Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Robot Music: It Ain’t Just Techno

Today: Robots and music, but not in the freaky way automatons will one day usurp humans as the creators of culture. (Though that will happen, and robo-rock will dominate the airwaves, to the dismay of any still-surviving human ears.) I will discuss, once again, the Mega Man series, as the news of the new one has reminded me of how much I enjoyed these video games as a kid. Think of this as a sort of sequel post to “Marza Panda,” in which I marveled at the amusingly bad wordplay that underlying a group of names. I like themed names, especially when the theme exists throughout a given work.

Basically, the Mega Man games were created with an underlying theme of music that 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. In Japan, Mega Man has always been known as “Rockman,” which itself is still a vague music association at best, given how nearly every villain in the series has a name that fits the formula “noun or adjective plus the word ‘man,’” with an appropriate weapon, appearance and home turf to match. (Fire Man, Bubble Man, Magnet Man, etc. There are quite a few.) Far from stones and pebbles, the “rock” in “Rockman” is the “rock” in “rock ‘n’ roll.” This makes even more sense if you know about Mega Man/Rockman’s little gynoid counterpart, the female housekeeping robot Roll. Even knowing that about Mega Man’s Japanese name, I still didn’t get the music association with Roll’s name. (In fact, a noted the oddness of her name for a list of famous ladybots I wrote long ago for the Nexus for some reason.) Rather, in the vein of other Japanese-created video game characters like Peach and Daisy, I assumed the “roll” in question was the kind you eat along with dinner.

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

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. (And on this note, I suppose she might have well been named after bread, then, 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, she 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, weirdness of weirdness, 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. (Longtime Back of the Cereal Box readers may remember that the dream match of Universe A against Universe B once made for a lively comment discussion here that, among other things, pitted the characters of ABC soap operas against Muppets, Ziggy Stardust against Jareth the Goblin King, and “I know you are but what am I” against “I'm rubber and you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Ah, memories.) 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.

So, then, in Mega Man 3, the title character was given a new 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.” (Technically, the American inexplicably introduces himself as “Break Man,” but as the game progresses, players learn that he’s actually Proto Man — a Mega Man prototype. I have no idea of the Japanese version introduces him under a false name before revealing his true identity.) What’s odd about Proto Man’s Japanese name is that it completely divorces the word “blues” from its chromatic associations and focuses instead on blues as a musical genre. Confusingly, however, Proto Man/Blues is red in color, which I imagine might be confusing even to a Japanese person with a rudimentary understanding of English. Throughout the rest of the series, Proto Man acts independently from the full-fledged “good guy” side but generally sides with Mega Man and not the series villain, Dr. Wily.

It bears mentioning that two recurring characters who don’t fit into the music theme name are the game’s central non-robot characters, 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.

But back to robots. (The best conversational segue ever, by the way.) Mega Man 3 also provided players the assistance of a robotic dog named “Rush” that, over the course of the series, would morph about Transformers-style into various devices that would aid Mega Man, including a submarine, a hoverboard, a motorcycle, and a springboard. (Seriously, at least twice as cool as my dog, who has only been transforming into a thing that sleeps all day and barks at bees. That process began two years ago and shows no signs of stopping.) 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. (That’s how you know you’ve made it big, by the way.)

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 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.

Minor, musically-themed characters 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 a apparently less good-hearted birdbot named “Reggae” that aids Bass. As the series progressed, other non-animal characters made appearances, including a kinda-sorta villain named “Ballade,” apparently after the term for a piano composition evoking an epic ballad; a stout robot named “Duo,” even though he’s only one; a bad guy named “Enker,” whose name is either a corruption of “encore” or a reference to a style of Japanese folk music; another foe named “Punk,” who’s rather unremarkable; an alternate reality Mega man named “Quint,” whose name would seem to reference the term “quintet” despite that he too is only one, and who rides a sentient pogo stick that’s for some reason named “Sakugarne.”

My point with all this, I suppose, is that what would appear a meaningless set of words assigned to characters in a children’s game actually has some reasoning behind it — and notably reasoning that gets somewhat muddled as the in-game text changes from Japanese to English. Okay, so maybe the naming system devolved into arbitrary assignment of music terms to unrelated characters late in the series, but it didn’t at least start that way. (“Hey, I just designed a robot dolphin that shoots lasers. Have we named anything ‘Hip Hop’ yet? Hmm? Oh, right, the heli-panda. Okay, I’ll just call it ‘Alt Country.’”) But I like that theme begun in the first game continued through the end, developing and changing and even directing the course.

Oh, those wonderful mechanical men. It’s strikes me as odd now that the Mega Man series — having already spawned such spin-offs as racing, soccer, one-on-one fighting, and even a Monopoly-like game — has yet to evolve into anything that plays up the music the underlying aspects.


  1. Did you play Mega Man X5? All the bosses were named after Guns N Roses members.

  2. No shit? That delights me. I actually am working on some kind of some of up this trend too. It happens more often than you'd think.