Happy Friday Avocadoans!
Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be mega-busting through the history of Mega Man!
With regard to sources, Hardcore Gaming 101’s history of the Mega Man franchise is my primary reference point. I’ve also found fun facts in the relevant DidYouKnow Gaming YouTube videos and videos made on the series by The Completionist. Finally, I encourage anyone interested in Mega Man 3 in particular to check out Salvatore Pane’s Boss Fight Books volume on that game.
As ever, header dates refer to the earliest year of publication in North America. One final note: I’ll be omitting the games released on the Game Boy, as the article ran long and these constitute something of a unique sub-series of their own. Expect an article on them in the future.
Capcom had been producing hit games throughout the 1980s, but lacked a noteworthy contribution to the platformer genre. This type of game rapidly gained popularity on the Nintendo Entertainment System after the Japanese release of Super Mario Bros. in 1985. Though Capcom had released Ghosts’n Goblins at the arcade in 1985, that game lacked the more ambitious progression system increasingly utilized on home console titles.
Consequently, a new team was assembled to develop a modern platforming game that would appeal to fans of Super Mario Bros. This consisted of seven members, including Keiji Inafune and Akira Kitamura. More than one of the team members were untested developers drawn directly from Japan’s university system. Happily, they would prove themselves eminently worthy of recruitment by Capcom.
Mega Man (1987)
New Characters: Mega Man, Roll, Dr. Light, Dr. Wily
Robot Masters: Cut Man, Elec Man, Guts Man, Bomb Man, Fire Man, Ice Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
The first game in the Mega Man franchise was published as Rock Man in Japan, and was released in the United States less than one month later under its Western name. Earlier proposed titles for the game had included Mighty Kid, Knuckle Kid, Battle Kid and Battle Rainbow Rock Man, but the final decision was made to name the character and game based upon a musical theme; this naming convention would continue through the years, though it would often be lost in translation to the West. Case in point #1: Rock Man’s sidekick Roll functions as a pun (“Rock and Roll”), but her name has no such humorous connotation when paired with Mega Man in the localized version.
The character himself was primarily designed by Akira Kitamura. Despite this, Keiji Inafune went on to become the developer most commonly associated with the franchise; Kitamura departed prior to the release of Mega Man 3. Mega Man’s appearance was informed by the limitations of the NES hardware – there were more shades of blue than any other color available in the NES palette, so the team stuck with blue as his default color scheme. Other characters appear, including the aforementioned sidekick Roll, Mega Man’s inventor Dr. Light (visual design inspired by Santa Claus), and series antagonist Dr. Wily (inspired by Albert Einstein).
The game mechanics are quite straightforward, elegant in their simplicity and infinitely adaptable over the following decades. The player must guide Mega Man through 2D sidescrolling levels based upon a theme inspired by that level’s Robot Master boss; these can be chosen in any order, though defeating each boss allows Mega Man to use their weapon ability. The player can make his or her experience easier through exploiting boss weaknesses to certain weapon abilities and altering the level order accordingly. Once all bosses have been defeated, the player progresses to a set of linear levels set in Dr. Wily’s castle. Each of these levels has its own set of bosses (from whom no powers can be acquired). At the end of the castle, the player battles Dr. Wily and gets to view a brief cutscene upon completion.
Only six robot masters are included in the first game, due to the team’s inexperience working around NES hardware restrictions. Two additional robot masters were planned, but neither was implemented in the final game; of these cut bosses, only one is known – Bond Man. A later, dramatically overhauled 2006 remake of the title on the PlayStation Portable would include two more robot masters (Time Man and Oil Man) but would still omit Bond Man. Keiji Inafune, when asked about this, confirmed that he did not want to spoil the mystique of the long-lost Bond Man by including him in the new release.
Though later titles would feature a password system, the first Mega Man game must be completed in a single sitting; if the console was turned off, the player would forfeit his or her progress. This does not keep the game from being an ambitious debut for the “blue bomber.” The visual design is clean but lush, particularly in the enemy animations, and Manami Matsumae’s soundtrack is incredible, setting a tone for future entries. The playtime is only a handful of hours, but the level design and scope of the game is significantly more vast than most of its arcade contemporaries.
Mega Man was initially published in small quantities due to its status as an untested new IP, but it proved very popular among NES owners. It would go on to be extensively ported and re-released over the following decades. The first of these ports was in a visually upgraded guise as part of the SEGA MegaDrive 16-bit collection, Mega Man: The Wily Wars (1994); this compiled new versions of Mega Man 1-3 and was published as a cartridge in Japan/Europe while only being made available on the SEGA Channel in North America. Direct ports of its original 8-bit version then appeared in several compilations, including the Mega Man Anniversary Collection (2004) and Mega Man Legacy Collection (2015). The most recent version is a port to the Apple iOS environment.
Mega Man 2 (1988)
New Characters: None
Robot Masters: Metal Man, Air Man, Bubble Man, Quick Man, Crash Man, Flash Man, Heat Man, Wood Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
After the middling success of Mega Man, fans would be forgiven for assuming that a sequel was already in development. Surprisingly, Capcom initially opted not to turn the Blue Bomber into a franchise. It was only through the continued entreaties of Mega Man developer Keiji Inafune that Capcom decided to publish a second platformer game featuring the now-iconic character. Once the project began, the still-tiny team completed development within four months.
