Hard Project: Mega Man
You are surprised. No, that is not correct; you are flabbergasted. “Mega Man is an IP for video games!” you scream. “Are you on the drugs?!”
No, gentle reader, I am not on the drugs. I am looking at the writing on the wall, and that writing is not good for the spunky little robot. The last game in the franchise was released in 2010, and that was after a two-year drought; before that, there was another lengthy period of time in which new games occasionally trickled out, but there was certainly no sense that the franchise was alive and healthy. If you disregard the intentional throwbacks of Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, the original series hasn’t had a new installment since 1998. (Disregarding the remake of the first game.) Mega Man’s games are more likely to be cancelled than launched.
Heck, for all this talk of it being a franchise, the parts that defined the initial franchise haven’t been seen outside of Mega Man and Mega Man X; as much as I love Mega Man Legends, it’s not really in the same food group as the original series. There’s a reason why Keiji Inafune left Capcom to start a totally new company for Mighty no. 9, a spiritual successor to the franchise. Because much as I love these games, at this point they definitely qualify as hard projects.
Games have to do more
One of the things I love about the Mega Man franchise is that it’s classically such a simple format. You have eight stages to do in any order, then one last set of four in a fixed order. This has been toyed around with on occasion – Mega Man X included an introductory stage, Mega Man 4 introduced the idea of having multiple fortresses to fight through, the Game Boy titles introduced the concept of having four selectable stages followed by a mid-stage and another four stages – but the fundamental components of the structure have remained in place.
Of course, this leads to a fairly short game, which is by design. You replay to experiment with different orders of weapon acquisition and to get more practice, because the experience itself is fun. You also need practice, because the game is meant to be hard, leading to several deaths before you get used to the gameplay.
So what’s the problem? Well, the fact that you can’t launch a big-budget title like that any longer. The days of selling a new Mega Man game at full retail price have passed.
Our opinion about what a game should contain for the box price has expanded a great deal since the days of the NES. Back then, we were fine with a game that would kill us every five steps, that was the norm. That was how you made games with seven levels last for several months, after all. But over time games have become less about face-smashing difficulty and more about length. Relentlessly cruel mechanics tend to inspire us just to put the damn controller down, not to keep playing until we’re good enough to get through the level.
I first learned to play Mega Man 2 over the course of a long weekend, and I considered it a major victory when I was able to consistently get to all of the boss rooms. It took me a lot of practice to get good enough to beat the bosses. Sure, I was a kid and I was still learning to play games in general, but these days that just doesn’t work as a method of extending a game’s length. It’s seen as cheap. We expect lengthy playthroughs, and Mega Man‘s arcade-happy nature just inherently isn’t suited to that.
Limited design space
How many different weapons can be designed for a Mega Man game? How many ways can you mix up the basic format? How much can you do, in the long run, that hasn’t been done several times before?
Mega Man X was the first game to really push a very different approach with weapons by virtue of offering players the ability to charge up a weapon before firing. I appreciate that immensely. But even there, you have only so many options. There are certain stock weapon types that are popular in part because they’re so universally valuable; most games feature some sort of shield, some kind of homing weapon, bombs of some flavor, and a shot that travels in an unusual arc. The most unique weapons – things like the Top Spin, the Charge Kick, and the charged version of the Chameleon Sting – are often seen as totally useless for much of the game.
There’s also a very narrow field of potential game designs that still feel like a Mega Man outing. Mega Man Zero struggled to maintain that connection, and arguably never quite made it. Mega Man X7, which experimented with free-roaming 3D sections, wound up not feeling like a game in the franchise partly because those sections were so jarring. Mega Man X Command Mission didn’t even try to do the “select your boss, get a weapon” mechanic, and as a result lost that tenuous hold on the franchise component.
Back in the NES days, this was kind of a blessing. Honestly, I don’t think anyone at Capcom was sad at the idea that they didn’t have to re-animate Mega Man’s sprite with every new game or even design a totally new set of code; just toss in new levels and enemies and some new art and go. (Yes, the sequels changed more than that, but work with me.) These days, if you release a game like that, people will be very upset that you’re just offering what amounts to a mission pack as a new title. There are only so many Mega Man games you can make before you’re essentially just mixing up the contents with some slight novelty.
Why would Capcom want a new game?
None of these are insurmountable issues, of course. Mega Man Maverick Hunter X made it clear that you can do a lot with the basic setup. Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 didn’t light me on fire, but they showed that there is a market for these games. Yet still the series sits and stagnates, and it comes down to the fact that Capcom doesn’t really have a drive or a need to do much of anything with it.
You can argue that Mega Man is still the flagship franchise of Capcom, but outside of tossing off something making use of the character every few years there’s no real need or drive to make more titles. The company is obviously happy with its other franchises, which make quite a bit of money, and Mega Man is consigned to a backup character to roll out whenever there’s a need. He’s like Mickey Mouse to Capcom – important, but not someone who needs to be omnipresent except in marketing and reputation. Actual games with him are no more necessary than actual cartoons starring Mickey.
And why risk overexposure? When it’s hard enough to do a good Mega Man game that’ll actually be well-received, why trade on that? Stick with re-releasing the old games that people like as cheap downloads and don’t make any new games that could be received poorly. The classics are inviolable, after all. Nothing’s going to knock Mega Man 2 down from its thrown, so just re-release that with no changes on virtual console and points related.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s probably the biggest problem the franchise faces as a whole. This is the way the games end, not with a bang but with a sideshow.