With its diverse “orchestral” palette and complex forms, the Nintendo NES repertoire stands as a monument to innovation—a creative outpouring driven by a compositional challenge inherent to the NES medium: how to create music that repeats extensively without drawing attention to the fact that it is repeating. In response to this challenge, composers developed ways to create the illusion of variety. On the one hand, they pushed the limits of the 2A03 sound chip by crafting timbral and textural effects to deepen its well of possibilities. On the other hand, they employed modular and layered compositional techniques to simultaneously maximize and disguise repetition.

Innovative as they are, these methods capture only a portion of the NES repertoire’s sophisticated makeup. This article moves beyond the details of technique and form to examine NES music from a new angle, one that centers on the impressive network of cultural meanings with which it engages. By treating deviations from normative musical traits as hermeneutic windows, my work draws on Japanese cultural studies, postwar Japanese history, and anime to interpret Capcom’s Mega Man series, and in particular Mega Man 2 (1989), as an allegory of cultural imperialism.

Genesis and Sub-Series Unity

Established in 1987 by Japanese game developer Capcom, Mega Man has since become one of the company’s most successful franchises.1 Prior to the inaugural title’s release, Capcom focused its attention on the arcade market, porting a number of successful arcade games to the NES (e.g., Ghosts ’n Goblins, Commando, 1942). But with the renewed success of the console market both at home and abroad, the company began to develop games specifically for the NES, the first of which was the original Mega Man game, hereafter referred to as Mega Man 1 (Capcom 1987).2

Developed specifically for the Japanese home-console market, Mega Man met with unexpected—yet moderate—success. This led the company to produce an English version for the NES, but mediocre sales in the United States and Canada nudged the company to suspend further development of the series in both Japan and North America. Despite its initial flop, however, the game became a “sleeper hit” in North America, with its popularity spreading by word of mouth from playground to playground across the continent. With their finger firmly on the market pulse, the game’s designers asked to work on a sequel, which Capcom authorized on the condition that they do it on their own time—or at least without hindering progress on “official” assignments.3 Working twenty-hour days, the team perfected the graphics and gameplay of Mega Man 2, and in December 1988 they released it to an audience perfectly primed for a sequel.4 The game was a smash hit and cemented the success of the Mega Man series for decades to come.

As of June 2020, the series had 158 titles, most of which belong to one of several sub-series—a group of games that develop a single storyline (albeit loosely) within the Mega Man universe. The six games released for the NES (Mega Man 1–6) form part of what fans call the “original series,” whose core games are Mega Man 1–11 and Mega Man & Bass. Unlike most series developed for the NES, and especially those of the action-platformer genre, the original Mega Man series places a strong emphasis on narrative—an ever-developing story involving a hero (Mega Man) and a villain (Dr. Wily) that ties the individual titles together. As founder of Mega Man Akira Kitamura recalls, “Normally, when I make a game, the first thing I think about is the gameplay system. But with [Mega Man 1], I actually had an idea of the story and gameworld before that…nothing fully formed, but an idea.”5 And indeed, Kitamura’s dedication to story is made evident in the game’s Japanese instruction manual, which contains a lengthy backstory to the game in the top-right corner on one side, and a detailed history of each robot master on the other.

It is precisely this emphasis on narrative that makes the series so ripe for interpretation. More than a superficial (or even tenuous) assortment of clichés, Mega Man’s story is rich with ties to the histories and cultures of Japan, and the already strong temptation to interpret those ties is only intensified by the non-narrative elements that unify Mega Man’s constituent entries: common gameplay structures, a consistent graphical style, and a shared musical language. By investigating each of these joining factors in turn, we position ourselves to probe individual titles for the meanings they might inspire within us.

Gameplay Structures

Each of the six original Mega Man titles has at its core the same fundamental structure, which centers around two principal challenges that a player must overcome: first to defeat Dr. Wily’s eight robot masters, and then to defeat the evil doctor himself.6 The first of these challenges, in particular, showcases one of the series’s most celebrated features: its nonlinearity. By binding together the individual Mega Man games with an innovative nonlinear design, Kitamura constructs a common series identity—one that can support game-specific narratives as well as those that span multiple titles.

Both scholars and designers of video games have used the term nonlinearity to emphasize slightly different things. Karen Collins uses the term “to refer to the fact that games provide many choices for players to make, and that every gameplay will be different.”7 This definition encompasses aspects of a game that involve choices, as well as those that do not. Consider Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space (Nutting Associates, 1971), which consists of a single stage where players attempt to shoot down flying saucers while avoiding enemy fire.8 Nonlinearity does not arise from a player’s choice to navigate the game in different ways; it arises from the game’s unprecedented AI—“computer-programmed Space Saucers,” according to one advertisement.9 Because enemies take into account a player’s whereabouts before firing, their behavior is different with each playthrough.

In contrast to Collins, game designer Richard Rouse III focuses his definition of nonlinearity exclusively on a player’s ability to choose: “When we say we want our games to be nonlinear, we mean we want them to provide choices for players to make—different paths they can take to get from point A to point B, from the game’s beginning to its end.”10 This is accomplished by offering multiple challenges that can be confronted in any order, as well as by offering multiple ways to overcome those challenges. It was precisely this brand of nonlinearity that set the Mega Man series apart from its predecessors.

In the years leading up to the release of Mega Man 1, the majority of games were set out in linear fashion, meaning each player would follow the same path and encounter the same predefined sequence of events. In Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (1985), for instance, players are taken immediately to World 1–1 upon pressing the Start button. Those lucky enough to find the secret warp zones are able to skip levels, but the overarching order thereof remains constant. On the contrary, Mega Man 1 and its siblings surprised gamers by featuring an additional screen—a “Stage Select” screen—after the title screen, which allowed them to choose their own adventure.11 The Stage Select screen from Mega Man 2 is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Mega Man 2’s “Stage Select” screen, which exemplifies the game’s characteristic nonlinear structure.

Figure 1.

Mega Man 2’s “Stage Select” screen, which exemplifies the game’s characteristic nonlinear structure.

Of course, the concept of a nonlinear game was hardly new in 1987: Atari’s Adventure (1980) involved an open-world concept that allowed players to meander at their discretion; and even the NES, for which Mega Man was designed, already had a number of nonlinear games in its catalogue, including the inaugural titles of some of the best-selling franchises of all time.12 Mega Man, however, was different. Unlike the open-world style of other nonlinear games, it did not allow players to wander in whichever direction they pleased, but it did allow players to select the order in which they completed the game’s initial levels.13 And more than that, it used this newfound freedom to add an unprecedented element of strategy, an understanding of which requires a more detailed description of the game’s general organization.

