Ballad of the Blue Bomber
The Music of Mega Man, X, etc.
A musical history of the Mega Man X and other spinoff franchises.
As we continue our examination of the intersection of modern “traditional” music composition and performance with that of the video game industry, let’s turn our sights once more to the digital frontier. From Castlevania, discussed at length, we now turn to Capcom’s iconic Blue Bomber.
Mega Man (or Rock Man in Japan) had become a household name by the late’80s on Nintendo’s popular home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. By 1993, the Blue Bomber already had six impressive titles under his belt, and that was just on Nintendo’s initial console in North America alone. Originally created and directed by Akira Kitamura and composed by Manami Matsumae (who would go on to score the first sequel), Mega Man would see his first retro-futurism adventures on the NES in 1987. Mega Man was published by Capcom, a videogame publisher based out of Osaka, Japan best known for the Street Fighter, Devil May Cry, Monster Hunter, and Resident Evil series, as well as countless other properties that established them as a reputable videogame company today. Capcom can absolutely credit much of their success to Mega Man’s reception in the North American market.
The Mega Man series, created in the action-platformer genre of the golden era of the NES, was known for its mechanics, precise hit detection that evolved throughout series, an array of exciting power-ups, and innovative themes that take place in a post-futuristic dystopian cityscape. It created the imagery of a faced-paced, run and shoot experience players were yearning for. The hero is a robot boy created by Dr. Light to stop the evil creations of Dr. Wily, such as the infamous Cut Man or the more obscure Plant Man of Mega Man 6. The formulaic level-select screen of Mega Man titles intrinsically lets the player select one of the aforementioned “bosses’” domains. Each of these domains, or stages, represent a physical trait of any boss. A composer, displaying imagery and visual aesthetics of level design in the form of melodic music, must consider the fast-tempo, overdriven chiptune synth and eventually hard rock and heavy metal driven music that resulted in the evolution of the soundtracks that represent the Mega Man series and all inherent sequels and spinoffs—again tying this series together with yet another intersection. According to a nerdist.com article counting down their top favorite Mega Man X themes, their number one pick of Spark Mandrill’s theme from Mega Man X they claim
“[W]ith an absolute bullet, the Spark Mandrill stage music is so good, it’s almost as though it should be the theme song for the whole game. It builds to an amazing bridge section where every part complements the others so perfectly before reaching a harmonious crescendo, heading to a drum fill, and then repeating. It’s a perfect piece of video game music” [ 1 ].
Processors and Power Grooves
The’90s would herald an era of edgier, faster, bolder, and more challenging video game experiences that North American audiences would discover with the introduction into the 16-bit era. Among the array of impressive titles available on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System with remarkable soundtracks, Capcom would reinvent everyone’s favorite blue robot boy into a more polished, fluid, immersive and enjoyable experience with the initial release of 1993’s Mega Man X. In a development diary from Mega Man X’s creators, composer Setsuo Yamamoto struggled at first finding the right composition and voice for Rockman.
“My mind nearly short-circuited. Rockman and I had only just become friends. I was only just getting to know his world. ‘I’m, Impossible…’ But my mind went on working, until at last, I hit upon it: ‘He’s…. a badass?’ Anyway, the songs for Rockman X are full of variety, the result of a lot of experimenting: I didn’t try to ape the musical world of the previous Rockman games. It’s my hope that the compositions are fully satisfying to a gamer; likewise, I hope for music lovers that the power of the game shines through” [ 2 ].
