April 15, 2023



Mega Man is a gaming franchise developed by Capcom. The series centered on the titular little blue robot boy who had a blaster mounted on his arm. He was created and named Rock by benevolent roboticist Dr. Thomas Light as a lab assistant, along with his “sister”, Roll, and their robot dog, Rush. Additionally, humanoid robots known as the Robot Masters were created by Dr. Light to assist humanity in the year 20XX. However, Dr. Light’s rival, Dr. Albert Wily, reprogrammed several of Dr. Light’s robots to assist him in taking over the world. Reluctantly, Dr. Light converted Rock into Mega Man in order to stop Wily and the renegade robots.

Dr. Light and Mega Man.

By the mid-1980s, Capcom had established itself as a leader in the arcade game market. However, they were looking to expand their operations from arcade games and ports to original games made specifically for the Japanese home console market. They created a small team of only six people tasked with creating a game that would set itself apart from their previous arcade offerings: director Akira Kitamura, producer Takashi Nishiyama, programmer Nobuyuki Matsushima, and artists Yasuaki Kishimoto, Naoya Tomita and Keiji Inafune. That game would end up becoming Mega Man.

Mega Man in-universe schematics.

Unlike other games whose concepts were basically decided by a single person, Mega Man was instead a collaboration between all involved. However, Kitamura did come up with a particular set of rules that governed the game’s overall design that he came to while playing different games and studying what they did there:

1.      All of the sages should be cleared within an hour and offer some kind of replayability.

2.      Players should be able to select whatever stage they liked in whatever order they wanted.

3.      Weak little enemies should appear in waves of 3 or 4, avoiding mixing up enemy types whenever possible. Each member of the wave would have a different difficulty in being defeated, with the last one being the easiest to skew the player’s perception of the game’s overall difficulty. Enemy placement and terrain would determine the difficulty of each area. 

Cut Man, the original hero of the series.

            Originally, the Robot Master that became known as Cut Man was envisioned to be the protagonist of the series. Kitamura imagined being able to use the boomerang-like scissors on his head to cut down enemies and obstacles during progression. Gradually, more and more Robot Masters with varying abilities came to mind, and he decided instead of limiting the player to one power, they should be able to take the ability of all the defeated Robot Masters. A system was then put in place inspired by the game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where certain Robot Masters would be more vulnerable to the powers of another (or empowered by them, depending). Along with Cut Man, the other featured Robot Masters were Elec Man (electricity), Fire Man (fire), Bomb Man (bombs), Ice Man (ice), and Guts Man (super strength). 8 were originally planned, but memory limitations forced them to stick with 6. Additionally, there were two other robots to face—Yellow Devil and Copy Robot—and a boss rush before getting to Wily himself.

A cavalcade of robots and sceintsits.

            The designs for the robot characters came from anime influences; in particular, Mega Man largely looked like Astro Boy while Roll was based on the titular character from Candy Candy. Mega Man’s initial blue coloring was selected simply because blue had the most variations available on the Nintendo Famicom’s (also known as the Nintendo Entertainment System) limited palette that allowed the sprite’s movements to show clearly, and it was neither an aggressive nor weak color. Matsushima, inspired by Tokusatsu action shows, came up with the idea that Mega Man should change color based on what Robot Master ability he had equipped (after the notion of showing the icon of the weapon on his helmet had to be abandoned). The designs for Dr. Light and Dr. Wily were based on Santa Claus and Albert Einstein, respectively.

Mega Man using Cut Man's ability.

            When coming up with Mega Man’s name, the options of “Mighty Kid”, “Knuckle Kid” and “Rainbow Man” (based on his color changing) were considered. Ultimately, they decided on a music motif for the names (you noticed their names were Rock and Roll, didn’t you?), and called him Rockman. Music was also key in the game’s experience, courtesy of the score composed by Manami Matsumae. She created thematically appropriate songs for each Robot Master’s stage while only limited to three notes at any one time. She was also responsible for creating the game’s sound effects.

            Rockman hit store shelves on December 17, 1987 in Japan. The game was a run and gun side-scrolling platformer where the player had to blast their way through waves of enemies and maneuver across treacherous terrain to reach the Robot Master at the end and acquire their power. Unlike Rock’s primary weapon, the Rock Buster (or Mega Buster), the Robot Master powers had a limited ammunition and needed to be replenished via random item drops by defeated enemies. Players could select any level in any order, and even revisit completed levels. Revisiting Elec Man’s stage, for instance, awarded Rock with a platform generator known as the Magnet Beam. Defeating all 6 Robot Masters unlocked a 7th stage where Rock encountered the Robot Masters again, two new Boss fights, and Wily himself.

The legendarily bad American box art for Mega Man.

            Capcom’s sales department didn’t have faith in Rockman’s ability to sell, but their minds were soon changed by its performance in Japan. An American localization was quickly commissioned, with Capcom’s then-Senior Vice President Joseph Morici having the name changed to Mega Man because he didn’t like the original title, and it was felt American children would be more interested in the game if called that. Additionally, new box art was quickly whipped up within 6 hours that has gained infamy in gaming circles for not only its poor quality, but its inaccuracy. The art featured a wildly disproportioned older Mega Man rather than a boy, in yellow and blue and holding a gun. It would become known as one of the worst game covers of all time, and Inafume has blamed it for the game’s relatively poor North American performance. That, coupled with minimal advertising, meant it relied on word of mouth to eventually become a sleeper hit.

            While sales didn’t meet Capcom’s expectations, they allowed the crew to develop a sequel. Mega Man 2 released on December 24, 1988 in Japan, retaining many of the core elements of its predecessor and beginning the trend of 8 Robot Master bosses. New features included an Energy Tank used to refill Mega Man’s health at any time and a password system that allowed players to save their progress. The game ended up a huge success, going on to sell over 1.5 million copies worldwide and being critically praised by gaming publications. Even the North American release received better-looking box art (although still featuring Mega Man holding a gun).

The ever-expanding Mega Man franchise.

            Mega Man had gone on to become one of Capcom’s top (though often neglected) franchises, boasting 11 entries in his main series along with several spin-off series and appearances in other games. It was only natural that he would soon make his leap into other media—and Saturday mornings…

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