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?