Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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I love The Venture Bros. You know that. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and even if I thought this past season was a bit shit tbh I can’t say that my love or appreciation of it has been diminished at all.

I’d like to say that I realized something when rewatching it lately…but I haven’t been watching it. I’ve just been living my life, going about my business, and a thought occurred. I’ll share that with you in a moment, of course, but here, now, I want to point out that that’s part of what makes The Venture Bros. so incredible to me in the first place. Sure, you can watch it over and over again and find things you missed…but you can also just let it sit. Let it simmer. Let your mind go where it will…and you’ll still find new ways to appreciate it, and new things to consider about it.

Compare that to ALF. I haven’t rewatched that shit either, but I sure as hell don’t catch myself in the middle of the day realizing that “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” is secretly brilliant.

Okay, so, anyway: late in season one, The Venture Bros. has what might be its first masterpiece: “The Trial of The Monarch.” It harvests seeds that had been passively planted by previous episodes to incredible effect, tearing apart a central relationship and positioning The Monarch — the show’s main villain — as its emotional core. No mean feat, and the episode that accomplishes it is tense, beautiful, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartbreaking.

In short, it’s fantastic stuff, and it’s still one of my favorites.

The titular Venture brothers themselves don’t do much in the episode, but it opens with a fantasy sequence that sees them in costume. Hank is dressed as Indiana Jones, and Dean as Thomas Magnum, from Magnum, P.I. You can see the boys in the screengrab above. And, for reference:

Fine. Everyone knows this. Hank and Dean are dressed as those characters. Few people overlooked that fact; it’s pretty obvious.

But…where did Hank and Dean get those ideas? From the movie and from the TV show, obviously.

…except that in season four’s best episode, “Everybody Comes to Hank’s,” we learn that Hank doesn’t actually know who Indiana Jones is. He wears the iconic hat…which came with a whip that he assumes is a “detective’s whip.”

So Hank wears part of an Indiana Jones costume in that episode, and in doing so he reveals that he doesn’t know Indiana Jones. Odd, as he dressed as the character three seasons prior. Dean may or may not know Thomas Magnum, but that’s academic; Hank doesn’t know his character, and that’s enough to question things in The Venture Bros., where continuity between episodes is important.

Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. are a pretty odd pairing. They come from different media and don’t have a clear relation to one another. They come from different worlds and time periods, and they don’t pursue or desire the same things.

They fit Hank and Dean well enough, of course. Indiana Jones is brash and daring, and Magnum is (relatively) focused and methodical. The adventurer and the detective. Hank and Dean.

But Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. on their own merits don’t really go together, and it’s not a pairing we’d ever see outside of this fantasy sequence.

Or…would we?

That’s right. The Venture Bros. paired up these two characters in 2004, but Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers did it in 1988.

Rescue Rangers was a very popular show, airing during the enormously successful Disney Afternoon programming block. And while Chip and Dale were already established characters by that point, it was Rescue Rangers that dressed them respectively as Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I.

And that is interesting.

The same odd pairing of characters happened twice, and it doesn’t strike me as coincidental. Combine this with the fact that Hank doesn’t recognize an Indiana Jones costume when he actually encounters one, and I start to wonder if Hank and Dean in “The Trial of The Monarch” are actually dressed as the Rescue Rangers.

That’s a show they’re likely enough to have seen, and there’s a little more in common as well. Hank, Dean, Chip, and Dale are all four-letter names. It’s always Hank and Dean, as opposed to Dean and Hank…just as it’s always Chip and Dale as opposed to Dale and Chip. Hank and Chip are both Indiana Jones, and Dean and Dale are both Magnum, P.I. Each pair is part of a larger team that goes on new adventures week to week…

I have to wonder if that’s a subtle nod there. The joke being less that they’re dressed as two famous characters and more that they’re dressed as two different famous characters aping source material unfamiliar to the boys.

The Venture Bros. gives us a lot to consider, even in its silliest moments. It’s an impressively layered and incredibly well-written show. And the fact that I can still find new things in a thirteen-year-old episode (holy crap…) is incredible.

Oh, also: I just realized that the episode title “Powerless in the Face of Death” refers not to being unable to revive the boys, but rather to the blackout Dr. Venture accidentally causes. That’s some lovely misdirection I didn’t even notice. There’s still so much to find in this show…

I mentioned in the first installment of this series that when Mega Man was initially released, there were very few games on the NES worth having. It came out early in the console’s lifespan, after all. Developers were still figuring out what to do with the hardware, and what would appeal to the new generation of gamers. Compared to nearly every other game available at the time, Mega Man was a clear standout and a must have.

Mega Man 5 faced the opposite situation. It was released toward the end of the system’s life. While games were still being manufactured for the NES through 1994, the Super Nintendo was released in 1991. It was another hugely successful console, and gamers flocked to that, leaving the NES largely behind by the release of Mega Man 5 in 1992.

We kept our NESes, of course. We still loved them and still played them. But they already felt obsolete. Whatever trickle of new games came out for the system paled in comparison to the waves of incredible new 16-bit releases for its successor.

I listed the must-have NES games prior to Mega Man way back in that article, so I might as well list the must-have ones post-Mega Man 5: Kirby’s Adventure. Maybe, if I’m feeling generous, Star Tropics II.

That’s all. It may sound like I’m being sarcastic, what with the innumerable great games for Nintendo’s original system, but I’m not. Those games — all of those games, whichever ones you’re thinking of — were already in the past. The NES was slowly and quietly dying, serving as the home of unasked-for sequels, licensed cash-ins, and limp puzzle games. It was over, and Mega Man 5 wasn’t exactly the kind of game that was going to win it any attention back.

One reason the first Mega Man stood out upon its release is that it was like nothing else we had seen. It felt — and I’d argue was — revelatory. It was an exciting new promise of a new kind of game. One in which the very sequence of its levels was left up to the player…a challenging, relentless, rewarding adventure that felt completely unlike anything we had experienced up to that point.

I think you know where I’m going to say Mega Man 5 struggled.

By this point, we knew the formula. Many of us grew tired of it, playing a new Mega Man game every year, wading through whatever the next batch of the levels happened to be, feeling disappointed by the latest cache of weapons.

The promise of a new kind of adventure was gradually replaced by a dawning predictability. By hewing so close to the same formula for so many games in such a short period of time, the Mega Man series robbed itself of its most appealing feature: its uniqueness. As a series, Mega Man was still unlike any other. But with so many games crammed into a narrow release window, that didn’t matter. It overcrowded its own market. And it almost didn’t matter how good the individual games were; the formula now felt old-fashioned. Even stodgy. Capcom convinced its own audience to stop caring.

Mega Man 5 was the last of the games I played until Mega Man 9. That’s right…as much as I loved the series, it’s Mega Man 5 that convinced me to jump ship. I figured it would be just fine without me, and I stopped paying attention. When I saw Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo a year or so later, I thought it was Mega Man 10. I wasn’t being wry; I was fully convinced Capcom could have rushed out 6-9 on the NES in the span of around 12 months without me noticing.

But here’s the thing:

I love Mega Man 5.

