Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Hello, everybody! Remember me? The guy who used to write stuff?

Well, I’m not dead! In fact, three things have been occupying my time lately. I know it can get frustrating when I’m only posting Better Call Saul reviews and infrequent installments of Fight, Megaman!, but that’s really because it’s all I’ve had time to do lately.

I’ll explain those reasons right now, but if you don’t care to read them, please skip to the last one. There’s something I’d like you to do, and it’s fun. I SAID IT IS FUN.

Hail Storm: Some of you may know that a couple of weeks ago, the Denver area experienced catastrophic hail. That’s not me being dramatic (for once!); it was literally a catastrophe, doing millions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses, construction projects, and — of course — cars. It probably sounds silly if you weren’t here to experience it, but, sure enough, the hail storm totaled my car. Mine was just one claim Progressive was handling out of 11,000…due to this storm alone. So, much of my time has been taken up by dealing with the insurance company, buying a new car, and getting rid of my old one. Which was kind of sad to me, as I took really good care of that car and it had very low mileage. It deserved a better fate than that. Oh, and, buying a new car is expensive and it sucks so there’s that part, too.

Persona 5: Persona 5 came out, and what free time I have had has pretty much been spent in the company of the Phantom Thieves. I posted about this on the Facebook page as well, so if you ever think I died, check that page to be sure! I have a lot of ideas for essays I could write about it, and I’m sure tempted to, especially now that I’ve finished the game…but, then again, I never got around to writing my Persona 4 essay. Or my Persona 3 essay. Those might still happen, as might this one, but I know better than to promise it. Oh, hey, I had one brewing about Final Fantasy XV, too. I’m sure doing a lot of not-writing for a writer!

5th Annual Xmas Bash: Oh yes, it’s time! Just kidding. It’s not. December is time, and it’s not December. But I was talking to a friend about this year’s Xmas Bash, shooting ideas back and forth, and the next thing I knew, I wanted to get working on the stream. And…most of it’s done, now! I have all of our television episodes and musical interludes picked out and waiting. I still need to insert commercials and, of course, whatever unique material we shoot, but I’m excited, and I know it’s going to be a really great stream. I’ll announce details as far ahead of time as possible, so stay tuned.

And, hey, here’s something you can do for me:

Complete the Xmas Bash survey. It’s only two questions, and all you have to do is pick your five favorite specials and five favorite musical moments from past Xmas Bashes.

Well, you know, “favorites.” Not necessarily the ones you thought were best, but the ones you most enjoyed watching in a Bash context.

That’s it! It would be pretty helpful to me, as I have an idea of what I can do with the results. Again, this year’s stream is largely complete, so don’t worry about me changing anything. I’ll be using this info for something else, and I think you’ll like it.

So, yes, please, vote for your favorites. It’ll only take a moment.

Oh, and if you need a reminder of which song is which, this handy Xmas Bash playlist contains them all.

And I won’t tell anyone if you put Gummibar Mega Mix on repeat. We’ve all done it, and we’re all friends here.

“Expenses” may be the bleakest episode of Better Call Saul yet, which makes it a worthwhile point of comparison with Breaking Bad. See, that show was pretty bleak as well. On the whole, I’d say the agreed-upon bleakest episode is “Ozymandias,” and I’d have a difficult time putting forth any other forerunner.

But what made “Ozymandias” bleak?

Well, there were the deaths of major characters: Hank and Gomez. There was the kidnapping of our second lead, Jesse, as a result of our actual lead selling him out. There was the sudden empowerment of the show’s villains, who then seized the money Walt hid in the desert…the money that was, indeed, the root of all of Walt’s evil. There was the clear and unavoidable distinction between the desperate Walt who opened the series and the cruel, mindlessly vindictive Walt we had now. There was sharp betrayal with fatal consequence that left families irreparably broken.

It was bleak. And even if you’d finger a different episode as your particular “bleakest,” your reasons would probably be similar to everything I said above. The specifics would change, but the broad strokes would not. Breaking Bad had a kind of bleakness that lent itself to being explored in primarily those ways.

And now we have Better Call Saul‘s equivalent.

With no death.

With no betrayal.

With no shifts in power.

With no beloved characters in danger.

Better Call Saul lives in the shadow of Breaking Bad, and God knows its marketing team is comfortable with it remaining there for the rest of time. But the contrast between the way the two shows explore rock bottom — and what they each consider to be rock bottom — is an important and instructive one. It’s where we find each show’s soul. It’s where we see illustrated most clearly the difference between right and wrong. And, in each case, it’s illustrated by the characters choosing incorrectly.

We find Better Call Saul plumbing its own depths in a quiet episode that, ironically, covers a lot of ground without digging deeply into any of it. “Expenses” is decidedly superficial, sketching out the vague points of a tragedy and letting its own silence — and ours — fill the space in between.

The result is…bleak.

And it’s a bleakness that actually works very well with my recurring concern about the show…while asking me to reconsider it.

See, I want Better Call Saul to stand on its own merits. It will necessarily provide backstory for characters we knew in Breaking Bad, and I’m more than happy for the old familiar faces to pop up now and again, but I’ve wanted Jimmy McGill’s story to be…well…a story. Not a preamble, not a prelude, not the long-lost Book One. I want Better Call Saul to be one thing, and Breaking Bad to be a related but distinct other.

And yet, that might be unfair. I don’t know that Better Call Saul ever was promised to us in that way. Maybe Better Call Saul is exactly what it seems like it would be: not the story of Jimmy McGill, but the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman.

I wanted the former, and for a good while I thought that that’s what I’d get, but if the show is really about the latter…if it’s less about transformation than it is about that one particular transformation…then, well, I can’t complain.

And “Expenses” suggests that Better Call Saul is something other than what I’d hoped it would be. Fortunately, it also suggests that that’s not a bad thing.

