The Mega Man franchise is one of the longest running video game franchises that is still (debate-ably) going to this day. Among the pantheon of ancient icons, Mega Man stands out for having some of the strongest themes that permeate every single title. Specifically the four series (Mega Man, Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, and Mega Man Legend) set in the main time line all carry strong themes about the nature of robotics... Even if the story for the first two series are kind of butt... OK kind of actually really super butt when you get right down to it. But still this series warrants some analysis so for Mega Man's 25th anniversary , let me level with you about some Mega Themes... Yeah I feel bad about that one too.
To clarify what I mean when I say the story of the first two series are butt I mean they were a product of a different era, and by that I mean they were a product of a simpler era. The Mega Man Classic and Mega Man X series never tried to expand their stories beyond, Wily/Sigma is out you gotta go stop him. Well I mean they did try to go beyond that once or twice with... Unspeakable results. But the point is the story isn't what's important to the themes of the series, what is important is the setting.
Now I am going to assume you know the basic story of Mega Man so I don't have to write a 13 page essay on the back story of Mega Man. Basically what's important here is that the Robots don't really have free will and when you think about it the robots in the series aren't really good or evil. Mega Man for instance isn't protecting the world out of some moral sense of right and wrong he's doing it because he's programmed to do it. By the same token the Robot Masters aren't inherently evil, they merely do evil because they were programmed to do evil. This is also displayed in terms of the personality of the robots. The robots do have a personality and they do grow and develop somewhat, but always in the ways they were intended to grow and develop.
This lack of choice is displayed in terms of gameplay, though the player has the illusion of choice in terms of choosing which stages to tackle, ultimately it will lead to the same place. This shows that though the robots do have some amount of choice those choices will all lead to the same path and inevitably the same Mega Man. The player is given choices but inevitably these choices only matter in terms of how easy the player wants each stage to be.
In Mega Man X a new race of robots are created called reploids. These reploids are different from the robots of Mega Man Classic in that they have free will and the ability to make their own choices. We primarily see this ability to grow and make choices through the mechanics of the series. In each game of the Mega Man X series, the main protagonist X has the ability to improve himself through upgrades found throughout the various stages. What makes this different from the original Mega Man's ability to copy the robot masters skills, is that (for the most part) these pieces of armor are entirely optional. By giving the player the option of seeking these pieces of armor the game is providing a symbol for the growth and development of X's character.
The player is given further options in later Mega Man X games when the player is able to choose either X or Zero as their character (I'm not going to talk about Axl because Axl is stupid and nobody likes Axl). This means there are several ways a player can now go about finishing any given mission. This reflects the growth and development of the characters.
Despite the fact that the key difference between reploids and robots is the ability to choose, the only artificial intelligences that really do grow and develop are X and Zero neither of which is ironically enough a reploid despite having free will.
Another important part of Mega Man X is the Sigma/Maverick virus which infects reploids and makes them evil. What is significant about this is that it was created by Doctor Wily from Mega Man Classic. This essentially makes it clear that when a reploid does evil it isn't really of their own free will. However to contrast this X and Zero do what they do entirely of their own choice. This ties back into the game play, because X and Zero were allowed to grow and develop they chose to work for good. This contributes to an overall message in the Mega Man franchise, that machines aren't inherently evil like our culture often portrays them as, every time a machine does evil it is almost entirely because a human forced them to do it. This is most prominently displayed with Zero who grows past his creator's insidious intentions. Which is why Zero got his own series of games... also because Zero is the coolest thing that was ever invented and that's all there is to say on the matter.
The Mega Man Zero series is easily the most thematically rich series within the Mega Man Franchise. This series is not only something unique in the Mega Man franchise it's something that is extremely rare in the video game world itself. At its heart Mega Man Zero is a character piece, centered around Zero. Though giving Zero his own series was most likely a move to gain sales, it has the benefit of neatly tying the the themes of the franchise together.
