That’s a close comparison, but the Mega Man Legacy Collection lacks one essential piece of a Criterion set: a long and possibly misguided explanation of a film’s cultural importance. Capcom plans to release a physical version of the Legacy Collection next year, so there’s still time to outfit its instruction manual with an essay about Mega Man’s inner meanings.
And I have just the essay.
Mega Man easily rose above the field. In the early generations of NES games, his introduction was a complex cartoon adventure among primitive arcade hand-me-downs and repetitive side-scrollers hard to flatter as original games. Here Mega Man threaded appealing music and memorable stages into a tale of a robot hero whose arsenal of weapons swelled as he defeated foes, each victory offering another toy for the player’s experimentation. It remains engaging, no matter the advancements of the years and other Mega Man titles.
Yet Mega Man's first game resonates as more than an amusing triumph. His is a story of survival in the face of a threat far fiercer than spiked pits or mad helicopter-robots. As he hops those pits or shoots those robots, Mega Man faces a life torn apart by childhood trauma.
The background for the original Mega Man differs between the Japanese and American manuals, particularly when it comes to the villainous Dr. Wily and Mega Man’s creator, Dr. Light. One has it that Wily is Light’s jealous rival; another casts him as Light’s bitter former assistant. No matter the roots of his enmity, Wily’s goals are the same. He fosters a revolutionary army of evil machines, and he steals six of Light’s own robots to lead it. This leaves Light with only the domestic androids Rock and Roll to resist Wily, so Rock outfits himself for combat and becomes Mega Man.
With that, Mega Man’s family is shattered. Wily and Light are his parents; one manipulative and evil, the other supportive but ineffectual. So too are his siblings divided. Bomb Man, Cut Man, Guts Man, Fire Man, Elec Man, and Ice Man all side with Wily, forcing Mega Man into battle against them. He even steals from them, swiping each brother’s weapon and turning it against another.
The game grants the renegade robots no dialogue, but their names tell volumes. Like Mega Man, they’re the results of a broken home, an acrimonious parental split that makes them choose between an ambitious lunatic and an ineffectual sap for their father figure. Each deals with this fractured youth in a different manner, and all of them fail. Ice Man is frigid and distant. Fire Man is aggressive and temperamental. Elec Man is energetic and careless. Bomb Man is repressed and explosive. Cut Man is acerbic and angry (and possibly self-harming). Guts Man is large and overbearing. In real life, he’d devour steroids and drive an SUV the size of a battleship. In Mega Man, he just tosses rocks and goes down after a bomb or two strikes home.
Yet their coping methods aren’t entirely wrong. Mega Man learns as much as he makes his way through the game and gains a new weapon with each robot master he defeats. He completes his odyssey only by using those weapons when appropriate; the Guts Power might remove huge blocks, or the Ice Beam might freeze columns of fire. Mega Man needs the right response to whatever the world throws his way, and he finds it only by emulating his misguided brethren in small and appropriate doses.
Mega Man’s journey grows even more abstract after his kin fall by the wayside and Dr. Wily himself emerges in a keening UFO, his brows bobbing with paternal disdain. His fortress pits Mega Man against aggressive temptations and subconscious insecurities at each level’s end. The first stage summons a one-eyed giant block by block, its phallic implications obvious. The second pits Mega Man against an identical copy of himself. The third slips Mega Man into a watery, womblike chamber where he must eradicate ovum-shaped sentries. Then we come to Wily himself, who capitulates feebly once the clown-nosed chrysalis of his battle chariot is wrecked. He’s just as much a fragile pretender as the robot masters he turned evil.
Later Mega Man games became faster and looked better, expanding the lineups of robot masters to face and allies to recruit. Yet they never reclaimed the acute symbolism of the first Mega Man, where emotionally broken robots strut their armaments and are destroyed. Mega Man Powered Up, a PSP remake, puts a cuter face on the tragedy, making it possible to rescue the robots (in a telling stroke, one does this by using Mega Man’s default weapon). It’s a cuddly solution, but the original story holds no such optimism. As in the real world, far too many children are devastated by a manipulative and unloving parent, and only the shrewd and fortunate can make it through without exploding in a pixelpuff of misspent energy.
In the face of betrayal and abandonment, Mega Man survives. It isn’t easy. His first game may be the toughest of the six presented in this anthology. Yet he can make it through, and he need only look within for the right weapons. There’s real hope inside Mega Man, and it endures just as well as his games.
That should do it. All I need is a byline: Kid Fenris is head of game criticism at kidfenris.com.