“Expenses” functions as it does — as bleakly as it does — entirely because we already know Breaking Bad. Seeing these characters hit the floor is only as effective as it is because we know what’s to come. We know that while it’s not the end of their story, it may be the end of their relatively safe times. We know that as each of these characters is faced with a chance to extract him or herself from what is clearly a bad situation, they won’t.

The episode doesn’t end by telling us they won’t, because it doesn’t have to. The episode knows that we already know.

And so the bleakness of “Expenses.” A question is raised, but it’s not the deliberation we focus on. It’s the impending doom on the horizon. The knowledge that however many episodes may pass before decisions are made official, the characters are already doomed.

I wasn’t exaggerating up there, either; each of these characters does face a chance to extract themselves. Here. In this one episode. All of them independently of everyone else. What’s more, it’s handled so effortlessly that you may not even recognize the fact that they’re all facing the exact same decision at the exact same time. It’s good writing, as it nearly always is, and it’s so natural as to be invisible.

The most obvious example might (might) be Kim, who snaps rudely during a meeting with her client. She takes it back — and all seems fine — but then blurts her regret about piling on Chuck the way she did. She’s openly having second thoughts, and Rhea Seehorn put forth some of the best physical acting I’ve ever seen on television in that scene. Her voice remains steady, but the inner turmoil is conveyed through her breathing. If you’ve ever seen somebody pop in real life and then stuff it right back down, you’ll know what to look for. And you’ll find it right there.

Then there’s Mike, who keeps good on his unwitting promise to build a new playground for the church. While there he bonds with another parishioner, and we see a side of him we’ve never seen before, on either show: Mike with a real friend.

Prior to this, I think the closest friend we’ve ever known him to have was Jesse Pinkman, and that relationship — as important and genuine as it was — also involved a clear and necessary distance. Here he lets her help pour concrete, and later listens intently to her story of her missing husband. He opens himself up to her — and to the church — in an unexpectedly warm way. He lets his guard down. He accepts help. He accepts…others.

It’s a different Mike. It’s a Mike he might even like being.

But it’s not the Mike we lose in Breaking Bad. We know he pushes it away.

Then there’s our old cobbler-sitting, card-collecting friend Pryce, who finds himself seduced back into the game by the promise of $20,000 for easy work. Mike specifically cautions him against getting involved. In fact, he tells him not to and instructs him to come up with an excuse. This is Pryce’s chance to break free as well as a reminder that he’s lucky to have made it out alive the first time. Needless to say, he doesn’t listen, either.

And that’s not all. There’s Nacho, whose plot against Hector has holes poked in it, and who is also cautioned against proceeding. We can say with confidence that — while he may or may not succeed — he certainly won’t put the breaks on.

Centrally, though, there’s Jimmy, whose conclusion is the most foregone.

This is his chance to extract himself, too. To admit defeat. To swallow the loss on his airtime and malpractice insurance, to knock out his community service, and to find a job that brings in more money than he spends.

But he doesn’t do any of that. He sinks more time and money into his commercial gambit, and lies about its actual performance to Kim. (Several times over.) He uses his failed appeal to his insurance agent as an opportunity to kick Chuck even harder while he’s down. He digs his heels into a venture that isn’t — in any sense of the word — working, refusing to find another professional and ethical direction for himself even when, it has to be said, that would be the much easier option right now.

Every one of those characters has a chance to take a deep breath, think about where they are, and take a step toward getting, instead, where they’d like to be.

But they each grit their teeth and decide against their own better judgment to stay where they are. Each of them is a failure raging against an opportunity to succeed.

And that’s pretty remarkable characterization to pull off five times in succession in a single episode.

I’m interested in the Jimmy we see in “Expenses,” because I think we’re about halfway toward him truly becoming Saul. Certainly there’s a balance between his two incarnations here, and we can feel it teetering.

He still has a heart, and is still a largely decent human being, refusing to take money back from one of his film crew, even when he clearly needs it. Yet he schemes to get Chuck’s insurance rates raised with a cruel crybaby act.

He still takes Kim out (and treats her) because he knows she needs a break, but their usual, playful scamming turns darkly sinister as he seems to realize, in that moment, that he could genuinely break one potential target just for the fun of it. (A moment that clearly worries Kim, but doesn’t scare her off; yet another illustration of the balance.)

I wanted Better Call Saul to be something that I’m increasingly coming to believe it isn’t.

But it is something great. Something that’s grown on its own terms, feeding on our love for Breaking Bad, yes, but giving us a deeply engrossing and elegantly handled transformation story along the way.

Only three episodes in the season remain. And the fact that we already know no character will make wise use of them only makes them more compelling.

Well, that was an unexpectedly busy episode. And a surprisingly good one.

I had pretty strongly expected “Off Brand” to be quiet. Probably reflective. Coming off of the massive, important clash of last week’s “Chicanery,” this was a chance for the characters — and for Better Call Saul — to pause. To consider. To look forward and determine, carefully, what to do next. For comparison, think back to the stretch of episodes in Breaking Bad‘s third season when Walt successfully (though temporarily) extracts himself from the drug trade.

A crossroads has been reached. We may know here even better than we knew there that our hero will gravitate back toward darkness, but that silent moment during which the ball hangs suspended in the air is rife with tension. It’s a gift to the writers. It’s a chance to explore what remains after the bomb has gone off. A chance to breathe before everything comes crashing down again.

And Better Call Saul doesn’t breathe. It barrels forward. I’m surprised by that, but based on “Off Brand” I couldn’t possibly say it was a bad idea.

We pick up more or less where last week left off. Everyone’s aware of Chuck’s mental illness, but the characters are each handling it in their own ways. Rebecca is overcome with concern. Howard invites him to see this as a new beginning. Chuck himself calls his old doctor (I’m guessing a therapist), which may or may not be a larger turning point for him than the fact that he leaves the house alone. And Jimmy…well, Jimmy hits him with an indirect — but long overdue — fuck you when he refuses to check in on him.

Rebecca was right…I’ll grant her that much. Chuck is mentally ill. Chuck does need help.

