After playing the six classic NES games, it is time to dissect these games for their artistic merit. What makes these games classics? What makes the Mega Man series such a timeless collection of adventures that gamers flock to download emulators and developers make new entrants into the series in the classic 8-Bit style? Is there something deeper to these outings with the lil' blue robot with a lot of heart?
I think the most important fact about this series and the central theme of this series is that Mega Man is a robot. Mega Man was a robot created as a tool to fulfill a specific function: originally he was a robot named Rock who was designed to be a lab assistant to his creator, Dr. Light. After Dr. Wily started being a menace, Mega Man was repurposed into a war machine in order to combat Dr. Wily's robots. Mega Man, actually, is one of the two robots that I can think of that is a pure war machine, and in fact is the perfect robot killer: he can not only salvage the energy and ammunition from his fallen foes, and more importantly he can adapt and overcome his opponents by learning their attacks and using them against them. The Robot Masters themselves are actually Robots who had very specific functions until Dr. Wily changed them into war machines. For example, Shade Man from MM7 was a faux-vampire robot who was built for an amusement park haunted house; Cut Man from MM1 was made to fell timber. So really each game is a battle between the tools of one creator and the tools of the other.
Thus the games take on a kind of Asimovian twist. Mega Man is a tool made for Dr. Light and, subsequently, the player to use. Like a good robot should, Mega Man is singular in purpose, efficient in going about his goals, and he never can hurt another human (he always stops short of killing Wily, and merely destroys all his Robots and his fortress). In fact, the main goal of the two human doctors in the series seems to be to stop the other one from having the ability to make more robots, as Wily always attacks Dr. Light's creation or his lab, and each Mega Man game ends with Dr. Wily's lab being destroyed.
This creates an interesting dynamic between the player and Mega Man since Mega Man is just as the player is both his "master" by controlling him as well as the tool itself. Each game plays out in an almost methodical way, with Mega Man going about his quest in a very orderly, robotic fashion. In every instance, Mega Man first alienates Wily by destroying his own "tools," the eight robot masters, then penetrates his defenses, and then destroys his final war machine. He then, instead of ending Dr. Wily's miserable life, he just captures him or let's him escape because, as he can't build more robots, peace is restored and his function is fulfilled. Even in MM7 when he contemplates killing Wily, he can not bring himself to do it: it is literally against his making and his design. This formula plays over and over again exactly the same EACH time. Wily tries, for the most part, different tactics each game, as he is a human (false bad guys, fake identities, feigned redemption, etc.), but Mega Man has to do the exact same thing each game. He can never try sneaking into Wily's Castle, or avoiding the Robot Masters and going straight to Dr. Wily, as that isn't his function. He is but a simple war machine, who knows only to destroy what is in front of him. He only understands that A goes to B and then to C; he is a hand, not a brain.
Thus the Mega Man series plays out like a true game. Mega Man is a piece on a board or a pawn for the player. The Player chooses where he is going to strike, and then sends out his champion to do his dirty work. It almost plays out like Actraiser, where the God like character sends out that statue to the various lands to kick demon ass, except in this case it is a Robot. But as a tool, how do we know that Mega Man is carrying out order, but how do we know that Dr. Light is truly working with the best of intentions. Unlike Mega Man X, who is listed as being built with the gift of free will, Mega Man does not have that option: he is a war machine, plain and simple and must do as he is told. As a story of "tools," the narrative could easily be reversed: Wily could actually be a man who is trying to overthrow a corrupt establishment or conglomerate (it is said that most of the Robot Masters and enemy robots are actually Dr. Lights creations that Wily has stolen and reprogrammed, and Light does seem to have a pretty dominant monopoly on robot creation), and Mega Man is the enforcement sent to keep the status quo enforced (whose peace is Mega Man enforcing, really; Dr. Light seems to always be the only human who benefits) Wily does seem to operate with the resources of a geurrilla revolutionary: building covert bases and using pirated munitions, so this fan theory might not be far off base. The fact of the matter is that we will never know; Dr. Light doesn't have to explain his rationale to the hammer as long is it keeps driving in the nails.
The player, as well, is only kept rapt around the purpose of Mega Man, going with him from A to B to C. The stages play in a simple left to right or beginning to end format, driving Mega Man ever forward towards his goal. The stages, as well, only end when Mega Man completes his goal or fails in doing so. Unlike the Mega Man X series, once Mega Man has committed to a stage, there is no going back. He must destroy the other robot or be destroyed in the process. There is no self preservation, no worry about survival; Mega Man doesn't do what he does out of bravery or will to right wrongs, but because to do otherwise would violate what he is.
Thus simplicity actually benefits the Mega Man universe and allows for a much more rewarding experience for both the casual and the hardcore enthusiast alike. For one, the narrative and the characters are allowed to be simple as we are seeing the world through the black and white perspective of a robot. Who needs to understand the deeper reason of why Wily commits evil deeds because, to Mega Man, those reasons are moot anyway. Thus the gamer is able to commit to the tasks at hand: destroying the "bad" guys. Since Mega Man, as well, isn't able to avoid combat but must barrel through the most dangerous path, it gives the player the most fun and challenging gameplay path.
In the end, who knows if the Mega Man series is much deeper than a robot child taking on a mad scientist, but the game does have the ability to spark thought provoking debate. Like its gameplay and design, which is masterful in its construction, the grand themes of Mega Man are masked in simplicity.
Bottom line, I had a great time playing these games, and they left me with much to think about. I am not done with my Mega Man journey, but I can't wait to head down that dusty trail with the Blue Bomber once more!