Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 10, 2010)

In the years between when I stopped playing Mega Man games and his miraculous resurrection in Mega Man 9, there were plenty of games I enjoyed. Games I loved, in fact. Resident Evil, Metroid Prime, Pikmin…even the game that remains my all-time favorite, Majora’s Mask.

I still enjoyed games. The medium evolved and in many ways no longer felt like the one I grew up with, but if I sat down looking for a good time, there were more than enough games that would give it to me.

Then Mega Man 9 came along, and it didn’t just give me another good time. It reminded me of what games used to be like.

I don’t just mean that it reminded me what they used to look and sound like, though it certainly did those things. I mean that it reminded me of what games used to feel like. Of what gaming itself used to feel like.

As games through the generations grew larger, deeper, more complex, they almost uniformly lost the feeling of addictive simplicity that attracted me in the first place.

One of my earliest gaming memories is playing Outlaw on the Atari 2600 with my uncle Glenn. It was a two-player game that saw each of us controlling a cowboy, firing blocky projectiles at each other. I’d guess there was a single-player mode as well, but I’m not sure I ever actually touched that. Whenever a shot connected, the struck cowboy would fall onto his rear end, which always made the two of us laugh.

The game couldn’t have been less complex. Or, well, I suppose it could have, as every so often a stagecoach would drift through the center of the screen, absorbing shots. (And – what seemed a revelation at the time – sustaining visible damage if it did so.) Ultimately, though, it was a game perfectly suited to the one-button philosophy of Atari. The learning curve was practically non-existent. You could play the game with your younger brother and have just as much fun as you would with your uncle. It took no time to explain, and no time to learn. The game existed, and you innately understood everything there was to understand the moment you saw the game in action.

Fast forward a few generations, and that was almost never the case any longer. This, I believe, is why I fell away from gaming in my college years. With so little time to devote to anything other than school and work, it ended up being a rare occasion that I could sit down and puzzle out the complex controls and mechanics of any recent game. In a few cases, I took that time. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I didn’t.

I remember playing games with my friends in college, because it was still a great way to unwind. When we did so, however, it tended to be something from an older system. We’d grab some beers and see how far we could make it in Bubble Bobble. We’d load up Kirby’s Adventure because we knew we could plow through it in one long sitting, and what better way to kick off a weekend? We’d shout and howl through session after session of the first two Mario Kart games, feeling immediately as addicted as we were when they were new. And, speaking of addiction, I remember a friend in the journalism program who came very close to flunking a semester’s worth of classes because she couldn’t tear herself away from Dr. Mario.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one yearning for simplicity in my games, though I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate that feeling.

With Mega Man 9, I had exactly that simplicity in a brand-new game. I loved it. And, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just play a new game and move along when I finished it or got bored of it…I played a new game over and over and over again. I finished it and started it over from scratch. I pushed myself to learn it more thoroughly and to get better at it. Defeating Dr. Wily wasn’t enough; I wanted to master the game. That was a desire I hadn’t felt since I was a child. Possibly since I’d played an earlier Mega Man game.

I didn’t speak about Mega Man 9‘s achievement system much in my last writeup, but I have to admit that it helped inspire me to dip back in as often as I did. Collecting 999 screws could have encouraged me to stand around and farm respawning enemies, but it really just provided a reason to dive back into a particular save file and enjoy the trip through Mega Man 9 all over again. Beating the game multiple times to unlock certain achievements gave me that much more of a push toward mastery. And completing the game quickly, or without dying…well, those things seemed tough, but I was certainly getting faster and dying less with each attempt, so maybe I could actually accomplish them.

Only one achievement seemed truly impossible, and it’s the one that cracked open the entire series for me once again, to enjoy as if they were brand new games I’d come to love in all new ways.

It was the Mr. Perfect achievement. That’s the one that requires you to complete Mega Man 9 – still one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played – without taking any damage whatsoever.

In a sense, this seemed doable. You were able to save after each level, so all you’d need to do is reload your save whenever you took damage, and you’d largely retain your progress. But that, of course, still required you to beat every level without taking damage. And what happened when you got to the Wily stages? Hell, what about the boss rematches toward the end, followed by each of Wily’s forms in immediate succession? You had to do all of that in a single stretch without taking damage even once?

How on Earth was that possible?

Way back in my review of the first Mega Man, I talked about how we’d gather around a friend who was good at some particular game, and watch him first-hand, demonstrating his skills for all of us to see. There were plenty of rumors about impossible things in video games, and rarely could we actively disprove them. But when it came to stuff we could prove, we did. Everything we knew, we knew from direct, personal experience.

By the time of Mega Man 9, I didn’t have a community like that anymore. I had friends that played games, but few that played them often enough to get truly good or to discover interesting things on their own. Certainly nobody would call me up and say, “Hey, I can beat Mega Man 9 without taking damage. Want to see?”

So I turned to the modern equivalent of those play sessions: YouTube. I wanted to see somebody, somewhere, unlocking that Mr. Perfect achievement that I still didn’t believe was possible. And not only did I find that; I found videos of people playing through every Mega Man game, stage by stage, without taking damage once.

My childhood reeled with disbelief. It was hard enough just to finish those games…now I’m learning that it was actually possible to pound them out without ever getting hit?

And so I watched those videos. I studied them. They were fascinating. Little Mega Man could do almost nothing other than jump and shoot, but that was enough to get him through literally any level unscathed. My mind was blown. And, sure enough, I wanted to dig back through the old Mega Man games to try it for myself.

I succeeded. Level by level, I learned to beat every Robot Master stage without taking damage. I did this – and uploaded my own results to YouTube – for most of the games in the series: Mega Man through Mega Man 7, with a detour through Mega Man V for the Game Boy, which had unique stages and bosses. I would have done Mega Man 8 and Mega Man 9 as well, but I didn’t have the equipment necessary to record my playthroughs.

Mega Man 9 didn’t just give me a new game to love; it gave me a reason to rediscover my love of the games that preceded it. And all it had to do was suggest to me that it was possible to play them in a way I never, ever would have thought to try.

In short, Mega Man 9‘s legacy was, to me, more than that of a great game. It reminded me of why the series was important, why I’d spent so many hours with those games as a kid, why they sparked my imagination and determination in equal measure.

What’s more, it wasn’t just a tease. It didn’t remind us all of how great those simple, NES-era games once were…it left us with the promise of another sequel. By the time I lifted my head from those old games I’d nearly forgotten, a new one was already on the horizon. Mega Man 10 was coming. Mega Man 9 wasn’t just a late-game sequel; it was a series relaunch.

I was thrilled.

And then it released. At which point…I was disappointed.

But let’s come back to that.

I sat down to re-play Mega Man 10 as I did with every other game for this review series: as an official release. No emulators, no save states, no cheats. If I had easy access to the original hardware and physical copies, I would certainly have used those. Instead I played the more recent digital releases.