But it’s not that Jimmy won’t help. It’s that he already did. For too long. And he’s seen what it’s gotten him.

Every man has his limit, and, if anything, Jimmy reached his two seasons too late. He sips champagne again. Chuck is in trouble, but this time he can deal with it alone.

Jimmy’s champagne comes at a cost, though. He wasn’t disbarred, but he was suspended for twelve months. He promises Kim that he’ll be able to pull his weight financially during that time, but by the end of “Off Brand” we don’t have a definitive answer as to how he intends to do that. Mainly, though, Jimmy isn’t taking the defeat lying down. He’s working. He’s finding direction. And as the commercial he produces suggests, he’s finding himself.

Yes, Saul Goodman is here at last. That’s an alias from the Slippin’ Jimmy days, but it’s probably important to note that he’s not using it to scam anybody. In fact, his offer is legitimate: in order to offset the sunk costs of his “Gimme Jimmy” campaign, he’s selling his commercial production services. His clients, so far as we can tell, will get exactly what they’re promised for exactly the cost he’s asking.

It’s not entirely on the up and up, however; Jimmy’s contract explicitly forbids him from selling his airtime. So…he’s not. He’s giving it away, with the purchase of his services. He’s found a loophole.

It’s a victimless crime…but one suspects that he’s on a slippery slope.

I like this. I’m pretty sure everyone watching this show expected him to adopt the Saul Goodman moniker in order to continue practicing law after getting in some kind of trouble under the name James McGill, and that’s certainly still possible. But, for now, it’s introduced in a completely unexpected — yet totally organic — way. The obvious answer wasn’t the answer, but what we get fits just as well. That’s pretty good writing.

Some more good writing comes from the way in which Nacho takes over for the incarcerated Tuco. Most interesting is the way it recontextualizes the job he hired Mike for (which came to a head in “Gloves Off”). Was he really afraid of Tuco and worried for his safety? It was certainly easy to believe, as we’d seen Tuco unhinged many times over. But the ease with which he slips into Tuco’s old role — and the quickness with which he’s compelled to solve a problem with violence — might imply something else. It might imply that he wanted Tuco out of the way for a different reason. He might have just wanted to climb up the chain.

This would make sense, as Hector being in power meant that Nacho would never be able to position himself above Tuco; family is important to Hector, and Nacho’s just a hired hand. But take Tuco out of the picture, and Nacho might start to shine a little brighter in the old man’s eye. Certainly Hector was impressed by the fact that Nacho had a gun to his head in this episode…and still came away with what he wanted.

Of course, we now also see Nacho at a crossroads. He’s perfectly happy to treat his dealers well, and he enjoys occupying Tuco’s seat. But then Hector pushes him a little further, and he’s almost as happy to lay a savage beating upon Krazy-8. He’s rattled by it — and injures himself with a sewing machine while reflecting on what he’s done — but if that’s what it takes to survive in Hector’s gang, that’s what he’ll do.

What he won’t do — at least immediately — is involve his family. We saw way back in “Cobbler” that Nacho’s uncle is an honest man who runs a bodyshop. Here we see that his father is just as honest, making and repairing upholstery. In short, Nacho is from a respectable background of hard workers. When Hector (ahem) hectors him into roping his father into the business, he pushes back.

We don’t get a definitive answer — Nacho is saved by Bell Telephone — but the reluctance is clear. And part of me wonders if Hector’s eventual crippling comes as a result of another arrangement between Nacho and Mike. When he wanted Tuco out of the way, he got it. If he decides he needs Hector out of the way as well…we’ll see.

I’ll be interested to find out what he does with the pill he stole from Hector. I doubt a missing pill will be enough to set Hector down an irreversible road toward infirmity, but perhaps Nacho will figure out what that medication is meant to be treating, and work out a plan from there.

So, yes, the big reveal this week was Saul Goodman…but that’s not the only connection reestablished with Breaking Bad. Gus tours the laundry facility that will come to house his superlab (which hopefully means we’ll be meeting Gayle soon), and then he gets into the car with…

…Lydia!

And that’s a character I really didn’t expect to see again. Foolish me.

I loved Lydia on Breaking Bad. She was a late game addition that worked so well within that universe and managed to feel more important to it than her abbreviated run would suggest. Having her back is wonderful, because it means we’ll get to spend more time with her, yes. But also because it allows her to interact with Gus, and that’s a relationship we never saw on Breaking Bad as she wasn’t introduced until he was out of the way.

I actually did a double take when I saw Laura Fraser, and I’m pretty sure it was the biggest smile any Breaking Bad carryover got out of me.

And so Better Call Saul wastes no time in moving forward, and no time in drawing nearer its parent series.

Which is a kind of crossroads in itself.

Does the show rush forward, filling in the remaining blanks and drawing us toward its known point of termination?

Or does it spend a little more time with itself, building its own universe and asserting itself as an important TV drama in its own right?

You know my answer. But at least now I know that if the show pulls the other way, we still have episodes like this to look forward to.

And I’ll take a page out of Jimmy’s book on that one; it’s technically a loss, but it’s a loss worth celebrating.

I probably pushed most of the Mega Man fans away when I said I actually wasn’t all that keen on Mega Man 3, and I’ll push the rest of them away by saying that I absolutely love Mega Man 4. It’s a truly wonderful game, and one of the best in the series. That’s not a popular view, I know, and it’s one that I was surprised to arrive at myself.

A few years ago I was speaking to a friend of mine about the series, and he said that Mega Man 4 was his favorite. I was…shocked, to say the least. For starters, the answer to that question is Mega Man 2. This is not up for debate. But for him to pick a game that wasn’t part of the initial celebrated trilogy? That was just…madness.

Only it kind of wasn’t, and my surprise was a result of the game’s reputation, not its quality.