The first eight levels of each Mega Man game are guarded by different robot masters, each possessing a unique weapon that Mega Man acquires if he is victorious. More than a mere cosmetic change, these weapons allow players to defeat specific enemies more easily. As lead series designer Keiji Inafune explains, “When you think about it, there’s not something in the world that is just stronger than everything else; almost everything has something it’s stronger than and something it’s weaker to, sort of like in scissors, rock, and paper—scissors will beat paper, but they lose to the rock; paper will beat rock, but it loses to the scissors. That’s how the Mega Man weapons work.”14 This feature provided players with the additional challenge of figuring out the optimal order in which to defeat the robot masters.

The damage chart in Figure 2 shows the respective weaknesses of robot masters in Mega Man 2. When Mega Man first sets off on his quest, he is limited to a single weapon—a built-in arm cannon known as the Mega Buster (P), which does the most damage (4 units) to Air Man, Quick Man, Flash Man, and Heat Man, thus offering players a number of choices for where to begin. A player who begins with Flash Man, for instance, will receive the Time Stopper (F), which is most effective against Quick Man (14 units). Following this line of reasoning through all eight robot masters yields this path: Flash Man → Quick Man → Metal Man → Bubble Man → Heat Man → Wood Man → Air Man → Crash Man.15

Figure 2.

Mega Man 2 damage chart illustrating the game’s “rock-paper-scissors” game mechanic. (Source: Mega Man Knowledge Base, a fan-driven wiki, “Mega Man 2 Damage Data Chart,” last edited November 5, 2020, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2Hkd6lT.)

Figure 2.

Mega Man 2 damage chart illustrating the game’s “rock-paper-scissors” game mechanic. (Source: Mega Man Knowledge Base, a fan-driven wiki, “Mega Man 2 Damage Data Chart,” last edited November 5, 2020, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2Hkd6lT.)

Although the game is relatively short when one speeds through each level in this order, the amount of trial and error required to find the optimal path in the first place—there are 40,320 different orderings of the first eight levels—provided gamers with countless hours of play; and in this sense, the Mega Man series hit a sweet spot between the game’s initial challenge and its replayability. As Kitamura recalls, “two of my personal goals…[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.”16

Once this initial challenge is completed, each of the Mega Man games proceeds to Dr. Wily’s fortress, which includes a number of additional levels, each of which is guarded by a new boss, and ultimately Dr. Wily himself. This design feature is linear and does not offer players multiple paths, but its consistency from game to game does contribute to the series’s characteristic identity. Ultimately, both challenges imbue games of the original series with a common structure and strategic purpose, such that each subsequent game, although distinct, feels like a continuation of its predecessor.

More than being just a common strategic thread, the game’s nonlinear elements are distinctly Japanese in inspiration. The game many of us know as “rock, paper, scissors” has been popular in Japan (as jen-ken) ever since the seventeenth century. It was only introduced to the West sometime in the twentieth century and enjoyed a surge in popularity following reports by American soldiers stationed in Japan after World War II. As Sergeant Sandy Colton put it in an issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes from August of 1956, “Rather than flip a coin to settle a wager, Japanese prefer jan-ken-pon (pronounced john-ken-pohn)—an Oriental game of odds or evens.”17 The act of American soldiers reporting on a Japanese children’s game does not engender political tension per se, but the circumstances in which this design-feature-to-be reached the American public foreshadow some of the deeper tensions that lie at the very heart of Mega Man’s music and graphical style.

Graphical Style

If you were a gamer in 1987 playing Mega Man 1 for the first time, you might have noticed how colorful the Blue Bomber appeared in comparison to familiar characters from other games, such as Link from The Legend of Zelda and Mario from Super Mario Bros. (Figure 3). Whereas Mario and Link each contain a total of four colors (white included), Mega Man contains a total of five. The difference in number is minimal, but the difference in effect is substantial. Even twenty years after Mega Man’s release, Inafune’s artwork remains one of the game’s most cherished features. When it was released for Nintendo’s virtual console, American media giant IGN remarked how “crisp, colorful spritework [gave] life to Mega Man and his enemies,” and how “the work done…was so solid that Mega Man’s sprite model stayed the same for the rest of the series on the NES.”18 And indeed that spritework was recognized by the editors of Nintendo Power when advertising Mega Man 2 to its subscribers: “It features super sound, spectacular graphics, and great game play. You’ll love it!”19
Figure 3:

NES sprites: Mega Man (five colors), Link (four colors), and Mario (four colors).

Figure 3:

NES sprites: Mega Man (five colors), Link (four colors), and Mario (four colors).

Of course, by today’s standards, moving from four colors to five seems like a trivial difference—a slightly more involved color-by-numbers exercise. But doing so on the NES was quite challenging because of the way in which the system was designed.20 A brief examination of the NES’s picture processing unit (PPU) helps us better understand what exactly was so special about the Blue Bomber’s design.21

In short, the PPU is responsible for graphics. It fetches data from a game cartridge and renders that data on screen. Half of the PPU’s memory (8 kB of 16 kB total) is mapped to the cartridge’s character ROM (CHR-ROM), and the other half (8 kB) is mapped to name tables, attribute tables, palette indices, and their respective mirrors.22 The 8 kB of CHR-ROM is dedicated to pattern tables, which contain the pixelated tiles—the miniature mosaics—that people see and interact with when they play a game. These 8x8-pixel tiles are the basic building blocks of NES graphics. Figure 4 shows pattern tables from Mega Man 1. Each table is 4 kB in size and holds up to 256 tiles; the one on the left contains sprite tiles, and the one on the right contains background tiles. By combining these tiles in different ways, one can produce every single image that appears onscreen at a given time…in monochrome.23

Figure 4.

Mega Man 1, pattern tables for Fire Man’s stage.

Figure 4.

Mega Man 1, pattern tables for Fire Man’s stage.

An attentive observer will notice that there is only one set of tiles depicting Mega Man—those in red, gray, black, and white (Figure 4, top-left). But as any Mega Man fan worth their salt knows, the Blue Bomber changes colors each time he changes weapons. This is made possible by the PPU’s other half, which maps to a series of color palettes—eight palettes of four colors each, to be exact—programmers can choose from. Once assigned a specific palette, affected tiles change their colors accordingly, and Mega Man swaps his red Atomic Fire suit for another color. In other words, when filtered through a color palette, the reds, grays, blacks, and whites seen in Figure 4 change to something else. This method, however, has its limits.

Color on the NES is restricted by the system’s memory architecture, which places severe constraints on character design. Because each sixty-four-pixel tile is described by 128 bits (i.e., 2 bits per pixel), each constituent pixel thereof can exist in one of just four different states—00, 01, 10, or 11, in binary. And because each of those states corresponds with one of the assigned palette’s four colors, the system imposes a four-color maximum on each sixty-four-pixel area.24 Figure 5 presents this situation visually: the numbers on the left represent the two-bit binary value of each pixel in decimal form (i.e., 00 = 0, 01 = 1, 10 = 2, 11 = 3), and the image on the right shows the visual result of those values when filtered through a color palette. How, then, does Mega Man have five different colors?

