Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries, which include coverage of Capcom’s other Mega Man sub-series, can be found here.
This week we’ll be slashing and busting through the history of Mega Man Zero. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Header image is from Goomba Stomp.
While specific references will be cited throughout the article, the following two sources broadly informed my text:
- Jeremy Parish for USGamer – “Companions Through Life and Death: The Story of Inti Creates and Mega Man”
- Capcom via UDON Entertainment – Mega Man Zero: Official Complete Works
Please be sure to stick around to the end of the article for an extensive interview with Mega Man mega fan and GameXplain editor/producer Ash Paulsen. If I may be so bold, I think his insights on the series are even more informative than my historical overview!
Table of Contents
Takuya Aizu’s enthusiasm for Mega Man led him to successfully apply for a job at Capcom in 1993. Capcom quickly assigned him to produce concept designs for Mega Man X2 (1994/1995) and co-direct Mega Man 7 (1995) alongside fellow new-hire Yoshihisa Tsuda. Tsuda had already worked as a programmer on Breath of Fire 2 (1994/1995) and would find a kindred spirit in Aizu as both became key figures in Capcom’s game design workshop during the mid-’90s.
Aizu and Tsuda left to form their own studio, Inti Creates, with nine other colleagues in 1996. Inti Creates soon became a second-party developer for Sony and produced an exclusive third-person shooter for the PlayStation console funded by Sony Computer Entertainment’s then-parent Sony Music: 1998’s Speed Power Gunbike. Inti Creates’ second release – 1999’s Love & Destroy (co-developed with Arc Entertainment) – was then published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Unfortunately, both Japan-only titles performed poorly among critics and consumers. The relationship between Sony Music and Sony Computer Entertainment also reversed during this time, leaving Inti Creates without a reliable financial backer at the turn of the century.
Capcom, meanwhile, had come to what seemed to be the end of the line of its Mega Man property. Six hugely successful titles for the character on Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had led to three separate successor series on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and Nintendo 64 throughout the latter half of the 1990s. The original series’ core story continued in Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8 (1996/1997) while side-scrolling shooter Mega Man X featured a darker tone and the generally-whimsical Mega Man Legends was set in the original series’ distant future and borrowed mechanics from third-person action-RPGs. Whether due to market saturation or changing tastes, all seemed to be running out of steam by 2000.
Mega Man Zero (2002)
Two slightly contradictory stories outline the origins of Mega Man Zero. According to Jeremy Parish’s series retrospective for USGamer, which features commentary by Takuya Aizu and Yoshihisa Tsuda, the catalyst for the game was a chance encounter at the 2000 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) between Aizu and Mega Man series producer Keiji Inafune. An interview with Inti Creates staff featured in UDON Entertainment’s Mega Man Zero: Official Complete Works, on the other hand, indicates that Tsuda had been contacting Inafune for years in pursuit of the opportunity to produce a Mega Man game. Whichever of these stories is true, both lead to Inafune asking Inti Creates to submit a formal proposal around 2000; he was looking to wind down Mega Man X following the series’ apparent conclusion in Mega Man X5 (2000/2001). Aizu and his team worked up an outline that saw its then-unnamed protagonist hacking and slashing through a series of 2D stages in contrast to the industry’s broad move toward 3D game design. Inafune responded with a request to make Mega Man X’s Zero the main character – as the producer had wanted a Zero-centric game since the early 1990s – and Inti Creates reconfigured their proposal to accommodate Inafune’s wishes. With its pedigree well-established and a novel concept laid out, the studio was hired to produce its first Mega Man game for publisher Capcom.
As Yoshihisa Tsuda planned out the game world, Toru Nakayama and Azuma Honda respectively designed characters and graphics for Mega Man Zero. Its continuity was based on the assumption that it was set between the events of Mega Man X and Mega Man Legends, so Tsuda was attempting to create a bridge between the former’s highly mechanical urbanized world and the latter’s somewhat post-apocalyptic setting. Nakayama’s organic, human-like character designs reflect this desire, though Inti Creates’ initial approach to the series’ aesthetics was modified by input from Capcom at a Tokyo Game Show meeting early in development. While Inafune wanted Zero to look as similar to his Mega Man X incarnation as possible, Inti Creates sought to differentiate their new franchise from what had come before. The visual design of the finished Mega Man Zero represents a compromise between these two perspectives.
Mega Man Zero’s central conflict was a similar source of tension between the developer and publisher. Numerous visits to Capcom’s offices during the early production process led the team to settle on erstwhile ally X, the protagonist of the Mega Man X franchise, as Zero’s nemesis. X would have four replicas who served as lieutenants. The lieutenants would grow into their own color-coded designs through the work of Toru Nakayama, becoming the final game’s Four Guardians, while the broader design plan would be upended by unforeseen decisions at Capcom. The publisher decided to continue producing Mega Man X games with X as their protagonist, against the wishes and largely without the involvement of Keiji Inafune, forcing Inti Creates to reconsider their choice of antagonist late in development. With only a month before release, they rewrote Mega Man Zero’s script to reveal that its sinister version of X is simply a copy.
