The Mythics of Mega Man

I cut my teeth on the Mega Man series of video games. Legendary for their difficulty, mastery of the games comes from getting a handle on their mechanics and memorizing stage layouts and the patterns of boss fights. They’re tough, and oh I love them so. Getting through each stage is such a magnificent moment of catharsis; and the good entries in the series are so well designed that victory isn’t because of a lucky break but from actually skill.

They’re also fantastic examples of some elements of the Hero’s Journey.

All stories follow specific beats; there will be a moment when the hero is chosen, the hero will be tested, the hero will face a (maybe metaphorical) death. They’re vague moments, but appear in everything from adventure stories to a romcom. Call it structure, call it motifs, these elements are a part of stories.

And, like I said, video games. The structure of Mega Man, at its most basic, is the same throughout all entries in the Classic series. The hero, Mega Man, shows up in a place, fights eight Robot Masters, then lays siege to Wiley’s Castle which inevitably includes a rematch with all those prior Robot Masters before fighting Wiley himself. The X series is essentially the same, just swap Mega Man out with X or Zero, Robot Masters with Mavericks, and Dr. Wiley with Sigma. The actual ‘stories’ depend on the game, from the very barebones of Mega Man 2 to the much more grandiose Mega Man X5, but that structure remains essentially the same.

Two of the games’ trademarks are being able to tackle the stages/bosses in any order and getting a bosses’ ability upon defeating them, which in turn is the weakness of another boss. The weapon you get from defeating Magma Dragoon in Mega Man X4 does a chunk of damage to Frost Walrus. It’s like rock-paper-scissors, but with spiffy robot weapons.

A vital part of the Hero’s Journey, as emphasized by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, is the Threshold Guardian. The idea is that every time a hero moves forward into a new space, there is someone guarding the way. To meet Old Ben, Luke Skywalker must first confront the Tusken Raiders. Lara Jean has to talk to Lucas about the letter she wrote him. In many situations, the hero will assimilate attributes of the encounter into themselves. The run in with the Tusken Raiders brings Luke closer to Ben. Talking with Lucas gives Lara Jean a new ally in her quest to restore some normalcy to the chaos that her life has become.

In Mega Man? The hero gets an ability from the boss which is then useful against another boss. In other words, Mega Man’s fight against a Robot Master makes him stronger and more able to take on the next challenge. It’s a learning curve too for you, the player; just because you’ve a boss’ weakness doesn’t mean the fight will be a walk in the park. But by the time the big rematch happens in Wiley/Sigma’s castle, going through all eight fights again will be a comparative breeze because not only is Mega Man stronger, but you’ve overcome a series of challenges to get to this point, enough challenges that fighting these guys again isn’t all that hard anymore. You’ve figured out their weaknesses and have mastered the techniques needed to dodge their attacks. And now you’re ready for the Final Boss, who you will inevitably lose to several times before finally, finally, emerging victorious.

The narrative of the game would hardly work near as well without those bosses. Going straight to the final castle and all the dangers that lurk within would not just be ridiculously difficult, but would also be too much too soon. As a player, you relish that feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting better and being able to take on harder challenge. Story-wise, even if the story is as barebones as some of the Mega Man games, there’s that need for a rising action (as Freytag paced is out. Beginning slow makes the final climax all the more exciting.

The Mega Man games are, in my opinion, definitely worthy of being among the canon of video games. They’re exemplary platformers, but also present a particularly fun twist to their gameplay via a probably-subconscious application of mythic structure. If you care for that, anyway; I won’t judge you for just really enjoying the games.

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