Figure 5.

Pixelated tile filtered through a color palette.

Figure 5.

Pixelated tile filtered through a color palette.

Most sprites on the NES are made up of more than one tile, and because the system’s limit is imposed on a tile-by-tile basis, it is theoretically possible for adjacent tiles to use different palettes. But if we divide Mega Man’s resting pose into its six constituent tiles (Figure 6), it still violates the four-color rule for individual tiles. The top-middle tile, for instance, contains a total of five colors: black, white, dark blue, light blue, and tan. This is achieved by a method known as “sprite stacking,” which, true to its name, involves placing one sprite on top of another. Although simple in concept, this method was quite difficult to implement in 1987 and required a talented programmer—in this case, an industrial machinery systems specialist named Nobuyuki Matsushima. In order to implement Inafune and Kitamura’s ambitious design, Matsushima undertook the difficult task of synching Mega Man’s face (Sprite 1) with the rest of his body (Sprite 2), the individual sprites of which are shown in Figure 7. This technological feat of layering images one on top of the other made possible the now-iconic five-color Mega Man. As Kitamura recalls, “Without Matsushima’s programming abilities…I don’t think we would have even attempted it.”25

Figure 6.

Mega Man sprite divided into tiles with sprite-stacking technique.

Figure 6.

Mega Man sprite divided into tiles with sprite-stacking technique.

Figure 7.

Mega Man sprites divided to show sprite-stacking technique.

Figure 7.

Mega Man sprites divided to show sprite-stacking technique.

As we have already seen, Inafune’s colorful sprites for Mega Man 1–6 were a talking point for promoters of the series. More than just eye-catching artwork, however, his big-eyed characters also betray a debt to Japanese culture and, more specifically, to anime and manga, which were gaining popularity in the United States at the time. The impending “Japanimation” craze signaled a perceptual shift whereby Japan was no longer considered by Western consumers solely as a producer of culturally neutral commodities like automobiles and electronics; it was also becoming a producer of culturally marked exports like anime and video games. As the first game for NES with such distinct ties to manga, Mega Man 1 was a trailblazer, at least to the extent possible.

Businesses in both Japan and the United States were wary of the effect that a more overt cultural presence might have on sales, as had been the case since the end of World War II. As anthropologist Anne Allison explains, “Burdened by a legacy of pre-war and wartime brutality in East and Southeast Asia, [as well as] orientalist dismissal in Euroamerica, Japan adopted a policy in postwar times of culturally neutering the products it exports overseas” in hopes of maximizing global market potential.26 Owing to this history of whitewashing, even the manga and anime exported to North America throughout the 1980s and ’90s bore few cultural markers—a trend that media theorist Koichi Iwabuchi sees even today: “[Consumer technologies, comics and cartoons, and computer/video games] are cultural artifacts in which bodily, racial, and ethnic characteristics have been erased or softened,” and this feature is “particularly visible in Japanese animation where the characters, for the most part, do not look Japanese.”27 In fact, this type of erasure has been so prevalent in postwar Japan that the Japanese have a special word for it—mukokuseki—which literally means “something or someone lacking any nationality,” but which is used less innocuously to refer to “the erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics and contexts from a cultural product.”28

Discrepancies between Japanese and American cover art for NES games illustrate Iwabuchi’s point clearly. Take Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., for example, whose region-specific cover art is shown in Figure 8. Whereas the Japanese cover is typical of that country’s manga style, the North American cover is distinctly “8-bit” in appearance (i.e., it deliberately “deodorizes” the game of its “Japaneseness”).29 The in-game graphics also look nothing like the cartoonish Japanese cover art. Mega Man, however, is different. Although Inafune’s in-game graphics look nothing like the North American cover, they do look like the Japanese cover, thus presenting North American audiences with an unabashedly manga-esque style.30 Figure 9 shows the North American and Japanese cover art for Mega Man 1 next to sprites of the game's six robot masters.

Figure 8.

Super Mario Bros., Japanese (left) and North American (right) cover art.

Figure 8.

Super Mario Bros., Japanese (left) and North American (right) cover art.

Figure 9.

Mega Man 1, American (left) and Japanese (center) cover art, sprites (right).

Figure 9.

Mega Man 1, American (left) and Japanese (center) cover art, sprites (right).

This particular “advance” in graphics aside, the characters from Mega Man are deodorized nevertheless—especially the Blue Bomber himself, whose whiteness in the cover art epitomizes a widespread tendency of the mukokuseki tradition to minimize Japanese characteristics in favor of an allegedly more “global” look. This reinforcement of whiteness as the accepted racial standard has roots in postwar commercial pressures, to be sure, but it also owes to the political dominance of Japan by the United States in the years immediately following World War II. After all, it is easy to imagine how a country first blasted by weapons of apocalyptic proportions and then subjected to foreign occupation might struggle to find its own cultural identity. As Michael Darling writes, “The after-effects of World War II still loom large over culture and society in Japan, whether it is coming to terms with the material, human, and spiritual loss of the war, or in the postwar importation of Western values and products.”31 At times, these aftereffects are hidden in plain sight.

An unassuming example of what some have called “transcultural flow” can be seen in the disproportionate size of the characters’ eyes in the Japanese cover art to Mega Man 1. Although this ocular disproportion has come to be viewed as a characteristic feature of manga, its origins are in fact American. When American forces occupied Japan in the years following World War II, they brought with them some of the films and comic books of Walt Disney, which were subsequently sold and distributed throughout the country. Many local artists were influenced by these products and incorporated Disney’s hallmark features (big eyes included) into their own work.32 By the time Japanese cartoons reached North American shores in large numbers, these Disney-inspired features were so ubiquitous in manga and anime that they became inextricably linked with Japan.

Given this context, it is easy to question whether Inafune’s Mega Man artwork brought anything “Japanese” to North American shores whatsoever. What exactly is a mukokuseki robot with Disney eyes, anyway? One answer lies in a popular art movement known as “Superflat,” which took hold in Japan several years after Mega Man’s release. Pioneered by Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, Superflat is a two-dimensional artistic style that does away with traditional notions of space. As Hiroki Azuma writes, “Murakami, it seems, has no sense of space. Or, more accurately, he disregards it. Resolutely planar, his works prevent the construction of visual depth. This is what [he] means by Super Flat. That he occasionally refers even to his three-dimensional sculptural work as Super Flat provides testament to the consistency of his sensibility. Murakami not only rejects the spatial in the planar, he sees space itself as an assemblage of planes.”33

Consider Murakami’s Flowers in Heaven (2010), shown in Figure 10. At first glance, the small flowers seem to provide a sense of depth (i.e., they are smaller because they are further away). A closer inspection reveals, however, that many of the smaller flowers actually cover parts of bigger flowers, making it impossible to distinguish between a flower’s size and depth: flowers that seem distant at first are actually in the foreground, at least to whatever extent a foreground can be said to exist in the first place. This visual paradox is enhanced by the dark lines that trace the outline of each flower. It might seem that flowers with the same thickness of line inhabit the same plane, but again that turns out to be false. Even though Murakami structures space as “an assemblage of planes,” he simultaneously “rejects the spatial in the planar.”

