Mega Man is one of the most beloved series to emerge from the melting pot that was the Japanese 8-bit development scene, and also ranks as one of the toughest. At a time when most NES games were happy to adopt a simplistic approach to suit younger players, Capcom's action platformer seemed hell-bent on rubbing your face in the dirt with a series of incredibly demanding titles which called for lightning reflexes and intense memorisation.
While former Capcom staffer and character designer Keiji Inafune is often credited as the man who gave birth to Mega Man, the actual honour should fall to Akira Kitamura, who worked as a planner on the original game and is the person who came up with the idea of the original character.
Back in 2011, Akira Kitamura was interviewed alongside illustrator Hitoshi Ariga - famous for his comic-book adaptations of the Mega Man story - for the Rockman Maniax collection. The interview has recently been translated into English by Shumplations.com and contains plenty of interesting info about the inception of one of gaming's most iconic heroes.
Kitamura starts off by explaining how he became involved in games design, and admits that Mega Man was at times brutally unfair:
Kitamura: I joined Capcom as a graphic designer, but very quickly I became seduced by the lure of game design, so I requested a transfer to the planning team. I found out, however, that I still had a lot to learn about games and hardware. After a period of study and working on various projects, the Mega Man development began. But as I thought about game design then, I started to wonder if designers had really thought deeply about enemy placement and behavior.
I'm sure you've experienced this before, Ariga, but in an action game or platformer, there's often that one part in a stage where you always die, right? And quite often in those parts, it's the way the enemies act that's totally unfair and absurd, don't you think?
Ariga: Ah… yeah! That's true.
Kitamura: In fact, no matter what game, it's those difficulty spikes that become the bottlenecks for players, and leave them with the impression that the game was too hard. And yet, at the same time, it's a fact that those tough parts also comprise some of the core gameplay in any game.
Well, in order to sort it all out for myself, I decided to play a bunch of different games and study just those difficult sections, replaying them over and over. In the Rockman Tanjou Densetsu comic, where you mentioned my character being locked away playing games all day, I guessed that you were referring to that experience.
Ariga: Wow, really? I didn't know that's what you were doing then.
Kitamura: Going through all those games taught me something important, though. I started to think that if I focused on more detailed, intricate enemy behavior and placement, then I could probably achieve a better difficulty balance than what action games had offered so far.
He then goes on to explain the key "rules" he put in place to ensure that Mega Man's gameplay flowed smoothly:
Kitamura: Also, two of my personal goals for Mega Man were to create a game where all the stages could be cleared in an hour, and to make something that players would want to come back to again and again. To that end, I actually calculated the total number of stages by measuring Mega Man's walking speed and seeing how long it would take to get through each stage. I then split that up so that the first half of the game would be the robot master stages, and the second would be the Wily stages.
Ariga: Whoa! You really did that?
Kitamura: I also created some rules for myself about enemy placement and design.
#1: Single, weak little enemies would appear in "waves" of 3 or 4 individuals (and to the extent possible, I'd avoid mixing up multiple enemies);
#2: they would all use the same attacks;
#3: I would use differences in terrain and enemy placement to adjust the difficulty of a given section;
#4: The difficulty of each enemy in the wave would gradually rise, but the last enemy to appear would be easier.
Ariga: Ah hah!
Kitamura: The first enemy you might just have to jump and shoot. The next one you have to actually dodge his bullets, and it's a little more difficult. Then for the final enemy in the wave, it would be easier: you can just stand there and shoot him head-on. All the enemy waves in Mega Man follow that basic pattern. Actually in the first Mega Man, I applied this midway through the development, but for Mega Man 2, I did it for the entire game.
Ariga: Now that you mention it, yeah! That is how it's designed.
Kitamura: Making the last enemy encounter in the wave easier was a key idea. It leaves the player with a softer impression of the game's difficulty. I think the reason that people don't replay games—even good ones—is that when they remember playing the game, their minds go back to the extremely difficult parts and enemies, and then replaying the game starts to seem like tedious work. I wanted the player to feel like he was improving at the game too, and that was another reason to make that last enemy easier, I think.
These weren't my only "tricks" for how to get more replayability, but they were some of the big ones.
Interestingly, he doesn't mention Inafune when talking about the design of the Mega Man's sprite, but instead singles out another member of the team for praise:
Ariga: I've been involved in game development myself, so I was curious about how you created the character sprite for Mega Man. Considering the limited palette of the Famicom, I was really surpriesd that you used 5 colors for Mega Man's sprite. To use 2 palettes on Mega Man (who was composed of two sprites) seemed crazy.
Kitamura: If we're going to talk about that aspect of Mega Man, then I have to talk about the programmer, Nobuyuki Matsushima (H.M.D. in the credits). Before working on Mega Man, he had done programming for a number of different companies, mostly industrial manufacturing companies. He programmed the systems that controlled industrial machinery. He's the man that really brought Mega Man to life.
Another interesting point of note is that Cut Man was originally envisaged as the hero of the game:
Kitamura: When I first created the world for Mega Man, but before I knew what the gameplay system would be—originally there was no Mega Man, no Roll, no Dr. Light. Cut Man was the hero. (laughs) I imagined a game where you'd use those scissors on his head to cut down enemies and other obstacles as you progressed through the stage.
Ariga: Cut Man was your first idea as the player character? That's a surprise. Though that does sound like a game I would have liked to try. (laughs) I can't think of another game with a design like that. You'd know right away just by looking at Cut Man what you're supposed to do!
The interview is packed with cool information, so be sure to check it out in full here.