At least, I do now. At some point, my response to the game…flipped.

When I played it as a kid, it was at a friend’s house. (His name was Eddie, funnily enough.) I don’t think either he or I were really interested in it. I know we didn’t make it far.

We played a few levels. We tried to figure out how to pronounce “napalm.” (Check your peacetime childhood privilege, boys.) We laughed at the fact that one of the new Robot Masters was a train. Were they that desperate for ideas? Were we really going to spend all weekend squaring off against the iron horse?

We were not. We probably had some degree of fun, but it was less than the fun we could find more easily elsewhere…either on Nintendo’s new hardware, or in Mega Man’s own back catalog. Mega Man 5 was the first title in the series that, to me, didn’t feel like it mattered. And so I only played it once back then. And never again, until around five years ago.

When I loved it.

And that’s the reason I know Capcom hamstrung their own series. It’s not that the games were getting progressively worse, or even less inventive. It’s that, in the words of Artie Fufkin, they oversaturated. They split our attention so finely between the series’ own releases that it was impossible to invest in them anymore.

When I played Mega Man 5 back then, I thought it sucked. What I was really feeling was series fatigue. Coming back to it after a break — with a fresh mind, with more patience, with breathing room the series desperately needed — I found a very enjoyable installment. One that was surprisingly full of ideas. One that deserved the very audience it forcibly pushed away.

Revisiting it for this series, I expected to find more fault in it. I expected to realize that my fondness was really just a kind of relief that wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny. I expected to feel a little embarrassed for enjoying it the way I did when I finally took the time to play it again.

If anything, though, it just reinforced my love for it. I’ll say it right now so you can stop reading, secure in the knowledge that I’m mentally ill: Mega Man 5 is one of my favorites in the series.

Like Mega Man 4, Mega Man 5 attempts a story that’s slightly more involved than “the good robot should kill the bad robots.” The previous game’s use of Dr. Cossack was a relatively inspired one, as we didn’t know that character yet and had no idea what his actual motives would be. We’re told he’s a bad guy, so we go out and fight him. When we later learn he’s a good guy it does qualify as a twist…even if the further twist that Dr. Wily was behind it is dead in the water.

Here we get…well, the same story, sadly. Instead of Dr. Cossack, it’s Proto Man. Or, rather, it seems to be. Positioning Proto Man as the antagonist is fairly inspired, as his allegiances were already hazy when he was introduced in Mega Man 3. Having him rebel against Dr. Light only to, say, change sides again mid-game and help Mega Man take on Dr. Wily would have been a nice arc, if also a predictable one. Instead, Proto Man’s conflicted gun-for-hire nature doesn’t factor into things at all; the bad stuff Proto Man allegedly did was actually the work of an imposter, while Proto Man was…I don’t know. In Fiji or something.

Oh, and Dr. Wily was still behind it. Spoilers for anyone who recently hit their heads, I guess.

Pitting Mega Man against Proto Man on a larger scale certainly seems like the kind of thing the series could have been building toward, but the reveal that Proto Man wasn’t involved at all robs the character of any exploration of what makes him tick and robs the game of any interesting thematic resonance. Mega Man fighting his brother is inherently fascinating, whatever the reason, whatever the outcome. Mega Man fighting Dr. Wily for the fifth time is inherently not.

Of course, story is the least important thing about any Mega Man game, so I can’t hold it against Mega Man 5. It’s just that making Proto Man the villain (even if it’s destined to be a temporary role) suits the unpredictability of his character, and it’s frustrating that the game tip-toed right up to that concept without bothering to actually explore it.

On the whole, the stages in the game are quite good. Not difficult, no, and that can be its own kind of problem, but not every Mega Man game needs to be tough as nails. Also, I’ve replayed each game for this review series, and Mega Man 5 is so far the one that’s come closest to making me run out of lives. Granted, that’s entirely down to my sloppiness in the final fortress, but still…

In fact, I’d argue that a steep difficulty would actually work against the kinds of things Mega Man 5 wants to achieve. The levels are more gimmicky than what we’ve played in the previous games. Whereas those were meant to be creative gauntlets that at first challenged and then gradually empowered you as a player, Mega Man 5 creates stages that are more like amusement park attractions. Each of the levels actually feels distinct (as opposed to looks or sounds distinct) in ways that most of the levels in the previous games did not.

A good example of this is Star Man’s stage, which takes place in outer space. It’s essentially no different than any level that’s used water physics in the past (which, surprisingly, are only the Bubble Man and Dive Man stages), but the fact that there is no water makes it feel unique. Mega Man may control identically in the vacuum of space to how he controls at the bottom of the sea, but the starfield, the space-themed enemies, the meteors raining down from above…all of it works in tandem to trick the mind into believing it’s something fresh and new, and that makes it more fun as a result.

Then there’s Wave Man’s stage, which features no traditional enemies throughout its main stretch, serving as more of a brain teaser in which you steer Mega Man around and through various traps. It lends itself to an almost contemplative approach…which is then shattered impressively when you’re forced to mount a wave bike and fight your way through robot dolphins and a gigantic octopus miniboss.

First there are no enemies, and then there are no traps. First you have all the time in the world for careful consideration, and then you have none.

It’s a stage that seems to fracture the Mega Man experience interestingly, putting all of its traps at one end and all of its speed and urgency at the other, when they’re usually combined. It’s almost disorienting, and it makes you appreciate both halves of the level-design balance, giving you a chance to engage with each of them in turn.

The Charge Man stage is also a highlight, with what has to be the best music in the game. (And if you haven’t stopped reading yet, feel free to stop when I say “…and the music in this game is very, very good.”) It plays much like a standard Mega Man level, but the mere fact that it begins with you boarding a train at the station and then has you climbing into, around, and on top of it as it speeds down the rails gives the entire thing a sense of momentum that most stages lack.

Unlike Wave Man’s wave bike section, it doesn’t force you to move fast and carelessly, but it does subconsciously encourage you to. The scenery flashing by in the background implies a kind of momentum to which you’re likely going to match your own actions, unless you’re aware enough of the effect to proceed with caution. It’s a great trick, and one I’d bet most players who perform poorly in the stage don’t even realize is being played on them.

But Gravity Man’s stage is clearly the best, with a truly innovative central mechanic that’s so much fun. It’s more than just a great idea executed well…it’s an absolute delight to play through again and again, and the boss fight — in which the gravity flips constantly and you’re never on the same plane as Gravity Man himself — is a very clever way to see the stage gimmick through to its logical climax.

The sudden shifts in gravity are…well, they’re great, and they make Gravity Man’s stage one of the most memorable in the entire classic series. They also wouldn’t be nearly as fun if the level were more difficult. As it stands, with fairly simple and predictable enemies throughout, players can focus on enjoying themselves, on giving themselves over to the spectacle, on immersing themselves in an experience they can’t get anywhere else. They can have fun. If there were enemies and traps that made progress slow and laborious, it wouldn’t work as well. The gravity switching would be an unwelcome layer of frustration on top of an already challenging experience.

