Mega Man was one of the most classic and iconic NES games, known for setting standards in how controls should work and how they should feel, good music, and innovative design. Right out of the gate Mega Man came out swinging by introducing a level select system and the ability to gain weapons by killing bosses, which would turn out to be really effective against other bosses. Mega Man further refined these features and added new ones in future games, managing to make things feel natural and not bloated. Mega Man had a sequel series, Mega Man X, that took things to the next level by increasing the mobility and adding in a more serious story to the games. Despite Mega Man having been the mascot of Capcom and having a long franchise spanning multiple series fans were left wondering why the series was cancelled. The formula seemed complete; great music that motivated and got the blood flowing, good levels that made use of all the skills, controls that (barring very few exceptions) were easy to grasp, intuitive, and effective. What could possibly be missing from this formula?
Despite what many people will claim, a game cannot stand on gameplay alone. Great gameplay helps make the experience enjoyable, but it’s little more than a vehicle; you can drive 3 hours in a bad car so long as the car doesn’t break down, but it’s a lot more comfortable in a nice car. On the flip side, a 5 hour drive through boring, empty grass lands will still be a 5 hour drive through boring, empty grass lands in even the nicest of cars. Like a good car, good gameplay helps make a bad experience more tolerable and a good experience even greater. The problem with the Mega Man games is that they had good gameplay with little content and substance; the games in general have a pretty short completion time with mixed replayability which can only last so many games before the formula alone gets tiring.
While the first Mega Man X game was a great breath of fresh air with faster paced action focused gameplay changing up the formula that six previous Mega Man games used. However, one of the most popular X games (after X1) is X4 because not only did it move side character Zero to center stage as a main character but it also gave him a more interesting back story and by extension character. While most games of the classic and X series up to this point were largely about how the Blue Bomber/X need to stop the villain and his robot minions from existing, Zero’s story in X4 is more personal and involved as he has to deal fighting old close friends (introduced in this game) and the revelation that he caused X series villain Sigma to go maverick and become the villain in the first place. X4’s story is about revealing Zero to be the source of the problems the world is facing and is concluded in X5 when X and Zero fight each other before Zero redeems himself in his last moments.
The gameplay wasn’t the only thing that was carrying the two games as, of the three Playstation titles that play nearly identically aside from upgrades and level design, X4 is considered the best of the three and one of the best of the franchise while X6 is considered one of the weakest in the franchise. I don’t just mean the X series either, but X6 will so rarely appear in a Top Mega Man game list that it will lose out to games like Mega Man Soccer. The reason? X6 invalidates the X5’s conclusion by unnecessarily reviving Zero and clumsily returning things to the status quo. What this means is that X4’s/Zero’s story is returned to a state of being unresolved and stay that way for the rest of the X series. Poorly reopening a closed story leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth and makes people far less interested in playing the game, especially since this story was so integral to what made Zero so popular and what made X4 so good that Capcom practically revisited the story in the sequel series, Mega Man Zero, some of the best games in the franchise.
The Zero series changed up a lot of the gameplay much like how the X series did, bringing in a new fresh breath of air to a franchise that had gone stale yet again. On top of that though, the Zero series is an anomaly for Mega Man series in that it only has four games, but this works out in its favor. The story of all four games in a nutshell is that Zero struggles with his identity and helps a resistance army out to find his purpose, but just as he gets close to finding his place he is confronted with being a “God of Destruction” (again) and claims his own identity by being the hero supporting character Ciel says he is by sacrificing his life to save the world. On top of Zero’s story there is also the underlying story of the games themselves which, combined, help give the player more incentive to want to see things through to the end; the world in the Mega Man Zero is awful and the player is the only hope the world has of being a better place. Each game in the series also progresses an overall story so it never feels like the Zero series devolves into a stagnant stalemate but instead wraps up three series worth of story (much like how X5 originally did).
