05/05/2017

MEGA MAN SPRITES

It’s been a long time since I did one of these sprite history articles, huh? Well, who better to mark the return of this (extremely) occasional series than Capcom’s much-loved and perhaps recently overlooked mascot Mega Man? Apologies in advance if I unwittingly switch between calling him “Megaman” and “Mega Man” during this article, but in my defence even Capcom themselves don’t seem to be sure exactly which spelling they prefer, especially when you get to the Megaman X games. Megaman X will not be featured here today, though, it’s good old-fashioned Classic Mega Man all the way. Now, I know what you might be thinking: didn’t Capcom just make one Mega Man sprite and then reuse it in dozens of games? The answer to that question is yes, yes they did – but there are also more pixelly variants of Classic Mega Man than you might expect, so well be seeing those. Let’s start, however, with the game where it all began.
Mega Man – Mega Man 6, NES, 1987 - 1993


Here he is, the precious and slightly dumpy boy that we all know and love, as he appears in the first six NES Mega Man games and in a host of other spin-offs and merchandising opportunities. With the broad shoulders of a rugby player and wide-splayed legs that provide him with solid footing on even the most perilous terrain, Mega Man is always ready to defend the world from the machinations of the evil Dr. Wily. The line of pixels that makes up his mouth manages to communicate his grim resolve, but his enormous saucer-like eyes means he still possesses plenty of cutesy anime charm without looking too much like a kitten that’s just snorted a fat rail of coke. It’s a sprite that I’m sure we’ve all come to know and love over the years, (I know I have, ever since I first got Mega Man 3,) and it must be one of the most famous sprites in videogame history. It’s maybe not quite in the top tier of iconic game sprites, where you would find Mario’s Super Mario Bros. sprite, Pac-Man and the enemies from Space Invaders, but it’s definitely on a rung just below those. It’s certainly immediately recognisable, and when I decided to write this article I thought to myself “hey, before I look at these sprites I’m going to try to draw the NES Mega Man from memory and see how I close I get.” I bet you can’t wait to see how that turned out.


I think it came out fairly well! Considering my memory is leakier than a sieve on the Titanic, I’d say I got pretty close. I wish I hadn’t, though – drawing this thing really stressed me out, because I knew it wasn’t quite right but I couldn’t seem to nail it down. I would have gotten closer if I’d spent more time on it, but after a certain point I had to ask myself whether I was willing to commit multiple hours to this not-particularly-interesting bit. The answer came very close to being “yes,” honestly. My problem was that I forget just how squat Mega Man actually is. He’s verging on hunchback territory, no doubt weighed down by the enormous head Dr. Light built him with. I can only assume Dr. Light had mastered the art of designing robots brains so advanced they have emotions but he struggled with the miniaturisation process.

Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge – Mega Man V, Game Boy, 1991-1994


For his Game Boy outings, Capcom re-used Mega Man’s NES sprite, except now it’s four shades of grey. It works well enough, although because of the Game Boy’s reduced screen dimensions it does make Mega Man feel bigger than he usually does. The major difference is that his helmet and face are now separated with a black line, which has the unfortunate effect of making Mega Man’s left eye look like it’s trying to escape off the top of his head. On the plus side, Capcom’s decision to use light great rather than white for the “skin” tone on Mega Man’s face was a good one. If his face was white, it’d look like he was running around in y-fronts, knee-high boots and rubber gloves. If that’s how you get your rocks – no pun intended – off, Mega Man, that’s fine, but try to keep it separate from the world-saving business.


