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Author Archives: Philip J Reed

Misspeak, Memory

September 5th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in television - (2 Comments)

Have you ever had a memory that was later proven to be so far from reality that you begin to question the way your mind works?

I’m sure it’s happened to me other times, but the most recent example comes courtesy of Roseanne. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about the show as a whole.

The entire series is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime, but sadly those are syndication cuts. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the complete series boxset is available for under $30 new, and I’ve heard those are the original broadcast edits.

Anyway, I’m working my way back through the series on Prime. I remember really liking the show when I was young. It debuted when I was seven, and revisiting the episodes for the first time in my adult life, I can definitely confirm that my family started watching from the very beginning. I even remembered a lot of lines and moments from the pilot. Maybe my mother or father was already a fan of Roseanne’s standup or something. For whatever reason, we were able to catch a truly great show from the start. I’m grateful for that.

Years ago, before I started reviewing ALF on this site and shaved eleven years off my life, someone suggested I review Roseanne. Watching the show again (I’m about two seasons deep), I’m glad I didn’t. It’s very good television. The characterization is sharp, with characters arriving fully formed and every actor perfectly cast. The stories are well chosen and well told. Comedy and drama are balanced perfectly, with the show nearly always leaning toward the former, but keeping the latter at a steady hum that reveals genuine sadness whenever you look past the jokes.

Which, really, would have left me with very little to say as a critic. I’m sure there are at least a few dud episodes scattered throughout the run (and from what I hear it concludes with a complete dud season), but, on the whole, my reviews would have struggled to find interesting ways to repeat “here’s why this works so well” over and over again. By contrast, I never struggled to repeatedly make fun of Max Wright’s crack-fueled hobo sex festivals at all!

It’s almost puzzling to me that I liked Roseanne when I was so young. Why did I not think it was boring? At that age I liked cartoons, and puppets, and things that screamed for my attention. Why was I interested in a show that did episodes about who would cook dinner? Or getting ready for a rummage sale? Or bickering over money?

Well, frankly…I think the credit goes to Darlene. Sara Gilbert’s character was…different. I’m sure I’d seen plenty of adult characters in the same vein, but never a child. Another child. One who was so clearly detached from the family and the town around her. One who struggled to make friends, or to find value in the things that others seemed to take pleasure in. One that thought so differently about the world she occupied that she couldn’t connect with others…not genuinely…and had to default to being an isolate.

That resonated with me. It resonates with me now. In many ways, it’s also why I felt drawn to Lisa Simpson as a character. Between Lisa and Darlene, I understood to some degree that I wasn’t alone. These characters were fictional, but they were reflecting real experiences for me. Behind them, there were writers. Writers who understood the things I felt. Writers who had words for what I couldn’t say. Writers who provided a quiet promise that you’ll grow up one day…and when you do, you can find the place that you fit.

Through Darlene and Lisa I was able to learn about art. About expression. About depression. About channeling my emotions. These were shows — and characters — that helped me not just to grow, but to become a healthier person who understood himself just a little bit better. A little was enough.

I’m not trying to say I wouldn’t have learned about those things eventually…but rather that I hadn’t before. And the friends I could eventually count on to guide me through difficult times…weren’t in my life yet. Television, films, movies, music, books…all of these things gave me a chance to understand myself that much earlier. And if I continue to take them all a bit too seriously now, it’s only because I know how seriously they helped me back then.

And so I look back on Roseanne and The Simpsons as two shows that were far smarter than anybody at the time was giving them credit for being. They spoke truths. I may not have understood most of them, but I recognized them as truths at least. The only real different between them was that I’d revisited The Simpsons many times throughout my life, and found a bit more in those incredible first eight seasons each time.

Roseanne, though, was just a memory. A positive one, for sure. When someone suggested I review Roseanne, it was listed among a bunch of other shows that were clearly (or very likely) crap. And I remember thinking, “Wait…wasn’t Roseanne good?” I’d forgotten so much about the show, but retained what my brain must have thought was the most important thing: it was quality television.

There were a few episodes that I remembered quite well, though. There was the one where they smoke pot in the bathroom. The one where Roseanne and her sister Jackie visit their childhood home and reflect on the abuse they suffered. The one where Darlene reads her “to whom it may concern” poem.

And my favorite one…the one I remembered so well, so vividly, so strongly above anything else: the one where the door-to-door salesman dies in their kitchen.

At least…I thought I remembered it.

See, I remembered Roseanne being good. Sharp, insightful, daring. Well written. Flawlessly acted. Sadly relatable. Watching it again, I can say that I was right; I stand by all of those impressions. Probably even more strongly now. But the one episode I would have pointed to in order to illustrate my claim was the salesman one…and my memory of the episode couldn’t have been further away from what it actually was.

Here’s what I thought I remembered: an old man shows up at Roseanne’s door to sell her something. He starts to feel sick and asks for a glass of water, so she invites him inside. He passes away suddenly in her kitchen. They cover him with a sheet and wait for the coroner, with the family dealing — each in their own way — with death, now that it’s confronted them in their home. During all of this, people stop by the house to see the laundry set Roseanne is selling, which complicates things a bit further. There’s a physical comedy setpiece when the dead man’s hand slips off of the table and slaps Dan in the butt.

That’s a lot, right? And…well, all of it’s accurate. I really did remember it well. The episode stuck with me as a child, and I know it’s come up in conversation with friends before. I’d tell them about it…about how much it felt like nothing else I had ever seen in a sitcom. Those shows handled death — sometimes frivolously, sometimes seriously — but rarely did they seem intelligent in their handling. This episode of Roseanne, however, did. It felt like it said something larger…or at least explored a larger space.

In school I gravitated toward English and creative writing courses. In college I majored in English Literature. And ever since I was a child, I spent most of my leisure time reading and writing. This probably caused me to remember one thing about the episode more than any other: the way the individual characters confronted death, and how they processed it. That said a lot about who they were. It was true to what we already knew about them, and it revealed even more. It was good writing. And as I was becoming a writer, it was right for me to internalize what I’d learned from the episode.

Morbid Darlene responds with curiosity, sneaking into the kitchen to investigate the body after she’s told to keep away. Dan is creeped out by it and refuses to touch it, even when a police officer asks for help. Oldest daughter Becky insists that they give him a name, so that he isn’t just some anonymous, forgotten nobody. Little DJ doesn’t understand what’s happening, and makes his family a set of toe tags as a gift. Roseanne…well, I didn’t much remember how she reacted, but now I can report that she’s essentially a blank slate; she’s our audience surrogate in this situation, observing and absorbing rather than projecting.

Again, I remembered all of this with varying degrees of clarity.

The reaction I remembered most vividly, though, was that of Jackie. Rewatching the show, I see now just how incredible Laurie Metcalf is in that role overall. Jackie is a great character. Troubled, helpless, aimless, filling the void inside of her with booze and men. She keeps it together externally, but there’s always the sense of something much sadder within, and sometimes the mask even slips, allowing us to see it directly.

It’s really great stuff, and it’s no wonder Metcalf won three Emmys for the role. She’s fantastic.

It’s also her reaction to the salesman’s death that I remembered most.

She sees it as a blessing for him. If she feels any emotion, it’s jealousy.

An old man died in the home of a family he didn’t know…and Jackie would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

What a tremendously sad moment of characterization.

She even opens up to her sister about it. She makes clear in a calm, measured way that death is preferable to anything she has in life.

“He’s probably doing better than any of us,” she says. “That’s the cosmic joke, Roseanne.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since. “The cosmic joke.” I’ve thought about it a lot. The cosmic joke that none of us are ever in a position to laugh at. The one at our perpetual expense. From other sitcoms, I might remember specific gags. From this one, I remembered a muttered, bitter sadness.

Jackie goes on:

“He’s the happiest man on the planet. His troubles are over. He’ll never again have to stand in a line. He’ll never again have to listen to the muzak version of ‘Muskrat Love.’ He’ll never again have to eat a hamburger and bite into one of those little hard things.”

She trails off. This litany of mundane inconveniences sounding…well, real. Not like the work of writers, but rather like the realistic despair of a depressive mind. Most writers would — understandably — fill a speech like this with larger, more impactful examples. “He won’t have to watch his loved ones die. He won’t have to suffer and waste away. He won’t ever again watch the latest horrors on the news and wonder how the world could get so bad.”

Those are things a writer might come up with. Instead, Jackie is human. She focuses on the small things that add up enough to weight you down. She reveals her life as so empty that even the bad things are hollow. She discussed personal and universal tragedy on the same level, because she’s trying desperately to use one to understand the other. You know…like humans do.

Maybe it’s just because she mentioned hamburgers, but I’m reminded of another formative, insightful moment in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after the planet Earth is destroyed. Lone survivor Arthur Dent doesn’t (can’t) quite understand the magnitude of such a loss. He can’t process the destruction of his home planet — of his entire species and its history — and, so, he doesn’t. It’s something that happened, but not something he can feel. Until it occurs to him that there’s no more McDonald’s…and then he breaks down.

Some things are just too large for us. Too big to be understood. But we can all boil them down to the small, bathetic little components of our lives, which is where we find room to identify.

And we move on from there. We learn. We grow. Not from grand lessons, but from small flickers of understanding that grow steadily into flame. We don’t decide to change. We are changed by things too small to see.

Pretty great episode, right?

Well, I rewatched it, and it turns out that I misremembered the entire thing. I had the details right…but not the episode’s actual approach.

It’s not played for drama. In fact, it’s the most deliberately silly episode Roseanne had yet done in its run. It’s full of corny jokes and big guffaws from the audience. It’s played as a comic event in the reality of the show, rather than a tragic one. The closest thing to actual sadness we find comes from Becky — whose insistence on naming the man is sincere — and, tellingly, the episode shuffles her away from nearly all of the action, so that it can concentrate on the laughs without cheapening her difficult feelings. They exist…they just exist off camera.

Even Jackie’s speech, which I typed above, feels to me like it should exist in a relatively dramatic episode, but the audience laughs through the entire thing. Every one of her sentences is funnier than the last. What I remembered as being an impressively profound moment for a primetime sitcom was…actually just another moment from a primetime sitcom. It was a series of jokes delivered by Jackie, building toward the bigger punchline from Roseanne: “How do you feel about electric shock therapy?”