Inti Creates composer Ippo Yamada’s experience working alongside Aiku on Mega Man 7 and Mega Man X2 meant that he was familiar with Capcom’s approach to the Mega Man series’ iconic audio design. At the same time, his lead role in producing the highly ambient soundscape of Resident Evil (1996) confirmed that he was willing and able to introduce less traditional elements where appropriate. Yamada was likewise undaunted by the infamously restrictive aspects of the Game Boy Advance’s sound chip. He took television and cinema as his starting inspirations for Mega Man Zero’s soundtrack, using bombastic themes to enhance the drama of Mega Man’s most narrative-driven sub-series.
Mega Man Zero launched for the Game Boy Advance (GBA) on April 26, 2002 in Japan and on September 10, 2002 in North America. Players take on the role of Zero as he is awakened by a beleagured human scientist named Ciel 100 years after the end of Mega Man X’s Maverick Wars. Though Reploids – the descendants of Mega Man X’s virus-corrupted Mavericks – had finally found a way to live in peace with humans within a utopian city called Neo Arcadia, an energy crisis and the disappearance of Neo Arcadian leader X prompted Ciel to create a copy of the benevolent ruler. Rather than restoring the settlement’s delicate status quo, Copy X initiated a campaign of scapegoating and extermination against its Reploid residents using an army of unthinking machines called Pantheons. Ciel and a group of Reploids fled into the countryside before discovering Zero and find themselves on the losing side of a guerilla war for survival at the start of the game.
The Resistance tasks Zero with the infiltration of Neo Arcadia, the destruction of Copy X’s Four Guardians, and the assassination of Copy X himself. These goals articulate as discrete missions set around a sprawling overworld surrounding the Resistance’s underground base. Most missions see Zero teleporting to the relevant overworld area and working his way through a 2D platforming gauntlet before battling one of the Four Guardians and expanding the overworld to include its play area for further optional exploration.
Gameplay is broadly similar to Mega Man X, as Zero’s initial interactions with the world primarily consist of running, jumping, and shooting robotic enemies. Unlike early installments of the Mega Man X series, however, Zero has access to a sword that he can use instead of his default buster shot; additional weapons include the boomerang shield and triple rod, which respectively repel projectiles and launch narrow melee attacks in a direction of the player’s choice. Alongside a hub area filled with non-player characters (NPCs) and its nonlinear overworld, both explorable at the player’s leisure between individual missions, Zero’s propensity for close combat serves to differentiate the series’ mechanical palette from that of its direct spiritual predecessor. Each of Zero’s weapons can also be leveled up through use to have enhanced attributes or be augmented with elemental powers once an associated boss character has been defeated.
As he progresses through the game’s sixteen missions, Zero accumulates Cyber-elves which function as power-ups. These glowing creatures are often discovered tucked away in hidden corners of stages, though they sometimes appear randomly after a standard enemy is destroyed. Cyber-elves confer any number of useful benefits, including restoration of Zero’s life gauge or the reduction a boss’ attack power, but only three can be taken into any given mission; they are also consumable, forcing the player to assess whether it’s worth activating them during a particularly challenging sequence or saving them for later. While Zero’s diminutive allies are more or less a mechanic personified in his first eponymous adventure, they would go on to play a greater role in the franchise’s narrative during later titles.
Mega Man Zero was received more positively by contemporary reviewers in the West than in Inti Creates’ native Japan. The game’s difficulty was cause for both praise and criticism, as it was regarded as the most challenging game bearing the Mega Man name so far. Zero’s small number of lives and a harsh end-of-mission rating system which chides the player for making use of Cyber-elves emphasize Inti Creates’ desire to craft their game primarily for long-term series fans. Happily, Mega Man Zero was commercially successful enough to merit a sequel in spite of its niche design elements.
Mega Man Zero 2 (2003)
Though Inti Creates had not planned Mega Man Zero around the possibility of a sequel, director Ryota Ito had consciously left the door open with the first game’s ambiguous conclusion. Capcom’s request to produce Mega Man Zero 2 in 2002 sealed the deal and Mega Man Zero’s developers immediately got to work plotting out a full trilogy. The second entry was designed to expand mechanically and narratively on the already-ambitious scope of its predecessor. Mega Man Zero 2 was published by Capcom for the GBA in Japan on May 2, 2003 and in North America and Europe five months later.
