Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace…and at least a hundred sequels!
Everyone’s favorite childlike robot warrior for justice that isn’t Astro Boy is turning thirty this month. Damn, I feel old.
That’s right: On December 17th, 1987, Capcom released the original Rockman for the Famicom. The game’s NES release and lead character were famously rechristened Mega Man by one of the company’s U.S. executives, Joseph Maric, just because he thought Rockman sounded “horrible.”
The story of Mega Man is set in the far off year “200X” and revolves around two scientists, Dr. Thomas Light and Dr. Albert Wily, who are colleagues working in the field of advanced robotics. After Light invents revolutionary humanoid robots with near-human intelligence, Wily, tired of being upstaged, snaps and reprograms six of his rival’s most powerful creations to aid him in a scheme for world domination. Dr. Wily overlooks Dr. Light’s humble lab assistant robot Rock, however, who is imbued with a strong sense of justice and volunteers to help put things right. Knowing that the authorities are ill-prepared to stand up to Wily, Dr. Light reluctantly modifies Rock for combat, equipping him with a “mega buster” arm cannon and the unique ability to assimilate and use the special weapons of other robots he defeats. Thus super fighting robot Mega Man is born!
By any name, this is one of the single most influential game releases of all time and a cornerstone of the action platforming genre. Like a lot of other players, I was introduced to the series via its best-selling entry, Mega Man 2, and never actually played through the original until now. Because of this, I can only imagine what a revelation it must have been to a 1987 audience. You have the ability to play the first six levels of the game in any order, you can absorb the special powers of defeated bosses as a form of permanent character progression, and there’s a “rock, paper, scissors” system of boss weaknesses that can be exploited using those very powers. The one megabit cartridge memory limitation on this first game may have resulted in only six of these “robot masters” to pick from instead of the eight that would become the series standard, but the sense of openness and possibility must have still been intoxicating for gamers accustomed to strictly linear level progressions and heroes that had all their abilities set in stone at the start or relied on inconsistent temporary power-ups to access them. The freedom to complete stages and acquire weapons in any order empowered the player through a sort of organic difficulty selection. Newcomers looking to ease into the action could go through the stages in the “correct” order, using each new weapon to take down the boss weak to it in sequence, like pushing over so many dominoes. Veterans could opt to change up the order up any way they saw fit, knowing full well that the robot masters would be much harder to defeat with Mega Man’s standard gun.
Looking beyond the core gameplay, there’s a level of audiovisual polish and charm on display here that was unmatched on the system up to that time. Mega Man himself has a standout design with his instantly iconic silhouette and dynamic facial expressions. Little things like the way he blinks his eyes when standing idle and grimaces when hit by an enemy attack don’t seem like much now, but you need look no further than other high profile NES heroes of the time to see that the ante was really being upped here. Simon Belmont didn’t have even eyes to blink! This extraordinary level of characterization extends all the way down to the most common enemy robots, which are set apart from their cannon fodder counterparts in other games with little touches like their googly, old-timey cartoon eyes. If there’s one shortcoming that stands out in Mega Man’s graphics retrospectively, it’s the relative sparse (often solid color) stage backgrounds in this entry when compared to future games in the series. Again, it’s likely that we can chalk this up to memory constraints.
The music was also made a much higher priority here than in most other contemporary games. Early NES releases often made due with a couple of short loops stretched out to cover an entire game. While some of those loops (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda) may have been so well executed that the player didn’t mind most of the time, Mega Man stands out alongside Konami’s Castlevania as one of the first games for the platform that really tried to put a fuller soundtrack front and center by providing a unique background song for each and every stage. It’s no accident that Mega Man is known as Rockman in Japan or that he has a robot “sister” named Roll. The first Mega Man’s tunes aren’t the best of the franchise on average, but the standouts like “Cut Man,” “Dr. Wily’s Castle,” and the ending theme can still go toe-to-toe with the very best the console has to offer.
So I’ve covered who Mega Man is and why his first outing was such a game changer. How does it hold up today? Very well, I’m pleased to say. Certainly, it has a few nagging issues. A couple of the stages (like Guts Man’s) are simply too short and seem to peter out right when they’re getting started. Others (like Elec Man’s) are artificially lengthened with recycled sections used in a cut-and-paste fashion. Mega Man’s movement feels just a little slippery to me, as well, and it’s clear that they dialed back the momentum on his running in future installments to correct for this. The weapons could have used a bit more fine tuning, too. The items you’ll get range from overwhelmingly powerful (Thunder Beam) to moderately useful (Ice Slasher, Rolling Cutter, Fire Storm), to outright trash (Hyper Bomb, Super Arm). In all fairness, though, weapon balance would remain all over the map in most of the sequels, too. Finally, many fans also consider this first game in the series to be one of the most difficult to complete. I can see where they’re coming from, since this is the only installment that has no password or save feature and also lacks the “E-tank” items that allow the player to refill Mega Man’s health on demand. Difficulty is tempered somewhat by the overall shortness of the individual stages and the game as a whole, as well as the fact that continues are unlimited. For anyone with prior Mega Man experience, the challenge is best described as moderate. New players may want to start with Mega Man 2’s easy mode (the traditional entry point for the series) before giving this one a go.
The cynical take on all this would be that we’re dealing with an outdated relic here; that the original Mega Man doesn’t do anything its many sequels don’t also do and do better. That’s fair enough. It’s certainly not a judgement I can dispute objectively. On the flip side, Mega Man is also a scrappy little game that manages to pull off everything its bigger, more refined sequels did with a fraction of the resources to draw on. Like a debut album from a favorite band, it may be a bit raw and rough around the edges, but the key ingredients are all present and there’s a real sense of unbridled enthusiasm and experimentation on the part of the creators that still comes through after all these years. This is a not just a franchise entry, it’s an ambitious passion project that a tight-knit group of very gifted people was really, really excited about, and it shows.
Mega Man was not a strong seller for Capcom. Many over the years have speculated that this had something to do with its infamously hideous cover art. You can count me as a skeptic there. After all, “bad box art Mega Man” was strictly a North American phenomenon and the game apparently didn’t perform all that great in Japan, either, where it was much less of an eyesore on store shelves. I think another explanation proposed by series co-creator Keiji Inafune in interviews is the more plausable one: Prior to 1987, Capcom was known to the gaming public entirely for its arcade titles and home ports of the same. The Mega Man project was intended to be the company’s first go at creating a native console game, and it represented a bit of an unknown quantity to prospective buyers as a result. Thankfully, ecstatic word of mouth from the few who did take the plunge was enough to get a sequel approved, then another, and another, and another…all the way up to yesterday as of this writing, when the upcoming Mega Man 11 was officially announced. Although I’m a little leery about the move away from pixel art to 3D models for the main series, I still can’t wait to see how the Blue Bomber’s 130-something’th outing pans out.
Until then, here’s to Mega Man: The most prolific character in video game history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer robot.