Mega Man: The Wily Wars, Megadrive / Genesis, 1994


In 1994, the first three Mega Man games received a sixteen-bit makeover as they made their way to the… Megadrive? Yes, even after all these years it still seems strange to me to be playing a Mega Man game on a Sega console – although oddly I never felt the same confusion when Mega Man games started showing up on the Playstation. The Wily Wars is a decent-enough conversion of Mega Man 1 – 3, I guess, although the Megadrive version of the soundtracks kinda put me on edge: hearing Mega Man 3’s opening theme coming out of a Megadrive rather than a NES sound chip is disorienting, akin to walking into your house after a few days away to find that someone’s moved all your furniture by a few inches.
But we’re here for the sprites, and how does the Blue Bomber look? Rather good, I’d say. He doesn’t seem quite as chubby, and the extra colours in his shading do a lot to help define his shape while still keeping him from looking too angular. Plus, the ear-things on his helmet are a lot more strongly defined, which gives him a bit more visual interest without going overboard on the greeblies. What are those ear thing, anyway? Do they give Mega Man super hearing or something? He’s already got regular “human” ears underneath his helmet, so maybe these are cyber-earmuffs. He does fight a lot of cold-based Robot Masters, after all.

Mega Man, Game Gear, 1995


Mega Man also made an appearance on Sega’s full-colour, battery-devouring, pocket-mocking handheld, the Game Gear. It’s a kind of amalgamation of a bunch of things from the NES Mega Man games, all smushed together into a package that’s not bad enough to make you renounce both Capcom and Sega, but which is still one of the lowest points of the classic Mega Man franchise. Mega Man himself looks fine, though. It’s mostly a pixel-for-pixel copy of the NES sprite, with a few more shades of blue and the curious reworking of Mega Man’s… I was going to say “helmet bulge,” but that sounds utterly filthy. The central crest of his helmet, I mean. It’s been pushed over to the right, turning it into the robotic equivalent of an avant-garde new-wave hairstyle and giving Mega Man a rather lopsided appearance.

Mega Man 7, SNES, 1995


For his seventh numbered game, Mega Man finally made the leap from NES to SNES and got an all-new sprite in the process. His ear muffs are more prominent than ever, his hands are starting to look more and more like boxing gloves (except when they’re, you know, a gun) and while he looks good in motion I have to be honest: I don’t like this particular static sprite all that much. Part of it is the pose, which feels a little too rigid, and I know Mega Man’s feet are always very large but they’re reminding me of cow-catchers on old-timey steam trains in this instance. Oh, hang on, I think I’ve cracked it – with the way he’s tilting himself forward, I think Mega Man’s hoping his enormous clodhoppers will give him enough stability to pull off a Michael Jackson-esque forward lean move.
The real kicker is his face, though. Mega Man just seems a bit grumpy in MM7, and while I’m sure it’s supposed to be a look of fierce determination it more resembles the look you give your flatmate when they leave the milk out of the fridge for the fiftieth time, god damn it Kevin, we talked about this. It’s still good, I suppose, it’s just not my favourite-ever Mega Man sprite.

Mega Man Soccer, SNES, 1994


That’s right, they made a Mega Man-themed football game. It was never released in Europe, and for that I am thankful. When I was a kid, if I’d seen a game that combined my twin loves of Mega Man and football I would have relentlessly pestered any nearby family members until they bought it for me, and then I’d have to live with the crushing disappointment that Mega Man Soccer is a bit crap.
At least Mega Man himself looks okay. His thighs are skinnier than usual, which only serves to emphasise the ridiculous size of his feet, and his eyes seem very close together, but aside from that it’s a perfectly acceptable look.

Mega Man / Mega Man 3, PC, 1990 / 1992


Oh no. Oh no, no, no. I hadn’t realised that writing about Mega Man sprites meant I’d be forced to look at this horrible thing. You can blame Hi-Tech Expressions for this, they received the license to make a couple of Mega Man games for the PC, and to say they made a bad job of it is like saying Brutus made a bad job of being Julius Caesar’s buddy. The PC Mega Man games are to the Mega Man series what the Star Wars Holiday Special is to the original Star Wars movies: generally familiar and containing some of the same characters, but twisted and distorted into nightmarish odysseys of pain and torment. Don’t play them. Consider that an order.
And what have they done to poor old Mega Man? He does not look well at all, with his head like a jaundiced coconut. They’ve given one of gaming’s most iconic heroes a face of a mouldy grapefruit that someone’s rammed a three-prong plug into, this is an outrage! Then there’s his legs, those elephantine stumps that do at least give you an inkling of the PC Mega Man’s lack of athletic ability. He’s so far off-model that he should be badly airbrushed on the side of an ice cream van, not appearing in an officially licensed game.