The story of Mega Man Zero 2 picks up some time after the ending of Zero’s prior adventure, as the hero continues to battle groups of Pantheons in the desert. He is saved from exhaustion by one of the three remaining Guardians, Harpuia, who returns him to Ciel and the Resistance in spite of lingering animosity between the two. Under the leadership of a Reploid general named Elpizo, the Resistance is planning to mount a full-scale assault on Neo Arcadia following the successful destruction of Copy X. Zero is drawn into the war upon his recovery and takes up arms against the Guardians who now rule Neo Arcadia.
While its predecessor was a relatively straightforward story of the heroic Resistance battling an oppressive regime, Mega Man Zero 2 introduces shades of gray to the franchise’s ongoing conflict. In particular, Elpizo’s drive to defeat Neo Arcadia through force is contrasted with Ciel’s attempts to resolve the war through the invention of a new energy source that will benefit all sides. The dangers of power vacuums and the unforeseen consequences of seemingly noble goals are explored through the confusion experienced by Neo Arcadia following the assassination of their cruel leader. Finally, the expanded history of the Cyber-elves and a Dark Elf precursor hidden within the body of the original X establish a greater set of stakes and set the stage for Mega Man Zero 3.
Mega Man Zero 2’s gameplay, in the tradition of earlier Mega Man sub-series, represents subtle refinement rather than a major step forward. Zero still has access to three core weapons – his buster shot, z-saber, and boomerang shield – but the prior game’s mid-range triple rod tool is replaced with the more mechanically-complex chain rod. Zero can now make use of additional forms that alter his attack, defense, and speed attributes if he completes hidden objectives within stages. Technically-proficient players who opt to avoid using Cyber-elves in order to improve their stage ranks are also rewarded with EX Skills, augmentations that upgrade Zero’s weapons.
With regard to its overall structure, Mega Man Zero 2 eschews its predecessor’s open-world exploration in favor of streamlined level design. As in Mega Man 7, the player has the option to tackle four stages and their associated bosses in any order after an introductory stage. Once the first four bosses have been defeated, Zero must complete two plot-heavy mid-game stages before gaining access to a second set of four courses that can be selected according to the player’s preference and a final linear gauntlet of five challenging stages set within Neo Arcadia. While the Resistance base still serves as an explorable hub featuring NPCs with whom Zero can converse, there is no explorable overworld; stages are instead chosen from a menu within the Resistance base.
In a rarity for the Mega Man series, multiplayer modes are available to players with access to two GBA units and two game cartridges. These include time attack, enemy battle, and get item scenarios, which respectively translate to racing through a stage, competing to defeat the largest number of Pantheons, and completing a scavenger hunt. The winner receives e-crystals which can be used to improve their Cyber-elves in the single-player campaign.
Mega Man Zero 2 is a conservative game, insofar as it fails to radically upend the template Inti Creates had established in 2002 and features no significant visual updates, but it consistently improves on every mechanical and narrative element of the series debut. Reviews and sales were correspondingly positive, as the game was received better than Mega Man Zero in Japan and North America. The series’ increasing popularity ensured that Inti Creates would be able to continue its planned trilogy with no major delays.
Mega Man Zero 3 (2004)
The third entry in Inti Creates’ Mega Man Zero series launched in GBA in Japan almost exactly one year after its predecessor, then respectively arrived in Europe and North America during September and October 2004. The game generally adheres to the formula established by its predecessors but shakes things up more than Mega Man Zero 2 had done. Its story dramatically expands the scope of the conflict between Neo Arcadia and the Resistance, while its mechanical revisions make the series more player-friendly than ever.
Per Inti Creates’ vision since beginning development on Mega Man Zero 2, Mega Man Zero 3 serves as the conclusion of a narrative trilogy. It opens several months after the end of the series’ second entry as Ciel finishes her work on a new energy supply designed to resolve the source of Neo Arcadia’s ongoing war. Unfortunately, the events of Mega Man Zero 2’s climax – in which Elpizo revived the now-missing Dark Elf before being cut down by Zero – presage major roadblocks to Ciel’s peaceful reunification plan. The Dark Elf suddenly reappears at the start of the game on a crashed spaceship, pursued by a massive robot called Omega and a mysterious elderly human scientist named Dr. Weil.
Weil and Omega resurrect Copy X, install him as a puppet ruler of Neo Arcadia, and subjugate the Three Guardians before setting out to find the still-fugitive Dark Elf. Zero assassinates Copy X a second time in the midst of a brutal missile strike by Weil against the people of Neo Arcadia. The Resistance, now informally allied with the Three Guardians, is blamed for the spiralling violence by an ascendant Weil and Ciel’s efforts to restore peace are fully dashed by Neo Arcadia’s new despot. Zero races against time to find the Dark Elf before Weil can enact his scheme to imbue Omega with the Dark Elf’s Reploid mind-control powers.