And that’s…all it is.

I know that’s all it is, upon rewatching it, because I can gauge it against other episodes that prove Roseanne knows how to get the audience to take it seriously. Such as when Roseanne worries about Jackie’s safety when the latter decides to become a cop. Or when Darlene visits her cool aunt at home, to find her in a lonely, drunken stupor. Or when Dan ruins a night out by letting himself get drawn into a confrontation in a bar.

Roseanne does serious moments. And the moment I remembered as its most serious — the episode I remembered as its most serious — wasn’t serious at all. I remembered it as being Roseanne‘s version of “Death of a Salesman.” It was actually its version of “The Kipper and the Corpse.”

See, my site’s tagline isn’t really an exaggeration. I really have been reading too deeply into these things as long as I’ve been alive. And while I do think there’s value in viewing an episode like this through a more somber lens, if only to see which of its ideas holds true beyond their value as laughlines, the fact is that I remember this episode — “Death and Stuff,” season one, episode 21 — as essentially being of an entirely different genre.

It was interesting to me to watch it again, and see that I remembered just about every one of the trees, and yet somehow forgot the forest.

Have you had an experience like this? Has there ever been an episode or film or song or anything else that you remember being meaningful in some way, that you later discover was completely a projection from your own mind, and had little or nothing to do with what was actually presented?

I’d be curious to hear about more experiences like this.

And no, don’t anybody bring up the Berenstain / Berenstein Bears thing. Because that’s just fucking stupid.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 7, 1995)

August 21st, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in fight megaman - (3 Comments)

When Mega Man 6 was released on the NES, Mega Man X was already available on the SNES. Sure, it was only a difference of two months, but, as we discussed last time, the classic Mega Man series already felt quaint by comparison. If there was a compelling reason for it to continue alongside its new baby brother, Mega Man 6 didn’t seem to know what it was.

And so we had a gap. For the first time since the first sequel, more than one year passed without a new release in the classic Mega Man series. At the time, it probably felt like Mega Man was dead, with Mega Man X taking its place. It was probably a surprise, therefore, when Mega Man 7 another, unexpected classic series entry was released on the SNES, the home of its own successor.

I say “was probably a surprise” because I sure as heck didn’t know it existed. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I was still following video games, my attention was elsewhere. Mega Man 7 came and went without even making its presence known, much less piquing my interest.

If Mega Man 6 felt a bit late to the game because Mega Man X was already on shelves, Mega Man 7 must have felt downright ancient; by the time it came out the SNES already had Mega Man X2 and Mega Man X3. (If there was one tradition Capcom wanted to keep alive, it was series fatigue.) To ask us to take up arms against Dr. Wily again after three games in which we were fighting Sigma was to ask us to regress. To grow backward. To become, again, something we’ve already moved on from being.

It’s safe to say that Mega Man 7 failed in whatever halfhearted overture it might have been making to departed fans. I don’t doubt that people played it. I don’t doubt that some of them liked it. But I do doubt — conclusively so — that it made any kind of widespread impact the way earlier Mega Man games did, or the way Mega Man X games were making now. Mega Man 7 was orphaned before it was even born.

But I think that’s rather sad. Mega Man 7 is far from perfect, but I actually think it does a great job of evolving the classic formula for new hardware, it’s positively gorgeous to look at, and it’s one of the most fun games in the series. In fact, it’s one of my favorites.

There’s a charm to Mega Man 7 that doesn’t exist in many games. There’s the sense that, whatever it’s doing, it’s having fun…a sense that was entirely absent from the previous game. There’s the sense that it knows it’s a relic and that there’s nothing it can do to catch up, so it might as well enjoy itself.

Mega Man 7, I’m sure, was greenlit because it might as well have been. It was a relatively low investment of finances and resources to crank out a game with a proven formula. If it flopped, it wouldn’t flop terribly, and if it soared Capcom would be able to milk two series concurrently on the same system. The risk was low, and the bet was safe. I’m sure of that.

And so I’m under no misapprehension that Mega Man 7 was a labor of love, or even a game the developers especially believed in.

It was another installment, making its begrudging transition to the next console generation.

It was a decision born entirely of commercial greed, and not at all of artistic integrity.

And yet, the result was still pretty great, and one deserving of more celebration than I’ve ever actually seen it get.

The story is nothing unique, aside from an unexpectedly tight bit of continuity at the beginning: the newspaper reporting Wily’s arrest at the end of Mega Man 6 is shown here in a 16-bit upgrade, and his next batch of slumbering Robot Masters busts him out of prison. I don’t know if it was the X series’ stronger focus on narrative that inspired the developers to suddenly care about anything that happened before, but it’s a pretty nice and unexpected touch to see a deliberate bridge between the events of these two games.

Beyond that, though: eight Robot Masters, new special weapons, fortress stages, refights, Wily. The story is everything we expected, and nothing more.

In fact, it could be argued that it’s a bit less. The absence of a pre-Wily fortress leaves no room for the false-villain feint we’ve now come to expect. There’s no attempt to convince us that Dr. Cossack, Proto Man, or Mr. X is behind this mess; it’s Wily from the start, for the first time since Mega Man 2.

Is that a step backward, or a welcome return to simplicity? It’s hard to say, but since only one of these false-villain twists was interesting or any good (hello, Mega Man 4) I’d say we’re not losing much by cutting out the fluff.

Okay, yes, I know, nobody plays Mega Man for the story, so what I should really be taking into account is less the fact that we’re spared a false villain and more the fact that we’re losing an entire fortress worth of stages.

And that’s fair.

But, here’s the thing: I’m a quality over quantity kind of guy every time. I’d rather have a shorter game that’s tightly designed and rewarding to play than one that pads itself meaninglessly. Ideally, yes, we’d have a longer game that’s just as good or better than the shorter one, but we all know that a) that’s not the rule and b) Mega Man specifically struggles with that.

The “extra” stages between the Robot Masters and Dr. Wily’s fortress were never really all that great. A grand total of once (again, hey, good job, Mega Man 4!) were they fun to play, and the rest of the time they ranged from forgettable (Mega Man 5) to atrociously designed (Mega Man 3). And I’m not a fan of the fortress stages anyway; the more of them you have, the more the game’s balance shifts away from what should be its main attraction: the new Robot Masters.

For those reasons, I’m not just okay with losing an unwelcome batch of fortress stages; I encourage it. In theory. Because what I’d really hope for in exchange is a better batch of the fortress stages we do get. Ones that can be a little better honed and designed and refined because we just took a good chunk of levels off the designers’ plates.

And Mega Man 7 does not have very good fortress stages. But we’ll come back to that.

What really won me over about Mega Man 7 is the way it looks. In fact, the SNES is my favorite console from a visual standpoint. It offered a richer palette than the NES, leading to greater vibrancy and detail, as well as more expressive animations, but it was also still technically limited. Photorealism was so far out of its grasp that relatively few games tried to look realistic at all…which, happily, meant that video game artists actually had to develop an artistic direction.

Nowadays there are still, of course, visually striking games, but there’s no denying the fact that many of them, particularly those with larger budgets, just try to make things look real and move on. And that’s not art. That’s not style. That’s not creativity. Realism has its place and it has its merit, but it’s not interesting. When an artist instead chooses to create an entire visual universe, it gives the game more personality. More of an identity. And more, in my eyes, appeal.

When I think about the SNES (or the Super Nintendo, as we always knew it), I think first about the sharp, bright colors that brought familiar worlds and characters to life in such a new and unforgettable way. I loved Mario, but never in my wildest dreams could I have expected the visual feast that was Super Mario World. I loved Link, but how on Earth do you go back to The Legend of Zelda after seeing Hyrule in A Link to the Past? I loved Punch-Out!!, but Super Punch-Out!! made the cartoon boxers feel alive.

Turtles in Time, Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV…the list goes on, and I’m just naming series that found new life after moving on from the NES. Open it up to SNES originals and, of course, the list gets even longer.

SNES games were beautiful. Video games had never looked better, and, to this day, I think they’ve only rarely looked better. There’s little as appealing (or nostalgic) to me as the animated comic strips that were SNES games. And while I didn’t play Mega Man 7 at the peak of my love for the system, I sure appreciate it today.

Everything in this game just looks…beautiful. The sprites, the animations, the backgrounds…it feels very Saturday morning, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. For a series that always took itself with passive seriousness, the fact that it leans into cartooniness for this outing feels both refreshing and overdue. This is the first Mega Man game that asked, “Isn’t this eight-evil-robots premise just a little bit silly?” And then it responded in exactly the right way: “Yes, it sure is. Let’s have fun with it.”

As a result, the game is full of wonderful, charming flourishes. There are obvious ones, like the opening gag with Mega Man putting on the wrong helmet (emphasized by the boss select tune, which audibly gives up). But there are so many smaller things that are easy to overlook, too. There’s the way the walking-eye enemies reach the end of a platform and extend a leg just beyond where you think they should stop, feeling for solid ground. There’s Treble, Bass’ dog, growling at you at the end of the intro stage. There’s the Game Boy you can have Rush dig up at the beginning of Junk Man’s lair.

There’s the way Freeze Man will stand still as long as necessary, taunting you to make the first move. There’s the way Shade Man bows to show his respect. There’s the way you can hit Spring Man with the Thunder Bolt to turn him into a powerful electromagnet.

There’s just so much love here. So many unnecessary little details and moments that lend the game an air of specific significance, and make it feel like more than the seventh entry in a series that’s overstayed its welcome.

The move to 16-bit hardware, though, was bound to bring with it a visual upgrade. So, yes, as much as I truly adore the way Mega Man 7 looks, I have to admit that that was kind of a given. What impresses me is that the series — admittedly dragging its feet through the past couple of games — didn’t allow the new coat of paint to be the primary selling point.

The visual refresh must have triggered a surge of developmental creativity as well, because Mega Man 7 is the most innovative game in the series since Mega Man 3 in terms of how much new it does. Whether or not you like the things Mega Man 7 brings to the table is down to personal preference, but there’s no denying that it did innovate, and that its innovations stuck around.

