Last month was Mega Man’s 25th birthday. The Blue Bomber is a quarter-century old. I grew up playing the immortal classic Mega Man 2 on the NES, which was released (in the US, that is) the same year I was, right around the time the Berlin Wall fell. The realization that Mega Man was around during the Cold War makes me feel a little old.
So my favorite gaming relic is older than I am, and he had a big birthday recently. Now surely Capcom would do something stellar to celebrate one of their big names, right? Nope! All we got was a fan-made homagethat pitted the man of the hour against assorted Street Fighter characters in place of new bosses1and a couple new t‑shirt designs. If I had to guess, I would say the Blue Bomber had a very sad birthday party because big game companies have got the idea that people just don’t care about platforming these days. Very rare today is the big budget platformer, despite Steam’s repletion with Arty 2D Indie Platformers such as Braid, Limbo, Cave Story, and my personal favorite, Super Meat Boy, all of which seem to be doing a roaring trade. Nintendo, of course, have not been making waves with their New Old Super Mario Brothers Again (This time in a completely differently colored box!), nor is it easy to take seriously the light-and-fluffy zero-action of Little Big Planet, having as it does all the bite of the sock puppets and cotton candy used in its design. Given the larger companies’ disdain for this cherished little genre, it’s easy to see how Capcom thinks it has little to gain from, say, shelling out for Mega Man 11. Now, I’m not criticizing Capcom for not spitting out a new title for an old series (although the previous two attempts have met with incredible success), but it baffles me that they would go to the trouble of designing a flipping logofor his special day and nothing more. Mega Man is a big boy now, Capcom. He doesn’t need his parents to get him something amazing for his birthday every year, but you basically just sent him a card with not even so much as a coupon to 10% off one item at Chili’s inside.
Now, of course Mega Man isn’t the only game icon who’s been around so long, but he’s the one with whom I have the most special relationship. I knew Mario back when he came with Duck Hunt, and though the old plumber was great, he couldn’t shoot things unless he’d eaten a flower first. I knew Link the first time Zelda was released on a golden cartridge, and my feelings toward him have always been mixed. But Mega Man? Mega Man never ch…wait, wrong article.
So I’m getting you something, old buddy. I go to great lengths to ensure that each time I mention my favorite games of all time I slip in a nod to Mega Man 2, which sits in my Top Three Games of Ever (the other two we shan’t mention now, for this is neither of their parties). Through the years you’ve done a lot of good things (like when you grew up into the X series), a few bad things (it’s okay, we forgive you for the Legends games), and even a few silly ones (I found your Battle Network games charming, even if nobody else did). Suffice it to say, Mega Man is my favorite of the old-school gaming icons, and his series, along with its various satellite offshoots, has perhaps brought me more units of enjoyment than any other game IP.
Mega Man and the games that followed all came from a proud genre tradition, that of the 2D Platformer. The formula is simple: Start at Point X, run right, jump from platform to platform, avoid or dispose of enemies, and reach Point Y. There may or may not be a boss involved, depending. It was a common formula in its time, one to which titles such as Super Meat Boy have paid a great tribute, but today is mostly dead, or at least sleeping. Of all the NES platformers, I would argue that the Mega Man series stood (and still stands) as the greatest representation of the genre. Indeed, I feel that they are the Platonic Form of 2D platforming.
The Mega Man series has always been at the cutting edge of the platforming genre. Indeed, its innovations can even be seen today in high-profile games such as Mass Effect. What could these two games possibly have in common, apart from the genocide of synthetic life forms in the name of preserving humanity, I mean? Well, let me ask you: What is the first, most important aspect of the Mega Man games? That’s right, the level select screen. In a time when most games were all about surviving the marathon sprint rightwards, Mega Man allowed you to choose in what order to tackle the bosses. Or, as fance-pantsy ludologists might term it, nonlinear level progression. Think about it. What other game put so much power into your hands at that time? Even today such a game structure gets attention, because the developers are giving you, the player, who might not even know the first thing about game design, supreme agency in the progression of the game.