While its audio/visual elements maintain parity with earlier Mega Man Zero titles, the gameplay mechanics receive some significant refinements for the first time since the series debut. Cyber-elves are now divided into two major groups in addition to their ongoing classification as nurse, animal, or hacker types. Fusion Elves are similar to the Cyber-elves of earlier titles, as they die upon use and confer either an instant but temporary effect or a permanent alteration to Zero’s attributes. Satellite Elves, on the other hand, function as equipment attached to Zero from a menu in order to produce a change to his actions or the world around him. As examples, Fusion Elf Artan can become a sub-tank used to augment Zero’s life energy while Satellite Elf Cloppe drops life energy for Zero to pick up. E-crystals accumulated as Zero defeats enemies or explores stages can be used to power up Cyber-elves, as ever, or switch some between Fusion and Satellite functionality.
Zero can also now find hovering green panels which, upon interaction, transform the world around him into a digital cyberspace approximation of its “real-world” counterpart. These routes are shorter and easier than their non-cyberspace equivalent, though they restrict Zero from acquiring secret disks hidden throughout stages and negatively impact his end-of-stage rank. This serves as an informal Easy Mode, and is narratively justified through the appearance of the powerful robot Omega on Earth. In an Easter Egg for long-time fans of the series, Fourth Guardian Phantom can be discovered in cyberspace and battled for the first time since his demise during the events of Mega Man Zero. The aforementioned secret disks function as both a source of new Cyber-elves and an in-game encyclopedia, shedding light on the Elf Wars and roles of Omega, Weil, and the Dark Elf within Neo Arcadian history.
Finally, Zero’s equipment and associated systems get another major revision in his third adventure. The chain rod is replaced with a recoil rod, which offers the ability to strike in all eight directions. Customization chips found in secret disks offer improvements to Zero’s attributes when equipped to his head, body, and feet, even conferring major mechanical upgrades like a double jump or passive health recovery. These permit more finely-tuned character customization than had been possible with Mega Man Zero 2’s full-body form alterations.
Gameplay is otherwise quite similar to Mega Man Zero 2, as the player can chat with Resistance allies throughout a home base hub area between tackling stages selected from a menu. In addition to a Hard Mode that returns from earlier series entries, mini-games become accessible once the player has accomplished in-game goals like achieving the highest ranking on the campaign’s final stage or exclusively using certain weapons throughout the adventure. These fun scenarios offer the ability to briefly play as Zero, Ciel, Copy X, or the Four Guardians as they accomplish puzzle, combat, or platforming challenges.
Unfortunately, 80 Mega Man Zero e-reader cards sold in Japan were never made available in North America or Europe. These cards, which could be scanned using the GBA’s under-utilized e-reader peripheral, primarily offered cosmetic changes to the Resistance base and enhancements to Zero’s attributes. For series compilations released internationally on the Nintendo DS in 2010 and Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2020, the feature was added back in to ensure that all fans had access to a complete version of Mega Man Zero 3.
Note: Cover image sourced from Mega Man Knowledge Base
Mega Man Zero 4 (2005)
While the Mega Man Zero franchise had remained relatively popular among fans, Inti Creates initially had no plans to create a fourth title. As had been the case following its inaugural entry, though, Capcom requested one shortly after production wrapped on Mega Man Zero 3. Inti Creates proposed a game set between Mega Man Zero and Mega Man Zero 2 but this concept was turned down by the publisher. In response, the developers opted to produce a sequel that resolves the story of Dr. Weil and brings Zero’s quest to a definitive resolution.
The plot picks up an unidentified period of time after the end of Mega Man Zero 3. Zero and Ciel encounter a caravan of humans fleeing Neo Arcadia, led by a young woman named Neige, following Weil’s consolidation of power and introduction of oppressive new policies. Neige and her allies rebuff Zero and Ciel’s offer of support, as they perceive the two heroes to be responsible for the power vacuum and subsequent rise of Weil within their former home. Zero and Ciel soon discover a plot by Weil to destroy all livable environments on Earth outside of Neo Arcadia, however, and attempt to rescue Neige’s community by taking the fight to eight robot lieutenants spearheading Weil’s so-called Ragnarok scheme.
A handful of iterative changes to Mega Man Zero’s template are immediately recognizable. The Resistance home base has been replaced by a streamlined set of large trucks in which Zero and his allies reside near Neige’s caravan camp, though all functions of the previous games are still available in this new hub area. The recoil rod and shield boomerang are omitted in favor of a versatile new melee tool, the z-knuckle, which allows Zero to steal and use enemy weapons. Mega Man Zero 4’s new weather feature allows the player to alter level layouts and overall difficulty by selecting one of two weather patterns before entering each stage. An Easy Mode, while undoubtedly welcomed by players with less platforming proficiency, is an odd choice for the fourth entry in a series that expects players to be familiar with its extensive backstory.