We listed most of this game’s innovations in the last installment (Bass, Auto, two sets of four Robot Masters, intro and midpoint stages, screws as currency, shop) but what’s really interesting is that a number of these stuck around right through the NES style rebirth games Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10. Those, as you’ll remember, hit a deliberate reset to restore the series to its simple, accessible roots, most notably stripping Mega Man of his slide and chargeable Buster. And yet the screws, shop, Bass, and Auto all remained part of the formula as so much else was taken away.

In fact, in terms of game mechanics, the shop is Mega Man 7‘s most lasting impression on the series, and it’s an important one. I honestly don’t think many players would have beaten Mega Man 9 without it.

On the whole, Mega Man controls as tightly here as ever. It sometimes feels to me as though he’s moving more slowly, but that might be an illusion caused by the additional frames of animation, all of which are gorgeous and smooth, and the tradeoff for which — if, indeed, there’s any tradeoff at all — is very much worth it.

One common complaint I’ve heard is about Mega Man’s increased sprite size, but that’s something I’ve never been able to understand. People speak about this change as though the levels and enemy placements aren’t designed around his larger size, but they clearly are, as any given screenshot will illustrate.

Sure, he takes up more space than he did in his NES days, but that’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s only bad if the levels are packed as full of obstacles, baddies, and projectiles as they used to be. Which they clearly are not.

Instead, the enemy placement in Mega Man 7 feels more considered and deliberate. While previous games would throw waves of enemies at you — sometimes respawning ones — and attempt to catch you off guard with quick intrustions from off screen, Mega Man 7 usually gives you just one or two to deal with at a time. Rarely do they come in waves, and when they do, they’re part of a well-considered setpiece. (See the elevator rides in the Junk Man and Shade Man stages, or the flatbed miniboss in Turbo Man’s.) In short, as much as I love the earlier games, they sometimes tossed you into hectic situations for the sake of causing carelessness through panic.

That’s not a complaint; that’s part of their design. But, here, the philosophy is much different: a smaller number of enemies, used to a more considered effect. No longer does the game want to overwhelm you; it wants to outwit out. And Mega Man’s increased sprite size facilitates that. It makes the levels feel less empty than they actually are, because you see less of the screen at once. All you really need to be aware of is Mega Man himself and the most immediate hazard. The design of the game allows that, and I honestly believe that if you disagree, you’re not engaging with the game properly. If you really feel as though there’s too little room to accomplish what you need to accomplish, you’re trying to accomplish it the wrong way.

What’s more, the larger sprites make for, I feel, more compelling boss fights. We’ve spoken before about the central idea of the series being that of the duel…the one-on-one battle that takes place at the end of each main level, when you square off against a Robot Master and pit your reflexes and cunning against his. (Or, in one case, hers.)

The larger sprites enhance this experience, making it feel more like a genuine clash between powerhouses than two sets of pixels shooting at each other. The Robot Masters here aren’t the best in the series — which is a shame, because I really wish they were — but the fights with each of them feel significant in a way that they rarely did in the previous games.

There, they were bosses. Here, they are opponents, and I honestly feel that’s due to the increase in sprite size. It makes the boss rooms feel more tensely claustrophobic, and makes the bosses feel unique since they dwarf almost any of the enemies you had to fight on your way to them. (To choose an example at random, Wood Man was about the same size or smaller than most of the enemies in his stage. Even the wimpy Spring Man here, though, is bigger than anything that got in your way before.)

As a bigger sprite you are a bigger target, but that goes for your enemy as well, and no Robot Master in Mega Man 7 feels unfairly quick or difficult to avoid. The closest violation would be Slash Man, but even he isn’t anywhere near as unfair as Quick Man or Shadow Man from the previous games.

I won’t lie; I’m terrible against Slash Man. But I’m also aware that most of the damage I take is down to my own poor (or slow) choices. He rains pods of adhesive down upon you, and if one connects, you’ll find your mobility compromised, giving him a clearer shot at you. But you can nearly always dodge these pods if you’re quick enough, which keeps you on a fairly even footing with him. The rest of the time, you can just jump, shoot, and react to him as you would any other boss. Quick Man and Shadow Man, by contrast, begin their assaults the moment you walk through the boss doors and don’t ever let up.

Slash Man is also one of the few Robot Masters here that isn’t absolutely crippled by his weakness. And, overall, that’s one of Mega Man 7‘s problems.

In previous games, weaknesses were handled pretty well. Fighting a boss with the Buster was some degree of difficult, and fighting them with their weakness reduced that degree*, but usually not by much. They’d still put up a fight, and you couldn’t afford to get totally careless. All the weakness would do is deal a bit more damage than usual.

Mega Man 7, though, pushes it too far. Instead of an option between a normal fight and a slightly easier one, you get the option between a normal fight and no fight at all. The Robot Masters are so overcome by their weaknesses that they become immobilized, trapped in an easily exploitable pattern, or both. In short, once you know a Robot Master’s weakness, you can afford to get totally careless.

At least, usually. There are two exceptions, which is a relief. One of them, again, is Slash Man, who is probably the best handling of a weakness in this game. Not only is he often out of range of the Freeze Cracker, but if you hit him with it he’ll slide around on the ground, and can cause contact damage that way. This is nice, because it adds a small element of alternate risk to the fight. Yes, you can use his weakness, but if you do you’ll have to deal with an additional obstacle.

The other exception is Freeze Man, who is necessarily risky to fight with his weakness as it’s a shield weapon.** Hitting him with the Junk Shield briefly locks him in place, but it also leaves you with very little room to avoid colliding with him. This is a blessing in disguise, though, as this encourages you to use the Buster against him, and Freeze Man is legitimately one of the most satisfying Robot Masters to fight that way.

At first, he seems to be a bit more frantic than fair, and his ability to freeze you to the spot and knock on you helplessly makes him feel like a frustrating bully. But if you spend a few rounds focusing not on attacking but on responding, you’ll learn how he moves. You’ll learn that his attacks come in a predictable cycle. You’ll learn that he jumps high enough when you fire at him that you can slide harmlessly underneath. You’ll learn, in other words, that this is a dance, and you have to let him lead.

Once you learn the proper way to deal with each of his actions, it’s an extraordinarily graceful fight, and one of the highlights of the entire series for me. It’s surprisingly beautiful in motion, and it’s clear that the programmers spent a lot of time honing the choreography of that fight into something complex and layered.

The developers also seem to have had their creative juices refreshed when it came to the stages. Granted, you had relatively standard air (Cloud Man) and ice (Freeze Man) stages, and we have an upgraded version of the junkyard we saw back in Mega Man 4 (Junk Man), but those each have their unique quirks and the remaining stages are like nothing we’ve seen before.

Turbo Man’s stage is a fire-tinged car factory. Burst Man’s stage imbues its color-coded water sections with two entirely different sets of physics. Then we get to the really good stuff.

Slash Man’s level is a stage-long tribute to Jurassic Park, a movie that was released two years before the game and loomed very large in the cultural consciousness of the time. It’s crawling with robot dinosaurs, which is cute in itself, and you journey from the electrified perimeter fence all the way to the hatchery and lab at the park’s (presumed) center. We haven’t gotten a dinosaur-themed or movie-themed level since, and that makes Slash Man’s stand out.

Then there’s Spring Man’s stage, my favorite in the game, with its incredibly bouncy and sprightly theme to underscore an incredibly bouncy and sprightly level. The stage is toy-themed, which is something else we hadn’t seen before. (Though Top Man may come close.) Much of the challenge here comes from keeping control of Mega Man, who is sent reeling by springs in the walls, ceilings, and floors, as well as teaching yourself the ins and outs of each new platform type. (Almost as though you’re getting to play with some new toys of your own, hm?) It also contains a surprisingly wide-open room at about its midpoint which scrolls in all directions and offers multiple paths from the entrance to the exit. It’s a nice bit of non-linearity in a series that has never quite embraced the concept, and it makes Spring Man’s stage feel all the more fun for it. It is, quite literally, a playground.

But my favorite stage concept goes to Shade Man, whose horror-themed level is such a perfect fit for the series that one has to wonder why we never got another one. (Skull Man himself may fit the bill, but his stage does not.)

Shade Man’s stage is full of horror cliche to the point that it’s impossible not to have fun there. There are implements of torture, the dead rising from the grave, humanoids transforming by moonlight into wolves, zombies crashing through windows as you blast them and try to keep from getting overwhelmed…it’s wonderful, and the fact that its roots even stretch into literature — the cackling raven tormenting you from above — is evidence of just how committed this level is to its gimmick. There is a secret button combination that lets you hear the graveyard theme from Capcom’s own Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts as you play, which is nice…but Shade Man’s theme is also the best one in the game, so it’s a shame that this trick tempts players away from listening to it. (Though I’ll put my neck on the line and say that the soundtrack overall is pretty fantastic.)

On the whole the Robot Masters are…pretty lame, I admit. It’s a shame that the series only made the leap to the SNES at this point; a few games sooner and we might have had Robot Masters that really deserved the enhanced presence. The only ones that stand out to me in any substantial way are Cloud Man and Shade Man. The former due to his (at the time) unique legless design, which makes him legitimately look like a climate control robot as opposed to a climate-themed robot, and the latter due to his gentlemanly manner and interesting attack pattern. It’s nowhere near as complex or rewarding as Freeze Man’s, but reacting to Shade Man can be tricky, and his ability to suck life from your health bar into his own lends the fight a whole other kind of stakes.***

But where the Robot Masters fall down, the special weapons pick up. In fact, I’d venture to argue that this was the best batch of weapons in the series so far.

Of our new toys, only one really feels disappointing: the Scorch Wheel. It’s sluggish to fire, awkward to aim, and not especially powerful. It’s pretty lousy, and never worth using outside of the one area in Slash Man’s stage that lets you burn some foliage to find Beat. I think it says a lot that Dr. Wily’s final form is usually weak to the most cumbersome weapon in the game, but Mega Man 7 knew that asking you to hit him with the Scorch Wheel was unconscionable.