Video game enthusiasts in general and platformer fans in particular should be eternally grateful that Inafune persevered, because Mega Man 2 would go down as one of the best video games of its decade; indeed, it remains a defining work of the medium thirty years later. This is not, of course, through the strength of its narrative. Mega Man 2 has functionally zero narrative ambition, and it largely duplicates the structure of the first game: players make their way through a series of robot masters’ stages, chosen in the player’s preferred order, and then challenge Dr. Wily after a gauntlet of linear levels set at Wily’s Castle.
Rather than narrative scope, Mega Man 2 excels in the strength of its levels, art design, and mechanics. The first Mega Man game had featured a clean, pleasant presentation full of slick lines, but the team was much more ambitious for the second game. Enemies are more richly detailed, and the game includes many fully articulated oversized foes (most notably a dragon that chases the player through the conclusion to one of the Wily Castle stages). Environments are far more imaginative, as Capcom dropped the first game’s conceit that robot masters were intended to be industrial tools run amok. Players instead get to navigate bizarre places like a series of floating robot heads in Air Man’s stage and a fully robotic forest in Wood Man’s stage.
The less grounded level design may reflect a new wrinkle that would become a series tradition: the player-driven robot master contest. Contests to solicit fan input on popular series were already a fixture in Japanese entertainment culture, so Capcom believed a similar effort might be worthwhile for its new game series. In 1988, Family Computer Magazine gave fans the opportunity to suggest robot masters for the next game in the Mega Man series; it received over 8,000 responses. Unfortunately, Keiji Inafune and the Mega Man 2 team had to implement their favorite robot master designs in about one month of development time – twenty hour days were sadly common on this project. In spite of these challenging work conditions, the fan contest would go on to inform almost every later game in the franchise.
With regard to mechanics, much of the first game’s system remained intact. Mega Man moved and shot his mega-buster arm in the same way as he had in the series’ 1987 entry. Players could, however, find three mobility enhancements by defeating robot masters: (1) the ability to generate temporary floating platforms, (2) the ability to temporarily fly horizontally on a jet, and (3) the ability to generate a small platform which scales up and down vertical surfaces. This evolution gave the level designers much more leeway in their approach to difficulty, since hard platformer sections could be made easier for less advanced players through the use of these transport items. One additional structural change enhanced the series dramatically – passwords would now be received upon completion of a stage, and the player could then enter those into a password input screen when booting up the game to skip ahead; this kept players from being forced to complete the entire experience in a single sitting, as had been the case in the first game.
Like its predecessor, Mega Man 2 was adapted and re-released several times over the following decades. It appeared with 16-bit graphics alongside Mega Man and Mega Man 3 in the Mega Drive/Genesis Wily Wars collection, and was then released in the form of a pure port in the Mega Man Anniversary Collection, Nintendo Virtual Console and the Mega Man Legacy Collection. The only major differences between its various adaptations (aside from the visual overhaul in Wily Wars) is the inclusion of difficulty levels; the original Japanese release lacked a difficulty selection screen, one was added in the North American release and included in all subsequent ports of the North American version, while an iOS port in the 2010s added a third difficulty level to make the game more playable for new fans.
Mega Man 3 (1990)
New Characters: Rush, Proto Man
Robot Masters: Needle Man, Magnet Man, Gemini Man, Hard Man, Top Man, Snake Man, Spark Man, Shadow Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
After helping to develop a masterpiece, Mega Man creator Akira Kitamura departed Capcom and left Keiji Inafune largely in charge of the franchise. It’s rather surprising that this major staff turnover had little apparent impact on the series’ development. Visually, Mega Man 3 is indistinguishable from the two preceding games. In terms of its mechanics, structure and plot, however, Capcom upped the ante with the series’ third entry.
For the first time, Mega Man has access to a slide move. This permits the player to navigate under obstacles or speedily travel across roughly one third of a boss arena almost instantly. As you can imagine, this had profound effects on both the level design and the player’s sense of mobility when confronting boss enemies. Robot masters could be made slightly more aggressive with the knowledge that players had another tool in their arsenal.
Structurally, the game is more ambitious than Mega Man or Mega Man 2. Once the player defeats eight robot masters, he or she must work through four remixed versions of earlier Mega Man 3 stages. These remixed stages even include facsimiles of the robot masters from Mega Man 2 which can use those bosses’ powers but do not have the appearance of that game’s bosses due to memory constraints. Instead, all new bosses look like a redesigned version of the first title’s Guts Man.
Intriguingly, some quirks of the game’s design reveal the challenges of working on the tight timetable that Capcom demanded. Several robot master stages were clearly designed prior to picking the assigned bosses, likely due to the nature of receiving and judging Family Computer Magazine fan submissions. These stages, particularly the ones associated with Top Man and Needle Man, have no apparent relationship to their bosses. Additionally, the presence of a partially-finished remixed Magnet Man stage suggests either that development time was too short or that memory restrictions on the NES hardware were too great to match the developers’ initial ambitions. Even a handful of apparent debug elements remain in the released game, like the player being able to save Mega Man from pits or have him jump to platforms normally out of reach by plugging in and manipulating a second controller.