Figure 10.

Murakami, Flowers in Heaven, Superflat style.

Figure 10.

Murakami, Flowers in Heaven, Superflat style.

More to the point, Murakami’s Superflat posits an artistic lineage that joins manga and anime—traditionally drawn in a Superflat style—to the distinctly “Japanese” art of the Edo period (1603–1868), and in particular to the work of Itō Jakuchū. Indeed this is one of the main theses of Murakami’s treatise: “This book hopes to reconsider ‘super flatness,’ the sensibility that has contributed to and continues to contribute to the construction of Japanese culture, as a worldview, and show that it is an original concept that links the past with the present and the future…‘Super flatness’ is an original concept of the Japanese who have been completely Westernized.”34 Murakami’s work is undeniably political—a commentary on the tension between Japanese culture and American influence—and its (political) fingerprint is evident in Inafune’s Mega Man artwork.

If we turn back to Figure 9 with Murakami’s work in mind, parallels between Inafune’s art and the Superflat style begin to emerge. Notice how Mega Man and his foes appear at first glance to lie in a single foreground plane, with Dr. Wily’s castle firmly in the background. Now shift your focus to Guts Man and Ice Man at the top of the image, and take note of how Mega Man and the robot masters appear to occupy a plane that sits atop the orange-bordered background layer—all except for Fire Man, that is, whose leg in the bottom-right of the image is contained within the border, even though he occupies the same planar position as Ice Man (i.e., both are one “layer” behind Elec Man).

The Superflat style that this image exhibits is echoed throughout the series, in both its box art and its in-game graphics. Thanks to the advent of sprite-stacking, Inafune was able to recreate the Japanese cover art inside of the game proper. More specifically, the five-color palette afforded by Matsushima’s programming skills allowed him to trace all of his characters with black borders so as to emphasize their planar design—something absent in earlier games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. When implemented in-game, the standout effect produced by these lines creates a visual paradox with respect to depth, much like in Murakami’s Flowers in Heaven. Examine closely the screenshot of Flash Man’s stage from Mega Man 2 (Figure 11). It would be logical to assume that the blue tiles beneath Mega Man and Flash Man are a floor, and indeed that is where both characters land. It would also be logical to assume that the left-hand wall, which is a continuation of the floor, lies at the same depth. As this image makes clear, however, Mega Man (in his Metal Blade suit) appears to inhabit a closer plane, as does the right-most blade. In contrast, the left-most blade occupies a deeper plane, despite being the same size as its twin. And yet, if those blades were to connect with Flash Man in the horizontal dimension, both would inflict damage.

Figure 11.

Mega Man 2, planar paradoxes as Mega Man battles Flash Man.

Figure 11.

Mega Man 2, planar paradoxes as Mega Man battles Flash Man.

These planar inconsistencies (or paradoxes) are emblematic of the super-flat style that Murakami discovered in historic Japanese art, and later developed in light of American pop art, and even though Inafune did not include them consciously in his art, Mega Man’s overall look emphasized its homegrown Superflat style, thus countering the deodorization process at play in the American cover art. As a result, for perhaps the first time in video game history, Capcom presented a distinctly “Japanese” graphic universe to American gamers.35

In addition to Inafune’s use of this traditional style, the series as a whole deepens its Japanese roots by employing tropes from a genre of manga and anime known as mecha (a shortening of the English word mechanical). Perhaps most familiar to North American audiences through Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (1952–1968), the mecha genre (or “robot anime”)—one of Japan’s most popular—centers around humanoid robots and the double-sworded nature of technological advance. Of course, the simultaneous celebration and critique of technology (J. P. Telotte’s “double vision”36) is also common in Western science fiction films, but the Japanese version tends to involve a darker and more profound meditation on the ambiguous value of fusing humans and machines.37 And in this light, it is difficult to ignore the historical threads of the original Mega Man series, whose story has strong parallels to the nuclear holocaust Japan faced just forty-two years earlier.

As noted in the game’s instruction manual, which sets the tone for the entire series, Mega Man and the six robot masters were created by a brilliant scientific duo—Dr. Light and Dr. Wily—for the purpose of serving humans.38 Guts Man, for instance, is described as “a bulldozing character capable of lifting and transporting huge boulders.” Despite these noble beginnings, however, “[Wily] turned disloyal, re-programming Dr. Wright’s [sic] Humanoids, now bent on destroying opposition so Dr. Wily could control the world and its resources.” Inafune’s design of Dr. Albert Wily, shown in Figure 12, is curiously reminiscent of Albert Einstein—the man who, despite opposing use of the atom bomb itself, famously wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that it be built. Whether or not Kitamura intended for this connection to be drawn, Inafune solidified it with his character design, and in doing so positioned Mega Man as one of the first Japanese video games to use political allegory.

Figure 12.

Mega Man 1, Inafune’s sprite design for Dr. Albert [Einstein] Wily.

Figure 12.

Mega Man 1, Inafune’s sprite design for Dr. Albert [Einstein] Wily.

This subtle preoccupation with Japan’s position in the world, and especially its relationship with the United States, would continue to influence Inafune’s work—most frequently manifesting itself as a fusion of Japanese and American cultural elements, the philosophy behind which resonates with some of Murakami’s most fundamental views on art: “What is Art? For those of us born in Asia, it remains an ever important question. The reason is that what we today define as Art represents the path followed by Western art history and yet here in the East, we have our own history. To survive as artists, we must learn to resolve the collision of these two cultures. My own personal position is drawn from how well I can arrange the unique flowers of Asia, moreover the ever strange blossoms that have bloomed in the madness of the defeated culture of postwar Japan, into work that will live within the confines of Western art history.”39

Music

In a similar case of cultural fusion, Mega Man’s music embodies Japan’s longstanding struggle for identity in the wake of postwar occupation by the United States. In this case, the Japanese video game series has at its thematic center an American/British genre of music: rock.40 For anyone who actually reads the games’ dialogue, this theme is expressed most explicitly through the names of principal characters—Rock (Mega Man), Roll, Forte (Bass), Blues (Proto Man), Ballade, and so on—but even those with less patience might experience it through the music, which, in addition to its guitar-like timbres and effects (e.g., pitch-bend, slide, vibrato), includes solos reminiscent of the rock genre. There are even some who insist that Manami Matsumae’s “Elec Man” from Mega Man 1 was modeled off of American rock band Journey’s “Faithfully”—the second single from their 1983 album Frontiers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Capcom’s sound designers treated the NES’s APU just like a traditional rock ensemble: Pulse 1 is always used for melody and never for sound effects; Pulse 2 is used for harmony, countermelody, and tonal sound effects; Triangle is used for bass and tom-toms; Noise is used for drums and percussive sounds; and DMC is never used. In fact, the characteristic tom-tom effect of sweeping the pitch of the triangle-wave channel was developed by Capcom and is employed in a number of their games—Mega Man included. That they took extra pains to simulate parts of the drum kit not supported by a traditional use of the APU speaks to their dedication to the rock idiom.41

