Buried beneath his milquetoast but iconic international title, the secret to Mega Man’s success is right there in his original Japanese name—Rockman. Rock ’n’ roll is an alchemical formula that can be added to and subtracted from to create wild new expressions, a familiar base with replicable rules that naturally lend themselves to experimentation and embellishment.
Similarly, Rockman is a form, and his 30 years as a fixture in video game canon comes from formal elegance. The character and his attendant games offer an almost infinite opportunity for riffing on a central theme, for making small textural changes to create something outwardly similar but new. All Mega Man games are the same to the untrained ear, but Mega Man 2 wasn’t just the foundation for a cynical, abused video game cash crop. It was The Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” a catalyst for both a series that’s been fruitful on its own and a model for countless others ever since.
We keep playing Mega Man games for the same reason we keep buying rock records not called Rubber Soul: There’s always a new way to do it, even when that new thing is called something else. Since Keiji Inafune—illustrator of the original Mega Man who went on to become the series’ producer for more than two decades—departed Capcom in 2010, official Mega Man games have been restricted to archival releases. Meanwhile, other studios like Yacht Club, Batterystaple, and Inafune’s own Comcept have made games like Shovel Knight, 20XX, and Mighty No. 9 that are Mega Man games in all but name. After all, power-pop bands kept writing would-be Beatles songs for decades, and Paul McCartney started a fruitful solo career. (Mighty No. 9 is the Wings of the Mega Man universe.) Like the former Beatle, Mega Man has missed as much as it’s hit over the decades, with putrid spin-offs and erratic experiments sandwiched between canonized classics and modern successors.
Best: Mega Man X (1993)
By the end of 1993, Mega Man had already gone through its first arc of wild success and audience disinterest. The 1987 original directed by Akira Kitamura established the series’ formula. That first game was inspired, full of the emotive music, demanding action, and wide-eyed cartoon art that have remained signatures in all the series’ peaks. But it was also rough around the edges. It was Mega Man 2 and 3 that polished the formula while creating an impressionistic storytelling style that made Mega Man 2, in particular, a staple. Mega Man 4, 5, and 6 were released on the NES through 1993, a period that saw many developers turning to more powerful 16-bit machines. While still good, all three felt rote and partially hampered by some questionable additions. First was the needless lengthening of the game by the introduction of new villains (all of them just working for Dr. Wily), and then there’s the Mega Buster, a charged shot that gave Mega Man a stronger base weapon but resulted in an irritating whine dominating the game’s aural landscape. Kitamura’s formula had gone as far as it could at the time. Rather than simplifying it, though, Inafune embellished even more when transitioning the games to the Super NES and came away with the best in the series: Mega Man X.
Sequels tend to drown when weighed down by the belief that quality is born of quantity, but Mega Man X is the rare example where more of everything is ultimately a net positive. The simple, suggestive sprite art of the NES games is replaced by detailed, thickly colored characters like X, Mega Man’s descendant who can feel and think for himself. The implicit narrative evolves into an anime melodrama with surprisingly effective (if cliché) beats, like the long dead Dr. Light leaving hidden messages and combat upgrades for X or the sacrifice of Zero, X’s David Lee Rothbot-with-a-laser-sword role-model. The run, jump, and shoot action gains new texture thanks to added complexity, but where additions like a robot-dog helper and the Mega Buster diluted what worked in the NES games, Mega Man X’s growth made it more fun to play. Finding X’s long-lost armor, which granted skills like the ability to destroy walls with his head or dash forward, layered welcome new goals into the straightforward survival gauntlets his predecessor suffered through. Even simple moves like jumping against a wall to climb upward felt like magic, a staccato touch on top of the old Mega Man beat.
The art, the crushing rock music in stages like Central Highway—a story-centric tutorial stage rather than a robot master rush, another new wrinkle—and the world of sentient robots trying to overthrow mankind culminate in a game that feels like far more than the sum of its parts, and things people held dear about Mega Man 2 and 3 were sacrificed in the process. Those games were paintings of an alien world that you have to dance through, and they could be profoundly moving, as Mega Man 2’s haunting tone poem of an ending proves. Mega Man X wove that world into a textural whole, a complete place with history and humanity. The earlier games had grace, but Mega Man X’s fullness elevates it even now. Unfortunately, its propensity for tinkering resulted in the series’ worst game 10 years later.
Worst: Mega Man X7 (2003)
After X carved a path for spin-offs and all kinds of experimentation, Capcom went nuts for the better part of a decade. The original Mega Man returned in a handful of bizarre sequels (more on those later), as well as digital board games, a text adventure, arcade fighting games, and even one of the worst soccer games ever made. Even more Mega Men messed with the original games’ structure. The superb Mega Man Legends dug deeper into lore and character customization by reimagining the hero as a spelunking treasure hunter thousands of years into the future of the series. Mega Man Battle Network stripped away the reflex-based action and adapted the rock-paper-scissors interplay between robot master abilities into a strategic card game, something 2002’s Mega Man Zero tried to reintegrate into a side-scrolling action game to limited success. (Rather than a deck of computer chip cards, Zero collected Cyber-elves, an attempt to infuse a Pokémon-style patina into the Mega Man blueprint.) Meanwhile, Capcom continued to produce Mega Man X games, to increasingly poor results, the nadir of which was Mega Man X7.
