Is It Still Worth Being a Fan of Mega Man?
Today is the 21st anniversary of the Japanese release of Mega Man X1, and the 27th anniversary of the release of Mega Man 1.
What does it mean to be a fan of a moribund franchise? We have this conversation inside our ever-shrinking community every so often, especially around anniversaries that end in a 0 or a 5. Usually the conclusion we come to is that what matters is that fans still create – and make no mistake, we are still creating. With nothing to work from, we chew old bones and pick apart the scraps to dig out fanfics, fan art, and crazy theories. We’ve sucked the marrow out of every last cutscene, commercial, 5 second dialogue tree, postcard, Nintendo Power article and napkin scribble we can get our hands on. We’re at the point where we’ve pretty much seen it all, thought it all, said it all. Most of what I say in this article is probably just going to get a resigned sigh from fan vets.
I can tell you that it often feels really lonely. Fans are fans because they want to share what they love, but when there’s almost nobody to talk to, it’s hard to keep up any kind of enthusiasm.
Barriers to Access
Part of the problem is just that the material is just plain old. Part of the problem is that the Mega Man series is incompletely available on modern systems due to its age. Capcom has been very complacent in bringing out the games as the console wars broil on. The anniversary collections are both incomplete as releases and expensive on the second-hand market, expensive to find in their original SNES forms without paying a lot of money to second-hand dealers (hm, the drugs analogy for fandom is hard to put out of mind in this context); it’s become a monstrous collector scam.
Having to pay craploads of money to get into a fandom sight unseen is a barrier to access.
Right now, the games simply aren’t moving between platforms with any speed, and as the console wars continue, key entries are often getting left behind for technical reasons. We only got Mega Man X4 and X5 onto modern systems this year, and the games have been sitting around for almost 15 years.
Part of the problem is straight up that the Mega Man series are videogames and not something more easily accessible like a movie or a book. And part of the problem is that in general, the series is actually kind of hard to play except for the dedicated twitch gamer who likes punishing challenges.
Of course, there are plenty of Let’s Plays, walkthroughs, game guides, transcribed scripts and resources like that for those who care, but who’s going to bother looking at them if they don’t already know where to look, or haven’t been intrigued into trying? Who’s going to get into a story when they can’t get past that Ride Chaser level where you slam into a wall four seconds into the level if you don’t hit the button at just the right nanosecond? Who’s going to play the 5th, 7th, or 10th game in a series that doesn’t change at all except to toss a few new character beats into a cutscene?
These are huge barriers to access for this particular fandom that we don’t talk about enough.
So what’s the point in going on? Isn’t it about time we just admitted defeat (Capcom clearly has) and moved on to the next big Corporate Entertainment Product? It’s not as if nerds have a scarcity of choices available to amuse themselves these days, right? We can always go read the Mega Man Archie Comics? In fact the Archie comics are probably the easiest way for new people to access the material so why aren’t we talking about it more than we are?
Maybe the most important problem is that, because the fandom is so old, we’ve stopped talking about it to “outsiders”. Because everything’s been seen, said and thought already. We’re our own worst barrier.
We Don’t Want to Move On
Here’s the thing. For all its flaws, lumps and plot holes, the Mega Man series and the Mega Man X series scratch a very specialized itch that isn’t being well-served by anything else on the market. In general, although it’s getting better and 2015 looks incredibly promising with Age of Ultron and Chappie coming soon, it’s a hard time being a fan of robots – robots just aren’t big cultural business (yet). Stories about robots that aren’t dominated by tokenized talking-head humans AND aren’t also about robot apocalypses are also very niche – you basically have Mega Man, Transformers, Astro Boy, recently Futurama and … ? Not much else. But these franchises are all particularly storied.
So if you like robots with their own culture, politics, and internal development, you have a shocking scarcity of stories out there to scratch the itch. That’s why we stick to these franchises.
Right now, Mighty no. 9 is vaporware until it’s actually out of eternal-Kickstarter-fundraising-hell, it’s already tainted with a lot of offputting and divisive controversy, and for all the talk about it being the next iteration of Mega Man – well, sure, if you want to play the exact same game you’ve already played 25 other times before. It’s hard to get excited about a photocopy of a photocopy. Mega Man began as a nod to Astro Boy and 70’s Tatsunoko Productions shows; by the time you get to Mn9, we’re talking about a copy twice removed from its core origins- three times removed if you count Mega Man Zero as part of its DNA. That’s some extremely watery blood.
So for some of us, Mighty no. 9 isn’t an option. For X fans particularly, it doesn’t appear to be offering anything substantial or exciting. We want our damn cliffhangers resolved instead! It’s been ten years! While I genuinely hope that everyone who backed Mighty no. 9 gets a fun and enjoyable game in the end, it doesn’t answer what the hell happened to Axl and it doesn’t get Volnutt down from the moon, you know?
Capcom isn’t interested in answering those questions, which is why Mighty no. 9 exists in the first place – but they’re the only ones who can. So the only choice we have is to sit here and chew on these same old bones, or have nothing left to eat at all. Sure, we could walk away; we can and should also be starting our own franchises (with blackjack! and hookers!). But nothing we create will have the exact same characters we fell in love with except the original game lines.
Mostly, it’s just really sad that things have come to this point. The good will and love that’s been squandered on the Mega Man series for no reward is kind of shocking, and it’s both inspiring and tragic. So while we faithfully celebrate the anniversaries it starts to feel a little bit more and more like going to visit a grave each year. Sooner or later it becomes a token gesture; sooner or later, we’ll stop feeling guilty if we don’t come to visit.
And that seems like a damn shame.