William O’Hara further bolsters this association with rock music by pointing out a number of hard-rock features that pervade the Mega Man soundtracks.42 In addition to lengthy guitar solos with percussive emphasis on the downbeat, O’Hara notes how many tracks feature hammer-ons, pull-offs, Aeolian harmonies (especially flat-VI and flat-VII), and a rhythmic figure called the “heavy-metal gallop,” which consists of an eighth note followed by two sixteenths, performed at a quick tempo.43 He also points out that “every single one of the 63 tunes I studied is in 4/4, and most of them have backbeats that make their rock rhythms explicit. In other words, there are no lilting waltzes for underwater or skybound levels, no pastoral 6/8 tunes, and nothing ambient or ametric.”44

Takashi Tateishi’s title track from Mega Man 2, given in Figure 13, illustrates a number of these techniques, as they appear in the original series. The tune’s heavy-metal gallop is its most obvious feature, appearing in all three of the tone channels from the very start, and functioning as a characteristic ostinato (Triangle) throughout the small ternary’s A section (mm. 1–8);45 by incorporating a style-specific rhythmic figure, the ostinato serves both to establish the rock idiom and to conserve memory. The subsequent guitar-like solo in the B section (mm. 9–16) is supported by emphatic toms on the downbeat (stemmed with x’s in the score) and makes prevalent use of hammer-ons; its modally mixed tonic notwithstanding, the solo also features the Aeolian harmonies of flat-VI (mm. 15–16) and flat-VII (mm. 11–12, 16), which also appear above a tonic pedal in the theme’s A and A’ sections.46

Figure 13.

Tateishi, Mega Man 2, “Title: Part 2.” (All musical transcriptions were made by the author.)

Figure 13.

Tateishi, Mega Man 2, “Title: Part 2.” (All musical transcriptions were made by the author.)

As this example shows, characteristic elements of hard-rock music are integral to the Mega Man sound. The juxtaposition of cultures that it implies, however, seems to provoke tension in some of those involved with the series. Composer Manami Matsumae, in particular, has tended to distance herself from the notion that Mega Man’s music mirrors its overarching rock-n-roll theme: “It’s not quite rock, right?…It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly influenced me at the time, but when I became a composer, I was listening to a lot of American music in the ’80s on the radio. I think that might have had some kind of unconscious or subconscious influence on the kind of music I make now.”47 In fact, even when asked directly whether she set out to write rock music, Masumae responded by referring to a distinctly Japanese influence, while taking care not to dismiss the interviewer’s question outright: “I had wanted to make rock music, but that wasn’t the exact thing I went out to do. So when I saw how Rockman, or Mega Man, moved on the screen, I was instantly reminded of Astro Boy. And you know, Astro Boy’s kind of a near-futuristic space-oriented comic book, or manga, right?”

To read these statements as declarations of cultural autonomy is perhaps overstated, but Matsumae’s mild distancing from American influences carries with it a certain tension—one that seems to implicate American domination as the impetus for a self-conscious assertion of Japanese identity. It could be that rock music is just a red herring in a well of deeply rooted sensitivities—emotionally charged relationships to which the music of Mega Man speaks through its use as a narrative element in and of itself. Consider, for instance, the explicit musical connection between Mega Man 1 and Mega Man 2: When Takashi Tateishi chose to begin his “Title” to Mega Man 2 with Matsumae’s “Ending” from Mega Man 1, he set a trend for the entire original series, not in that each subsequent game would begin with music from its predecessor (it does not), but rather in that each opening would start with a contemplative melody that yields to an energetic, ready-to-rumble tune upon the appearance of the game’s title screen—also the moment at which players take control as the game’s eponymous hero.

The juxtaposition of musical affects—lonely/slow and adrenaline-pumping—created by Tateishi’s model, which sets the tone for entire series, hearkens back to the game’s engagement with the mecha anime genre and its attendant philosophical dilemmas: technology as a double-edged sword, and the joining together of man and machine. As Susan J. Napier writes, “While the imagery in mecha anime is strongly technological and is often specifically focused on the machinery of the armored body, the narratives themselves often focus to a surprising extent on the human inside the machinery. It is this contrast between the vulnerable, emotionally complex [lonely/slow] and often youthful human being inside the ominously faceless body armor or power suit and the awesome power he/she wields vicariously [adrenaline-pumping] that makes for the most important tension in many mecha dramas.”48 And indeed this contrast manifests itself throughout the Mega Man series (musically, narratively, and graphically), perhaps most poignantly in the original series’s most iconic image—that of the Blue Bomber atop a skyscraper, helmet off, looking contemplatively over a cityscape (Figure 14). In that moment, Inafune and Kitamura ask us to connect with the human inside of the machine—to understand that Mega Man is not just a for-our-pleasure platformer, but that it also has, buried within its background layers, a profound story that tells us something about ourselves.

Figure 14.

Mega Man 2, the Blue Bomber looking contemplatively over the city. (This image is altered to give the effect of the actual title screen, which is animated and pans upward from the bottom of the tower to the top of the tower, only revealing Mega Man at the very end.)

Figure 14.

Mega Man 2, the Blue Bomber looking contemplatively over the city. (This image is altered to give the effect of the actual title screen, which is animated and pans upward from the bottom of the tower to the top of the tower, only revealing Mega Man at the very end.)

One of its lessons is that no matter how powerful we become through technology, we remain in control of how we use that technology—like Eisenhower, Einstein, and the atomic bomb. Another is that taking the moral high-ground can be isolating—lonely, even. As Kitamura recalls, “Just the image of Mega Man standing there: there’s a sadness to it. Even his sprite has a certain gravity and seriousness to it. 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…Mega Man alone is equipped with the functionality to turn himself off. That very fact imbues him with a sadness. The other robot masters were made for some kind of specific job or work, so there’s no need for them to have an ‘off switch’ they can control. However, a robot helper like Mega Man can make his own judgments, and therefore can decide whether he’s needed or not.”49 At its very heart, Mega Man asks us who we are, and that is precisely the question that will guide us as we examine Tateishi’s score to Capcom’s best-selling Mega Man game of all-time—Mega Man 2.

