As one of the grandfathers of the side scrolling action genre, Mega Man serves as the perfect example of how simple but clever design can overpower a lack of spectacular technical accoutrements. More than its contribution to how games were played, it is by looking at the growth and evolution of the Mega Man series, as well as some of videogames' other timeless properties, that one gets a strong sense of how outfits like Capcom have been able to draw on their past to expand their offerings beyond the realm of videogames, while at the same time creating new titles that loyalists can enjoy and new players can appreciate.
In the beginning, the story was really quite simple: Man creates robots. Man turns evil. Robots turn evil. Good robot must save man. That structure, plus or minus a couple of side plots, accounted for the first handful of Mega Man games. But while he may have kept the plot relatively sparse, in developing his blue robot hunter for the NES, series creator Keiji Inafune relied on inventive level and boss design to hook gamers.
Inafune, who still oversees the creative aspects of the Mega Man series, explained that, especially in the early years, the technical limitations of home consoles played a major role in shaping the face of Mega Man. "One of the biggest driving forces behind the evolution of the Mega Man series is the available hardware," he said. "Back in the Nintendo Entertainment System days, there was only enough space to accommodate a simple story of good vs. evil like the one with Mega Man squaring off against Dr. Wily's army of robots. Now, with greater capacity and expression capabilities on hardware, we can put together much more complicated stories, like the ones in [Mega Man] ZX."
Truly, if one had put down the controller after Mega Man 3 and only now picked up one of the Game Boy or PS2 games, much would prove unrecognizable. Quantum leaps in graphical capabilities and memory storage have allowed Inafune and his team to make the Mega Man story denser and richer, and to push at the bounds of the side scrolling action genre.
Mega Man, of course, is not the only franchise to see its structure and lore change dramatically with an improvement in technology. Nintendo's Mario and friends have also benefited immensely from collaboration between old faces, new technology and just the right blend of nostalgia and creativity.
Super Mario Bros. broke onto the scene with the familiar story of a pair of heroes - plumbers in this case - out to rescue a kidnapped princess. From those humble beginnings, Nintendo allowed their designers to build this simple structure into an entire world, the Mushroom Kingdom, populated with various goombas, koopas, toads and Yoshi.
Nintendo of America's senior director of press relations, Beth Llewelyn, explained that changes to the Mario Bros. franchise come from many different people within the company: The goal was always to keep things fresh, but at the same time stay true to the games' roots. Much like Mega Man, developers allowed Mario to change as the hardware improved. "In Super Mario World, they found that it was really fun to fly Mario around, so they gave him a cape. Of course, Super Mario Bros. 3 had several other costumes that gave Mario special abilities. And in Super Mario 64, the change to 3-D gave Mario several new ways to interact with his environments, and the environments themselves were dramatically new," Llewelyn said.