Around this time, Nintendo’s SNES would prove to be groundbreaking and timeless with its array of platinum selling and critically acclaimed releases including Super Mario World, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in North America). Cashing in on major franchises like Street Fighter and Mega Man, as well as creative licenses for Disney, Capcom was already established as a staple in the video game industry for its development teams and production. Among the highly acclaimed releases for the SNES, Mega Man would evolve into a new legacy on Nintendo’s home console with 1993’s Mega Man X, 1994’s Mega Man X2, and 1995’s Mega Man X3. Many fans of the original Mega Man series (which was still continually an active series in the nineties), were keen to play a different Mega Man, but at its core—ultimately still the same. Among the biggest differences (without discounting the noticeable improvements in gameplay) was hit detection. Visual appeal improvements came in the appearance of Mega Man X’s new archnemesis, the dastardly cloaked Sigma. Known as a Reploid like X, Sigma and his legion of androids, the Mavericks, are hell-bent on eliminating humankind, and it is up to X and the Maverick hunters like the ponytailed swordsman—Zero; and Dr. Cain— a scientist who discovered X in the ruins of Dr. Light’s laboratory and is the leader of the Maverick Hunters. Sigma’s Mavericks of Reploids aren’t entirely dissimilar to the bosses present in the original Mega Man series, except for their animal-like characteristics.
Bosses of the Mega Man X series once again play a pivotal role in shaping the environments, X’s power-ups, level design, and most importantly the soundtrack, coincide to each of their domains. While a different composer has scored each Mega Man X soundtrack, it is still crucial for the composers to consider the musical arrangements that represent Mega Man and his action-packed, fast-paced, and bombastic adventures. Among one of the most recognizable tracks in the X series was that of Storm Eagle’s stage in Mega Man X. Reminiscent of the melodic hard rock driven scores of Nintendo’s F-Zero franchise, Storm Eagle’s stage of relentless winds and hovering platforms needed a certain drive that gave players a deeper engagement with the level and its boss. This ebb and flow of X’s powerful, electric and overdriven melodies was even more exemplary in Mega Man X3 with the sludgy industrial wastes of Toxic Seahorse’s level, or the foreboding final boss etude against the game’s main antagonist, Dr. Doppler. Some fans would disagree with X3 having a stellar soundtrack compared to its previous entries. In a retroware.tv article, the writer says,
“[T]he opening theme played over the intro is not very impressive. Sure it makes sense for what the story is trying to portray, but it’s repetitive and boring compared to the opening track that plays over the X2 intro. The intro stage theme, however, is probably the best track in the entire game. It’s a high intensity track with wailing guitar solos, a driving rhythm guitar, and a great overall melody that gets caught in your head. Zero’s theme sounds great until you realize how short it is. It starts out with a lot of intensely awesome guitars, then kind of just keeps a slow, methodic pace with a refrain that repeats just too quickly. I really wish that the composer, Kinuyo Yamashita, had fleshed this track out a lot more. It has a lot of promise” [ 2 ].
Producer Tokuro Fujiwara was busy assisting Capcom realize the full protentional of Mega Man and the X series, visions for future projects still looked bright for the publisher and the Blue Bomber despite some critical setbacks. As Mega Man entered the latter half of the nineties, the X series had already established three incredible titles, and sequels and spin-offs were on the horizon with the release of Sony’s revolutionary home console, the Playstation—which was released in September 1995 in North America.
Double-Jump from Cartridges
As game developers and publishers entered the late’90s and early 2000s, many were quick to adopt the three-dimensional hype into their existing or new IPs. For Capcom and Mega Man, adhering to the traditional two-dimensional formula would only bolster the X series’ record of accomplishment with flawless visuals, interactive environments, and unforgettable, blaring, fast-faced soundtracks. Sony’s PlayStation would host a wide array of Mega Man titles to choose from including the core Mega Man series, the newly introduced RPG series of Mega Man Legends, and ultimately Mega Man X. However, 1997 would yield the release of SquareSoft’s most ambitious and successful titles in the franchise with the groundbreaking Final Fantasy VII, with this stiff competition coming from publishers like SquareSoft, Konami, and Nintendo, Mega Man X4 would fall under most discerning gamers’ radars despite its critical success.
Mega Man X4 was initially released for the Sony PlayStation and the less popular Sega Saturn in 1997 and would create a new benchmark for the Mega Man X IP, and future Mega Man titles to come. Mega Man X4 would literally and figuratively “change the game” for action platformers, but the future of the Blue Bomber as well. Players were now given the option to play as fan-favorite and alternate hero of the Maverick Hunters, the stoic and stern swordsman Zero. In addition to adding a character select and other additional menus with crisp visuals, the potential for the game’s original soundtrack was tremendous.