Mega Man through Mega Man 7 were played on either my 3DS or WiiU, and Mega Man 8 through Mega Man 10 were played on my PS4. I didn’t prepare for these games in any way, working from memory to make it through and letting the games themselves teach me again whatever I’d forgotten. I didn’t make any special efforts to play the games in a certain way – no speedruns or no-damage runs or anything like that – except that I did pick up all optional items. (Barring Mega Man 8, which, as discussed, does not allow for 100% completion.)

In a word, I played them now with much the mindset I would have had as a child. It was a game, I was going to fumble my way through it, and I was going to play as intended.

Then came Mega Man 10, and I remembered something.

After Mega Man 9 had shown me – directly and indirectly – how versatile the series had always been, I set a goal for myself with Mega Man 10, one I never actually saw through. The goal was to do a no-Buster run of the entire game.

The Mega Buster, stretching all the way back to Mega Man’s first adventure, is the default weapon in each of the games. It does not consume any weapon energy, and it allows for a fairly-generous total of three projectiles on the screen at once. It’s fast, it’s easy to use, and its shots travel as far as the screen will allow. In short, it’s a pretty great weapon, with many of the Robot Master weapons in later games paling in comparison.

In Mega Man 10, though, there was a unique opportunity to never use it. This was due to a set of downloadable extra stages that rewarded you with weapons you could carry over to the main game. Start a game with those in your inventory and, theoretically, you’ll never actually have to use the Buster.

I hadn’t heard anybody else talk about playing the game that way, and there was no achievement for doing so, so there was a decent chance it wouldn’t work. I’d be going into uncharted territory. I’d be giving myself a handicap by stripping away the easiest weapon to use and burdening myself with ammo concerns that no other player would have.

It sounded fun!

But I never did it. I don’t know why. Revisiting the game for this series, though, I figured I’d finally change that. I’d do my no-Buster run of Mega Man 10.

Why? Well, I might as well say this here and now: while you are going to hear me say a huge amount of good things about Mega Man 10…I don’t actually like it very much. A no-Buster run, I’d hoped, would provide me with a new avenue to experience the game, and possibly enjoy it much more.

The biggest obstacle Mega Man 10 has to face is that it has very little in the way of new ideas. Mega Man 9 did nearly everything Mega Man 10 does, and it did all of it better. Mega Man 10, therefore, is in the position where being very good makes it feel like a disappointment. Worse, Mega Man 10 only sometimes rises to the level of “very good.”

The story this time around is that a computer virus (amusingly referred to in identifiably human terms as Roboenza) is infecting robots on a massive scale, causing them to do exactly what they’ve done for nine previous games and seemingly infinite amounts of ports and spinoffs.

I’m being wry, but I’m not complaining. Mega Man has never given us a truly compelling reason to go out and shoot robots; all it ever needed to do was make it fun to go out and shoot robots. I am fine with that. Also nice is the thematic tie to the Mega Man X series, which sees its own versions of Robot Masters driven to madness and violence by the Maverick virus. There’s no evidence that Roboenza becomes or is related to that later virus, but it’s a nice, quiet parallel between series.

Dr. Wily is, of course, still the villain. (Sorry for what can only be considered a spoiler if this is your first Mega Man game.) This time, though, it makes a reasonable amount of sense that the good guys would choose to work with him. Wily is brilliant. He understands robotics probably better than even Dr. Light does. Yes, he’s tricked them more times than you’ve had hot dinners, but Roboenza represents a legitimate crisis. They can either choose to work with Wily on the chance that he’ll actually help them develop a cure, or they can sit back and watch civilization as they know it crumble.

So they work with him and he turns out to be the bad guy. Fine. What isn’t fine is the ending sequence, during which all is resolved through a line of text and a still image of some medicine Dr. Wily left behind.

It might seem odd to speak about the ending so early in this review, but I think it’s one of the clearest illustrations of the gap in quality between Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10.

In Mega Man 9, the game ended with a glorious meta joke about how many times our hero has forgiven a contrite Dr. Wily, followed by an extremely good bit of credits music and a slideshow of what each of that game’s Robot Masters (and heroes) is getting up to now that peace has returned. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s positively bursting with charm and creativity.

Mega Man 10 gives you white text on a black screen and a static image with no characters in it.

I’ll leave the comparing and contrasting to you.

The fact is that Mega Man 10 simply doesn’t seem to have had the same level of creative energy invested in it. In a way, this makes sense. Mega Man 9 had to be a glorious return. It couldn’t just be another Mega Man game way too late for anyone to care…it had to be great. Incredibly, it actually was.

Mega Man 10 does get to be just another sequel, but it seems like returning developer IntiCreates was all too eager to use that as an excuse to do less than their best. The game, understandably, suffers for it. What’s worse, Mega Man 10 ends up illustrating all too clearly what originally killed the series, by being a less interesting sequel that doesn’t give fans much of a reason to come back. The law of diminishing returns reasserted itself immediately.

But I do believe that Mega Man 10 does a lot of things very well.

For starters, there are the Robot Masters themselves. Well, maybe not them particularly, but the way their stages are themed.

Mega Man 9’s stages had some fairly basic themes. Fire, water, space, garden…it was fine, but you wouldn’t really point to that aspect of the game as a bastion of creativity.

Here, though, the stages feel distinct. You wouldn’t be able to confuse them with stages from previous games, on the whole. Sheep Man’s stage is in cyberspace. Nitro Man’s is a futuristic highway. Strike Man’s is the locker room, storage area, and field of a gigantic stadium.

They also play like recognizable Mega Man stages, which I mean as a compliment. Their gimmicks aren’t too distracting or complex – something that crippled Mega Man 8 – and are instead just a welcome, inventive dash of variety. Specific design choices from screen to screen aside, these stages feel at home in the series, and I admire them for that, considering how unique they are.

Even the stage themes we’ve seen before feel a bit different here. Magma Man just sat in a stage full of fire, but Solar Man’s stage feels like a trip through a smelting plant. Splash Woman occupied a basic water stage, but Pump Man’s stage takes us through the entire process of wastewater treatment. Commando Man’s desert looks a lot like Pharaoh Man’s, but its blinding sandstorms make it feel and play completely differently…not to mention the fact that it’s war-themed as opposed to Egyptian themed.

The remaining stages are a bit less impressive. Blade Man’s castle doesn’t feel all that much different from Knight Man’s, but it’s still a rare enough theme that it’s welcome. Chill Man’s stage is easily the weakest in terms of inventiveness, as it begins as the standard ice stage we’ve seen many times already, and doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go from there.

Sadly, the designs of the Robot Masters themselves are a bit lacking. The only truly interesting one is Nitro Man, who looks and jets around his room like a motorcycle. I’ll admit that I also have a soft spot for Commando Man, as it’s nice to see an explosion-based Robot Master who also qualifies as a bruiser, but that’s really it in terms of boss design.

Strike Man is Blizzard Man with stitching. Sheep Man is a sheep. Blade Man is a blade made out of blades and when he blades he blades blades at you. Hooray.

Fortunately, the Robot Masters are, as ever, more than just bosses. They also represent weapons and music, and the game shines far more in those areas.

