The Birth of Mega Man – 2011 Developer Interview
Although Keiji Inafune is often cited as the man who created Mega Man, planner Akira “A.K” Kitamura should probably be the one accorded that honor. In this epic interview, illustrator Hitoshi Ariga talks to Akira Kitamura for the first time about his experiences with the first two Mega Man developments. Everything is touched on, from the trivial (Roll’s hair) to the profound (“the sadness of robots”).
Kitamura: I first learned about you, Ariga, when I was still working in the game industry. One of the members of my development team handed me some photocopies of a manga—it was your Rockman Tanjou Densetsu comic. “Hey Kitamura, isn’t this supposed to be you…?” I gave it a read, and it cracked me up! It was very true to life.
Ariga: When I was doing my research for that comic, I went directly to Keiji Inafune to ask about you.
As for me, I first became aware of you when I saw your name in the ending credits for Mega Man. Unlike other games, Mega Man was one I could play over and over, so naturally I’d seen the credits many times too. And there was a planner named “A.K” in there, who also did the character design… I thought to myself, “this must be the guy who created Mega Man!”
Kitamura: Well, going back to what you said about Mega Man being different from other games… I’ve often wondered why that is. Is it the artwork? The music? I think both were very high quality, for the time. Mega Man was also developed in a different, special way. It wasn’t made according to one mastermind’s whims and fancies; it was a melting pot of ideas from different people, and I think that also helps explain its appeal.
In any event, I know that you, Ariga, are a huge Mega Man fan. When you said Mega Man is a game you could play over and over… well, did you know that was something I specifically intended? In fact, I included a number of special “design tricks” to ensure just that.
Ariga: Oh really…? Do tell!
Level Design and Replayability
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.
Ariga: I think that attitude become one of the key elements of the Mega Man series.
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.
Ariga: I see. But what about the Friender enemies, those mechanical fire-breathing dogs, in Wood Man’s stage? The third one is the hardest because of the terrain. Maybe though, the Friender isn’t really a little zako enemy like you’re talking about?
Kitamura: Yeah, the Friender is a mid-boss, and I treated them differently in my design plans. I wanted it to be something where, on that final Friender, if you had the right weapon you could beat him easily.
But I think that was overthinking it, and it didn’t come out well. With the previous two Frienders, it’s fun to jump-rope over his fire and shoot back at him, but on the third one I didn’t leave enough room for that in the terrain. It’s just not a very fun section.
Creating Mega Man
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.
Ariga: Really? That’s cool…!
Kitamura: His programming skills were flawless. Probably because he had worked in an environment where a mistake could cost someone’s life, he would never allow there to be any bugs in his work. Now there’s definitely some bugs in Mega Man and Mega Man 2 where you can warp or pass through walls, but those were all my misses.
There was one difficulty with Matsushita’s programming, though: his code was slow. Being so perfectly wrought, with lots of internal safety checks and the like, meant that it took a lot of processing power and ran slowly. His routines for hit detection, for example, were very slow. My first idea for Mega Man was actually something closer to a STG game, where there’d be lots of enemies on-screen at once and you’d have fun blasting them all. But due to those programming limitations, I had to change the type of game.
The new game I envisioned had fewer enemies, and more varied terrain to obviate the need for multiple enemies on screen. One unexpected benefit of this new design was that less enemies meant we had the resources to do that cool layering effect on Mega Man’s character sprite. Without Matsushita’s programming abilities, though, I don’t think we would have even attempted it. It’s not something we normally did.
Ariga: I see. I would never have expected that to be what was behind Mega Man’s sprite.
Kitamura: After that, the program ran smoothly. By the way, do you know the tokusatsu show Ninja Captor? I’m a bit of a tokusatsu hero fan. I think you probably already know this, but Mega Man had a lot of little influences from manga, anime, and tokusatsu. Astro Boy, Casshern, Time Bokan, Kikaider, Kamen Rider, and others too.
Ariga: I share your tokusatsu love! And I really like Ninja Captor.
Kitamura: Oh, that reminds me—it was Matsushita, too, who came up with the idea for Mega Man changing colors when his weapons changed.