The annual releases of Mega Man games had — at exactly this point — started to grate on people. It made the series feel cheaper and more disposable than it actually was. Each game still represented an experience worth having, but the games felt formulaic. While it might have been fun to fight a bunch of colorful robots and steal their weapons, was every new batch of colorful robots as fun to fight? Would all of the weapons be worth stealing?

Mega Man fans experienced a kind of series fatigue around the time of Mega Man 4, possibly only because it proved that it wasn’t just the first few games that would be released in a cluster; Mega Man was going to keep getting duped by Dr. Wily every year for the foreseeable future. That made our hero look like an idiot, and made us less likely to invest our efforts in helping him succeed. If Dr. Wily is just going to be back again in a few months, why bother? If this batch of Robot Masters doesn’t look especially interesting, why not just wait for the next one? God knows it won’t be long…

When my friend said he loved Mega Man 4, I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t the series legendarily tired by that point? Wasn’t it just dragging its carcass around until Capcom finally put it out of its misery? When I announced this series of writeups on the Noiseless Chatter Facebook page, fan Dylan commented, “Isn’t 4-8 ‘Then they just phoned this one in’?”

That’s the air of muddy disinterest that surrounds Mega Man’s middle period. And that’s unfortunate. Not only because there’s still a lot of life in Mega Man 4, but because this game actually deserves the reputation that Mega Man 3 has.

Oh yes.

I mean that.

This is the near-masterpiece everyone thought they were playing last time.

My friend my have surprised me, but he inspired me to revisit the game with fresh eyes. With an open mind. With a willingness to engage that I guess I just didn’t have before.

It was my loss.

Mega Man 4 is incredible.

I don’t mean that it’s flawless, of course. I don’t even mean that everyone who reads this and gives the game another shot will agree with me.

I just mean that it’s a game that’s stuck in the cultural consciousness as one thing, when it should, by all rights, be remembered as another. It was the last game that successfully advanced the Mega Man formula, and arguably the last one that successfully honed — as opposed to merely tampered with — what came before.

It’s a smooth, fun, surprisingly enjoyable adventure that does not deserve to be remembered as the point at which the series went downhill. I assure you, it was not.

Mega Man 4 does a lot of things exactly right. As much as it gets dismissed, it was last game to make any lasting tweak to Mega Man’s standard moveset: the ability to charge Buster shots. This remained a staple of the Blue Bomber’s loadout until Mega Man 9 very deliberately pressed the reset button, and it even carried forward to spinoff series like Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero. (The slide, by contrast, did not, replaced by a similar but distinct dash mechanic.)

The chargeable Buster isn’t universally embraced, and I think that’s fair. I personally like it, but I also find myself not using it much.

Holding B will power up your shot by several degrees. Letting go of B unleashes whatever power you’ve built up. It can devastate minor enemies and can do a decent chunk of damage to bosses as well, but maneuvering in a game series as tricky as Mega Man is difficult enough; having to hold down a button while navigating disappearing blocks, hopping through projectiles, or carefully managing jump height to avoid spikes adds an additional layer of challenge that may not be worth the enhanced firepower.

I remember using the charge shot a lot as a kid. As in, almost always. As in, every stage’s soundtrack had its distinctive, bright hum overtop of it. Now I use it very rarely, and mainly for the few enemies that require it. But I do appreciate it, and it introduces additional layers of on-the-fly problem solving that benefit the game.

First, there’s the hit that you take to maneuverability in exchange for firepower, which makes more urgent the fundamental question of any Mega Man game: can I stay alive long enough to beat these foes? If you can’t move as gracefully, you’ll take more damage…but you’ll also, potentially, do more damage. Every new situation requires this issue to be reviewed afresh, and Mega Man stages are rife with varied situations.

There’s also the simple matter of time it takes to build up a shot. Is it worth pausing in a firefight to charge up your weapon? Maybe…but then again, maybe it’s better to shoot a number of smaller, weaker shots instead.

And what about the difference in precision? If you only have one charged Buster shot, can you be sure you’ll hit your target? The uncharged Buster is weaker, but you can fire many more shots in the time it takes to charge just one. Are you good at hitting your targets, or are you more successful when you pepper the screen and hope for the best?

The chargeable Buster is an innovation that works, because it forces players to think of the standard Mega Man formula in a new way without actively working against it. If you don’t like the chargeable Buster, it’s possible to play Mega Man 4 without it. Sure, you’ll have to leave certain enemies alive and navigate around them instead, but that’s been the case in every previous game as well; if you don’t have (or don’t wish to use) the necessary weapon, you need to rely on agility instead.

The chargeable Buster doesn’t change that. Like the versatile weapons of Mega Man 2, you are invited to experiment with it, to vary your playstyle with it, to decide situationally whether or not it makes the game easier or more fun to play, without it ever becoming mandatory. You don’t have to master Mega Man 2‘s alternate methods of using the weapons any more than you have to master the chargeable Buster. They’re wrinkles rather than barricades.

The chargeable Buster is this game’s evolutionary equivalent to the slide in Mega Man 3, and for my money it’s exactly as organic. They each allow the effects of a single button to be manipulated beyond their original, singular uses.

In Mega Man 3, the slide made a kind of intuitive sense from a control perspective. The player already understands that pressing A will spring Mega Man vertically skyward for some set distance. Pressing down and A together, then, produces a result that isn’t much of a leap for players to understand: it takes the same spring and moves Mega Man horizontally forward, as there’s solid ground beneath his feet and it’s impossible to jump “down” through it. In other words, the jump’s momentum is deflected 90 degrees. Mega Man’s lying posture reinforces the “down” action visually, and helps players to remember what triggered it.

That’s not to say that it makes immediate sense. No gamer at the time would have learned that A jumped and immediately intuited that down and A would slide, but after the player performs the action once, there’s enough logical connective tissue that they won’t forget. That’s key in a Mega Man game, where small mistakes add up fast and can result in immensely difficult or unwinnable situations. The player needs to learn to slide and remember in a split second exactly how to do it.

