With games like Mighty No. 9 and Mega Man Legacy Collection getting attention, I feel like it’s time to give the original Blue Bomber his due examination; both his success and his failure.
Mega Man is one of the oldest icons in video gaming, his debut coming just over a year after the beginnings of legendary franchises such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. But unlike his peers, our blue lemon-shooting hero hasn’t survived very well. With questionable spin-offs being produced under his name and no new releases in the main (“Classic”) series in five years, fans of Mega Man have been in somewhat of a drought.
The creator of the character, Keiji Inafune, has spearheaded multiple Kickstarter projects (including the aforementioned Mighty No. 9, as well as another title named Red Ash) intended to revive his creation in some new form. It could also be argued that Mr. Inafune’s only real goal is to milk the spirits of diehard Mega Man fans for all they’re worth – but I’m not here to speculate on that.
Despite Mega Man’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS/Wii U giving him a day in the limelight, we still see no truly new games for him to star in. The newest release we’ve seen is Mega Man Legacy Collection, a bundling of the first six Mega Man games (the original NES games) with some bonus content – like new challenges and historical data. Overall, this offering seems mainly intended for those diehard fans who want everything they can get from their hero.
Having said that, it should be noted that Mega Man’s legacy is, indeed, significant. To date, there have been ten main releases in just the original series and well over twenty more notable games in the various spin-off series, including Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, Mega Man Battle Network, and others. Though it could be said that nearly each of these series overstayed their respective welcomes, the overall franchise is one which has sold well.
Considering the above, the questions I have on my mind are…
1. How did Mega Man sell so well?
2. Why hasn’t he continued to sell well?
It is my intention to shed some light on these questions through my analysis. With the stage properly set, let’s begin. I will be focusing on the Classic series for this piece, though the other games will get their mentions when relevant.
For those unfamiliar with the series or interested in a brief analysis of its core mechanics, let me start by describing the gameplay. You control the titular hero, Mega Man, a blue robot who runs, jumps, and shoots through a wide variety of stages. Your main threats are other robots who attack or otherwise hinder you, tricky platforming sections, and deadly spikes. In later installments, other characters – most notably Mega Man’s robot dog companion, Rush – occasionally come to your aid.
These basic elements are quite standard, but there are two things in particular which make Mega Man’s games unique. First among them is the stage progression; rather than being strictly linear, you’re presented with a stage select screen decorated with the portraits of each Robot Master (boss enemy) you must defeat. Choosing one is like issuing a challenge, taking you to the stage belonging to that Robot Master, with the finale of each of these stages being a showdown with the Master himself.
The second unique mechanic is what happens after defeating a Robot Master: Mega Man is able to absorb their leftover power and gain a new weapon which matches the theme of his defeated foe. For example, Cut Man’s weapon is Cut Boomerang, a shear-like boomerang projectile which Cut Man himself uses during his boss fight. This feature eventually gives Mega Man an expansive arsenal with many answers to many situations which threaten him.
The result of combing these mechanics is a game with a “choose your own adventure” style of non-linear stage progression, one in which every victory makes our hero more powerful and most notably more diverse, and diversity really is the key here. With many stages to traverse, bosses to challenge, and weapons to use, player and character alike are challenged to adapt to an environment which is constantly changing and offering something new.
This reaches its logical conclusion in the finale of each game, a series of stages unlocked after defeating every Robot Master. These stages follow a linear progression (in contrast to the rest of the game up to that point) and are significantly more difficult than anything previously faced, leading Mega Man to a showdown with his nemesis and recurring antagonist of the series: Dr. Wily.
It’s a good idea on paper, but leads to some unusual design choices. To examine these choices, I will start by focusing on the stage select system. I assert that this system is the key factor which shapes the rest of the games – the design of the stages themselves, the design of the enemies and their weapons, and even the design of Mega Man himself.
Firstly, and most obviously, is the stage design. Due to the main stages of the game being playable in any order, the stages themselves have to be designed with certain restrictions in mind. Namely, they all have to be possible (perhaps difficult, but possible) for the player to complete without any other weapons in their inventory. In other words, each stage must be designed and balanced around the idea that the starting weapon – the Mega Buster – will be the only weapon available.
Because the stages are balanced in this way, however, they are not balanced around the other weapons in Mega Man’s arsenal. The stages also do not change based on the player’s progress through the game. This means every new weapon acquired gives an incrementally increasing advantage over the next stage attempted, and this directly impacts the difficulty curve: it starts out quite high but gradually decreases as more stages are beaten and more weapons are acquired.
