In the year 1987, a graduate from the Osaka Designers’ College by the name of Keiji Inafune received a degree in graphic design. During this decade, a new form of entertainment was quickly gaining popularity. Known as TV games in Japan and video games in the West, this medium distinguished itself from others by allowing the audience to be a part of the experience. Twenty-two at the time, Mr. Inafune sought a job in this booming new field – hopefully as an illustrator. He originally wanted to join the prolific developer Konami, but there was another one much closer to his place of residence: Capcom. For one of his first assignments, Mr. Inafune was placed on a team led by Takashi Nishiyama. The result, released in the same year he graduated, was Street Fighter – one of the first fighting games to achieve mainstream success.
Capcom had a lot of success in the arcade scene throughout the 1980s. When Nintendo’s Family Computer (Famicom) was released in 1983, Capcom began porting their more well-known arcade games to the platform. Although the graphical capabilities of the Famicom – called the NES abroad – weren’t nearly as advanced as the most prominent arcade titles at the time, players found themselves drawn to the ports. The idea of being able to play even a downgraded version of an arcade game in the comfort of one’s home was highly enticing. Although the ports sold well, Capcom eventually wanted to develop something specifically for the Japanese home console market. To this end, they decided to recruit fresh, young talent for a new team.
Among the recruits was Keiji Inafune. He found himself on a team of five other people. Leading this team was Akira Kitamura, who mentored the newcomer throughout the development process. To design a protagonist for this game, Mr. Inafune drew inspiration from Astro Boy – the eponymous protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s landmark manga series. In fact, the game was originally intended to be an adaptation of Astro Boy, but the team ended up with a creation of their own. Before Mr. Inafune had joined the project, Mr. Kitamura developed a basic character concept for this game’s protagonist. After a few illustrations, they ended up with a humanlike robot boy. This character went through several names, including Battle Kid, Mighty Kid, Knuckle Kid, Rainbow Warrior Miracle Kid, and The Battle Rainbow Rockman. Eventually, the team settled for cutting out a significant portion of the last of these names, ending up with Rockman. He was so named because the team went for a musical motif – Rockman’s sister being named Roll to complete the genre allusion. The game, named after the protagonist himself, was domestically released on December 17, 1987.
Capcom’s executives believed that Rockman wouldn’t sell. They were proven wrong when Japan’s limited quantities quickly began disappearing off of store shelves. The company had a sleeper hit on their hands, which prompted them to hastily commission a Western localization. Caught completely off-guard by this development, Capcom’s North American branch quickly began work. The Senior Vice President at the time, Joseph Marici changed the protagonist’s name, and by extension the game’s title, from Rockman to Mega Man. Why he imposed this change is straightforward enough; he did not like the character’s original name. As this was going on, the president of the North American branch told a marketing representative to have cover art for the box done in one day. In a panic, said marketing executive had a friend draw the cover in six hours. Working with only a single vague description of the game over the telephone, the results were memorably terrible.
It is said that this cover art contributed to the game having flopped abroad along with a general lack of press coverage overseas. Nonetheless, with strong domestic sales in spite of its tepid critical reception, Mega Man was a modest success. Did Mega Man allow Capcom to put their best foot forward in the console market?
Analyzing the Experience
In the year 200X, humankind has made great progress in the field of robotics. Robots are now commonplace thanks to the efforts of the renowned Dr. Thomas Light. He himself has created eight robots: Rock, Roll, Cut Man, Guts Man, Ice Man, Bomb Man, Fire Man, and Elec Man. His first two robots were created to complete household chores while the latter six served industrial purposes.
One day, the six industrial robots went rogue and began attacking the populace. These robots were hijacked by Dr. Albert Wily – the megalomaniacal rival of Dr. Light, who seeks world domination. With six powerful worker robots out of his control, the good doctor is unsure what to do. However, Dr. Wily made a grievous miscalculation when he ignored Rock and Roll, believing them to be of no use to his cause. Having developed a strong sense of right and wrong, Rock offers to be converted into a fighting robot in order to stop thwart Dr. Wily’s machinations. When the conversion is complete, Rock emerges as Mega Man – a new defender of justice.