Mega Man 2 (Capcom 1988)

Thanks to the efforts of the super robot “Rockman,” created by Dr. Right [sic], mysterious scientific genius Dr. Wily’s mad desires of global domination were halted, and peace was restored to the world. In spite of the massive blow he received, however, Dr. Wily has sent out 8 terrible robots to once again challenge “Rockman” in a brand new battle…50

Mega Man 2 begins with a story—one that is accompanied by the music of Matsumae’s “Ending” from Mega Man 1, which itself positions Kitamura’s sequel as an allegory of cultural imperialism, and more specifically, as a musical depiction of the reconstruction process that built a new, yet fundamentally fraught, Japanese identity under the “auspices” of American occupation.51 A contemplative tune that defies the formal and harmonic norms of NES music (Figure 15), “Ending” participates in a tense relationship with “Title: Part 2” (Figure 13) that sets the stage for the struggle to come and, as we will see, the struggle that will persist.

Figure 15.

Mega Man 1, “Ending”; Mega Man 2, “Title: Part 1.”

Figure 15.

Mega Man 1, “Ending”; Mega Man 2, “Title: Part 1.”

The piece begins in F-sharp major, with a two-measure introduction. Beyond this, however, “Ending” is difficult to parse into modules.52 On the one hand, it exhibits features of a modular seam (i.e., a change in macroharmony, texture, and—unusually so—tempo) as it moves from m. 10 to m. 11; on the other hand, the music from mm. 11ff sounds like a continuation of mm. 7–10.53

Matsumae’s “Ending” is also unusual in that it makes use of very few memory-saving techniques. Aside from the chromatic sequencing in mm. 11–16, all repetitions occur within single voices of individual measures (e.g., the arpeggio in Pulse 2 of m. 5). This owes, in part, to the atypical structure of mm. 3–10, which combines the first half of a period with the second half of a sentence—one that lacks cadential closure, and arguably resumes its continuation function in the subsequent module (mm. 11ff). The resulting form thus maximizes variety by not restating the basic idea.54

It is also possible to interpret mm. 3–19 as a single module—one that comprises a four-measure antecedent and an extended continuation. No matter the formal interpretation, however, one still has to reckon with the abrupt harmonic shift to a D-major triad in m. 11, which signals a musical language more akin to art music of the nineteenth century than to popular music of the 1980s: whereas mm. 1–10 are conventionally tonal, mm. 10–11 bring about a “slide” progression (S), so named because the D-sharp-minor triad’s root and fifth slide down a semitone while the chordal third remains intact.55 This chromatic maneuver is especially jarring because its constituent chords belong to different diatonic scales; that is, they do not belong to the same key. In a repertoire that rarely changes keys to begin with, such a violent rejection of the governing tonic is something to note—and to interpret. Over the course of its functionally ambiguous nineteen measures, “Ending” modulates to the key of C major/minor, in which the ensuing “Title: Part 2” of Mega Man 2 is set (see Figure 13).56

From a formal and harmonic point of view, Tateishi’s “Title: Part 2” (approached attacca) emerges from the haze of its predecessor by way of stylistic Aeolian progressions, clearly articulated modules of periodic design, and an overarching small-ternary construction. It also establishes the soundtrack’s principal key (C) alongside a major-minor binary, which plays out over the course of the game.57 Despite this “corrective,” however, the game’s atypical F-sharp opening lurks in the background as Mega Man sets out on his quest.58 Something is not quite as it should be—as though the journey is doomed before it has even begun. It is fraught. It is inauthentic.

As Mega Man makes his way through the game’s initial stages, he collects weapons (one from each robot master) to build up his strength and gain the upper hand over Dr. Wily—or, if we read his actions against the history of postwar Japan, he reconstructs his identity piece by piece to surmount the carnage and chaos facilitated by Einstein’s urgent advice to the president of the United States that an atomic bomb be built. In contrast to the game’s unusual opening tune (Matsumae’s “Ending”), the music that accompanies this reconstruction process adheres to the formal norms of the NES style and incorporates features of the rock genre—all representative of progress toward a stable identity. To enhance this sense of rebuilding, each stage is prefaced by the “Boss Select” music (not shown), and eventually leads to the “Boss Battle” tune (not shown), both of which are in the key of C minor and hearken back to the major-minor binary set forth in “Title: Part 2”; these tunes, perpetually at play, ask the player time and time again to overcome the dark shades of minor and establish C major as the key of victory. And yet each time victory is achieved, the music (not shown) shifts abruptly to the key of D-flat major, read enharmonically as the dominant of Matsumae’s “Ending”—an ever-present tremor of the off-kilter opening that casts doubt on the identity being forged.

This tremor begins to make waves as Mega Man embarks on the second half of his quest—a six-part exploration of Dr. Wily’s castle, the first two parts of which are accompanied by one of the most celebrated tracks ever composed for the NES, and one that also happens to be a master class in memory-saving techniques. Tateishi’s “Dr. Wily: Part 1,” given in Figure 16, begins with a highly efficient eight-measure module (mm. 1–8) that is repeated with a microvariation in its last measure (notated here as a second ending). Following its repeat, this module gives way to an eight-measure periodic structure with divergent contrasting ideas (mm. 9–16), the whole of which supports a soaring guitar solo in Pulse 1. Because of the module’s harmonic unrest (flat-II) and a half-cadential gesture in m. 16, it acts as the B section of a small ternary—the A’ section (mm. 17–32) of which is highly unusual in its use of countermelodies to enrich the texture: note how Tateishi borrows the rhythm of B (mm. 33–40) to create a new melody in Pulse 1 that complements the preestablished heavy-metal gallop in Pulse 2; and note how he then varies that melody and changes its register, now with the heavy-metal gallop an octave lower, in a beautiful fusion of modular and layered compositional techniques.59 When B returns following the A’ section, it creates the impression—and expectation—of an ouroboros ternary form (i.e., an ||: AB:|| structure with an unclosed B section, such that the return of A sounds like a ternary form) with intermittent variations on the A section (represented schematically as ||: ABA’B:||). When module C enters at m. 41, however, A’ takes on the function of an “expectation module,” having misled the listener to anticipate yet another return of B, only to deliver entirely new material. With no initial tonic (the music proceeds directly from the V chord that ends B), the underlying “closed” Aeolian progression takes on a cadential function that ties together all of the modules.

