Keiji Inafune, the most prominent guiding force behind the Mega Man series, has a new and already successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s a familiar setup: A venerable game designer offers to make something a lot like the popular stuff he used to make, as long as the players agree to fund it. In this case, the project is Mighty No. 9, a game that resembles Mega Man in practically every possible respect. The hero, Beck, looks and acts like Mega Man, and the game is structured like Mega Man.
As a fan of Inafune’s past work, I’m excited to play Mighty No. 9. If it lives up to its promise, it could be a fantastic modernization of the classic Mega Man formula. Yet the campaign also saddens me. I’m not saddened by the prospect that Mega Man is dead—Capcom, which holds the rights to the character, has ignored him for years now. Rather, I bristle at the notion, insinuated by Inafune and his team, that Mighty No. 9 keeps Mega Man alive. No, it doesn’t, and if we want to believe that game characters are anything more than colorful renderings of computer code, we have to admit that Mighty No. 9 is a separate beast.
If you haven’t played the games, it’s probably hard to understand why anyone would get attached to Mega Man. He has about as much depth as a breakfast-cereal mascot. (I’m talking here—and throughout this piece—about the character of the main Mega Man series, on which Mighty No. 9 is clearly based. The spinoff series, anime, manga, and such are other considerations altogether.) He jumps, and he shoots, and not much more. He’s silent in his early games, and he has little of substance to say when he gets a line or two. Mega Man is such a blank template of a video game character that when he dons a new weapon—which he steals from defeated bosses—his entire robot body changes color. The paint-by-numbers hero.
And yet to me, this cipher is a symbol of reluctant but resolute heroism. When the entire site went crazy for Mega Man 2 earlier this year, I wrote about how, even as you step into his shoes, Mega Man keeps the player at a distance. The ending of Mega Man 2 hints at a part of Mega Man’s life that we don’t get to see, and that whisper of a private life gives the mechanical boy some humanity. The contrast between the fun of playing as Mega Man and the sense that the character himself is only saving the world out of duty—there are no other viable saviors—has also made the character more endearing to me as I age. He’s an individual with his own thoughts and desires, not merely a vector through which I can get my bad-guy-blasting rocks off.
This is just my take, of course, but that’s the point. Video game characters become what you pour into them. This is true of all fictional characters, but the phenomenon is more stark for a simplistic game character than for, say, the hero of a TV show. While our own reactions and interpretations inevitably become part of a character in our own head, a TV character is also hugely influenced by the actor’s performance (which is the product of her own interpretations). With characters like Mega Man, there’s much less “pre-fab” performance, for lack of a better term. You are the performer. Although Mega Man comes to you pretty empty, you build up a personal lore. And millions of other people do the same thing. What emerges on the large scale is a cultural touchstone more potent than the sum of its parts.
What bothers me about the Mighty No. 9 campaign is that it takes the opposite tack: It treats Mega Man as nothing more than those component parts. The pitch video (embedded at the top of this page) is chock-a-block with winking references designed to evoke Mega Man without saying it. The opening pan up the side of a skyscraper, with Inafune clad in blue at the top, is a nod to the opening shot of Mega Man 2 (embedded directly above). Around the 2:30 mark in the video, a woman and her red dog walk by Inafune—they’re made up to look like Mega Man’s “sister,” Roll, and his dog, Rush. Then Inafune spots a construction worker wearing what looks like a Met, the ubiquitous Mega Man enemy who peeks out from under a hard hat to hit you with pellets of hatred. Even the section of the Kickstarter Page that introduces the development team is made up to resemble the Brady Bunch-style grid that served as the stage-select screen in so many 8-bit Mega Man adventures of yore.
One or two references would have been endearing, but the callbacks are more of a relentless drumbeat. The message that Inafune et al. want to send is clear: We’re making a new Mega Man game; we’re just not allowed to say so. That is a step too far. It upsets me because that approach treats Mega Man not as a character with a soul of his own but rather as a collection of game-design considerations that can be transferred to a new shell. Likewise, it assumes that because we’ve poured our affection into the Mega Man vessel, that vessel can be dumped out into Mighty No. 9’s Beck. Inafune and his team want to play on our nostalgia while ignoring the specificity of our attachment to the original character.
Now, for some players, I’m sure that Mega Man is little more than a design archetype, and that’s natural—no affection is universal. But for me, the kid robot in blue is something more, and I would have liked to believe that’s true for Inafune, too. I get none of that from this Kickstarter campaign. Instead, I see a carbon-copy mentality being touted at every opportunity.
I don’t mean to ride Inafune too hard. After a falling-out with Capcom, he’s cut off from the character that he did so much to develop—one he’d like to develop some more. It’s a lousy situation, and on the whole, Mighty No. 9 looks like an inspired solution to Inafune’s dilemma. (I chipped in my 60 bucks to get the semi-deluxe package.) My complaint is a narrow but important one: All I ask is that Inafune let this new project be its own thing. When the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation launched their show, they made it clear that they would be elaborating on the same, familiar Star Trek universe, but they didn’t make Jean-Luc Picard out to be a bald version of James T. Kirk. We have more respect for our human characters than that.
Mega Man isn’t human—that’s kind of his deal—but he’s worthy of a similar respect. He started out as a collection of pixels and programming on a screen, and with our experiences, he became something more. Pay tribute to that. Let Mega Man be Mega Man, and let Beck be Beck. That’s the best way for Inafune to honor both his most famous creation and his newest.