Poor, old Mega Man. Although he's one of gaming's longest-running and most prolific icons, he's surely seen his ups and downs, and these last couple years have been some serious examples of the latter. While not so long ago he was flying high, today he seems to be largely abandoned by his owner and replaced by his "father". On iOS, we've gotten an embarrassingly cut-down and IAP-laden port of Mega Man X [$4.99], a port of Mega Man 2 [$0.99] with lousy virtual controls, and Mega Man XOver, a game so bad that Capcom opted not to release it outside of Japan for quality reasons. For the Blue Bomber-loving iOS fan, the pickings are pretty slim.
That's where Steam Punks [Free] comes in, or at least, where it would like to. Although it involves few robots, even fewer Dr. Wilys, and takes place in a steampunk setting, make no bones about it: this is an attempt to create a Mega Man game. Specifically, it's taking a shot at a cross between Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero, and it hits its target perhaps better than Capcom did. Unfortunately, there's a wide gap between what Capcom did and a proper realization of the gameplay concept, and that gap is where Steam Punks makes its home.
You play as Dunns, an elite enforcer dedicated to upholding the law. In an opening stage evocative of most of the post-NES Mega Man games, a powerful device is stolen by the wicked Bowler Gang, and it's up to Dunns to recover it. Our hero is a fairly capable fellow. He can jump like he's on the moon, shoot in front of him, dash awkwardly, and stick to walls like Spider-Man with greased hands. Beating bosses will earn Dunns new weapons that can be used to open up new areas in previously defeated levels, or simply to hammer on the next boss. Like the X and Zero games, Dunns can gain some new abilities or enhance existing ones throughout the course of the game.
All told, you get eight levels, which you can tackle in whatever order you choose aside from the first and last stage, plus a town area where you can talk to people and power up. The levels are quite large, with lots of secrets waiting to be found by the intrepid (and properly equipped) player. Checkpoints are placed throughout the stages, frequently enough that you are never too far away from the next one, but far enough apart that dying is still meaningful. The level designs are one of the biggest strengths of Steam Punks. There's so much stuff to find that you will definitely be revisiting stages as you earn new weapons and abilities. My only real gripe is that I would have liked to have seen more theme-specific traps and enemies.
The other strong point of this game is the art. The sprites in this game, especially the enemies, look almost as good as Capcom's own work. Dunns is almost certainly patterned after Mega Man in his poses and animations, and like X, when he equips new pieces of equipment, you get a visual change to go along with it. Some of the enemies are impressively large, and almost every character has a bit of animation to bring them to life. The backgrounds look really good, too. The overall look of the game is colorful and cartoony in all the right ways, just like the 16-bit games it's paying homage to.
I'm a bit more mixed on the sound design. The music is composed well enough, but the choice of instruments and brevity of each song leads to some of it being annoying. I'm also not very happy with the sound effect of the main character's jump. For how much the rest of the game is slavishly homaging Mega Man, it's weird that Dunns lets out a weird Mario/Sonic-like "boing" whenever he takes to the air. You'll be doing a lot of jumping in this game, so if that sound effect grates on you like it did me, you'll probably end up turning down the volume or turning it right off.
On paper, I'm actually really impressed with Steam Punks. If the aim was to imitate the best design elements of the Mega Man games, I feel like that was accomplished. That series, though, succeeds on more than just design elements. Sure, the gimmick of shooting a guy for his gun, taking the gun to shoot another guy gave it a great hook, but what makes Capcom's action classics a joy to play are the physics and superb controls, and wow, does Steam Punks ever drop the ball here. If you've ever played a Mega Man game, I want you to picture the way he jumps when he's under water. You know, that slow, high, very controlled jump? That's what Dunns is like, all the time. He's got no weight to him at all, and while I'm sure that was a deliberate choice, perhaps to reduce difficulty, it just ends up feeling weird and messing with your timing.
The game uses virtual controls, and everything that has a button works well enough. Dunns will easily move left and right, and jumping and shooting work well. You can even move the buttons around to your liking, something that should be standard in these kinds of games nowadays. Dunns has one important action that isn't on a button, however, and that's his dash. Dashing is accomplished by double-tapping one direction, which would be fine on an actual controller, but proves to be problematic here. The wall jump is strange, too. It's easy enough to stick to a wall and climb it, but kicking off the wall is a far bigger hassle than it should be. There are only a few points where these particular issues are fatal, but considering the inspiration, it's odd these problems exist at all.
The game uses a currency that you can use to buy various upgrades. These upgrades are almost all necessary for finding all the secrets in the game, but you won't get nearly enough of the game's currency to buy everything without grinding. Conveniently, you can spend some real money on some fake money if you're inclined. Of course, you don't need to find all the secrets to beat the game. The first time I finished it, I had barely found anything, and had little trouble toppling the last boss. Just be warned, if you're looking to do a 100% playthrough, be ready to sink some serious time or have your wallet on stand-by.
I ran into quite a few crashes while playing, especially against the last boss. The developer is pretty well-known for taking care of these issues quickly enough, but I'm mentioning it because it points to another problem with the game. For all the obvious care put into the design and graphics, there are a lot of weird cut corners in Steam Punks. The text has serious wrapping issues, typos abound (the developer's name is actually misspelled in the ending credits), and the dialogue without mistakes is really badly-written. I encountered a few glitches with the music where the wrong piece would play non-stop until I closed out the app completely and restarted it. The UI is awful. Without experimenting, it's hard to figure out what buttons in the menus do half of the time. I also don't like how the weapons menu doesn't pause the action. When you open it up, you're basically a sitting duck. Inconvenient when enemies are around, fatal near pits. Switching weapons really shouldn't be this much of a hassle.
If I sound like I'm being too hard on Steam Punks, I don't mean to be. The thing is, when you invite a very direct comparison to another game, it's hard not to, well, compare. Taken as its own thing, this is an okay side-scrolling action game for your mobile device, even if it is incredibly rough around the edges. Comparing it to the real Mega Man X, I'm not sure what's more frustrating: how much it gets wrong, or how much it gets right before falling short. Nevertheless, I'd still recommend this over Capcom's own interpretation of Mega Man X on iOS. It was at least good enough that I wanted to stick with it through the end, warts and all.