A few weeks back, I saw a ResetEra thread asking a simple question: “Why isn’t Mighty No. 9 for Vita and 3DS officially cancelled yet?” The highly anticipated spiritual successor to Mega Man came out in 2016 on a number of platforms, and basically flopped. It wouldn’t have been a surprise for Comcept, the game’s developer, to cut their losses and move on, but for whatever reason, they've continued to insist the handheld versions were still coming.
It’s been more than two years since Mighty No. 9 came out, and more than a year since Comcept provided an update on the 3DS and Vita versions, saying they were “still in the process of porting.” The social pages for Mighty No. 9 haven’t been touched in years, and there’s been no indication a sequel is on the way. By all accounts, Mighty No. 9 is dead. (Fortunately, Mega Man 11 looks very, very good.)
These many years into Kickstarter and other crowdfunding services, it’s become frustratingly routine to see games disappear, taking their money with them. However, it’s one thing when a group of inexperienced people are suddenly handed a bunch of money and fail to use it properly. It’s quite another when a seasoned veteran—in this case, prominent Capcom producer Keiji Inafune—was given $3.8 million precisely because he seemed trustworthy, and he seemingly disappears into the night.
It’s one thing to come forward and say “Look, we couldn’t make it work.” That’s not what’s happened here. Instead, Comcept seems to be hoping people will just forget and move on.
All the while, the 3DS and Vita are on the wane. Nintendo may be releasing 3DS games, but they’re largely alone there. Heck, just this week, the Castlevania spiritual successor, Bloodstained, cancelled its Vita port because Sony was dropping support for the handheld.
Where does this leave Mighty No. 9? The short version: technical choices made at the start of development may have long doomed the chances of the game ever coming to handhelds, and it took Comcept an extremely long time to realize this was the case.
Comcept did not respond to my multiple requests for comment. Same for Deep Silver, who published Mighty No. 9 on several platforms, and Level 5, who acquired Comcept in 2017.
Destructoid, who published their own investigation into the handheld versions of Mighty No. 9 earlier this month, ran into the same roadblocks. They did hear back from one source, though: Abstraction Games, who was originally in talks to work on the handheld versions, but pulled out after Comcept delivered builds “way later than planned,” amid other frustrations.
When Abstraction passed, the baton was passed to port specialist Engine Software.
“They’re handling the porting work,” said Deep Silver producer Nick Yu in an interview with Siliconera from 2015. “Well, it’s not really porting work anymore. We actually had to rebuild the game from scratch because of the difference between the console versions and the handheld versions.”
The “starting from scratch” phrase lines up with Destructoid’s reporting; Abstraction told the publication that bringing _Mighty No. 9 t_o 3DS and Vita would essentially be a “demake.” A port is one thing, a "demake" is a far more herculean task.
The studio did not respond to my request for comment, and a March 2017 tweet appears to be the last public comment Engine made about working on Mighty No. 9.
I reached out to a variety of sources to try and learn more, but didn’t make much progress. This is partially driven by Mighty No. 9’s Japanese origins. It is notoriously difficult to report on Japanese games because anyone who knows anything is almost never willing to talk. There’s the language barrier, sure, but anyone from the West who’s lucky enough to find their way into Japanese inner circles—a notoriously difficult task—aren’t going to take a risk.
I’ve heard various stories over the years, from a variety of sources, about how Mighty No. 9’s production was troubled. But you don’t even need “sources” to know that’s true; all you have to do is load the game’s Wikipedia entry and read about the many delays Mighty No. 9 went through.
All my reporting has pointed to one problem in particular, though: Unreal Engine 3.
Programmer Ethan Lee, who’s handled ports of FEZ, Transistor, Celeste, and briefly worked on the Linux and Mac versions of Mighty No. 9, chuckled at the thought of porting the game to handhelds:
When the 3DS launched, there were countless stories about how Epic’s popular engine couldn’t run on Nintendo’s handheld. It wasn’t exactly a shocking revelation. Unreal Engine can be used for just about anything, but it’s often associated with big budget productions seen on high-end PCs and consoles. The 3DS, while great, was a technical underachiever by design.
Though Wikipedia’s list of Unreal Engine games is hardly scientific—Epic doesn’t publish their own list—it paints a stark picture: no game built on Unreal Engine 3 have ever been published on 3DS.
It’s a slightly different story for Vita, but it’s still incredibly rare. One of the most high-profile Unreal Engine 3 ports to Vita was Borderlands 2, handled by Iron Galaxy Studios, a developer largely focused on helping other companies with ports and tricky technical issues. (Full disclosure: I’m friendly with several folks at Iron Galaxy. We have drank beers together.)
Iron Galaxy technical director Mike O’Connor was assigned to the team porting Borderlands 2 not long after finishing work on one of Iron Galay’s own games, the 2D fighter Divekick.
“There were several times that [ _Divekick_] had dropped below our target frame rate on Vita during development,” said O’Connor. “If our relatively simple 2D game had issues at times, it seemed likely that a more complex 3D game would need a lot of work to be performant.”
One of the biggest challenges for O’Connor and his team was the frame rate; Borderlands 2 was already pushing the more powerful PlayStation 3 hardware it was originally built for.
“You can do things like reduce resolution and use less expensive shaders to improve performance on the GPU,” he said, “and that won’t necessarily affect the way the game plays. But if you have to reduce enemy counts, or use less complicated AI, that can fundamentally change the experience of the game.”
Part of the problem was Unreal Engine 3 itself, which was designed for a specific era where developers were publishing on three main platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. If you were doing work anywhere else, you were most likely using a proprietary engine to pull it off. That’s changed in the years since, and Unreal Engine 4 has far more robust support for games being developed on platforms with lower-end hardware. Most importantly, mobile.
Borderlands 2 on Vita looks a little rough, but it’s a miracle the game exists there at all. A lot of technical compromises were made, but it's very much Borderlands 2 on a Vita.
This is all to say that making an Unreal Engine 3 game function on a handheld is asking a lot. With Borderlands 2, at least, you're talking about a hugely successful game you can guarantee people will be interested in playing. Mighty No 9., especially years after release? That's dicier.
Vita is one platform, 3DS is another. I dared O’Connor to imagine Borderlands 2 on 3DS.
“The first thing I would do is compare the specs of the 3DS to the Vita,” he said, “as I don’t have any experience developing for that platform. So I just did that now, and I’m not sure it would be possible.”
I don’t have a clean answer for you here. I wish I did. The people who are in a position to know aren’t willing to say anything, and so all we’re left with is speculation based on the facts in front of us. It’s possible there are other reasons and entirely good reasons that help explain the now several years of delays in getting Mighty No. 9 released on 3DS and Vita.
Or, it’s possible, the answer is simple, and we should all move on.