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Keiji Inafune on Mighty No. 9, Mega Man, and getting older

"There's actually tons and tons of differences between both character designs."

There's an episode of Californication where David Duchovny's writer character is asked to provide a treatment of a screenplay by rapper Samurai Apocalypse (wonderfully played by the Rza). The script in question is called Santa Monica Cop. "Oh, like Beverly Hills Cop?" the Duchovny character asks. "Nah, man. It's Santa Monica Cop!" Apocalypse deadpans. This pretty much sums up my interview with Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune about his new Kickstarter project, the recently launched retro throwback Mighty No. 9.

Keiji Inafune.

It's hard to deny the more-than-passing-resemblance Mighty No. 9 bears with Inafune's beloved blue bomber, but the ex-Capcom veteran doesn't see it as anything more than a cursory likeness.

"All artists have their own style" says Inafune through a translator (Capcom's head of globalisation, Ben Judd, who also provides the voice of Phoenix Wright). "So if you were to look at a Picasso you would know it's a Picasso even if it's a different painting because that is Picasso's style. Because every artist has their own style, when you look at [Mighty No. 9 protagonist] Beck some people think the character design looks similar. That's because it's the same guy who's creating the character, right?"

"Ultimately both characters may look similar if you look at them with a precursory glance, but if you really drill down and you look at the different details - like the colouring, the goggles, the fact that one has a gigantic cannon for an arm and the other doesn't - there's actually tons and tons of differences between both character designs. What it is is that people are looking at the silhouette of the character and thinking 'oh, it's the same,' but it's really not. And if you're going to say that a character is the same because of its silhouette is the same, then the same could be said about Astro Boy because he also has a very similar silhouette. Is Astro Boy the same character as Mega Man? I would answer 'no.'"

Nevermind that I might argue that Mega Man looks heavily inspired by Osamu Tezuka's manga mascot, but I understand his point. But surely the fact that Beck is mostly blue, steals his powers from enemies, and fights exactly eight bosses is a callback to Mega Man, right? Right!?

Inafune doesn't think so. "Saying that there are eight bosses and that makes it Mega Man," he begins, seemingly irritated by the question, before interrupting himself. "Okay, so I would ask you the next question which was, 'If we had made it seven bosses instead of eight, but the character design was the same, would then it not be Mega Man?' I don't think that the number eight is the issue that people think maybe makes it the same. There's lots of games that have eight bosses or games that have allowed you to take powers from other enemies and use them. So I don't feel that having one or two of these features necessarily means it's not its own original thing."

Maybe it's a translation issue. Inafune is fond of giving long, drawn-out answers before leaving Judd to paraphrase his response, but he seems to think I'm grasping at straws by asking about Mighty No. 9's (rather overt) similarities to Mega Man. But what of its differences?

"You think about how old I was when I created Rock Man [Mega Man], and how old I am now. There's a whole lot of living and experience in development that has gone on in all those years. So there's tons of little differences that separate Mega Man from Mighty No. 9. Actually, if people were to compare the two, they'd see they are actually quite different. But for me the biggest difference is going to have to be that Mighty No. 9 is a title that I'm creating from the ground up based on all of my experiences - and that's 30 years more of development and understanding than when I first evoked Mega Man. So hopefully it'll be something very special and awesome."

Oookay then. I ask him to be more specific. "If I was going to pinpoint one thing that certainly feels has grown much much stronger than when I was a younger man, it would be my mental strength and fiber," he replies. "It's basically the idea of 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' It allows you, as you grow older, to take bigger risks; to challenge yourself; to do new things if you know that you're a stronger person today than 30 years ago. A good example is challenging myself to do something new, like Kickstarter, that not a lot of Japanese creators have even thought of - to work with the fans, which has a lot of advantages and disadvantages. But it still is a major hurdle that I'm charging head first into because I have this mental strength at this age that I probably wouldn't have had 30 years ago."