With the memory available on a compact-disc, Capcom could not only include animated movie cut scenes in their games, but a fully arranged soundtrack that gave listeners the fast tempo, electrifying, and hard rocking experience heard in previous Mega Man titles. X and his sword-wielding compadre were now thrown into environments that matched the intensity, immersion, and retro-futuristic nature associated with hunting down Sigma’s legion of anthropomorphic animal androids.
With stages like Frost Walrus’s domain, the chilling and ethereal crystal choice of voicing in instrument arrangement truly gives the player the sense of traversing a frozen level. Such can be said about Magma Dragoon’s stage, an industrial fueled, guitar driven, and synth-heavy choice of instrumentation that gives players the sense of being immersed in a level of extreme heat surrounded by flowing plumes of molten lava. The sense of immersion through the intensity of musical arrangement in the Mega Man X series would continue steadily through the life-cycle of the Playstation with 2001’s Mega Man X5 and X6. However, as console technology was evolving, it was once again time for Mega Man to strap on his hand blaster and a new elaborate set of armor for Sony’s next generation of console with the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000.
X on the Move
Mega Man X7 was released on the Sony Playstation 2 in 2003. Now X, Zero, and their new Reploid companion Axl all joined the roster of selectable characters in the new millennium of videogame technology. Visually, the X series had now seen a new transformation which, by today’s graphical standards, may seem rudimentary. Capcom initially opted out of the pixel design of cel-shaded character models, and 3-D rendering was one of the biggest selling factors of Sony’s new home console. While still traversing the domains of Sigma’s legion of Reploids, it is up to the Maverick Hunters to stop to his infinite incarnations once again, albeit not as visually captivating as previous entries. Luckily for X and the Mavericks, the soundtrack, while no longer compressed for space, truly exemplifies what a Mega Man original soundtrack would be, and redeems the follies of early three-dimensional games of the PS2 era.
The Mega Man X legacy would herald one more title before collapsing into obscurity with the release of 2004’s Mega Man X8. While the game was an improvement visually from the last entry, X8 also improved upon mechanics, gameplay, hit detection, and was intrinsically bolstered with another stellar soundtrack. While Capcom may have been revaluating its assets with Mega Man and other franchises, post-release of Mega Man X8 would truly mark the end of the core franchise before X and the Maverick Hunters were to branch out into future spin-offs, re-releases, and portable game consoles.
A Portable Resurgence and the End of an Era
While the original Mega Man X franchise had become defunct by the release of the Mega Man X Collection in 2006 for the Sony Playstaion 2 and Nintendo Gamecube, a small beacon of light shined for X and his compatriots in the release of 2006’s Mega Man Maverick Hunter X for the Sony Playstation Portable game console. While the PSP never received resounding success in the portable game industry, with towering competition from Nintendo and its DS, Capcom had found a niche audience for X and continued to build upon that. While the Mega Man brand had countless releases for portable Nintendo consoles, Maverick Hunter X would see the return of key characters and bosses from the original Mega Man X series. Producer Tokuro Fujiwara and the team of composers and sound designers were set to make Maverick Hunter X as a last effort for resurrecting X into relevancy on the current saturated videogame market.
Stages like Launch Octopus’s sub-nautical base or Flame Mammouth’s molten covered weapons plant were exemplary to the traditional Mega Man X formula, all while breathing new light into the series with fresh power-ups and story arcs. The Maverick Hunter X marked the last original release in the long line of Mega Man X games for Capcom. With much speculation, fans have patiently remained speculative and hungry for a new sequel, spin-off, or remaster for X. For now, many look top the creative communities of game developers, sound designers, and composers to help shape the future of Mega Man X. Artists and fans alike have continually help remind the publishers at Capcom that, despite Mega Man being scattered across entirely too many genres of videogames like Super Smash Brothers and Dead Rising, X has a place in the Mega Man ethos that is in need of more accredited recognition whether it be from its original creators, or the decision makers at Capcom. In a 2014 VGMonline.net review for the Mega Man X Sound Box collection, album producer and publicist Takekuni Uchida shares an in-depth analysis and biography on the composers behind the Mega Man X games that would be featured in the Sound Box.
