Why Mighty No. 9 Should be Clear for Takeoff

Capcom probably won't be happy about Inafune's new game, but the law's not on their side.

News by Jeremy Parish, .

When I agreed to host yesterday's Keiji Inafune panel at PAX, I knew that he'd be announcing something somehow related to Mega Man -- hence my questions' focus on that part of his history -- but I didn't know the specifics. I hadn't seen the video until the audience did, so I certainly didn't expect him to launch a Kickstarter page for Mighty No. 9.

Mighty No. 9 clearly draws on Mega Man's history, from its obvious manga influences (the title echoes both Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, aka Mighty Atom, and Shotaro Ishinomori's Cyborg 009) to the silhouettes and designs of many of its characters. The protagonist's "No. 9" designation hints at the idea that he may be the ninth of "Dr. White's" creations, similar to Mega Man's numeration among the "Light Numbers," the six robot bosses of the first Mega Man for NES. No. 9 himself (a robot named Beck) is practically the DC "New 52" version of Mega Man: The same character, but with a fussier costume. And from the looks of things, the two games will play similarly, too.

PAX's staff cut the panel short, so the extemporaneous follow-up Q&A that was supposed to take place after the video didn't happen. That means I didn't get to ask the first question on my mind (and, I assume, many others): Does Capcom know about this? And are they cool with it?

Traffic cones are the new hard hat.

You can read Inafune's thoughts in our interview (the short of it: He isn't sweating it). Before we spoke, though, I reflected on why Capcom probably couldn't do much about it even if they were furious. And I'm sure they will be deeply unhappy, but Inafune's no dummy, and despite his deference he's made a conspicuous attempt to distinguish his new project from his older creation -- just enough to stay out of court, that is. While his intro video conspicuously riffed on the older series, it didn't actually include images of Capcom's character. If memory serves, it didn't even mention Mega Man by name, instead using terms like "those classic games." While Comcept openly uses fans' familiarity with Mega Man as a lever to build interest, it does so in just a circumspect enough fashion to keep Capcom's lawyers at bay.

Mighty No. 9 certainly looks similar to Mega Man based on the one screenshot that's been shown (or rather, the screen mock-up), but all the details are just different enough to be safe. And yes, I think there's pretty clear legal precedent for this.

The first that came to my mind was the landmark case that helped define the law in such matters: Apple's suit against Microsoft over the "look and feel" of Windows. For more than a decade, the two software giants duked it out in court as Apple claimed Microsoft's operating system was too blatantly copied from the Macintosh OS (never mind that they both allegedly swiped it from Xerox PARC). But the courts never once agreed, repeatedly denying Apple an injunction and holding the line that Apple could trademark, copyright, and patent specifics of their interface but not the concept of a windowed environment nor features that emerged naturally and logically from such a system. Eventually, Apple conceded defeat.

Still, Microsoft didn't include any ideas quite so close to Apple's as, say, a blue robot who defeats other robots to steal their powers looks to Mega Man. Yet even within the video game space, Mighty No. 9 isn't without precedent. More than a few game designers have departed from the companies that made their names to create remarkably familiar projects. Bungie may have left Halo behind with Microsoft, but Destiny seems rather similar -- all the way down to its sound effects.

Tear Ring Saga bore more than a slight resemblance to its creator's previous work, Fire Emblem.

An even more blatant example happened more than a decade ago in Japan, and it also established legal precedent, this time on the other side of the ocean. Shouzou Kaga, one of the lead designers of Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem series, left the company to venture out on his own. The first project he announced was "Emblem Saga," a turn-based strategy RPG set in a fantasy realm and featuring a rock-paper-scissors combat mechanic. Sound familiar? Nintendo certainly thought so... and promptly sued.

However, the courts said Nintendo didn't have a leg to stand on. Though Nintendo appealed and reportedly won a cash settlement, the courts ruled that the game did not infringe on Nintendo's copyrights, and no injunction was allowed. Kaga and publisher Enterbrain did eventually change the game's name to Tear Ring Saga to help blunt the lawsuit, but not only did the game ship and remain legally on shelves, it even saw a sequel.

Intellectual property protection exists in three forms: Patents, copyright, and trademarks. Patents cover concepts, but it offers very finite protection on very specifically documented concepts. Trademark covers names and logos. Copyright tends to offer the broadest protection, but it also protect only the actual content of a work: The art, text, code, or appearance. By the looks of it, Mighty No. 9 manages to steer clear of all of these pitfalls; I think we can safely assume Capcom didn't actually trademark the idea of beating eight robot bosses and stealing its weapon.

