Ultimately, what was the strength of past Mega Man games? I would argue that it was the strength of change that kept it relevant as long as it was with rather constant quality, overall speaking.
Keiji Inafune, whatever you may think of him nowadays, was without a doubt the driving force the franchise for the longest time. In an interview in an episode of Game Center CX, one of the Mega Man or Capcom related episodes, where he tells how he had wondered many times throughout the years whether or not it was fine for the series to keep going. This was around the release of Mega Man Battle Network 3, and this contrasts his battle with the series. What he said in this interview was whenever he would face a block on the invention front, he’d go to an event for children and see what they liked the most, what was favoured.
This plan to to observe Mega Man‘s main consumers and record their interest is without a doubt a key factor in the franchise’s success, especially when it comes to Battle Network. While long-time fans moaned about the series (Battle Network was essentially Mega Man‘s Beast Wars in this regard [ROBUTT NOT NAVI]), a new generation of consumers took the series on themselves. Battle Network saw the most divergence of all the sub-series with comics, arcade games, card games, toys, tabletop games, a cartoon, spin-offs and shitloads of stuff that never really left Japan.
Let’s not beat around the bush, the Battle Network series was huge. Starforce never could hold a candle to its predecessor in any form, starting from the gutted gameplay to the more or less terrible plot. It combined card game strategy with fast and skill based gameplay, rewarding experimentation to a large degree. Even when 150 Battle Chips sounds rather small amount to choose from, there were loads of unique combinations and tactics that could be put together from them, though some were more viable than others. A new Battle Network game would be behind its time and it would sell on nostalgia value. Card collecting is passé for kids, just like robots of all kinds. After all, Mega Man is a children’s franchise first and foremost.
Mega Man stopped working when it stopped changing with the times. The original series kept itself relevant by adding more complex gameplay mechanics in order to compete with further developing games on the NES. Mega Man 2 had additional items, which Rush replaced in MM3, which also saw the additional of new mobility function in Sliding. MM4 saw the inclusion of the Charge Shot. While it could be argued that this was the point where classic series started its downhill run, the series still kept changing in increments. MM5 had diverging paths to find Beat. MM6 had Rush Adaptors, which while where a small thing, changed how you’d need to approach higher jumps and the like. MM7 played it safe as with most NES based franchises jumping unto the new platform and tweaked things with further secrets and such that were becoming common. The same applied to MM8 to a large degree, but whether or not these changes made the games better is up to question.
However, as Classic series evolved, the franchise really took its changing nature to heart with Mega Man X. While it was mainly a revisit of the classic formulae with new lick of paint, what makes it stand out from the Classic series is the inclusion of RPG elements. According to the developers, certain kind of RPG were becoming popular with the consumers at time, and though I question the validity of this argument due to RPGs becoming stupidly popular years prior thanks to Dragon Quest, the elements in MMX series is easy to see. Hidden Heart Tanks permanently increase X’s Energy akin to stat upgrade. Their hidden nature also encouraged stage exploration and trying out weapons on the environment to a larger degree compared to the Classic series. Hidden Armour upgrades serve the same function. The X-series continued with additional elements much like the Classic had.
However, not all changes have kept franchise relevant. As much fans like the Legends games, it never caught on. Low sales meant Legends died off. Perhaps it was too far off from what Mega Man consistently had been thus far, or perhaps the games weren’t what the consumers wanted. That’s a whole another post really, but one of the things that could be said is that if Legends wasn’t based on the wants of the child consumer, then it wouldn’t be success in the same manner as its two predecessors. Battle Network on the other hand was.
This leaves both Zero and ZX series in a place where they didn’t exactly see the same level of sales for being aimed at the older audience that had grown up with the franchise as a whole, but also show contradict the main audience. One of early fanfares the Western fans had for Zero series was that it made Mega Man hard again, which is bullshit because the franchise never was hard. Even a four years old child could finish Mega Man 2. Not all changes are for the better, and ZX further convolution with multiple Mega Men and having adventure-action layout with its game structure alá Space Hunter or Metroid really didn’t catch on. The games replicated a form that was out of fashion at that point, but also came out too early for Western audience starting to masturbate over again. Things with both Zero and ZX didn’t add up, and aiming for the more mature audience that wasn’t the best way to go.
Mega Man 9 and 10 were throwbacks, and as such they didn’t evolve or take the franchise forwards in any way. MM9 sold on nostalgia alone, and MM10 failed that too. Too much carry over design elements from Zero and ZX also meant that this wouldn’t continue.
Mega Man really is a good example of a franchise that renewed itself constantly to stay in touch with the core consumers. As Inafune said, as long as children enjoyed Mega Man, the franchise would have a reason to keep going. Changing the franchise to a mature one would do a major disservice, as you can keep it appealing to both adults and children alike. Renewing a franchise, sometimes in a very drastic way, is necessary to keep a franchise afloat. A stale franchise that does nothing new and is unchanging will have harder time to penetrate the wall of obtaining new consumers. It all really hinges on whether or not this change is well handled, or a complete catastrophe.
With the new cartoon coming out in 2018, we can only hope for a Mega Man renaissance of sorts.