It's been nearly five years since Capcom released the last official Mega Man game. Mega Man 10 was just like all the other Mega Man games (Mega Mans?) that came before it; crunchy 8-bit graphics, a series of themed robot bosses, and soul-crushing difficulty. Since then, Capcom has released a fan-made Street Fighter/Mega Man crossover and let the Blue Bomber fight against a stable of Nintendo characters in Super Smash Bros. That's all Mega Man has to show for the last five years; everything else has been cancelled. And you know what? Maybe that's for the best.
Don't get me wrong - Mega Man is a classic video game hero for a reason. For thirty years, Mega Man has overcome a series of complex obstacles (and way too many spikes) in order to defeat Dr. Wily's nefarious schemes. He's the ultimate representation of retro gameplay, twitch action and demanding challenges distilled into their purest forms. But Mega Man is a slave to this formula, as fans come to expect very specific things when they play a Mega Man game. There have been slight additions here and there, as he learned how to charge attacks or slide under gaps, but the core gameplay remains virtually the same: jump and shoot your way through eight stages in a specific order and absorb the powers of your defeated robot foes. It's an interesting predicament, and it's one that comes from years of highly incremental changes. To the casual observer, a Mega Man game in 2010 looks and plays exactly like it did in 1987, and it's hard to innovate when your biggest fans all want the same game time and time again.
Any deviations from this formula have been handled in spin-offs, but those have since built up their own audiences that now expect their own set of very specific things. There's no way in hell a new Mega Man game could please everyone, especially considering how fractured the fanbase is. You've got Mega Man, Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, Mega Man Legends, and Mega Man Battle Network, each one playing wildly different from the others in the series, and each one with its own passionate fanbase. If Capcom decides to grace us with another old-school revival in Mega Man 11, those clamoring for another RPG adventure like Battle Network will feel like they've been jilted.
Of course, this would only matter if a new Mega Man game were to ever actually get released. Since 2010, Capcom has cancelled several projects, including Mega Man Legends 3 (because there weren't enough people commenting on the forums of a game that wasn't out yet), an MMO called Rockman Online, a first-person shooter called Maverick Hunter, and Mega Man Universe, a sidescroller that would have let players create their own levels. Despite trying to come up with a wide variety of new takes on an aged hero, they were all canned at various points in development, proving that Capcom really doesn't know what it wants from a new Mega Man.
The more I think about how much I'd want a new entry in the long-dormant series, the more I wonder what that would even be in 2015. I was devastated when Mega Man Legends 3 was cancelled, thus denying me the closure I needed due to the previous game's cliffhanger ending in 2000, but there's no way a sequel could ever live up to my expectations of it. It's been 15 years since I played Legends, and even longer since I really spent time with one of the more traditional side-scrollers in the series, so all I have are memories seen through rose-tinted shades. If I were to dig back into these games, I'd likely come up with nothing but disappointment.
Mega Man's fall from grace feels reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog's similar downward trajectory. Like Sonic, Mega Man had a good run decades ago, but lately it seems like he's trying to cling to those glory days, and the people responsible for him have no idea what to do with him. At least Capcom is wise enough to cancel a project that appears to not be working out (i.e., there's no Sonic Boom of the Mega Man franchise), but there's no clear focus for what a Mega Man game is supposed to be for a modern audience.
Even Mega Man’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. feels like a conciliatory nod to fans, a way to appease them without offending. Smash Bros. brings dozens of Nintendo franchises, both current and forgotten, and mashes them all up into a combination of frenetic fighting and nostalgia. It's here that Mega Man fans can experience the best of the Blue Bomber, as all of his moves are culled from years of sequels. It's here that we can pin our hopes for a new entry, our frustrations that Capcom seems to care less about him than the fans do. When we play as Mega Man, we can remember the best parts of his games without having to deal with the frustration that comes from cheap deaths caused by those goddamn spike pits. In that way, it's the most successful thing Mega Man has been a part of in years.
What Mega Man has done, perhaps more important than the legacy of games he's left behind, is inspire a wealth of action platformers, many of them far outclassing their source material. Series creator Keiji Inafune left Capcom years ago, and is currently working on Mighty No. 9, which is basically Mega Man in everything but name. From character design to general gameplay, it looks like a faster, sleeker, overall better version Mega Man. And if you're looking for something a bit more retro, Shovel Knight evokes the best parts of 8-bit platformers like Mega Man, right down to the soundtrack co-written by Manami Matsumae. But both of these games, while inspired by the past, embrace modern design elements and lessons to make these games new and exciting. Shovel Knight plays like your best memories of Mega Man, but if you actually go back and give the old games a shot, you'll only find clunky controls and frustrating gameplay.
We cling to Mega Man in the same way we cling to our nostalgic memories of his games. We hope that a new Mega Man game will not only revitalize interest in the franchise, but will also bring back those feelings we had in the 1980s when we took down Cut Man, or found all of the secret moves in Mega Man X. But the reality is never as good as our memories, and as the years progress, Mega Man continues to feel like a relic of a bygone era. Perhaps it’s time to give Mega Man a chance to retire and pass the torch to a new generation of sidescrolling robot warriors. Sometimes, it's better to fade away than it is to burn out.