This month’s cover story is really about nostalgia. Not just the simple idea of remembering something just to remember it, but to carry its legacy forward and help breed new ideas from what we’ve learned. January is about the new beginnings from old experiences, and to start our Retro Spotlight feature for the month it felt most appropriate to look at Capcom’s Mega Man.
Mega Man was first released on December 17, 1987, in a rare simultaneous release on both the Famicom and NES. It was typical in that era, and up until recently in some cases, for Japanese players to receive games first before localization brought it across seas. It’s surprising when looking at the context of the time, but Mega Man had a strong sense of breaking tradition.
Capcom did well in the arcades with titles like Vulgus, 1942, and Ghosts ‘N Goblins. It brought a lot of these games to home consoles, but ports were the extent of Capcom’s console development. Mega Man was the first game for the company that was developed specifically for the console market. Young artist, Keiji Inafune, was brought in to work on the Street Fighter team, the first in the popular series that would release the same year as Mega Man. Inafune joined the small Mega Man team after some work had begun, but was responsible for a majority of the game’s character designs and some in-game art.
As the first game developed specifically for play at home in mind, Mega Man was inherently different in design. It retained the feeling of an arcade game, the player moving through obstacles and defeating enemies, all while scrolling to the right. Capcom’s arcade offerings and games developed by other companies at the time were usually coming from the idea of stage-based, linear action that escalated the further the player could reach. The player would complete a stage and find another that was slightly more difficult than the last. This would continue until the end of the game without much changing.
Mega Man carried the same idea but allowed the player to choose where to start from the beginning. Each stage was equally challenging depending on the section and each provided the player with a unique reward. The player chooses a stage based on one of the evil Dr. Wily’s Robot Masters and fights through until the end where they face the boss of the level and receive its special power.
To add to the possibility and challenge, each Robot Master is strong against another, like in “rock, paper, scissors.” Once the player understands which weapons are better suited against a particular stage or boss, the game’s dynamic changes again.
Inherently, Mega Man becomes something that can grow and build after a single playthrough. The player can see the large number of possibilities for playing through the game and from playing and learning the game can replay it in a new way. It’s no surprise that it led to many sequels, most of which retained an identical formula to the original.
The inclusion of a nonlinear progression system would do more than become a staple of the Mega Man franchise. It transformed how future games would be developed and it was one of the initial steps in taking games into a new space. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid were fantastic examples of early open world games that players could explore at their own pace, freely discovering what was hidden inside. Here, Mega Man offers limited choice but choice nonetheless. Later games that would encourage the player to find collectibles or complete optional side missions would all pull from the beginnings that Mega Man introduced.
Today, the character remains popular among many, and his inclusion in the upcoming Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite (as Mega Man X) shows a remaining interest by Capcom to keep the franchise alive. He was also seen in 2014’s Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as a playable character, a long-desired inclusion to the roster of fighters for the game. While still popular, it has been some time since the character was featured in a game of his own, ever since the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 and the departure of creator Keiji Inafune from the company.
The most notable and recent release is the Mega Man Legacy Collection, which remasters all six of the original titles for modern platforms and includes many artifacts from each game’s history. We are yet to know if a new game is in development or what that may even look like, but the thirty year old franchise is due for another entry.