The Blue Bomber: Not Your Daddy’s Robot
Mega Man, Through the Ages
A comprehensive look into the games in the Mega Man series and the innovations they have made.
Platformers are typically linear affairs. You start at level one, and progress through level two, three, and so on before reaching your ultimate objective of The Final Level.
This doesn’t always hold true, however. Some platformers give you a number of ways to reach your final objective. Sometimes, your choices influence the difficulty of the remaining levels, either directly or indirectly. One such series is Capcom’s Mega Man. As a truly prolific collection of platformer games, Mega Man has spawned multiple series, most of them having gameplay similar to the “classic” Mega Man series, but with others branching into RPG-esque gameplay.
The original game was released by legendary Japanese game developers Capcom in 1987 [ 1 ]. Much like many action games, the plot is something of an “excuse for gameplay” plot. The short version is, “Mega Man has to stop rebelling robots, led by Dr. Wily, from taking over the world.” According to the U.S. version’s instruction manual, Dr. Light and his assistant, Dr. Wily, create Mega Man (or Rockman in the Japanese version), along with six other robots dedicated to performing various tasks in dangerous areas. Dr. Wily betrays Dr. Light and reprograms all of the robots except Mega Man. It’s up to Mega Man, “The Blue Bomber,” to equip himself with an Arm Cannon and move out to stop Dr. Wily.
To do this, you’ll go through a total of 10 levels. Each of the first six levels contains one of the stolen robots, and the final four levels take you through Dr. Wily’s domain. The unique twist of the Mega Man series is two-fold. First, you can take on the first six levels in any order. In this installment, you can also revisit stages you’ve already beaten—indeed, depending on where you start, you may be forced to. The second twist is that, upon beating a robot master, you acquire a power related to that robot. Beating Elec Man, for instance, gives you the power to shoot electricity. You can swap collected powers at any time, but each has a limited amount of ammunition. Each robot master is weak to a specific power, meaning there’s an optimal sequence, and entry point in the sequence, to do the levels in.
While Metroid allowed free exploration, and the Legend of Zelda somewhat unintentionally allowed the same to a degree, an action game consciously allowing multiple orders to complete its levels was a novel idea. Later games like Power Blade and Shatterhand would allow the same, though the end result was largely cosmetic, since you didn’t collect powers at the end of each level. More recently, Rokko-Chan is basically “Mega Man but a woman,” and Mighty No. 9, from former Capcom employee Keiji Inafune (who is widely, if somewhat erroneously [ 2 ], credited as the creator of Mega Man) attempted to be to Mega Man what Bobby Prince’s compositions for Doom were [ 3 ] to ’80s and ’90s metal (sadly, this would not hold true). GamesRadar credits Mega Man’s selectable levels with laying the basis [ 4 ] for games like Red Dead Redemption—open-world games with multiple missions, many of them optional, that you can do in a number of orders.
Being the first game in the series, Mega Man contains some early weirdness not found in any of the other games. For one, there are only six robot masters instead of the eight that would become the norm in later games. For another, the game has a useless points system—there’s no high score table in the game (though the game does keep track of your highest score), and you don’t get anything for passing certain point thresholds. You also have unlimited continues, making the points even more useless.
A Sequel Rides Forth
Although Mega Man’s sales surpassed Capcom’s expectations, it wasn’t an immediate success. As such, the sequel only happened because Inafune and company worked on it in their spare time, as Capcom had other priorities. The end result is something much closer to what would later become the “Mega Man formula.” After his defeat in the first game, Dr. Wily constructs eight new robots to defeat Mega Man. He also, for the first time, shows off his sinister Skull Castle, which he flies off to after Mega Man defeats the robot masters. To counter this, in addition to the robot powers, Dr. Light gives Mega Man three specific items to increase his mobility—a rising platform, a jet sled, and a platform that clings to walls and slowly climbs up them. Also, the strict rock-paper-scissors sequence of the first game takes a hiatus here and wouldn’t return for another two games.
