Mega Man Why: Birthday Wishes For a Friend

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 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 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 11 to 84, 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.

  1. No, I don’t get it either. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Metatextually, this could also be a nod to the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy in our world which allowed for these more advanced games. []
  4. Thanks to revered ani­ma­tor, grump, and part-time games the­o­reti­cian Egoraptor for this stel­lar point. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.