Ariga: That wasn’t an idea you had from the beginning?
Kitamura: In the beginning, I imagined a character like Mega Man equipped with some kind of weapon, but when you transformed, your whole appearance would change. You know that little protrusion on the top-front of Mega Man’s helmet? When you changed weapons, it was supposed to change like the Ninja Captor character’s helmets, and show a little symbol depending on the weapon’s element (fire, water, lightning, etc).
Ariga: Ah! So that was the idea behind the helmet design…!
Kitamura: Unfortunately, for various reasons, we weren’t going to be allowed to use those symbols like that.1 But that design element was super important to me—it wasn’t really up for compromise. As I sat there fretting, Matsushita came over and said, “How about this?” What he showed me was the color change mechanic.
It was a fresh, stylish idea, and this was when I started to get really excited about Mega Man’s character design. This was also the point at which we decided to use the two sprites and two palettes for Mega Man’s sprite. I was very grateful to Matsushita.
Ariga: I can see that Mega Man really was a team endeavor, like you were saying.
Kitamura: Yeah. I used to say to the staff that creating this game solely according to the image in my mind would be a mistake. If we didn’t make Mega Man from the sum of everyone’s contributions—music, graphics, and the rest—it would be meaningless.
That irresponsible notion, that “if only everyone thought just like me, I could make the perfect Mega Man!” … I think that’s the most damaging thought for a creative endeavor. I spent a lot of time trying to get everyone to understand that.
The Number System
Ariga: The Robot Masters are all numbered, and I was curious how you went about that. And is there a meaning to the order they’re numbered in? My personal guess is that it’s the order in which you implemented them in the actual game—if you look at Cut Man, he’s the lowest numbered of those robot masters (DLN 003), and his sprite shares a lot of similarities to Mega Man’s, so my guess is he was the first robot master to be officially added to the game?
Kitamura: You’re right. The numbering pretty much reflects the order we developed them in.
Ariga: I knew it! That makes me happy to hear.
Kitamura: The truth is, after we made the first Mega Man, I knew right away that this would become a series. The gameplay system was really well done, and I felt that it would be easy for another developer or team could make a sequel and keep that high level of quality. In order to make things easier for future Mega Man products, like card games, board games, and food products, I decided to use that numbering system for the robot masters (who I foresaw increasing in number). Imagine a Mega Man card game, and you open a booster pack and find some mysterious rare card “No. 000″… wouldn’t that be exciting!
Ariga: Hah, yeah, it totally would. People love stuff like that. But I’m surprised that you had this multi-product idea for Mega Man from the beginning!
Ariga: Bond Man is mentioned in the Rockman Tanjou Densetsu comic, but I understand that you actually planned 8 stages. What were they like? And what would that 8th boss have been…?
Kitamura: Unfortunately I don’t have any more information about them than what was in your comic. In my mind, there’s two kinds of weapons in Mega Man: those whose usefulness is immediately apparent, and those where you won’t know what they do until you actually try them. With Bond Man, the 7th boss, we already had the idea for a weapon that stops an enemy’s movement, but that was as far as it went. We never planned out anything for the 8th boss.
The truth is, there were a number of flaws in the MM1. The way we thought about weapons and the robot masters then was different than how we thought about them in later games, including MM2. In the first game, we designed the weapons by thinking about the corresponding robot master weakness. This focus on the robot masters sometimes caused us to neglect thinking about whether the weapons were fun, how they would actually work in-game, etc.
Ariga: I see. So how did that change for Mega Man 2 and later games?
Kitamura: In MM2, we first planned how the weapons would work: their effect, how they moved on-screen. Then we matched them to robot masters. That way, if the player pays close attention to the way the weapon works and the way the boss moves, they might get some hint about what his weakpoint is.
For example, take the Quick Boomerang. It’s the only weapon that fires continuously if you hold down the attack button. Metal Man reacts whenever you press the fire button, so if you hold the button down, he won’t do anything. So normally if you get close to him and fire you’ll get hit, but the Quick Boomerang’s range is just outside Metal Man’s detection range. You can take him out easily with it. There’s other examples too, but that’s the way we started to think about weapon design in MM2.