That’s something I think a lot of players miss. They say, “Sure, it was fun, but it was too easy.” What really happened, though, is that Capcom understood something that Super Mario Galaxy would prove it also understood 15 years later: steep challenge interferes with basic thrills. Super Mario Galaxy was an extraordinarily easy game to complete, and yet everybody loves it. Rightly so; it’s a game that deserves to be loved. But I think they loved it because the thrills were accessible. Everybody, no matter what their level of experience with games, could enjoy the basic thrill of sweeping Mario around planets in low gravity; they didn’t find themselves dying a thousand times in a row for failing to be precise in their movements or attacks. Enemies put up a fight, but only enough to keep things interesting, and almost never enough to serve as barriers to enjoyment.

Gravity Man’s stage knows that, too. If players are going to enjoy walking on the ceiling and getting Mega Man to behave with vertically inverted controls, the enemies had to let them enjoy it. Just as easily, Capcom could have made Gravity Man’s stage as difficult as Quick Man’s. But would that have made it more fun? If not, then they made the right choice. And I honestly believe that if Gravity Man’s stage — in its entirety, without alteration — appeared in Mega Man 3, for instance, it would be remembered as one of the highlights of the entire NES generation.

Mega Man 5 is a game about fun. It’s a game that encourages fun. In fact, replaying it this time, so soon after Mega Man 4, I was struck by just how sunny and welcoming the entire experience is. It feels like a product of love, or at least one that wants to be loved. It’s the first Mega Man game, I think, that just wants a hug. And, as a result, I was able to enjoy it even more than most of the other games. It’s not challenging, but it’s sweet. It’s not always memorable, but it’s always charming. It’s not the best game in the series, but it might be the friendliest.

It also introduces a few new ideas to the gameplay, which is nice, even if they’re not anything significant. For starters, there’s Mega Man’s new animal companion, Beat. Like Rush, Beat will show up in future games to help our hero, but unlike Rush, his role is always in flux. Here, for instance, he flies around and pecks at enemies. In Mega Man 7, he doesn’t attack at all, but rather rescues our hero from pits. In Mega Man 8 he adds extra (and optional) firepower during the Rush Jet sections.

Beat’s revolving role is a symptom of the fact that he was introduced to solve a problem the series couldn’t even identify. To put it more flatly, Mega Man 5 introduced him without having any concept of what he’d be good for, and the series has struggled to find a consistent use for him ever since.

With Rush, there was already precedent. The Magnet Beam and Items 1, 2, and 3 all helped Mega Man navigate stages, and there was every indication that future games would require utilities of their own. By introducing a Dynomutt to the Mega Man universe, those utilities would have a recognizable and welcome delivery system.

But Beat here…is just a weapon. Not even a different kind of weapon. He’s essentially a homing projectile, which is nice, but not really striking or important. Beat himself is pretty neat, though. He was allegedly built by Dr. Cossack by way of saying thanks, and his design suggests that Cossack used one of Mega Man’s spare or discarded helmets to build him. That’s a nice detail, and it makes the universe feel that much more cohesive.

Another new gameplay idea comes in the way Mega Man collects Beat: in each of the Robot Master stages, there’s a tile with a letter on it. Together they spell MEGA MAN V, which somehow adds Beat to your inventory. What’s noteworthy about this is that they are the first true collectibles in any Mega Man game.

The Balloon and Wire Adaptor in the previous game don’t quite count, as those are more optional utilities than collectibles, and the letter plates would set a precedent for later games to follow. Bolts are scattered around Mega Man 8 and database CDs are hidden in Mega Man & Bass, for instance.

In all, the letter plates are a nice way to encourage exploration and consideration of how stage elements work. For example, the letter in Gyro Man’s stage requires you to stand still on a platform that you know ahead of time is going to plummet quickly; it’s a decent test of reflexes that works precisely because it asks you to behave counterintuitively. Then there’s the one in Gravity Man’s stage, which requires you to have a working understanding of how Mega Man moves while the gravity flips…as opposed to before or after it happens.

None of these are especially difficult to find — barring the one in Stone Man’s stage, which can’t reasonably be found incidentally — but it’s a first pass at getting players to think about Mega Man stages in a new way, and not just as long corridors between the first screen and the boss room. The plates are interesting for that reason, if for no other.

On the whole, I think the levels are pretty good, and the soundtrack stronger overall than Mega Man 4‘s. Crystal Man and Stone Man are the only ones whose themes aren’t really up to snuff, but the rest — especially Charge Man’s, Napalm Man’s, and Wave Man’s — are among the best tracks you’ll find outside of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

But, of course, the Robot Master fights themselves are pretty uninteresting. The best fight is clearly Gravity Man’s, but beyond that I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything else very impressive.

I do like the concept of Gyro Man flying into cloud cover for much of his fight, but it’s not as interesting as it sounds, and he doesn’t spend his time out of sight doing anything dangerous. He just plops into view or sends some slow projectiles down. It’s about halfway to being a great boss fight, and it never gets there.

Others, like Wave Man, Star Man, and Crystal Man just hop back and forth shooting at you. Stone Man doesn’t even do that much; he usually just hops back and forth. Napalm Man does have a pattern that’s fun to exploit once you understand it. He’s nowhere near as fun to fight as Ring Man, but he makes for a satisfying enough duel in a similar way.

Charge Man at least has a pattern we haven’t seen before, which sees him closing in on Mega Man almost constantly, prioritizing contact damage to take our hero down. That is a nice and unexpected gameplay wrinkle, and it makes sense. All throughout Mega Man history (and nearly all throughout video game history), touching an enemy damages you, and not the enemy. Why, then, do so many enemies keep their distance? Why are none of them interested in simply colliding you to death?

Charge Man is very interested, and it makes for a standout fight with a lot of nice tension. The fact that he’s weak to the game’s crappiest weapon (oh, worthless Power Stone…) means you can’t actually just force your way mindlessly through the fight and miss it; you have to experience Charge Man in all of his frantic, close-quarters glory.

Charge Man is the exception that proves the rule, though, and once you take him out you realize just how incapable the other boss fights are of measuring up to his.

Then there’s the related matter of the Robot Master weapons, which may be the worst batch yet. But here’s the thing: they’re not inherently bad. That is to say, they aren’t bad or dull ideas. (We’ll see plenty of those next time.) They do fall down in the execution, though…mainly because the game doesn’t give them much of a use.

The best weapon is easily the Gyro Attack. It’s a fairly powerful projectile that you can turn 90 degrees once after firing. It’s great for hitting enemies straight ahead, or higher or lower than you’d normally be able to snipe them. Its decent firepower makes it even more worth using, as it’s rare you’ll need more than a few shots to take down any non-boss enemy. It’s a worthy addition to Mega Man’s arsenal. But it’s just about the only one.

The Star Crash is a decent shield weapon, but the problem with that weapon type is that they’re almost always unremarkable. They’re passive, and not exciting to use…barring perhaps one exception in a later game. Here it has a basic and predictable use in absorbing the falling shards in Crystal Man’s stage, but otherwise Mega Man 5 doesn’t have much call for a shield.