Narratively, Mega Man 3 is the first game in the series to offer more than a cursory explanation of why Mega Man is battling Dr. Wily. In this iteration, Wily initially teams up with Dr. Light to improve human industry before betraying him and stealing Proto Man, Light’s original robot creation. This, along with the game’s dramatic conclusion, is conveyed to the player in brief cutscenes utilizing in-engine sprite graphics.
Two major characters make their debut in Mega Man 3: Rush and Proto Man. Rush is a robot dog who helps the player by transforming into three mobility enhancements along the lines of those offered in Mega Man 2: (1) a coiled spring that permits the player to leap very high, (2) a jet which the player is able to move in four directions, and (3) an underwater vehicle that functions identically to the jet. The second of these items more or less renders the other two superfluous, but it adds a spark of whimsy to see Mega Man’s canine assistant transform into the various items.
The second major new character is Proto Man. This red and gray robot is described as Mega Man’s predecessor among Dr. Light’s creations. With a trademark whistle audio cue, he appears “in disguise” as a mid-boss throughout Mega Man 3 and also, on occasion, removes obstacles from the player’s path. In-game text and supplementary materials refer to him as Break Man at times, though this may have been a quirk of the localization process. On a related note, the English-language version of Mega Man 3 is the first game in the series to refer to the boss characters as “robot masters.” Earlier titles, like their Japanese counterparts, simply called these characters “bosses” or “powerful robots” when it explicitly referred to them at all.
Mega Man 4 (1992)
New Characters: Eddie, Dr. Cossack, Kalinka Cossack
Robot Masters: Bright Man, Toad Man, Drill Man, Pharaoh Man, Ring Man, Dust Man, Dive Man, Skull Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
Mega Man 4 was largely composed of visual assets from its predecessors. Its most significant changes to the series formula were in the increasingly strange boss designs, an enhancement to the mega-buster, and a major overhaul to the Wily Castle structure.
Fan submissions had not abated, and the developers had their pick of the numerous entries received. From these, they picked a handful of fairly standard designs – Drill Man, Ring Man and Dive Man – along with some genuinely bizarre additions to the robot master stable: Skull Man (a skeletal robot), Bright Man (a robot with a giant light bulb on his head), Toad Man (a flabby toad robot), Pharaoh Man (a robot with an ancient Egyptian headdress), and Dust Man (a boxy creation that flings heaps of trash from a hole in its forehead). Some fans decried these new robot masters as less well-designed than previous ones, but I think they’re delightful.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the abilities Mega Man gains from his foes. Several are interesting, including Toad Man’s ability to make a corrosive rain strike all enemies on-screen, but most are either a fairly standard projectile or repeated powers from earlier games. It is possible that the dearth of innovative abilities is simply a function of limited imagination (or a game engine showing its age). That said, the diminished role of robot master abilities likely has much to do with a major enhancement made to the mega-buster.
For the first time, Mega Man can charge his basic projectile weapon up. After a couple of seconds, he can release a more powerful shot with a slightly wider vertical radius. This new ability is overpowered in Mega Man 4, and is indeed stronger than most of the weapons achieved by defeating robot masters. The charge shot has two other peculiar effects, too, which would go on to make it a controversial addition to the series’ mechanics: (1) it alters how players rest their thumb on the buttons, as they are now likely to be holding the charge button constantly while navigating stages, and (2) it alters the sound palette of the game.
The music of the Mega Man series had become one of its most lauded traits over the preceding five years. Manami Matsumae had composed the first game’s score, Takashi Tateishi had improved upon this foundation to create one of the medium’s best soundtracks in Mega Man 2, and Harumi Fujita and Yasuaki Fujita had integrated new melancholy tones into the superlative Mega Man 3 soundtrack. The quality of these scores would not diminish with future entries – all six of the original NES Mega Man games feature excellent sound design – but the sound effect of the charge shot would go on to dominate the soundscape. While the player holds down the charge button, a high-pitched noise indicates that their weapon is powering up. Given that it’s in the player’s best interest to have their mega-buster charged at all times, this sound effect is a near-constant presence after its introduction in Mega Man 4.
Wily’s Castle is also a source of some controversy in Mega Man 4. The game’s narrative basis is that Dr. Cossack, a Russian scientist, is taking on the role of Dr. Wily; Wily is out of the picture at the game’s start, and Cossack is the source of the eight robot masters’ uprising. Not surprisingly, Wily is revealed to be the true antagonist once Dr. Cossack is defeated (after a gauntlet of stages in the style of earlier games’ Wily Castle levels). The player is then expected to take on a second set of linear castle levels and defeat Dr. Wily. This lengthens the game, but many fans believe that it results in diminished quality of castle stages. The expansion is not typically believed to be a positive development, instead inspiring an impression of bloated level design.
Mega Man 5 (1992)
New Characters: Beat
Robot Masters: Gravity Man, Wave Man, Stone Man, Gyro Man, Star Man, Charge Man, Napalm Man, Crystal Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
The North American release of Mega Man 5 occurred in the same year that Mega Man 4 was published. The NES hardware was being largely abandoned in favor of its successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, but Capcom seemed determined to get its mileage out of the aging Mega Man game engine. Sadly, this dedication largely resulted in diminishing returns.