You see, most of the weapons are quite powerful but all are limited by ammunition – a finite number of uses which can be replenished by collecting pickups scattered throughout the stages or dropped by enemies. While this is a decent balancing element early on, Mega Man’s “total ammunition” effectively goes up with each weapon acquired because empty ones can be swapped for full ones at any time. This lets a player streamline getting through later stages by using powerful weapons on weaker enemies.
A game with a linear stage progression would be built around that increase in power. It would know how much power the player character has at each stage and would grow accordingly. Better yet, it would be designed so the stages utilize the abilities said player character currently has at any given time. The progression system in the Mega Man games, however, is not and cannot be designed to scale with the player without the stages themselves changing as Mega Man becomes more powerful.
This leads to the second design choice, which I consider a more fundamental issue: the stages cannot interact with (fully utilize) the weapons and items which Mega Man has acquired. If they did, that would mean they were designed around (dependent on) an item acquired in a previous stage – and since the stages can be played in any order, this is an interaction which can’t be counted on. There have been exceptions to this rule, but they are rare and often only lead to hidden bonuses.
This means that most of Mega Man’s new weapons are simply means to defeat enemies more efficiently, with power levels ranging between “useful in certain situations” to “powerful enough to plow through anything.” As stated previously, having enough of these weapons eventually leads to being able to have the perfect answer to any situation or just having enough firepower to be a one-robot-army and overcome any challenge through brute force.
Despite that, almost none of these weapons actually grant a new ability to Mega Man which allows for a creative solution to an obstacle unless that obstacle is simply an enemy. And similar to the weapons, items which do serve to improve mobility are either limited in their application (such as Rush Coil, which allows Rush to extend his master’s jump height by means of acting as a literal springboard) or far too powerful and universally applicable (like the Rush Jet Adapter, which grants limited flight).
Thus, despite Mega Man being a very diverse hero, he often ends up with a rather simple and uninteresting array of equipment by the end of each of his games simply because they must all be designed in a very “safe” way that doesn’t upset the flow of a non-linear game. This also means items which are not designed in this way are too powerful to not get immediately, which ironically forces some amount of linearity on the player unless they deliberately choose to ignore advantageous items.
Even the final stages of the games, which are linear by design and only available after clearing every other stage, do not escape this problem. To be fair, the stages seem designed to take advantage of the various weapons as much as is possible, but the weapons themselves are not designed to be capable of enough “tricks” for this to go far. More typical obstacles are either waves of enemies designed to use up weapon ammunition or instant-death spikes unaffected by such weaponry.
Now, I could go on about this until I turn blue, but the truth is there are some very strong positives to this system as well. Perhaps not enough to entirely justify its faults, but Mega Man’s stage select system was a very unique sort of progression. The only other notable game at the time which was as open-ended in its presentation was The Legend of Zelda – and it had a clearly intended path to follow, but Mega Man leaves it entirely up to the player.
Diversity is also strong with this system. The stages are segregated from each other, which helps make every stage feel unique, have its own theme, have its own atmosphere, and present a different set of challenges to overcome. While some players will prefer a game with a more cohesive world, I personally like this diversity – and if the games were linear, the designers may have felt more forced to form continuity between the stages and they may have been less creative.
The design of Mega Man’s iconic foes, the Robot Masters, is also strong with this system. Since you can fight any of them at any time, there’s rarely an idea that they have a “leader” amongst themselves or any sort of hierarchy which goes from weakest to strongest. They can be seen as peers, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and styles. As well, each Master is particularly vulnerable to another Master’s weapon, which helps build a sort of cohesiveness between the Robot Masters themselves.
With clear advantages and disadvantages to the system as a whole, it can be tricky to pick out the answer to why Mega Man has ceased to sell as well as he did in his glory days on the NES. However, there is one thing which goes beyond individual games and plagues the series on a broader scale: stagnation. Flying in the face of the diversity Mega Man otherwise represents, his games truly have not changed much with each iteration – even the more recent ones.
I assert that this is the core problem in the Mega Man games, and looking at the overall design of these games is what makes this problem clear: due to certain core elements of the game, primarily the stage select and the things it influences, the overall creative freedom of the game itself is stifled. Certain things must be a certain way for it to be “a Mega Man game,” and thus the series cannot evolve or change. Even spin-off titles are plagued by this issue.
There have been some deviations from the formula (most notably Mega Man 7, Mega Man 8, and Mega Man & Bass), but the changes didn’t stick. This leads me to suspect that the changes were reverted after they were met with lukewarm reception, which is further supported by Mega Man 9 & 10 deliberately evoking a “retro” feel with aesthetics and overarching design based on the original NES games. This, however, only adds to the stagnation.