This is mainly because it’s more generous than any other game in the series with its health drops. 1-ups and health are handed out like candy, so while a shield could conceivably help you avoid some projectiles or take out small enemies here and there, it’s almost never worth the effort of switching to it. When Mega Man is constantly at or near full health, a shield becomes unnecessary.

Then there’s the Gravity Hold, which is a nice screen-clearance weapon, but, again, nothing particularly exciting. And, once again, Mega Man 5 doesn’t offer much call to use it; the number of crowded screens (therefore ones that could conceivably need clearing) can be counted on one hand.

The Power Stone is…indescribable. It produces three stones that orbit Mega Man and quickly spiral offscreen. Aside from a few times you can hang on a ladder and use it to hit enemies directly above or below, it’s fairly worthless. The stones are also spaced out enough that it’s very difficult to hit a target…even a large one, such as Charge Man. This one is flawed in both concept and execution, making it somewhat unique in this batch, but, once more, Mega Man 5 simply doesn’t create situations that are conducive to using it. You’ll experiment with it, see what it does, and never have a need to load it up again.

If it were powerful (thereby earning its name) the difficulty of actually hitting things with it might make sense; you’d trade off a tricky arc for a great deal of damage. Instead, though, it’s ridiculously weak, making me wonder if the developers were just trying to win a bet that they couldn’t design a weapon with absolutely no redeeming characteristics.

Then we get the four most interesting — and therefore frustrating — weapons in the game. These are the ones that should have been fun to use, and indeed seem tailored to specific situational usefulness…but those are situations Mega Man 5 never bothered to include. The Napalm Bomb drops right to the floor and bounces toward small targets that are almost never there. The Water Wave is a sudden wall of water that seems like it will sweep away enemies and create a handy barricade, but in practice it does neither, and Mega Man’s charged Buster can hit low-to-the-ground enemies anyway.

The Crystal Eye is a large projectile that splits when it hits a wall and ricochets around…but I can’t think of any stages or rooms that are built in any way to take advantage of this. In practice you end up with a bunch of smaller Crystal Eyes bouncing around, possibly colliding with enemies and just as likely not, meaning it’s unquestionably easier to use the default Buster. At least you know where those shots will go. Even the fortress boss that’s weak against the Crystal Eye doesn’t encourage or even allow you to use the weapon’s main functionality; the fight takes place in a room without walls, meaning you can only treat the weapon as a differently shaped Buster shot.

The Charge Kick is a very smart idea — turning Mega Man’s slide into its own weapon — but since it deactivates the Mega Buster it’s often detrimental to equip, and there are very, very few situations in which sauntering up to an enemy and sliding through them is preferable to taking them out easier, more safely, and more quickly from afar.

In truth, it feels as though the special weapons and the stages themselves were designed by two completely different teams. They were each produced under a different kind of design philosophy, and they don’t actually function together at all. Any rare instance in which these weapons do you any good is purely coincidental.

But then there’s an exception: the Super Arrow, which you get along with the Star Crash from Star Man.

The Super Arrow is a lot of fun, and we all know by now how much I like weapons that have multiple purposes. In fact, the Super Arrow is something like an unofficial utility; Mega Man can launch it at enemies, sure, but he can also ride it across a room, and use it to climb walls. It’s one of the rare instances of an item in Mega Man 5 that’s fun to play with. You know. Like some kind of…game.

It’s a shame about the weapons, because in a game that was actually built to showcase them, I think they could have some interesting uses. They seem to be tailored to targets that are at awkward or unexpected angles to the player, so why don’t enemies attack that way very often? Why is it so easy to hit everything with a straight, weak shot? With a weapon that bounces around the screen, why don’t we have even one enemy it’s worth trying to hit from behind?

Even Beat isn’t much fun to experiment with, as you don’t get him until you’ve found all eight letters…meaning you’ve explored just about everything apart from the fortresses. And don’t even get me started on what they did to poor Rush Coil…which is now some kind of…springy pogo-platform? It’s awful, and its absurd visual design just makes it look like Dr. Light drunkenly assembled the robot with the coil on the wrong side.

Oh well. At least it’s still fun to play with Rush. (Enjoy that while you can…)

I know the game is rough. I’m fully aware of it. I’ve probably made more negative comments above than I’ve made positive ones. And they were all deserved. So were the positive ones, I’d argue, but you get my point.

I know Mega Man 5 has a lousy reputation, and I remember being turned off by it firsthand as a kid. I remember playing it and saying, conclusively, “That’s enough Mega Man.” Even Capcom seems uninterested in giving it a second look; when they released the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection last year, which collects all six of the NES games, they included Robot Masters from each included title on the cover image…except from Mega Man 5, which goes totally unrepresented.

But I love it.

I love its stage gimmicks. I love its Robot Masters, however weak and wimpy they are. I love the promise of its weapons, even if that promise is never achieved. I love navigating platforms with the Super Arrow, simply because it’s more fun than screwing around with the shitty new Rush Coil. I love the music, in particular one of the best ending themes the series has ever had. I love the idea of Proto Man pushing back against the good guys, even if that didn’t actually happen or lead anywhere.

I love Mega Man 5 in spite of its flaws, because so many of those flaws are interesting. They suggest a much better game than what we actually got, I know. But the charm is there. The love is there. The fun is there.

Mega Man 4 is the better game. I’d never claim otherwise. It’s technically superior in every way, barring, perhaps, the soundtrack. But I actually like Mega Man 5 more.

What matters when we play video games is not which ones are “better” than others, in any number of possible regards. What matters is how we feel when we play them. The journeys we take within. The ways in which we respond to the things they do, even if what they do is deeply flawed. What games do right and wrong factor into it of course, but those considerations more steer our opinions than drive them.

Our opinions are born of the fun we have, the excitement we feel, the memories we cherish. Games, after all, are an art, not a science.

Put the same ingredients into the blender 10 times, and you won’t end up with 10 equally appealing results. The Mega Man series is a perfect illustration of that fact.

Last time I offered Mega Man 4 up for critical reappraisal. I wouldn’t do the same for Mega Man 5. It wouldn’t benefit from it. I know that. But I’d still encourage readers out there to give it another shot, on its own merits. You won’t find a critical darling there, but you may find a personal one.

Mega Man 5 is a rickety favorite. One I discounted because of how much it seemed to get wrong…only to return to as an adult, willing to engage with how much it got right. I love it in its imperfections. And isn’t that what love is? Love isn’t a tacit acknowledgment of everything that something gets right…it’s pushing through the hard times, working through them together, holding fast to what is good.

It’s not the best Mega Man game. Nobody on the planet would say it is.

But engage with it…give it time…look past a few admittedly large issues…and you’ll see one of the most playful, warm, adorably optimistic games in the series.

There’s a diamond in there. You just have to be willing to dig for it.

Best Robot Master: Napalm Man
Best Stage: Gravity Man
Best Weapon: Gyro Attack
Best Theme: Charge Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)

It’s easier at the end of a serialized season to reflect on that batch of episodes as a whole than to reflect only on that chapter.

That’s because we’ve reached the end, at least temporarily, and as threads are tied up and pieces shuffled into place for the eventual season four, what we’re really left with is perspective. We talked a bit last week about how an ending can define a journey. And, frankly, I think last week’s episode was more than enough proof of that fact.

