Capcom gave Mega Man fans a pleasant surprise a few weeks ago when it announced plans for an 11th (numbered) game in the series, long presumed dead. After original character designer and longtime franchise steward Keiji Inafune left the company in 2010, it looked as if the games had reached the end of the line. Nothing Capcom has added to the Mega Man lineup since Inafune’s departure has set fans’ hearts afire, consisting of one unbelievably wretched mobile game (Rockman Xover) and an officially sanctioned fan game (Street Fighter X Mega Man). On top of that, the company even went back and killed all its in-development Mega Man projects following Inafune’s departure.
First, the hotly anticipated, fan-centric 3DS project Mega Man Legends 3 failed to get its green light. Then, Mega Man Universe (which would have been the Mega Man 2 version of the greatest Mega Man game ever, Powered Up) disappeared unceremoniously as well. Franchise development partner Inti Creates went its own way and created the suspiciously familiar-looking Azure Striker Gunvolt, while the character himself was reduced to appearing in a string of compilations and crossover fighting games. Even there, Capcom seemed to hold its own creation in poor regard. Compare Mega Man’s ridiculous appearance in Street Fighter X Tekken to the loving treatment Nintendo gave him in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, which came complete with a brilliant new design based on Hitoshi Ariga’s manga adaptations.
Corporations don’t operate based on spite, but Capcom’s behavior toward the Mega Man property certainly could be read as some sort of petty revenge against Inafune, who publicly burned every imaginable bridge upon his departure. Whatever the case, Capcom’s profound lack of interest in advancing one of its most enduring properties over the past six or seven years — up to and including shooting down pitches from a number of different enthusiastic external developers — has fueled fan resentment and left most people assuming Mega Man is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
In that light, you can certainly understand the excitement surrounding Mega Man 11. Not only will Mega Man be making a comeback eight years after his last proper outing, but the game itself looks like a loving tribute to the tenets of the franchise. Mega Man 11 uses a visual style reminiscent of Inafune’s original concept art for his benighted Mega-Man-in-all-but-name Mighty No. 9 project, with 2.5D polygonal graphics that manage to look artful and lively — a task that 2.5D games frequently fail at. (Certainly Mighty No. 9 did.)
At the same time, the Mega Man 11 footage Capcom has shown seems to emphasize playability over flashiness, with Mega Man himself appearing tiny on-screen. Quite a few post-NES entries in the series have fallen into the trap of making the characters too large relative to the screen dimensions, crowding the action. Even 2006’s Powered Up, marvelous as it is, struggled with that tricky balance.
Still, as someone who's been playing Mega Man since the very first NES game, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by what I’ve seen of Mega Man 11 so far. It looks nice, and I’m happy to know Capcom has actually taken it upon itself to develop the game internally rather than farming it out to a lowest bidder, but it all feels awfully, well, familiar. I’ve already fought a lot of these enemies in settings very much like these. And while it’s neat that Mega Man’s arm now transforms into a new shape when he equips a Robot Master weapon, the one tool we’ve seen so far doesn’t exactly shake up Mega Man design orthodoxy.
In short, Mega Man 11 looks like the older games, except with polygons. That definitely stands a step forward for the core franchise; indeed, though Mega Man 9 and 10 debuted on PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, they turned the clock on design and visuals all the way back to 1988’s Mega Man 2 for NES. Still, it’s not as though the idea of a 2.5D Mega Man platformer is precisely new. Mega Man X7 and X8 did it. Powered Up did it before them. And even before that, there was Mega Man Network Transmission for GameCube, which straddled the line between old and new by reprising a number of NES stage layouts and themes in the context of the Mega Man Battle Network spinoff.
Mega Man as a brand has always demonstrated a strong awareness of its own legacy. At its best, the games have used the past to make a point. The title screen of Mega Man 2 opened that game with a reprise of its predecessor’s ending credits music, which then kicked into a new, uptempo theme that promised a bigger, better, more intense sequel. Mega Man X5 attempted to bring the X spinoffs full-circle by connecting co-star Zero back to original series villain Dr. Wily, cleverly recycling portions of NES stages as part of the buildup to Wily’s big reveal. More recently, Mega Man 9 repurposed classic NES stage segments in order to put a subversive twist on them. In those moments, Mega Man’s fondness for facing backward hit, and worked.