The game mechanics are virtually unchanged from the preceding title. The only major difference is the inclusion of some minor drawbacks designed to address the overpowered nature of a charged shot. These include a small bit of recoil, which could conceivably result in the player falling into an obstacle, along with the fact that taking damage will result in Mega Man losing his stored-up charge blast. These do a bit to mitigate the problems introduced by the charge shot in Mega Man 4, but an ineffective set of robot master powers does little to compensate.
At least the robot master designs continued to include surprising oddities. This game includes Gyro Man, a robot with helicopter blades attached to his back; Napalm Man, a rocket-blasting robot master; Charge Man, a train with legs; and Gravity Man, a robot able to reverse the flow of gravity and move about the ceiling. Others are less exciting, including Stone Man, Crystal Man, and Star Man, but it’s impossible to hold this against the creators of the series. Not every robot master can be zany, after all.
Beat makes his first appearance in the series as a new animal companion for Mega Man. By discovering letters (M, E, G, A, M, A, N, and V) scattered throughout the game’s stages, the player gains the ability to summon this robot bird to attack any on-screen enemy. The bird will peck at a foe, regardless of its position, until fully defeating it. Boss enemies are not excluded from the bird’s constant strikes, so Beat quickly becomes an overpowered tool in the player’s arsenal. Happily, this is more of a completionist bonus than anything else, since the player needs to have completed all eight robot masters before getting access to it.
With regard to its plot, there’s little that players had not already encountered in Mega Man 4. Proto Man takes Dr. Cossack’s role in this iteration, though he is similarly revealed to be a puppet for Dr. Wily once his set of castle stages are completed. After this, the player must make his or her way through a second gauntlet to challenge Dr. Wily. The same problems with padded castle stages exist in both Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5.
One interesting new mechanic introduced in Mega Man 5, amidst other design decisions drawn straight from preceding series titles, is an auto-scrolling vehicle section. In Wave Man’s stage, the player is confined to a jet ski for a time; during this portion of the level, the game scrolls automatically and players must avoid or destroy obstacles in their path. This type of level design had not appeared in any previous Mega Man game, but would come to be a standard feature in the Mega Man X series.
Mega Man 6 (1994)
New Characters: None
Robot Masters: Blizzard Man, Centaur Man, Flame Man, Knight Man, Plant Man, Tomahawk Man, Wind Man, Yamato Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
Mega Man 6 is the series’ swan song on the NES, though not the last game in the series (nor even the last to feature 8-bit graphics!). It is not a significant overhaul, but is the most visually impressive of the first six games by a slim margin. Parallax scrolling permits lush backgrounds and foregrounds to move independently, creating a sense of depth. The color palette, while still limited by the decade-old hardware, is used to its fullest.
The most important change to the game is structural – for the first time, there are multiple routes through robot master stages. Exploration is rewarded in-game with letters to spell out BEAT, giving the player access to the overpowered bird from Mega Man 5; recognizing their design error in the preceding game, the developers opted not to let Beat attack bosses this time around. The key detail, though, is the broadening out of player choice and exploration elements – choice had always been an element of the Mega Man series, as the player got to choose his or her route through the first eight stages, but with Mega Man 6 the series began to permit greater player autonomy within the stages themselves.
At the same time, Rush has been given exciting new dynamics. Rather than being a separate character with which Mega Man can interact, the Rush of Mega Man 6 actually bonds with his owner to enhance Mega Man’s abilities. These new abilities include a powerful punch (which can break walls) and a jet pack (permitting eight-directional flight). Rather than using the limited gauges, like robot master powers or Rush skills in earlier games, the new abilities simply limit Mega Man’s moveset; in the Rush Power Armor mode, players can’t slide, and in the Rush Jet Adapter mode, players can’t charge shots. The new Rush abilities go hand in hand with greater opportunities for exploration, since they allow the player to either destroy environmental elements (Power) or navigate to otherwise unreachable areas (Jet).
The plot is the most humorously derivative since the introduction of narrative elements to the series in Mega Man 3. Like the two preceding adventures, the initial antagonist is a new foe (this time a mysterious figure, Mr. X, who hosts a robot competition but quickly turns the assembled robots against the world). Like the two preceding adventures, this antagonist is eventually revealed to be Dr. Wily. Unlike the two preceding adventures, the red herring initial antagonist is clearly just Dr. Wily with dark glasses and a beard.
Of course, by 1994 the NES had faded from popularity in favor of its successor, the SNES. This left a limited market for the release of Mega Man 6, and Capcom actually decided not to localize the game outside of Japan. This is rather surprising, since Mega Man 6 is the first game in the series to feature robot masters drawn from North American contest submissions; Knight Man and Wind Man came from fan submissions to Nintendo Power magazine. Luckily, Nintendo stepped in and published the game outside of Japan. The times were changing, though, and the Mega Man series would soon be changing too.
Mega Man 7 (1995)
New Characters: Bass, Treble, Auto
Robot Masters: Freeze Man, Junk Man, Burst Man, Cloud Man, Spring Man, Slash Man, Shade Man, Turbo Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
In spite of a mere single year between the release Mega Man 6 and Mega Man 7, the latter represents the largest overhaul that the series had gone through so far. Shortly before Mega Man 6 had been published on the NES, Capcom had released Mega Man X on the SNES. This set the bar much higher for visual design in the Mega Man franchise, and Keiji Inafune would be under the gun to revolutionize the now-venerable original series if it was to survive in the 16-bit era.