So leave it to “Lantern” to illustrate it even better.

More than ever before: spoiler warning.

“Lantern” ends with Chuck burning himself alive in his living room. Of course, if you don’t see a body, the best you can do is assume. But, two points about that. First, neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul have been in the habit of false deaths or surprise resurrections. If you’re led to believe something, it’s nearly always because it actually happened. You may well be missing some necessary context, but the end result doesn’t change. And second, we’re clearly led to believe that this final.

There are ways out of this. Maybe Jimmy is parked across the street, sees the fire, and rushes in to save his brother. Maybe Chuck has second thoughts and crawls out onto the lawn. Maybe Walter White falls through a time portal and resets the universe. So, yes, no matter what, season four can do whatever it wants to do. There’d even be a minor precedent for it: in the first episode of season two, Jimmy walked back the decision he made at the end of season one.

But I don’t get the feeling that’s what the show will do here. At least, I hope it doesn’t. Better Call Saul is very much a show about consequences. About dealing with fallout, both expected and unexpected. About doors closing on you and finding fewer and fewer of them left open with each passing day. Undoing this would help very little, and wouldn’t really seem to be within the intentions of the show. Especially since “Lantern” brings so many other decisions to a head, and forces the characters to face their consequences.

Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about Chuck. The ending of “Lantern” positions him as the emotional centerpiece of season three. We opened with him having one kind of breakdown, and close with him having another, very different one. He started off (in flashback) feigning new depths of his illness, and ended experiencing them for real. The notable difference between the two is that when he was only playing, he was simply a confused and batty old man. Here he’s unhinged and, ultimately, suicidal.

To go from one to the other requires a journey. The slip from being so in control of a situation that you can fake your symptoms to being so helpless that you’re at the mercy of them is significant, and season three as a whole describes that transition.

Chuck rose and fell and then rose and fell again throughout the course of these ten episodes. He got the upper hand over his brother with a surreptitious recording, and was then exposed and humiliated in a courtroom. That experience placed him on a genuine road to recovery that saw him make significant progress and start to get his life back together, just for it all to come crashing down. Likely for good.

He played his hand tonight against Howard, and lost. “You won,” Howard says, and I know he believes it. After all, nine million dollars of Howard’s own money and loans in his name were promised to Chuck just to get him to shut up. But for Chuck, it was his last way back in the door at HHM, and it closed instead. Howard would rather be millions of dollars in debt than work with Chuck for another day. That stings.

And it makes his eventual breakdown that much more believable. In that meeting with HHM’s key stakeholders, Chuck was acting and speaking as though he were in control. The reality was very different. When it hit him, he was left literally speechless. His former colleagues gathered to applaud him…but he left the building alone. It was over.

For Chuck to die here…it would make a perfect kind of sense for the character. To Chuck, power was important. He was an intelligent man. A gifted lawyer. A savvy judge of character. He had knowledge and abilities that nobody else had. He stood out in his field. He was respected. He built a massive, successful firm from the ground up, and he did it through hard work and tenacity.

But doors close on you. We watched it happen.

Chuck’s death would also make a perfect kind of sense for Jimmy’s character. His older brother told him, point blank, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” For that to be the last thing he ever hears from his brother…well, that would obviously be meaningful. And would be a completely understandable shove forward on the road to becoming Saul Goodman.

Chuck’s snipe also punctuates a lecture to Jimmy — the latest and possibly last — about how Jimmy is doomed to hurt those around him. Why regret anything? The cycle begins anew. People get hurt. Jimmy feels bad, sure, but if people get hurt again…what does that say about Jimmy?

I think I know what it says about Jimmy, and it’s not what Chuck thinks it says. You each have your own feelings as well. But the fact is that this is coming from somebody Jimmy admires, cares about, and loves. For him to hear that Chuck believes others would be better off staying far away from him…that’s painful. That’s cruel. And that’s bound to lead to some soul searching. Where, ultimately, he’s going to decide that his soul isn’t worth much at all.

To Jimmy’s immense credit, he does his best to undo much of the damage he caused. He’s correct that he can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but if he can get some old ladies to be friends again — even at the cost of his reputation — he’ll do it. It’s similar to what he did for Chuck in “Klick” last season; he confesses to his own wrongdoing just to help somebody else feel better. He’ll set himself back to pull somebody else forward. That’s Jimmy…not Saul.

But at some point, he stops doing that. At some point he starts putting himself above others. At some point he doesn’t have the twinge of conscience that makes him do the right thing.

Doors close on you.

I will add that I really liked seeing Erin playing along to help things work out…even if she wasn’t “playing” all that much. She’s a great character and one I was glad to see again. Hopefully it won’t be the last time we see her…or Francesca. We know that the latter plays a big part in Saul’s life, but for now, she’s let go. Just because she hitched her wagon to a dual practice that wasn’t fated to last. Another great character kicking around the universe, looking for a path forward.

Elsewhere Nacho deals with the consequences of his own actions…which endanger his father almost immediately. I mentioned before that Nacho is the one true wildcard in that section of the story. We know exactly what becomes of Hector, Tuco, Gus, Victor, et al. But Nacho’s fate is unknown, which means he’s the one character that can unexpectedly die. I still don’t think we care about him anywhere near as much as we cared about Jesse Pinkman, for instance, or Hank, or even Gayle, but if Better Call Saul chooses to develop the character further, we could be in for some real heartache in the future.

Oh, hey, I might as well bring this up since I see people talking about it elsewhere: Yes, Saul mentions Ignacio when he meets Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad, and we’ve been told that he’s referring to Nacho. Some folks have taken that to mean that Nacho is alive at that point in time…but that isn’t true at all. All it means is that Saul doesn’t have knowledge of his death. He could be lying in a shallow desert grave at that point. The only thing it proves is that the lawyer believes he’s still alive.

Okay, sorry, just wanted to clear that up. Nacho’s fate is very much in flux, and possibly in jeopardy. His gambit with the pills pays off this week, and he even gets the opportunity to cover his tracks as everyone else scatters, but Gus gives the boy a knowing glance. This is either good news or bad news for Nacho. Gus does a fantastic job of keeping that uncertain.

Then there’s Kim…who takes some well deserved time off. I don’t have much to say about her at this point, except that I’m very curious to see where the character goes next.

None of our major figures are in the same place now as they were when season two began. Howard is in debt without a partner, Francesca’s been let go, Kim is on indefinite leave, Jimmy’s no longer practicing, Chuck’s on fire…

Season three began with such promise for everyone. Season four will begin with so little left clearly ahead for any of them.

Doors close on you.

Notably absent in the finale was Mike. Which was an odd choice. I’m sure it wouldn’t have fit so I’m not complaining, but ideally I would have put his short scene with Lydia in this episode instead, just to give him an ending as well.

Instead it just feels odd not to check in with our deuteragonist. Then again, Mike’s been pretty…underutilized this season. Both seasons one and two had a lot for him to do, but here he spent several episodes just following a trail. Sure, it led him to Gus…but aside from that, did Mike really have a story? Or did he just jog around the map for a bit?

