Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Is Mega Man Dying?

With the recent cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3, there's a lot of hand-wringing among fans of the Blue Bomber. The last two games in the series, including the odd Mega Man Universe, have been cancelled. Previous entries in the series haven't sold a lot of copies either. What's happened to Mega Man?
First, a little history. In the NES days, there were a few major franchises for Nintendo systems. Mario games were obviously big. Zelda was huge, although not exploited as often as Mario games. Dragon Quest was massive in Japan. The other major tentpole franchise was Mega Man.

It can't be overstated how cool Mega Man was back in the day. Here was a game where you could take on any level you wanted at any time. There was technically only one or two orders you could beat the levels in, but still, it was the illusion of an open world that was so shocking. Most console gamers were so used to linearity in platformers that it was mind-blowing to have a game that gave us the choice of going wherever we wanted right off the bat.

The music was also key. Most game music to that point wasn't really meant to get you moving in your chair to the beat. Mega Man games changed all that with songs that had a cool beat and catchy hooks. After designers realized that you could use scratch noises and static to approximate drums and cymbals like the designers of Mega Man did, all bets were off.

Mega Man games were challenging, although not unfair (unless we include the original Mega Man game). The level design was top-notch, too. Mega Man had everything you would look for in a great series of games.

So what happened to Mega Man? Why is it so hard to see a good Mega Man game these days? We'll examine three reasons.

1) Sequel Fatigue.

We've talked about sequel fatigue before regarding Sega's games and Activision's mismanagement of the Guitar Hero brand, but Mega Man is actually in WORSE shape.

To prove our point, let's open up with Mario. Mario is kind of a whore, so we should see a lot of Mario games in his history, stretching back to 1984 when Mario Bros. first launched, right?

4 - NES (Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 1-3)
3 - Game Boy (Super Mario Land 1-3)
2 - SNES (Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island)
1 - N64 (Super Mario 64)
1 - Gamecube (Super Mario Sunshine)
1 - DS (New Super Mario Bros.)
3 - Wii (Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii)

15 games in 26 years. That's it. That's less than 1 game per year in the main series. I could see an argument made for including the Super Mario Advance series or Super Mario Deluxe in that list, but even if we do that we only have 20 games total. We're still sitting at less than 1 game per year, and that's including remakes.

Now, here's a list of only the action games in the various Mega Man series.

6 - NES (Mega Man 1-6)
4 - SNES (Mega Man 7, X1-3)
5 - Game Boy (Mega Man I-V)
2 - Game Boy Color (Xtreme 1 & 2)
6 - Playstation (Mega Man 8, X4-6, Legends 1 & 2)
5 - Game Boy Advance (Zero 1-4, Mega Man & Bass)
2 - Playstation 2 (X7 & 8)
2 - DS (ZX & Advent)
2 - Downloadable (Mega Man 9, 10)

That's 34 games in 24 years that are JUST action games. That's a lot of games. That's more than one Mega Man game in a year. I left out Mega Man Powered Up! for the PSP and some of the other side games just because I didn't want to be here all week counting them, but there are more out there.

We're not even counting RPGs yet. Do you realize they've made 11 Mega Man RPGs since 2001? Once again, that's more than one per year! By comparison, there are only 7 Mario RPGs since 1996. That's about one every two years.

See? Capcom killed Mega Man by spamming him all over the place. After a while, you start to get diminishing returns.

2) Diminishing Returns.

You'll always have your die-hard fans that insist that Mega Man is still just as good as he ever was, but for those of us who live in the real world, there is a very clear downward trajectory with the Mega Man series.

Quick, name the best Mega Man game in the main series! You probably spat out Mega Man 2 or 3. That's not to say that 4 or 5 weren't good, but 2 and 3 were just that much better. Now, if someone told you that Mega Man 8 is the best Mega Man game, you would roll your eyes and groan. It's not the best by a long shot. The voices are weird. The level design isn't that great. The weapons are dull. The bosses are forgettable.

OK, now which is the best game in the Mega Man X series. You probably said X1 or X2. Why? The bosses were memorable. The weapons were cool. The level design was tight. X3 is OK, but not great. X4 is really neat, but it's not as good as X1 or 2.

It's clear that they started running out of ideas. To prove it, which bosses are more memorable: The bosses in Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 6? What about Mega Man X versus Mega Man X8? Which weapons do you remember more?

Good ideas take time to gestate. You need time to trim the fat off of a good idea. You need time to build on a good foundation. When you crank out sequel after sequel in such a short period of time, you don't give good ideas time to breathe.

So what's happened? Because of the excessive sequel diarrhea that Capcom has fostered, the newer games (9 and 10 aside, mostly) haven't been as good. Therefore, Mega Man no longer carries the cachet he once did. It's no longer a guarantee that a Mega Man game is going to sell. It's a riskier investment.

If you are Capcom and you know that Mega Man isn't going to sell very well because you've mismanaged the franchise, why would you keep greenlighting Mega Man games? It's especially true of weird experiments like Mega Man Universe or continuations of series that only a small crowd liked, such as Mega Man Legends 3. Why pour resources into games that won't sell?

3) No Mega Man.

If someone buys a Sonic game, they expect to play as Sonic. If you buy a Mario game, you expect to play as Mario. If you're not able to, you say that the game misrepresented itself.

With that in mind, name the hero of Mega Man Network Transmission. Now Battle Network. Now ZX Advent. If you were able to do that, congratulations. You're better at this than I am.

The most recent Mega Man games have been doing just that. They've been expecting that people will willingly play as different characters other than the name on the box. That's insanity. When I pick up a Mega Man game, I want to play as Mega Man.

That's not taking anything away from the Mega Man Zero series, which is a fine series. But even that series didn't sell very well and started getting low marks towards the end of its lifespan. The point still stands: If you're going to make a Mega Man game, make a Mega Man game. If you don't want to make a Mega Man game, then don't slap "Mega Man" on the cover in big, bold letters. You're only diluting the brand name.


So, can Mega Man come back from the dead? What does Capcom need to do to revive interest? We'll cover that in a different article.

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