Among Mega Man Zero 4’s most significant refinements are its updates to the series’ Cyber-elf and form upgrade systems. Where Zero could previously select three single-use Cyber-elves or combine three equipped Cyber-elves with any number of single-use Cyber-elves, Mega Man Zero 4 introduces a permanent Cyber-elf companion named Croire. Croire can be imbued with a power from each of the three core Cyber-elf types (nurse, animal, and hacker) that are upgraded by acquiring and spending e-crystals. With regard to forms, Zero now acquires parts as he explores stages and experiments with combinations of them to generate upgrade equipment. As in Mega Man Zero 3, these upgrades can then be slotted into Zero’s head, body, or feet to enhance his abilities.
Mega Man Zero 4 was generally well-received by critics. While some lamented that the game is perhaps the least experimental of the series, resembling the comparative simplicity of Mega Man X more than any prior entry, others appreciated the new mechanical wrinkles posed by the weather and z-knuckle features. At a distance of fourteen years, Mega Man Zero 4 stands out as the most approachable title in a series often remembered for its prohibitively high level of difficulty.
In spite of Mega Man Zero 4’s uncharacteristically conclusive ending, Capcom suggested producing a fifth entry following its release. Inti Creates was finally able to push back against their publisher, however, arguing that the story arc of Mega Man Zero had been definitively resolved. They instead pitched a spiritual successor for the Nintendo DS called Mega Man ZX (2006). Capcom approved, with the caveat that Inti Creates design a new protagonist “that retained the sort of feel Zero had, but wasn’t Zero himself and rather was someone who had become a successor to his powers.”
While a hardware upgrade associated with switching development from the GBAto DS opened up the opportunity for enhanced audio/visual flourishes, including Japanese voice acting, Makoto Yabe’s character designs were heavily informed by the work of Toru Nakayama; Nakayama illustrated the game’s packaging, making this Inti Creates’ first Mega Man game in which he did not serve as character designer. Ippo Yamada returned as composer with assistance from Masaki Suzuki and Ryou Kawakami while Ryota Ito reprised his role as general director. Alongside these familiar faces, Takuya Aizu’s continued presence as producer confirms Mega Man ZX’s role as a thematically cohesive follow-up to Mega Man Zero. The DS game respectively launched on July 6, 2006, September 12, 2006, and June 22, 2007 in Japan, North America, and Europe.
Players choose between human protagonists Vent or Aile at the start of an adventure set 200 years after Mega Man Zero 4. Roughly a decade before the events of the game, widespread peace between humans and Reploids is shattered by the rise of violent Reploids known as Mavericks. Vent/Aile, orphaned by the murder of his or her mother by Mavericks, has grown up working for foster parent Giro at a transporter service. To repel a Maverick attack during an early-game delivery, Vent/Aile involuntarily merges with a mysterious artifact called the Biometal Model X and is transformed into Mega Man Model X. Vent/Aile and Giro – in the form of Mega Man Model Z – join up with a human defense group called the Guardians to defeat the Mavericks and Serpent, leader of sinister technological organization Slither Inc.
While the basic 2D action-adventure gameplay bears a strong resemblance to its spiritual predecessor, Mega Man ZX is distinguished from Mega Man Zero through its radically reinvented world design. Stages takes the structure of a Metroidvania rather than a set of discrete missions, as Vent/Aile explores a massive overworld to complete quests selected from Guardian HQ following a handful of linear opening areas. New regions become accessible as the player acquires new abilities in the form of additional Biometal tranformations; Biometal Model H, for example, grants Vent/Aile the ability to fly. These artifacts are acquired by seeking out and destroying eight Maverick bosses called Pseudoroids throughout the overworld.
Sequel Mega Man ZX Advent (2007) made its worldwide debut on the DS roughly one year after its predecessor. The development team remained nearly identical to Mega Man ZX, a fact reflected in the game’s largely iterative nature. Graphics, gameplay, and world design are nearly identical to the preceding title, though English voice acting is introduced for the first time in the North American localization. The number of Biometal forms into which the player character can transform is likewise expanded.
In contrast to Mega Man ZX, the player can opt to take on the role of a Reploid (Grey) or human (Ashe) at the game’s start. In addition to slightly altering the narrative, the player’s choice of protagonist alters the attacks of some Biometal forms. The plot initially concerns the player character’s quest to defeat returning villains Prometheus and Pandora, though it eventually broadens to include an insurrection against the world-governing coalition Legion. Master Albert, one of Legion’s leaders tellingly named for original Mega Man antagonist Dr. Albert Wily, is soon revealed to be the mastermind behind the game’s ongoing Maverick attacks.