I expect season four to rectify this. Now he’s on the payroll, and he can get up to all manner of shenanigans with those wacky chicken slingers. But season three seemed like an awful lot of effort to move him incrementally forward.

I still think Better Call Saul is at its best when it’s not setting a place at the table for Breaking Bad. We’ve seen that show. We know that show. We can watch that show any time.

I want Better Call Saul to be about Jimmy. About who he is. About how he changes. About what matters to him and why he’s doomed to lose it.

So far, Gus, Hector, Tuco, and even Mike don’t factor into that much, if at all. It’s a separate story competing for airtime, shouldering Better Call Saul out of the way to make room for characters that won’t matter to this series as much as they mattered to one that’s already off the air.

That’s my wish as season three ends. Better Call Saul is so good that I want to spend more time with it, and I want to know that the time I am spending — all of it — serves this show and not its smarter, more popular, more admired older brother. Gus and Hector and all the rest of those crazy kids can pop up all they like…but they need to be a part of Jimmy’s story. They can’t be an irregular distraction from it.

For now, though…that’s it. The door has closed on season three, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch along with me. I know these reviews don’t get as many comments, but a lot of people seem to read them. I can only hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am.

Oh, and if you’re curious what song was playing when Jimmy went to visit Chuck, here you go. It’s one of my favorites, and one of the saddest compositions I’ve ever heard. It was used to incredible effect here. The perfect soundtrack to the last time Jimmy would ever see his brother alive. Or, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Certainly not the first time a man has passed his brother by, at the edge of the evening, often forever, without knowing it.”

See you in a year for season four.

There are a number of television episodes that are made — nearly or entirely — by their endings. “Abyssinia, Henry” from M*A*S*H. “Time Keeps on Slippin'” from Futurama. “The Best Christmas Ever” from Moral Orel. Hell, even ALF‘s “Alone Again, Naturally.” Or, to be more relevant to the matter at hand, “Dead Freight” from Breaking Bad.

I’m not arguing that these are bad episodes if viewed in isolation from their endings. I am arguing, however, that they are enhanced, enriched, and defined by those endings. Take away the final punch and you’ll probably still have something good, but you’ll also have something extremely different.

Those endings provide the context. They’re filters we don’t get until just before the credits roll, but through which we’re meant to view the entire episode. They’re reveals that provide the tools for understanding what it is we just watched. And, in each of the above cases, we don’t even realize we need those tools along the way. We believe we’re watching one thing. It’s rolling along. We’re enjoying the ride. We have a solid idea of where we’re going.

And then…

Crash.

The journey is the story, but the destination defines the journey. Where we end up — or fail to end up — redefines the steps we took along the way.

So Lt. Col. Henry Blake never makes it home. Fry’s grand gesture goes unseen. Orel’s prayer goes unanswered. ALF catches a fleeting glimpse that may have actually just been wishful thinking. An innocent child is murdered to protect a group of criminals.

And Kim drives off the road.

I love Rhea Seehorn. I believe strongly that Kim Wexler is one of the best things on television right now. She’s a rich, believable, important character that regularly pushes Better Call Saul over the line into greatness.

But I’ve wondered about the character before, both within and without these reviews. I’ve wondered if she isn’t too good. If Better Call Saul needed a love interest for Jimmy to work his way through fairly quickly, but who turned out to be too good to let go.

So the question for me — as much time as we spend with her, as well-spent as that time is — was always how long we had left with her. She departs before Breaking Bad begins, and that’s a deadline that seems to approach more rapidly with every episode. What’s more, though: we know* that Jimmy and/or Saul gets married and divorced several times before meeting Walter White, and so, presumably, we’ll also need time to work through those relationships post-Kim.

Kim’s time is necessarily abbreviated, and then abbreviated again. Eventually she and Jimmy will split up for good. Does she leave him for a better opportunity? Does his increasingly seedy behavior drive her away? Is she collateral damage in the fallout of some criminal activity Jimmy or Mike gets up to?

“Fall” doesn’t definitively provide an answer, but it provides another possibility: she becomes a danger to herself.

That’s something I never guessed. Kim’s so collected. So capable. So…great. Surely her destruction would have to come from an external force.

But “Fall” ends by suggesting that it may not.

The funny thing is that it could have, if that were the lesson “Fall” wanted us to pull from it. All the show would have had to do is have her take a shot with Jimmy before rushing off. Have her dawdle for another five minutes and drive 60 instead of 55. Have her explain the situation to her oblivious partner rather than rush out.

Any of those simple, natural responses would have passively reinforced Jimmy as the destructive presence in her life.

But none of that happens. She takes command. She leaves.

She crashes.

And the camera pulls out so that we can survey the damage right along with her.

Of course, it’s worth rewinding. The reason Kim took an additional client at all is due to the fact that Jimmy wasn’t financially pulling his weight. She knew she’d need to make up the difference, so she broke her vow of exclusivity with Mesa Verde to work on an oil rights dispute. That does, in fact, shift the indirect blame back onto Jimmy.

Right?

Well…as much as I can’t fault Kim for planning ahead, the fact is that Jimmy has been pulling his weight. Not in the best or most ethical or most reliable ways, but he’s been paying up on schedule…and springing for dinner. What’s more, he was even celebrating by episode’s end the fact that money would no longer be a concern for him. He’d covered his debt to her.

Thinking through the problem and being responsible, is what led to her downfall. Had she taken a mindset similar to Jimmy’s (a vague “That is tomorrow-talk,” as he claimed in “Off Brand”), she’d be fine right now. She wouldn’t have taken another client. She wouldn’t have had to pull extra all-nighters. She wouldn’t have nodded off behind the wheel.

Instead, she rightly identified that Jimmy was unreliable and took steps to fix the problem on her end.

That was the smartest possible thing to do in her situation. And that was her problem.

As much as we love Jimmy and Kim together, I think we all wanted to count on the fact that he’d be the damaging influence in her life. I don’t think any of us wanted to see her as her own problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to have to look a second time at her admirable qualities and see them as flaws. I don’t think anyone wanted Kim to be…human.

We want to believe that our troubles aren’t our own. That we could be so much more than we are, so much happier, so much healthier, so much richer, so much more popular if it weren’t for…something. Something beyond our control. Our looks. Our place of birth. Our parents. Our dead-end career. That dumbass we wasted too many years with. If it weren’t for…something, we’d be okay.

And part of growing up — truly growing up — is realizing that, with very few exceptions, it’s not something. It’s us. It’s our habits and patterns and thought processes. It’s our hangups and fears and anxieties. It’s who we are that holds us back. It’s the monster in the mirror.

Poor Kim faces the monster at the end of “Fall.” And this, I feel, positions her for the most important emotional arc of the season. I could be wrong, of course, but the rest of “Fall” doesn’t feel like it’s moving its characters toward their final positions before being placed back in the box.

Chuck and Howard clash. Mike makes things official with Gus. Hector takes his pills. Nacho tries to protect — if not exactly save — his father. Jimmy does right by his old Sandpiper clients in an unexpectedly callous way.

