While Mario and Link might be some of the most memorable characters from the olden days of Nintendo, there is another character that had a fantastic run on the older system, but only recently seems to have entered the spotlight again. For the first entry in our new column I figured we’d focus on a personal favorite from my childhood. That’s right folks, welcome to the condensed history of Mega Man, or Rockman as he’s known in Japan. Mega Man is the classic gaming character affectionately referred to as the Blue Bomber, an armored warrior equipped with the mighty Mega Buster, a weapon powered by solar energy that can be charged to fire devastating blasts… although, many of us like to call it the lemon shooter. I mean, have you seen these blasts?
Mega Man was first assembled in 1987 and immediately had an impact on the history of gaming as a whole. His games were an early version of the choose-your-own-way games that every kid was so obsessed with those days. While his first adventure wasn’t a commercial success and is widely considered one of the harder games on the NES, it still paved the way for a franchise spanning an additional sixteen entries in the original, classic series. There were five more on the NES, five on the Gameboy, two on the SNES, one on the PS1, one on the PSP, and two on PS3/X-Box360. If that wasn’t enough, there were twelve more in the Mega Man X series, four in the Zero series, two in Legends, seven in Battle Network, three in Star Force, and two more in ZX – plus there were five spin off titles and countless cameos! As you can see, a game that didn’t do so well ended up becoming such a popular series!
Let’s not be coy about this, the plot of the first game in the series, and most afterwards, is fairly straightforward. Then again, that’s what makes games like this so memorable and endearing (my apologies to Final Fantasy and Metal Gear’s overly convoluted stories). The fact of the matter is that we are presented with a hero who knows what must be done and is not only willing to do it, but prepared to face any challenge no matter how daunting because he knows it’s the right thing to do! Players weren’t faced with backspins, betrayals, plot twists, or the usual dramatic devices. Instead, they fought their way through six stages, defeated the bosses at the end, then stormed Wily’s castle, and finally captured the mad scientist.
The story unfolds in the year 200X, which at the time felt like a distant future, and Dr. Thomas Light, who helped introduce the robots that lead to a utopic period of human history, has just invented the Robot Masters, the world’s most powerful cybernetic beings. Not long after unveiling his creations, Light’s former colleague, Dr. Albert WIly, demanded to be made ruler of the world and took over the Robot Masters’ programming, unleashing them upon the world. Dr. Light’s surrogate son/lab assistant, whom he happened to have built, Rock, “having a strong sense of justice, volunteered to be converted into a fighting robot,” becoming Mega Man!
Here’s a little plot and character development for you; Light and Wily were inspired by Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, respectively. Aside from the fictional inventors sharing the first names of their real life counterparts, the true reasons go a bit deeper. While in history Edison was seen as morally ambiguous for his experiments involving electricity, Einstein helped to develop the atomic bombs that brought World War II to an end. It only stands to reason that because of this, the Japanese would view Einstein as a villain.
Unlike today, there was no intro movie or attract mode for the game, only this simple title card and the option to start was offered:
By pushing the Start Button, players were lead to something that, at the time, was absolutely unheard of… a stage select screen that showed which boss awaited players at the end. This was incredibly unique, as it meant that strategy was required to complete the game and it was left to the players to discover for themselves. Which boss was the easiest? Was there a specific order they should be tackled in? What was the best way to defeat them? All of these questions were left to players to determine.
This innovative ability to decide which stage and boss you tackled first made it stand out against contemporary games at the time and marked an early open world prototype. Today, many games offer the ability to choose your own path, play as a noble hero or dastardly villain, and even to completely ignore the main storyline to do what you want. These concepts drew inspiration from games like Mega Man, far beyond what the developers may have expected at the time.
Adding to the uniqueness of the series, players could take advantage of Mega Man’s copy chip to steal a defeated boss’ special power which they could then unleash in their battles with other bosses! Unlike Mario’s fire flower, which is lost if struck by an enemy, Mega Man doesn’t lose the powers unless players turn off their consoles. This would also lead to an interesting concept that pushed the NES to its very limits and took full advantage of its 48 color pallet (54 if you include the 6 grays). Upon equipping one of his newly acquired powers, Mega Man changes color. This fact nearly found the hero named, and no I swear I’m not joking here, Rainbow Battle Kid!
Even the manner in which players moved from screen to screen was creative and allowed them to see the enemies and traps each held. This would allow them to determine the best way to get around an enemy or conquer a trap. Now, by today’s standard this may seem primitive, but the fact is that games in the 1980’s required skill and the ability to learn and adapt to threats. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that games these days don’t require a certain skill level to complete, but they do tend to be much more forgiving. Mega Man always presented players with challenges, but was never so unfair as to make them a complete surprise. After all, if the game was unplayable, where would be the hope of developing a franchise? I guess Capcom forgot about this concept when they released the US version of Devil May Cry 3…