For the American release of Mega Man 2, there was a “normal” difficulty added, which was actually an “easy” mode compared to the default Japanese difficulty; that mode made it to the States as the “difficult” mode.
Thanks in part to Nintendo Power coverage in Issue #7, July/August 1989—incidentally the first issue I remember having as a child [ 5 ]—Mega Man 2 was a runaway success. It was the first experience many U.S. gamers had with the Blue Bomber, as the first Mega Man was more of a sleeper hit than a clear-cut winner. This incredible success caused Capcom to reinvest in the property, green-lighting sequel after sequel. In all, another eight games in the “classic” series would be produced.
Mega Man 3
Of the games in the classic series, Mega Man 3 is noteworthy for its plot, in which a supposedly reformed Dr. Wily and Dr. Light work together to build a peacekeeping robot, Gamma. Mega Man is sent out to retrieve Power Crystals from eight renegade Robot Masters. Alas, it turns out to all be a trick by Dr. Wily, as he runs off with Gamma after playing through another set of “Doc Robot” levels. Mega Man titles 4 through 6 would repeat this basic setup of “You thought it was a new villain BUT IT WAS ME! DR. WILY!” with decreasing plausibility. By Mega Man 6, Dr. Wily is more or less using Groucho Marx glasses [ 6 ] to disguise himself as “Mr. X” at the game’s onset.
Mega Man 3 introduced and revised a few elements of the series. The numbered items Dr. Light gives you have been replaced with Rush, the robot canine, who can transform into a variety of items including a trampoline and a jet. Mega Man can also slide for the first time, which gives him a way to travel more quickly, as well as a way to get underneath attacks.
Change on the Horizon
The pretense for Mega Man 4’s showdown with Wily is that a new doctor, Dr. Cossack, has created eight robots to defeat Mega Man. This time around, the new innovation is the Mega Buster. For the first time, Mega Man can charge up his default weapon to release a powerful shot. It’s this first incarnation of the Mega Buster that’s the fairest in the classic series—strong enough to be useful without being so strong that it trivializes the game, as it would in Mega Man 5 and 6 in particular.
Mega Man got a bit of a revival in Mega Man 9 and 10 in the late 2000s/early 2010s. These consciously threw back to Mega Man 2—the slide and Mega Buster were eliminated. In the case of the latter, this was to encourage players to try out the various special weapons obtained by beating the Robot Masters throughout the stages, instead of just powering through everything with the Mega Buster [ 7 ]. Mega Man 9 came about thanks to the rise of services such as Nintendo’s Virtual Console, which introduced a new generation to classic-style games without having to rely on the use of emulators and illegal game ROMs. But it was Mega Man 9’s success that established that there was a market for new “retro-style” games. DuckTales: Remastered, Double Dragon Neon, and Shovel Knight, all of which are either remastered versions of classic games or new ones with a retro aesthetic, are games that would probably not exist if not for Mega Man 9.
Mega Man X, a Return
The “classic” Mega Man series is but one of the many arms of the franchise, though. In 1993, the first Mega Man X game [ 8 ] was released for the Super Nintendo. Mega Man X takes place roughly 100 years after the classic series. Dr. Light’s final creation, Mega Man X, is unearthed years after his death by Dr. Cain. X has the ability to think for himself, among other abilities. With X’s help, Dr. Cain constructs additional robots like X, called Reploids. Soon, though, some of them begin to turn “Maverick,” attacking other Reploids and humans. Dr. Cain forms a group of “Maverick Hunters” to deal with this, led by Sigma, one of the most powerful Reploids. Of course, the nightmare scenario comes true—Sigma turns Maverick. X becomes a Maverick Hunter, and the unit is led by a new robot, Zero. The game picks up here.
Widely considered to be an excellent addition to the franchise and a solid introduction of the series to the 16-bit gaming era, Mega Man X is the best example of “the same, but more” in the Mega Man series. Besides the classic “beat the robots, acquire their powers” gameplay, there are a number of upgrades for X to collect. One, for instance, gives him the ability to dash, while another powers up his X-Buster, allowing him to charge up all of the weapons, not just his Buster. X can also cling to and jump off walls, adding a more vertical element to the gameplay.