It’s not as though things are stagnant. The pieces are moving. They’re interacting. They’re making progress.

But throughout the episode I had to keep reminding myself that there was only one more left this season, because nothing felt like it was approaching any kind of terminal point.

And then Kim crashed.

“Fall” deposited her in a situation that leaves her with no more room for blindness. Unless, of course, she chooses wilful blindness.

Kim Wexler is positioned for a change. Nothing felt as though it was headed for the finish line but, suddenly, immediately, in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly where she ended up.

The destination defined the journey.

—–
* It’s possible that he lied to Walt about this for…some reason, but so far “eh, he lied” has never been this show’s answer to any bit of backstory, and I don’t believe they’d start pulling that crap with something so significant.

I’d never played a Hitman game until very recently. Well, that’s a slight lie; I did try one at some point. I think it was Hitman: Blood Money, but it was only for a few minutes and I didn’t even have time to finish the training sequence.

But properly? No, I never got the chance to really inhabit the body of cold, resourceful Agent 47. The games, though, were still of interest to me. They sounded like a lot of fun. They seemed to be a rare example of brainy violence…of turning the ultra-frequent video game action of murder into a longform logic puzzle that required far more than a quick and precise trigger finger.

The games seemed to be sequences of little sandboxes. A mansion, a neighborhood, a foreign city. Somewhere within that framework, your target was busy going about his or her day, unaware that it was the last one they’d get. You’d have weapons, sure, but firing a gun or detonating an explosive would blow your cover immediately, and so you’d have to pull closer to your target through stealth, through stolen costumes, through clever use of the environment.

None of which, of course, could be plotted in advance. You’d have some concept of where you were and what you might find there, but that was it. If an opportunity presented itself, it was up to you to figure out how to take advantage of it, and up to you to react to every unforeseen obstacle you’d encounter on the way. You’d know almost nothing going in, but accumulate an enormous amount of data with every step you took; you’d learn the routines of NPCs, eavesdrop on conversations that may contain hints, identify unsafe wiring or loose chandeliers that might be put to some use.

And therein lies the delightful evolution of the experience: you’d start by know nothing, which was a necessary step to learning everything. The next time you’d play the same level you’d know a little more. And a little more the time after that.

But…so what? To varying extents, isn’t that the case with any level in any game?

Well, yes. The first time you step foot into any level in Super Mario Bros., you are at the complete mercy of the designers. The second time, you know where many of the enemies and items are, so you’ll adjust your play style accordingly. The third time you’ll have an even stronger and more distinct understanding of the safest way to go about things, which means you can spend more time and attention looking for secrets. And, to some degree, that’s something you’ll passively learn by replaying almost any level in almost any genre.

Repetition, in short, builds familiarity. There’s a Starman in this block. If I get it, I can blow through the Buzzy Beetles I know are just up ahead. If I don’t, I’ll have to avoid them, which is trickier.

You plan ahead based on foreknowledge, because the experience won’t change. That Starman is always there, those Buzzy Beetles are always waiting, the flagpole is in the same place every time. Wrinkles and digressions are minor. Maybe you find an underground coin room, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you take damage, so that Fire Flower you were counting on is now just a Super Mushroom. Maybe an enemy glitches and appears in an unexpected place.

But those are minor deviations. They give us a bit of room for flourishes on the fairly narrow path between A and B, but, ultimately, A leads to B, and it’s only a question of whether or not we make it there alive. Rarely do the specifics of how we go about that task result in a difference that’s anything beyond superficial.

But Hitman, as a series, seemed to offer repetition that would provide a different kind of familiarity.

Sure, you could play it the same way you’d play any level: turn up, find a way to accomplish your task, and then move on. If you come back, you’ll have experience accomplishing that task, and you might be able to perform it more quickly or with more grace.

But here, repetition offers a lot more than that, as I’m learning by playing 2016’s quasi-reboot Hitman.

I’ll say right here that the game is great. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, packed full of impressive design, and it turns contract killing into an experience of genuine invention and beauty. Okay? So, there.

What I’d prefer to talk about is how the game encourages replaying levels in a way I almost never see.

Usually level-based games encourage replayability in a few ways: harder enemies, tighter time constraints, optional achievements, secret exits, and things along those lines. To be frank, those don’t really work on me. Sure, sometimes I’ll dip back into a level I’ve completed for the sake of an achievement, but even if I do, it doesn’t keep me playing beyond that. It makes me feel as though I might as well perform some action, as opposed to making me feel like I’d really enjoy performing that action. That’s a huge difference that developers don’t seem to understand. And so the only games I truly replay again and again are the ones that I just like spending time with; any replay-enhancing gimmicks (or lack thereof) don’t factor into it.

With Hitman, I’m compulsively playing levels over and over again. I’m sure I’ve played one of them more than a dozen times, and I’ll keep playing it for probably a good while longer. And it’s nothing to do with gimmickry. It’s entirely to do with design.

Early in Hitman, you’re given two training missions help you learn the controls, a nudge in terms of potential puzzle solutions, and a few wrenches in the works to help you anticipate future circumstances. In the first training level, your target is aboard a small ship. In the second, he’s in an airplane hangar. And in each case, I had a decent amount of difficulty even seeing the target up close, let alone orchestrating his undetected murder and making a clean escape.

Which I liked quite a lot, and which quickly revealed itself to be every bit as complex and rewarding as I hoped it would be. For instance, in the first mission, I know my target is on the ship, so I head toward it. But I can’t board, because I don’t belong there. So I get turned away and amble around for a bit until I find a mechanic in a shed with his back to me. He’s working on something and is completely unaware of my presence. So I conk him on the head and steal his outfit.

Now I can board the ship, because it looks like I have a job to do. But I still don’t have free run of the ship, because as a mechanic the crew wants me to stay below deck. What’s more, other mechanics will recognize me as not being one of them if I stay in their line of sight too long, so I need to find a higher-ranking disguise if I want to make any progress.

All of this is just to start the mission, which I adore. Not only have I still not seen my target, but I have yet to observe his patterns, to find any method of taking him out, to identify opportunities to separate him from witnesses.

Once I do find him, I have a wealth of options. I can drop a lifeboat on his head. I can plant an explosive to take him out while he’s sitting at his computer. I can shoot him, stab him, or strangle him. I can drug him. And those are just the obvious solutions.

The gameplay experience is rich and rewarding, giving me both a) myriad ways to approach my goal and then b) myriad ways to accomplish it. In fact, we should even add c) myriad ways to exit the level, because, of course, I still need to get out alive and preferably unnoticed.

And so, yes, what Hitman offers is multiple solutions. But many games offer those, and I wouldn’t call most of them as replayable. The Fallout series, for interest, is a common touchpoint for me. I love it. I believe the games do great things in deeply engrossing ways and, at their best, brilliantly complicate the morality of your decisions.

But Fallout is also an example of how relatively shallow “multiple solutions” in games often are. For instance, you may get to choose which side of a battle you’ll be on. Or you may get to talk your way out of a battle. Or you may be able to quietly steal whatever important item exists in the area without having to kill someone to get to it. In short, it’s more binary. The obvious (and probably easier) solution is A, but if you scout around you may be able to find B. Or you’ll be fenced into a situation in which you need to align with one faction or another, with the superficial result being the same: a clash with the opposing army.