Zero and his story are highlights of the franchise as a whole largely because the Classic Mega Man series and Mega Man X games before X4 and after X5 ultimately don’t lead anywhere and there’s little incentive to complete them all. His story is by no means a great piece of literary work, but it adds enough flavor and adds to the Mega Man formula what the rest of the franchise was missing; motivation and purpose. The Classic series had a villain that never really felt like a threat, it never feels like Dr. Wily accomplishes much of anything throughout the classic series. It’s hard to remember when Wily commits crimes because they are either entirely off screen or just stated. A good example of Wily’s problem is Mega Man 4 where Dr. Wily kidnaps a young girl, Kalinka, to blackmail her father, Dr. Cossack, into making robots to conquer the world with, but throughout most of the game Wily isn’t even mentioned in the game until after you beat Dr. Cossack when Proto Man randomly shows up with Kalinka and she tells you that Dr. Wily is actually the villain. In comparison, X1 starts with a prologue where the player gets to see people evacuating by car, which already makes Sigma a better villain because before we even know that Sigma exists we know that there is a threat and the threat is tangible.
I think this missing element is ultimately what hurt Mega Man in the long run and why we just see each series randomly end. You might think a lot of other franchises have gotten away without this element, like Mario, Zelda, and Sonic, but you would be wrong. Zelda is a good example of a franchise that provides motivation through the narrative; in Link to the Past Zelda uses telepathy to ask for Link to save her, he wakes up and sees his uncle is off to go save Zelda and so he follows his uncle only to find that his uncle has failed his quest. Ocarina of Time starts with Link having a nightmare about Ganondorf chasing after Princess Zelda and Impa, making it quite clear that Ganondorf is the villain and that his nightmare is an omen. In case that wasn’t enough, the game shows that Link lives a mostly normal life in the Kokiri Forest before he is summoned by the Deku Tree to save it. When Link succeeds in killing the parasite inside the Deku Tree it withers anyway after warning Link of the threat the world is facing. Twilight Princess sets things up similarly; Link is living a peaceful life before the darkness takes over. When Link is turned into a wolf Midna insists he is a divine beast capable of stopping the evil from ruining the world, which begins his quest.
So the real question is could including this element into the Mega Man formula help revitalize it? Yes, I think it could. There are some stories from the Classic and X series that could still use wrapping up. Mega Man 7 ends with Mega Man threatening to kill Dr. Wily, with the only thing holding him back being his programming. This was a defining moment for Mega Man as a character and it seemed like it was just dropped. Bass’ story revolved around himself trying to be the best, and while we can imagine that he never succeeded there was still never a resolution. Proto Man’s power pack was in critical condition and it was implied that it would only be a matter of time before Proto Man died, but what does him dying mean? Does he just run out of power or does he violently explode? We never get to see what Proto Man’s fate was in the end seeing as we go from 8, or Power Fighters 2, straight to the X series, where the fates of Mega Man, Proto Man, and Bass are left unknown. There are plenty of things to delve into in the classic series that wrapping up these elements would bring a breath of fresh air to the classic series. The X series is no different, while it should have ended with X5 it didn’t, and it can’t for the Zero series to continue. However, the Zero series talks about how X and Zero fought in the Cyber Elf Wars, but the Cyber Elf Wars are never brought up in the X series (even in Command Mission, which takes 100 years after the Sigma Uprisings) and are never really elaborated on in the Zero series (it’s just a matter of “Hey, they happened”). Continuing the X series by going into the Cyber Elf Wars would be a good, clean way to bridge the gap between the X and Zero series as well as wrap up X’s story (in the Zero series, he’s seems to have randomly become a Cyber Elf with no explanation of how that happened or why). The Zero series also makes no mention of Axl, X and Zero’s new partner starting in
X7 X8, so if he doesn’t fight in the Cyber Elf Wars it would be nice to see what happens to him. Even if the next Mega Man game was just one where Zero is released, Proto Man expires, Bass dies fighting Zero, and Mega Man is rebuilt into X I’m sure the fans would be more than welcome to accept that new game.