“But Hannah,” some of you might be clamoring even now, “what about Mario? Surely seniority trumps innovation in this instance!” Since I’m writing a Mega Man-centric article, it should be clear that I disagree. Mario’s core gameplay, discounting the move to 3D from which the series now seems to be backpedaling, hasn’t changed since Super Mario 2 (the American version, mind), and given that we no longer see Doki Doki Panic clones, it’s pretty clear that our plumber friend seems content to stand against the tide of progress and innovation. Mario must carefully run through each level taking no more than two hits, and having no more options available to him than run, jump and shoot (on occasion). Mega Man, meanwhile, has a gun welded onto his arm; shooting is a function of the character, and eventually he develops the ability to slide and charge his shots. The Mega Man games, in addition to giving increased power to the player, boosted the abilities of the PC. Instead of being coerced into a perfect run of every level with approximately 2 margin for error, Mega Man had an entire life bar of chances to screw up and keep going. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Mario games proper added a life bar, and by that time both series had done most of their best work.
Also, instead of an occasional power-up, shooting things was now a function of the character; the player could extend hir will beyond the character without having to munch on a flower, which permitted more complicated layouts of levels and enemies2. Further, the options available to you in-game were more expansive than just jump ‘n shoot. This time around, the PC could (get this!) slide, fly, use other weapons (from previously murdered bosses, no less!) to access previously locked areas (increasing replay value and adding an additional dimension of strategy), all on command.
Let’s go back to that “other weapons” bit, because that’s important too. If the Level Select screen is Important Thing #1 about Mega Man, Weapon-get is assuredly Thing #2. This was a key difference from virtually every other game that came before; as you progressed, you gained new abilities which could open up additional areas of the game and offered you more strategies to beat the bosses or other pesky enemies. No longer were you a slave to the cruel mistress of Sporadic Item Placement. True, The Legend of Zelda came out a year before, and also featured items gained throughout which allowed you to do more things, but it wasn’t the same; Link didn’t suddenly gain the ability to throw Gohma’s brood at enemies after defeating her (a boomerang is a poor substitute for spider-bombs). When tracking the influence of these formative titles, the question of which title came out first (and thus could be said to have “influenced” all titles released beyond that date) is not of paramount importance. Of greater significance is which title made better use of X feature. Zelda gives the PC items, tools to get past the challenges the adventure threw at him. All that is required to get these items is to fight your way through the dungeon and run back out. Link does not grow stronger because he has found another sword, for example; he is merely better equipped for his adventure. In the Mega Man games, however, the PC essentially leveled up after each boss fight. The improvements became a part of you, gained from your trials and battles, and your character became more powerful as a result of his experience (Remember that point, for it will show up later).
The Mega Man X series represented a shift in the series as a whole. For one thing, the design became more straight-faced. No longer did you face big, smiling death-machines that grinned as they spewed projectiles in your direction. Now the death-machines became impersonal, far more robot-like and devoid of anthropomorphic features. Also, the story became integrated by degrees into the gameplay; the defeat of Sigma in Mega Man X, and Zero’s death, gave rise to a group of bosses (the X Hunters) who led the charge to eliminate X, the rising star of the Maverick Hunters, and resurrect Zero to fight on their side.
The design and story shifts represented a change in the world of the game, canonically the future of the world of the original series.3 Where before you were a plucky little robot fighting to save humanity, the struggle of the characters centers around the question of Reploid (synthetic life forms who by the end of the saga have become the dominant species on the planet) rights. Do Reploids, the superior species who live in subjugation to their human masters, continue to serve blindly? Should they take their place at the top of society? Or do they live alongside their creators in peace and cooperation? The war you are fighting is no longer one of spot-cleaning, but of ideology. The enemies you faced, specifically the bosses, are no longer the quirky mans of the previous era, but are animals (or in some cases, mushrooms) or other bizarre creatures. That the player controls the most anthropomorphized character in the game shows clearly that the world is no longer exclusively humanity’s. The times, they are a’changing.