The music, on the whole, is pretty great. Mega Man 10 also suffers here in comparison to Mega Man 9, but only in comparison. On its own merits, Mega Man 10 has an incredible soundtrack with some excellent standouts.

My favorite tune is probably Nitro Man’s, with its driving electric rhythm that feels perfectly matched to the theme and feel of his stage. Divorced from its context it’s still fantastic, but hopping onto and off of speeding robot trucks while his pulsing music underscores the action is absolutely perfect.

A close runner up for me is Commando Man’s tune, which sounds vaguely Arabic, conjures up the feel of oppressive desert heat, and keeps you engaged even when all you’re doing is waiting patiently for a sandstorm (Desert Storm?) to die down. Then there’s the absolutely pounding rampage of Solar Man’s song, which is so good it borders on being distracting.

Strike Man’s track may actually be the most interesting and the biggest surprise, as it feels appropriately sporty and contains a genuine stadium rave up, complete with the sounds of an 8-bit crowd clapping and stomping in the bleachers. It’s a damned fine treat, and it really helps that stage to stand out as the highlight it certainly is.

The rest of the Robot Master tunes are fairly forgettable, though certainly not bad. (Aside from Chill Man’s, of course, because everything about Chill Man is pants.) The Dr. Wily stages have some of the best music they’ve ever had, with some experimentally atmospheric ones bookending the experience, first in a short section outside of his fortress and then again when you finally track him down into outer space.

It’s a good soundtrack, and its quality is more or less matched by this batch of weapons. It’s again outdone by Mega Man 9, but this game at least learned a valuable lesson from that one. In Mega Man 9, the weapons could also be thought of as utilities. That seemed to be their overarching theme; you could both pelt your enemies with them and use them to navigate stages more easily. Mega Man 10 similarly ascribes a theme to its weapons: splash damage.

Here, for the first significant time ever, you shouldn’t just pelt your enemies with your weapons. You should think about how the weapons work, and use them wisely to inflict greater damage.

The most obvious example of this is probably the Thunder Wool. Like any other weapon, you can hit enemies with it. It will deal damage and disappear. However, the wiser thing to do is miss enemies with it, and have the lightning it discharges hit them instead. That will both deal far more damage and linger on the screen, potentially hitting multiple enemies, or hitting the same enemy multiple times.

This means that you can’t – or at least shouldn’t – fire mindlessly at things. You have to think about where your projectile will go and where your enemy will be, but you also have to think about how the splash damage will work, as that’s the only way you’ll get true mileage out of the weapons.

This largely carries through the entire set. You can hit enemies with the controllable Commando Bomb, but it’s better to miss them, because the blast it sets off is far more powerful than a direct hit would be. The Solar Blaze will split, potentially mowing down enemies on both sides of the screen. The Chill Spike can either hit an enemy and freeze it, or create a dangerous patch on the ground that will injure or destroy an enemy that walks over it.

Perhaps most interesting is the Rebound Striker, which can be fired in six directions and which becomes more powerful each time it bounces off of a surface. This means that you can either strike an enemy directly for a decent amount of damage, or deliberately miss them so that it bounces around the room like a billiard ball and hits them later with a much harder strike. It’s not the easiest weapon to use effectively, but once you get a sense of how to understand a room’s geometry, it can be downright devastating. It’s Mega Man 8’s Mega Ball done exactly right.

Even the seemingly “simple” weapons have nuances worth understanding. The Wheel Cutter can be spat forward as you’d expect, but you can also hold down the fire button to keep it spinning at the end of your arm like a sawblade. Additionally, you can use this exact functionality to rocket you up vertical surfaces. I won’t pretend there’s much call to do so, but like Mega Man 4’s Wire Adapter, the fact that it’s fun to use is reason enough to play with it.

Then there’s the Water Shield, which is a fairly basic shield weapon, but with components that can be destroyed if they suffer damage. When you fire it, the remaining components spiral away from you either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending upon which side of the screen you’re facing. Again, not a very useful feature, but at least one you’ll need to put thought into to use effectively.

The Triple Blade is…well…three blades. They’ll fire upward if you’re standing on the ground and downward if you’re in the air, which is one thing to consider, but their power is also determined by your distance from the target. If you’re far away, only one blade can conceivably hit the enemy. Close in, though, and you can hit them with all three at once, dealing three times the damage.

Mega Man 9 will always have my favorite batch of weapons, but Mega Man 10’s may well be the most interesting, and I’m impressed at how much thought must have gone into their design and the ways in which they could be employed.

But there’s a problem, and you may have picked up on it even if you haven’t played the game: don’t these weapons sound kinda difficult to use?

The appeal of the weapons earlier in the series was not just that they were fun to use, but that they were easy to use. Cumbersome weapons like the Atomic Fire, Top Spin, and Charge Kick tend, on the whole, to sit quietly in players’ inventories for the duration of the game. If they’re unwieldly, why wield them? If something else is quicker and easier to use, why wrestle with the stubborn ones?

I wouldn’t call any of Mega Man 10’s weapons stubborn. And they’re certainly better weapons than the examples I provided in the previous paragraph. But they’re also not easy to use well. And if it comes down to trying to launch a cloud precisely above an enemy’s head in the hopes that they’ll still be there in a few moments when it actually discharges lightning…well, why not just use the Buster?

That’s not entirely Mega Man 10’s fault. That’s a problem that arises strictly because of what series this is, and the fact that Mega Man always has his trusty arm cannon by default. Which is easy to use. And fast. And predictable. And which consumes no ammo.

When your option is to either mash the fire button a few times to kill an enemy or open your inventory, select the Rebound Striker, figure out the precise angle to toss it so that it bounces correctly off of the floors, walls, and ceilings, wasting ammo and time whenever you get it wrong…well, most players are going to stick with the Buster. That doesn’t make the special weapons worse, but it does make them far less likely to be used and appreciated.

Which is also part of why I wanted to do a no-Buster run. I like the special weapons in this game, but, well, I have to admit that I solved most of Mega Man’s problems with some quick blasts from the weapon he was born holding. Maybe stripping myself of that solution would lead to more interesting gameplay.

As I mentioned, a no-Buster run is only possible here due to some DLC stages. These pay homage to and borrow heavily from the Game Boy games, three of which featured bosses called the Mega Man Killers. The first Game Boy game introduced us to Enker, and defeating him gave us the Mirror Buster, which serves as a shield that reflects projectiles back at the enemies that fired them. The third Game Boy game featured Punk, who gave us the Screw Crusher, a projectile that arcs high in the air before falling back down, tracing a path something like an upside-down U. The fourth Game Boy game brought us Ballade, who had the Ballade Cracker, a slow explosive that could be fired in six directions.

The DLC stages in Mega Man 10 are reimagined versions of stages from the Killers’ respective Game Boy games, with remixed versions of the old music to boot. In those games, beating the Mega Man Killers would indeed give you their weapons, but by that point you were so far along that you wouldn’t have much more than a stage left to play with them. In Mega Man 10, beating the DLC stages gives you those weapons any time you start a new game, meaning you can finally enjoy them like you would any Robot Master weapon.

