Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm is best remembered for his cat’s-purr laugh and waxed chest, but his role in the story is to plainly state the film’s thesis. While chastising entrepreneur John Hammond, Malcolm concludes that “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Hammond defends himself—“How can we stand in the light of discovery and not act?”—but the film sides with Malcolm. Jurassic Park was an experiment taken too far, and everyone involved in the project gets punished for their hubris. Similar warnings against overstepping humanity’s boundaries are baked into plenty of science-fiction stories. The trope goes as far back as 19th-century horror classics like Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, and further back still to the ancient Greek story of Icarus. Genetics, chemistry, surgery, engineering—every avenue of human ingenuity has its own moral about the perils of playing God.
This is a problem the Mega Man series has grappled with across its dozens of entries and numerous sub-series. A quintessential science-fiction saga about a near-future society struggling to control its own advanced technology, Capcom’s plot-light but nonetheless allegorical series of platformers has approached the “playing God” moral from every conceivable vantage point and entertained various conclusions over its life. Today, the series’ 30-year history of changing its mind and journeying into rhetorical cul de sacs reads like a meandering argument by Plato, carefully exhausting every avenue of thought and possible contradiction before eventually settling on a point. It took three decades and over a hundred titles for Mega Man to make up its mind about what it wanted to say about humanity and technology, but the conclusion it finally reached offers a bracing antidote to the anti-progress sci-fi allegories that precede it.
The original Mega Man has a premise seemingly right in the “humanity should stay within its boundaries” wheelhouse. In the ambiguous near future, humanity creates robots to perform difficult or unpleasant tasks for us, so naturally they revolt against their former masters. A clear morality tale in which humanity is punished for dabbling with forces we don’t understand, right? Not quite. The wayward Robot Masters are pawns of the villainous Dr. Wily, and in order to combat his evil scheme, the kindly Dr. Light uses Mega Man, a robot of his own. The game is really the story of a battle waged between human scientists using machines as proxies. Mega Man presents robots not as symbols of the inherent arrogance of human progress, but as morally neutral tools, positing that problems caused by technology can safely be solved with technology. It’s a game that recognizes that a hammer has no say in whether it’s used to build a house or make a bomb.
The classic Mega Man series ran until 2010’s retro throwback Mega Man 10, and insisted on the moral neutrality of technology the whole time. In 1993, it got its first spin-off with Mega Man X, which adopted a more cynical worldview. The X series takes place a century after the classic titles, in an era populated by far more advanced robots called Reploids that possess free will. This additional wrinkle is all it took to push the series into the anti-technology scaremongering the classic titles always resisted. The villain of the X series is not a human but a Reploid named Sigma, whose goal is the eradication of humanity and the proliferation of machines. Sigma is exactly the sort of boogeyman anti-progress allegories are always built around, an uncontrollable monster who exists to punish humanity for their sin of creating him in the first place. He is the first piece of technology the Mega Man series suggests was an inherent mistake to create.
Series maestro Keiji Inafune intended for the X series to conclude with Mega Man X5, which can potentially end with nearly the whole cast dead and almost all life on Earth annihilated by a crashed space colony. Mega Man Zero, a spin-off of a spin-off, takes place a century after the X series and mostly ignores that series’ wheel-spinning post-X5 installments. What the Zero series brings to Mega Man’s technology politics is an even grimmer view of progress than the X series. The antagonist of the first Zero game is Copy X, a tyrannical doppelgänger of the hero of the previous series, who doles out summary executions to anyone who challenges his authority. Originally intended to be the real X made cynical and vicious by a century of unchallenged rule, this would have marked the point at which even humanity’s greatest and friendliest technological ally turned villainous—the ultimate assertion that technology can’t be trusted, and a total reversal of the original games’ ethos.
The Mega Man series never got more cynical than Mega Man Zero—from that point on it started to recover its optimism. Mega Man ZX, a direct follow-up to the dark and gritty Zero series, depicts a far-future world in which humans and Reploids finally live in harmony and even combine themselves into half-human, half-machine cyborgs. Mega Man Legends, released before Zero but set thousands of years after it, is set in a world where conflict between humans and machines is practically unheard of in the face of greater problems that affect them both, like a widespread energy crisis. If classic Mega Man presented the series’ tech-neutral thesis, and X and Zero offered an antithesis, then these latter entries in the series’ timeline offer a synthesis: a vision of a world where the question of whether technology can be taken “too far” is inherently absurd, because our technology has become a part of who we are.
Amazingly, though, it gets more optimistic still. Technology in ZX and Legends is granted unquestioned respect because it’s banal, rendered uncontroversial and unthreatening by centuries of uneventful existence. But it’s still just stuff, morally neutral things revered for their usefulness. Keiji Inafune’s off-brand continuation, Mighty No. 9, takes the series’ generally pro-technology viewpoint further than it has ever gone by presenting technological progress and its fruits as inherently good. Although closest in spirit to classic Mega Man, the hero of Mighty No. 9 rescues, rather than destroys, the wayward, havoc-wreaking robots, demonstrating a respect for the sanctity of their lives. The Mighty Numbers can think and feel like X’s Reploids but are naturally trustworthy until forcefully corrupted, and even then, they can be redeemed.
If you consider Mighty No. 9 as part of Inafune and Mega Man’s meta-story, it’s the series’ first assertion that technology is not just non-threatening, but fundamentally friendly and valuable. In the 29 years since Mega Man’s first release, the series has hemmed and hawed but finally decided that it agrees more with Hammond than Malcolm: Progress, even when dangerous or frightening, is a moral imperative for humanity that will leave us all better off.