Yesterday, Deadline broke the news that Mega Man is back, baby, back! As... a cartoon from Men of Action and Dentsu Entertainment.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure whether I should take this as a good or a bad thing. As a Mega Man fan since the original NES game, and (sometimes against my better judgment) I've played just about every game to have come along bearing the franchise's name. I've seen Mega Man at its very best and its absolute worst. I guess I should be relieved to see that Capcom still sees some value in the brand... but, at the same time, this strikes me less as the company staking out the future of the games and more along the lines of Mega Man being gently put out to pasture as a multimedia property that may or may not happen to stray into the gaming space at some point.
Meanwhile, Archie Comics has been publishing a Mega Man comic over the past several years that has turned out to be vastly better than it has any right to be. In fact, the book has a pretty fair claim for the title of best Mega Man adaptation in any non-game medium ever. It's up against some pretty top-notch material, like Hitoshi Ariga's excellent manga adaptation, but I know a fair few people who would still vouch for the Archie version.
The new comic has set a pretty high bar for new Mega Man content to clear. It reads remarkably true to the original games; unlike the old Ruby-Spears cartoon, the creative team seems to understand that the main character is meant to be young and inexperienced, and that the "man" in his name is a mere formality. And unlike the Mega Man who appeared in the Captain N cartoon, the character has a much more clearly defined personality than "short guy with verbal tic." So, in fact, do his friends, allies, and enemies. The comic has managed that all-too-rare feat of using the source material (the games and their limited narrative) as a jumping-off point for more intricate stories that parallel the original content, add new material, and yet feel faithful to the spirit of the original works. It even goes to pains to integrate lesser-known material, like the Mega Man Game Boy titles from the '90s.
One best-case scenario might be for the new television series to simply adapt Archie's comic work into serial animation. Then again, countless comics-to-cartoon conversions through the years have demonstrated the need for television to take liberties with print source material. Anyone who's ever suffered through filler episodes of a manga-based anime is well aware that what works on the page and makes for a fun five-minute read can feel drawn-out and tedious when stretched to 20 minutes of animation. In fact, we've already seen something along those lines within the greater Mega Man franchise; the NT Warrior anime built on the plotlines of the Battle Network games, and those required considerable expansion to work as a TV serial. The results were often pretty dreadful.
Which isn't to say it's impossible for Mega Man to turn out a good television experience, just that it hasn't happened yet. Unfortunately the "premium cable" model hasn't really taken hold with licensed animation yet, and it probably never will. The idea of investing more money into fewer episodes sits at odds with the overriding philosophy behind licensed animation: Produce as many seasons as cheaply as possible to hit 100 episodes and assemble a syndication package that can air on crummy cable networks until the end of time.
More's the pity, because the premium approach to animated adaptations can work. One need look no further than one of Mega Man's '90s contemporaries, Sam Keith's The Maxx, for an example of its potential. MTV created a shockingly good and shockingly faithful cartoon rendition of Keith's psychedelic, feministic deconstruction of superhero comics through careful pacing and a willingness to work within the boundaries of the property. Now, The Maxx dealt in jungian symbolism, the post-traumatic effects of rape survival, and the pros and cons of violence and revenge as catharsis — obviously its tone and content wouldn't map directly onto a series about a little blue robot that blows up other robots in the city of Monsteropolis. But the overall model (thoughtfully crafted animated renditions of a great comics story) would serve this upcoming Mega Man cartoon nicely.
On the other hand, I wouldn't mind seeing something totally new and off the wall if it could finally bring the Mega Man saga some form of resolution, even if it's apocryphal. Capcom had a weird and kind of annoying tendency to bake up new Mega Man sub-franchises — X, then Legends, then Zero, then ZX — that all existed on the same timeline of continuity without ever bringing any of the individual stories to a close. In fact, Inti Creates and Keiji Inafune tried to close the books on Mega Man X with X5 and bring Mega Man Zero to a finale with Zero 3, but in both cases Capcom decided to keep the stories going. So we know classic Mega Man leads into X, and X becomes Zero, and that ZX becomes Legends... but no one's bothered to fill in the gaps, and Legends seems unlikely to ever get an ending. So it would be kind of nice to see someone create some closure there, even if it's technically apocryphal.
Mostly, though, I suppose I'm grateful to see the Mega Man name still has some value for its caretakers. The brand has always seemed to exist in a sort of feast-or-famine state, and lately it's been a hardcore hunger strike. Hard to believe these days that Mega Man was one of the first game franchises to stake out the concept of annual iterative sequels — there were six NES games alone, plus a Japan-only spin-off, which I'm fairly certain made it the most sequel-happy series on any 8-bit system! And that from 2000 to 2010, every branch of the Mega Man family saw releases, with the complete runs of the Battle Network/Star Force and Zero/ZX series overlapping with Classic, X, and Legends games and spin-offs aplenty.
The famine began in earnest with the cancellation of Mega Man Universe and the Legends 3 project in 2011. Since then, there's been a Capcom-sanctioned fan-made freeware game and a mobile game about which the less said the better. Bandai has continued cranking out Mega Man action figures (the very expensive kind that you have to import from Japan), and of course the old-school version of the character showed up in Smash Bros. 4 as a fondly remembered favorite alongside Pac-Man. But aside from those nods, and the comic, it's been pretty quiet.
The cartoon news isn't exactly a Mega Man 11 or Legends 3 Resurrection, but it does show Capcom's willingness to put the character out there for a higher-profile role than he's had so far this decade. The famine could be over — and while a TV series isn't precisely a feast, maybe the franchise and its fans would be better off if Capcom could find a comfortable and sustainable balance in between. Just so long as it doesn't involve that weird and totally off-point Armature FPS prototype that surfaced a while back...