Ariga: I see, it’s a neat idea. It feels good in the game, too.
Kitamura: The enemies and the weapons are the core of Mega Man, so we thought about them a lot. Unfortunately, MM1 and MM2 really have a lot of rough spots. In MM2 especially, we truly had no time. We hardly spent any time fine-tuning and polishing the bosses.
Ariga: Right. Inafune also mentioned that you had no time for MM2, only 3 months (including debugging).
Kitamura: Normally we’d do a lot of playtesting, trying out all the weapons in different places… but in MM2 we didn’t do anything. Once something was finished, we’d check that it worked, and that was that. If we hadn’t done it like that, we never would have made the deadline. MM2 received a ton of critical praise, but on the other side, there are some people who think it’s rough and flat. I understand why they think that.
Yellow Devil, Mecha Dragon
Ariga: I heard from Inafune that the Mecha Dragon was supposed to be included in MM1. I think it was still rare for Famicom games then to have such a big boss using the background layer, and in such a speedy action game too. How did you come to that decision, to use the bg layer for Mecha Dragon?
Kitamura: Well, Wily Stage 1 is the real heart of MM2. It’s the first stage where you get to play as the “fully powered-up” Mega Man.
Ariga: That is true, it’s always been the part where I get most excited.
Kitamura: And to be honest, when I was making Mega Man, my biggest concern was that people would think it was a boring, plain game. Little Mega Man fighting other little enemies of the same size with his little “pew pew” pea-shooter… if that’s all people saw, how could they not think it was boring? That’s why, in order to erase that image, I wanted to include some unique big enemies and bosses.
The idea to make use of the bg layer for a boss was something I wanted to do from the beginning. It wasn’t any kind of special fixation on the bg layer; rather, it came from necessity, from thinking about the Yellow Devil’s attack pattern. The only way we could do a boss like that was to utilize the bg layer. At the time, one of the managers at Capcom saw the Yellow Devil and went “Whoa!” That was half the battle right there. (laughs)
Ariga: Another thing I’ve wondered about for awhile: why can you kill Metal Man in two hits with the Metal Blade?! Was that actually in your planning docs? I remember being momentarily stunned when I discovered this… then I burst out laughing! There’s never been another boss like that before or since. It was really memorable.
Kitamura: That was written into the planning docs, yes. It’s a “hidden trick.” In the old days, if your game didn’t have any secrets, it was difficult to get it featured in the various gaming magazines. Also, there’s the secret in Mega Man 2 where you can change the stars to birds in the boss select screen—that was added for the same reason.
Kitamura: Normally when I make a game, the first thing I think about is the gameplay system. But with Mega Man, I actually had an idea of the story and gameworld before that… nothing fully formed, but an idea.
Ariga: I always got a strong sense of “heroism” from Mega Man. Also the robot-ness of the world came through very strong. In the manual for the Famicom Rockman, there’s a paragraph of text introducing each robot master. It had this catalogue-feel to it that I loved, kind of a dry, clinical seriousness. I’ve always loved that dedication to robots in the Mega Man games.
Kitamura: In an action game, I don’t think the story should interrupt the action. But I still wanted to show the wider world and story in other places: the back of the box, the instruction manual, advertising, magazine features, and so forth. I wrote all the text for those. What you said just now—that you liked the “dry” feel of the writing there—that’s a really good way to put it. These robot masters were born as inorganic beings, so I think the writing should also be somewhat dry and clinical. Yet those same robots also have feelings and a personality, and they have a subjectivity that is very human, in the way they struggle against their predetermined fate—there’s a definite pathos there.
Ariga: Ah, so it was you who wrote all that text! I really like the atmosphere it imparts. They’re just short passages, but they helped me enjoy the world of Mega Man more deeply.
Kitamura: I did the layout for the instruction manual for MM1, too. It does have the “catalogue” or roster feel. I made it that way hoping that kids would pin it up in their room like a poster.
Ariga: That makes sense. Those manuals for MM1 and MM2 do have a special feel, compared with the later games.
