Nintendo Power announced Mega Man 10 to the world when they unveiled the cover for their 250th issue on December 9th, 2009. The announcement was a banner headline over a character collage that was ninety-nine percent Nintendo iconography, featuring nearly all of their most recognizable mascots from the 1980s with Sonic the Hedgehog snuck into the lower right hand corner. Within hours, the story had shown up on almost every gaming blog in every language on the planet, and gaming forum members were discussing the initial details of the game and enjoying the leaked parody cover art. Between December ’09 and the game’s March 2010 release, Mega Man 10 was previewed at press events, discussed by creator Keiji Inafune on Capcom’s Unity blog, and advertised on Xbox Live. It received favorable reviews. Its well-publicized downloadable content went live earlier this month. Mega Man 10 is a good game from a franchise that is older than millions of game players.
It is not, however, a mystery.
When the original Mega Man appeared in 1987, it was as if some bizarre artifact from another universe had slipped into our own. Its packaging is now legendary: a crude cover drawing of some poor bastard suffering from rickets packing a gun in a city where the laws of physical perspective have disintegrated into a pastel nightmare of palm trees and metallic boils. But it didn’t exactly inform the experience of actually popping the game into an NES and pressing start.
When you did take that leap, you were shown a black screen with the title and then another with a ring of six robotic men. Selecting one led to strange cityscapes and industrial ruins backed by strangely melancholic bleeping melodies. The eponymous Mega Man was diminutive, his chief expression an exaggerated blink and a shocked O-face when he jumped.
There was no press push to promote the game before its release. The only “coverage” was a full-page ad in Nintendo Fun Club, the free newsletter that eventually transformed into Nintendo Power. The ad’s oblique claim that Mega Man sported “1 million bits of responsive memory” might as well have been in hieroglyphics. The game’s credits didn’t even have the staff’s full names, just their nicknames. It was a storybook from the future, a transmission from a fictional world. It was a mystery.
The difference between Mega Man and 10 exemplifies a broader phenomenon in gaming and the culture that surrounds the medium. There is a perception shared by players that somehow games have diminished over time. Games are less magical, less unique as individual works of art, than they were during the 8- and 16-bit console era.
You hear it all the time: some millennial trolling on a board wondering what happened to the Sega or Namco of old. “What happened to those Japanese developers that made games so weird and colorful that they were practically narcotic?” “What happened to the blue skies?” They never went anywhere. Mega Man 10; after all, it isn’t really a different game than Mega Man. We just know a whole hell of a lot more about it, and that’s what’s really at the heart of any perceived differences between gaming today and the so-called salad days.
Gamers have much more access to information now than they did in the 1980s. American games journalism was born out of the then-larval audience’s hunger for any content about videogames. Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz started Electronic Games Monthly – not to be confused with Electronic Gaming Monthly – in 1981. They recognized the gulf separating creator from consumer and moved to fill it with the sort of enthusiast publication most hobbies already enjoyed. Electronic Games Monthly, like almost every early gaming magazine, including the previously mentioned Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, was more of a base promotional tool rather than a fount of insider information, analysis, and cultural discussion.
These early publications were catalogs before they were anything else, and while they certainly made those early gamers aware of what was available, they weren’t exactly brimming with information about who was making these games. Whether they were Japanese or American, their origins were still, in large part, mysterious. As games journalism evolved alongside the medium into the ’90s, the editors and writers of magazines like Next Gen and Gamefan started to shed more light onto the creative minds behind gaming. But, even then, these publications only came out once a month. The audience, hungry for more information about their favorite games had limited access to it, which the advent of new media changed.
Throughout the late nineties and into the early Oughts, online games journalism and online gaming communities were still relatively limited in their scope and reach. Online sources certainly started to fill some of the information gaps that were present in the early days of the medium, but they were in many ways still bound by the cycle and role of print journalism. Gaming Age and The GIA were staffed by the types of inquiring writers thirsty to detail the ins and outs of every game under the sun, but these forums weren’t as common as fan sites devoted to individual games and franchises. Stumbling upon some Geocities page devoted to Blaster Master in 1998 didn’t illuminate the inspirations behind Sunsoft’s game. It merely enhanced the game’s natural strangeness by the fact that it inspired such a totemic devotion.
Later, though, as internet access became ubiquitous, outlets like Kurt Kulata’s Hardcore Gaming 101 started to appear, which offered exhaustively researched spotlights on games old and new alike. Coupled with the rise of blog-centric games journalism and a daily news cycle to promote games, it became close to impossible for any aspect of a game’s creation to go undiscussed by the now massive gaming populace.
The other key factor in the dissolution of gaming’s one-time mystique is that we gamers are no longer alone. Something that kept gaming so strange and fantastic to players was that there was no way for them to communicate en masse. Yes, there were MUDs floating around on the early networks, but gatherings of game players were confined either to living rooms, basements or arcades. While the ability to easily communicate with each other doesn’t necessarily equate to a better understanding of games themselves, discussions with like minds certainly goes a long way towards demystifying the medium. Just knowing that someone else besides you noticed how bizarre and hilarious early translations of foreign games were (the coda of “Fight Mega Man! For Everlasting Peace!” springs to mind) made them seem slightly more normal. The emergence of online gaming communities and interacting directly with the press – once the gatekeepers of information – removed the isolation that early gamers experienced.
It isn’t really a loss that gamers no longer live in a vacuum, though. Great games aren’t diminished by the constant stream of news and information about them being released twenty-four hours a day. The fact that games are as common and as easy to ignore as newsstand paperbacks, that they are less mysterious to the non-gamer public, is an overall positive development. More people play, more games are made, and creators continue to refine and invent. We are, at this precise moment, witnessing gaming’s golden age.
We live in a time where games are enjoyed by anyone who can get to a PC, a TV or even a phone. In addition, the tools to actually create them are accessible to all, demystifying not just the artifact, but the process of their invention. Bizarre, quirky games in the old Eastern tradition or Western-style simulations are made in every shade imaginable. They are cheaper to buy and to make than AAA titles. There are opportunities to create games that don’t serve any consumer needs, but express only their creator’s vision.
Mega Man 10 may not be dramatically different than Mega Man, but it is a better game. It isn’t as strange of a game, though. It is less secret and befuddling, and as a result, not quite as alien. Mega Man 10 is a story from Japan, a very familiar, very real place, and it is a story explicitly built to speak to gamers familiar with it and its creators’ history. It is no more mysterious than Sonic the Hedgehog 4, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, or any number of recent successors to games from an earlier, more ethereal time. Our appetites have grown alongside our access and, especially for the serious gamer, we have started to treat games with less gravitas than we once did. Games are better now, but they will never again feel like weird missives from another reality.
John Constantine is a freelance games journalist whose work has appeared on The Onion AV Club, MTV’s Multiplayer and 1UP.com. He is the founder of 61 Frames Per Second and wakes up every morning hoping Chrono Trigger 3 is announced.