Sometimes, though, this tendency comes off little more than padding or pandering. Consider Mega Man 3, which brought back the first game’s infamous Yellow Devil boss ... after players had destroyed copies of all eight Mega Man 2 Robot Masters. The line becomes especially blurry when you consider all the times Capcom has simply adapted games into new releases, as with the first four Game Boy titles (which shuffled existing NES material into a cramped monochrome format) or The Wily Wars for Mega Drive (which reprised elements of the first three NES games in a barely upgraded 16-bit form). The Mega Man franchise seems mired in its own past, which wouldn’t be a problem if the series seemed likely to move forward as well.
Unfortunately, it’s never had much luck on that front. Capcom attempted to push it into the third dimension 20 years ago this week with the wonderful Mega Man Legends. However, with its open structure and narrative-driven design, Legends has more in common with The Legend of Zelda than with any of its own predecessors. The Battle Network games took Mega Man into portable Pokémon territory and found great success ... but its turn-based role-playing combat felt less like a franchise evolution than a leap into something different altogether. And the Mega Man X games’ attempts to incorporate the third dimension into Mega Man’s traditional platform shooting action may have been well-intended, but the net results landed somewhere on the wrong side of disastrous.
I feel like Mega Man should evolve, but the question is, can he? Does he need to move into full 3D space? If it did, would it ever amount to anything more than a Mega Man-themed version of Ratchet & Clank? Does it need instead to stick with its 2D platformer roots while moving its format beyond an eight-boss free-selection system capped with a Dr. Wily stage gauntlet? Inti Creates tried that with the Mega Man Zero and ZX games, to mixed results. And even if Capcom found a new expression of Mega Man that actually worked, would fans accept it?
That may well be the greatest impediment to Mega Man’s evolution, and indeed to that of many franchises. Fandom can act as a boulder around a property’s neck, weighing it down with a stubborn resistance to change. One need only look to online reactions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi for an example. While negative responses to the film have come from many quarters for many reasons, the most prominent pushback ultimately amounts to resentment about the movie’s determination to upend the franchise’s status quo. Many Star Wars enthusiasts have embraced the idea that the films can once again venture into unexpected, never-before-seen territory, yet others reject that prospect — and quite vocally, at that.
And, really, those reactions simply boil down to Hollywood getting a taste of the conservatism that surrounds video gaming. Many game fans like what they like, and all they want from sequels is more of what they like. From Halo to Final Fantasy to Sonic, creators’ efforts to strike out in new directions almost universally fall afoul of fans who feel slighted by the change. Regardless of whether a new direction works, it’s different, and that doesn’t always sit well with people. We saw that happen with this series 20 years ago in Mega Man Legends: It was similar enough in general concept to the vintage games (a blue robot guy runs around shooting robots and acquiring new powers) to make its distinct differences unpalatable for many.
So I find myself of two minds concerning Mega Man 11. On one hand, I’m happy to see Capcom hasn’t completely abandoned one of my favorite game series. On the other, I feel like Mega Man’s creators have mined their own past enough, and I’d like to see something genuinely fresh and new for the character.
To be fair, we’ve seen only the merest hint of the game in action, and it’s possible that its orthodox appearance hides some sort of innovative gameplay twist. I’m not entirely optimistic, though. Mega Man is too marginal a property for Capcom to be able to risk alienating the loyal fans whose enthusiasm inspired the company to take a chance bringing the series back.
Even then, Mega Man 11 has some high bars to clear to justify its own existence. Not only does it need to improve on its predecessors, it also has to overcome all the games it’s inspired — not just fan games like Rokko-chan, but top-of-class masterpieces like Shovel Knight, too. So godspeed, little guy. You have your work cut out for you.