Kitamura: The Copy Robot boss in the first Mega Man… I have to apologize here. We ran out of memory on the ROM, so we had to re-use Elec Man’s programming routines. (laughs)
Ariga: Ah! I knew I recognized his that movement pattern. It is Elec Man. But the different terrain and weapons the Copy Robot can use make it feel distinct enough. Also, do they move at a different speed? It feels that way to me…
Kitamura: Well, it wouldn’t have saved space if we had had to modify the routines—they’re exactly the same. That’s how tight we were on space, we couldn’t even modify it a little. What can you do though, we only had 1MB to work with!
Ariga: Really, they’re exactly the same? Yeah, now that I think back on it, you must be right. I guess it just leaves a different impression because of the terrain and the different weapons.
The Blue of Mega Man
Ariga: This has been on my mind for awhile too, but why did you choose blue for Mega Man’s default color? I think blue is a relatively rare color for a hero; many heroes are red or a similar color. Blue makes me think more of a character who is friends with the hero, but is also his rival.
Kitamura: Mega Man’s color… my ideal was actually white. White as a default would strengthen the impression of the other colors when he changes weapons. That’s how we drew him at first, like a white little ball of mochi.
Ariga: Like mochi? (laughs)
Kitamura: The heroes I think of are always loners. They don’t flaunt their abilities or try to stand out. So warm, red colors wouldn’t fit. But the problem is that the lighter the color, the weaker the character appears; but the stronger the color, the darker the character comes off. So the shade of blue we used for Mega Man turned out to be a good compromise, I think.
Ideally I would have made him white, but blue was the next best choice. But if he was all one single color, it would have made the sprite animation less clear. I didn’t want to go with anything ostentatious for a second color, so we chose two shades of blue.
Ariga: I think it turned out to be a good choice. There aren’t really any other heroes who look like him: if you say “blue robot hero”, most people are going to think of Mega Man. When I do my Mega Man illustrations for work, the first thing I have in my mind is always blue Mega Man. Then I can add other elements that match that feeling: the blue sky, the blue Earth…
Time to Get Serious!
Ariga: Whenever I play Mega Man 2, I’m always struck by how awesome the music is. MM1 is a special game to be sure, but I especially love MM2. The backgrounds, too, are just perfect. It’s like, “this is the world I was waiting for someone to make!”
However, in the later Mega Man games, the gameworld became more catchy, more pop, brighter somehow… Inafune was saying how Mega Man X took a darker turn in order to distinguish itself from that. For me, though, I feel like the Mega Man games gradually lost that cool, darker, more serious edge as time went on. I really felt that way when I received some criticism about my drawings of Mega Man: “Ariga, you draw Mega Man too seriously. The world is supposed to be lighter, more fun!”
Kitamura: Yeah, the “serious” quality you’re talking about is different from where Mega Man later went. I think I understand you. There's something sad about the image of Mega Man just standing there. There's a seriousness to characters like him, you could say. How can I put this… for me, when I see a young child playing alone, in a park or in the middle of the street, playing by himself there… there’s something so sad about that sight, it can almost bring me to tears. And there’s something similarly lonely about Mega Man.
Imagine if we wrote into Mega Man's backstory that he was the only robot equipped with an on/off switch. That alone would make him a far more tragic character. Since he's the kind of robot who only goes into action when he's needed, there's no need for him to have the ability to turn himself off, but I think the very idea of him having this safety function where he could decide on his own that he's no longer needed, that would be a perfect example of the serious feeling you mentioned. The sadness of being a robot is having this inorganic existence.
Ariga: Giving Mega Man an on/off switch would definitely be a sadder backstory, but I like stuff like that... "the sadness of being a robot." It very much fits Mega Man's character. At the same time, I also like the hope and futurism that robots embody.
Kitamura: The heroes I used to love were always strong figures that you could look up to. They were different from the heroes of today, who are drawn more sympathetically, and who you’re supposed to have something in common with. To me, a hero embodies the “virtue” that we all have in our hearts. We all have it, but most of us are too embarrassed or scared to show it.
