Oh, Mega Man. Do we still love you? Time was we never thought that could be a question. Even when you faltered, you still gave rise to some very quality action-platformers. But you’ve been around for a while now, and almost every console since the NES has been graced — or maybe cursed? — with your round, blue head. As result, many see you as old and stale, surpassing even Street Fighter as the primary symbol of Capcom’s tendency to rehash their most popular franchises (which often overshadows the fact that the company has created some very good new IP’s in the last few years).
But forget what the pundits say. Mega Man was one of my favorite series as a child, and I feel that its sheer longevity earns the Blue Bomber a Series Retrospective.
It started off well enough. Mega Man 1 plays like any one of its successors, with high difficulty and some fairly creative stages. It is a bit archaic though: its the only game in the series that has a tally for high scores, and it lacks the uniform art direction that the series is known for. Its also a bit shorter, featuring just six robot masters instead of the typical eight. Probably not worth spending much time with now, but it was a good start for the franchise that doesn’t stray far from what we’d expect.
It is arguable that the series saw his peak immediately after this with Mega Man 2 and 3. Fans often seem to debate over which is better, but there is no question that they are the best we would see on the NES. Both had inspired levels with a variety of challenges, and generally seem to be made with more care than the next few sequels would be. I have to give 2 the nod as the superior game; it has one of the most memorable soundtracks of the 8-bit era, and there is much more personality and craft to it. I can remember every stage and enemy in MM2, but MM3 gets a bit hazy if I go too long without playing it. That means it always feels like I’m playing it again for the first time, though every time I do it ends up being fantastic. MM3 is also our introduction to Rush the Dog and Proto Man, and they both work best here in their first appearance, before things became a little too ridiculous.
After Mega Man 3, the series took a serious nosedive. The next three games tried introducing new villains for Mega to face, though each time it was actually Dr. Wily behind it all. It was kind of cute the first time, but even as children we weren’t that stupid. Games back then didn’t dispose of the bad guys very easily, and by the time MM6 rolled around it was getting downright insulting.
In fact, “insulting” describes the next three games pretty well. There was a huge lack of creativity, as both the robot masters and the stages felt less and less interesting, the graphics actually seemed to devolve, and the difficulty went from challenging to cheap. I’m not sure if the stages were actually longer, but they sure as hell felt like it. Entries 4-6 also introduced a smorgasbord of new gimmicks. Rush was upgraded with countless new (and sometimes useless) abilities, and Beat the Bird was forgotten as soon as he was discovered. Only the M-Buster would prevail as a series staple. The only other point of note is that MM5 at least tried to breathe some new life into things. The stages often reflect real world locales, and it has some fairly good platforming and even a rail shooter segment. It still wasn’t enough to remove the sour taste that Mega Man’s 4 and 6 leave in most gamers’ mouths. Capcom just didn’t give a shit at this point, so much so that the sixth entry was actually passed off to Nintendo to handle.
At least we can say there might have been a reason for this. By the time 4-6 were released, the 16 bit consoles were in full swing, and Capcom was putting its best efforts into this new generation, leaving the NES to feed on scraps. Thankfully, it all payed off when Mega Man X was released on the Super Nintendo. X was a significant reboot for the series, adding some much needed depth and ingenuity. Levels became absolutely huge, complete with secrets and destructible objects. The dash and wall jump literally changed the way Mega Man was played. It was a completely new way for the player to move, and it brought its own unique challenges and pitfalls. There was also much greater interaction between stages and their bosses. The Mavericks weren’t just weak against certain weapons; some could actually be crippled (like cutting off Torpedo Octopus’ limbs). Beating certain levels would also cause drastic changes to others, such as Flame Mammoth’s forge being frozen over after killing Chill Penguin (thus eliminating dangerous lava hazards). X even tried to include something resembling a real story, and the few cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game proved to be interesting without being overbearing. A series that looked to be on its last legs came back in force, and X1 is still one of the pinnacles of the franchise.
And then history repeated itself. X2 and X3 were released, but neither could fully replicate the same magic as the original. Levels were shorter, the bosses were far less interesting (Wire Sponge? Of all the beasts in the animal kingdom, you resorted to a sponge that quickly, Capcom?), and once again the upgrades began to get out of hand, to the point X was able to go Dragonball Z on his enemies and destroy them all by powering up. At least X3 let you finally play as Zero, but it was more of a tease than anything, since once he died he was gone.
Capcom also brought back classic Mega Man on the SNES with MM7, though I remember it being cute and nostalgic more than being really good. At least Cloud Man had some decent music in his level. After that, the entire series dropped off the radar for me. Mega Man went to the Playstation, and after MM8 and three apparently poor X sequels, things didn’t look so good. Any and all originality seemed to have left the games, and they began to delve into serious niche territory by focusing more and more on ridiculous anime storylines. This seems to be a typical change when a series is whittled down to its diehard fanbase, since they are the only ones who would ever be interested in a deeper mythos.
Oh, and there are also the Mega Man Legends games. I haven’t played these either, though I know they get kicked around a lot. I have heard that while they’re quite different from the traditional MM formula, they are quite charming in their own way.
Moving on to the present day, Mega Man is quite a different beast from what it once was. It seems that Capcom is trying to lure in a new generation of gamers by doing some serious modernization and even changing genres. The Mega Man Battle Network games have taken the Pokemon path by releasing multiple versions at once, and are giving the kids all the story and strategy gameplay they want, rather than the hardcore action platforming of yore. That belongs to the Mega Man Zero games, which follow X’s old pal Zero in his adventures in the future. These handheld titles have the same great sense of difficulty as the older games, but I find that they are far too cluttered. The modern child has need for more than running and gunning, thus the Zero suite includes melee weapons, RPG upgrades, more cutesy anime stories and (again) Pokemon like critters that can be caught and fed to help Zero in battle. Its too much silliness for a grognard like me, as I’d much rather be shooting things with Zero than watching as a female robot hits on him before a showdown.
So what’s in store for the future of this storied franchise? It certainly isn’t going away; the Battle Network games are sure to continue, and Mega Man ZX on the DS looks to continue the classic 2d run n’ gun formula. As much as it has been ridiculed, Mega Man has delivered some of the best games in its genre and even of entire generations. I find that it is a testament to the importance of creativity and effort in this industry. How else do you explain how so many games with the same essential design can have such vastly fluctuating levels of quality? Keep all the new stuff coming Capcom, but please, don’t give up on the Blue Bomber. For every piece of junk he shovels on the pile, there’s a classic just waiting to jump to the top, firing a constant stream of yellow pellets.