Choosing a replacement for the Buster was actually pretty easy. The Ballade Cracker is powerful, but it uses a lot of weapon energy, meaning you don’t get many shots and I’d have to rely on enemies dropping a lot of ammo. The Mirror Buster counts on enemies to fire at you first, which not all of them do, and it requires them to remain on Mega Man’s horizontal plane to be hit when the projectile bounces back at them. It’s fun to use, and a great idea, but not something that works in every context.

That left the Screw Crusher, and I was fine with that. It’s fast, it doesn’t seem to be any less powerful than the Buster, and it makes very efficient use of weapon energy. The only real downside is its awkward arc, but all that did was help me choose my first stage that much more easily: Sheep Man, who spends much of his time in the air above Mega Man’s head. That sharp upward arc would actually be a benefit.

And it was. The stage had enough enemies above me that the Screw Crusher worked very well. Even the lightbulb miniboss was easier to hit now that I didn’t have to jump as high to get to him. Sheep Man himself took a while to fight, but it wasn’t any more difficult outside of staying focused for a longer period of time. Each time he turned into a set of clouds, I just shredded through them and brought him crashing back down. It worked out well, and then I had another weapon: the Thunder Wool.

As soon as I got it, I realized this wouldn’t actually make things much easier for me. The Thunder Wool is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

Even so, I took on Pump Man next. He’s weak to the Thunder Wool, so that boss fight wouldn’t be any different. The stage was fine. Again, there were enough enemies above that I got my mileage out of the Screw Crusher, and in other cases I could just walk right up to them and mash away. Hitting the little slug Mets that spew slippery slime at you wasn’t easy, but the Ballade Cracker, with some careful timing, took them out easily.

And that was it. Pump Man’s fight was the same as it ever was, only running out of Thunder Wool meant I pelted him with Screw Crushers instead of Buster shots.

Then it was on to Solar Man, who was weak to the Water Shield. Of course, the Water Shield is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

I think you see where this is going. The boss fights were exactly the same as they were in a standard run, and for the most part so were the stages.

I swapped one weapon out for another, and that was it. I didn’t have to change my tactics or behavior, and if I wanted to rely on another Robot Master weapon, I really couldn’t; they weren’t versatile or efficient enough. I’d use them situationally, as I always had. By the time I got the Triple Blade – which conceivably could have served as an alternate Buster – I was already used to how the Screw Crusher handled, so I stuck with that. I can count on one hand the number of moments that changed significantly from a standard run, and usually those were made easier.

I tried adding another restriction, not allowing myself to use either E-tanks (to restore my health) or W-tanks (to restore my weapon energy). But that didn’t really make it any harder, as I’d racked up enough extra lives that dying was never much of a setback. I did have to continue once, before the final Wily fight. That was it.

Mega Man 10 had originally disappointed me, and my attempt at spicing things up disappointed me again.

Playing through the game again, though, did remind me how difficult it is to articulate just what I don’t like about it. So much of it is good. Some of it is great. Hell, it has the Weapons Archive, which digitally resurrects Robot Masters from Mega Man through Mega Man 9, and which is clearly the greatest fortress boss in the series’ history.

But when I play it, I don’t feel engaged. I go through the motions. Even now that I actively tried not to go through the motions, I ended up going through the motions.

Mega Man 10 feels like a game on autopilot. It’s chock full of solid ideas, but it doesn’t push any of them far enough.

Playing through it this time – my first time in a few years – I realized that even the highlights I remembered weren’t all that great. Commando Man’s sandstorms, now that I know how to deal with them, don’t require me to do anything but hold down a single button. Nitro Man’s traffic segments occupy just a few screens, and they don’t ask anything more from you than a handful of decently timed hops. The reverse-gravity Wily stage does absolutely nothing with its gimmick; literally anything you could think to do with an upside-down stage would be better than what we actually get here.

It feels half baked. It’s a great concept that doesn’t quite go anywhere. And that’s Mega Man 10 in a nutshell. There’s so much I love about it, but so little that lives up to its potential.

Mega Man 9 was nearly perfect because IntiCreates clearly took the time it needed to make it perfect. Mega Man 10 is another story. It feels like the team came up with good ideas, but didn’t take the time to truly refine them. It was enough for them to create an upside-down stage; they didn’t see the need to figure out what might be done with that. It was enough for them to come up with interesting weapons; they didn’t see the need to give players a reason to use them. It was enough for them to come up with a fun story; they didn’t see the need to actually show us that story’s own ending.

It seemed like a lesser shadow of what immediately preceded it, mixed with the lack of care and inspiration that plagued the weakest games in the series.

It was still good, it just wasn’t great. And that represents a big step down when Mega Man 9’s entire thesis was that the series could still be great.

There are reasons enough to tool around with it. The soundtrack. The interesting approach to weapon design. The returning endless mode, which isn’t quite as good as Mega Man 9’s but is still a nice time waster. The difficulty selection, which doesn’t just alter damage dealt and taken – as it did in Mega Man 2 – but actually changes enemy types, boss attacks, and certain obstacles. The ability to play as both Proto Man and Bass.

But there aren’t enough reasons to come back to it frequently. When I played Mega Man 9, I fell in love the same way I did way back when I played Mega Man 2. I wanted to get better at it. I wanted to experiment with it. I wanted to master it.

With Mega Man 10, I just want to like it. And for everything that I do enjoy – again, I enjoy a lot of it – there are two or three things I don’t. Or which feel undercooked. Or which I don’t think were entirely thought through.

And then…that was it. Rumors circulated about a Mega Man 11 for a while, and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t at least considered by IntiCreates. Rumors also circulated about a Mega Man X9 in the style of the SNES games. That might have been wishful thinking, but I’d still wager IntiCreates batted the idea around to some degree.

Then, in October 2010, seven months after Mega Man 10’s release, Keiji Inafune left Capcom. Inafune is often considered the father of Mega Man, and though the character was designed before he joined the development team for the first game, Inafune had a strong hand and important role in guiding the series from there. He did not create it, but he doubtlessly helped define it, and for nearly all of the Blue Bomber’s life, Inafune was at the helm.

His departure from Capcom did not seem at all to have been on good terms, and that seemed to suggest the death of the series. Inafune no longer had the rights to create Mega Man games. Capcom could certainly have continued making them without him, but they wasted little time in proving that they didn’t intend to.

The year after Mega Man 10 was released, Capcom cancelled the two high-profile Mega Man games they had in the pipeline: Mega Man Legends 3, and Mega Man Universe, which was a game creation tool that seemed like it would be very similar to the approach later taken by Super Mario Maker.

And that wasn’t all. An odd, little-discussed game called Mega Man Online was officially cancelled in 2013, though rumors of its death began circulating long before that. Eventually we even learned that Capcom had also cancelled a first-person shooter set in the Mega Man X timeline called Maverick Hunter. It was cancelled the same year Inafune left the company, and by all accounts he was the one who got development on that project started in the first place.

