Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the original Mega Man for the Famicom, and I thought I’d mark the occasion with a look back at some highlights (and low lights) from the Blue Bomber’s history, ranging all the way from his 8 and 16 bit glory days to his current status as the poster boy for everything that Capcom does wrong.
I am 26 years old. I must have gotten my first video game system when I was three or four, and really, I can’t remember a period when I didn’t have video games in my house — since I’m around the same age as most of the classic video game franchises that started up during the 8-bit era, I literally cannot remember a time when characters like Mario or Link weren’t a part of my life. I learned how to read faster than the other kids in grade school, mostly because I spent my free time playing text heavy games like Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star. I probably never would’ve become an Art Major if I hadn’t spent a good chunk of my childhood trying to recreate the illustrations and character designs I’d see in video game manuals and magazines.
So it goes without saying that video games have had a big influence on my life, especially during my early childhood. Perhaps I was just a latchkey kid getting raised by the TV and the console since my parents were always working, but I don’t regret it: it’s made me into who I am today, for better or worse.
But out of all the video games I played when I was a kid, Mega Man will always be special. While Zelda and Phantasy Star are my current favorite franchises as an adult, I absolutely adored Mega Man as a child: I’d rent each game over and over again, memorizing the stage lay-outs and the boss weaknesses. I’d save up my meager allowance and buy any magazines that even mentioned Mega Man. There was just something about those early NES Mega Man games that just completely enthralled me when I was a kid: the simple controls mixed with the thoughtfully designed, challenging battles, the colorful and whimsical art style, the insanely catchy music — it’s all an intrinsic part of my childhood. I don’t remember what I was doing when the Berlin Wall fell, but I can still vividly remember the first time I beat Air Man.
In a weird sort of serendipity, the series has grown alongside me: as I grew older, the classic cartoony Mega Man evolved in the slightly more mature, more fast paced Mega Man X. When I started to get into anime and crave more complex stories from my games, Mega Man once again adapted to my tastes with the excellent Legends series. When I got to college and started to get nostalgic for the old 8-bit games of my childhood, Mega Man 9 and 10 showed up, seemingly on schedule, to remind me how great a properly designed 2D action game could be.
Of course, Mega Man’s 25 year career has its fair share of ups as well as downs, and as attached as I am to the character, it’s hard to not deny that he’s not as relevant to the modern gaming industry as he once was, though whether or not that’s the result of Capcom’s current neglect is an argument for another time. Still, while Mega Man may not be as popular as he once was, the influence and historical importance of his games to the industry cannot be understated, and with that thought in mind, I thought now would be a great time to look back at Mega Man’s rich history and contemplate what the future might hold for everyone’s favorite robot.
Mega Man 2
Now, I suppose I should technically start with the original Mega Man, but let’s face it, the series truly didn’t become great until its first sequel, Mega Man 2. MM2 took everything that was noteworthy about the first game, like the ability to copy boss abilities and the non-linear structure that let you chose what order you wanted to tackle the game’s stages in, and made them better with more thoughtful level design, more interesting weapons, new abilities, and some of the most memorable boss encounters in video game history.
Classic Mega Man fans often get into heated debates about which was better: Mega Man 2 or 3? But regardless of your preference, there’s no denying that Mega Man 2’s much improved formula set the standard for all Mega Man games to follow. It’s still one of the best 2D action-platformers you can get, and to this day it still routinely shows up near the top of a lot of publications’ top games of all time lists. In fact, the game has sort of become a cultural touchstone for Japanese gamers in their twenties, as a few years ago the game spawned a strangely popular song (based on the melody from the game’s final stage) about Ultra Man and the tragedy of growing older and losing your childhood naivete:
Mega Man 8
While the classic Mega Man series is most often associated with the first six games’ iconic 8-bit aesthetic, a lot of people forget there was a time when Capcom wasn’t afraid to sink a lot of money into making a modern looking Mega Man game. Mega Man 8 was one of those games, and to this day it still remains one of the most beautifully animated and detailed 2D games ever created. The game really does look like a playable anime, with beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and amazingly smooth animation that lets every character, from Mega Man down to the lowly Met enemies, show a lot of personality.
Unfortunately, Mega Man 8’s gameplay isn’t quite as good as its more low-fi predecessors; the bosses and their copied weapons aren’t quite as interesting as in earlier games, and the game features some annoying auto-scrolling sections, but Mega Man 8 is still an overall fun game that still worth going back to, perhaps just so you can get a taste of what a new, high-res Mega Man game would look like.