And they do. They associate the A button with a sudden rush of movement already, whether they realize it or not. Adding a quick press of down on the D-pad makes a rational sense based on what they already know about how the game plays. (Just in case it needs stating, the reason they couldn’t map the slide to left or right on the D-pad is that Mega Man still needs to be able to move horizontally in the air.)

The charge is a similarly effortless and natural tweak. The player is already used to pressing B to fire. That’s easy. The logical leap to holding B to fire a stronger shot isn’t much to ask of any given player, especially since children — the primary audience for video games at the time — had a habit of holding buttons down, rather than being dexterous enough to tap quickly or modulate their pressure. It’s why you remember jumping a hell of a lot of times into Bubble Man’s spikes as a kid, but probably haven’t done it much as an adult.

A child presses B and, for no reason except that his thumb is already there, holds it. Mega Man begins to flash and a strange sound is produced. Even if this only happens for a moment, the child notices. Now he presses and holds B, this time on purpose. And for a longer period, to see what happens. As such, Mega Man 4 exploits a natural and unavoidable curiosity to teach every child playing it a brand new rule without saying a word. It’s very well done, and a nuanced and impressive iteration on an established formula. Arguably the last worthwhile one the series would ever see.

I imagine I’ll get some quiet disagreement over this, but I also think this game’s approach to utilities was an improvement. Yes, yes, okay, the weapons are hot garbage, but, please, allow me to wallow in my love for a bit before I get to that.

As in Mega Man 3, you collect adaptors for Rush after two boss stages, enhancing his usefulness. In fact, Rush’s forms here are identical to the ones from the previous game — Coil, Jet, and Marine — without any attempt made to introduce a new one. They do fix the Rush Jet so that it behaves more like a steerable Item-2 and less like…well…the broken, untested mess it was in Mega Man 3, but otherwise it’s the same batch of abilities, with Rush Marine being as useless as ever.

But that’s not all you get. In addition to the Rush adaptors, which you collect automatically by progressing through the game, two true utilities are hidden in the main levels. And I love everything about them.

The first thing I love is the simple fact that they’re hidden in the main levels. Not that they’re all that difficult to find; Pharaoh Man’s stage requires you to investigate a curiously open area to the right of a drop, and Dive Man’s stage requires you to…ahem…dive in the only place you can actually do it. Neither are they difficult to reach once you know where they are. But the mere fact that these stages offer alternate, less-obvious routes with genuine rewards for your trouble is an impressive way to vary the traditional Mega Man gameplay. Of course, one could overdo alternate paths, so that instead of adding an unexpected wrinkle to a traditional formula you end up with a tangled mess that works against what players like about the series, but Mega Man 4 does it well. A few alternate screens here, an optional room there, and that’s about it.

Hiding utilities means that you may actually make it to the final stages of the game without a full inventory screen…a first for the series, and the vacancies on that screen are pretty tantalizing if you do finish the game without filling them. What did you miss? There’s only one way to find out.

This also allows players to have different experiences in that final stretch of levels, which isn’t normally a strict possibility. Main Mega Man stages can be completed in any order (with a few exceptions), which means that two players are likely to take entirely different paths through the game…until they get to the final stages, which are sequential. Here, the deviations will be smaller, and will mainly come down to which special weapons and utilities are used when.

But the thing is that both of those players would have all of the special weapons and utilities at their disposal by this point. Their loadouts will be identical, and it’s just up to them to decide what to use or ignore.

Mega Man 4 upends that. Player A gets to the final stages with both utilities, Player B gets there with just the Balloon Adaptor, Player C gets there with just the Wire Adaptor, and Player D gets there with neither.* Four distinct ways of navigating the stages unfold from there, with further variations depending on playstyle. That’s an exciting first.

Then there’s the utilities themselves, which I think are the best in the series.

No, really.

The Balloon Adaptor is, to be fair, pretty dull. It’s essentially Item-1 from Mega Man 2, but it feels more…real. More lifelike. And, sure, that’s down to its recognizable appearance, which looks like a cloth bag inflated with helium, but it’s also in the way it drops down slightly when Mega Man steps on, reacting believably to his weight before continuing to rise. A small touch like that goes a long way toward making the game feel like it takes place in a real universe. This small injection of personality makes the Balloon Adaptor more fun to use than Item-1, similar to the way shaping utilities like a dog made them more fun to use in Mega Man 3.

But, really, it’s the Wire Adaptor that stands out. I love the Wire Adaptor, and it’s one of the most fun things to play with in any Mega Man game.

Taking possible inspiration from Bionic Commando, another Capcom franchise, the Wire Adaptor lets Mega Man fire a sturdy cable directly upward. If it collides with an enemy, it will damage or kill it. If it collides with the ceiling or the bottom of a platform, the claw will grip tightly and the cord will retract, bringing Mega Man with it. Alright, so it’s not much like Bionic Commando. But it’s almost as much fun to play with.

I don’t know why later games didn’t attempt to resurrect the Wire Adaptor. Unlike platforms that rise slowly or jet quickly forward, the Wire Adaptor does more than let you get to new places; it lets you think differently about how to play the game. Since it functions as a weapon (albeit a slow and awkward one) you could actually, conceivably, use it to take out any number of pesky enemies that swarm you from above. I’ve even seen somebody use it to defeat Dr. Cossack late in the game, which was both funny and a tribute to the item’s unexpected versatility.

Mega Man is not the most nimble video game hero. He moves at a decent pace, but you couldn’t call it quick, exactly. He can’t duck. He can only fire straight forward with his default weapon, despite the fact that, logically, he should be able to fire in any direction he likes. His jump height isn’t that impressive, and he goes gliding helplessly backward whenever he takes damage.

In short, he’s kind of a klutz. And I think that’s what makes the Wire Adaptor such a thrilling surprise. Now Mega Man moves. He soars upward like a superhero, calling to mind Batman, Spider-Man, and Inspector Gadget all at once. He looks like he’s come so far from the first game. He looks like he’s gotten cooler and…well…better.