By 1987, people had a general idea of how video games functioned. Upon pressing the “START” button, you would be placed on the first level. You would then, to the best of your ability, attempt to clear this level. If you were successful, you would be immediately placed on next stage whereupon the process began anew. There were a few developers who notably experimented with this formula. Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka introduced warp zones to their exemplary Famicom title Super Mario Bros., potentially allowing players to skip entire portions of the game. Under the watchful eye of Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s premier research and development branch conceived a game called Metroid, which dispensed with the notion of levels entirely, instead turning players loose in a large, continuous environment that gradually opened up. In the computer gaming scene, a game’s structure was often even more abstract. Role-playing and adventure games conceived by pioneers such as Richard Garriott or Roberta Williams gave players clear goals, but let them decide for themselves how to achieve them.
What Mr. Kitamura and his team accomplished with Mega Man is, in a lot of ways, highly similar to these pioneering efforts, yet in practice, it is very different from any of them. When you press the “START” button, you are not thrown into the game. Instead, you’re taken to a screen showing Dr. Light’s six industrial robots. What you must do is select which of these robots – or Robot Masters – you want Mega Man to pursue first. They all await Mega Man at the end of their respective stages, and there is invariably a horde of minions courtesy of Dr. Wily preventing him from reaching them.
When you do select a Robot Master, only then will you be taken to the gameplay. Mega Man offers a platforming, run-and-gun experience not unlike Contra or any number of classic, contemporary arcade games. It is a little bit more merciful than Contra in that Mega Man has an actual life meter. It isn’t something you should take for granted, however, as certain enemy attacks can drain it very quickly – even accounting for the standard post-hit invincibility possessed by the title character.
Being a run-and-gun game at heart, Mega Man’s primary means of defense is a long-range projectile weapon. Pressing the “B” button causes his hand to transform into an energy cannon. Because his arm cannon is not kinetic in nature, you don’t have to worry about conserving or running out of ammunition. Enemies have various methods of attacking Mega Man from firing their own projectiles to simply taking advantage of his susceptibility to collision damage by running into him at full speed. Vanquished enemies invariably drop an item upon defeat. The most common item for them to drop is a Bonus Ball, which awards the player 1,000 additional points upon completing the stage. They aren’t terribly useful because the game has infinite continues, and points do nothing at all. Instead, what you will likely value more are the life refills they drop. They can even drop an extra life if you’re particularly lucky.
As is the standard for these types of games, pressing the “A” button causes Mega Man to jump. The longer you hold down the button, the higher he jumps. For those used to Super Mario Bros., it’s important to know that Mega Man isn’t quite as athletic as Mario. His jumps, though impressive by real-life standards, are still fairly low when compared to those of most platforming protagonists. Combined with a lack of a run button, you must quickly get a good sense as to how far he can jump lest you guide him directly into a bottomless pit.
Those unfamiliar with the game may wonder what the point is in allowing players to select the order in which they complete each stage. Part of the reason the formulaic, linear approach to game design worked so well is because it allowed developers to implement a natural difficulty curve. Each stage was intended to be more difficult than the one directly preceding it. This proposition may not have always worked in practice, but from a fundamental standpoint, the reasoning was sound. This idea would therefore appear to be impossible to implement when players can choose to play the six stages presented to them in any order they so choose. If a hypothetical player were to make their way to the end of a stage, they would learn of the true reason behind the game’s non-linear nature.
