A friend of mine has worked for the company that developed the robotic mule for the United States Army. I can’t decide if that makes him Dr. Light or Dr. Wily from the Megaman videogame franchise.
Sometimes I become so wrapped up in the minutia of the shonen and young adult genre of manga I forget there is a whole subset of the manga industry dedicated to producing content for a very young demographic. While one might think each of the major publishing houses in Japan has a magazine for young children, currently only a handful of publishers produce this type of content. The most famous is Shogakukan’s line of Korokoro magazines. It’s a shame this is one of the only lines of magazines for young children because a good rivalry will always force publishers to create premier content for their readers, such as the healthy rivalry between Shogakukan’s Monthly Korokoro Comics and Kodansha’s Monthly Bonbon Comics in the 1990s. While I didn’t actively read either magazine in my youth, since then I’ve had many opportunities to read material from both. Of the series I’ve enjoyed, one was none other than a manga adaptation of the videogame Megaman X (ロックマンX Rockman X) by Yoshihiro Iwamoto. It’s a fantastically odd series considering the game had little dialog or any semblance of a story, yet Iwamoto created a unique narrative that fit the game. Added on top of this, the author was able to capture the spirit of the game without compromising much of what made the game appealing. It was the artwork of the series that was surprising, though, as it was of a quality one wouldn’t expect from a series targeted at very young readers.
When it comes to adaptations of videogame properties, I’ve found there are generally two categories: ones that fundamentally misunderstand the material and therefore have a poor quality and ones that reinvent the game’s narrative in a way to keep the spirit alive while still providing a fun story for the audience. Many films based on videogames tend to fall in the former as film production companies seem to buy up the rights, but have people who don’t understand the material working on the adaptation. It is in the latter type, though, where we find the anime adaptation of Pokémon and to a degree the Super Mario Brothers manga series. What’s enjoyable about these series isn’t how they replicate the gameplay of their counterparts but rather how they create fun characters and a story that’s engaging for young children and still have enough content to keep adults mildly interested. However, this begs the question, do the authors and directors fundamentally change the content of the game to fit the narrative they are telling? To a degree, yes. However, I feel it’s important for authors and directors to make those alterations to benefit the story—after all, one can’t replicate the running and jumping in the Super Mario Brothers videogame on paper. As such, maintaining the spirit of a videogame during an adaptation is far more important than whether or not the adaptation recreates the experience of playing the game.
The manga adaptation of Megaman X was certainly like this as what made the game fun was jumping from platform to platform and the action, not the story. Consider, for those who have never played the videogame—and I highly recommend you do since it’s extremely fun—there was hardly any dialog in the game and what little there was amounted to less than three pages of text. From that Iwamoto, the author of the Megaman X manga series, had to create an entire narrative that was compelling for readers. This was no easy task, as eight of the characters had no semblance of a personality in the game and the five characters who did were one-dimensional. As such, something had to give for the manga adaptation of the game. I feel Iwamoto solved this in an ingenious way by dividing the villains into three different categories: those who were evil for the sake of being evil, those who were outcasts and wanted some sort of vindication, and those with ulterior motives. By taking this approach, Iwamoto created a narrative that wasn’t just interesting, but also added depth to each of the characters.
For example, the first villain the protagonist, X, encountered, wanted to battle X at his strongest. In the videogame source material this was never the case, but what it did for the manga series was give a relatively flat boss a more compelling personality. In turn, when examining characters such as Chill Penguin or Sting Chameleon, they were no more than one-dimensional evil characters. By using three different methods to bring personality to the characters, Iwamoto created enough variation in the characters to keep the series flowing smoothly. Yet, the author also did other things to keep the narrative interesting while keeping the spirit of the game alive. This was none other than adding a handful of original characters to the manga series. Although many of the new characters were throwaway background characters, there were three who influenced the narrative positively. At first this may seem disconcerting for fans of the game, however without those three characters the narrative depth would have been lacking. The main reason for this was, again, these were initially one-dimensional characters. Thus, incorporating new characters for X to interact with gave him much more of a backstory as well as personality.
Adding narrative layers to the story of Megaman X was appreciated. However, had the manga felt completely different from the game, the manga would have fallen into the annals of poor adaptations. Yet, as much as I say it’s difficult to capture the gameplay of videogames where the main mechanic is jumping to different platforms and shooting enemies, the essence of the gameplay from the source material was visible in the manga series. While this may seem odd at first, the facsimiles of the levels seen throughout the series were solid and captured the essence of what certain sections of the game would look like in three dimensions. The weaknesses of some of the villains were also present in the manga series and like the levels this helped recreate the feeling of fighting the bosses in the game. It was the power-up parts for X that were the most notable aspect of the game that found its way into the manga adaptation, though. This was one aspect of the game I thoroughly enjoyed as it added puzzle elements to the game as well as altered X’s abilities. In the same sense, the manga treated the parts as upgrades to X and not just as an aesthetic change in his art design. What’s more, the upgrades in the manga were located in the same places as the game, thus giving readers the feeling they were playing a portion of the game.
As much as the narrative alterations were attention grabbing for fans of the Megaman X game, it was actually the artwork I was the most surprised with. I say this because when I think of a manga series for children in the first through fourth grade, I imagine the artwork to be a bit more child friendly. To be more precise, the image I have for the art design is either super-deformed, such as Super Mario-kun, or caricatures, such as Bakusō Kyōdai Let’s and Go. Thus, as a manga property for younger children, it was fascinating seeing detail in the characters’ designs as well as the shading in some of the panels in Megaman X. While I wouldn’t call the Megaman X game dark, the artwork in the manga helped give the appearance the world was falling apart at the hands of the villains. I felt this was important for the manga series as well as for young readers because it showed the trials and tribulations X had to endure to achieve his ultimate goal.
One of the best panels that illustrated this came in the first volume of the series. The design of the panel was reminiscent of when Goku and Piccolo fought Radiz in Akira Toriyama’s manga series Dragon Ball in that the character Mars sacrificed himself for X’s mission. But, when looking at how it was drawn, we saw all the cracks and chips in Mars’s body. While there was no semblance of blood in the panel, the image was shocking for a young children’s manga to say the least and easily conveyed the fact the story was more mature than one might expect. There were other instances of phenomenal artwork strewn throughout the series and because of them the series was a beauty to look at. That’s not to say there weren’t sections where X became super-deformed, but they helped break the tension of the story and add some much needed humor to a rather dismal manga series for children.
The Megaman X manga adaptation is by no means a top-class manga series, but as an adaptation of a platforming and action videogame it was enjoyable. The author, Yoshihiro Iwamoto, knew what elements of the game to keep in the narrative and what he needed to add to make it a fully formed story. As such, there were instances where characters were added or given more personality. This was possibly the most important aspect of the manga series as the characters in the game were one-dimensional. Yet, with the right tweaks here and there the characters became much richer, which in turn added depth to the overarching story. While I say some of the gameplay elements were present in the manga series, I still feel it’s difficult for authors to capture what makes gameplay fun. Nonetheless, the background designs were reminiscent of the levels in the game and a handful of the villains’ weaknesses were displayed. It was the artwork that stunned me the most, though. As I said above, I have a certain image of artwork in young children’s manga, so seeing such detailed work in Megaman X was surprising to say the least, especially because it added to the tone of the narrative. I won’t lie here, the Megaman X manga series, both the original edition and the anthology print version, are extremely difficult to find and you’d be lucky to purchase it. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of the Megaman X videogame, this manga series is a very satisfying read.