In that sense there’s something childlike about heroism. Heroes are the people who are proud to show that side of themselves to others. They have a lonely existence, and they will bear any burden—even when not being watched over by others—simply because it’s the right thing to do. I like heroes with that childlike purity and idealism. Someone who can still believe in what’s right, even when others says “that’s not realistic.” I think when a person encounters a hero like that in art, they can learn a lot from them. That’s the kind of hero I wanted to create in Mega Man.
Cut Man was first
Kitamura: When thinking about Mega Man, I sometimes feel that it’s not Mega Man himself, but all the different robot masters that are the real treasure of the series. Mega Man stays the same character from game to game, but the robot masters are all unique one-off creations, with their own individual design, capabilities, and backstories. It honestly wouldn’t be weird at all to make one of them the star of their own game! Sometimes I wonder why that has never happened…!
Ariga: They are a real treasure trove. It’s a shame that most of them only get used once!
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!
Kitamura: After that, more and more robot masters started coming to me. I gave them all a general personality. I got a lot of hints for the gameplay out of their profiles.
Ariga: It feels like any one of them could be the hero in their own game.
Kitamura: I’ve read some of your comics, by the way. In your work, it seems like you’ve wanted to put more of a spotlight on the different bosses, drawing them with great care and detail. Is that true?
Ariga: Yeah, I’m always trying to do that whenever it’s possible. They’ve just got so much personality and charm.
Kitamura: And if one were to take the individual bosses and try featuring them in their own games—well, I think the possibilities are infinite.
Kitamura: The #1 thing I wanted to do in Mega Man was to make the different weapons interact more with the enemies and the backgrounds. Enemies, special walls, the clouds, the trees… all of them would be alterable by the weapons, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering the player. I wanted the bosses to have different reactions depending on the weapon you used, too. Like if you used a flame weapon and they’re burning, then you freeze them, they actually become super hard and their defense goes way up… but if you use the right powerful weapon on them then, they break apart and you get a brand new item. Stuff like that.
Or shooting a boss with a certain weapon could make him get bigger and bigger, or cause him to divide and multiply, or get more HP… there’s so much I wanted to do. Some of those ideas were left in the game, in one form or another. For instance, in MM1, if you’re using Rolling Cutter and you get hit by Elec Man’s electric attack, it will bounce off you.
Ariga: Ah, yeah! So that’s how that works. I’m also reminded of how some weapons will bounce off Quick Man when he’s in his guard pose, or how Heat Man gets healed and goes crazy if you use Crash Bomb on him…
Kitamura: Indeed, those are some of the ones that got left in. I had so much more I wanted to do though. The weapon combinations thing, for instance, got completely left out. Anyway, I remember telling our programmer Matsushita that if we didn’t do at least some of these ideas, then Mega Man won’t stand out from any of the other normal action games out there. He didn’t want to, but I made him add them.
In MM2, in the forest at the beginning of Wood Man’s stage, I had him code it so that if you used Atomic Fire on the trees, everything would burn up and the Batton (bat enemies) would all fly off. Sadly that ended up getting removed from the game. (laughs)
In any event, Matsushita was extremely against all this. He thought if we started adding things like that, there’d be no end to it.
Ariga: You know, the interactivity you’re talking about—there’s a lot of that in Mega Man 7. Melting ice with the fire weapons, freezing lava, using electrifying the clouds…and some bosses get powered up if you use a certain weapon on them. Spring Man, for instance, gets magnetized if you use electricity on him, and he can then magnetically pull Mega Man to him. On the forest stages you can burn up the trees too, and the background will change. There’s also secret items you can get.
Kitamura: Wow, they did all that in MM7? I didn’t know!
Ariga: In MM7, Inafune worked on-site, leading the development team. It was the first time he had done so in awhile. Also, Yoshihisa Tsuda was one of the planners. He had joined Capcom because he loved Mega Man (now he works at Inti Creates). Also, a number of the other staff were veterans from the MM2 era, and that may have contributed to the interactive quality in MM7. I’ve heard that, like MM2, the development time for MM7 was also very short.
Kitamura: Roll was created at the same time as Mega Man. At first, her hair was in curly pigtails like Candy Candy’s. However, one of my colleagues, a senior planner at Capcom, saw that and said “Since it’s ‘Rock and Roll’, shouldn’t she have a pony tail?” He was totally right, and I changed her hair.