And multiple solutions are fine. But Hitman offers something a lot deeper: multiple stories.

I’m not exaggerating. If we consider a story to be less what a game tells us and more our experience of playing the game (which we should, as that’s how novels and film work as well), Hitman offers an infinite number of stories, many of which deviate from each other in substantial, crucial, unexpected ways.

In my first true mission, I’m sent to a fashion show in Paris to take out two targets. One of them is on the first floor of a massive estate, and the other is on the third. It won’t be a quick in and out, and around any corner I might bump into an NPC who knows I shouldn’t be there. But the large play area and varied environments allow me a wealth of options, and I keep replaying this level (and others, including the training missions) because the options lead to different stories.

There’s a story about a hitman who haltingly worms his way through a crowd, spies his mark from a distance, and gradually attempts to work his way closer. The hitman has no plan, but he knows he has a job to do, and expects that he’ll find a way to do it soon enough. So he overhears two men that are waiting to meet with his target, knocks out a bodyguard and steals his uniform, and then leads the men out to the meeting place near the Seine. They phone the target and the hitman waits behind the bushes.

The target appears. He meets with the two men. No further opportunity presents itself. The hitman worries, knowing that if his target returns to the fashion show, he will have to find another way to get close to him, essentially starting all over. So the hitman, in something like professional panic, just runs over to the target and shoves him over the railing into the river.

That’s one story. It’s a pretty fun one. It involves a lot of fumbling and a bunch of people who accidentally walked in on me stealing somebody’s clothes, who then had to be knocked out and stashed away before they could tell anyone. So not only did it have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it had some tension and comic relief along the way.

And that’s just one of the two targets, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stop there.

Now I can replay the level, and figure out a way to push him into the river without all the wandering and buffoonery.

…but why would I do that?

See, as I observed him during my first playthrough, I learned that he’s upset that the bartenders he hired can’t mix his favorite cocktail. One kind of hitman runs out from behind a bush and shoves you over a railing. Another kind of hitman, though, tracks down the recipe for your favorite cocktail, impersonates wait staff, mixes rat poison into your drink, and drowns you in the toilet as you vomit.

That’s not just an alternate solution; that’s an alternate story. None of the beats are the same. There’s a victim and a murderer, but the entire framework of what happens — and when, and why, and how — changes.

And on that playthrough, I observed even more. There are reporters at the event waiting to interview my target; what if I planted an explosive in the camera? There are gas lamps all over the estate; what if I loosened some valves and waited for my target to crave a cigarette? There’s a lighting rig over the stage; what if I poisoned the fashion designer so that he couldn’t give his speech and my target had to go on instead? Underneath those lights? Those lights I can reach if I can climb up there without drawing attention to myself…

Those are all different stories…and, again, I have to emphasize that I’m not even bringing up the multiple methods of infiltrating the estate, the multiple methods of escape, or any of the things I can get up to with my second target. Each playthrough isn’t another playthrough; it’s a playthrough of an entirely different level, because the level allows itself to be played entirely differently.

A different kind of hitman would do each of those things, and there are countless other solutions I haven’t mentioned. All of them offer different experiences, different kinds of preparation, different things to watch out for. They require you to collect different items, interact with different people, explore different rooms. And each of those things are likely to require different costumes, which you’ll have to figure out how to obtain in your specific circumstances. If you need a chef’s outfit to get somewhere, you’ll need to get into the kitchen. But if you can’t get into the kitchen with what you’re wearing currently, what do you need? Where will you find it? How will you get it without alerting security?

Each playthrough of the level has the same basic objectives, but the experience of achieving them is always different. Which is keeping me coming back over and over again in a way that trophies or some other ancillary award would not. Is it worth zipping Agent 47 back to Paris just to unlock an achievement by setting off the fire alarm? No, I wouldn’t think so. Is it worth zipping him back to Paris because setting off the fire alarm will cause your targets to head for safe rooms which you can boobytrap for another entirely unique experience? Why yes…now we’re talking.

And I think that’s the difference. Hitman is bottomlessly replayable because you never have to do the same thing twice. Or, if you choose to do the same thing twice, you never have to do it in the same way, or the same place, or at the same time. You’re writing a new story as you go. The same characters die at the end, but that’s never been the most important part of any story. A story is a journey. Hitman rewards replaying it because there are as many journeys within as you’d care to uncover.

There’s even another element to it that — so far — I think is best exemplified by the next level: Sapienza.

Here, again, there are two targets, as well as…something else that needs to be taken care of. Including the infiltration and escape options, those are five objectives that can be accomplished in any number of ways, leading to easily dozens of possible, distinct routes through the level and ways to play the level.

And so on my first attempt, I learned that a new cook was hired at the home of my target, so I tracked that guy down, stole his uniform, and used the opportunity afforded to me as cook to poison my target. (Again, I’ll focus only on one target for simplicity.) Similarly to the steely professionalism I displayed in Paris, I waited for him to vomit, shoved him off a cliff, and ran like hell.

So that’s one kind of story.

The next time through, I learned that my target was expecting a visit from a therapist…who I found at a nearby cafe. Taking him out took some planning and effort in itself, but before long I was in that man’s clothes and heading toward my victim’s home…where I’d be a much different kind of killer than I was before. And I’d therefore be in a different kind of story.

My role as therapist allowed me privacy with the man. I sat in a chair, and he lay helplessly on the couch. Nobody else was there. No witnesses. There was a button prompt to smother him with a pillow. It would have been easy and ruthless, and the ease with which I could do it was empowering, especially compared to my previous, less impressive run through the level.

But then something else happened: my victim talked. He opened up to me as a patient. The prompt to smother him hung there, waiting, patient. I could have pressed it at any time.

But I listened.

And he unfurled a story of childhood trauma, of a lifetime of anxiety and struggle, of loneliness and isolation. None of this could I have learned elsewhere, what with the man’s lavish mansion and beautiful environs and private golf lessons and servants and wealth beyond imagination.

My target became human.

And therefore my story became, again, something else entirely.

I still killed him. I had to.

But it meant something different now.

The first time through a Hitman level, I don’t know how what I’m doing. I don’t know what my options are. I don’t know how I can track my target, incapacitate my target, and make it home alive. I don’t know where to go, what to look for, or what any of the items or objects strewn around can be used to achieve.

So I’ll figure something out, as I must, and find the end of the story.

But the next time through, I know more. Things are recontextualized. I can build upon my understanding and, in doing so, find more inventive, more satisfying, more tempting solutions. And that’s another kind of story.

By the third or fourth time, I’ll look for more complicated solutions that I can set up like a row of dominoes. Not because I’ll get an achievement for doing so, but because I’ll feel achievement by doing so.

Technically any solution is possible from the outset of any given Hitman level, but in terms of the experience, it’s layered. The way you play the story the first time shapes and informs the way you play it the next, which makes it a different story entirely.

I’ve never looked forward to repetition more than I look forward to it in Hitman.

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