Everything about Mega Man X7 feels wrong. Rather than commit to a fully 3-D perspective, X7 uncomfortably shifts between a cramped overhead perspective of poorly drawn polygonal characters, a familiar profile view that lacks the precise feel of the older games, and more open 3-D arenas that are awkward to navigate thanks to loose, fiddly controls. Mega Man characters had started speaking by the mid-’90s, but the voices in X7 were a grating nightmare. Just try sitting through the infamous boss fight with Flame Hyenard and try not to pull your hair out the 70th time he yells “Burn to the ground!” That’s to say nothing of Axl, the new playable character who is not technically anyone’s stepchild but does sport a shock of red hair that looks stolen from a One Piece character, which certainly speaks to the era in which X7 was born.
While Legends, Battle Network, Zero, and all the other experiments deviated from the basic form in significant ways, they were united in sourcing their inspiration in the original. The goofy world-building of Legends is the keyboard-laced prog-rock theatrics of Dream Theater compared to the grizzled Led Zeppelin heavy metal of the first Mega Man X. X7, meanwhile, was a muddy attempt to adapt the series’ world into something more contemporary and potentially popular on Sony’s PlayStation 2. Mega Man was thriving on the small stage of the Game Boy Advance, but Capcom chose to force Mega Man X into a shape better suited to a TV-based console landscape where games like Devil May Cry were finding huge success. Name alone doesn’t make Mega Man games what they are, and X7 is the model for why.
Weirdest: Mega Man 7 (1995)
After the success of Mega Man X, Capcom abandoned the original series for two years before bringing it back in an unrecognizable form with Mega Man 7. The simple, primary-colored world of the NES games and the hyper-detailed, tempered landscape of X were gone. In its place was a bubbly world that looked like a cross between Inafune’s stubby Famicom box art and Western animation, particularly late ’80s and early ’90s Disney shows like DuckTales (appropriate, considering Capcom adapted those series into video games). There’s an even greater emphasis on explicit story than in the X games, with Mega Man paired up with a mechanic named Auto and a nemesis named Bass who has his own evil robot dog named Treble.
The odd change in style resulted in a change in the action as well. The big bulbous Mega Man of MM7 controls more slowly than the tiny sprite of old, making for a languorous trek through levels that were more detailed but also more cramped. The larger characters and slower pace change the combat into something more comedic than surreal and desperate. And it really does seem like Mega Man 7 is playing for laughs. In the introductory stage, for example, Auto hands Mega Man the wrong helmet, prompting a comedic pause as the hero sits there wearing the construction hat of the series’ iconic Met enemies. It’s as corny as a Monterey Jack cheese pun in Chip ’N Dale Rescue Rangers.
The thing is, Mega Man 7 isn’t a comedy at all. Mega Man wins the day like always after pushing through Dr. Wily’s giant castle, but then things get weird. As Wily surrenders himself, Mega Man holds up his little blaster arm and threatens to shoot the evil scientist in the face. “You forget, Mega Man,” says Dr. Wily, “robots cannot harm humans.” “I am more than a robot!” the blinking, buoyant blue robot responds. “Die Wily!” The tonal whiplash is worse than shifting from “Blackbird” to “Piggies” on The Beatles, only there’s no precedent in the game or even the series for such a pitch black move as having Mega Man threaten to murder someone. The game closes with an absolutely tremendous rock song blaring as Mega Man storms away from Wily’s flaming castle.
Where in the hell did this game come from? Mega Man 7 is more childish in tone and aesthetic than all of the NES games, and then, right at the end, it suddenly gets even darker than Mega Man X. That ending, coupled with the cartoon style and pace, makes Mega Man 7 a hard left turn compared to the storybook action of the originals and the anime melodrama of X. There’s nothing else in Mega Man history so confused.
The developers themselves were confounded when looking back on it. “There are so many things about this title that I have regrets about,” said designer Yoshihisa Tsuda in the Mega Man Official Complete Works, “and even at the time, we all found ourselves wishing for another month or so to work on it.” In fairness to Tsuda, Mega Man 7 was made in just a few months, but that hardly explains the drastic change in art, pacing, and story. Even Mega Man 8 and the final Super NES game, Mega Man & Bass, softened the hard shifts between darkness and slapstick while adapting the rounded Saturday morning visuals of MM7 into something closer to the pastel palette of the originals. That look was abandoned as the series went on, an artistic phase whose legacy is in proving how far the original character could be bent inside the Mega Man form before he broke.
Now that form is in the hands of other artists and characters. While 2008’s Mega Man 9 showed that there was still hunger for NES-style games, Shovel Knight, for example, found new room for variation on Mega Man’s structure, using the hero’s signature spade to explore side-scrolling action around melee moves and rethinking how death works as a penalty. Whether Capcom itself will return to the form is a mystery. Mega Man Legacy Collection, the recent NES anthology, and a guest appearance in Super Smash Bros. For Wii U are the only official Mega Man games since Inafune left the company, though the characters live on in the Archie comics series. With a new cartoon on the way—starring a nasty new Mega Man who looks like a refugee from an early ’00s Esurance commercial—rumor is Capcom will try its hand at a brand new game. Whether or not it sounds like a cover band after all these years will depend on how it plays.
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