The Wild Coil is also pretty crap. It fires two springs at once — one before you and one behind you — and you can vary their bounce height. There’s not much to it and it’s not especially useful, but it works well enough against Shade Man, as you can just launch one as he swoops in to grab you. It’s a good defense that doubles as offense.

Then there a couple of pretty good weapons. The Freeze Cracker is a large projectile that splits into shards when it hits a surface. It can also be aimed slightly up or down, which sounds more useful than it actually is. It’s essentially a slower, larger version of the Shotgun Ice from Mega Man X, but it’s still a decent weapon here. It also freezes cloud platforms, freezes lava, and allows you to trigger a snowstorm in Cloud Man’s stage.

The Danger Wrap is an explosive encased in a bubble, which can absorb enemies and allow you to shove them into other enemies, which makes it pretty fun to play with. You can also encase otherwise invincible enemies and knock them harmlessly out of your way, and you can drop the explosive without a bubble by pressing Down as you launch it. It has a lot of use.

Then we get to the great stuff. The Noise Crush is a sonic weapon that bounces off of walls, allowing you to absorb it and fire it back even stronger. You can’t power the projectile up more than once, and the necessity of having a wall available means it’s not always the best option, but it’s a lot of fun to play with and a great weapon once you’re used to using it. You can also fire it and quickly slide into it to avoid having to rebound it back into yourself, but that’s more of a novelty than any real boon to its usefulness. Great weapon, though, and one of the most fun to experiment with.

Next there’s the Junk Shield, the single best shield weapon in the entire series. Of course, “best shield weapon” just means it’s extremely durable, so I’d be lying if I said it was exciting. But it is nice to finally get a shield worth pulling out.

The Thunder Bolt is a powerful electric attack that splits into two projectiles and travels up and down when it hits something. It’s another Mega Man X echo, being very similar to the Electric Spark from that game. Here it can also be used to energize machinery, trigger thunderstorms and lightning, and unintentionally power up two bosses. It’s a really great weapon, but it’s still not my favorite.

No. My favorite weapon is the Slash Claw. Now that is a close-quarters weapon worth using…a first for the series. (And if it weren’t for the Flame Sword, it would be the last as well.)

The Slash Claw is very satisfying to use, and it actually encourages you to play the game a bit differently. It’s extremely powerful, but it requires you to get within arm’s reach of dangerous enemies. Do you trade away distance for power and showmanship? Hell yes I do, and while it predates any substantial role for Wily’s masterpiece, playing Mega Man 7 with the Slash Claw reminds me of playing some of the Mega Man X games as Zero. Sure, you can pick off enemies from a distance…or you can get right up in their face and slash them to bits. There’s a reason Zero is such a popular character, and it’s the exact same reason the Slash Claw feels so good to keep equipped. Its only downside is that we can’t get it until we’re halfway through the game.

In addition to being perhaps the best overall batch of weapons, these are also the most versatile. Nearly all of them allow you to fine tune the attack in some way and serve as a utility. To refer to Mega Man 9 pressing the reset button again, it’s worth noting that the weapons were more in line with what we see in Mega Man 7 than with what we’ve seen in any previous game. Mega Man 9‘s weapons also pulled double duty, functioning as tools just as you see here. They don’t just make fighting easier; they make traversing levels easier.

Another welcome change is the fact that the boss weaknesses feel logical again. Perhaps this is helped along a bit by the additional frames of animation, which make it more clear why a Robot Master is reacting to your weapon the way he is. Additionally, though, you can reason them through fairly easily. Cloud Man is weak to the Danger Wrap because it floats up and encases him, bringing him crashing to the ground. Junk Man’s exposed wiring short circuits when he’s hit with the Thunder Bolt. Slash Man freezes solid when hit with the Freeze Cracker, like a Cro-Magnon man waiting to be thawed and studied. That resonates thematically with his stage, which is brilliant.

The weapons also lend themselves to minor environmental puzzles, none of which are mandatory and few of which, admittedly, are satisfying to figure out. But it encourages experimentation in a way that previous games in the series did not; there, you’d just try to figure out which weapon worked best against which enemy. Here it’s up to you to determine which objects and obstacles can be interacted with, as well as the tool that will allow you to do it.

Of course, the game isn’t perfect. And I can identify more true flaws in it than I can in most games that I love. For instance, there’s the Robot Museum mid-stage, which was clearly abandoned at some early point in its development. The evidence there comes from its lovely music, which mashes up songs from previous Mega Man games and doesn’t nearly get the chance to play fully before you make it to the boss. It’s a song composed for a decent stretch of level, but what we actually get is just a few empty rooms.

The concept of revisiting past Mega Man experiences in museum environment is a solid and interesting one, but evidently the team didn’t have time to make good on it here. The concept would be revisited to far greater effect in Mega Man & Bass.

Oh, and, hey, speaking of Bass…Bass is introduced in this game! He’s a genuinely great character, and one I’m glad has remained with the series since. However, he’s symptomatic, I think, of another problem.

After all, he’s a recurring foil for Mega Man, popping up a handful of times to fight him and hold him back from Dr. Wily. He’s an ethically murky character with allegiance that seems to shift throughout his appearances. He serves as a test of what you’ve learned, and a gate you’ll have to pass several times in order to complete your mission.

Do you have it yet?

That’s right; Bass has taken on the Proto Man role.

Which is a shame, because Proto Man was a rich and intriguing character. After Mega Man 3, however, the series didn’t know what to do with him. In Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5 he was almost entirely off camera and the player never interacted with him. In Mega Man 6 and some of the Game Boy games he was relegated to Eddie’s role, dropping off an item and beaming out into irrelevance. In this game he’ll drop in to give you some hints.

It’s strange, and while there is an optional Proto Man fight in this game, I’m sad that they had to introduce an entirely different character to fulfill what was largely the role he originally occupied. In other words, I like Bass but I sure wish we didn’t need him.

Another odd choice is the dialogue section that follows each Robot Master fight. Mega Man and Dr. Light chitchat for a bit about whatever weapon you just got, and that’s nice. I prefer weapon demonstrations to weapon narrations, but since the demonstrations in Mega Man 6 were utterly worthless, I can’t blame them for trying something different.

The problem is that the conversations omit fairly important information. For instance, they doesn’t mention that the Freeze Cracker can be aimed, that the Danger Wrap can be fired without its bubble, or that the Junk Shield can be launched at will. That may have been purposeful, leaving a bit of room for experimentation and discovery on the part of the player, but in that case I think it would have been better to go with no explanation at all.

When we do get explanation, we assume that’s it; if Dr. Light says that the Freeze Cracker shatters when it hits a wall, we assume that that’s all it does. Why wouldn’t we? He would have said more if it did more, so we don’t experiment with pressing Up and Down while we fire it. On the other hand, had Dr. Light said nothing at all and left us to figure it out, we may well have. I think the solution Mega Man 7 came up with actually hinders rather than encourages that experimentation.

Also, I’ve heard that the Japanese version has dialogue between Auto and Roll, during which they make jokes about the weapons. I’m a bit surprised that was excised from the Western release, as it would have fit quite well with the cartoony approach of the game and the elevated presence both of those characters have here. It’s a shame we missed out on that.

I’m also not a fan of splitting the Robot Masters into two sets of four. In addition to forcing me to cobble together a decent stage select image for the start of this article (look forward to that tradition vanishing next time…), it makes guessing weaknesses so much easier.

In, say, Mega Man 2, you’d defeat one Robot Master and get a new weapon. Your odds of blindly choosing the Robot Master who is weak to that weapon is 1:7. In Mega Man 7, you’re more than twice as likely; the odds are 1:3. That’s a huge difference, and it’s even more stark when you have two weapons. Mega Man 2 could keep you guessing for hours. Mega Man 7 reduces the fun of correctly identifying your next target, and I’m not sure that the four-and-four arrangement offers any benefits of its own to negate that.

Of course, it could offer a benefit of its own: the fact that the developers can design levels in the second set that hinge on items the player will have acquired in the first set. That would have been a nice twist but, alas, they don’t do it here. That’s one of very few areas in which Mega Man 8 actually improves upon its predecessor, as the stages of Sword Man and Search Man are designed exactly that way.

And then there are the fortress stages, which feel like an enormous step down from the Robot Master stages in terms of fun.

I know I don’t speak much about fortress stages and Dr. Wily fights in these reviews, but that’s because there’s usually very little to say. They’re gauntlets, the bosses are enormous, and Wily is a cheap punk. Here they’re even less fun than usual, especially since Dr. Wily’s final form is extremely powerful and very difficult to avoid. It’s a rare Mega Man fight that’s truly designed terribly, and the only way a reasonable player will complete it is by draining E-Tank after E-Tank. You’ll eventually succeed, sure, but you’ll never feel like you’ve earned it.

Still, though, for all the bad I can say about it, I love Mega Man 7. Anything negative you’ll read above is the result of nitpicking. On the whole, it’s one of the best of the series, and one of the best games in the incredible SNES library. It gets strangely overlooked, and I’m not sure why. It’s clearly of a piece with the rest of the classic series, and yet its visual novelty alone helps it stand apart. It’s an experience worth having in its own right, in all of its colorful, bouncy, addictive glory.

Mega Man 7 doesn’t quite offer a compelling argument for this series and Mega Man X to exist in parallel. In fact, if anything, it reminds us which series is less inventive, which series is more at home in the past than the future, which series the fans have already moved on from.

But I’m still glad it exists. And I’m glad I took the time to engage with it.

And I really, really wish we had two games in this style, rather than two in the style of Mega Man 8.

Speaking of which…well, tune in next time.

Best Robot Master: Shade Man
Best Stage: Spring Man
Best Weapon: Slash Claw
Best Theme: Shade Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6

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

—–
* At least, in theory. I actually think many Robot Masters are easier to fight with the Buster than with their weaknesses. From the games we’ve covered so far alone: Cut Man, Guts Man, Fire Man, Metal Man, Crash Man, Heat Man, Top Man, Toad Man, Ring Man, Dive Man, Wave Man, Stone Man, Tomahawk Man, and Freeze Man.

** Granted, you can fire the Junk Shield, but only at angles that are difficult to predict. I don’t know that I’ve ever successfully hit him that way.