Capcom, perhaps out of spite, was killing everything with the Mega Man name on it. Their only true release was Street Fighter x Mega Man, and that was just a free download of a fan game that Capcom released through official channels. It was extraordinarily poor.

That was it. Mega Man made a truly welcome addition to the Super Smash Bros. roster in 2014, but a fighting game – however good it is – will never scratch the side-scrolling, platforming, robot-smashing itch the series was known for.

Time passed. Capcom, Inafune, and IntiCreates all moved on to different projects. Some of them drew clear inspiration from Mega Man, and most of them did not. Capcom released a few dolls, eyeglasses, and tissue boxes over the years to periodically cash in on the recognition of a brand they had no interest in resuscitating a second time.

We lost Mega Man all over again. The long-abandoned fans that had finally seen their favorite series reborn with a great game followed by a good one were robbed of it once more. Mega Man came back just long enough for his departure to sting. Now fans had two more games they could reflect on with longing, but that was small comfort. Mega Man was rebuilt just to be lost to whatever bitterness existed between his lead designer and the company that once treated him so well.

Dr. Wily, finally, stopped coming back.

That’s where the series ended.

And that’s where I expected Fight, Megaman! to end as well. Maybe it still will.

But, shockingly, between my review of Mega Man 8 and now, Capcom announced an Inafune-less Mega Man 11. As of this writing, they’ve released nothing but a brief trailer. Eight years after Mega Man seemed to shut down for good, we get the promise of another game. Another chance. Another revival.

Perhaps for real this time.

We don’t know much about it. We know it won’t be in the 8-bit NES style. We know it will have a different lead designer. We know we want it.

And so I’d love to leave you with some kind of closure. With some kind of ultimate conclusion. With some grand reflection on a series that – when I started this series – I was convinced was gone for good.

But I can’t.

Because there’s something on the horizon.

For Mega Man fans, that’s all it takes to get our hearts racing. To get our imaginations spinning out of control. To get us excited.

I don’t know if the game will be very good. Statistically speaking, it won’t. I don’t know if I’ll like the things the game will clearly do differently. Statistically speaking, I won’t. I don’t know if it can make anywhere near the same impact Mega Man’s previous resurrection made. Frankly speaking, it can’t.

But Mega Man fans have something to look forward to. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time. And as Inafune proved with Mighty No. 9 – his own off-brand Mega Man successor – in 2016, he might not have been the true creative genius in the room after all.

Maybe Capcom still has the magic.

Maybe Mega Man 11 will evolve the series in a direction that actually works.

Maybe I’ll spend 7,000 words in a year or so gushing about everything it does exactly, perfectly, incredibly right.

All I know for sure is that I’ll play it on day one, and I’ll do so as I’ve done with every single previous Mega Man release: like an excited child, just glad to see his old friend again.

Best Robot Master: Commando Man
Best Stage: Nitro Man
Best Weapon: Triple Blade
Best Theme: Nitro Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 9, 2008)

Mega Man had never gone more than two years between games, but after Mega Man 8 — and the one-off experiment that was Mega Man & Bass — the series went a decade. Once an industry mascot right up there with Mario, Link, and Sonic, Mega Man just…stopped. The saddest part was that nobody really missed him.

The world kept turning, no darker or more slowly without him. The industry trudged forward just fine. Even its developer, Capcom, had moved onto other series that kept its fortunes strong. Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Dead Rising, Monster Hunter, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and lots of others were released at a steady clip and to positive reception. To paraphrase Clarence Oddbody, Mega Man had been given a great gift…a chance to see what the world would be like without him. And it turned out the world was just fine.

Mega Man was relegated to the chambers of memory. If you wanted to, you could dust off your old NES and rip through whatever game or games of his you remembered most fondly, but it was far more likely that your attention was now elsewhere. Every so often you’d talk with a friend about the games of your youth, and Mega Man would come up. You’d reminisce about him. You’d laugh about the good times and bad. But like all memories of those you’ll never see again, you’d tuck them away again and focus once more on the here and now.

Mega Man’s disappearance didn’t interfere with my life any. I had other things on my mind. I was finishing high school. Then I was in college. I was dating. I was working, often at multiple jobs. I was developing as a writer. I was moving out. I was learning what I wanted out of life, and I was trying to figure out how to get it. I was growing up, because I had to.

For a good long while I never had to worry about where my food or shelter would come from. Then, overnight, I did, and the amount of time I could devote to extravagances was sorely reduced. Had Mega Man continued on his yearly release schedule, there would have been 20-odd games I wouldn’t have had the time to play.

In short, his absence wasn’t felt. I was able to say that about a lot of figures from my childhood. I valued the time we spent together, but I was somewhere else now. I wished them well, but there was no time for looking back.

Until, of course, there was.

Around 2007, I was still working hard — I had to be — but I was no longer pennies away from bankruptcy. I built up a savings. I found a great place to live in a different state. I had an incredible job. I found a new circle of friends. Things were…okay. The stressors and worries that had defined me for my entire adult life…weren’t there anymore. At some point I stopped. I caught my breath. And I realized I was okay.

I had time again. I had the money and space to devote to the things that I wanted to pay attention to. I started revisiting the things I had loved unquestioningly as a child. Books, movies, music, TV shows. It was during this period that I launched my first website as well, giving me a place to write about those things and more. This goes back many years, but I don’t need to point out that this is still where I am today. This is what I do. I study. I report. I read too deeply into things.

One of my major purchases at the time was a Wii, which was a bit surprising, as I had been out of the video game loop for quite a while. But I was interested in it. Not for Wii Sports. Not for Super Mario Galaxy. Not for whatever Zelda game was guaranteed to come along.

No. What won me over was the Virtual Console.

It’s amazing how quaint the concept feels now, what with digital downloads and emulation becoming less the exception and more the rule, but I remember looking through a listing of classic games available for purchase on the Wii and feeling blown away. I could play Super Mario 64 again? Well, what am I waiting for?

I enjoyed the Wii, and I think it had some incredible games throughout its lifespan. But the crisper visuals didn’t win me over. The motion controls didn’t win me over. The chance to play Mario Kart online didn’t win me over. What won me over was the opportunity to go backward. To rediscover. To rebuild — albeit digitally and with strong limitations — the same library of games I had growing up. The ones I loved. The ones I didn’t love. The ones that were too hard for me. The ones rooted so deeply in my mind that I could replay them from memory, uncovering every secret again along the way.

People complained about the prices; I remember that very well. I thought and still think they were crazy. $5 for an NES game was a steal. $8 for a SNES game. These were games my parents couldn’t easily afford for me when I was little, and now they were priced lower than a meal at a fast food restaurant. Didn’t people realize what a great time to be alive this was?

I downloaded so many classic games, most of which held up just as well as I could have hoped. And since they were so cheap, I bought plenty of games I never got to play as a kid, discovering many gems along the way that had passed me by. I played Ufouria for the first time, and fell in love with somebody else’s childhood.

