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Mega Man’s journey from Blue Bomber to bombshell

Early ’90s trends couldn’t be denied

An illustration shows the evolution from Mega Man into the edgier Maverick Hunter X Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

For decades, gamers have been helping Mega Man and the great Maverick Hunter known as X foil the plans of the evil Dr. Wily and Sigma. But even those familiar with the Mega Man franchise don’t know much about the differences between the two heroes headlining the series, as Capcom has left both as stoic icons with incomplete biographies. Thanks to the hundred-year difference between the original Mega Man’s crusade and the time of X’s adventures, though, one thing is clear: Much has changed in the franchise’s attitude, style, and accessorizing.

Mega Man, introduced in 1987, was undoubtedly a hero, but that young construct was also very plain — all heart and no lasting impression. He was small, with rounded edges and squeezable cheeks, adorned in shades of blue except for the flesh tone on his face, trying so hard to just stick out (initially he was white until his creators realized the solid pale color made the sprite animations unclear). Back in his day, being fashionable simply involved gaining new powers and changing one’s color scheme, as a fresh splash of paint was meant to go an impossibly long way. Accessories were even more challenging, as he had to hope no one recognized his upgrades were hand-me-downs or that he had merely wrapped parts of his loyal hound around him (Rush always did the heavy lifting, a truly versatile pet). As hard as Mega Man tried, he was forever stuck at the robo-kiddie table.

X was a different breed. This creation, introduced in 1993’s Mega Man X, looked older, had less to prove, and didn’t need a long handle to signal what he was when a singular letter confidently got the point across. This mechanical savior was polished, sleeker, and had bigger armor attachments and a few pointy ends. With a ruby gem on his helmet and ivory gloves giving a sophisticated look, his fresh body was refined and more presentable. Dear old Daddy Light gave him an elegant redesigned base form and left him impressive gifts, with multiple pieces of equipment that provided new abilities, as well as adding white with red and gold trim to his presentation. Though his color was still bright on the outside, X was darker and a little edgy, with a cold-blooded expression (so much so that Capcom softened him up in later games), ready to leave Mega, Roll, Rush, and other childhood elements behind.

Pencil sketches show early design concepts for Mega Man
Mega Man had a simple design from the start, as seen in Mega Man Legacy Collection
Image: Capcom
A pencil sketch shows Mega Man standing next to a floating enemy
An early concept piece for the original Mega Man, as seen in Mega Man Legacy Collection
Image: Capcom

Moving to the Super Nintendo allowed the artists at Capcom a broader range of colors when it came to X’s look, and according to designer Hayato Kaji in the book MM25: Mega Man & Mega Man X Official Complete Works, this new freedom was both a blessing and a curse, allowing for more detail but also making it tougher to settle on designs given the options available. The sprite itself ended up being larger (and stayed that way until Mega Man 7), and Mega Man X presented a journey to collect upgrades that made the character pop off the screen, with excellent contrast and an aerodynamic aesthetic. X’s growth in power also mirrored that of the game’s boss, Zero.

According to Inafune in Mega Man & Mega Man X Official Complete Works, the series’ main character needed to change in part because of the success of role-playing games where characters evolved over time. “Mega Man was not shining as brightly in this light,” he said, which is why the team added more power-ups.

Original art from Capcom shows X and Zero standing back to back, ready to fight.
X and Zero show their similarities in artwork from Mega Man X Legacy Collection
Image: Capcom

The team was also inspired to add other elements, giving X access to mechs known as Ride Armors, and in later games land speeders — or Ride Chasers — presumably because someone who looks this awesome needs sick vehicles too. And X often takes on the style of his enemies. During the opening stage of MMX, players witness Vile — Sigma’s violent enforcer — using a stylized purple battle suit to dominate X, so of course, our growing hero wants one of his own. Meanwhile, Sigma has oversized boots, bracers, and intimidating pauldrons, in suppressed peacock colors, all in an attempt to outshine the hero he can never actually beat. Both Sigma and his partner Zero also wield flashy sabers, weapons that demand attention when being used, another important extension to the ensemble that our hero strives for and eventually receives.

X is constantly pushing himself to evolve, grow, and find better accessories. Dr. Cain’s journal from the game’s manual told us that he was worried about X being “unsure of his place in life” due to the free will Dr. Light had given him, as he had to choose the path of violence in order to help Zero. Mega Man didn’t have this problem and wouldn’t care about what others thought of his actions (he could make judgments, but didn’t have full free will), appearance, or bettering of himself; there was only the task at hand. X was determined to not only outdo his predecessor, but everyone, going for additional full sets of exchangeable armor in the later games, expanding past even his own means. He even stole ostentatious and highly effective specialized attacks from Street Fighter characters and acquired golden armor at one point, similar to Arthur’s from Ghosts ’n Goblins, keeping it in the Capcom family.

It’s no surprise that someone this fashionably versatile, robot or not, would find that passion to keep changing and unlocking their visual potential amid threats of failure and self-doubt. The older Mega Man never stood a chance against the test of time, a victim of his own creation, destined to never understand the true value of upgrading, wardrobe and all.

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