*** Ahem.

My Top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd Episodes

August 6th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in internet | listomania | video games - (1 Comments)

This past Friday, James Rolfe — best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd — published a video featuring his personal top 10 episodes of that series. By this point, I’ve seen every episode…multiple times, in the cases of the ones I liked. Yes, I’d argue that the quality has gone downhill in recent years, but his top 10 video, I think, explains why: the episodes James names as his favorites are actually the ones that I’d probably name as my least favorites.

His desires aren’t in line with mine. He likes story lines and special effects and external zaniness. I like reviews. Sometimes they dovetail well, sometimes they don’t. He seems to like it when they don’t.

Which made me wonder about my top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd episodes. And as I’m moving this week, I figured this might be a fun post to leave you with, in case I lose internet access for a while.

For the purposes of this list, I did consider multi-part episodes (in which a game or series is covered in more than one sequential video) to be one review, but treated sequel episodes as their own entities. Otherwise, this should be pretty straightforward. Oh, and, there’s no Mike Matei to be found in the entire list. Funny how that worked out.

So, here you go. My personal top 10 episodes of a video game review show that’s shockingly been running almost as long as I’ve been online. I hope you enjoy.

10) Indiana Jones Trilogy

Episode 48: Like James, I’m starting my list with what I’d consider to be a “standard” episode. And I’m not really sure why this one keeps coming to mind, so if you’d like to, feel free to sub it out for The Simpsons, Dracula, Spider-Man or something. But the Indiana Jones Trilogy episode does a great job of providing exactly what I want to see when I tune in. The games are reviewed comprehensively, the observations are well made, the jokes are funny, and James has a clear and obvious love for the source material. (Well, the films at least. The odds of him having much love for these particular games are pretty slim.) What’s more, he reviews three related games, which I always love. Videos featuring multiple games will make up a lot of this list. While one-game reviews are often very good, I think I enjoy the variety of hopping around within a singular theme. Also, I enjoy videos about these middle-of-the-road bad games. The ones that aren’t worth playing for laughs on your own, but still provide plenty of fodder for comedy from a distance.

9) Action 52 / Cheetahmen

Episodes 90 and 91: Fruit doesn’t hang any lower than Action 52, but the sheer volume of crap crammed into a single cartridge really does make it worth revisiting over and over. Many game critics got to this one long before James did, but there’s still a lot of entertainment on display here. In fact, his skits and jokes don’t make this one at all; rather, the game humiliates itself by failing to load, throwing up glitch after glitch, and even preventing itself from progressing. Action 52 is an easy target, but a fruitful one. It’s a funny game to watch anyone play, and it’s only right that angry reviewing’s elder statesman got to take his jabs as well. The second part completes the review but it also looks at the Genesis version and Cheetahmen II, so it’s absolutely necessary to see them as halves of a complete whole. For what it’s worth, I actually did play Action 52 as a kid. A friend of mine owned it, and part of the appeal of James’ video, I think, is the marathon plow through game after game that reflects my exact experience of it at my friend’s house. Surely one of these games will have to be good…

8) Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties

Episode 74: Easily one of the out-and-out funniest episodes. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is more of a terrible amateur film than it is a game, but that just means James has a wealth of different things to criticize it for. Due to the nature of the game, this feels more like a truncated Let’s Play than a proper review, but it’s absolutely hilarious. This one has been a favorite of mine since it was first uploaded. It doesn’t advance the AVGN formula or do anything especially unique, but it’s one of James’ most successful comic outings in my opinion, and for that reason alone it deserves a place on this list.

7) Street Fighter 2010

Episode 85: There’s a lot to love about this one. It covers multiple games, provides an interesting history of the Street Fighter franchise, and it gives a relatively unknown game (by Capcom NES standards) a spotlight it surprisingly ends up deserving. But I think what I really love about it and what makes it stand out in my mind is that it serves as a perfect illustration of what kept us playing these extremely difficult, often unfair, relentlessly punishing video games. James starts off predictably enough, complaining about the controls, the difficulty, and the absurdly tenuous connection to the Street Fighter name. But then something clicks. Sure, the game in many ways sort of sucks…but it’s overall compelling enough to keep him coming back. He pushes through, gradually. He engages with the game on its own terms, even as he lambastes those terms. He doesn’t just learn how to complete a level, but how to complete it quickly, without taking damage, and while collecting all of the powerups. Why? Because you have to, otherwise you can’t finish the game. Obviously James has (rightly) given up on many games in the past. He reaches a roadblock or finds some reason to call it quits, and you can’t blame him. So for Street Fighter 2010, which certainly seems like one of the most difficult games he’s ever played, it says an awful lot that he actually takes the time to finish it. In doing so, he reminds us of what we’ve all gone through. It likely wasn’t Street Fighter 2010 for most of us. It may have been Mega Man. Or Battletoads. But we all had those moments, when we cursed at a game, hated a game, raged against a game’s refusal to play fair…and yet fell in love anyway. A truly great episode.

6) Back to the Future ReRevisited

Episode 94: The earliest AVGN episodes (or Angry Nintendo Nerd episodes, I should say) were great for what they were. I remember watching them with my friend Mike, who couldn’t believe what he had found. I couldn’t believe it, either. Almost nothing James was saying about those old games was new or even especially insightful, but for the first time it felt like the frustrating experiences we had as kids were actually universal, and somewhere out there, some guy in a white buttondown was profanely articulating them on our behalf. It was a riot, especially because there was nothing else like it at the time. It felt genuinely novel. But, of course, James’ style progressed, and watching those old episodes, it’s easy to see their rough edges and puzzling omissions. James saw it, too, and used this episode to re-review those games, paving over the holes and fleshing out criticisms he’d barely scraped before. The centerpiece is Back to the Future on the NES, which somehow provides even more material than he wrung from it the first time around…and we get proper looks at other Back to the Future games as well. What I really love, though, is the ending. As often as James tries to cram actual narrative into these episodes — and as often as I’d argue it fails — sometimes a real-world twist like what we get here achieves more than careful scripting ever could.

5) Virtual Boy

Episode 42: My absolute favorite kind of AVGN episode. This one looks at something that’s not obscure, exactly, but which relatively few viewers will be personally familiar with. James provides a history lesson, places the product in its proper context, and reviews every single one of the games released for it. (Initially he left out Jack Bros., but I’m linking to a later version of the video that includes it.) The Virtual Boy was a high-profile failure, and probably the first true stumble for Nintendo…a company that in so many young eyes — mine included — could do no wrong. I sensed something was off as a kid, and the Virtual Boy was probably the first thing Nintendo ever made that I didn’t want at all. Watching this video, I see that I didn’t miss out on much. Surprisingly, most of the games turn out to be either fun or inoffensive, leaving the hardware itself to shoulder the blame for the system’s failure. Many of the best AVGN episodes teach me something beyond “the controls in this game are bad.” This one provided a great overview of a gaming curiosity I only ever experienced in the periphery. Eventually I did get to play a Virtual Boy at a convention, and I was actually impressed with how well it handled the 3D effect. But as this episode demonstrates, the gimmick failed to justify the machine’s existence. James’ video provides a perfect eulogy.

4) Godzilla

Episode 77: A friend of mine isn’t a huge fan of the AVGN, but he does enjoy James’ other big series: Monster Madness. He says this is because James has a real knowledge of and passion for cinema…and I’d say the same thing about my friend, so I’m willing to believe it. Monster Madness used to be a yearly series that would run every October. It’s been discontinued, but every so often James’ clear love of film bleeds into an AVGN episode. This may be the prime example, as he’s able to identify obscure characters from these Godzilla video games and trace their cinematic histories…including characters who didn’t even originate with that series. The whole “licensed games are garbage” thing is well worn by this point, but I think an episode on garbage Godzilla games is deserved. After all, why wouldn’t Godzilla games be awesome? He’s a giant monster who smashes things. How hard could it be to make a fun game based on that? You’d have to actively try to make them lousy by stripping away the very essence of who Godzilla is and what Godzilla does. Sure enough, every game the AVGN covers here does exactly that in its own way. And James’ frustration and disappointment in that fact feels far more natural here than it does in so many other episodes, as he clearly cares about the franchise…and just wanted one game he could enjoy along with the films.

3) Ghostbusters

Episodes 21, 22, and 23: I remember thinking the very first AVGN episodes were nothing if not exhaustive. Then we got a three part episode about Ghostbusters on the NES and I realized I hadn’t seen anything yet. Ghostbusters, like Godzilla, seems like a can’t-miss video game premise. You have popular and recognizable heroes, awesome gear that every little boy wanted desperately to get his hands on, and an opportunity to create fun and inventive ghosts for players to shoot at. And, like Godzilla, Ghostbusters went out of its way to miss. It’s an extremely strong concept for a game that is botched spectacularly. The three-part nature of this episode may sound like overkill, but it makes sense to me. It implies a “can’t look away” sort of reaction to the game, which mirrors the one I had as a kid. Yes, Ghostbusters was terrible…but I kept renting it. Kept playing it. Kept hating it. All the while, I guess I couldn’t believe my eyes. I returned over and over again to the game, hoping for it to finally click. Hoping it would reveal itself as the great game I knew it should have been. Hoping I’d realize that I was just playing it incorrectly, or looking for the wrong things. With this series of videos, the AVGN lets go of that hope with a comprehensive review, suggestions for improvement, a look at the game’s many ports, and reviews of other Ghostbusters games to cleanse the palate.

2) Bible Games

Episode 17: The AVGN’s first masterpiece, for sure. The videos prior to this were often funny and were absolutely novel for their time, but this is the video that, in my estimation, made it clear that the concept had staying power. Laying into a good portion of the Wisdom Tree catalog, James spotlights exactly what’s wrong with these offensively lazy Christian cash-ins, approaching them almost entirely from a game-design standpoint and leaving the viewer to decide how true or genuine the didactic intentions of the developers were. Did they truly feel they were saving souls? Or were they just counting on parents to throw money their way without knowing better? The answer’s pretty clear to me, but James does a great job of highlighting his own sampling of absurdities, leaving it to you to pick up on the rest. This one is still and will always be an easy favorite. James dipped back into the Bible games well a few times since, but in my estimation, none of the sequel episodes rise quite to the highs of the original. (Bible Games 2 came pretty close, though.) Taken as a relic of a time when “the NES had Bible games” was a genuine and hilarious revelation, this video is great. Familiarity has dulled its edge a bit, but there’s still a great deal of fun to be had from watching. This is one of those “often imitated, never duplicated” situations, and Bible Games is exactly what every angry reviewer to follow (including yours truly) strove to measure up to.