The other big addition to the series is the character of Zero. Whereas Mega Man X looks more-or-less like classic Mega Man (at least in his base, non-upgraded form), Zero has long, blond hair, and is colored red. Inafune created Zero, intending for him to become the main protagonist of the series. He eventually realized that Zero’s design was too radical a departure and made X the main playable character while giving Zero all the cool stuff to do [ 2 ].
A New Main Character Adds to the Roster
With Mega Man X3, Zero would become a playable character for the first time in a limited capacity. You could call on Zero once per stage, providing he didn’t die. Mega Man X4 would provide Zero with his first fully playable campaign, which was frankly a lot more fun than playing as X. Being able to buzzsaw through things with Zero’s lightsaber more than made up for his lack of a Buster. Finally, Mega Man X7 (otherwise best known for the “wonderful” voice acting [ 9 ] made Zero the main character, of a sort—he and another Reploid named Axl are the two selectable characters at the onset, X himself not becoming playable until you beat the game.
The X series would span eight games, although Inafune intended X5 to be the final game [ 10 ]. Capcom, being Capcom, ignored him and went on to make three more games in the series regardless. X6 and X7 are regarded as being terrible—the voice acting in X7 is indicative of the quality of the rest of the game—while X8 got a more mixed reception.
Mega Man Takes to Portable Systems
Mega Man has been a mainstay on portable systems since the early 1990s, as there were five titles on the Game Boy. With the exception of Mega Man V, which features original robot masters, most of them are scaled down mash-ups of the NES games with one or two original late-game bosses. Two Mega Man Xtreme games on the Game Boy Color were a similar scaling down of the X games (although Xtreme 2 does allow playing as Zero). The more interesting portable series is Mega Man Zero, in which everyone’s favorite repeatedly dying saber-wielding hero gets the spotlight for four games. One-hundred years after the events of the X series, Zero is revived to help stop a genocide against the Reploids. The ruling government of Neo Arcadia has ordered the slaughter of innocent Reploids to reduce energy consumption. Zero doesn’t remember who he is at first but is filled in as the game progresses.
The Zero series is regarded as being a step up in difficulty from the other platformer Mega Man games. Instead of “beat the Maverick, get their power,” the gameplay is more mission-based, with upgradeable weapons based on how long you use them.
Also on the Game Boy Advance were six games in the Mega Man Battle Network series. This is a tactical RPG series that posits an alternate Mega Man reality where the advances in robotics are replaced by advances in network technology, allowing an AI to jack into the internet and move around as if it were a physical world. In four of the six games, some of the NetNavis (basically a companion that goes into the Internet with the AI) were designed by Capcom of Japan contest winners, bringing back a tradition that began with Mega Man 2 and continued through Mega Man 8.
Mega Man Loves Its Fans
Indeed, one of the contests even made its way to North America (Mega Man 6’s contest was featured in Nintendo Power; two Robot Masters from that game, Knight Man and Wind Man, were designed by NP readers) [ 11 ]. These “Design a Robot Master” contests were a pre-internet way to involve fans in the development of the games. In that sense, the Mega Man games were pioneering. Nowadays, with the instant feedback of the internet, frequent game patches, and Kickstarter backer rewards, fan influence on games is common. This was much less common in 1988, when the latter two items didn’t exist, and the first was not yet a widely-consumed product.
Mega Man even had a fan game graduate to Capcom-endorsed status. For the 25th anniversary of Mega Man, a fan project, Mega Man X Street Fighter, was released on Capcom’s website [ 12 ]. This game took various Street Fighter characters and, keeping the spirit of their fighting styles, turned them into Mega Man bosses. The music of the game consists of Street Fighter (And, in one case, Final Fight) music done in an 8-bit Mega Man style.