Further, the X series represented an evolution of gameplay that was right in step with the evolving technology. The NES gave us two buttons, one for jump, one for shoot. Admittedly, the developers found ways around that, but all the same the lack of additional buttons was hampering. The SNES, however, had two more buttons (Let’s face it, nobody counted the shoulder buttons), and lo and behold, X gained a new ability, the dash. The original Mega Man could slide, but to do so required an uncomfortable button combo (Down and Jump) which could land you in trouble if you accidentally hit it at a crucial moment and, say, accidentally slid into a boss (Which you did, a lot. Don’t even try to deny it).
The Mega Man games are also different in another key aspect. Most games center around a journey, an adventure, or a larger quest of some kind. Even RPGs, whose primary mechanics involve the incremental strengthening of the PC, generally frame it in terms of gearing up to beat the Bad Guy. Generally that journey involves the ascension of some tower, or the trek from 1–1 to 8–4, for example. Mario doesn’t gain or lose powers as he progresses — he’s just got to get to the end. He’s just as able at the end of the game as he was at the start. Mega Man, however, would not be ready to take the final boss if he found a Warp Whistle and skipped the whole game.
The Mega Man games have always been about empowerment4 At the top of a given game, the flavor of Mega Man du jour can shoot lemons, and that’s about it. Yeah, okay, he can charge up his shots in most of his games, can’t forget that. Maybe he can dash or jump on his dog, but only if you’ve been good all year. By the end, though, he’s survived an ordeal, and is stronger for it; he may have picked up a shield or some time-stopping powers along the way, and can now kick Dr. Wily’s ass seven ways from Sunday. The arc of every Mega Man game is the rise of a badass.
Speaking of badasses, each main series introduces a character in whose steps you get to follow, a powerful side-character who the player looks up to. I refer to both Protoman (whose surprising entrance in Mega Man 3 left players in awe and forever in love with this mysterious badass with a shield) and Zero (whose introduction functions as an impetus for X’s journey of growth and ascension to badassery). Not being content to simply introduce these characters, each series had you confront them in different ways. The sporadic battles in 3 helped set up us all the bomb for Mega Man 5, when you actually fought Protoman (or did you?), who had been masterminding the game’s evil plot the entire time (or had he?)! Zero, meanwhile, serves as a savior and mentor to X in the opening of his first game. Throughout the X series, X grows stronger not only through the Power-get mechanic, but also through various armor upgrades left by Dr. Light, his creator. These give you increased powers and (usually) make you look formidable when all are assembled, putting you on par with Zero, who was always the cooler one. And when, in X3, you actually get to play as Zero(!!!!!)?That is still one of my favorite moments in all of gaming.
So basically, the Mega Man games kick ass. They kicked ass in the Soviet days, and they will probably keep kicking ass for a very long time. We have a lot to thank the little guy for, even in this day when it’s hard to distinguish one super-roided chest-high-wall-hugging bullet-mancer from another. Back when the art form was taking its first baby steps, Mega Man was the smart kid whose sheer moxy made us all think he had it together right out of the gate. And I’m happy to report that he never lost that style. So Happy Birthday to you, Mega Man, you magnificent bastard. I played your games, and they stand proudly among the best.
- No, I don’t get it either. [↩]
- I recognize, of course, that Mega Man was not the first game to give you a gun and tell you to run, but it was one of the first to put you on a horizontal plane and allow you to jump around like a fool. Games such as Contra were not as expansive as our dear blue friend; the power-ups came and went, and Contra especially was infamous for denying the player a life bar. [↩]
- Metatextually, this could also be a nod to the evolution of technology in our world which allowed for these more advanced games. [↩]
- Thanks to revered animator, grump, and part-time games theoretician Egoraptor for this stellar point. [↩]