Once you have it, it’s difficult to not want to use it. Sure, you could reach that out-of-place E-tank in a few ways, but, man, the Rush Coil is so last year. And everybody starts with it! There’s no fun in that. With the Wire Adaptor you can reach it in style.

But, okay, I’ve babbled about the utilities enough and can’t in good conscience delay talking about the game’s problems much longer. I think Mega Man 4 is great, but I’m not blindly in love with it.

The problems, sadly, start with the main attractions themselves: the Robot Masters.

On the whole, I’d argue that the Robot Masters are still quite interesting, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this is where fan interest began to flag.

Even as a kid I thought the very concept of Toad Man was hilarious. (“We saved the world how many times? Now we have to fight a frog?”) Also, for reasons lost to me now, I absolutely hated the concept of Pharaoh Man. I’m pretty sure I knew what a pharaoh was, and there’s nothing about the level or the boss himself that should have turned me off, but I remember feeling like he was the first truly disappointing Robot Master. Maybe I just didn’t like that he was named after a job as opposed to a weapon or some other more evocative thing.

I know Dust Man gets a lot of flak, but, frankly, he never bothered me too much. He’s an industrial vacuum cleaner with googly eyes. Maybe not the most inspired thing in the world, but a better design, in my opinion, than a guy in a thrift-store skeleton costume and someone with a lightbulb on his head.

The least inspired design is probably Drill Man, as he’s just…a drill. With drill arms. He kind of sucks, and dueling him is nothing great, either, unless you for some reason enjoy battles in which your opponent spends huge portions of the fight inaccessible. It combines all the fun of waiting with the thrill of doing nothing.

In fact, the Robot Master duels here are pretty tame. The toughest fight undoubtedly comes from Pharaoh Man, who is quick, powerful, and tricky. Of course, he’s absolutely crippled by the Flash Stopper, which freezes him in place long enough to kill him effortlessly. (Quick Man was similarly helpless to the Time Stopper, but it wasn’t enough to kill him unless you played on the easier difficulty setting.) That’s not exactly a complaint, though; it’s up to you whether or not you’d like to essentially skip the fight, and attempting to take him down with the Buster reveals a pretty satisfying battle.

Otherwise, though? There’s really not much on offer. Bright Man is difficult, but mainly annoying, freezing you helplessly in place and colliding with you or gunning you down mindlessly. Dive Man, Skull Man, and Dust Man all follow very simple patterns and don’t seem to have had much effort invested in their programming.

Then there’s Toad Man, who is programmed so legendarily awfully that he’s embarrassing to even fight.

Here’s the thing: yes, it’s possible to lock other Robot Masters into cycles that don’t allow them to attack. Elec Man, Heat Man, and Nitro Man all come immediately to mind, as do nearly all of the Robot Masters from Mega Man 7 if you use their weaknesses. I’m probably forgetting even more.

But in those cases, you need to figure out how to lock them into those cycles, whether those cycles were intended or not. Essentially, you need to crack a code. You need to figure out what the Robot Master does on his own, as well as how he reacts to your movements and to your attacks…and then also figure out a repeatable set of actions on your part that keep him locked into a cycle he can’t break.

It’s not easy, and in most cases it’s not even possible. When it is, it’s thrilling, because you’ve outwitted an artificial intelligence. It’s not Mega Man vs. XXXX Man; it’s mind vs. machine. It’s an organic brain vs. a mechanical one. It’s an important and thematically resonant conflict, so that when you do figure out how to do it, you didn’t just win a battle; you overcame something you were not meant to overcome.

Beat Elec Man? Fine. Beat Elec Man without even letting him move? Now you have something to be proud of.

Then there’s Toad Man. It’s possible to lock Toad Man into a pattern during which he cannot attack. But there’s a problem: you do this by default.

See, doing it to other Robot Masters requires you to behave in unexpected ways, and to have thorough knowledge ahead of time of how your enemy operates. When you pull it off, it comes from hours of practice and possibly even research. It comes from substantial periods of observation. It comes from work, from failure, from repetition to the point that you can close your eyes and picture exactly how a hypothetical fight will go based entirely on what you’ve already learned.

With Toad Man, you just shoot him.

That’s it.

The default thing you do to everything you find in the game.

You press B. That’s how you break Toad Man.

It’s…strange. Every time you shoot him, Toad Man hops harmlessly over you and lands on the other side. So you turn, shoot him again, and he jumps back over.

If you leave him alone, sure, he hits you with the screen-clearing Rain Flush, which is impossible to avoid once it’s been activated. But shoot him — as you undoubtedly will, without any training or practice or foreknowledge — and he slips right into a pattern he cannot escape. The only way to lose to him is to not attack him, something that literally no player would even try. It’s a terribly careless bit of programming in a game that otherwise is decently polished, and it does drag the experience down a bit.

But then there’s Ring Man…my personal favorite Robot Master. Not just in Mega Man 4, but overall.

I love this guy, mainly because he feels like a perfectly tailored, brilliantly responsive fight. There’s also the theme of circularity he has going for him which resonates with me on personal level but…I won’t bore you.

My friend who loved Mega Man 4 is actually the one who explained to me how to defeat him with the Buster…which is not difficult to learn but, at first, is very difficult to execute. When you know how to handle him, when you can recognize his pattern, when you’ve practiced the fight enough to see it with your eyes closed, Ring Man’s duel is the most natural and rewarding in the game. It’s actually fun, requiring a good deal of clever footwork and an ability to keep calm in a room with a fast opponent and a faster projectile.

Ring Man is easily this game’s standout battle, and his weapon — the Ring Boomerang — is the standout in that category as well. The Pharaoh Shot is probably the runner up (it’s chargeable, aimable, and you can use it to cause collision damage!), but, like the Wire Adapter, there’s just something so stylish about the Ring Boomerang that makes it fun to use. It’s big. It’s shiny. It returns. It makes an incredible shhhing sound. It’s all glimmer without gold, I know that, but video games can live and die on glimmer. It feels more impressive than the other weapons, which instantly means that it is.

