Saturday, September 12, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Twelve: Name Origins for Mega Man

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather long “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)

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Among its fans, Capcom’s Mega Man series is known for its surprisingly well-composed music. Even back in the early days of the NES and its limited sound capabilities, the games had memorable tunes as Mega Man hopped and shot his way through level after level. It’s a nice coincidence, then, that the names of Mega Man characters often relate to music in some way.

mega_man_rock_man_roll_proto_blues_
robo music: rock, roll, blues and non-genre forte

However, this underlying theme isn’t immediately obvious to John and Jane Q. American Gamer because the central character lost his music association in being translated from Japanese to English. As even casual fans already know, Mega Man has always been known in his native Japan as Rockman — and that rock is the one from rock ’n’ roll. This makes even more sense if you know about Mega Man/Rockman’s little gynoid counterpart, the female housekeeping robot Roll.

rock and roll, in grinning, large-mouthed robot style

Before I knew about Mega Man’s Japanese name, I assumed the “roll” in question was the kind you eat along with dinner, in the vein of other Japanese-created video game characters with “pleasant edible” names, such as Peach and Daisy. For Americans ignorant of Mega Man’s Japanese origins, thinking of Roll in the edible bread sense isn’t all that inappropriate, I should note: As with many female characters born in the early days of video games, Roll doesn’t do a whole lot. We’re told she cooks and cleans, but we don’t even actually get to see that. Really, she might has well have been named after bread, since she really never got to be a full-on counterpart to Mega Man. (Come to think of it, given Mega Man’s name switch from Japan to the U.S., series creators Capcom might as well have just called her Mini Woman.) According to this page, Roll was considered as a possible sidekick role in Mega Man 2 before the idea was nixed for fear of turning off the largely male target audience these games were being aimed at. Possibly as a result of this decision, she doesn’t appear in Mega Man 2 at all. She never really did anything of importance until the second Marvel vs. Capcom game — which pits folks like Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk against Ryu from Street Fighter and Jill Valentine from Resident Evil — but even then, she only appeared as a joke character that couldn’t really hold her own. In 2006, Capcom remade the original Mega Man as Mega Man: Powered Up and finally included Roll as a playable character, but make no mistake: She’s relatively inconsequential in the series as a whole.

In Mega Man 3, the title character was given a new, more manly counterpart who would prove more active in the series. In America, this very Mega Man-like character was named Proto Man, but the Japanese version of the game referred to him as Blues. (Yes, even though he’s red in color, which I’d imagine might be confusing even to a Japanese person with a rudimentary understanding of English. Just as Rockman doesn’t throw stones, the meaning of this name isn’t clear unless you’re hip to the music lingo.) Technically, both the Japanese and American versions of Mega Man 3 have the character introducing himself as the seemingly villainous Break Man, which has its own musical associations. But by the end of the game, his real identity — as a not-so-bad guy and as Mega Man’s robo brother and prototype.

proto_man_bass_treble_mega_man
red gets a cape, black gets a robodog. fair?

The last of the major characters warranting a mention on this list would be yet another Mega Man counterpart: Bass, a black-hued villain who showed up once Proto Man ceased to be edgy enough. Whereas Mega Man has his own canine companion, Rush, Bass has Treble, an appropriately more vicious robo-mutt. And while it might seem that Bass and Treble would be a perfectly fitting pair in this universe, Capcom once again switched the pair’s names from the Japanese version — and this time for the better, I’d wager. In Japan, this pair is known as Forte and Gospel, respectively. This makes no sense. While both musical terms, forte and gospel have no real relation to each other, and I suspect the translators may have worried that naming an evil dog robot after a Christian-affiliated style of music may have drawn letters in the U.S.  Mega Man 3 also provided players the assistance of the aforementioned robotic dog Rush. Over the course of the series, Rush would morph Transformers-style into various devices that would aid Mega Man, including a submarine, a hoverboard, a motorcycle, and a springboard. Unlike most characters, Rush’s name remains the same no matter what the language, and I’m hard-pressed to think of what music association his name should bring to mind other than the band Rush. Geek-friendly though these Canuck rockers might be, I wonder if they would have been popular enough in Japan to merit their name being lent to a robot dog. (EDIT: In a 2013 interview, Keiji Inafune confirmed that Rush is not, in fact named after the band.)

mega_man_rush_beat_tango_reggae
from top-left: robodog, robobird, different kind of robobird, robocat

Minor musically-themed robo-critters abound. Mega Man occasionally receives help from a robot cat named Tango that can transform into a buzzsaw. (Of course.) There’s also a birdbot named Beat that aids Mega Man and an apparently less good-hearted birdbot named Reggae that aids Bass.