Looking back now though, I feel like her pixel art was a little weak, I’m embarassed to say!
Ariga: Whoa, some Roll secrets! Awesome! A pony tail for rock and roll… I like that. Over the years Roll has become a more prominent character in her own right. She’s a very popular character in the Mega Man universe.
Kitamura: In MM2, the wall boss of Wily Castle stage 2, “PicoPico-kun”, was originally different. In my design plans, as the blocks flew out at you, you’d have less and less places to stand (you could fall into the pits left by them). However, because MM1 was criticized for being too hard, our programmer Matsushita said there was no way we could do something like that in MM2, and he left the floor intact. But the floor tiles disappearing had been the whole reason I made that boss, so I thought the change really sucked the life out of that battle.
If you want to play it as it was, try not stepping on the places where the blocks have fired. That’s the “raw” version of PicoPico-kun! I designed him that way… it should be really hard, but also really fun.
Ariga: Interesting. My friends and I usually try to do a time-attack style speedkill of that boss, and we always thought that he was hard enough as it is. (laughs)
Kitamura: By the way, most of the enemy names in MM1 and MM2 were done by my younger colleague, Naoya Tomita (aka TOM-PON). For the entire development, I was extremely against the name PicoPico-kun. He didn’t listen to me though. (laughs)
For MM2, I asked Tomita to draw the sprite for Mega Man in the “Get Equipped” scene and the ending scene. Tomita wasn’t very good at drawing then, so Mega Man is rendered a little clumsily, but at the same time, I liked the childlike quality. I think that’s how a kid would have drawn him. Tomita drew a number of other sprites, with highly individual and unusual designs, but I thought they were too far outside the image of the Mega Man world, so we had him work on backgrounds instead.
I really liked his sensibility though. We used to have a lot of random talks, and I got a good glimpse of his unique personality. (laughs)
Ariga: One of the amazing things about MM1 was the beautiful (for the Famicom) visuals. Background palette animation has been a stunning feature of the series since the very first game.
Kitamura: The backgrounds were drawn by one of my junior colleagues, Yasuaki Kishimoto (aka Yasukichi). He drew the ending scenes for both MM1 and MM2.
Ariga: I love the backgrounds in those endings.
Kitamura: In other games we developed at Capcom, we did all the graphics together. Kishimoto did the backgrounds, and I did the object sprites. We were both amateurs, but he knew a lot about computers and games. In that sense, when it came to computer graphics, he was really my teacher. He did almost all the backgrounds for MM1 and MM2. Back then, we had no in-game editing tools: you had to see what you’d coded in by loading it on-screen. To animate backgrounds on limited hardware like the Famicom, Kishimoto and I came up with the idea of palette animation.
Ariga: The palette animation was taken up by later games in the series too. For its time, I think it was a revolutionary idea, both visually and in terms of the space it saved in memory.
The Music of Mega Man
Kitamura: Composer Manami Matsumae was assigned to the MM1 development. I told her my image for the stages, and the bosses’ individual characteristics. On top of that, I said there should be a bright, lighthearted feeling associated with the hero, Mega Man. On Elec Man’s stage, she used these sounds that subtly suggest electricity. On Cut Man’s stage, the music somehow gives me an impression of metal. Her songs were all very high quality. It was actually her music that first caught management’s attention, and made them think, “these new teams are doing good work.”
Ariga: I’ve always loved the music in the first Mega Man.
Kitamura: After MM1 was released, it was decided that we’d do a sequel. For MM2, Takashi Tateishi was assigned as the composer, and I was really worried when I heard his first songs. I was taken aback—they were extremely cutesy sounding, like something from Bubble Bobble or Fantasy Zone…
Ariga: Ah, I read elsewhere that he said he struggled a lot with MM2. The planner (which must have been you) wouldn’t sign-off on his compositions, and it was just one rewrite after the other.
Kitamura: I realized what his mistake had been. He had looked at pictures of Mega Man and truly worked hard to write songs that captured Mega Man’s world. Consequently they all ended up feeling like variations on the theme of Mega Man’s character.
