The original Mega Man rarely receives its proper due. Maybe thatís because the tiring proliferation of the franchise has obscured our sight with a general sense of contempt for the little blue guy that retroactively spans all the way to his origins; more likely itís because most people came aboard the franchise with the vastly improved sequel. Mega Man 2 is a masterpiece, and make no mistake about it. By comparison, its predecessor is a strange, ill-fitting oddball that includes elements absent in the rest of the series while lacking many features that would become standards in the later games.
Many things about Mega Man feel slightly off when viewed in the context of the larger series. It varies in large ways (six robot masters rather than eight), small ways (the health and energy power-ups look different from subsequent titles), and irrelevant ways (playersí performances are graded with a completely vestigial scoring system). But most of these quirks are easy to explain: Mega Man was a prototype of sorts for the rest of the series, limited by memory constraints and not yet benefitting from the aesthetic polish that would define the later adventures of the little robot boy once known as Rock.
Mega Manís rough edges are obvious in hindsight. Its music, while well composed, can at times be slightly shrill and often grows repetitive. The graphics are crisp but tend to be bland outside of a few notable spots, and the action often suffers from severe flicker and slowdown at crucial moments. The game balance is rotten; Elec Manís powerful offense makes him practically indestructible without the Rolling Cutter, which can take him down in a few short seconds. Fire Man canít be beaten without suffering some hits in return, and he takes less damage from his respective weakness than other bosses take from theirs.
Yet Mega Man was an important work for several reasons. The fact that it launched a long-running and extremely prolific series is practically incidental; the game was a landmark for far more significant reasons. It was an extremely forward-thinking take on the platformer genre, combining intense shooting action with a Mario-esque cartoon aesthetic. Its levels were individually linear, yet offered players the unprecedented freedom to approach them in any sequence, and were overtly designed around this open-endedness with layouts and enemy patterns that accounted for the presence of any combination of the weapons acquired through clearing other levels. It operated within its own internally consistent rules of physics and platforming, forcing players to deal with shockingly dynamic challenges such as the maddening drop lifts in Guts Manís stage or the yawning pit in Ice Manís level that could only be crossed by leaping across hovering platforms that occasionally took potshots at the playeróunless, of course, you simply skipped it with the Magnet Beam.
In the context of a 1987 game, Mega Man was nothing short of amazing. Its visuals were bold and packed with personality; the hero had an adorable design and a touch of personality (he blinked when standing idle!). The robot enemies were equally endearing, be it the scowling penguin suicide bombers or the mohawk-wearing Bomb Man. And given its memory limitations, the game threw out some genuinely impressive visuals at times, most notably with the infamously difficult Yellow Devil, which looked so amazing in its time that players were almost too distracted to learn the timing of its construction/deconstruction pattern.
Perhaps most importantly, Mega Man was one of Capcomís first internally developed NES games, and one of its first creations specifically for NES. Before Mega Man, most of the companyís NES output had consisted of arcade conversions ported with stunning incompetence by contract studio Micronics. While a few decent releases managed to sneak out under the Capcom banner -- most notably the creative reinvention of arcade shooter Section-Z -- Capcom was hardly synonymous with quality. Mega Man marked a sea change, the point at which the company came to recognize the home console market as a force to be reckoned with and began pouring both creative and financial resources into its NES development efforts.
Itís fitting, then, that Mega Man has become a sort of mascot for Capcom. In many ways, his debut adventure marked the beginning of Capcom as a console developer worthy of attention and adoration. Here is the demarcation between the companyís unsteady formative years and its ascent to gaming superpower. Whatever the future holds for Mega Man, his past contains a legacy of excellence... as it has right from the very start.