All of this is to say that the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game my way. What’s more, though, the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game the industry’s way. I wasn’t the only one rebuilding and reappraising the library of my childhood. Retro games were a hot commodity online and in stores. Services such as the Virtual Console allowed game companies to continue profiting from their back catalogues. And, most significantly, companies were releasing new titles that deliberately hearkened back to the roots of their respective series.

It was a bit of a fad for a while. Games such as New Super Mario Bros. (2005), Contra 4 (2007), Castelvania: The Adventure Rebirth (2009), Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010), Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010), Rayman Origins (2011), and others saw success and critical praise that proved that the kids who played those series hadn’t actually outgrown them…they rather fell away as the games drifted further from what they loved about them in the first place. The moment a popular franchise said, “We’re going back to basics,” ears pricked up.

Mega Man 9 rode that wave of revivals relatively early, meaning it felt both comfortable and fresh at the same time. Mega Man was back…and this time he wasn’t dragging along any clutter. Expectations were high, and Mega Man 9 managed to exceed every last one of them.

The game was and remains a masterpiece. And while I do enjoy nearly all of the games in the classic series, it was surprising and oddly fulfilling to suddenly have another Mega Man game that could be spoken of in the same breath as Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3.

The fact that this arrived so long after the last Mega Man release was astounding. Even more incredible was the fact that several entire spinoff series came and went in the gap since Mega Man 8.

No, seriously. There was Mega Man Legends (1997-2000), Mega Man Battle Network (2001-2005), Mega Man Zero (2002-2005), and Mega Man ZX (2006-2007). If you want, you can also consider Mega Man X (1993-2004), which was largely released during classic Mega Man’s silence and Mega Man Star Force (2006-2008), whose final game arrived just a few months after Mega Man 9.

It didn’t just seem unlikely that Mega Man would ever return to its stripped-down origins; it seemed impossible. And remember…that previous paragraph isn’t a list of games. It’s a list of entire series. Mega Man had splintered and fragmented so many times over that there just wasn’t a place for the little boy in blue pajamas we had once loved so much. The climate wasn’t the same. Gamers had different expectations now. As Tom Petty once put it, everything changed…and then changed again.

But Capcom brought Mega Man back. The original Mega Man. Without voice acting. Without convoluted mythology. Without extra fortresses and split groups of bosses and mid-point stages and gimmick levels. Without even a chargeable Mega Buster or the ability to slide. When many other series promised a return to their roots, they meant it in a general, spiritual sense. Mega Man meant it to the letter. If he couldn’t do it in the first game, he sure as hell wasn’t doing it here.

In truth, though, this game has less in common with the original Mega Man than it does with its celebrated sequel, Mega Man 2. The tighter physics, the richer sprites, the compositional philosophy behind the music, and the lack of a score system. This last, however, wasn’t so much missing as it was updated for modern sensibilities, but we’ll talk about that later. Mega Man 2 refined and defined the formula for the series, and Mega Man 9 ditched nearly everything that came afterward, and refused to roll the clock back any further.

Which is interesting, I think. Mega Man 9 feels to me like a proper sequel to Mega Man 2, and it’s a great one, finding a true swell of inspiration so many releases and years after most series would have lost steam for good.

It’s not unlikely that all of the credit for this belongs to Inti Creates, the developer who took on the seemingly impossible task of resuscitating a series that was both long dead and still revered. Mega Man 9, however it turned out, would have had to contend with unreasonable expectations across the board, and Inti Creates not only rose to the occasion…they arguably created the best game to bear the Mega Man name.

Of course, the company didn’t just swoop in out of nowhere. They’d worked closely with Capcom in the past, most notably by developing the entire Mega Man Zero series. For my money, Mega Man Zero is front to back the best Mega Man series. It’s certainly the most consistent in terms of quality, and it established Inti Creates as an important partner for Mega Man. The games were well received, each title successfully improved upon most of what came before, and it hearkened back to many of the best aspects of the Mega Man X and classic Mega Man series.

Capcom entrusted them with one of its coolest and most popular characters with the impossible task of relaunching Zero’s career after Capcom themselves sank it with the increasingly dire Mega Man X releases…and Inti Creates still hit a grand slam four times over. It’s really not surprising they were handed the keys to the classic Mega Man series later on.

Inti Creates’ true desires to work on classic Mega Man were probably most explicit in Mega Man ZX: Advent. That series was also great, and also belonged to Inti Creates. In Mega Man ZX: Advent, they included an unlockable mode that reimagined the game in the 8-bit style of the original Mega Man series.

It was a cute flourish far more than it was a statement of purpose, but it was also totally unnecessary. It required all new art and music. It required new AI and new physics. It was short, but it still placed the responsibility of building an entire framework from scratch on the plates of developers who already had another game to finish.

It was a labor of love. They did it because they wanted to do it. They wanted to build a game in the style of the NES classics.

I don’t know who initially pitched the idea for Mega Man 9, but, whoever it was, Capcom would have been positively idiotic not to give the job to Inti Creates.

While there’s very little design overlap between the Mega Man Zero series and Mega Man classic, I do think the quadrilogy of games Inti Creates built around Zero illustrated their ability to handle this throwback sequel. Mega Man Zero is a series that often demands and always rewards precision. It’s a series that expects you to die, and frequently, until you figure out the best way through a given stretch of a level. It’s a series that requires you to observe, understand, anticipate, and react to boss patterns. It’s a series made easier or more difficult by the sequence in which you choose to accomplish tasks. All of that should sound very familiar to classic Mega Man fans.

Most importantly, though, the Zero series proved that Inti Creates could be trusted to do work that was both respectful and innovative with established characters and mechanics. It may have been the first time Zero saw his name in lights, but players had been controlling him since Mega Man X 3, getting more familiar with — and excited about — his moveset with each subsequent game* in that series.

In short, though Mega Man Zero was technically the first game in a new series, it was also a successor to something players knew very well. Inti Creates didn’t have the luxury of building player expectations from scratch; they already existed, and anything they did would have to use the core of the original experience as its foundation.

They proved they could do it, four times over. (Six, if you count the related biometals in the Mega Man ZX series.) Controlling Zero was, if anything, even more of a tactile delight than it had been in the Mega Man X games. He felt faster in his own series, looser, and yet no less responsive. In keeping with the narrative of Mega Man Zero, it was as though he were reawakened, shook the stiffness from his joints, and became who he was meant to be all along.

What’s more, he felt at home, as the games were now designed around his flowing mobility, his graceful swordplay, his evolving movesets. Whereas games in the X series were built around what X himself could or couldn’t do and Zero was just an elaborate cameo, the Mega Man Zero games were playgrounds built exclusively for Zero. They not only lived up to the expectations earlier games had inspired in us, but they made us feel like these were the games we’d been waiting for all along.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into the Zero series** but I do think it’s helpful background information, and it explains why, after a long and what seemed like a permanent silence from the Mega Man classic series, Mega Man 9 landed out of nowhere with immediate perfection.