Within a staggeringly brief three-month development cycle, Inafune and his team dramatically enhanced the appearance and mechanics of Mega Man. The visuals received an upgrade in terms of both color palette and detail. Sprites were enlarged and given more animations, including moving mouths during story sequences (more on that later). When enemies are defeated, they explode into numerous small mechanical parts as well.
From the large to the small, the visual overhaul to the Mega Man series was an exciting development for long-time fans. Unfortunately, the new appearance came with at least one significant drawback – the sprites were enlarged but the playing space was not. Consequently, Mega Man and his enemies take up much more space on-screen than they had in the preceding six games. This leaves a smaller margin for error when it came to projectiles and made it difficult to anticipate upcoming obstacles.
The 16-bit update is more than cosmetic, of course. Brief textual cutscenes had been occurring in games as early as Mega Man 3, but Mega Man 7 has significantly more ambitious narrative sequences. The game opens with a lengthy introductory stage that sets the narrative in motion, much like Mega Man X. Two new characters, who would go on to become series mainstays, are introduced during this stage as well: Bass and Treble, enemy counterparts to Mega Man and Rush. Cutscenes are still rendered using the in-game engine, but this time the characters move and visibly speak during these plot sequences.
The narrative itself is not innovative, as a jailed Wily is bailed out by evil robots programmed to activate after six months of no orders, but the experience of the narrative is clearly enhanced. In fact, the most surprising element is a bizarre sequence at the end of the game in which Mega Man decides that he’s finally willing to kill Dr. Wily rather than imprison him once again. This dark turn comes to nothing, of course, and Wily escapes to fight another day. The entire set of dialogue was actually added by the localization team, as Mega Man is silent in the original Japanese release.
The structure receives an update too. In contrast to all preceding games, in which all robot masters are available to battle from the start, players are able to access a second tier of four robot masters once the first set of four is defeated. These robot masters actually represent an interesting shift. Some remain about the size of Mega Man, as previous robot masters had been, while others are surprisingly large or strangely shaped: Turbo Man is twice the size of Mega Man and rolls around his arena like a car, while Cloud Man is an oversized floating foe.
Thanks to the unique hardware of the SNES, levels are appreciably more adaptable than they were in previous entries. Cosmetically, the Mode 7 multilayered pixel rendering of the SNES allows cool new sequences like invisible platforms which only appear when the player is within a specific proximity. More substantially, robot master powers can actually be used to alter the environment. Turbo Man’s Scorch Wheel power can be used to burn away foliage in Slash Man’s stage, while Freeze Man’s Freeze Cracker can expose new paths by freezing lava solid. This further develops the opportunities for in-stage exploration first offered in Mega Man 6. As in that game, players inclined to explore the nooks of dense stages are rewarded with letters – this time they spell out Rush, and open access to an enhanced armor called the Super Adapt. With the Super Adapt, Mega Man can fly around rooms and fire out his fist; these abilities seem to be a callback to Mega Man 7‘s immediate predecessor, but I don’t believe anyone has explicitly confirmed that.
Finally, Mega Man 7 is the first game in the series to include an in-game economy. Auto makes his debut as a robotic technician assistant to Dr. Light in the title’s introductory sequence, but his primary role is as a merchant between stages. Mega Man is able to collect bolts as he explores robot master lairs, and Auto is able to turn those into power ups at his shop. Some power ups are standard Mega Man items like extra lives and E-Tanks (a long-term fixture of the series that replenishes a robot master’s special ability); other power ups are permanent enhancements to Mega Man’s arsenal, like an energy equalizer which automatically fills the lowest-stocked robot master power or certain Rush mobility enhancements.
Like many SNES games, Mega Man 7‘s Mode 7 hardware-based visual design made ports less frequent than its NES forebears in the 1990s and 2000s. It was included on the Mega Man Anniversary Collection in 2004, but this version suffers from slowdown and other issues during sequences heavy on Mode 7 pixel layering; sadly, that includes the game’s ending. It was not included in 2015’s Mega Man Legacy Collection, though this seems to be more a matter of its discontinuity with the otherwise visually consistent NES titles. Mega Man Legacy Collection 2 (2017) compiles the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth entries in the franchise, and Mega Man 7 suffers from no apparent emulation issues. It also appears on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Console.
Mega Man 8 (1997)
New Characters: Duo
Robot Masters: Tengu Man, Astro Man, Sword Man, Clown Man, Search Man, Frost Man, Grenade Man, Aqua Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
After only one game released on the 16-bit console generation, the Mega Man franchise leaped directly to the PlayStation and Sega Saturn; one more game was destined for the SNES, but that is its own peculiar story. Publishing Mega Man 7 on the SNES had been a challenge, due to some internal struggles at Capcom, but the reduced cost to manufacture CD-ROMs meant that Mega Man 8 would be widely released with little strife. Coinciding with the game’s release was the series’ tenth anniversary, so this seemed an elegant opportunity to reflect back on how far the Blue Bomber had come.
