What Killed Mega Man?

Mega Man Legends 3, a DS sequel to a long-dormant sub-franchise of one of Capcom’s biggest franchises, was cancelled last week to much fanfare across the internet. While several of Mega Man’s friends like Tron Bonne and Zero are in the latest Marvel Versus Capcom incarnation, the Blue Bomber himself is nowhere to be found, with no plans to add him in any incarnation in the newest installment of the series.  And (though it is almost certainly not true) rumors abound that the complaints of Mega Man fans at the San Diego Comic Con were squelched by Capcom’s unforgiving soldiers. Some people are calling this the death of Mega Man in general, signalling an end to the franchise for Capcom.

Waving his last banner are the fans of the series, who are starting new revival petitions on Facebook, editing Wikipedia to express their anger and frustration, or in some cases simply writing nostalgia-filled memorial articles about the series as it was.  Capcom Europe, meanwhile, made a perhaps ill-advised tweet saying that the cancellation of Legends 3 was actually the fault of the fans – that their support was simply not enough to convince Capcom the game was worth promoting.

The truth is, I thought the cancellation of the title was a fairly predictable move.  We can come up with a lot of conspiratorial theories as to why this happened.  It’s possible that Keiji Inafune leaving the company at least caused the Legends 3 project to lose momentum, even if it wasn’t a direct cause of its cancellation.  Or maybe Superboy Prime did, in fact, just think the game sucked. But the primary reason by my estimation is pure market forces.

The 3DS has not done as well for Nintendo as it may have hoped.  Putting a lot of money and development time into an exclusive for an unpopular console, for a series Capcom wasn’t sure was a big-seller, was a risky gamble.  Sure, Capcom also made bets on Mega Man games for PSP, but these as far as I know haven’t done as well as they had hoped, with no plans to continue the Maverick Hunter X or Powered-Up reboots.  Mega Man Universe, an experiment in a Mega Man with user created content, is also already cancelled. The most successful Mega Man game in recent years was Mega Man 9, the retro clone of the old games that was designed with the sensibilities of a modern masocore title – the snake(man) eating itself as Mega Man evolved based on titles that evolved based on it.  Mega Man 10, by contrast, had less-exciting sales performance, as the sheen of novelty that surrounded “the new retro” had already worn off.

Other than the hardcore Mega Man fans, it’s not entirely clear who Mega Man Legends 3 was being made for.  The Street Fighter and Resident Evil franchises are doing well for Capcom to appeal to the western audience that they’re looking to continue to net.  In some cases, Capcom doesn’t seem to understand what appeals the most to Americans, but it’s fairly sure that, at least where it comes to Americans writ large, the soft, anime aesthetic of a 3D Mega Man handheld is not really “it.”

This is my take on it.  Among hardcore Mega Man fans, there is a split, based mostly on generational lines.  The younger Mega Man fans are members of the Millennial Generation, or Gen Y. They were introduced to the series some time along the middle of the Mega Man X saga, when the games shifted to Playstation and added long FMVs with a heaping helping of overwrought anime drama.  The hand-wringing speechification of anime protagonist Mega Man X appeals to this generation, and they fell head over heels for the Mega Man Zero series with its complex stories and long talky bits.  They like the anime aesthetic quite a bit and have no problem combining this art style with the idea of a serious story, because they grew up with manga.

The older Mega Man fans, in Generation X, are operating mostly off of nostalgia for the old series.  Some of them simply enjoyed the difficult platforming and don’t care a whit if the game has much of a story; these are the people who enjoyed Mega Man 9 simply because they wanted to play a game like they remembered from childhood.  However, the hardest of the hardcore old Mega Man fans also want the series to have a more serious story.  They would just prefer that this story center around the story that they remember: Dr. Light powering up his innocent boy robot to battle the robots of the Evil Dr. Wily.  These are the people that listen to The Megas and the Protomen for their darker takes on the tale.  However, they aren’t as interested in the anime aesthetic that the younger generation likes, and frequently reject the “cute” redesigns of the Powered Up series… in favor of more mature, more “badass” takes in Mega Man artwork and custom action figures.

I am a Mega Man fan, and with my age, I bridge the gap between the Gen X and Gen Y fans.  However, I lean toward Gen X just a little bit (which is probably obvious from the way I categorize both camps).  As a Mega Man fan, I wanted Mega Man Legends 3. We all did as fans, but just because we want Mega Man, himself, to continue to exist as an idea. The game, itself, was not for us.  It was not really for the Millennial fans, who want a more serious, darker story.  It was certainly not for the Gen X fans, who want the original Mega Man, and prefer a grittier and grimmer style of art.  And it was probably not right for the children that Capcom courted with its Pokemon-lite Battle Network and Star Force series, though, it was for kids if it was for anyone at all.  To top it off, the console it’s exclusive to isn’t a hit.  Unclear target market equals unclear sales equals cancellation.

However, Capcom did a strange thing with Mega Man Legends 3, a kind of unprecedented thing. It asked the fans to put their money where their mouth was, and, before the game even came out, aid in its development by submitting ideas to the developers.  Fans were asked to submit concepts, and vote in polls about which ones to use. Capcom has done this with previous Mega Man titles (with design your own robot contests), but not quite on this level.  It’s a good idea in theory, but as these calls to participate were posted on their development site specifically, which didn’t get continuous coverage in the game press, it wasn’t really easy to find these participation pages unless you were deliberately looking. Early response was good, but then came human nature: fatigue set in as fans were being asked to participate more and more.

As a fan, I did participate in polls, at least early on.  I would have participated more directly, but, kept having the sneaking sense that, as a primarily Gen X fan, and an adult, this game was not really for me and I really should leave this stuff to the kiddies. Though I’ve found the development blogs interesting, I personally didn’t need the insight in to the development process because I already understand it fairly well.  (I thought “the creation of the heroine” 3D modeling guide was particularly good and useful, and a fantastic introduction for pure newbies to understand the process of character modeling, so I have used it in classes. The comments on that article series are so precious, things like someone wanting the character’s UV unwrap “check checkers” as an alternate skin for the character because it looks cool to them.) One thing I did understand about the process that most fans who participated obviously do not is that video games are cancelled all the time.  It’s actually quite common, especially if there’s a feeling the audience/market isn’t there. However, since Capcom made the fans so involved in the development process, many of them were shocked and angry by the cancellation and thus the backlash.  If you are going to put all your cards on the table, it really looks bad when you fold.

A few years ago, Tomb Raider wasn’t doing so hot, and I waxed armchair designer about what would fix it. Now it’s on-line to do a gritty reboot that looks pretty fantastic.  Transformers, a series that banks mostly on the nostalgia of Generation X combined with a heaping helping of ridiculous 3D explosions, also did a gritty reboot that makes incredibly mad bank at the box office completely irrespective of the poor quality of the actual films.  Now there will also be a gritty reboot Spider-Man film.  So…  Gritty Mega Man reboot, anyone?  Or maybe we could reboot it as a real-time strategy, to make it extra contemporary.