Okay, I say “out of nowhere,” but that wouldn’t be entirely true. In fact, I remember a trickle of buildup, which was surprising for a WiiWare*** game. WiiWare was a digital distribution platform that allowed large and small developers to release their games digitally on the Wii. Not all of the games were winners — not by a longshot — but there were a few pretty great ones. Usually, though, they just…appeared. Games were released weekly and you’d wait for word of mouth to direct you to standouts like World of Goo, Bit.Trip: Beat, Retro City Rampage, and the Art Style series. Hype came largely after the fact, as there were rarely demos or trailers to get players excited.

Mega Man 9 was different, though. I felt it coming. Like stormclouds in the distance, it was on its way, and I knew it. I was still mainly using my Wii to play old games — and I liked it that way — but now my interest was piqued for a new release.

Word spread that Capcom was releasing another Mega Man game…one that looked like the ones we remembered. The screenshots made that clear. It really did look very familiar, like screenshots from a title developed in the very early 1990s that was only now discovered in the archives. Then more information came along. The soundtrack would be NES-style as well. (Only we now called this “chiptune.”) And, so surprising to me that it felt like a decision born of glorious madness, there’d even be an option to let the game experience slowdown and flicker when too many sprites were on the screen at once.

This alone was a great joke; somebody actually took the time to program false system limitations into the game. After the entire video game industry had been pushing consoles as far as they could go on a regular basis, trying to squeeze that much more performance out of rigid system specs, Mega Man 9 built in an option to make it play intermittently like crap.

Because that’s how you remember Mega Man. And Mega Man 9 wants to be everything you remember about Mega Man.

Just the option for flicker — just the idea of the option for flicker — caused a long-dormant memory to surge back.

I remembered playing my original Nintendo and experiencing slowdown in a game I loved. It was possibly a Mega Man game. It was probably a Mario game. But the point is, I remember the action slowing down, frustratingly. I remember pressing harder on the buttons as though that would speed up my character’s animation. I remember expecting that at some point a more powerful version of the Nintendo would arrive, which would have enough processing power to run these games properly. I never felt as though the games were coded poorly, though they often were. I always felt that the Nintendo just wasn’t strong enough to let them run correctly.

Now, finally, I had an NES-style game to look forward to on a system that would let it run properly.

And the game was choosing to run like garbage.

I admire the sheer gumption of that choice to this day. I still laugh. I still love it.

For the first time since I was a kid, I got to look at a batch of upcoming Robot Masters and wonder which ones would be easiest, which ones to save for last, which ones would give you the best weapons. No, scrolling through screenshots wasn’t much like poring over an issue of Nintendo Power, but a little bit of that same thrill came back. Enough of it came back. And the nostalgia was helped along by the the deliberately awful — and true to life — box art that Capcom whipped up. Another unnecessary gesture, as the game was only released digitally.

And so, while Mega Man 9 was technically of a piece with the other throwback-style games I listed above, it didn’t just want to recapture old magic…it wanted to transport you in time. It wanted to make you believe that this really was a game from the 8-bit era…just one, like Ufouria, you hadn’t gotten around to playing before. That “9” gave away its place in time, but very little else about the experience did.

The pixel art was beautiful, but it didn’t register as anything the NES wouldn’t have been theoretically capable of displaying. The soundtrack was the wall-to-wall best in the series, but it was also true to tunes we remembered and loved as children. The enemies, even the new ones, looked familiar. The weapons were better than we’d seen in any previous game, but they wouldn’t have felt out of place there. Instruments dropped out of the stage music to make way for sound effects — old and new — that were comfortable, natural, and familiar, right down to Mega Man sounding like a sneezing dog when he took damage again.

The stage layouts were all original**** while maintaining the design philosophy we passively internalized as children. You had a sense of when you’d experience the rise and fall of panic, you understood the precise degree by which the hazards would ratchet up in complexity, you encountered one enemy in a safe area and anticipated that that same enemy would be used differently later to threaten your life.

Words simply cannot express what a creative triumph Mega Man 9 really was. As if designed solely to prove that bigger is not always better, Mega Man retreated into simplicity and found the heart it had lost long ago. I fell in love with the game the moment I booted it up, and by now, hour for hour, it has to be one of my most-played games ever, right up there with Mega Man 2.

It was perfect, and I had no complaints.

I’m kidding, of course.

I had a complaint. It was hard as hell.

When I was using my Wii to replay the games of my youth, I, for whatever reason, hadn’t really bothered with Mega Man. I couldn’t possibly say why; I don’t think it was conscious. I think, more likely, I had just not gotten around to it yet. Mega Man 9 was the first time I’d played any Mega Man game in ages.

And I died.

A lot.

And frequently.

More than you could even imagine.

Every screen was difficult. No stage seemed notably easier or harder than any of the others. Usually in a Mega Man game you’ll hop from level to level until you find the one nut that’s easiest to crack. Typically the boss of that level is also a relative pushover, but even if he’s not you can at least reliably clear the stage and take pop after pop at the champ.

In Mega Man 9, though, nothing was easy. The enemies whittled my health down quickly. I’d limp from screen to screen, hoping to make it just a little further. (And rarely succeeding.) As if to mock me, the game would finally drop health or extra lives for me…into pits and onto beds of spikes. When I managed to figure out how to deal with an enemy or a particular configuration of enemies, some other obstacle would then serve as a brick wall against my progressing any further.

It was rough. It was cruel. It was relentless.

And yet…I kept playing.

Just like the Mega Man games of my youth.

The truest Mega Man 9 comes to the series isn’t in its optional flicker or its period-appropriate box art. It’s in the compulsive need it inspires in you to keep beating your head against that wall. I’ve played plenty of games that stand imposingly before me and knock me down every time I try to stand back up. Nearly all of those see me giving up at some point, and letting the game exist without me. Very rarely do I do what I did with Mega Man 9, and a number of its predecessors, which is surrender myself to it, let it kick my ass repeatedly, and finally learn to outwit it.

I came a long way with Mega Man 9. A game that seemed comically impossible gradually gave way to a rewarding adventure that just required vigilance. It wasn’t nearly as unfair as it had seemed at first. I remember struggling for days to take down any of the Robot Masters, only to finally force my way through the battle with Galaxy Man. But fast forward a few months and there I was, performing a live playthrough of the entire game for viewers on a stream. Not only could I now reliably beat it, but I could do so in one sitting, in front of an audience. I remember one commenter saying he had never seen anyone take down Dr. Wily as fast as I did.

The game I could barely play became one I was actually, legitimately good at.

Actually, no; strike that. The game made me good at it.

It trained me. It enabled me. It tore me down and dared me to try again, but each time I did I learned a little more about what not to do. And then a little more about what to do. And then a little more about what I could do better, or faster, or more impressively.

Mega Man 9 isn’t easy, but if you’re willing to spar with it, you’ll come out so much stronger for having done so. It has a sturdy, sometimes cold internal logic that you need to learn how to read. It plays by rules…just not your rules. And it leaves itself open just enough that you keep coming back…after you get the profanities out of your system and pick the controller back up.

