The long-lived Mega Man series boasts some of the best action titles ever made, but it's generally not a series people look to when they crave some deep narrative from their games. That's the right move, really: Storytelling in Mega Man games is a hit-or-miss affair thanks to plot contrivances, unnecessary retcons, and, in many cases, sub-par translations or voice acting. It's kind of hard to care about Zero being forced to kill his lover when her death segues into… well, you know.
(Incidentally, a friend once pointed out to me that Zero sounds like Pee-Wee Herman when his scream of anguish trails off. It's been over 20 years and I still can't unhear it.)
That doesn't mean the Mega Man series is bereft of interesting messages, themes, or storylines. Many of the games examine nature versus nurture, the impact of war on the soldiers on the frontlines, and the relationship between humans and Reploids (our sentient mechanical counterparts).
The overarching story for the Mega Man Zero series is especially interesting: It follows the struggle of Reploid refugees who are being mercilessly dispatched for the "safety" of the humans living in a walled city called Neo Arcadia. (Reploids have an unfortunate tendency to go "Maverick" and attack humans; the Zero series takes place some years after a particularly huge Maverick War decimated the human population.) The first Mega Man Zero game gets your attention by setting up Mega Man X as the mastermind in charge of the Reploid cull. Mega Man X is a paragon of justice in the Mega Man X series that precedes the Zero series, so you're immediately driven to try and understand what went wrong.
But Mega Man Zero's story isn't delivered exclusively through cutscenes and back-and-forth banter with bosses. If you take a little time to talk to the NPCs hiding in the Resistance base, you'll find an older Reploid named Andrew whose stories flesh out the game's world—and help link the Mega Man timeline together.
Wait, the Mega Man Series Has a Timeline?
If you're someone who gives the Mega Man games a passing glance at best, you can be forgiven for not knowing this, but: yes, the Mega Man games link together to form timelines. Thankfully, it's not as contrived as the infamous Legend of Zelda timeline. Here's the gist:
Mega Man links to the Mega Man X series, which links to the Mega Man Zero series, which links to the Mega Man ZX series, which links to the Mega Man Legends series.
Whew. It goes like this:
- The Mega Man series gives us the story of a robot boy who fights with an evil scientist named Dr. Wily.
- The Mega Man X series takes place about 100 years later and the titular Mega Man X struggles to save humanity from rampaging Reploids.
- The Mega Man Zero series skips ahead another 100 years or so, and Zero awakens from hibernation to save innocent Reploids who are being hunted and killed.
- The Mega Man ZX series fast-forwards another 200 years. Reploids and humans have combined into one species which puts an end to some problems—and gives rise to others.
- The Mega Man Legends series takes place a long time after Mega Man ZX—eons, perhaps—and cybernetic "Carbons" who are still fused with technology eke out a living in a flooded world filled with dangerous "Reaverbots."
That's the gist. There's lots more to it; playing the Mega Man Zero/ZX Collection should help you wrap your head around at least part of the Mega Man timeline.
As for the other games, Mega Man Battle Network links to Mega Man Star Force. The Battle Network/Star Force games take place in a different universe from the main series, and therefore subscribes to a different canon. It's not relevant to the timeline Andrew relays in the Mega Man Zero games.
Who is Andrew?
Andrew is an old Reploid who shows up in Mega Man Zero, Mega Man Zero 2, and Mega Man Zero 3. He asks Zero to listen to his stories about the old days. It's usually worth your time because much of what he says fills in some of the Mega Man series' lore gaps.
For instance, even though the Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero games revolve around humans' and Reploids' attempts to co-exist, very few humans make an appearance in the games' stories. That's why one of the first stories Andrew tells you—how he once fell in love with a human and lived with her for a time—is immediately interesting. Moreover, Andrew explains he's "old" because he modified himself after his mate grew older and resented his eternal youth. This short but sweet exchange gives Mega Man Zero more story development than the Mega Man X games' hours dialogue and cutscenes.
It's not confirmed, but it seems as if Andrew's stories recall a time before Neo Arcadia turned Reploids into pariahs—possibly at some point between the Mega Man X and Zero series, or in the earliest days of Neo Arcadia before everything went south. He talks about professions that put him in close contact with humans and their children and recalls how peaceful things were. He was a sailor, a baker (this is important), and a teacher.
Andrew was particularly happy as a teacher. In Mega Man Zero 2, he tells Zero about how gave a shy student a doughnut after she forgot her lunch on a field trip. The student gave him a clover as a thank you. Andrew's not in Mega Man Zero 4, but you do meet a human woman who tells Zero her grandmother once gifted a sprig of clover to a favorite Reploid teacher.
Andrew's purpose isn't just to relay tales of the "good old days;" he's there to finally put a little meat on the central conflict of Man vs. Machine in the Mega Man X and Zero series. By following his stories, you get a rough timeline of how relationships between humans and Reploids evolved, and deteriorated. Andrew often gets sad when he reminisces about times gone by. He doesn't state it outright, but he likely lost his right to work as a teacher once Neo Arcadia started subjugating Reploids. In fact, he probably wasn't allowed to work with humans at all, even though he'd been close to them for most of his life. He lost his livelihood—and his mate, who eventually died of old age—and was forced underground with the rest of the Resistance.
Happily, Andrew finds peace at the end of the Mega Man Zero series—though you have to read supplemental story materials to know it—and his legacy of peaceful coexistence carries into the next couple of centuries. In Mega Man ZX, you meet a bread vendor who says she learned her popular recipe from her great-great-great-great grandfather, who worked alongside a talented Reploid baker. That's undoubtedly our boy, Andrew. He's long gone in the ZX timeline, but his bread remains as a warm, fragrant covenant between humans and Reploids. Delicious.
The existence of the Mega Man/X/Zero/ZX Legacy Collections and 2018's Mega Man 11 indicate Capcom is ready to dish attention onto the Blue Bomber after a long hiatus. There have been some rumblings of Mega Man X9 popping into existence for some time now. I've no clue what Capcom has planned for X, but it'd be nice if future games let us meet more Reploids as interesting as Andrew.