It can even be seen in the original six games on the NES, with 4, 5, and 6 in particular being little more than iterations of a single formula with maybe one or two notable improvements to each game. While I can’t speak for everyone, it seems reasonable to assume that gamers today expect a bit more from a sequel than minor tweaks. And yet the formula Mega Man has relied on for so long doesn’t allow for broad change, and thus we see no new games today.
Having brought up this point, now is the perfect time to shift gears. I’ve been writing for a while now about what Mega Man’s games don’t do or can’t do in their current state, but let’s start to examine what they can do with only a few creative changes and what exactly would have to change for new elements to be brought to an otherwise tired formula.
As before, the first and most obvious change that could be made is to the stage select. This, of course, also has the most sweeping impact on the rest of our hypothetical game, and thus would be one of the toughest changes to make. It has been done before, however – the aforementioned Mega Man 7, Mega Man 8, and Mega Man & Bass all attempted to change the stage select system into something even a little bit different.
7 and 8 had the idea of splitting up the stage select (traditionally consisting of 8 stages) into two halves (consisting of 4 stages each). These games also featured an “intro stage,” a stage that was played before the stage select was available at all. I believe these were steps in the right direction – the intro stage eased the player into the game, while breaking up the stage select made the difficulty flow more naturally with a very obvious division between the “easy stages” and the “hard stages.”
This partially addresses the issue with weapons being underutilized, as well. Mega Man 8 in particular can be praised for its cleverness in this regard – Sword Man’s stage, one of the stages in the game’s second half, made use of every weapon acquired from the first half’s Robot Masters in order to solve puzzles. This creative design stood out among the other stages in the history of the series, and even among other stages in the same game.
Cleverness of this sort is unfortunately not as common in Mega Man 7; however, what it does well is metering out optional rewards to the player. The Proto Shield and Super Adapter are both very useful optional items which can only be found in the second half of the game. This grants an increase in power at a time when it is more needed and without the risk of trivializing earlier stages.
Of the three games mentioned, however, it was Mega Man & Bass which I feel best handled a semi-linear system of progression. After the intro stage, a first “tier” is unlocked where there are three Robot Master stages which are available to choose from. After beating any one of those stages, some stages from the second tier are unlocked – this second tier containing the remaining five Robot Master stages.
Since which stage you start with now determines your potential follow-up stages in addition to progressing you through the game, your first choice is more significant and each option is a valid one. There is also a special stage reached after clearing one of the stages in the second tier, one which consists of nothing but relatively simple puzzle rooms which can only be solved by using each of the Robot Master weapons.
This puzzle stage is brilliant, because it forces the player to use their weapons to interact with the environment and learn the best ways to take advantage of them before the final stage is available. I only wish the final stage also took more advantage of the weapons, or that the Robot Master stages earlier in the game somehow included more elements which utilized them, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The point is that changes to the stage select system have already been done and could be further improved if such a thing were allowed. However, as long as the Mega Man “tradition” (no intro stage, eight Robot Master stages, maybe some additional stages after that, then Wily) continues to be followed – a tradition even popular Mega Man fan games still follow – there will be no change and the problems inherent in the system will remain.
As stated earlier, the difficulty of the game cannot scale upward to match Mega Man’s growing level of power with each stage cleared unless the stages themselves change based on how many previous stages have been cleared, or even which ones specifically. Though this may become a complicated system, the most direct way to offset this is to simply add new elements to each stage for each other stage beaten.
This has the indirect effect of not requiring an intro stage, as the first stage chosen will be much easier regardless of which specific stage it is due to it not having any of these additional elements. Then, let’s say the weapon acquired from that stage’s Robot Master is some kind of explosive which is capable of destroying a certain type of block. This would trigger that type of block appearing in every future stage, or even just some of them, and the game would begin to evolve dynamically.
Since this would end up turning the weapons more into puzzle-solving tools for the stages themselves rather than just weapons, this could be balanced by some stages featuring new and strong enemies particularly vulnerable to that weapon instead of the destructible blocks (or whatever the weapon interacts with). It may not even be apparent to the player that anything is different yet – but seeing a tough enemy or destructible block would have them say “Oh, of course I have to use this weapon here.”
There is a small risk of later stages becoming very cluttered as more and more new elements are introduced to them, so every stage should probably only have a maximum of four of five new elements which can be added to them. This way the first stage doesn’t have to be so sparse that there’s almost nothing in it (as it would have to be if that stage was instead played last and suddenly had five new enemies and six new puzzle elements to contend with).
