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.
Successfully progressing from one generation of console to the next is an admirable feat in itself, but making the leap from successful game franchise to ubiquitous marketing icon isn’t always an easy one, especially in today’s incestuous and highly self-referential cultural landscape. At least in the case of Mega Man and Mario, this process occurred naturally with personalities created relatively early in the console boom (1987 and 1985 respectively). In these situations, early popularity begat increased exposure, a greater variety of titles and, eventually, more popularity. From there, it was just a matter of some savvy marketing, and game characters suddenly became television stars.
Managing this process is an important aspect of Nintendo’s operation. “Mario has also been a huge licensing success for us over the years – appearing on licensed products or in other entertainment properties. Mario is a beloved character among kids and adults,” Llewelyn said. “Nintendo goes to great lengths to ensure we are managing this character franchise effectively by maintaining the appropriate level of exposure to fuel his popularity.”
Similarly, Mega Man’s father, Inafune, keeps a tight hold on the intellectual property that has proved so profitable for Capcom. “All of the [Mega Man] cartoon and movie scenarios are checked over carefully by the game team to ensure consistency, so there is a lot of coordination between the games and cartoons,” Inafune said. “When we are making the games, for example, we send off a list of new characters to help the cartoon creators incorporate them into their shows. We have a great working relationship. In the credits for the cartoons, my name is always listed as supervisor, and that shows how close myself and the rest of us on the game side are to the making of the series.”
As Inafune and his team relied on increased technical horsepower to improve on Mega Man‘s gameplay, Capcom was able to lean on newly created scenarios, more complex plots and a surfeit of new enemies to populate the Mega Man television programming. Likewise, Nintendo has allowed the natural progression of the Mario Bros. legend to drive “non-traditional” Mario expressions, which include games like Mario Party and Super Mario Strikers, but also a cartoon, a debatably ill-conceived film and literally thousands of toys.
Unlike Capcom with its handling of Mega Man, Nintendo has seemed to truly walk a tight-rope of over-saturation, with many critics and industry wonks openly questioning whether the market might be reaching a tipping point on the Mushroom Kingdom. But, as Llewelyn noted, if game sales are any indication, it seems that the public’s desire for products driven by Mario and company has hardly abated.
“Mario games sell very well, and we have not seen any kind of fatigue among consumers. The great thing about Mario is that while he and the characters from his universe might be familiar, every game is completely different. Super Mario Strikers is a soccer game, but with crazy Mario twists that fans love,” she wrote.
This point also resonated with Inafune’s experience with the Mega Man franchise. He pointed out that while a consistent narrative is an important part of keeping fans happy, it is of even greater importance to maintain a consistency of style. “If [narrative] consistency is maintained just for the sake of consistency, and it makes the game boring, then it’s pointless. We try to reinvent the series and evolve it to make it interesting over time. Of course, we always work to make sure that it keeps the unique feeling that makes it a ‘Mega Man game,'” he said. It is through this line of thought that we are able to draw a line between the original Mega Man, Mega Man X and newer games like Mega Man ZX or the Battle Networks series.
It is in transferring the style of these properties from game systems to more passive media like television or video that developers run the highest risk of losing this feeling of unity. Games are unique in their ability to leverage various stimuli (visual, audio, gameplay and control) to affect our experiences. Often, television shows featuring these characters (of which, both Mario and Mega Man have had several) attempt to compensate for this lack of interaction with improved or re-imagined visuals, an effect that often pulls gamers further from the source material and therefore further from their initial reason for engaging the other media in the first place.
It is not uncommon to hear gamers or game critics bemoan the glut of franchise games or tie-ins, but in fact it is often these very franchises that drive innovation. Strong game properties, while they may be accused of a lack of depth in terms of design (think: Mega Mans 1 through 6), actually allow developers greater freedom to explore aspects of game design they may otherwise shy away from. The ideal example of this is The Legend of Zelda, which continues to be a source of creative design. It was only through pushing at the boundaries of what the franchise had to offer that developers came up with Z-targeting or showed the full capabilities of cell-shading. Similarly, Super Mario 64 and Mega Man Battle Networks were able to take leaps only by drawing on established characters and game scenarios, all the while utilizing a style that was distinctly their own.
With Mega Man, Keiji Infune created not only a cash cow, but also a corporate logo. While companies like Capcom benefit from the recognition and marketability of franchise characters, these same franchises allow for greater exploration between both media and the games themselves. The outcomes of these experimentations might not always be successes, but it is through both the successes and failure that developers and gamers alike learn about where they’ve been and where they might be headed.
Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.