Though it does not dramatically reinvent the template established by Mega Man ZX, Mega Man ZX Advent does feature a handful of additional quality-of-life improvements and bonuses. With regard to the former, a difficulty selection menu accommodates less-experienced players or fans playing primarily to see the story unfold. With regard to the latter, a secret ending is available only on the highest difficulty setting and a minigame called Mega Man a imitates the style of the 8-bit Mega Man titles using Mega Man ZX Advent characters. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see Mega Man a as a prototype for Inti Creates’ Mega Man 9 (2008) and Mega Man 10 (2010).
Mega Man Zero represents less of a departure from its predecessors than Mega Man X or Mega Man Legends. Still, it carved out its own unique niche by appealing to Mega Man fans who had been dreaming of a more narrative-driven or technically-complex sub-series. Perhaps more importantly for the wider medium, it made a name for Inti Creates. This studio would apply what it learned developing Mega Man titles for Capcom during the first decade of the 21st Century to new IPs like Azure Striker Gunvolt (2014) and 8-bit cult classic revivals like Blaster Master Zero (2017) during the 2010s. Lest they be half-remembered as short-lived spinoffs of the more popular Mega Man and Mega Man X series, high-definition remasters of all four Mega Man Zero entries were collected alongside both Mega Man ZX titles in a definitive collection released for the Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2020. Capcom’s willingness to preserve and revisit its history has made one of the medium’s most refined 2D action-adventure experiences more accessible than ever.
Interview with Ash Paulsen
Ash Paulsen is as a long-time editor and producer for YouTube’s spectacularly popular GameXplain channel and a producer at Geektainment.tv, which contains endless hours of fascinating content for arts and entertainment fans. He is also, as any GameXplain subscriber can tell you, one of the industry’s most vocal Mega Man enthusiasts. In the midst of an undoubtedly hectic schedule, Ash was generous enough to work with me on a hugely informative email interview for this article. Dig it:
Could you please talk briefly about your personal history with the Mega Man franchise in general? How about Mega Man Zero specifically?
I’m pretty sure the first Mega Man game I ever played was Mega Man 3, when I was around six or seven years old and got it for the holidays. I may have briefly played the first two games prior to that through rentals, leading me to ask for MM3 specifically when it had just come out, but this was of course a long time ago and I don’t remember it all very clearly. I do remember that I was absolutely enamored with MM3, though, and played it nonstop after I received it. Unfortunately, I never got very far into the game at the time because I was young enough that I found Shadow Man to be impossible, to say nothing of how long it took me just to get through his stage!
The rest, as they say, is history. I was a dedicated Mega Man fan from then on and stuck with the series through every future incarnation and spin-off, taking a particular liking to the world and characters of the X series. As I got older I would become more skilled and eventually be able to go back and beat all the Classic games with little effort, but it took me a little while to get there.
As for the Zero series specifically, this might be a disappointingly straightforward answer but being hyped for and playing the Zero series was just part of my general ongoing love of and dedication to the series as I grew up. I played every X game, both Legends games and Tron Bonne, every Battle Network game (including Battle Chip Challenge!), and — yes — every Zero game.
I do know, however, that I was especially hyped prior to the release of the original Mega Man Zero because I was such a Mega Man lore nerd and I absolutely *had* to know what had happened to X and how this version of Zero and the timeframe for his world fit into the overall picture (I’d have to wait until Mega Man Zero 3 for that answer!). Obviously the Japanese Rockman Zero came out first, and I remember scouring the internet for every nugget of story information I could find based on translations of the Japanese version’s script, but of course the internet was much different in those days and such information wasn’t nearly as readily available or reliable as it is today.
Toru Nakayama and Azuma Honda’s characters and settings are strikingly beautiful, especially for a Game Boy Advance (GBA) game. Could you talk about a few of your favorite bosses or stages from the Mega Man Zero games?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Toru Nakayama is incredibly talented and the Zero series’ art remains my favorite in all of gaming to this day. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised by this in the least, but as a huge fan of X himself I just loved Copy X’s design to death because it was the only real look we got at what X himself generally would’ve looked like in that style. I love the design of the original/Cyber-elf X as well thanks to his whole badass “digital Jesus” role, but it was just so tantalizing to get a glimpse of what X’s design would’ve been like in the Zero series’ style.
I also have to mention Zero himself, of course, whose design I think is just wonderful and way, way cooler, more refined, and more badass than green nipple-light Zero in the X series. Nakayama’s art of him would only improve as the series went on, too, taking on a harder, more raw look than the slightly softer, “cuter” designs of Zero 1. The only gripe I have is that as awesome as Omega/Original Zero’s design is in Zero 3, it would have been a tremendously cooler reveal and fight if Omega used Zero’s design from the X series since it’s supposed to be his original body…
As for other characters and bosses and such, I always really liked Ciel, Elpizo, and Harpuia’s designs in particular, and some of the bosses that always stood out to me amid the others include Phoenix Magnion, Deathtanz Mantisk, Tretista Kelverian, Glacier le Cactank, Noble Mandrago, and Sol Titanion. As a whole, I’d say either the Weil Numbers or the Einherjar Eight Warriors represent the strongest boss designs in the Zero series when taken together.