Additionally, if each stage only has certain new elements added to it there is the advantage of those new elements being more likely to mix with the stage in a logical fashion. These new elements could provide a hint to which weapon is particularly effective against the stage’s Robot Master. It could even have a story explanation, as time could be said to pass between each completed stage and so the ones Mega Man didn’t tackle first are now becoming more populated/destroyed over time.
Obviously, this system of evolving stages directly addresses the problem of weapons being underutilized. The aforementioned bomb weapon – let’s say it burrows into objects and explodes, we’ll call it “Nitro Drill” – is now more than just a weapon. Our first weapon, Nitro Drill, is one which we know can blow up certain weak blocks by burrowing into them and exploding. Then later we meet an armor-plated enemy who has a large, block-like shape. We try Nitro Drill and the enemy explodes!
New elements and new enemies can blend together with new weapons as they are acquired, teaching players how to make the best use of their weapons and what situations call for them. Robots flying overhead, or a switch too high in the sky to hit? Good thing you have a weapon which arcs upwards and can handle that situation for you. A weapon that bounces off walls? Design a “ricochet shot through corridor” puzzle or an enemy that can only be hit from a certain angle.
The possibilities for this system are endless, as they should be for a hero whose ability is “can take and adapt any weapon or power for his own use.” The key difference between the Mega Man games which exist and the theoretical one I’m describing is that the weapons, enemies, and puzzle elements of the former are all just there and sometimes work together. In the latter, however, each element is designed specifically to interact with the other elements to make a more full and cohesive experience.
It’s the small things I really enjoy; the moments when your weapons become more than just weapons, or when you can see how your actions in one stage affected another stage. Just as there have been games which changed the stage select system, there have been games which added these small touches to the stages themselves. Mega Man X featured small changes to certain stages depending on other stages being cleared earlier, and Mega Man & Bass had the aforementioned puzzle stage.
Any game made with Mega Man’s style could feature these exact elements, and more. I’m sure there are many other factors to consider other than just the ones I’ve brought up in this analysis. What would be the best way to make the stages evolve as the player progresses? What sort of weapons would have to be designed to best utilize this system? Would the stage progression have to change at all or could it be the same 8-way selection fans of the series are used to? Or perhaps it could be that and even more?
There is a great deal left to look at, but I think this analysis is sufficient as it is. While Mega Man games often demand the player adapt, I feel it’s time for the games to adapt to the players. Tradition does not necessarily have to be abandoned – but it must not restrain what can be done to expand and improve. The games we had were fun, but they’re too afraid to change and a great deal of potential has already been missed.
If I could speak personally for a second, I used to love these games to death. I played every single Classic series game between 1-8, as well as Mega Man & Bass. I played quite a few of the X games, Battle Network games, and Zero games. I’ve seen how these games start off a bit shaky, but then evolve, and get much bigger and more diverse… and, eventually, run out of ideas.
I no longer love these games. Not in their current state. Not after seeing how much the same tired ideas are repeated again and again and expected to sell again and again and how much the lack of new ideas – the lack of progress – has robbed me of experiences which could be like the kinds I used to have with these games, only so much greater.
Mega Man can be anything. We, the players of his games, can make him anything we want him to be. We have that power. It is my sincerest wish that we use that power to insist that Mega Man change, grow, and becoming something better, not stay as he was 25 years ago and remain as he is now: a relic of the past, representative of better times.
If we can’t send a message to Capcom or to Keiji Inafune or to anyone who has any control over this character and his direction and show them that this is what we want, it is up to us to make what we want by ourselves. It is up to us to make the game that does what Mega Man has always done better than has ever been done before. As far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened yet.
I’ve played Mega Man Unlimited, and a handful of other fan games. They’re the same game, mired in tradition, scared of making huge changes that could cast their hero in an entirely new light. True, it could easily be argued that they use the existing formula better than most, if not all of the official games have already done. But it’s still the same formula. It’s still not enough.
I’m not content with playing a new version of the same game I’ve already played a dozen times. I want to see those elements which made any of those games fun be taken and used in a new way. I want to play a new Mega Man game like the kind I described – one which evolves and adapts based on the actions of the player and not the other way around. Or better yet, one which has ideas I hadn’t even considered and makes them work in ways I never could have imagined.
I hope that this idea also appeals to you, whether you’ve enjoyed Mega Man’s games since the beginning or never played one in your life. There is a great deal of potential here, just waiting to be utilized. Regardless, the answer to the question I posed at the beginning is now clear:
Mega Man sold well because he was new and different, but he hasn’t been truly new and different for a long time now. It’s up to us – his diehard fans – to change that.