Sadly, Mega Man 8 would prove to be a thoroughly divisive entry in the decade-old franchise. If nothing else, it did improve on the key complaint about its predecessor. Sprites remain heavily animated and expressive, but are smaller in comparison to their surroundings. Mega Man 8 appears to take a cue from the Mega Man X series in this aspect of its visual design. All mechanics remain in place from earlier entries, including the slide, charged shot (now animated in even more lush detail), and autoscrolling vehicle sections.
These vehicle sections are one of the most immediately noticeable controversial aspects of the game, however. The autoscrolling vehicle sequence had made its debut in Mega Man 5 and had also been featured in several Mega Man X games. In Mega Man 8, its implementation was less successful. Flying portions are an interesting addition to the mechanical palette of the series, as they integrate bullet-hell shooter design into a characteristically slower-paced franchise. The snowboard portions, on the other hand, are an extraordinary challenge and largely come down to the player’s ability to either memorize a route over multiple attempts or listen attentively to an audio cue that indicates when Mega Man should jump.
More generally, the audio of Mega Man 8 is a problem. This is the first entry in the series to feature full FMV sequences, which seems at first glance to be an exciting improvement on earlier titles’ text-oriented narratives. Fourteen minutes of anime cutscenes are included throughout the game, including an introduction that teases a larger mythology for the series and a significant mid-game action sequence. Unfortunately, the audio of these cutscenes ranks among the worst in a medium known for questionable voice acting. Mega Man has a high-pitched child voice – a far cry from the apparent cold-blooded pragmatist that he’d become at the end of Mega Man 7 – while Dr. Light slurs his words hilariously. This seems to have been a consistent trait of developer Capcom during the late 1990s, as it had recently published another of the medium’s most infamous voice acting in Resident Evil (1996).
The visual design of Mega Man 8, happily, is one of its bright spots. The preceding game had represented a significant enhancement on the clean but sparse world of the NES entries, but Mega Man 8 is the lushest set of environments ever assembled for a Mega Man game. Backgrounds are animated heavily and enemies feature an extensive number of animations that would not be duplicated by later entries. Levels were larger and featured underwater sections in which the player could swim, rather than simply jump higher. The only blemish is that the more extensively-designed levels inherently offered less clarity on where a platform ended; precision suffered slightly, since the player might believe himself or herself to be clearing a jump only to fall through the edge of an embellished ledge. These instances were few and far between, however, and the vast majority of the game is beautiful without risking mechanical accuracy. As other franchises were moving into the third dimension, Capcom concentrated on enhancing the already-effective 2D visual design of the Mega Man series.
Uncharacteristically, Mega Man 8 is rather different in its PlayStation and Sega Saturn appearances. The PlayStation version would be the basis of future ports, but the Sega Saturn has a variety of unique elements. In particular, programming permits unique visual enhancements and more enemies to appear on-screen at any given time on the Saturn than the PlaySation. Quite a few bonus features are included on the Saturn disc that are omitted on the PlayStation version, including concept art for the game’s robot masters! Finally, Saturn owners got to experience the return of boss battles against Cut Man, originally appearing in Mega Man (1987), and Wood Man, originally appearing in Mega Man 2 (1988); it’s quite exciting to see these characters return in visually enhanced guises, though not necessarily essential to the experience.
In spite of the studio’s best efforts, though, Mega Man would quickly be left behind by fans interested in exploring 3D worlds. The late 1990s would tell the story of series able to either adapt to new three-dimensional spaces or fall by the wayside, unable to keep up. In the short-term, at least, Mega Man would be an example of the latter category. There would be one last gasp for the series prior to Capcom closing it down for most of the following decade.
Mega Man & Bass (1998/2003)
New Characters: None
Robot Masters: Dynamo Man, Cold Man, Ground Man, Pirate Man, Burner Man, Magic Man, Tengu Man, Astro Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
I am making an exception to my date rule for these entries, because the date of publication for Mega Man & Bass features a significant disparity between Japan and North America. The game was initially published on Super Famicom consoles in Japan during the Spring of 1998. Keiji Inafune intended it to be a gift of sorts for young fans who had not yet upgraded from their Super Famicoms to the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn. North American players, on the other hand, would not have the opportunity to experience the game until 2003 in a version adapted to the Game Boy Advance.
That version suffers from several problems, but the most critical of these is the reduced screen size. Like Mega Man 7, the characters are too large compared to the environment. Unlike Mega Man 7, the game was not designed with this in mind. The Game Boy Advance display simply shrinks the visible area of the screen, but the game is running at the standard size of its Super Famicom counterpart; consequently, it’s very easy to be struck by projectiles from off-screen enemies or fall into pits hidden from view at the time of the player’s leap.
Still, the original release is an interesting peculiarity in the franchise. It functions as a pseudo-sequel to Mega Man 8 despite appearing on older hardware. The game’s initial adversary is a powerful new robot named King, though of course the main antagonist is eventually revealed to be Dr. Wily. The primary gameplay wrinkle is a fascinating one: for the first time, the player has the opportunity to choose his or her character at the outset of the adventure. Mega Man plays as he has in all preceding adventures, but Bass has the ability to dash and fire his cannon in eight different directions (in compensation, he lacks the ability to slide or fire while moving).