When we requested songs from the composers, we’d send them pictures of the backgrounds and other sprites for guidance. The source of my worries with Tateishi’s initial compositions was that they didn’t match the game in-motion, while you were playing. They didn’t match the movement speed or actions (jumping, shooting) of the gameplay, so despite the fact that they were very good songs, they felt too “laid-back” in the game.
He was going to have to re-write them. At that point, I decided to try giving him some new guidance.
* You’re floating in the water, everything is sparkling, but there’s danger!
* The excitement of being up in the sky, of teetering right on the brink, don’t look down!
* Hurry, hurry! Hurry hurry hurry!
* Concentrate, take your time and figure it out. Disappearing blocks.
* Keep moving along at a brisk pace… don’t stand in one place for too long!
* Smash, crunch, crash, clank! The gears are turning!
* Slipping and sliding through an underground maze! This way, that way, this way, that way!
* Ascending the stairs higher and higher, climb, climb!
Ariga: Hah! I recognize those stages.
Kitamura: To accomplish that, I also told Tateishi not to focus on melodies like he had been. I said to try and let the changes in the rhythm express it. I think writing this way was much more difficult. I didn’t want him to think about the visuals per se, but rather stay focused on the fact that these were going to be used in a game. (laughs)
Ariga: Wow… yeah, that does sound extremely difficult.
Kitamura: But thanks to those efforts, we ended up with songs like Crash Man, Heat Man, and Quick Man’s stage themes. The short, repeated musical loops in Heat Man’s stage, and the intense music of Quick Man’s stage really contribute to the player’s sense of tension in-game. Tateishi did a great job. Of course I think MM1 is a good game, but in terms of all the challenges we faced and overcame, I think of MM2 as a major accomplishment.
Ariga: The music perfectly matches the mood of the game. Looks like your “guidance” worked…!
Kitamura: Tateishi’s finished songs really exceeded my expectations. And it was cool seeing how he took ownership of them. At first, you see, it was just another job assigned to him. But as he gradually came to see these as his songs, the quality went way up. That made me really happy.
Ariga: He must have been feeling like “I’ve got it now!”
Kitamura: Yeah. And so one day, here’s what happened. The usual pattern was that I’d go into the sound room and check on how he was doing. But one day, very unusually, he called me in, grinning, and said “I just finished something awesome!” That song was Wily Castle stage 1.
Ariga: Whoa….! The birth of a legend!
Kitamura: That song, for Tateishi and myself, represented a culmination of all our efforts on this music. It instilled in us this feeling, like we were real pros now. Looking back on it, it’s funny—for almost every part of MM2, there’s a cool little story like this. It’s such a mysterious game.
Mega Man 3 – The Handoff
Kitamura: When I was leaving Capcom, the planner who was going to carry on the Mega Man series with Mega Man 3, Masahiko Kurokawa (aka Patariro—he joined Capcom at the same time as me, by the way), came to me and asked if I had any ideas kicking around for Mega Man. I told him:
- Don’t update the basic gameplay system
- Change the Items 1-3 into a robot dog (those “Item 1” names had always been provisional, and I had planned to give them a real name)
- Introduce a new protoype robot, No. 000 (he would be Mega Man’s mysterious brother)
I think I had a couple other ideas too, if I can remember them…
Ariga: Ah, so Protoman and Rush were your ideas.
Dr. Light, Dr. Wily
Ariga: When I draw Dr. Light, I portray him in a more serious way. I imagine he was conflicted about changing Rock into Mega Man, and that he feels a sense of responsibility to the robots he’s created. Wily, too, has his own reasons and motivations for wanting to take over the world, so I likewise depicted him as more than a simple “bad guy” in my comics.
Ever since the story of MM1, it’s seemed to me that Dr. Light and Dr. Wily have some deep, fateful connection between them, so I took the liberty in my comics to depict them when they were young. Kitamura, how did you see the two doctors?