1) Castlevania

Episodes 79, 80, 81, and 82: The very first AVGN episode was about Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, kicking off this surprisingly long-running series with a look back at the archetypal game James wished he could love. 78 episodes later, he returned to that series with a four-part retrospective that isn’t just my favorite AVGN material, but which is easily some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I end up rewatching this miniseries around Halloween every year, and I enjoy it a little more each time. The jokes and observations are good, of course, but what really pushes it over the top and makes it worth revisiting is James’ profound love for the series, and for classic horror films in general. He makes the most of his shtick, of course, but this is probably the closest we get to hearing from the “real” person beneath the persona, with his memories of the first five Castlevania games, his later experience of the games on other consoles, and a well-earned paean to the series that closes the entire thing off perfectly. I understand that James and I appreciate different things about his output, but the fact that this didn’t make his top 10 is astounding. I don’t know how the AVGN will eventually end his series, but I’m confident he couldn’t possibly go out on a higher note than this.

What are your favorites? Anything you’d especially disagree with above? I’d be curious to know. Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon!

Vintage Sesame Place swag and memories

July 31st, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | personal | television - (5 Comments)

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.


The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 6, 1993)

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in fight megaman - (7 Comments)

I like junk.

I really do. I like terrible movies and television shows and music and video games. While I have less patience for them overall, I even like some bad novels.

What I’d like to convey by saying this is the fact that I don’t mind turning over some sliver of my life to a piece of art that, by all accounts, doesn’t deserve it. I actually enjoy that. There’s a giddy thrill that comes from watching the wheels fall off. That comes from the complete breakdown of what should be an elegant machine. That comes from watching a pile of disparate components continuously fail to connect.

I like bad things. You’ve seen me gush about many of them here, and when I worked for Nintendo Life, I earned a reputation for it. When a seemingly bad game came along, it was assigned to me almost without fail. This is both because they knew I’d find enjoyment with it when most others couldn’t, but also because they could count on me to engage with it respectfully. To dig through the muck in search of something worth talking about. Often, I found only more muck. But sometimes I’d find merit where nobody expected it, and I’d get to show that off to the skeptics. That, to me, made it worth the investment of my time and attentions.

I think the appeal of failed art is an instructive one. Many of my friends don’t have the interest or patience required to watch a movie they know will be a wreck, and I understand that. But my creative friends — the ones who write, or paint, or compose, or make films of their own — are the ones that do enjoy it. Oddly, the more invested you are in producing works you can be proud of, the more interested you are in observing failure.

That’s not a negative impulse, necessarily. While sniping criticism can come from a place of nastiness, I hope mine never does. I hope it comes, rather, from the active desire to analyze, forensically, what went wrong. To, yes, laugh at the sillier missteps, but also to think critically about art. About the missing connections, the faulty components, the same decisions that worked in one place being embarrassing elsewhere. About, as one of rock’s finest musicians once put it, the fine line between stupid and clever.

It’s fun to pull these things apart, but it’s also creatively important to do so. Like literal autopsies, dissecting these corpses gives us a better understanding of what happened — or failed to happen — and can help us, as creators ourselves, to avoid similar fates for our works. And, of course, they help us to appreciate the art that does work…the films that surprise, the novels that move, the music that changes who we are, the video games that make the mechanical press of a button feel like an urgent and compelling adventure.

All of this is to say that I like junk.

And I still don’t like Mega Man 6.

Mega Man 6 is a bad game. It’s not just bad by Mega Man standards; it’s a fairly lousy experience even removed from comparison with its five far superior predecessors.

It’s not a fun kind of bad. There’s nothing worth a chuckle, no heady “Did that really just happen?” moments, and no especially interesting creative missteps worth untangling. (We’d have to wait another two games for that.)

In short, Mega Man 6 isn’t The Room. Instead, it’s more like a dull documentary about a subject of no interest to anybody. And that’s the problem. The issue isn’t that Mega Man 6 is bad…the issue is that it allows itself to be boring. Perhaps, rightly, the cardinal sin of gaming.

It’s also the first Mega Man game I didn’t play on release. I knowingly let this one pass me by. While it’s tempting, then, to dismiss my dislike of the game because I merely lack nostalgia for it, I can promise you that’s not the reason. I didn’t play Mega Man 7 on release, either, but in the next installment you’ll see that I have a lot of nice things to say about it.

No, I don’t dislike Mega Man 6 because I can’t don my rosy spectacles. I dislike it because it’s kinda awful.

I remember when it came out. I was still an avid reader of Nintendo Power, and I saw it advertised there. And, for the first time, I didn’t have any interest in playing a Mega Man game.

I don’t remember enough about its coverage in that magazine to say why, but I do remember looking over the slate of new Robot Masters and feeling…nothing.

Had I outgrown the series? Maybe. We let go of childish things, and year by year our definition of “childish” evolves. Maybe the promise of guiding Mega Man through another eight duels just felt…beneath me. Then again, I was 13 when this was released, so it’s not like I had much concept of intellectual stimulation.

It may have been different in the game’s native Japan, but I don’t think there were many American children who took a look at an enemy roster that contained Yamato Man and thought, “Yes, I need to play this.”

I also remember seeing an image of this game’s central villain, Mr. X. And, to be totally frank, that made the game feel even lazier than a sixth installment should have felt. The previous two games already pulled the same trick…leading us to believe that Wily wasn’t behind the chaos, only to reveal that, yes, he was. Those games, though, at least tried to give us a relatively convincing decoy: Dr. Cossack and Proto Man, either of whom, for all we knew, could have been the bad guy.

Mega Man 6 attempts the same shtick for the third time running, and isn’t convincing at all. Mr. X is very clearly Dr. Wily in Groucho glasses. It was embarrassing, even when I was much younger, to look at a piece of promotional art and immediately figure out the game’s big surprise.

I was a dumb kid. If I figured it out, you had a dumb twist.

And so the game didn’t really look like it was trying very hard. I didn’t feel compelled to try any harder. I let it pass.

Additionally, I think I had a lack of interest in the game for the same reason many others did: the Super Nintendo had already been out for three years by the time we got this game. Just about anyone with an interest in the medium had long moved on from the NES, and the sixth installment of a decidedly rigid franchise wasn’t about to bring us back.

More to the point, Mega Man had moved on, as well. Mega Man 6 was released in North America two months after Mega Man X.* Anyone who really cared about the blue bomber had a whole new series to look forward to, and was already dug into a much more complex, more interesting, better designed, better looking, more fun game.

No, it didn’t star the same character, but it was recognizably the successor to the NES games we knew and loved. Only now it had evolved, like so many other great series, sending the same shivers down fans’ spines that they got from Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV, and more.

Mega Man X represented the future. Mega Man 6 represented the stubborn and unwelcome past. Place the two games side by side, and there’s a very clear winner.

But that was then. We overlooked Mega Man 6 and didn’t feel as though we were missing anything. So what? We grow up. We start deliberately looking backward. We reappraise the things we loved and the things we didn’t.

We can dig up what we missed, and spend time with it. Turn ourselves over to it. Consider it not as the sixth game in a series or the immediately outdated competitor to another. We can look at it as a self-contained experience.

And we should.

Because that’s how we can be confident in concluding that it really is lousy.

On the surface, it just looks like a basic — if uninspired — Mega Man game. Eight bosses to tackle in any sequence, each holding one of eight new weapons to collect. Mega Man can hop, shoot, slide, and charge his Buster. We earn new transformations for Rush. We then fight through a false castle, the real castle, and reduce Wily to pleading for his life.

That’s what we expect from a Mega Man game at this point in the series and, superficially, Mega Man 6 meets those expectations.

But that’s not all we expect.

We also expect some tweak to or enhancement of the formula. As much guff as Mega Man gets for being the same game 10-odd times over, the truth is that it’s always changing. Mega Man might have hit upon a sturdy and winning formula right out of the gate, but every game that followed brought something new, something that defined not only that game, but went on to inform the design philosophy of the games that followed.

These changes took many forms, be they the number of Robot Masters, additions to Mega Man’s moveset, the introduction of a supporting character, scattered collectibles with a reward for finding them all, or anything else along those lines.

In short, Mega Man never saw a substantial overhaul of its formula, but it never stopped questioning what it could do within that formula.

Well, I say never…

Flatly, it stopped with Mega Man 6. There’s nothing new here. At least, not in terms of advancements or refinements. It represents several steps backward — as we’ll discuss — but in terms of doing anything unique with the series…it just feels uninterested. It’s the first Mega Man game content to say “We don’t need to do anything new here,” and that goes a long way toward making it feel lazy and uninspired.

There are a few slight flourishes unique to Mega Man 6, and we’ll discuss those as well because they’re part of the problem, but none of them feel like complete thoughts. They’re just…there, and they were discarded by the games that followed, rather than incorporated into the series’ DNA.

Actually, I take back what I said a moment ago. The series didn’t stop toying with its formula with Mega Man 6. Instead, it stopped during Mega Man 6. Mega Man 7 bounced right back with new ideas that carried through the rest of the series, such as splitting the Robot Masters into two groups of four, adding isolated introduction and midpoint stages, and introducing a currency system. And Auto. And Bass…

With this in mind, Mega Man 6 is not revealed as the point at which the series stopped trying…it’s just the game that stopped trying.

But, okay, fine. It’s disappointing to play a Mega Man game that brings nothing new to the table, but what about the experience of playing it? Surely if it’s fun enough on its own merits, we can overlook the fact that we’ve seen all of its tricks before.

And, yes, I’d agree with that entirely. But Mega Man 6 isn’t fun. It had the luxury of relying entirely on what the series does well without having to spin new plates, but it’s a luxury the game squanders by doing nearly everything worse.