Mega Man: The Power Battle / Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters, Arcade, 1995 / 1996


There’s not much to say about Mega Man’s sprites from this arcade fighting-game spin-off series, because they’re pretty much just the sprites from Mega Man 7 with a couple of differences, most notably a more muted colour palette. He’s still very blue, though. Mega Man was famously designed to be blue because the NES’ colour palette has more shades of blue than any other colour, so I guess we could equally have been living in a world where Mega Man is green. When I make my movie about a guy who travels between dimensions, that’ll be how he knows his invention has worked – when he fires up his NES and Mega Man is green. Then he plays Mega Man for the rest of the movie’s two-hour run time, occasionally saying things like “huh, he’s called Dr. Deceitful in this universe.” A movie with limited appeal to a wider audience? Sure, but then I’m an auteur who cares little for the banal opinions of the masses.

Mega Man Battle & Fighters, Neo Geo Pocket Color, 2000


The two arcade Power Fighters games were ported to SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket handheld in 2000, a project which was ambitious, to say the least. The games were heavily compressed to fit on the NGPC, which results in a Mega Man sprite that looks a lot like the NES originals with one big difference: it’s a lot less blue. I quite like this white-and-blue look, mind you. There’s something fresh about it, although I might be thinking that because it makes Mega Man look like the advertising mascot for a toothpaste company. His ear-piece being white also has the effect of making it look as though his ear’s sticking through his helmet. Hey, that means he’ll be able to hear the music in his own games, and we can all agree that’s for the best.

Mega Man 8, PS1 / Sega Saturn, 1996


By now Mega Man had made it to the 32-bit consoles, and rather than embracing the brave new world of full 3D graphics, Capcom stuck with sprites. As a result, Mega Man 8 has what is one of my favourite sprites on this list. A big reason for this is that Mega Man’s legs, while still retaining their trademark “novelty snowplough” shape, look much more like legs with connected, functioning feet than before. It’s just a good sprite all around, honestly, with a nice sense of depth and solidity to it, and hands that are big enough to fit the exaggerated, cartoonish style but without being so swollen they look like Mega Man spent the morning punching a wasp’s nest.

Rockman & Forte / Mega Man & Bass, SNES / Game Boy Advance, 1998


Yep, it’s the same sprite as in Mega Man 8. It’s also the same in the Game Boy Advance port of Mega Man & Bass, albeit with slightly muted colours. Well, if it ain’t broke and all that.

Marvel vs. Capcom, arcade, 1998


Okay, this enormous foot situation is getting a little out of, erm, hand. I know there’s a mechanism inside Mega Man’s feet that helps him to jump higher, but what is it, a Saturn V rocket? Did Dr. Light forego giving Mega Man any kind of gyroscopic balancing system, instead opting for the far more cost-effective solution of fitting him with these colossal metal boots? No wonder Mega Man can’t crouch in most of his games, he’d never be able to get back up again. Plus he’s got the forearms of a strangulated Popeye.
I’m being too critical here. Mega Man’s Marvel vs. Capcom look may be exaggerated, but it’s a style that fits with the comic-book action of the game. He ends up being just as visually appealing as all the other characters in the game, especially when he’s in motion, and it’s one of the few games where Mega Man actually looks as though he’s having fun. Not so much when he’s just standing there, but once the punches are flying he definitely starts getting into it.


“Violence gives me purpose! Hooray!”