Despite ostensibly being made for younger fans, Mega Man & Bass is one of the more challenging entries in the series. Unlike all other games in the franchise, the levels follow a progressive unlock system, wherein the player must defeat one level to unlock new ones. These, unfortunately, do not strictly follow the robot master weaknesses; the player is forced at times to defeat robot masters with only their basic weaponry. E-Tanks have also been abandoned, so rationing robot master powers or carefully seeking replenishing power-ups is required.
The visuals are largely informed by Mega Man 8, somewhat surprisingly. They have been downgraded to work within the confines of 16-bit hardware, but are largely intact. Two robot masters have even been imported from that PlayStation/Saturn game – Tengu Man and Astro Man are identical to their appearances in Mega Man 8, though they have new powers. Sound effects, on the other hand, are more similar to those in Mega Man 7. The soundtrack is comparatively undistinguished.
One exciting new feature included in Mega Man & Bass is the CD Database. Players can collect CDs in the robot masters’ lairs and review these between stages in the menu screen. They offer sometimes-insightful and sometimes-humorous backstory on the robot masters of the franchise. In total, one hundred CDs are included in the game. This is in keeping with the “anniversary” elements included in Mega Man 8 on Sega Saturn and the bonus features included on later Mega Man compilations.
Mega Man 9 (2008)
New Characters: None
Robot Masters: Concrete Man, Tornado Man, Splash Woman, Plug Man, Jewel Man, Hornet Man, Magma Man, Galaxy Man, Fake Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
After a near-annual release schedule, the Mega Man saga came to an abrupt halt in 1998. North American players would get Mega Man & Bass on GBA in 2003, and a handful of other compilations or spin-offs were produced in the intervening years, but the next numbered Mega Man game would not be released for a decade after Mega Man 8. When Capcom finally published it on PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360 consoles in 2008, thanks to the market space opened up by digital distribution services, it would be a clear break with the series’ recent past.
Ostensibly bowing to fans’ wishes, Keiji Inafune and his team faithfully recreated the aesthetics and mechanics of Mega Man 2. Gone were the slide move and the charge shot. Musical cues were imported wholesale from Mega Man 2 alongside an all-new (but retro-styled) soundtrack. Even the game’s garish cover imagery is an homage to the series’ origins. This reverence ends up being something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a crowd-pleasing move to return the series to the last point at which it had been unanimously praised. On the other hand, this brought little new to the table and did nothing to evolve the character past his roots.
Like Mega Man & Bass and half of Mega Man 8, robot masters were designed by an internal team rather than fan submissions. In the internet era, one assumes that Capcom would be too quickly inundated with robot master suggestions. This opens up a first for the series – a female robot master (all others had been nominally male, though you would think robots are inherently gender-neutral, right?). The robot master weapons are also much more inventive than they’d been in recent franchise entries as well; some even have additional properties, like grabbing out of reach power-ups for the player.
One intriguing advancement that sets this game apart from its cosmetically identical predecessors is the presence of downloadable content. Players get a full retro-themed experience with their purchase of the base game, but paying for DLC opens up a host of new opportunities – playing as Proto Man, fighting the robot masters in succession, an expanded campaign with a bonus boss (Fake Man), and an endless mode where the player explores a series of procedurally-generated challenge rooms. Fans grumbled about this, and the expanded content was consequently included alongside the base game when it was re-released as part of the Mega Man Legacy Collection 2 in 2017.
Finally, this seems an opportune place to add a note about Inti Creates. A studio founded in 1996 by ex-Capcom staffers, Inti Creates had made a name for itself throughout the 2000s by slowly becoming one of the most reliable 2D platformer developers. They had been responsible for the lauded Mega Man Zero and Mega Man ZX series, along with a handful of other licensed titles (eventually including work with WayForward on Shantae). When Capcom opted to return to its core Mega Man formula, Inti Creates had been a natural choice – Capcom carried out some developmental responsibilities and published Mega Man 9 and 10, but Inti Creates was largely responsible for bringing Mega Man back to life. Not surprisingly, this small studio would go on to create its own excellent IP, Gunvolt, in the 2010s.
Mega Man 10 (2010)
New Characters: None
Robot Masters: Blade Man, Pump Man, Commando Man, Chill Man, Sheep Man, Strike Man, Nitro Man, Solar Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
Two years after Capcom published Mega Man 9 on the Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation online stores, they repeated that process with Mega Man 10. Little of significance changed between the two games, unsurprisingly. In fact, the game engine and many of the visual assets are entirely identical.
The game’s most noteworthy feature is a soundtrack intended to function as an homage to the entire series. Composers as early as Mega Man (1987) and as recent as Mega Man 9 (2008) were pulled into the project, contributing tracks that set each stage apart. This may have hindered a sense of cohesion, but it was delightful fan service for players who had been with series for over twenty years.
Bass also makes his debut in an 8-bit format. The character had not previously appeared in the NES games from which Mega Man 9 and 10 draw their visual influences, so Capcom had to reduce the complexity of his design. This was largely successful, though the character is a touch overpowered given his rapid-fire ability. Sadly, he is gated behind a DLC paywall as Proto Man had been in the preceding title. Happily, Proto Man is included as a playable character from the start in Mega Man 10 and has his own storyline.
