what, as videogame fans have a tendency to be overly and unnecessarily critical of things they don’t like, but in this case more hate seemed to be leveled at Capcom simply because it was Capcom doing it.

Finally we come to the controversial Bionic Commando series and the multiple missteps made with it.  This nostalgia-fueled escapade surely confused the already unsure executives at Capcom.  The property was given to a smaller studio that developed two separate games, a graphical update of the NES original available via digital download only and major console release 3D action-platformer.  While the NES remake received critical praise and was well-received, the console big brother soon became the butt many jokes and was poorly reviewed.  People pointed to its nonsensical, science-fiction plot with bizarre revelations and twists, poor or awkward controls, and strange gameplay design choices as its major flaws.  A sequel to the remake was released two years later while a planned sequel for the console title was quietly cancelled and never spoken of again.

Anyone who considers themselves a creator of content is well aware of the difficulty of monetizing art.  Content creators are unfortunately at the mercy of corporate executives whose only job is to monetize said art.  In Capcom’s case it certainly appears that at least part of their difficulties stem from a disconnect between their creative side and their business side.  There appears to be a larger issue surrounding Capcom’s latest failures however, which many are insisting is the greater problem.  The aforementioned bad blood that surrounded the departure of Inafune is rumored to be the result of certain comments he made to the press where he declared that Japanese game design was dying and it was the direct result of corporate interference that was more concerned with profit than any kind of fan loyalty or artistic process.  Indeed a quick Google search will show you many people who agree.

I’m not enough of an expert to be able to tell you if Inafune was on to something or not, but there is plenty of evidence to support his statements.  Events like Japanese publishers being bought by western corporations in recent years, the steady stream of dating and train simulators in the eastern market, Japanese culture moving further and further away from consoles and even handheld devices in favor of mobile phones, and so on.  Japanese companies are having no difficulty selling product to their own region, however many appear to be struggling to find success in other regions.  Studios like From have achieved massive critical and sales success with their retro-inspired difficulty hack’n’slash titles in the “Dark Souls” series, among others.  SquarEnix continues to put out solid entires in the “Final Fantasy” series while hugely anticipated sequels finally come visible on the horizon.  The studio’s existence as a studio in the stable of a western publisher appears to be partially responsible for this however.

A look at controversial titles mentioned above in the right context appears to show that Capcom is attempting to chase Western design trends.  The final boss fight of RE4 could easily be mistaken for a boss fight in the Gears of War franchise while the zombie slaying aspect of both Resident Evil 5 & 6 as well as Dead Rising 3 seem to be heavily influenced by the zombie-slaying horde-mode of recent “Call of Duty Titles.”  It could be argued that “Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City” does the same.  The recent surge in popularity in fighting game tournaments and pro-gaming circuits is likely responsible, at least in part, for the renewed interest in the Street Fighter series.  The collector’s edition gamepads and sticks, the rerelease of various titles throughout the years as digital downloads and even a film featuring a majority of Eastern characters but utilizing a largely Western cast could also indicate such.

In the meantime, Keiji Inafune himself has moved on and formed a company of his own.  Using Kickstarter he has managed to fund the development of a brand new game that features all of the things he wanted to do with the Mega Man series over the years, but was unable to for whatever reasons.  Reasons that most assuredly are related to his leaving the company other than amicably.  Meanwhile, other independent developers can be found all over the internet making their own Mega Man or Mega Man-inspired titles, filling a gap that Capcom has so far failed to sufficiently fill for nearly a decade.  Recent attempts to use the character have either ignored the market altogether or treated the character as a joke, neither doing much to ingratiate the company to the franchise fans.  The most recent release of a “classic” title, “Mega Man X Street Fighter” (pronounced, “Mega Man Cross Street Fighter) was not even developed by the company but a dedicated fan who did such a good job, Capcom offered to buy it and release it.  Still, despite the good will this may have engendered, they failed to port it to any platform besides PC, meaning that console owning fans are simply out of luck.  At the same time, titles like Mega Man 9 and 10 haven’t been made available on PC or handheld, despite the market potential.  While there exists a movement to try and get the character’s moved to another developer/publisher, it looks like Capcom is content to sit on their former mascot in favor of a feud instead of turning a profit.  A decision that bafflingly flies in the face of the the moneymaking philosophy apparently informing other decisions.

Capcom, above most other Japanese game design companies, strikes me as the the most out of touch with what it means to make games in this era.  Their loyal fans being the ones to suffer the most even as their influence in the industry at large continues to dwindle.  They join Nintendo in the clueless arena, a company that continues to struggle financially while at the same time making repeatedly dumb financial mistakes.  That however is a discussion for another entry.

As it stands, I look forward to “Street Fighter V” even though I’ve never been very good at fighting games, the story and visuals of this particular series have always held me pretty tight.  Sadly, I’ll continue to buy and play Resident Evil games, even the poorer ones, because they still provide a solid, tactical zombie-shooting experience with characters and a visual flair that I enjoy.  The same can be said of the Mega Man franchise, as I’ll surely be buying the Legacy Collection if only because playing PS4 games remotely on the Vita in bed is a big deal for me today.  However, I foresee it won’t be too long before Capcom goes the way of other Eastern corporations in recent years and decides to get out of the international game altogether.  That is my prediction, June of 2015.

Fanman, out!

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