Rockman & Forte: Mirai Kara no Chousensha, Wonderswan, 1999


Bandai’s sometimes-horizontal, sometimes-vertical handheld also saw the release of a Mega Man game, and indeed there’s a stage in this game where you have to turn the Wonderswan ninety degrees and play it in “portrait” mode. That’s an interesting concept, but not interesting enough to make Rockman & Forte: Mirai Kara no Chousensha a good game, by all accounts. It's often described as the worst of the classic-style Mega Man games, and from what little I’ve played of it I can’t see much reason to argue against that assessment – although “worst” isn’t necessarily too harsh a label when you consider the high quality of most Mega Man games.
As for Mega Man’s appearance in the game, I kinda like it. He’s recognisable as Mega Man, but it’s not just a copy-paste job from another game. They’ve done a good job of capturing his usual surly expression, although once again his feet are an issue. I say feet, those are clearly hooves.
After staring at this sprite for a while, I suddenly realised what it was reminding of: an old cartoon. I mean, like, 1930s old. If Fleischer Studios had made a cartoon about a mechanical boy, I imagine it would have looked a lot like this, and I can easily imagine this iteration of Mega Man bouncing up and down in time to a jaunty ragtime tune.

Rockman Gold Empire, PC, 1999


We’re getting into the really obscure stuff now, with Rockman Gold Empire, an officialy-licensed product created for the Chinese market.  From what I can tell, it’s essentially Mega Monopoly, and you move around a board-game set-up, building things and earning money. Nice try, Capcom, but even giving it a Mega Man theme isn’t enough to make me suffer through the raw, grinding tedium that is a game of Monopoly.
The game features all-new (but definitely not “and improved”) character art, and it’s making me nostalgic. Not nostalgic for the old Mega Man games themselves, oh no. It’s making me nostalgic for my early days on the internet, because Mega Man is absolutely drawn in the style of those pixel “dolls” you’d see adorning a million GeoCities sites and Angelfire homepages at the turn of the century. Ignore his over-long, almost simian arms that reach down to his bloody ankles, and I suppose it’s not too bad a representation of Mega Man, but it just doesn't lok right.

Rockman Strategy, PC, 2001


Another Asia-exclusive PC title now, this time the Taiwanese Rockman Strategy. This one actually is a strategy game, similar in execution to RPGs like Fire Emblem, although not nearly as fun. The graphics certainly don’t help, with CG models that have been digitised into sprites a la Donkey Kong Country. The process has not worked as well as in Donkey Kong Country, however. Mega Man’s looking very plasticky yet at the same time fuzzier than a grizzly bear’s ballsack, and I have no idea what’s going on with his right hand. Honestly, I don’t think that is his hand. I think it’s a rubber duck. Mega Man defeated a bath-themed Robot Master and absorbed his special power. Get Equipped with Rubber Duckie. Now I’m really hoping Capcom one day decide to revive the classic Mega Man franchise, because I can’t wait to send them my sketches for Bath Man. He’s weak against Limescale Man, you see.

Jump! Rockman, Mobile, 2004


And now, the mobile phone games. If there’s any category in this article where I’m not going to be able to show you every Mega Man sprite, it’s the mobile phone games, because there are a bunch of them and most of them are Japan-only releases. That said, here’s Jump! Megaman, a game in which you make Mega Man jump. That’s it, you can’t even fire your arm blaster (I don’t think). The sprites are rather nice, though, considering the brutal compression they’ve had to endure to fit into a mobile game. Roll especially has come out well, and she’s recognisable as Roll even in so few pixels. Mega Man fares a little less well, with his head sunk so low into his shoulders that he can undo his belt with his teeth and the angriest expression yet upon his miniature face, but it could have been a lot worse. It looks almost like something you’d see in a Pico-8 game, which is a fun aesthetic.

