Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mega Man Generations

This video explaining why Mega Man X is actually a great sequel was making the rounds (warning: is a YouTube video about video games--jump to 12:11- 15:45 for the relevant bit), but one claim in particular stood out to me. The author says, “Mega Man X is about growing stronger,” and he cites evidence from the game-play and the scripted sequences. It’s true! The Mega Man series has a lot of hidden depth that tends to get ignored. The games are separated into sub-series, each of which takes place about 100 years apart. While the games evolved to keep up with (or even define) modern conventions, the progression of the Mega Man games when examined together also tracks the optimistic rise of a new technology, the unforseen side effects, the struggle to control and contain technology, and the rejuvenation that comes at the end, starting another cycle.

Mega Man, Dr Light and Rush stand on a ruined highway beneath a clear, blue sky as Dr Wily taunts them with his magnificent mustache.
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Mega Man 7 - 20XXAD. Mega Man 7 was the first Mega Man game that took plot as something more than a few words on an interstitial screen. In this game, Mega Man is a bright character in bright world, and the game even starts with a bit of slapstick as Mega Man dons a met hat instead of his helmet. Oh, and let’s not forget the wince-inducing naming schema of Rockman, Roll, Blues, Bass and Treble. The sky is pure blue even with the temporary devastation of yet another Dr. Wily jailbreak. Mega Man is a new creation, a new technology, fighting against those who use the same technology for evil. The comically-evil bad guy always goes to jail at the end, even if he breaks out in the next game.

X leaps above a torpedo shot from a giant flying bee under a dark sky. Some Blade-Runner-lookin skyscrapers rise up in the background. 
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Mega Man X - 21XX AD. The X series was a major tonal shift. It was on the same hardware as MM7, but the palette is completely different. No mention is made of the world previous to this one, except for Dr. Light’s ghostly hologram. X is a bright character in dark world. He literally glows with energy, and his armor upgrades turn him towards pure white, even as the highway collapses in ruins under his feet.

According to the plot, X is lost technology rediscovered by Dr. Cain. Cain clones the technology he finds from X to revolutionize industries across the world. However, the Sigma virus rewrites this poorly understood technology and destroys the earth just as the new automation has finished building it. The future is grim. X sees a future with constant warfare and wonders at the futility of his goal. Does he have to fight forever? 

Zero sits in the rain, alone. A ruined city is in the background
Zero chills out in an underground ruin while a giant robot hand grabs Ciel.

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Mega Man Zero - ~22XX AD? The Zero series starts with a dark character in dark world. The techno-utopian Neo-Arcadia (literally: a new place where people are believed to live peacefully) sentences dissident robots to death while the city’s humans remain mysteriously out of view. Technology is wielded by the entrenched hierarchs of Neo-Arcadia, who use their endless supply of Pantheons to maintain power through complete control, in this case, of energy supplies.
The shining optimism of new technology present in Mega Man is gone. The struggle to control existing technology in the X series has been lost. Zero is from the past, and he is the only one who can dismantle the tight control of production maintained by Neo-Arcadia.

The game emphasizes Zero’s brutality. Unlike X, he gets up close with his sword for the kill (rewarded in boss fights with a shot of your enemy split neatly in half, revealing their inner circuits before they explode). The Zero games have a scoring system which emphasizes Zero’s remorseless killing--levels where you finish under a par time, kill lots of enemies and don’t take any damage get you higher ranks. This leads to a guerilla-like approach to combat: move quickly, exploit terrain to your advantage, only engage when necessary.

Zero’s mobility is reinforced by the nomadic nature of his allies, who travel in caravans and attack remote bases in the desert. They are outcasts, struggling for survival and hoping Zero’s ancient technology can lead them to victory.
ZX (look, I don't name 'em, ok?) is chilling in a verdant forest fighting a snake-monster thing. The trees in the background have faint traces of wiring sticking through. Well, except that one tree, which has a big-ass wire wrapped around it. 

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Mega Man ZX - ~24XX AD? The ZX series got weird. It was the shortest series and probably the most reviled*. It was about technology regenerated, as the palettes started shifting back towards bright. Z and X have become “biometals”, merged with a human, and their collective angst has been toned down.
You explore cities and wilderness meshed together in an open world. It illustrated the tension between this happy safe world of technology but also the wilderness of unchecked Reploids.
However, the game is also about the influence of the past. You collect the remnants of the last series’ Big Bads, and their ghosts guide you. Technology has been tamed again, but will the ghosts of years past let it sleep peacefully? Where will this world be in another 100 years?


*Well okay anything past X4 or X5 is really the most reviled since the whole thing with Keiji Inafune having his creative authority overridden by Capcom’s insatiable desire for sequels really got out of control after X5 (the series went up to X8, unfortunately), but there were only two ZX games, and they were largely hampered by an inscrutable map screen and a blandly designed, forgettable world.