While most of Inafune's answers are wibbly-wobbly philosophical musings about getting older and taking risks, he does pinpoint one concrete difference between Mighty No. 9 and Mega Man: the story.

"The story of Mighty No. 9 is actually very different from Mega Man, whether people realise this or not, because Beck is the reject out of the group of nine robots. He's the runt of the family," Inafune explains. "When the original eight robots start to go crazy that's when he transforms into not the ugly duckling but the idea of the transformation makes him stronger, allows him to stop these other robots... He needs to absorb their powers in order to be able to stop the whole group. So it's actually a very different concept that I have when I'm writing the story."

Even Mighty No. 9's foes resemble Mega Man's adversaries... with new hats!

Despite the apparent similarities to his favourite franchise, Inafune insists that he never wanted Mighy No. 9 to be a Mega Man game. In fact, he never even approached Capcom about it. "I didn't contact Capcom," he states. "That's because this was never going to be a Mega Man title. This was going to be an original title and as I said before, I wanted to use my experience - all of that depth of knowledge - to create something that's new and advanced and evolved it has to be a new franchise in order to do that."

Clearly, Inafune has a strong idea for what he wants Mighty No. 9 to be. But will fans have the same idea? Since this is the legendary creator's first crowdsourced project, is he concerned that his vision will get compromised by listening to his backers too much?

"No, I'm actually not worried at all about that and that's because there will be a mutual respect and a mutual sharing of both ideas," he says before recalling his years of experience collaborating with western developers. "We'd have to both be coming from that position of understanding and respect. It's not about me coming in and telling them 'you will do this.' And it's not about them coming in and telling me 'you have to do this.' Sometimes there will be friction that occurs between both sides because they want two different things. Sometimes I will be very forceful with what I think is absolutely necessary for my vision to the fans. Sometimes they will come back and say 'we need this' and I will listen. But finding that balance based in respect is going to be very important for a project like this and I know I can get that. I know that I'm able to convey what's important to my vision, but [will] still be flexible enough to listen to what they have to say, and certainly to an amount that we're able to create something new through that information without me having to compromise my overall vision."

One example of where Inafune may have to compromise with fans is with what consoles to bring Mighty No. 9 to. So far the project is listed for PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U if it reaches $2.2 million (which it most definitely will), but by the time it comes out in circa April 2015 these consoles will be dated. What about the upcoming era of PS4 and Xbox One?

"Right now since next-gen consoles are on everybody's mind. The press are getting all excited, and the fans are getting all excited, and they're going to buy a new console that they haven't gotten a chance to buy in a long time. There's this perfect storm of next-generation, next-generation, next-generation, and so it makes perfectly logical sense for people to associate their excitement with this project," he says, before cautioning jumping head-first into developing for an upcoming console.

"The development risks that will be included with trying to work on a new piece of hardware and buying new hardware kits, etc, etc doesn't make a lot of sense. That being said, we're listening to the fans and if it looks like something that is a must, we will of course have to find where that balance is between next-generation development and the actual amount of money that we have from the backers. But that's something that every Kickstarter has to go through and be very flexible and fluid on."

And his reaction to the Kickstarter so far? "Honestly, to be building something like this, underground, on the down-low, finally getting a chance to announce it and then seeing all the smiling faces of the fans and just the overwhelmingly positive response to that we've gotten, it just makes me really, really happy and excited," he says.

Based on my half-hour with Inafune he strikes me as a deep, thoughtful man with a distaste for concrete answers, especially when filtered through a cross-cultural language barrier. There's nothing wrong with making a new Mega Man game, or even a new Mega Man game called something else with a different story, but the blue bomber creator seems oddly defensive about this spiritual successor being compared to the cutesy 8-bit cyborg that propelled the former Capcom artist to glory. I'm not sure that Mighty No. 9 will be as fresh and original as Inafune wants it to be, but that's okay. I wouldn't mind seeing the Rza star in Santa Monica Cop either.