Mega Man 9
Of course, as much as I loved Mega Man 8’s art style, there’s no denying the charm and appeal of that old 8-bit look. The more recent MM9 took Mega Man back to his roots with faux retro graphics, the intentional omission of the slide of charged Mega Buster abilities, and a reshift in focus back onto incredibly tight level designs and challenging battles.
Mega Man 9 was a little controversial when it was released, as a lot of people thought that the game’s 8-bit look was done as a cheap cop-out done in order to lower development costs. That may be true to some extent, but let’s face it: nowadays Mega Man has a niche audience, and niche commodities get niche budgets. Also, to get hung up on the game’s look is to miss the point of Mega Man 9 completely: as far as I’m concerned, its incredible levels and hard but fair difficulty curve make it one of the best games in the entire franchise. Whether you like the game’s aesthetic style or not is ultimately unimportant, because Mega Man 9 proves that great gameplay never goes out of style.
Mega Man X
Mega Man X was the first (but certainly not the last) major revision to the Mega Man series, and it’s also one of the best. Set 100 years after the original Mega Man games, X stars a new, more advanced version of Mega Man as he battles against “Mavericks,” a new breed of robot masters who are based on animals rather than the themed “men” of the original series. While X’s storyline was still definitely influenced by classic robot anime, the series was a fair bit more melodramatic than the original, whimisical series, and the slightly more mature tone in X would set the tone for future Mega Man games. The changes in X weren’t limited to the narrative, either: the gameplay in the X series is substantially different too, with a greater emphasis on speed and mobility; X can scale walls and dash forward with a level of speed and agility that his bulkier predecessor could only dream about, and the X games’ unrelenting difficulty force you make creative use of X’s ninja like moves in almost every level and boss battle.
While the later X games had prettier graphics and more bombastic set pieces, the best in the series is still definitely the original Mega Man X, which features tighter controls and better level designs than its sequels. Mega Man X2 and X4 aren’t bad either, but some of the later X titles, especially the nigh-unplayable X7 for PS2, should be avoided at all costs.
Mega Man Legends
A lot of classic 8 and 16 bit franchises struggled to adapt to 3D when the Playstation and the Saturn hit the market, but surprisingly, Mega Man made the transition to the 3D with aplomb with Mega Man Legends.
Of course, you’d never know that from how people talked about the game at the time of it’s release: Legends’ ditched the series’ traditionally mix of shooting and platforming, replacing it with a sort of action-RPG hybrid whose gameplay had more in common with Zelda than it did with any of the old Mega Man games. Fanboys at the time decried the game for abandoning the series’ roots and said it wasn’t a “real” Mega Man game (a stupid complaint that I’ve ranted against many times,) but as is often the case with these things, the game eventually gained a fair bit of cult popularity from the few who tried it out and gave it a fair shake despite the fanboy protests, and now both Mega Man Legends and its sequel are two of the most beloved games in the entire Mega Man franchise (and both games fetch pretty decent prices on eBay nowadays, despite not selling particularly well when they were first released.)
The innovations present in the Legends series cannot be understated: the original Mega Man Legends used a lock-on combat system before The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did, it had real-time, fully voiced cutscenes before Metal Gear Solid supposedly revolutionized video game storytelling, and it used an early sort of cel-shading years before Jet Set Radio on the Dreamcast did. Of course, Mega Man Legends didn’t pull off any of these innovations as well as any of those games did, but still, despite being a little rough around the edges, Legends still deserves more credit than it gets.
Mega Man Battle Network
While the Mega Man community at large eventually learned to love Legends, there still seems to be a lot of prejudice from old school Mega Man fans towards the Battle Network series. I’m not exactly sure why, because objectively speaking, the Battle Network games are some of the best handheld action-RPG’s you can get.
While the original Mega Man, X, and Legends series’ are all loosely set within the same continuity, the Battle Network takes place in an alternate timeline where Mega Man and company were developed as net-based AI’s rather than physical robots. As such, each Battle Network game features two playable protagonists: MegaMan.exe, this continuity’s version of the titular character, and his “IRL” user, Lan Hikari, both of whom battle viruses rather than Robot Masters or Mavericks.
