Today marks the 25th anniversary since the release of Mega Man for the NES. It was one of the first games to prominently feature non-linear gameplay, giving the player choice in levels, and it started a format that has been duplicated dozens of times within its own series, which spans a dozen different sub-series and styles. My favourites are still the original NES series (Mega Man 1-6) and their recent retro reboots (Mega Man 9-10) and the SNES Mega Man X games. The format is perhaps overly simple: eight robots are on the loose, each of whom has a realm suited to their identity to get through before facing them in combat. If you beat the boss, you get their weapon; each boss has a unique weakness to another weapon, so part of the fun of the game is figuring out which bosses are susceptible to which weapons. It's a pretty simple concept, and it managed to stay (mostly) fresh despite a lack of variation with interesting bosses and levels and a few narrative developments along the way. The real joy is actually in the simplicity: play a level repeatedly until you can beat it, fight the boss until you beat him (or in one case, her), and use that weapon to beat other bosses until you have them all beaten, only to have the final stages revealed and know that there's a grueling duel with Dr. Wily waiting for you at the end.
I have a lot of fond memories associated with the Mega Man series. Mega Man 3 was one of the first games I ever bought; we had somehow gained a copy of Racket Attack and a baseball game and my dad and I traded them for MM3 without knowing what it really was.
I remember that the first time I beat Top Man, I jumped around in excitement at my victory and my foot hit the reset switch before I could write down the password. I remember renting the other games in the series over and over again, and the enjoyment that I had at beating each boss and discovering what their weapon would be. I remember when I was in Grade 7 or 8 being on a day-long canoe trip with some friends and my pastor, and somehow the topic came up and I ended up reciting all of the bosses and their weapons from the six games released up to that point. I remember rediscovering the games when I downloaded and played through the ROMs in my university years, and the joy of hunting for all of those 8-bit ditties during the heyday of Napster. I remember playing all of those hard-won mp3s with my roommate Schmitty (I really miss him sometimes. RIP, dude.) and guessing which themes belonged to which stages. Every once in a while, I put that playlist on repeat and just enjoy the memories. I remember the pure enjoyment of the release of Mega Man 9 and 10 in the past few years - even though I still haven't finished them. And lately I have been enjoying creating the different robot masters out of Perler beads.
What was it about this little blue robot that meant so much to me? I think part of the appeal when I was a kid was in the puzzle of it all and the sheer amount of information to be assimilated. There was something about the nature of the game that had an appeal like Choose Your Own Adventure books - you could ultimately determine how you proceeded and enjoyed. There was not much of a narrative, but there was something resembling character development in an overarching sense in the series, though it was only enough that each game looked slightly different than the previous one. But what is it about Mega Man that still makes me smile and go back to these simplistic pixellated stereotypes? (Mega Man 6 was the worst offender for this: Tomahawk Man seems particularly egregious, but Flame Man takes the cake.) It's not just nostalgia, because there's something that keeps me coming back It's not that the gameplay is very advanced, or that there should be high replay value like a puzzle game, or even that there's a wide world to explore (like The Legend of Zelda). I think that there's a place for simply enjoying the experience of playing a game over and over again and mastering it (pun intended). There's something in the familiarity of simple set-ups and uncomplicated play that provides a joy to which to return. There's something in those sequences that are "Nintendo hard" that require sometimes hours of play to perfect. But overall, I think it's the idiosyncratic nature of the game design and control that really draws me back in. Mega Man never really deviated from its pattern or style, even when it translated to other platforms, and it's just a lot of fun to keep going back and playing those same levels and bosses again and again. I guess it takes me back to being a kid again, and that's probably the best thing about it: I can just tune out the world for a couple of hours and enjoy the 8-bit bliss of ridiculous robots, just-made-it jumps, and preposterous power-ups. Thanks for 25 great years, Mega Man. I'm looking forward to a lot more.
Just as a little bonus, someone re-imagined other video game characters in Mega Man style. Enjoy!