Kitamura: From the beginning, the backstory was that Light and Wily were colleagues at Harvard University in America. I’m not sure if that was ever publicly announced after I wrote it, though. My image of them is actually the same as your manga. You said you depicted them more seriously than they were in the game, and in my own subjective, inner imagining of the Mega Man backstory, it’s very serious.
Like you, I imagined that they identified with each other as characters. It was the question of how to use their talents and abilities, and how to interact with society large, on which they parted paths.
I think Wily is a character made for fans of Showa Era hero shows.2 He rides in a funny saucer, his eyebrows move, he grovels on hands and knees when he apologizes… even though there’s all these obvious gags, on a deeper level I see him as connected with Dr. Light as you depicted in your manga.
Ariga: In the story for MM1, Dr. Light is able to see through Dr. Wily’s tricks and knows he’s behind it all. I wanted to expand on that idea in my story, and show how that was because the two had been old friends in college. It seems like you were thinking about their relationship then, too.
Kitamura: Well, for the game though, a villain like Dr. Wily was something you had to have for players who had struggled to the very end—a kind of reward. So compared to your manga, I think I had some different motivations. But yeah, it feels like I could talk on and on about Wily and Light. There’s so much to say.
Ariga: By all means, please continue!
Kitamura: Well, here’s a story about Wily that’s more about his role in the game, as opposed to his backstory. Wily is supposed to be an important goal for the player to reach, but if you didn’t read the instruction manual or game packaging, you’d have no way of knowing that.
Ariga: Right. And there was no opening demo for MM1.
Kitamura: I think it was the same way for Bowser in Super Mario Bros, so there wasn’t much we could do in MM1. After it went on sale, we made sure to write about Dr. Wily in game magazines and promotional ads. But we accidentally mis-wrote his name as “Dr Wheelie.” (laughs)
Ariga: I guess… he’s the crazy doctor who likes to pop a wheelie on his bike. (laughs)
Kitamura: One of the weaknesses of Mega Man was that it didn’t have a lot of shelf appeal. You wouldn’t know it was fun until one actually played it. Addressing this was a big goal for us in MM2, and the robot master character contests were part of our plans. While we thought it would be fun if kids got in on making robot masters, at the same time we really wanted to get the word of mouth going.
I also did the layout for the boss contest flyer, and I placed Wily’s image front and center to emphasize his character.
We also added the subtitle to MM2, “Wily no Nazo” (The Mystery of Dr. Wily) for the same reason, to let players know about him. The idea for the subtitle actually came before the idea for him turning into an alien at the end. (laughs)
Anyway, as you can see, we tried to build the characters and the story around these marketing ideas. For people who were really excited about the boss contest, I guess that’s a little disappointing to hear, but it’s what we had to do as working adults. On top of that, we were very clear about picking only the best designs, because we had that commercial purpose in mind. As a side effect, by pushing Wily and the robot masters to the fore like that, it forced me for the first time to really flesh out the story and relationship between Light and Wily.
Ariga: Now with Dr. Wily a more developed character, you had to explain Dr. Light too.
Kitamura: As you would think, Dr. Wily’s central movitation turns out to be his relationship with Dr. Light. That fact helps explain why the robot masters have a discernably human warmth and quality to them, also. Mega Man is the embodiment of justice. His heart is so good, it’s almost not human. But Dr. Light isn’t like that; he is human. And his big failure was Protoman.
Ariga: Ah! So that’s how you came up with him.
Kitamura: Protoman is the proof that Dr. Light is just a human. Most of the world and story of Mega Man was made in this way, linking up connections between the different characters. Although I feel like I’ve mainly just recited what you wrote about in your comics. (laughs)
Ariga: Haha, no, no. But it makes me very happy to hear! I always imagined it being that way.
Kitamura: Mega Man has only continued today because of all the love and support from the fans, and the hard work of the many developers who came after us and continued the series. Despite the changes in gameplay over the years, the later iterations of Mega Man belong to those developers. The Mega Man we’ve been talking about today, from MM1 and MM2—that’s my Mega Man. And the next generation will have their Mega Man too. No matter which version you may prefer, I want to express my gratitude to you, Ariga, and all the other Mega Man fans out there.
Ariga: Thank you for this wonderful conversation today!
If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!