I have just discovered the coolest thing ever: a Mega Man rock opera by The Protomen. Don't laugh. This is not some lighthearted, silly homage to an old 8-bit video game. It is a serious project with a serious message. While the world in which The Protomen immerse us is obviously indebted to and based on the Mega Man universe, it is not a slave to it. It is a world with pain, fear, doubt, and failure. It is a world that does not follow the neat good-triumphs-in-the-final-cut-scene formula of the video games. This is a much darker, more complex Mega Man.
The opening scene shows us an apocalyptic world in which Dr. Wily and his army of robots rule over the oppressed mass of humanity. Dr. Light, alone in a run-down apartment, labors to create a machine capable of overthrowing Dr. Wily's robots and freeing humanity – thus is Proto Man born. The men of the city rally around Proto Man as he marches toward Wily's fortress, but merely watch as he stands alone against the army of robots. Proto Man fights well, but is overwhelmed in the end and defeated:
The crowd had gathered there to watch him fall, to watch their hopes destroyed. They watched them beat him, they watched them break him, they watched his last defense deployed. There was not a man among them who would let himself be heard. But from the crowd, from the collective fear, arose these broken words: We are the dead.
This is the world into which Mega Man is born. A disillusioned Dr. Light tells him of the failure of his brother, and warns him against making the same mistake: Though it's something that you may not understand – they can't be saved by just one man. These words of Dr. Light's express a major theme of the album: the impossibility of saving from tyranny those who refuse to resist it. This is especially interesting because it is exactly opposite of what happens in the video games: one person, mega man, defeats evil and saves the world mostly by himself. Those whom he saves are off-screen, hardly mentioned.
The Protomen bring them on-screen, and the sight isn't pretty. In the process, they answer a question the video game leaves unanswered: why is Mega Man the lone defender of freedom? Why is it that hope ride alone? The answer seems to be that those being saved simply aren't willing to stand against their oppressors. They cry for liberation but would rather live under tyranny than risk their lives overthrowing it.
Dr. Light's warnings go unheeded by Mega Man, however, and in the best track on the album, The Will of One, he resolves to avenge his brother's death and save mankind, rejecting his father's pleas:
If you say this is how it has to be, you are no better than the fools of this burning city
I won't walk though the entire album, or give away the final climactic scene in front of Wily's castle, but Mega Man's mission ends in failure, as he realizes the truth of his father's words. He removes his helmet (an action usually associated in Mega Man lore with triumph and peace) and it falls from his hands as he turns his back on the crowd and walks slowly away, leaving them to Wily's mercy.
I have to admit being disappointed with the ending. I'm not exactly a Mega Man purist, but fighting Wily is part of his ethos. The concluding scene has more in common with the despair of 1984 than it does with Mega Man. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much that counts as a criticism since it is exactly the point. The ending is as powerful as it is precisely because it departs from the Mega Man formula in such an unexpected way.
At any rate, the album is worth checking out, especially if you have fond memories of defeating Dr. Wily when you were 10. You can download 3 tracks at their website, and listen to 2 more on their myspace page to get a feel for what the music is like.