In addition to its formal wizardry, “Dr. Wily: Part 1,” replete with its heavy-metal gallop, Aeolian harmonies, tom-toms, off-beat hi-hat, and guitar solo, is also the most rock-like track in the entire soundtrack—an epitome of the NES style, and a summation of the reconstruction process that sees Mega Man, quite literally, at full strength for the very first time. This musical pinnacle, however, is predicated on the seamless merger of Western rock music with formal traits endemic to the NES style, which, despite later Western innovations, was born in Japan. And so just like Inafune’s Disney-inspired manga, the music of Mega Man 2 falls into the mukokuseki tradition—a struggle for identity on an intractable scale. Viewed now as a cultural conflict at its height, rather than a genuine reconstruction, the music buckles under its own weight and shatters into an unrecognizable form: as Mega Man enters the third and fourth parts of his journey through Wily’s castle, all that remains is a formless progression of four chords, sequenced through all twelve keys (“Dr. Wily: Part 2,” Figure 17), the effect of which approaches that of a Shepherd tone—the musical equivalent of an endless search.60

Figure 17.

Tateishi, Mega Man 2, “Dr. Wily: Part 2.”

Figure 17.

Tateishi, Mega Man 2, “Dr. Wily: Part 2.”

This sense of loss—of returning to a point of departure despite superficial progress—is reflected in the game’s very structure: upon completing the third and fourth stages of Wily’s castle, Mega Man encounters the eight robot masters for a second time, battling them to the same music as before (“Boss Battle”). This time, however, there is no victory music to celebrate each defeat; there is only silence. And when Mega Man comes face to face with Dr. Wily himself, who is housed within a giant machine that shields him from damage, “Boss Battle” plays once more, again yielding to the sound of nothing upon victory—albeit one that is short-lived. This silence carries over into the final stage of Mega Man’s journey, where, for the first time, his movement through Wily’s lair is met with extended silence, broken only by the sound of dripping acid that lines the path.

“Boss Battle” sounds once more as Mega Man enters Wily’s true and final domain, but the major-minor binary set up at the game’s start rings hollow under these new circumstances; the reconstructive potential of “Title: Part 2” has been undermined by the now-exposed invasive nature of Western rock. And so when “Final Victory” (not shown) sounds in the correct key of C major upon Wily’s defeat, its celebratory character is colored by an underlying tone of mockery—one that is only strengthened by the new “Ending” (not shown), which, once all is said and done, is very much the same: somber, rock-less, and clothed in a form that defies conventions—all-too-familiar echoes of Mega Man’s search for the identity that eludes him. Or in allegorical terms, the postwar identity crisis suffered by the Japanese at the hands of American occupation.61

Notes

1.

As of September 2020, it contained 158 titles and had sold 36 million copies worldwide; see “Game Series Sales,” Capcom Investor Relations, last modified September 30, 2020, accessed November 9, 2020, http://www.capcom.co.jp/ir/english/finance/salesdata.html.

2.

It goes without saying that they also developed games for the Famicom in Japan, where Mega Man is known as Rockman.

3.

Chris Hoffman, “The Best Damn Mega Man Feature Period,” Play 3, no. 4 (April 2004): 42–51.

4.

The North American release took place six months later, in June of 1989.

5.

Hitoshi Ariga and Akira Kitamura, “The Birth of Mega Man,” Shmuplations, 2011, accessed November 9, 2020, http://shmuplations.com/megaman/.

6.

Because of constraints on time, the Mega Man 1 development team included just six of the eight robot masters they had initially planned for. For more on the genesis of this game, see Capcom, Mega Man: Official Complete Works (Richmond Hill, ON: Udon Entertainment, 2010), 108–13.

7.

Karen Collins, Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 4.

8.

This is the game Collins uses to argue that nonlinearity was an important aspect of video games from the very beginning.

9.

For more on the game’s revolutionary design features, see Benj Edwards, “Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game: How a Little-Known 1971 Machine Launched an Industry,” Technologizer, December 11, 2011, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2FsQLVL.

10.

Richard Rouse III, Game Design: Theory and Practice (Sudbury, MA: Wordware, 2004), 119.

11.

Capcom first introduced the Stage Select screen with their arcade hit Street Fighter (1987), which allowed players to choose their first opponent. Unlike Mega Man 1, however, subsequent opponents were determined by the computer.

12.

For example, The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986), Metroid (Nintendo, 1986).

13.

Owing to the inherent variability of the robot stages, the narrative analysis of Mega Man 2 here focuses primarily on fixed musical numbers (i.e., the title theme, Dr. Wily’s stages, and the ending theme).

14.

Mega Man Anniversary Collection (Los Angeles: Capcom USA, 2004), DVD.

15.

Although there are three alternative optimal orderings, beginning with Air Man, Quick Man, and Heat Man, respectively, players will also consider other factors when choosing a starting point. These include the difficulty of a given level, the ease with which a given robot master’s attacks can be countered, and the various rewards gained for defeating specific bosses.

16.

Ariga, “Birth of Mega Man.”

17.

Sandy Colton, “Jan-ken-pon,” Pacific Stars and Stripes (August 11, 1956), 14. For another instance of a stationed soldier reporting on this game, see William B. Colton, “Three Bamboo,” Pacific Stars and Stripes (September 21, 1954), 8.

18.

Lucas M. Thomas, “Mega Man Review: The Blue Bomber’s Original Adventure Finally Comes to the Virtual Console,” IGN, August 18, 2008, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2tkYZKK.

19.

“Mega Man II [Preview],” Nintendo Power 6 (May/June 1989): 41.

20.

Much of the creative programming done on the NES centered on workarounds to the system’s built-in audio constraints; the same can be said of its graphical constraints.

21.

The following discussion of the NES’s PPU draws extensively on Nathan Altice, I AM ERROR: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 33–36.

22.

Mirroring allows for the same byte of information to be accessed at more than one address. For more detailed information on memory mirroring, see “Mirroring,” NesDev Wiki: NES Info, Programs, and Demo, last edited August 23, 2019, accessed November 9, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Rl56Ip.

23.

This example is in red only because its tiles have already been filtered through a color palette—the workings of which are soon explained.

24.

Note that only one palette can be assigned to a tile at any given moment (i.e., the individual pixels of a given tile cannot use different palettes simultaneously).

25.

Ariga, “Birth of Mega Man.”

26.

Anne Allison, “The Cultural Politics of Pokémon Capitalism” (presentation, Media in Transition 2: Globalization and Convergence Conference, Cambridge, MA, May 10–12, 2002).

27.

Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokémon?,” in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 58.

28.

Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokémon?,” 58.

29.

Another factor in this discrepancy was the video game crash of 1983, which was precipitated, in part, by Atari’s tendency to produce cover art that looked nothing like the game itself. Determined to avoid misleading consumers in this way, Nintendo initially designed box art to match a game’s graphics (see those releases known as “blackbox games”).

30.

Discrepancies of this sort are much talked about in the video game community; see, for instance, the Tumblr “Box vs Box,” which compares video game boxes from different regions, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2tp4o3A.

31.

Michael Darling, “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness,” Art Journal 60, no. 3 (Autumn 2001): 79.

32.