That about does it for the interesting weapons, though. The Skull Barrier is the most worthless of all shield weapons, the most worthless of all weapon types. The Dive Missile has the same problem all homing weapons in Mega Man have: it doesn’t home in on anything reliably, making it less likely to hit its target than your default projectile. (And that…is…irony.)

Then there’s the Drill Bomb, which illustrates my point about the organic implementation of the chargeable Buster by doing everything wrong. The Drill Bomb is one of only three weapons in the game that can be used in any way more complicated than pressing B. In this case, you can press B once to fire it, and then a second time to detonate it.

…but there’s no indication at any point that this can happen, and I’m sure most players have no idea of this functionality. Which is a shame, because one of the final bosses is weak against the detonation.

The chargeable Buster works because it taps into something people will do unconsciously anyway: hold a button down. With a visual and aural signal, players are clued into the fact that they should hold the button down, at least to see what happens.

The Drill Bomb, though, doesn’t teach players how to use it. They try it, it flies forward like almost any other projectile, and that’s that. There’s no reason to press B a second time, at least not while the projectile is still on screen or before it collides with an enemy. Of course, the easy rejoinder to that is that players would likely try to fire multiple projectiles at once to defeat enemies more quickly…which is true, except that this mainly applies to the default Buster with its unlimited ammunition. The moment you implement strict weapon capacity, as the special weapons do, you discourage players from firing mindlessly.

Many players harp on certain Mega Man games (often beginning with this one) for having unimpressive weapons. As much as I’d love to dismiss this critique, I can’t. It’s valid. And it’s a real problem.

It’s the weapons that should keep these games interesting. They’re how the games both mark and reward progression. And they are what make all of the games feel distinct; they’re the new set of toys you get to play with each time, and they’re perfectly (and evenly) paced in their distribution. By the time you get bored of playing with one toy, you get another. You can’t ask for a more perfect drip-feed than that.

Not all weapons have to be great, of course, but they do need to feel distinct enough to merit playing with them. When they don’t, there’s no incentive to experiment with the new toys, and fatigue sets in more quickly. Players choose monotony over the game’s concept of variety. That’s not their fault, and we know where that leads.

It’s worth revisiting Mega Man 4, though, and it deserves critical reappraisal. No, the weapons won’t scratch anyone’s list of favorites and the Robot Master duels are largely lame, but the chargeable Buster is a thrilling evolution to the formula, and this is arguably the best game to feature it. The music in a few cases is just as good as anything that came before. The addition of another set of fortress stages before Wily Castle is a smoother, more impressive, more fun evolution of the frustrating, flawed Doc Robot stages of Mega Man 3.

In fact, the fortress stages (both sets) are some of the best in the series. They’re actually fun to play, as opposed to being overcrowded, unfair, punishing gauntlets. The highlight is either Dr. Cossack’s great autoscrolling level with counterintuitive platforms that rise rather than fall, and a Wily stage populated entirely by various versions of the hardhat enemy. Even the final boss is a giant one! …which, yes, is something we saw multiple times in Mega Man 3 but it’s still cool here so leave me alone.

What’s more, Dr. Cossack is an interesting villain, mainly because he’s not one. Sure, the game’s big fakeout (spoiler: IT IS ALWAYS DR. WILY) is predictable, but Dr. Cossack represents a fascinating middleground between the relentless evil of Dr. Wily and the tepid goodness of Dr. Light.

Dr. Cossack is a fundamentally good man driven to do fundamentally bad things for the sake of protecting his daughter. This makes Cossack the most human character we’ve met yet.

The previous two doctors behaved just like their robots: programmed to be good or programmed to be bad. And while the series doesn’t exactly need rich characters with complex motivations to keep players interested, I actually really love that they bother exploring some kind of human emotion with Cossack here. I especially like that he’s so grateful to Mega Man for saving Kalinka that he builds Beat, a helpful robot bird, in the next game as his way of saying thanks. Cossack disappeared from the series after Mega Man 4, but through Beat — through his works — he lives on.

Mega Man 4 isn’t a perfect game. It’s not even close. But it feels so much more polished than its immediate predecessor, even if it doesn’t quite reach the highs of some other games in the series.

Maybe the most important thing to me is just how warm the game feels. How welcoming. How even the final stages don’t seem to want to punish you, or even test you unduly. It just wants you to have fun. Maybe it can’t give you the best time you’ve ever had, and maybe you won’t even remember it a few years down the line. But it wants you to enjoy the time you spend together.

I think that’s reflected in the game’s new supporting robot character: Eddie. He’s just a little red canister with big, friendly eyes that pops in now and then to give you a helpful item. Unlike Rush or Proto Man, he doesn’t have a definitive purpose. He’s just there. He just likes you. Whoever you are…he likes you, and is going to help you push through.

He doesn’t need to be thanked, and he doesn’t overstay his welcome. He just wants to make sure you’re comfortable.

The first time I saw Eddie, I tried to attack him. He didn’t look much different from the enemies I was fighting.

The bullets passed right through him, of course. He waddled up to my feet and tossed me an extra life. For free. I didn’t have to do anything to earn it, and he didn’t even seem to care that I tried to kill him.

Thinking on it now, I expect that most people tried to kill Eddie the first time they saw him. I wonder if the game shouldn’t have let them do it.

Not because I dislike him, or for any kind of dark or cynical reason. I just wonder if Capcom shouldn’t have let your shots connect. Eddie would beam out, of course, but then you’d progress without his helpful item. And each time you saw him, you’d fire again, and he’d keep beaming out. You’d always think you were clever, scaring off an enemy before he ever got the chance to attack.

I wonder if that wouldn’t have been a perfect little echo of the game’s larger theme of the blurred line between friend and foe.

Eventually you’d have the Cossack twist spelled out for you. But you could go the entire rest of your life without learning the truth about poor Eddie.