The game’s most significant drawback is that it reflects the latter half of the NES Mega Man series. It is so similar to its immediate predecessor that it offer little in terms of innovation, as had been the case in Mega Man 5 and 6. Unlike those titles, the charge shot and slide are omitted as they had been in Mega Man 9. Like them, unfortunately, the boss powers leave much to be desired.
Enthusiasm was not high for Mega Man 10, and this lack of excitement would prove to be a major hurdle for the franchise. After the publication of this game, Capcom would seem to throw in the towel on its venerable Blue Bomber. A ten year gap had separated Mega Man & Bass from Mega Man 9, and fans were resigned to wait for a similar period once no news on Mega Man 11 followed the release of the tenth game. Surprisingly, Capcom announced in 2017 that it would be publishing a new sequel in the following year on all major current-generation platforms. More tantalizingly, the new game appears to adopt an entirely new art style. Fans are now eagerly awaiting the next stage in Mega Man’s thirty year journey.
As the series was massively popular, readers will be unsurprised to find that numerous Mega Man spin-offs have been produced over the last three decades. A handful of these became significant franchises in their own right – Mega Man X will be covered in a future Franchise Festival article, of course – but others represent interesting anomalies or brief experiments.
The first major spin-off in the Mega Man series was a misguided attempt by Hi-Tech Expressions and Ronzor Labs to translate the series from its console roots to a PC environment in 1990; despite being developed by these small studios and looking like a cheap knockoff, rest assured that this disaster was published by Capcom. Mega Man on the IBM includes an entirely new set of levels and robot masters, though the image above should tell you all you need to know about the sub-par art direction. For one reason or another, the game includes no music at all, so it remains silent aside from sound effects. Scrolling and movement is similarly clumsy. Somehow, a sequel was released in 1992; this was titled Mega Man 3, bizarrely, and is every bit as bad as its predecessor. It somehow manages to double-down on poor quality by including a swimming section in virtually every level and including a handful of badly re-purposed boss character designs from the NES parent series. One really has to wonder how these Mega Man PC tie-ins got made. If you want a good laugh, check out this video of some valiant soul attempting a speed-run:
The next set of spin-offs were effectively other games with Mega Man character grafted on. The less notable of these is Wily & Right no Rockboard: That’s Paradise, a poorly received Monopoly clone published in the NES in Japan. It was never localized in Europe or North America, though there seem to have been preliminary plans to port it to the Game Boy. The other of these cash-in spin-offs was an odd sports title released by Capcom on the SNES in 1994. Mega Man Soccer is a more or less faithful soccer simulation, like the contemporary Sensible Soccer or FIFA games, with the twist that it features Mega Man characters (including opposing teams composed of robot masters). It is sadly marred by overpowered AI opponents and a narrow field of view, and it spawned no sequels.
The third major set of Mega Man spin-offs is a short-lived fighting game sub-series released at arcades in the 1990s. Mega Man: The Power Battle premiered world-wide in 1995 and Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters appeared the following year. Both are projectile-oriented fighting games featuring richer visuals than had appeared in any mainstream Mega Man game up to this point. They are effectively a series of boss encounters from the console titles, including robot masters from the first seven games with dramatically improved animation. Players have the opportunity to choose between controlling Mega Man, Proto Man, Bass, or (in the second game only) Duo. Surprisingly, a combination of the two games was ported to the Neo Geo Pocket Color console for Japanese audiences in 2000. They would later appear as unlockable content in the Mega Man Anniversary Collection (2004).
Mega Man Battle & Chase (1997) is the final nail in the spin-off coffin, unfortunately. This PlayStation game was a polygonal kart racer featuring Mega Man characters drawn from across the series. It’s interesting as one of the only times that many of these characters appeared in 3D environments, but the game was largely panned; Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing were all being made around the same time, setting a higher standard for this genre than Mega Man Battle & Chase was prepared to achieve. Sony specifically prevented the game from being released in North America, citing a glut of kart racers in the marketplace. Only Japanese and European players got to play the game prior to its belated inclusion on the Mega Man X Collection (2006).
Following Mega Man Battle & Chase, no significant spin-offs would be published for fifteen years. In 2012, however, one of the most bizarre spin-offs in the franchise’s history eventually made its way to the Windows PC platform. Initially a fan project by Seow Zong Hui, Street Fighter x Mega Man was funded and distributed by Capcom after its beta form debuted at the fighting game conference EVO in 2012. As its title suggests, the game pits Mega Man against characters from the Street Fighter franchise rather than robot masters. It is a 2D platformer in the style of Mega Man’s 8-bit NES outings (not as faithfully reproduced as Mega Man 9 or 10), including interesting remixes of music drawn from both Mega Man and Street Fighter soundtracks. All Street Fighter bosses have been reproduced in a humorous 8-bit style as well! The game is quite charming, and stands out as one of the more whimsical chapters in this long-running game series.
What do you think about Mega Man? Have you been a fan since 1987, or are you not a fan at all? Perhaps you’d like to see what the series might have looked like if it had been adapted to 64-bit or 128-bit consoles? Who is your favorite robot master? With such a long and storied history, I’m sure there’s a lot to say about the series that I’ve not covered here. Join in the discussion below!