As Sharon Kinsella writes, “In contrast to the gekiga style, manga stories serialized in high-quality children’s magazines remained child-oriented and were rendered in a cute graphic style. This style of manga was influenced by the large ‘pie eyes’ and distorted physical features of the characters featured in American Disney animation. Disney comics and animated films were distributed in Japanese bookshops and cinemas during the Allied Occupation between 1945 and 1951. Their work could be felt through the work of that early pioneer of post-war story manga, Tezuka Osamu.” Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), 28–29. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between Japanese manga and Disney cartoons, see Kosei Ono, “Disney and the Japanese,” Look Japan, July 10, 1983, 6–12.

33.

Takashi Murakami, Super flat (Tokyo: Madora Shuppan, 2000), 147.

34.

Murakami, Super flat, 5; emphasis added.

35.

The “Japaneseness” of other facets of manga and anime, such as their respective settings, is a more contentious topic. Animator Oshii Mamoru, for instance, argues that anime takes place in “another world”—not Japan, not the West, but somewhere else that exists in the mind of the “stateless” animator. See Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 24–25.

36.

J. P. Telotte, Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 115.

37.

Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, 86–87.

38.

See Nintendo of America, Mega Man 1, Instruction Manual (Redmond, WA: Nintendo, 1987).

39.

“Takashi Murakami: Flowers & Skulls,” Gagosian Gallery, November 28, 2012, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2HaAPou.

40.

Keiji Inafune, who took over the Mega Man series midway through Mega Man 2, embraced the influence of rock as a fundamental part of the series, even with respect to nonmusical aspects of the game: “When I first designed [Mega Man], I had rock ’n’ roll in mind—that was the back image I was going off of when I designed a lot of the artwork. For me, Rock Man (or Mega Man) has always been a game that’s been designed with music in mind”; see Mega Man Anniversary Collection. For a more in-depth history of the transfer of leadership from Kitamura to Inafune, see Salvatore Pane, Mega Man 3 (Los Angeles: Boss Fight Books, 2016), 72–79.

41.

This desire was fully realized in the Mega Man X series (Capcom, 1994–96) for the SNES, thanks to that system’s more diverse array of timbres—synthesized drums and guitars, for example.

42.

William O’Hara, “Song Forms, Rock Tropes, and Metaphors for Listening to the Mega Man Series” (presentation, North American Conference on Video Game Music, Ann Arbor, MI, January 13–14, 2018).

43.

On an electric guitar, players can produce sound by striking the fingerboard instead of plucking the string; this is known as a “hammer-on.” A “pull-off” is the opposite of a hammer-on (i.e., sound is produced by lifting the finger).

44.

O’Hara, “Song Forms, Rock Tropes.”

45.

Note that this track is structured as a genuine small ternary, as opposed to the more typical ouroboros ternary (i.e., an ||: AB :|| structure with an unclosed B section, such that the return of A sounds like a ternary form). This owes to the music’s function as a title-screen track, which carries with it no practical need to repeat.

46.

Were this solo to be transcribed for electric guitar, hammer-on technique would feature heavily.

47.

Jeremy Parish, “Manami Matsumae: The Maestro of Mega Man,” USgamer, January 20, 2016, accessed November 9, 2020, http://bit.ly/2oU9WON.

48.

Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, 87.

49.

Ariga, “The Birth of Mega Man.”

50.

This story is taken from the Japanese instruction manual to Rockman 2.

51.

Recall that Mega Man 2 begins with the “Ending” music from Mega Man 1 and thus is also labeled “Title: Part 1.” This not only provides continuity between games but also enhances the sense of an overarching narrative (i.e., Mega Man 2 continues the story set out in Mega Man 1). This analysis treats musical elements that diverge from norms of the NES style as potential sites of interpretation. Harmonic and formal norms are detailed in Andrew Schartmann, “Music of the Nintendo Entertainment System: Technique, Form, and Style” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2018).

52.

The term module has been used previously in video game music scholarship by Elizabeth Medina-Gray, who defines it as a “discrete chunk of music.” Whereas her discussion frames the module as a compositional solution to video game music’s dynamic nature (i.e., how it must respond in real time to the decisions a player makes), however, my discussion focuses on fixed modules (i.e., modules with a predetermined and unchanging location within a musical piece). Elizabeth Medina-Gray, “Musical Dreams and Nightmares: An Analysis of Flower,” in The Routledge Companion to Screen Music and Sound, ed. Miguel Mera, Ronald Sadoff, and Ben Winters (New York: Routledge, 2017), 564.

53.

The term continuation is used here in the sense put forth by William E. Caplin in Analyzing Classical Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), i.e., as a medial formal function typical of the second half of a sentence.

54.

This form recalls Caplin’s notion of a “hybrid theme,” and in particular what he calls “Hybrid 1” (antecedent + continuation); see Analyzing Classical Form, 59–61. As Caplin notes, the advantage of this form in classical music is precisely that it avoids repetition: “In the [antecedent + continuation]…the basic idea appears just once. Themes built out of these hybrids are…advantageously used in some larger-scale formal contexts where the composer wishes to avoid overemphasizing the basic idea”; see Analyzing Classical Form, 111.

55.

In particular, mm. 10–11 exhibit the kind of parsimonious voice-leading that is characteristic of neo-Riemannian theory. For more on the slide progression in particular, see Richard Cohn, Audacious Euphony: Chromaticism and the Triad’s Second Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 64.

56.

Although the key of C is not confirmed by a cadence within “Ending” itself, it is confirmed immediately in “Title: Part 2,” which is “performed” attacca.

57.

Even though a C-minor triad never sounds, the impression thereof looms heavily, largely because of the prominent Aeolian flat-VI and flat-VII.

58.

The tritone relationship between Parts 1 and 2 is noteworthy and perhaps reflects the stark contrast between Mega Man’s contemplative “human” side and the violent nature of his upcoming adventures.

59.

Modular composition builds music from discrete chunks, the ordering of which often plays with listeners’ expectations; composers save time and memory by reusing these chunks in various combinations. Layered composition involves adding to or subtracting from an existing musical fabric, the unchanging layers of which conserve memory and programming time.

60.

Also note the inverted heavy-metal gallop—perhaps representative of musical “undoing.”

61.

Ian Condry and others have challenged the idea that mass commercial goods can unilaterally overwhelm other cultures, suggesting instead that scholars “view global commodities in terms of their local appropriations…and represent local consumers with a greater degree of agency” (386). This point is well taken. The reading proposed here does not argue that American culture overwhelmed Japanese creativity, but rather it posits a longstanding tension between the two that provides one of many interpretive windows into the Mega Man series. For more on the problematization of cultural imperialist readings see Ian Condry, “Japanese Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Popular Culture,” in Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, ed. George Gmelch and Walter Zenner (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2002), 357–87; Ian Condry, “Popular Music in Japan,” in Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, ed. Victoria Lyon Bestor and Theodore C. Bestor with Akiko Yamagata (New York: Routledge, 2011), 238–50.

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