I don’t have as much to say about the stages themselves, but I always loved Yggdrasil from Mega Man Zero 2 for the way its vertical design makes you feel like you’re really ascending to the pinnacle of Neo Arcadia, with the music perfectly underscoring what’s at stake and pushing you onward. And while I know this is already a fan-favorite stage, particularly due to its music, I have to be typical and say I really like the Snowy Plains in Zero 3 as well. I also have a particular appreciation for Area Zero in Zero 4, not just because of the way nature mingles and combines with the ruins of Eurasia and the excellent music but also because of its significance in the wider Mega Man timeline, going all the way back to Mega Man X5 and its aftermath in X6. Really cool stuff and a wonderful callback for fans who have been there for it all.
Unfortunately, Mega Man‘s historically rich musical palette had to be shrunk down to work within the confines of the notoriously tinny GBA sound chip. Given your background as a chiptune enthusiast, do you see this compromise as an acceptable one for long-time fans of the parent series’ sound design? Do any specific tracks succeed in spite of (or perhaps because of) their limitations?
This is an interesting question, because while everything you said is true about the GBA sound chip’s limitations and the Zero series having to sacrifice the traditional Mega Man sound to work with it, it’s also true that the Battle Network series existed on the same handheld and yet perfectly carried forth the series’ melodically driven chiptune style, resulting in some of the best soundtracks in the whole franchise.
I’m not sure how to account for the dramatic differences in quality between the two as I’m not an audio engineer or game music composer, but in the end I do think it worked out for the best as Zero (both the character and the series) has always been associated with a harder, more in-your-face quality, which dovetailed perfectly with the more metal-like style of the Zero series’ music, tinny as it tended to be. Fortunately, I think the series’ music dramatically increased in quality after the first game, and by the end of the series I think Ippo Yamada had struck a really nice balance between the metal-like Zero style and the more traditional, melodically driven style established in the Classic and X series.
In terms of standout tracks that are particularly great despite limitations on the engineering side, as you mentioned I’m a huge video game music enthusiast so I think it’d be better if I just listed some of my favorite tracks out by game instead of going really in-depth on individual songs, because I could literally go on forever and I don’t think either of us has that much time!
Zero 1 – Crash; Cyberelf; Resistance; Enemy Hall; For Endless Fight; Area of Zero
Zero 2 – For Endless Fight II; Departure; Crash II; Labo; Instructions; Ice Brain; Sand Triangle; Power Bom; Combustion; Silver Wolf -Yggdrasil-; Supreme Ruler; Awakening Will
Zero 3 – Prismatic; Reborn Mechanics; Old Life Space; Crash III; Infiltration II; Trail on Powdery Snow; Submerged Memory; Hell’s Gate Open; Cannon Ball; I, 0 Your Fellow
Zero 4 – Caravan -Hope for Freedom-; Nothing Beats; Holy Land; Esperanto; Deep Blue; Blaze Down; Sleeping Beast; Crash IV; Crossover Station; Ragnarok; Falling Down; Ciel d’aube; Promise -Next New World-
How do you feel about Mega Man ZX? Does it succeed in iterating meaningfully on the premise established by Mega Man Zero or does it fail to capture its predecessors’ charm?
I’d say it’s a little of column A and a little of column B. By and large I think Mega Man ZX does meaningfully iterate on the premise established by the Zero series, especially narratively and scenario-wise; the state of the world in ZX feels like a natural evolution of where the world and the relationship between humans Reploids had been left at the end of Zero 4. But at the same time, while the ZX series’ art and aesthetics are still great, they don’t at all recapture the very specific balance established in the Zero series. That, of course, is intentional, with the character designs taking on a bulkier, action figure-like style that matches really well with the ZX series’ focus on henshin-style transformations, but personally it just never vibe with me as much.
On the other hand, I tend to like the ZX series’ music as a whole more than Zero’s as it strays away from metal and more into an almost trance-ish, EDM-style take on the Classic and X series’ more overly melodic compositions. I kind of go back and forth on the ZX games’ story, because while it’s a pretty interesting scenario all things considered, it never even approaches being anywhere near as interesting as the Zero series narratively and ZX Advent in particular gets pretty dumb and really confuses/plays too much with what the concept of Mega Man and his successors even is. I couldn’t even tell you what the hell Albert was prattling on about at the end of ZX Advent with Ultimate Mega Man this, evolution that, Chosen Ones, blah blah blah. I would still really like to see that cliffhanger resolved one day, though… even though it’ll never happen.
Are you aware of any reason why Inti Creates stopped producing Mega Man games following 2010’s Mega Man 10? As far as I can tell, the series’ 2018 revival was an internal Capcom project.
