The Mega Man series has always held an ambivalent stance when it comes to social issues. I’m not saying the games cover these issues poorly, or that their views aren’t worth defending. In fact, that’s been one of the series’ strengths, whether you see it in the original’s positive view on a technological future or the X games’ commentary on political extremism. Their weaknesses lie in how little the games openly emphasize those views. Maybe it’s because they pursue other desires relating to the sci-fi genre, or maybe it’s because, being flagship platformers from a fairly large video game developer, those games never had a desire to cover these issues in the first place. Whatever the reason may be, I’d be interested in seeing a Mega Man game that looks at these issues in greater depth.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see Rockman EXE WS do exactly that. I’ll admit that this obscure WonderSwan platformer fits the series model I’d just described, but it also steps outside that limited approach so that it can embrace its subject matter a little more fully. Or to be more specific, it blends the older Mega Man’s sense of technological positivity with a newfound self-awareness and applies that to the then-new technology that was the Internet. The result: a game that stresses the beneficial aspects of an Internet-powered world without glossing over its very real dangers.
The most surprising aspect of Rockman EXE WS is that for a game released in 2003, it was oddly prescient about where the Internet was headed. That doesn’t mean the game completely escapes contemporary assumptions about what the Internet is. In a time when people viewed the Internet both as a novelty and as a separate realm of reality, the main plot reaffirms those beliefs in a lot of ways. For now, let’s look at the two main characters. Not only is the digital Mega Man a separate entity from the corporeal Lan Hikari (rather than an extension of the latter’s identity), but it’s also implied that he’s basically a toy that Lan can use to have fun in the digital space.
Still, this is only a small portion of what the game presents, and to reduce it to these aspects would be to ignore every other little nuance in its world. Consider just how much it does to blur the digital/physical divide. Although fictional futures where the world is built entirely around whatever the most recent technology was tend to remain fiction (how many of The Jetsons’ predictions came true?), Rockman EXE WS got many of its predictions right: in its not-so-far-off future of 20XX AD, the Internet has become so ubiquitous that the line between physical and digital becomes almost meaningless. Everything, from stoves to entire electrical systems, is connected together through the Internet.
Of course, the game is all too ready to acknowledge the potential downsides of such a future. After all, it’s that same interconnectedness that lends the plot its tension: Mega Man and Lan join forces to topple the WWW, a terrorist organization that causes destruction for the fun of it. Had I played the game when it was first released, I might have said this set-up was part of the game’s efforts to maintain its kid-friendly demeanor by rendering its conflict low stakes and easy to understand. Yet in a world where trolling has evolved into digital terrorism, that stance becomes harder to defend.
Even considering things on the game’s terms, that line of reasoning fails to hold up. We see the tangible harm the WWW causes time and again: the story begins with Lan barely averting a housefire (WWW was able to exploit his Internet-connected stove) and eventually reaches a point where Mega Man’s fights in the digital world inflict very real pain on Lan in the real world. Rockman EXE WS doesn’t want us separating the two worlds and thus freeing ourselves of responsibility for our actions on the Internet. It wants us to consider the ways these worlds bleed together; how entangled they’ve become.
However, this is only part of what makes Rockman EXE WS stand out for me. A much larger part is how the game asserts its optimism in the face of all this. It sees the Internet as, above all else, a site for forging strong interpersonal bonds. The story focuses just as much on the relationship between Mega Man and Lan as it does their efforts to bring down the WWW. (The gameplay also tries its hand at this by separating what each character does: Mega Man takes care of the action while Lan gives him advice and equips him with the right weapons. But because you’re controlling both these characters at once and you only ever see Mega Man, the message doesn’t come across as well as it should.)
No doubt that focus was born from the preteen anime context that was popular at the time (see: Pokemon, Digmon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and even Rockman.EXE) and from a desire to make the game more relatable to said audience. Both respectable goals, but I don’t want to risk minimizing what the game accomplishes through that focus. Remembering the blurred lines things from earlier, Rockman EXE WS suggests that these bonds are just as important as any friendship that Lan could have developed outside the Internet. Maybe even more than that; while Lan’s never explicitly denied friendships in the real world, his relationship with Mega Man certainly wouldn’t have existed if not for the Internet. Thus the game’s views about this new technology either become holistic (in that they acknowledge both the good and the bad it can create) or downright idealistic.
That idealism is perhaps best reflected in the levels’ visual design. More often than not, the backgrounds eschew the “embedded in the machine” ethos that a lot of other art uses to represent digital/computerized spaces (see: Mega Man 3, Phantasy Star II) in favor of something more evocative. A violent inferno blazes behind you as you trudge your way through the first level. Following that, anything can happen. You could witness the ominous blue clouds (or the enchanting purple ones) roll through the sky; you could traverse sand dunes and plunge the depths of ancient ruins; or you could just advance forward, the city scape watching your progress from far off in the distance. Fantastic as these worlds are, they still take influences from their non-digital surroundings and are thus grounded in a material reality. Yet they also exceed that reality. Generally speaking, Rockman EXE WS is far more interested in exploring the then-untapped potential the Internet has to offer us than it is in outlining its limits. So to that end, it depicts the reality inside our computer as this brave new world for us to probe, Mega Man always by our side to guide us through it.
Speaking of which, I can’t help but link this positivity to the other Mega Man games. The first games were explicitly based off Astro Boy, so it only makes sense that they’d borrow that property’s positive outlook on technology. All Rockman EXE WS does is combine that outlook with a more modern aesthetic to comment on contemporary technological developments. Perhaps that’s why for all the problems it encounters (its unwillingness to challenge the player, its textureless level design), the game achieves a degree of enduring relevance that other Mega Man games would envy.