Mega Man Space Rescue, Mobile, 2003


Mega Man Space Rescue is a momentum-based flying game, where Mega Man drifts through space using the power of directional rocket boosters. Think the ships in Asteroids or Solar Jetman and you’ve got the idea. However, Mega Man doesn’t look much like Mega Man, does he? If you removed his trademark ear-things and the crest of his helmet, he’d look just like any old anime-styled character in a blue space suit. And why does Mega Man even need a space suit? To provide him with all that oxygen he doesn’t need to breathe? They’ve even given him an all-new propulsion system when he already had the perfectly good Rush Adaptor available to him, which has the benefit of being made from a robot dog. All in all, a poor showing from Mega Man Space Rescue, and of all the games on this list it’s the one that’s the most cynical cash-in on Mega Man’s name. The actual game has bugger all to do with the Mega Man universe besides you controlling a character that you’re told is Mega Man.


There was also a Christmas-themed variant of the game, under the name Mega Man Rocket Christmas. It absolutely does not live up to the promise of that fantastic title.

Zombie Cafe, Mobile, 2011

Zombie Cafe is a time-management, restaurant-running game with the obvious “zombies” twist and a slightly less obvious “let’s have a Mega Man crossover event” twist. So they did. Now, most of the character graphics in Zombie Cafe are simply-animated digital illustrations which I guess technically are sprites but not in the pixel-based way that this article is focussed on. However, during the Mega Man event there was a pixel (or “dot”) style Mega Man sprite, so let’s take a look at that one.


That… that’s not Mega Man. Those proportions are all wrong. That’s someone in a Mega Man costume, complete with the giant head of a sporting mascot. It must be the person they used to have dress up as Mega Man at press events whenever a new classic Mega Man game was revealed, but as Capcom have apparently decided to stop making new Mega Man games there aren’t many job opportunities for a Mega Man mascot. So, they’ve had to resort to appearing in things like Zombie Cafe while Capcom let one of their most beloved franchises lay dormant. Here’s my pitch for a new Mega Man – make it like Platinum Games’ Vanquish, but with cel-shaded graphics. Have Mega Man sliding around and shooting cartoony robots with his arm blaster at breakneck speed, seamlessly switching between special weapons as he goes and facing off against a new set of Robot Masters in dramatic boss battles. This approach might reduce the emphasis on platforming, (which admittedly is a big part of the Mega Man games,) but I think it’d be worth it.


Of course, this being Zombie Cafe there’s a zombie version of Mega Man. How did Mega Man become a zombie when he’s not alive in the first place? The same way he caught “Roboenza” in Mega Man 10, that’s how. I must say the designers really didn’t put much effort into zombie Mega Man, did they? No tattered clothes, no grave mould, just a green face and a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. However, that trickle of blood does imply Mega Man has eaten a human being, which is a sentence I never thought I’d have to write.

Mega Man 9 / Mega Man 10, Various, 2008 / 2010


And we’re right back where we started. I think the cyan areas of Mega Man’s body might be ever-so-slightly darker, but other than that it’s the same sprite from 1987. A true classic, then, and a good place to end this article. Long may his oversized azure boot continue to kick the backside of evil as he pursues everlasting peace.

5 comments:

  1. Space Rescue Mega Man kinda looks like he was fused with the mini version of the craft from Side Arms that you saw in a few SNES Capcom games as a menu cursor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I could see that - although I'd be very surprised if it was intentional.

      Delete
  2. When I make my movie about a guy who travels between dimensions, that’ll be how he knows his invention has worked – when he fires up his NES and Mega Man is green.

    Would that be Captain N's universe?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the twist, when he's in the new dimension he watches Captain N and Mega Man is blue.

      Delete
  3. NeoGeo Pocket Color Megaman looks like he's just equipped an ice weapon.

    I know the NGPC was limited to four colors per sprite, but... they could've done better. Look at Sonic Pocket Adventure. The power of sprite-stacking compels you!

    ReplyDelete

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