All because you’ve been programmed to fight.

Best Robot Master: Ring Man
Best Stage: Skull Man
Best Weapon: Ring Boomerang
Best Theme: Dive Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 4 > 3 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)
—–
* Compare this to Mega Man, the only previous game that would have allowed deviation: Player A makes it to the final stages with the Magnet Beam, Player B does not. But there’s no deviation beyond that, because Player B won’t be able to progress, and will need to return with an identical loadout to that of Player A.

Last week’s episode felt a lot like Breaking Bad. This week’s episode feels a lot like Better Call Saul.

There’s always been a balance between the two shows, facilitated mainly by the parallel protagonists. When we’re with Mike, this show feels like its predecessor. When we’re with Jimmy, this show feels like its own beast. And as much as I love Mike, I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading these reviews knows by now that I prefer the time we spend with Jimmy. And watching “Chicanery” — a rare hour without any appearance from Mike at all — I didn’t miss Mike one bit.

Better Call Saul is always at its best when it’s charting Jimmy’s journey. When it’s mapping his transition from flawed attorney with a big heart to rampant shyster. When it’s peeling back the cartoon glossiness of Saul Goodman and revealing the hurting, caring, nearly respectable human being within.

“He has a way of doing the worst things for reasons that sound almost noble,” Chuck says of him this week. And that’s a crucial difference between the character we know in this show and the one we knew in Breaking Bad. We liked Saul, of course, but at no point — for no duration — did he ever seem noble.

So somewhere between this point in his life and that one, the bottom falls out. Jimmy doesn’t just change his name…he loses his humanity. He’s drained of his blood. And we likely see the pivot point for that in this episode, when he has his own blood on the witness stand in the form of his older brother…and breaks him.

It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but “Chicanery” handles it extraordinarily well. We know Jimmy is the one who is lying. We know that each time he lies, Chuck’s concerns about him practicing law — something the elder McGill holds sacred — are revealed to be better and more solidly founded. We know that Jimmy is manipulating circumstances not only to clear his name, but to destroy his brother’s.

And yet, I think we still side with Jimmy.

I think we still care the most about Jimmy.

I think we still want the best for Jimmy.

Chuck is somehow both the victim and the villain in this episode. I think it works, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who thinks it doesn’t. Mainly I think it works because we conclusively reveal Chuck’s condition to be a sham. (Not a deliberate sham, but a sham nonetheless.) We feel cheated by him just as much as Jimmy should. We’ve had indications before — often very strong ones — that his allergy to electricity was all in his mind. We knew that. But somehow, exposing it so definitively, leaving him nowhere to run, allows us to react as though we’ve been taken in.

Chuck took advantage of his brother’s patience, love, and hospitality. And since it’s his brother with whom we are aligned, that’s all we need to know in order to see Chuck as the bad guy.

There’s no further question (your honor); Chuck is mentally ill.

And, funnily enough, his extended outburst after finding the battery in his pocket could potentially get him disbarred for not being in command of his faculties. That would be an interesting karmic twist on the disbarment proceedings against Jimmy.

But I’m jumping ahead. “Chicanery” is one of the best episodes of this show we’ve had yet, and maybe the one most worthy of calling itself Better Call Saul. It deals almost entirely with characters and relationships unique to this show, and it dissects one of its most important dynamics (Jimmy and Chuck) while quietly, passively providing room for the other (Jimmy and Kim) to grow.

It’s also a bottle episode, taking place almost entirely within a single room. And it’s perfectly positioned, depositing us directly in the middle of the season with the question of where these characters will choose to go next. Chuck and Jimmy are at obvious turning points, and Kim’s willingness to play dirty suggests that she might be as well. Not to mention the possibility of Howard canning Chuck to avoid a foreshadowed reputational crisis.

What’s more, it single-handedly proves that Better Call Saul is finally at the point where it can start reflecting itself, as opposed to reflecting what we remember from Breaking Bad. The opening sequence alone is reminiscent of the candle-lit dinner in last season’s “Rebecca,” and Chuck even invents a lie about the power company transposing the numbers in his address…which is importantly similar to the crime Jimmy committed in “Fifi.”

It’s nice and refreshing that I’m able to watch an episode of this show and see echoes of Better Call Saul rather than characters and imagery and musical cues from Breaking Bad. Ironically, the closer this show draws to its parent series in time, the more opportunity it has to become something completely different.

And, yes, speaking of Breaking Bad, Huell’s back! I posited a couple of weeks ago that we must be close to seeing him again, and I honestly didn’t expect to be right. I thought it was wishful thinking at best, but, hey, here we are, with the big man demonstrating his nimble fingers for the chronological first time.

I don’t have much specifically to say about “Chicanery,” possibly because it leaves me with so little room for criticism. Everything I’ve been wanting Better Call Saul to do all along, it does here. And it does it flawlessly. For an episode that’s essentially one long, moderated conversation, it’s incredibly gripping, tense, and heartbreaking.

It’s everything I’ve been wanting to see, in a way I never imagined seeing it. It’s an episode that reassures me that, yes, Better Call Saul deserves to exist on its own merits, for its own reasons, in its own ways.

It’s insightful, offering important glimpses of who these characters really are, and I think anyone watching came away with at least a slightly evolved perspective of one of them. For me, the biggest insight came from Chuck, who praised the importance and significance of law as something that ensures that everyone, no matter who they are, will face consequences for their actions.

He doesn’t see law as sacred because it protects people, or because it ensures that everyone will be treated fairly. He views it through a punitive lens. And, certainly, compared to that, Jimmy’s actions do seem almost noble…

I’m excited for next week, but that’s nothing new. Maybe what’s new is that I feel excited for Better Call Saul‘s willingness to offer an experience that we simply couldn’t have had on Breaking Bad.

No episode of Breaking Bad felt like this.

And that’s the biggest compliment anyone can pay Better Call Saul.

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