I honestly don’t have a clue, and even if I did, I’ve probably signed an NDA somewhere along the line thanks to my work on UDON’s Mega Man art books that would prevent me from talking about it. Even if I haven’t, many people who work in games will tell you it’s usually not a good idea to divulge privileged, behind-the-scenes info like that.
That said, this is just my own speculation but I figure it probably has something to do with the whole fallout between Capcom and Keiji Inafune. It’s widely understood among fans that the Mega Man series began its long hiatus soon after Inafune left the company, and the Game Informer reveal feature on Mega Man 11 pretty much directly established that the company culture at the time was such that nobody felt confident enough to step forward and take up the Mega Man mantle, so to speak. If I had to guess (and I do), I don’t think it was an internal lack of interest in Mega Man or spite toward Inafune that directly led to the hiatus, but more that for a long time, no one at Capcom who was in a position to pitch a new Mega Man game felt like they could carry forth the series in a way that properly respected and lived up to its legacy. Until our Mega lord and savior Kazuhiro Tsuchiya stepped up, that is!
Do you see Inti Creates’ Gunvolt franchise – especially in light of Ryota Ito’s involvement – as a proper successor to Mega Man Zero? Were Capcom to create a new title in the Mega Man Zero series, what would you want it to look like?
Nah. At least considered as a whole, I think the proper successor to Mega Man Zero is Mega Man ZX, regardless of what I think the ZX series got right and/or wrong compared to the Zero games. Speaking specifically in terms of their in-game visuals and how they “feel” to play, though, you absolutely can make the argument that the Azure Striker Gunvolt games are directly and deliberately based on the style and physics established in the Zero series, especially in terms of the sprite art and animation.
But look beyond the in-game visuals and controls and it quickly becomes apparent that Gunvolt and Zero aren’t really similar at all. The former is much more firmly rooted in traditional anime aesthetics, while the story, world, and overall setting are vastly different from the latter. If anything, I always saw Gunvolt as something of a spiritual successor to the original Mega Man and X, but that of course was before the Blue Bomber made his proper comeback, so now I just see the Gunvolt series as its own awesome Mega Man-inspired thing. Speaking of… where’s Azure Striker Gunvolt 3, Inti?! I’m throwing money at my screen but nothing’s happening!
As for what I’d want a new Zero game to look like if Capcom were ever to make one: I don’t want Capcom to make one. Full stop. Leave it alone. Let the Zero series’ legacy as the single best, most complete, and emotionally resonant story in the Mega Man franchise endure and survive. A theoretical Mega Man Zero 5 would just undermine the events of the series and make Zero’s ultimate sacrifice utterly meaningless. Zero 4’s ending was perfect, as hard as it was to accept when I was younger.
I love the Zero games as much as anyone, but it’s because I love them and especially their collective narrative so much that I don’t want Capcom or Inti to revisit them. I’d much, much rather get a Mega Man ZX 3 if they’re ever going to make another game in this style. The Zero series is perfectly fine where it is, and I want it to stay that way.
Finally, could you talk a bit about your experience working on the English adaptation of UDON’s superlative Mega Man Zero Complete Works book?
Haha, it’s been such a long time since I worked on that book… over 20 years, in fact! Mega Man Zero Official Complete Works was my very first art book editing project for UDON, and it also served as a test of my abilities and knowledge to determine whether they’d want to keep on hiring me for future Mega Man art book localizations (and, eventually, full-time). Needless to say, I was quite successful and UDON were happy with my work!
Still, looking back on it, I’ve certainly matured quite a bit as an editor and I would jump at the chance to take a second pass at the book were I ever given the opportunity. It isn’t that I’m not still proud of it — I am, very much so — but there are just things I would’ve edited and written differently now as opposed to then, when I was still fledgling and barely out of college. Still, on the whole I think it was a strong debut for the editing side of my career and it led to a lot other opportunities, some of them among the best of my career, that I am immeasurably thankful to have had… to say nothing of all the wonderful people I might never have met were it not for UDON.
Don’t forget to check out GameXplain and Geektainment.tv for more from Ash Paulsen. And if you’d like to see just how good those UDON Entertainment books are for yourself, you can buy them online at UDON’s store.
What do you think about Mega Man Zero? Which is your favorite series entry? How about your favorite boss design? What would you be willing to pay for a rewind feature in these games? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #93: Panzer Dragoon – June 5
- #94: Animal Crossing – June 12
- Break – June 19
- #95: Dragon Quest – June 26
- Includes an interview with USGamer‘s Nadia Oxford
- #96: Steamworld – July 3
If you’d like to get even more video game history, be sure to check out the Franchise Festival podcast online or using your favorite podcast app. Upcoming episodes include:
- Season 1 Episode 8: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Part 1) – June 1
- Season 1 Episode 9: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Part 2) – June 15