It’s fitting that Capcom developed Street Fighter in the same year as Mega Man because vague influences of the former can be found in the latter. Nobody even passingly familiar with the medium is going to mistake Mega Man for a fighting game, yet that is practically what the experience becomes when he reaches the end of a stage. What makes these confrontations stand out from your standard boss fight is that the Robot Master has a life meter exactly like Mega Man’s – albeit colored differently so players can easily distinguish them. Mega Man enters the arena with the amount of life energy he had going into it, yet it is because of this subtle touch that you get the sense he is being challenged to a duel. It’s a match that pits theoretical equals against each other – a far cry from Mario’s battles against Bowser in the original Super Mario Bros., which involved either arriving with a temporary power-up or destroying the platform upon which the latter stood.
Although the artificial intelligence in Mega Man isn’t especially sophisticated and can be exploited, vanquishing the Robot Masters still demands much more out of you than simply finding that one thing you need to do to win. These fights require you to have good reflexes, memorize every possible attack the Robot Masters can launch, and keep a cool head until the very end. However, even if you find yourself taking the necessary precautions, you still might find defeating these Robot Masters to be excessively difficult. Ice Man and Elec Man in particular can cut off a third of Mega Man’s health with one attack. It does stand to reason. After all, these are industrial robots going up against one designed to perform household chores; which party has the advantage is fairly obvious. With no clear way to defeat these bosses, a newcomer might be at a loss.
This newcomer would then be pleased to know that an alternative does exist. All six Robot Masters have unique weapons based off of their theme. If Mega Man can vanquish one, he gets to use said weapons for himself.
There is something of a catch, however. While Mega Man can use his default weapon, the Mega Buster, indefinitely, each one he copies from the Robot Masters has its own energy gauge. Simply put, when it runs out, he cannot use the weapon in question anymore. There are items that recharge a weapon’s energy, but it only affects the one you currently have equipped. Because Mega Man can only shoot straight ahead with Mega Buster, many of these weapons can help reach enemies outside of his jump range. In practice, they are usually the most useful for handling short enemies due to Mega Man’s inability to crouch. The developers considered allowing him to crouch, but decided against it, believing it would make it more difficult for players to determine the height of onscreen projectiles.
With this knowledge, it would make sense for players to go after the Robot Master possessing the best weapon first. However, the true reason why they’re allowed to select the order in which they visit the six stages reveals itself once they attempt to use a Robot Master’s weapon against another one. Mega Man’s original Japanese name, Rockman, doesn’t directly conform to a theme, yet it subtly alludes to the game’s central mechanic. Taking cues from the game rock-paper-scissors, each Robot Master is especially susceptible one of these weapons. Each successful hit guarantees a significant portion of the boss’s health meter will be destroyed.
What I like about this setup is that the Robot Masters’ weaknesses make perfect sense – even if they’re not always immediately obvious. Because the cursor on the stage select screen initially rests on Cut Man, a significant portion of players likely started off confronting him. It would be a good choice because even without the benefit of carrying his weakness, he is pretty easy to defeat. Defeating him grants Mega Man the Rolling Cutter. Cutting wires with scissors is an efficient, if highly dangerous way to short out an electrical system, so this idea naturally forms the basis of Elec Man’s weakness. He, in turn, grants Mega Man the Thunder Beam upon defeat. Ice is frozen water, which conducts electricity, thus providing Ice Man’s Achilles’ heel. The Ice Slasher Mega Man gains from winning against him would then be an ideal weapon with which to induce a cooldown shock against a superheated robot such as Fire Man. From him, Mega Man gains the Fire Storm. Because fire and explosives don’t mix without spelling disaster for at least one party involved, it is the bane of Bomb Man’s existence. Explosives are used for demolition – the fundamentally opposite concept as construction. As Guts Man is a robot built for heavy-duty construction, the Hyper Bomb is at odds with his purpose. Finally, Mega Man can use the Super Arm obtained from Guts Man to lob giant boulders at Cut Man because, as we all know, rock beats scissors.