To take the most basic — and necessary — example, there’s the controls.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I’ll sometimes bring up points about one game while I’m talking about another. That will happen, though, if I feel a later game provides a more natural place to raise the concern, so forgive me for doubling back and saying that one of my issues with Mega Man 3 is that it has a habit of eating my inputs.

This may be related to the game’s issues with lag; perhaps the code struggles so much to keep up with itself that when I press a button, it doesn’t bother even trying to respond to my request. It’s doing all it can just to hold itself together; why should it tax itself even further by letting me do clearly unnecessary things, such as jump or fire?

Usually this happens when I try to do multiple things quickly.

For example, I fight Hard Man with a series of fairly rapid button presses. I’ll run away from him, toward the wall. I leap his first projectile while still running away, turn quickly to face him, fire off a shot, and turn again, quickly, back toward the wall. Then I repeat this for his second projectile. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for agility, here, but rather to illustrate the kinds of situations in which Mega Man 3 ignores one or two of my inputs. Sometimes I’m sure I pressed B, but Mega Man doesn’t fire, and I suspect that’s because I’m feeding the game so much movement to keep track of that it loses other commands while juggling them.

Mega Man 6 takes eaten inputs to a whole new — and wholly inexcusable — level. Instead of fast, nimble movements, I’ll stroll simply through each of Mega Man 6‘s stages and still find that it won’t let me jump, fire, or slide when I ask it to. Nothing much is happening on screen; I just want to slide to get away from a stray bullet, and Mega Man won’t do it. I just want to shoot at this enemy standing in my path, and though I hammer the B button, he doesn’t shoot. I just want to hop over this pit instead of walking mindlessly into it, and though I can hear the press of the A button, the game ignores my input and I die.

The highest failure rate seems to come from sliding, which just doesn’t feel responsive at all. Why the most fluid of all of Mega Man’s movements — one which for the previous three games posed no problems whatsoever and was a natural, organic delight to use — feels so clunky and unresponsive here is beyond me. Clearly the developers toyed around with whatever code informs Mega Man’s mobility, but whatever improvements they were making — such as his increased speed on ladders — were not worth breaking his evasive functionality.

Mega Man is a series that encourages and rewards perfection. Every screen is a puzzle, with each platform, obstacle, and enemy a piece to be properly fit together. It’s a knowingly difficult experience, one that punishes players for barrelling brainlessly forward by ensuring that they’ll get nowhere until they start engaging with the game respectfully and intelligently. (I know this for a fact, as I spent my first few years with the series playing brainlessly and getting nowhere.)

Mega Man’s health bar is long and generous, but act like a boob and Mega Man feels hopelessly fragile. Take your time, learn from what the game teaches you, and employ critical thinking against even the smallest enemies, though, and you’re suddenly empowered. The health bar is more like a meter of the game’s patience; exhaust it and the game steps in and forces you to try again.

That’s why bosses (almost always) have exactly the same health bar you do. It’s an inherently fair matchup. You each have a bit of leeway when it comes to making mistakes, but who will make more of them? You or your adversary? Who will be tricked into making the final, fatal one?

I say this to emphasize the necessity of Mega Man’s tight evasion. In the first two games, it was simply a matter of walking to the side or jumping. That was all you could do in order to avoid collision with an enemy or a projectile, and that was fair, because the games were designed with that limited moveset in mind. Mega Man 3 introduced the graceful slide, and from that point forward the games took that into account as well. If you could slide, after all, why not present you with enemies and hazards that either required or strongly favored sliding as evasive action?

Mega Man 6 cripples the responsiveness of that evasive action, and, in doing so, turns the game into the unfairly punishing, arduous slog that the series’ detractors always claimed it was. It recontextualized the health bar not as a meter of the game’s patience or a gauge of how many mistakes you can make before being rocketed back to a checkpoint…but as an actual bar of health, and one that depletes by some degree every time the game refuses to listen to what you say.

Mega Man 6 is the first game in the series that demands perfection without actually providing the responsiveness that allows it.

Another step backward comes with the soundtrack. Not that it’s bad. In fact, it’s quite good, and contains some of the best compositions Robot Masters have ever had. The problem, rather, is that they aren’t fitting of the series.

It’s a bit difficult to explain what I mean, but I think a lot of people play Mega Man 6 for the first time and come away feeling that the music kinda sucks. That was my opinion for sure, and it held for a long time. Only later did I realize how rich and layered these songs are, and I think if more people gave the songs a proper listen, they’d agree.

But when we play a game in the Mega Man series, we can’t afford to devote our conscious attention to the soundtrack. Previous games — Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 in particular — are revered for their soundtracks, and it’s because the hook in each song is both immediate and repetitive, with the pulse of the composition steady and strong enough that we hear it — and absorb it — while we’re focusing on something else. It’s great music, but it’s composed as great background music.

That’s why you can recognize almost any Mega Man song from a clip of just a few seconds in length; they’re written that way. The composers and designers both understood that the song had to make an impact whenever it could. Perhaps that was for the first few seconds at the beginning of a level. Perhaps it’s in a moment of calmness between two firefights. A player’s attention will be fixed almost anywhere but on the soundtrack, so the soundtrack needs to work whenever it does get attention.

Mega Man songs need to be tight and punchy, full of energy or at the very least atmosphere. (The best songs are both.) They need to say everything they want to say in the space of a few seconds, and yet also be conducive to endless looping. It’s not an easy compositional task, but the previous games understood this and pulled it off.

The compositional philosophy of Mega Man 6, though is to go with longer songs without obvious hooks, which take their time to build into something interesting. If you’re listening to it on an iPod, it’s pretty good. If you’re playing the actual game, however, you’re too busy staying alive for it to register. You can’t focus on swells and climaxes, and you certainly don’t appreciate the quiet ramping up before we ever get to the melody.

The latter is especially a problem in a death-heavy series like Mega Man. When you die frequently and quickly, as all players picking up this game for the first time are bound to, you’ll hear the song start over before it ever gets going. A song that opens with a slow stretch of its digital instruments “warming up,” such as Centaur Man’s or Flame Man’s, won’t ever feel like a Mega Man track because the player won’t live long enough to hear it become one.

The compositions are of a high quality, but they don’t feel at home in a game with this kind of hectic pace. People remember it as being a bad soundtrack which, truth be told, isn’t miles away from the truth that it’s the wrong soundtrack.

Then, of course, there are the special weapons, which have been on a ceaseless decline in quality since Mega Man 2. Mega Man 6 does a great job of kicking the bottom out of the barrel.

I’m speaking mainly in terms of creativity, as any weapon can be powerful or weak as a game developer dictates. If a cool sword does almost no damage to enemies, it stinks. If a helium balloon knocks baddies out with one shot, it’s good. So rather than focus on how much damage a weapon does or fails to do, I’m more curious about the innovation and imagination that goes into its design.

The weapons here range from unapologetic repeats to just passable. The first of the repeats is the Yamato Spear, which is the Needle Cannon without the ability to rapid fire…the only good thing that weapon had going for it. Then there’s the Plant Barrier, which, as the name implies, is the Skull Barrier with plants where once there were skulls. Swords into ploughshares, and all. Nature from desolation. Thematically worth an essay or two but never worth using in the actual game.

The other is the Wind Storm, which is the Bubble Lead with a different sprite. Sure, when it kills an enemy it sends them irrelevantly skyward, but aside from that it’s the Bubble Lead.

The utter crapness of that weapon is emphasized by the fact that Wind Man — the Robot Master from whom you collect it — doesn’t even use it himself. He instead tries to pull you into his blades, crash into you, and shred you with little propellers. Anything to avoid having to whip out the Wind Storm, I guess. I couldn’t blame the guy if he just started spitting on you.**

The Knight Crusher and Silver Tomahawk are just projectiles with artificially limited range. The former turns and comes back to you like a slow boomerang, and the latter flies largely horizontally and then curves sharply upward. The Silver Tomahawk is therefore good — though not great — for hitting stubborn enemies that like to stay out of your normal range of fire. (Also, by silver they meant brown.) This feeds directly into the design and patterns of one of the fortress bosses, which is nice. The functionality of the special weapons should inform the design of those later stages for sure, but more frequently, as we discussed last time, they feel like they were developed by entirely different teams who didn’t interact.

The Blizzard Attack is decently interesting. It places four snowflakes ahead of Mega Man, which, after a moment, spread out and travel forward. They’re decently powerful for snowflakes, though I wouldn’t say they’re fun to use.

The Flame Blast is probably the most interesting, as it’s a heavy glob of fire that falls and forms a rising column of flame from the impact point. Nearly always that means it rises vertically from the floor, but if you hit a wall with it instead, the column will extend horizontally. This is a really cool feature of the weapon that should allow for interesting applications. Needless to say, it’s never explored at all, and it functions as merely another differently shaped projectile. What’s more, if the Flame Blast is fired into an enemy directly it just deals damage and disappears, meaning we lose the possibility of playing with a continuous “burn” effect for powerful foes. That’s a huge missed opportunity.

Before we talk about the Centaur Flash because I want to double back a bit. Despite what I said earlier, Mega Man 6 did actually introduce one new idea that the series kept around. Read on to see why I’m not giving the game any credit for it.

Mega Man 6 introduced weapon demonstrations to the console series.*** This is a great idea, as it allows players to see what these fun new tools do without having to waste precious weapon energy. I love it, but it’s also not really a gameplay innovation so much as it is a very basic and brief cutscene. It’s also not nearly as helpful as it sounds, which is the main problem.

See, later games would include enemies in these demonstrations, so that you could actually see what the weapons do. All Mega Man 6 shows you is how they look, which is pretty useless. Mega Man collects a new weapon, fires it into the void, and off you go. It’s…pretty disappointing.

And also frustrating, as we see when we get the Centaur Flash.

Most special weapons, after all, are versions of the weapons we’ve already seen that Robot Master use. As such, you’d expect the Centaur Flash to function similarly to the way it does for Centaur Man himself: we hear it activate, the screen flashes briefly, and Mega Man is frozen in place. So the Centaur Flash is a simple time stopper weapon, right? The series has a precedent for it, and the weapon demonstration just shows the screen blinking when Mega Man uses it, with no projectile or other attack to follow, so that must be what it is.