Mega Man has been on many systems, in many forms. With Inafune leaving Capcom, the fighting robot’s future is uncertain, especially with Mighty No. 9 not living up to its potential and essentially being an intense disappointment for many fans [ 13 ]. Yet even with many missteps, other similar games in the style of the Blue Bomber continue to be released, exemplifying his influence in gaming—something that will live on long after the character himself is dead.
- “Arguably one of Capcom’s flagships, the original Blue Bomber set the stage for a staggering series of sequels and spinoff games.” Screenshot Mega Man. Nintendo NES. 17 Dec 1987.
- “X (as the second iteration is called) has earned his place as an icon, seen here in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, wielding Captain America’s shield.” Screenshot. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. Capcom, 19 Sept 2017.
- “A fixture in pop culture, even before several anime, and the latest decades of videogames spanning platforms and companies, Mega Man can even be found at New York Comic Con. Javitz Center, October 2018.” Sam Aronov. Shutterstock. “New York, NY, USA – October 4, 2018: Young Comic Con attendee plays Megaman 11 game during Comic Con 2018 at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.” https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/new-york-ny-usa-october-4-1197077065
- “Known as Rockman in Japan, this scale model in Kuala Lumpur showcases the character’s international appeal.” Aisyaqilumar. Adobe Stock. https://stock.adobe.com/images/kuala-lumpur-malaysia-april-7-2018-mega-man-scale-model-fictional-action-figures-display-for-public-known-as-rockman-in-japan-it-was-a-famous-video-game-character-created-by-capcom-since-1987/298648848
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
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- Niizumi, Hirohiko. “TGS ’07: Mega Man Celebrates 20th Anniversary.” GameSpot, CBS Interactive. 24 Sept. 2007. https://www.gamespot.com/articles/tgs-07-mega-man-celebrates-20th-anniversary/1100-6179759/.
- “Doom Music.” Doom Wiki, http://doom.wikia.com/wiki/Doom_music. Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
- Sullivan, Lucus. “Gaming’s Most Important Evolutions.” Gamesradar, Future US. 9 Oct. 2010. https://www.gamesradar.com/gamings-most-important-evolutions/5/.
- Nintendo Power Staff (July–August 1989). “Mega Man II”. Nintendo Power. No. 7. Nintendo of America.
- Jr, Reggie White. “Mega Man 25th Anniversary: Memories of Mega Man.” Mega Man 25th Anniversary: Memories of Mega Man, Blogspot, 14 Jan. 2013. http://gamingrockson.blogspot.com/2013/01/mega-man-25th-anniversary-memories-of.html.
- Morrison, Brice. “Opinion: How Mega Man 9 Resembles… Real Life?” Gamasutra, UBM Technology Group. 4 Dec. 2008. https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/112274/Opinion_How_Mega_Man_9_Resembles_Real_Life.php.
- Ign. “Mega Man X.” IGN, IGN Entertainment. http://www.ign.com/games/mega-man-x.Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
- Metapod. “Mega Man X7 — Flame Hyenard (No Damage, Axl Bullet Only).” YouTube, YouTube, 23 June 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfTsvWTtoiQ).
- “Mega Man X5.” Capcom Database, http://capcom.wikia.com/wiki/Mega_Man_X5. Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
- Press Start. “Interview with a Robot Master Creator.” The Mega Man Network, The Mega Man Network, 16 June 2014. http://www.themmnetwork.com/blog/2014/6/16/interview-with-a-robot-master-creator.
- Elston, Brett. “Street Fighter X Mega Man Now Available for FREE.” Capcom Unity, Capcom, 8 Dec. 2012. http://capcom-unity.com/brelston/blog/2012/12/17/street-fighter-x-mega-man-now-available-for-free.
- Minotti, Mike. “Mighty No. 9 is a bland, frustrating game that doesn’t deserve to succeed Mega Man.” GamesBeat, Venture Beat, 27 June, 2016. https://venturebeat.com/2016/06/27/mighty-no-9-is-a-bland-frustrating-game-that-doesnt-deserve-to-succeed-mega-man/.