“It is especially meaningful to us that the soundtracks for Mega Man Xtreme and Mega Man Xtreme 2 were included in this ultimate CD-box and played in the original sound font. After all, it was the voices of everyone requesting such soundtracks from us that led directly to the creation of this product; I’m truly grateful to you for speaking up. I think game music is truly wonderful due to its ability to allow listeners to instantly recall the memories and feelings associated with the places where they first heard the tracks played in the games. The series has its very famous pieces remembered by everyone. But no matter where they heard these songs first, each person is bound to have different feelings and memories from the times they played these games, as well as from the games themselves” [ 3 ].
Mobile Gaming and Enduring Legacy
Although 2002’s release of the new IP Mega Man Zero for Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance was not inherently related to the Mega Man X series, its core content, gameplay, impressive retro visuals, and electrifying sounds and music would drive the amalgamation of the original heroes from Mega Man X, namely X and Zero, into a nostalgic, retro-future romp that many fans of the Mega Man X series were craving [ 4 ]. In 2004 the album, Remastered Tracks Rockman Zero was released in Japan. The album not only included songs from the GBA series but also drama tracks, interviews with sound teams and character designers, and artist notes. Later the same year another album, Rockman Zero Game Music Complete Works—Rockman Zero 1-3 was also released [ 5 ][ 6 ]. Developer Inti Creates found Mega Man Zero such a critical success, that it approved three numbered sequels annually from 2003 to 2005 [ 7 ]. Given recently successful legacy collections on Nintendo Switch and Steam, Mega Man X and Zero have transcended both the original’s lifetime and their own, finding new fans today. Thus this franchise, with its bright visuals and frenetic rock-infused synth riffs, has left a giant cybernetic footprint on the cultural landscape.
- “The Storm Eagle stage soundtrack, with its synth heavy beats and guitar, drives the tempo in a challenge filled arena with shifting winds and merciless namesake. It remains one of the most iconic tracks in the franchise.” Source: “Mega Man X Storm Eagle.” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=UYVf1slBOjU&ab_channel=PrimeraEspada91 Capcom. Mega Man X. Super NES, Nintendo, 1993.
- “With the move to Sony’s Playstation console, MegaMan X4 had an unprecedented opportunity. While still not able to produce an entire animated film sequence to their satisfaction, Capcom made use of the platform’s CD based media to delve deep into a full soundtrack, especially fleshing out the alternate player character option, Zero.” Source: “Mega Man X4 Zero.” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd4cuJh1lxs&ab_channel=Tico Capcom. Mega Man X4. Sega Saturn and Playstation, Virgin Interactive, 1997.
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
- “Ranking the Music of the MEGA MAN X Stages.” Nerdist, 8 Aug. 2018, nerdist.com/mega-man-x-music-ranked-nintendo-capcom/.
- “Mega Man X Development Diary.” Shmuplations.com, shmuplations.com/megamanx/.
- “Mega Man X Sound Box.” VGMO -Video Game Music Online-, 20 Sept. 2014, vgmonline.net/megamanxliners/.
- Gonzalez, Joveth. “Mega Man ZeroRecollections: The Mega Man Network.” Capcom Unity, Capcom, 5 May 2010, Archived from original site on 15 Jun 2010. web.archive.org/web/20100615051241/http://www.capcom-unity.com/jgonzo/blog/2010/05/10/mega_man_zero_recollections:_the_mega_man_network.
- Square Enix Music Online staff. “Rockman Zero Remastered Tracks.” Square Enix Music Online. Retrieved November 7, 2022. squareenixmusic.com/albums/r/rockmanzeroremaster.shtml.
- Greening, Chris. “Interview with Ippo Yamada, Ryo Kawakami, and Hiroki Isogai.” Square Enix Music Online. May 2010, Retrieved November 7, 2022. squareenixmusic.com/features/interviews/ippoyamada.shtml.
- Elston, Brett. “The Ultimate Mega Man Retrospective.” Gamesradar, Future US Inc., 30 June 2008, gamesradar.com/the-ultimate-mega-man-retrospective/?page=7.