The Mega Man Zero series takes place a little more than 1ØØ years after the end of the Mega Man X series. In the time between the two series, a war broke out that cost the world 9Ø% of its reploid population and 6Ø% of its human population. In the wake of this war a safe haven for humans was established called Neo Arcadia. It's led by an exact copy of X, who has ruled that all reploids not associated with Neo Aracdia have gone Maverick and therefore must be hunted and destroyed.
The villains of the first game in the Mega Man Zero series seem to be a brutal deconstruction of the popular "Humans are special" trope commonly found in fiction featuring artificial intelligence. In Mega Man Zero, X's need to protect human life at all costs have been warped and twisted into a dictatorship.
It almost seems like Mega Man Zero is deconstructing the very notion of an artificial intelligence uprising. The reploids are trying to gain power over the humans, but it isn't out of some sense of inherent hatred for humanity, it is instead because humanity has persecuted them and has given the reploids no other option but to revolt.
If the first two games main antagonist of Neo Arcadia represents a societal barrier for artificial intelligence to advance, the last two games main antagonist of Doctor Weil and Omega represent a personal barrier. Throughout the franchise Zero is haunted by his own past, and this past is made manifest by; Omega which is Zero's old body without its mind, and Doctor Weil who is a clear allusion to Zero's creator Dr.Wily.
By defeating these two, Zero has finally allowed himself to advance past his artificial nature. At the conclusion of Mega Man Zero 4 (which is the last game in the series) Zero makes a sacrifice to save humanity as well as reploids and though it appears this sacrifice may have cost him his life, it is never out right stated and it is even hinted that he may still be alive. The last image of the Mega Man Zero series is extremely important to its themes.
It's a little difficult to tell in this screen shot, but if you look closely you can make out a humanoid silhouette in the sun. To me it always seemed like Zero's "death" in Mega Man Zero 4 was more of a symbolic rebirth. Now that Zero has advanced, he sheds his old form and heads in to the sunset to start a new life as something the world hasn't seen before, something better than both a human and a reploid. At the conclusion of the Zero franchise Zero has all the strengths of humanity as well all the strength of reploids and we see what affect this advancement has on the world in the next series chronologically, Mega Man Legends.
Mega Man Legends takes place thousands of years after the conclusion of Mega Man Zero. In the world of Mega Man Legends humanity is essentially extinct and have been replaced by beings known as Carbons. Carbons are artificially created humans with cybernetic enhancements.
Because humanity and artificial intelligence have finally merged, Mega Man Legends takes place in a period of time known as the Halcyon days. Unlike the previous series which all took place during wars, Mega Man Legends takes place in a time of peace.
The main conflict of the series comes in the form of humanity's last bastion, the floating continent Elysium. In addition to housing the last human, Elysium is a machine designed to keep humanity alive at any cost. This need to protect humanity comes in the form of the Carbon re-initialization program which would wipe out all carbons and use their material to restart the human population. In Mega Man Legends, humanity's fear of becoming obsolete leads them to disregard the life of other life forms. This resonates with the themes of the franchise because it shows humanity's paranoia impeding progress.
The fact that artificial life is no longer barred from advancing by humanity is also reflected in the game play. The large amount of choice present in Legends reflects the fact that artificial life is now free from the shackles of societal pressure. By allowing the player a large sand box environment the creators are showing that for the first time Artificial Life is truly free.
If the Mega Man franchise was a play, Classic would be the prologue, X would be the rising the action, Zero would be the climax, and Legends would be the epilogue. Mega Man Legends is all about taking what we should of learned from the previous series and showing how it leads to positive changes.
Despite most of the franchise having relatively simple plots, the Mega Man Franchise carries some surprisingly deep themes. By showing artificial intelligence advance over time, Capcom crafts a message of machine tolerance that resonates throughout the franchise. This level of machine tolerance goes against common portrayals of artificial intelligence as malevolent beings and shows that it is ultimately humanity's paranoia that causes artificial intelligences to turn against us. The Mega Man franchise has the bravery to suggest that machine and artificial intelligence can improve our lives and enrich them if we just allow them to.