All in all, Mega Man was quite the inventive game for its time. One could argue that the level design is bland. This isn’t an entirely untoward criticism because the developers only had a single megabit of memory to work with. This translates to 128 kilobytes. To get around this, many environments are repeated, and several enemies are palette swaps of each other. However, I think even with these limitations, what Mr. Kitamura and his team made is markedly more sophisticated than many of its contemporaries. The Robot Masters’ levels have a tendency to conform to the theme based off of their weapons. This gives each stage a unique identity that goes beyond the tendency the original Super Mario Bros. had wherein entire level layouts were copied. The result is that while Mega Man may not have as many stages as Super Mario Bros., there is a greater emphasis on quality over quality. Just the idea that you didn’t always go right to complete a stage in a platforming game made Mega Man a mold-breaker in 1987 – even if it wasn’t entirely unheard of at the time.
However, even if Mega Man was quite a marvel for its time, it does have a few niggling issues holding it back. If anyone is playing this game retrospectively, they may be put off by the controls. Nobody will be able to mount a legitimate claim that the controls in Mega Man are outright bad. Nonetheless, the controls do have a lack of polish to them. Even outside of Ice Man’s stage, his movement is a little slippery, which you will have to account for when making precise jumps. It doesn’t help that the physics are a little suspect as well. If there is ever a situation in which the floor disappears from beneath Mega Man, he will instantly fall at maximum velocity instead of naturally accelerating. In such a situation, Mega Man would invariably tumble straight into a bottomless pit, which can be jarring if you were expecting to navigate him onto a lower platform.
I also find that, as good as the initial six stages are, the endgame has a litany of execution issues. Once Mega Man has defeated all six Robot Masters, he can then infiltrate Dr. Wily’s factory, bringing the mad scientist to justice. The factory is actually made up of four stages you must complete consecutively to reach Dr. Wily himself. These stages are appropriately much more difficult than any of the preceding six. Mega Man lets you know the gloves are off immediately by placing three Big Eyes – the single most powerful enemy in the game – at the beginning of the first stage. This is noteworthy because in previous stages, they had a knack of only showing up near the entrance of the Robot Master’s lair.
Although the idea of completing four stages consecutively in what has proven to be a difficult game sounds daunting, it is mitigated by the fact that you can continue from any of them if you expend all of your lives. In fact, because weapon energy doesn’t refill between stages, it could be to the player’s benefit to do so purposely. It is restored upon losing all of his lives, and the player is given infinite continues. The only consequence is that the score counter is reset to zero every time, which doesn’t matter given how the points are useless. So while the endgame does seriously challenge the player, nothing about its proposition is especially unreasonable on paper. Anyone conducting a blind playthrough of the game may stumble across what causes it to fall apart somewhat as they journey through the first stage.
Specifically, they will reach this screen and realize there is absolutely nothing they can do to proceed. They can use every weapon in their arsenal or jump around, hoping they discover an invisible platform. Neither of these strategies will prove effective. What they need is an item from Elec Man’s stage called the Magnet Beam. With it, Mega Man can create a platform that lasts for a few seconds. How long the platform extends depends on the length of time you held down the “B” button. Only with the Magnet Beam can Mega Man reach the end of the stage.
To be slightly fair, the item isn’t hidden from the player, so it’s not as though you must scour the stage to find it. So, what’s the problem? In order for Mega Man to reach the Magnet Beam, he needs the Super Arm, which he receives from Guts Man. If, for some reason, you decided not to complete Guts Man’s stage beforehand, it’s impossible to retrieve the Magnet Beam. This means you’ll need to complete Elec Man’s stage a second time if you didn’t think to do so. Considering the point of selecting the stages was so the player could determine the order in which they are to complete the game, this design decision is at complete odds with the concept. One doesn’t give players a degree of freedom only to later punish them for not going through the game in the correct order. This could have worked had the level design itself been more open-ended such as in Metroid, but not in a game with such linear stages. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that you can back out of a stage upon losing all of your lives, the game would have been rendered unwinnable.