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the (so far unsuccessful) mega man killers: enker, punk and ballade

As the series progressed, other non-animal characters made appearances, including the Mega Man Killers — badbots invented by Dr. Wily to dispatch the Blue Bomber once and for all. They all debuted in the Game Boy series of Mega Man games. In the first, Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge, Mega Man tangles with Enker, whose name is most widely agreed to be a slight corruption of enka, a style of Japanese pop music, though I initially thought it might instead be a corruption of encore, since he’s a boss fought after the initial Robot Masters are defeated. In the Game Boy title Mega Man III, the extra boss Punk is fought under similar circumstances. The musical associations in his name are obvious. And in Mega Man IV it’s Ballade, whose name is either a variation on ballad or a reference to more obscure musical term, ballade — “a one-movement musical piece with lyrical and dramatic narrative qualities.”

Enker, Punk and Ballade should be especially familiar to fans of the series, as it was announced in March 2010 that they’d appear as downloadable extra bosses in Mega Man 10, which marks the Mega Man Killers’ first foray into eight-bit-style graphics. One character from the Game Boy series seems to have been left out, however — and also excluded from the Mega Man Killers group, as near as I can tell: Quint, a green Mega Man lookalike who appears as a boss in Mega Man II. His name, appears to be a play on the term quintet, and he rides a mechanical pogo stick called the Sakugarne, the name of which seems like a mangled or obscure referenced to something, though I’ve never been able to think of what.

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quint and his sentient pogo stick

For what it’s worth, in Mega Man V, Quint appears for a rematch against Mega Man, alongside Enker, Punk and Ballade, so exactly how this character fits into the series mythos is beyond me. If it seems like a stretch to pull quintet from Quint, it makes more sense in light of Duo, a similarly named but non-villainous robot, debuted in Mega Man 8.

It bears mentioning that two recurring characters who don’t fit into the music theme name are the game’s central non-robot characters, Dr. Wily and his nemesis, the good doctor who created Mega Man. This latter character himself suffers from some identity issues as a result of translation between English and Japanese, as his official name, Dr. Light, often gets mangled as Dr. Right or Dr. Wright. In fact, a Japanese person would pronounce his name Raito regardless of its English counterpart, so the confusion is understandable. Fortunately, both right and light characterize the guy as being a lot nicer than the nefarious genius Wily. Aptronym City. (By the way, given that both characters are scientific genuises, I would guess that their given names — Albert for Wily and Thomas for Light — come from real-life smartypantses Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.) Mega Man 4 introduces a new robot-savvy scientist into the mix, Dr. Cossack, who has a nine-year-old daughter, Kalinka. It’s speculated that her name may also be a musical one — a reference to the traditional Russian song “Kalinka.” A kalinka, by the way, is the berry of the snowball tree.

light_right_wily_kalinka_mega_man
good thomas edison, bad albert einstein and popular russian song

The musical associations don’t end with the original Mega Man. It has been brought to my attention that a spin-off series — the even further-into-the-future Mega Man X — has a particularly good music reference. Whereas the bosses in Mega Man proper are all “men” — Cut Man, Bubble Man, Magnet Man, and so forth, until the single exception of Mega Man 9’s Splash Woman — the bosses in Mega Man X are based on various biological species — usually animals, with the rare exception of weirdos like the onion-inspired Tornado Tonion in Mega Man X7, when Capcom apparently was running low on ideas. The English-language version of Mega Man X5, however, boasts a cast of robot bosses whose names each reference a member or collaborator to the rock band Guns N’ Roses. In detail:
  • The boss Axle the Red (a spiked-and-angry rose; Japanese name: Spike Rosered) references Axl Rose.
  • Angry teddy bear Grizzly Slash (Japanese name: Crescent Grizzly) references Slash.
  • The batty Dark Dizzy (Japanese name: Dark Necrobat) references Guns N’ Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed.
  • Duff McWhalen (Japanese name: Tidal Makkoeen) references bassist Duff McKagan.
  • Mad hornet Izzy Glow (Japanese name: Shining Hotarunicus) references former Guns N’ Roses member Izzy Stradlin.
  • Fiery dino Mattrex (Japanese name: Burn Dinorex) takes his name from former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum.
  • Electropus Squid Adler (Japanese name: Bolt Kraken) references another former drummer, Steven Adler.
  • And lastly there’s the greatest stretch of the lot: the pegasus-derived boss The Skiver (Japanese name: Spiral Pegacion), who allegedly takes his name from Finnish rocker and Guns N’ Roses collaborator Michael “High in the Sky” Monroe.
Additional Mega Man goodness:
The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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