As with the other Mega Man series’, Battle Network spawned a large number of sequels (released on a nearly yearly basis,) and just like all the earlier Mega Men, the later sequels in BN just kind of became less and less interesting with each iteration. Still, the first couple of games in the Battle Network have aged pretty well, and are still worth tracking down and playing provided you have the hardware to play them. The series was even popular enough to spawn an anime series and a non-linear platformer spin-off on the Gamecube, which is also still worth playing, provided you can deal with the game’s ass-backwards difficulty curve.
Mega Man Zero
Mega Man games have always been challenging, but even the hardest moments in previous series’ pales in comparison to some of the simpler encounters in Mega Man Zero. The direct continuation of the X series, the Zero quadrilogy for the Game Boy Advance picks up directly where X5 left off, telling the story of what happened to Zero after he entered a hundred years of hibernation in order to cleanse himself of the Maverick virus. Despite the Zero series’ pastel color scheme, the story in these games is a fair bit darker and nihilistic than even the X series, a move which makes sense, considering that these games were obviously designed with older, more skilled gamers in mind.
Like I said earlier, the Zero games are damn hard. Zero is even faster and more agile than X was, and likewise, you’ll need quicker reflexes than you used in the X games if you want to make any sort of progress in the Zero games. With that said, Mega Man Zero is rarely unfair: the boss patterns are complex and their attacks are hard to dodge, but deaths rarely feel cheap; you’ll die plenty of times, but it’ll always be because of your lack of skills, and not because the game tosses something at you that you couldn’t see coming. To put it in terms that modern gamers might understand: the Zero series is basically the classic, 2D equivalent of Dark Souls: tough but not unreasonable.
The Zero series was succeeded by the ZX series on the DS, and takes place even further down the “main” continuity’s timeline (but still fits in sometime before the events of Legends.) Instead of stealing enemy powers, players can now assume the forms of boss characters entirely, and this leads to some interesting new gameplay additions. The ZX games are still pretty challenging, but they’re a fair bit easier than the Zero games, so if you couldn’t handle Zero’s difficulty but are still in the mood for some new Mega Man X style action, both ZX and its sequel, ZX Advent should keep you sated until Capcom decides to regain their sanity and release a brand new Mega Man games. Which leads me to my next topic…
Mega Man X Over, Mega Man Legends 3, and the current state of neglect
When The Legend of Zelda turned 25, we got a new game (Skyward Sword,) and Nintendo held a series of orchestrated concerts around the world to mark the occasion. When Sonic turned 20, Sega created Sonic Generations, a decent new game that celebrated and revisited the best (and some of the worst) moments from Sonic’s sordid history.
Today Mega Man is 25, and well… Things are looking slightly better for the old Blue Bomber, but he’s still definitely not getting the celebration he deserves.
It’s no secret that Capcom hasn’t been particularly kind to the franchise over the last few years: following the less than amicable departure of Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune from the company a few years ago, Capcom has more or less made it clear that we won’t be seeing any “real” new Mega Man games anytime soon. The long awaited Mega Man Legends 3 and the less appealing but still potentially good Mega Man Universe were both unceremoniously cancelled after Inafune’s departure, and the only new Mega Man game we’ve since then was the hideous looking iOS casual game, Mega Man X Over.
Thankfully, after years of complaints, it seems that Capcom (or at least few people in their US branch,) are at least trying to keep fans’ hopes alive: today marks the release of Street Fighter X Megaman, a fanmade crossover game which is getting an official (and free) release from Capcom themselves, and today Capcom also announced the original 6 Mega Man games will soon be released on the 3DS’ Virtual Console service. The release of a fanmade game and the re-release of a few ROM’s aren’t quite as exciting as the announcement of a brand new, officially developed Mega Man game, but they at least show us that at least a few people at Capcom still believe in the franchise’s viability. Capcom USA VP Christian Svensson recently hinted that Mega Man would be making his grand return to consoles “soon,” and while I think it’s unrealistic to expect a packaged, big budget “HD” Mega Man game anytime soon, I certainly wouldn’t mind another downloadable, retro throwback in the style of Mega Man 9, this time perhaps based on X or one of the later series’.
It’s still kind of sad that most Mega Man fans will probably spend Mega Man’s 25th birthday playing through one of his old games rather than the new release that we’ve all been clamoring for for years, but that doesn’t mean we should mark this day with a dour mood: Mega Man has given us 25 years of great games, and I plan to spend the rest of the day enjoying those great titles and reliving the moments that so influenced my childhood. While there’s still definitely a cloud hanging over Mega Man’s future prospects, but his past still shines bright with some of the best games ever made, and that’s a legacy that we should spend today celebrating.