Then you use it, and find out it’s actually a screen clearance weapon, like the Gravity Hold.

Why? That’s not how it works for Centaur Man. He has a time stopper, not a screen clearance weapon. Yet we get a screen clearance weapon and not a time stopper. That’s confusing, and a perfect opportunity for the weapon demonstration to let us know that what we got works differently from what we saw. It instead tells us nothing.

Even more confusing is the fact that the Centaur Flash does function as a time stopper…briefly. It freezes enemies in place for a fraction of a second as it deals damage. You can’t actually do anything to them while they’re frozen, but it does happen, further confusing me as to why it’s clearing the screen. In fact, I’d assume the logic behind making it Wind Man’s weakness is that it stops his fanblades from turning. At least, that’s the only rationale I can come up with, and it only works if the fucking thing stops time.

Speaking of boss weaknesses — and by no means speaking of Mega Man 6 only — the confusing lack of clear reasoning in these weakness chains creates player detachment and works against the satisfying rock/paper/scissor simplicity of the first two games.

At first, the weakness order made sense. The Rolling Cutter killed Elec Man because it severed his wires; the Thunder Beam killed Ice Man because water conducts electricity; the Ice Slasher killed Fire Man because it melted and extinguished his flame; the Fire Storm killed Bomb Man because it detonated him; the Hyper Bomb killed Guts Man because blowing up rocks is literally what they’re designed to do in-universe; and the Super Arm kills Cut Man because rock crushes scissors.

Mega Man 2 requires a bit more creative thought, but most of the weaknesses make sense. Wood Man, as a tree, can either be burned or cut down. Heat Man can be doused. Quick Man can’t tolerate sitting still. Air Man can be stuffed with leaves to clog up his fan. Even the big question about why the Wily alien is weak to Bubble Lead never confused me the way it seems to confuse others: when you beat the game you see he was just controlling a flying projector; the water shorts it out.

These things make sense. They’re never explicit in-game, but they’re also no kind of barrier to engagement. Maybe you didn’t know what weapon Crash Man was weak to, but once you find out, you can rationalize it. It feels like you solved a puzzle. Indeed, once you get a new weapon for the first time, you can take a look at that stage select and try to guess who might be weak to it. If you’re right, you’ll feel satisfied. As you should.

Then we ended up with tops being weak to knuckles. Toads being weak to drills. Trains being weak to rocks. And we no longer feel satisfied. The weaknesses feel like they were chosen carelessly. The fun of sorting out a logic puzzle — even if you do it after you know the solution — is replaced by remembering that stars are unnaturally weak to water. There’s a distance there. Enjoyment suffers.

Mega Man 6 has a few fair weaknesses — fire melts snow; snow is bad for plants — but that’s it. The bosses in the game seem like they’re weak to things not because they should be by any stretch of the imagination, but because they had to be.

There are things I like about the game, though. Admittedly, they aren’t the things I think of when Mega Man 6 comes up in conversation, but at gunpoint I’d be able to say a nice thing or two.

In addition to the few bright spots I’ve mentioned above, Mega Man 6 has branching paths. As in, proper ones. Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5 both had optional rooms, but they rarely provided anything more worthwhile than a visit from Eddie. This is especially disappointing in the latter case, as only one of its eight collectible letters was hidden in an optional room, in Stone Man’s stage. In fact, that’s the only letter that was hidden at all.

Granted, snagging many of the letters involved problem solving on the part of the player, which added a nice — if small — wrinkle to the standard, expected gameplay. One had to bravely time a jump from a platform after it had already started to fall in Gyro Man’s stage. In Wave Man’s stage you had to have reflexes quick enough to jump into it during an autoscrolling section. In Napalm Man’s stage you had to find and navigate a short series of false walls. In Gravity Man’s stage, you had to understand the gimmick enough to know how you’d fall during a gravity switch.

All of which is fine, but I think there was a missed opportunity in not hiding more of them out of view, requiring players to seek out breakable walls, small gaps leading into hidden rooms, and paths that were not immediately obvious. Possibly Mega Man 5 just didn’t think its players would be savvy enough to identify alternate paths. Mega Man 6, though, trusts them enough.

And that’s great!

…except that the alternate paths are — say it with me now — handled quite poorly.

In fact, the alternate paths just lead to different versions of the same boss.

The alternate paths exist in four stages. If you play through the stage normally, you’ll make it to the fake boss. You won’t know this, however, because the fake Robot Master looks and behaves identically to the real one. You’ll even get his weapon after beating him.

You won’t, however, get one of the four Beat parts, which allow you to call in your little blue avian friend for help. If you want those, you’ll need to use a utility to find the secret path, which you may or may not ever suspect exists. Find the path and you’re led to…the same boss. Only it’s the real one this time, because he gives you the Beat parts.

It’s a lousy implementation of an otherwise smart idea. Why not encourage the player to traverse a stage multiple times with branching paths? Well, Mega Man 6 answers that rhetorical question: because the path leads to another fight with the same damned boss. Nothing changes in terms of their attacks, their patterns, or their power.

I think the only stage in the game to truly employ branching well is Yamato Man’s, as it contains two parallel paths that are long and offer distinct experiences, right down to a miniboss you’ll encounter on one route and not the other.

Of course, tee hee, that’s not the choice that matters. Later the stage branches again, and this time it leads you to either the real or false Yamato Man. Leave it Mega Man 6 to handle the thing that doesn’t matter well, and the thing that does matter poorly.

And, hey, speaking of things Mega Man 6 does poorly, there’s the game’s approach to utilities. This time around there are only two, which is fine as nobody was clamoring for a triumphant return of Rush Marine. However, this time Rush doesn’t function as a series of external platforms. Rather he attaches to Mega Man as a sort of add-on, providing abilities and movement options that our hero doesn’t have on his own.

That doesn’t sound bad at all, and it’s an interesting impulse to reconfigure Rush’s role in the games. Again…Mega Man 6 handles it poorly.

The main problem is that switching to Rush adaptors is tedious and breaks the flow. You have to go to the weapons menu, select the adaptor, and then watch a cutscene in which Mega Man and Rush join forces. It’s skippable, thankfully, but you still have to wait for the cutscene to start before you can back out of it.

At first, it’s not much of an inconvenience, but before long — and with the frequency with which you might want to use those adaptors — the extra time eaten up by the process interrupts the pace of the game. In fact, I often don’t bother using them simply because of how irritating the interruption is. It’s as though the developers sat down and actively brainstormed ways to make using Rush less fun.

One adaptor allows Mega Man to fly short distances, and the other allows him to unleash a powerful punch. Neither of them allow him to slide, however, which prevents any sane player from leaving an adaptor equipped for longer than necessary.

Interestingly, the Rush adaptors feel a lot more like they belong in the new Mega Man X series than the classic series. The Mega Man X games also allow the player to find pieces of armor that enhance movement and attack capabilities, and those indeed function as that series’ equivalent of utilities. The classic Mega Man series tends to enhance the hero’s movement by external means. It’s Mega Man X and Mega Man 6 that snap the upgrades right onto the character himself.

That may be a case of parallel invention, or maybe the developers saw what was happening with Mega Man X and found themselves inspired…consciously or not.

But the inspiration — wherever it came from, however deeply it ran — simply isn’t felt in the final product that is Mega Man 6.

It’s not fun. It’s not exciting. It’s just there.

But, as much as I love the series, maybe that wasn’t this game’s fault. Maybe it was just the latest point on a downward creative slide. After all, wasn’t the feeling of spectacle that defined the first few games long gone? We talked a lot about the thrill of seeing the Yellow Devil and the Mecha Dragon for the first time. Did anything else ever live up to that? Maybe Gamma, for some. Beyond that…weren’t these just games?

Good games, sure. Fun games. Maybe even games we loved.

But wasn’t the thrill gone? Weren’t we just going through the motions, just like the series was?

Mega Man 6 maybe just stopped pretending. It knew what we expected, and it gave us that. It went no further than it had to go in order to meet the bare minimum. Why would it push further? The world had turned. There was a new console in town. Hell, there was a whole new incarnation of Mega Man.

Mega Man 6 played to a diminished audience. One that had already moved on. It had a job to do, and it did it. Then it turned the lights out on the NES without bothering to say goodbye. To paraphrase one celebrity oceanographer, Mega Man was hoping to go out in a flash of blazes, and it ended up just going home.

In Mega Man 6, I’d probably say that my favorite Robot Master is Yamato Man after all. I’m not sure why. I think something about him just suggests a kind of nobility, which is the same reason I like Shade Man and Sword Man from some other often-dismissed games.

During the battle with Yamato Man, he’ll hurl his Yamato Spear at you. Whether the shot connects or not, he’ll then run across the screen to retrieve it. He doesn’t attack on the way. He leaves himself wide open. And he knows he does. He knows he’s vulnerable. But he also knows he needs to find and collect it, because it’s meaningful to him.

When you get the Yamato Spear, however, it’s just a projectile to be fired away without thought. You never have to run over and pick it up again. It’s disposable. Removed from its original context, from its original novelty and identity, it’s just a thing.

And that’s Mega Man 6 as a whole.

The series began its life on the NES feeling precious. Important. Irreplaceable.

And it ended its time on the system feeling predictable. Outdated. Forgettable.

You each hold the Yamato Spear, but you do so at very different times in its career.

Best Robot Master: Yamato Man
Best Stage: Centaur Man
Best Weapon: Flame Blast
Best Theme: Yamato Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6

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

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* Oddly enough, Mega Man 6 features the characters Mega Man and Mr. X, which combined form the title Mega Man X.

** I’ve heard from a few folks that Wind Man does use the Wind Storm under specific circumstances. I’ve literally never seen it, and I’ve played through the game dozens of times. If anyone has proof of him using it, I’d like to see it. As it stands, I think this weapon has the dubious distinction of being the only one in the series that the Robot Master who wields it never bothers to touch.

*** I specify “console series” because weapon demonstrations actually debuted in Mega Man IV for the Game Boy, which came out a few months before Mega Man 6 both in Japan and North America. But I wanted to talk about weapon demonstrations in general, and I’m not covering the Game Boy games…yet.

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