When you do use the Magnet Beam to reach the end of the stage, you are then confronted with the single most difficult boss in the entire game: the Yellow Devil. This invention of Dr. Wily’s travels from one side of the room to the other in large blobs, inflicting a lot of damage upon Mega Man each time he is struck. This is the one part of the game in which the challenge arguably becomes untenable. Unless you have good reflexes, you will find yourself losing to this boss again and again. Dodging its attacks requires an interminable series of perfectly timed jumps that must be performed each and every time you successfully land a hit – and even if you don’t. This wouldn’t be unreasonable if you could simply restart the fight upon losing. Indeed, if you do memorize the pattern, the Yellow Devil is actually more irritating than difficult. The problem is that should you run out of lives, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. In light of how much memorization is required just to stand a chance, you can see why this would be a problem.
The boss is so infamously difficult that many players outright cheat in order to defeat it. The Yellow Devil happens to be weak against the Thunder Beam. This is fortunate because it’s an effective weapon, but even more so because it allows for an exploit. To perform this trick, all you need to do is fire the Thunder Beam and pause the game when it strikes the Yellow Devil in its weak point. By unpausing, the attack damages the Yellow Devil a second time. Therefore, by repeatedly pausing and unpausing, you can wipe out the Yellow Devil’s life meter in a matter of seconds. It’s a true testament to how frustrating the Yellow Devil is that many players won’t hold it against anyone for using it.
As you’re making your way through the final stages, you realize what the single biggest problem with the game is: you can’t save at all. By 1987, passwords were becoming commonplace, meaning even cartridges without the benefit of a battery-backed save system had no excuse not to allow players to pick up from where they last left off. A skilled gamer could conceivably complete Mega Man in a single sitting, but even then, they might want a break. That is not an option with this game. You must complete the entire game in one session. It is possible to simply leave the console on the entire time and return to it later, but an errant power surge or accidental mishandling of a wire could easily thwart such an idea. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for someone to make it all the way to the final fight against Dr. Wily only for such a scenario to come to pass.
Drawing a Conclusion
If it’s one thing I’ve observed through experiencing various long-running gaming franchises, it’s that a great series might not necessarily have a strong debut. It merely has to settle for doing enough things right to get people interested in a sequel. When compared to other big-name franchise debuts such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid, Mega Man actually fares surprisingly well. As a platformer, it has an identity distinct from that of Super Mario Bros., and adding run-and-gun and fighting game elements to the mix allowed its small team to cover a lot of stylistic ground – all while using but a single megabit of memory.
However, I also feel Mega Man is one of those games that can be traced back to the exact year in which it debuted. Partly thanks to the success of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda, the late 1980s marked a transitionary phase for console gaming. Nearly all Atari 2600 games were either ports of popular arcade titles or original efforts modelled after the former’s sensibilities. This trend continued in the wake of the NES’s launch, but The Legend of Zelda proposed the idea of being able to save and come back to a game later. Suddenly, the driving question of a given game wasn’t “How many points can you score?” but rather “Can you complete it?” Just the idea of having an end goal in a game was a foreign concept to many people at the time.
The reason this bears mentioning is because Mega Man is a game that perfectly demonstrates the exact midpoint of the transition. It was clearly made for the console upon which it debuted, but the development team still held onto arcade sensibilities that were quickly becoming outdated. This could be seen in how the game features a scoring system that has no impact on the experience whatsoever. It would also explain why one cannot save one’s progress, for this was the point in history in which arcade games regularly began mimicking console experiences themselves by having an objective win condition. In the hands of a skilled player, it wasn’t unusual for a session to last longer than an hour – something considered unthinkable in the first half of the decade.
Despite its flaws, I could recommend Mega Man to platforming fans. I also feel it would make a serviceable introduction to those seeking out games from this era, as it’s difficult enough to give them a challenge, yet it’s not as frustrating as many of its contemporaries. Mega Man may have been, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly modest game, but as a debut installment, it got the franchise off to a good start.
Final Score: 6/10