There's not much art of Mighty No. 9 yet, so here, have some more concept sketches.

There are, however, questions of taste and integrity, and plenty of gamers have expressed open criticism of Inafune's plan for being so openly derivative. And while that debate certainly will be batted around, it's one that will take place in the court of public opinion, not a court of law.

Which isn't to say Capcom couldn't sue Comcept, of course. Legal precedent can always be overwritten by new decisions. The question, of course, is whether or not the company would want to do so. From what I've gathered, Capcom knows full well how resentful many fans have become in the wake of the Mega Man series' repeated, ignominious cancellations. Spending money to quash yet another game in that vein when they refused to finance anticipated sequels like Mega Man Legends 3 wouldn't do many favors for the company's image. And Capcom may well be gunshy after the way their Fighter's History lawsuit turned out.

In short, Inafune's boldness has put Capcom into a situation where the only winning move appears to be not to play. No, scratch that; the most winning move they could make would be to produce a true Mega Man game that equals Mighty No. 9... but unfortunately, that doesn't seem terribly likely at the moment. Mighty No. 9 looks like an interesting game, but the story around it should prove to be every bit as fascinating.

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Comments 14

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  • Avatar for Fishing-minigame #1 Fishing-minigame 5 years ago
    If Capcom sues over this I have no intention of buying anything with their name on it ever again.

    Seriously. They had their chance to get our Megaman dollars.
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  • Avatar for mal #2 mal 5 years ago
    I largely swore off buying Capcom tat after what they did to Clover. Happily that even had a rather good outcome in the end, and it hasn't been especially hard avoiding Capcom's output since (except at 3DS launch, as I recall). Capcom are not the company they were up until the 90s any more.
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  • Avatar for sciensyner #3 sciensyner 5 years ago
    For some reason Capcom doesn't want to make Megaman games, fortunately we have the fans and Inafune to do their job
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  • Avatar for aaronpinsley40 #4 aaronpinsley40 5 years ago
    Is there any truth to the rumors that Inafune gets some sort of royalty from any "Mega Man" game, but Capcom is able to use him for free as a guest star? That would handily explain why all of the proper MM projects were canceled right after he left.
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  • Avatar for aaronpinsley40 #5 aaronpinsley40 5 years ago
    Is there any truth to the rumors that Inafune gets some sort of royalty from any "Mega Man" game, but Capcom is able to use him for free as a guest star? That would handily explain why all of the proper MM projects were canceled right after he left.
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  • Avatar for docexe #6 docexe 5 years ago
    Well, as I was saying on your sister site, the concept of the game is practically Megaman with the serial number filed off. But given the differences on the material we have seen so far, I think they are enough to qualify it as a “spiritual successor” so to speak. So I also think it is very unlikely Capcom will be able to sue, even if they won't be particularly happy about it.

    In any case, regardless of how derivative the entire thing might be, considering how Capcom has treated Megaman in recent years (guest appearance on games like Smash Bros. aside), I can’t help but cheer on Inafune and his team for going ahead with this project.

    Now, in a perfect world the funding of this game would convince Capcom that Megaman still has an audience willing to pay for a new game of the series. But yeah, as things stand, that seems unlikely to happen.
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  • Avatar for n00bsauce #7 n00bsauce 5 years ago
    When it's kickstarter meets its goal within one day, it just shows Capcom and the rest of the world that Megaman is still beloved and will support an honest attempt to put out another full fledged game.

    I just hope it meets its console goal of $2.5 million. I would love to play it on my ps3. Or hopefully my ps4.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #8 AxiomVerge 5 years ago
    I wonder what kind of games we would see if Miyamoto or Igarashi went indie?
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #9 SargeSmash 5 years ago
    Clearly, Capcom should consider the following: take Inafune to court, or take that money and actually make a Mega Man game. The latter just makes so much more sense.
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  • Avatar for WillowWolf #10 WillowWolf 5 years ago
    I sure hope it would be. Though it seems to share concepts and a somewhat similar art style, Mega Man was this man's creation, correct? He isn't stealing the name (though it certainly sounds similar to what would be included in an MM game), and the more hand-drawn elements set it apart a bit. I'm sure there are other differences to MM as well. I hope this game does splendidly, and I'm hoping to see it on Vita :)
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  • Avatar for WillowWolf #11 WillowWolf 5 years ago
    Deleted September 2013 by WillowWolf
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