I don’t mean to suggest that the game is entirely fair. Replaying it now — so long after I’ve come to grips with its quirks — there are still a number of moments that exist only to be troublesome.

There are the little grabber enemies that rush you into death spikes in Gravity Man’s stage and Wily’s fortress, which are almost uniformly impossible to predict your first time through. There are the draining water platforms in Splash Woman’s stage that require you to navigate them while they move at different speeds around death spikes. There’s the swing in Jewel Man’s stage above a bottomless pit and next to a wall lined with death spikes, requiring you to jump toward both and hit the gate rather than either of the two hazards.

You know, I’m noticing a pattern here…

Yes, one of the recurring criticism is that Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its use of death spikes. The entire time I’ve been replaying the Mega Man classic series, I was prepared to get to this entry and dispel the accusation. “Mega Man games were always full of death spikes,” I’d say. “This one just seems to have more because you played it more recently and haven’t spent as much time memorizing how to handle them.”

But, well, I’ve just recently replayed the previous eight games…and I can say with confidence that the critics are correct. Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its death spikes.

We’ve talked before about the health bar functioning as a kind of ticker that represents the number of mistakes you can make before the game shoots you back to a checkpoint. And I think it’s helpful to view it that way; Mega Man encourages perfection. If you like, you can take risks and hope for the best, but you can only do that a finite number of times before you lose too many of the bets you place.

Mega Man games don’t let you coast on luck, because you’ll never be lucky enough times in a row to finish the game. You can afford to tank your way through certain obstacles, but you’d better learn the rest, because you’ll never make it to the boss doors otherwise.

Mega Man 9‘s overuse of death spikes, though, betrays that mutual understanding. You don’t get to learn by making a mistake and moving on, crippled by your error. Your error far too often kills you, and you’re back to the checkpoint. Often you won’t even know what you were supposed to do differently. That’s a feeling that really sets in during the fortress levels, which have a bit more personality than they had in previous games, but are only marginally more fun than they ever were.

It’s a bit difficult to put myself back in the shoes of a new player. When I play through Tornado Man’s rainy sections, I know there are platforms behind the clouds to make platforming easier. When I’m launched skyward by Galaxy Man’s teleporters, I know the flying enemies will never hit me as long as I don’t panic. I know which way to veer during screen transitions to keep from clipping a spike with my foot and exploding unglamorously.

Back then, though…I remember experiencing a mix of emotions. At first — nearly always — I’d laugh. Some unforeseeable hazard swooped in and killed me. Ha ha.

It seemed almost knowing…a wink to the player. “Remember when games used to be this cruel?” And it was a good joke. The death was worth the chuckle.

For a while.

Because it would happen again and again throughout the course of a level. It would strip me of my lives, one after another. It would frustrate me so much that I’d get careless, and die even more than I was already fated to. The joke got old. An instant-kill hazard I have no way of knowing how to navigate appears three quarters of the way through the level, and I’m on my last life. I die, as I must, learning nothing about how to progress, and am booted back to the stage select.

Repeat. Over and over and over again. All I wanted to do was make it to the boss so I could see if I had the right weapon, and maybe get a sense of what to expect when I fought him (or her!) properly. But I’d make it to the boss so rarely, and when I did I’d have so little health remaining. I’d be killed by the first attack and kicked out of the stage knowing no more than I did when I started.

My girlfriend at the time watched me play. She watched me die. She heard me shout, “No!” more times in an hour than I’m sure she thought was reasonable. At one point, I asked her if she wanted to try. She declined. “I don’t know why anybody would play a game that punishes them like that.”

She…had a point.

Granted, I think she was at the other end of the spectrum. The games I knew she liked were Animal Crossing, and whichever Katamari game it was that asked you to collect one million roses. Not that I disliked those games, but watching her play those was such a foreign experience to me. She steered little avatars around environments that couldn’t hurt her, let alone kill her. Everything was sunny and welcoming. Reflexes and experience barely even entered into it.

I don’t mean to imply that those games are or were in any way beneath me — I now enjoy both series on their many merits — but when I sit down to play something, I rarely reach for a game that requires so little of me.

Instead, she watched me reach for a game that requires everything of me, and then spits in my face and tells me that I’ll never be good enough. Surely an ideal — and emotionally healthy — gaming experience lay on the spectrum somewhere between those two extremes.

But I kept at it. It punished me, she was right, but it never defeated me. First Gravity Man. Then Splash Woman. I think it was Tornado Man next, but I know for a fact that Plug Man was last. Piece by piece, I chipped away at that wall. And then I finally made it to the Wily fortress, which made me chuckle with its eyebrow waggling introduction and then promptly beat the living shit out of me over and over again.

And yet, I was still making progress. Even when I wasn’t doing anything but entering a stage and dying to the same enemy or obstacle over and over again. And that’s because of one great carryover from Mega Man 7: the shop.

Or, I suppose, more specifically the currency. Bolts were back, and you could trade them in for all kinds of helpful items, from familiar (and invaluable) ones like 1-ups and E-tanks to gracious additions like the one-off ability to negate death spikes. And that’s where the feeling of progress comes even when you’re not earning new weapons or scratching Robot Masters off your hit list.

I read a book recently about the development of the excellent Rogue Legacy. I won’t bother looking up the title, because the book wasn’t very good. But one of the game’s designers spoke for a while about how the leveling system in that game allowed players to feel like they were advancing, even if they kept failing in the same area each time. Their characters would get stronger, they could upgrade their equipment, they could discover new, permanent items in chests…basically the design of the game kept players from feeling like any given run was fruitless, even if they didn’t make it any further than they had previously.

Mega Man 9 offers something similar. You can keep dying, sure, and you will. But you’ll also be accumulating bolts as you do, and those carry over. Die enough and, yes, you’ll be frustrated, but you’ll also have a cache of cash that you can use to invest in items that will give you an edge. You can load up on lives and health restoratives to your heart’s content. In an apt metaphor for so much, failing really could make you stronger.

It was a smart design move, and a further reinforcement of the fact that the limited currency of Mega Man 8 was a bad idea. The shop needs to function as an ongoing reward, whereas Mega Man 8 turned it into an additional source of stress as you could never buy all the upgrades, meaning each purchase locked you permanently out of the chance to buy something else.

The shop did almost have one thing in common with Mega Man 8, though; while the stripped-down jump-and-shoot moveset of the original Mega Man was known long in advance to be the approach Mega Man 9 would take, there evidently were plans for the shop to sell permanent upgrades in the form of sliding and charging the Buster.

This I do think would have represented a nice middleground; those who struggled could buy the upgrades for an easier run through the game, and purists could ignore them. But I believe Inti Creates made the right decision by scrapping the idea. Nobody in their right mind would have avoided grinding for the bolts necessary to purchase those upgrades, and therefore the core Mega Man moveset would have been relegated to the opening stage or so, before players could afford to move on from it.

By removing the option altogether, Inti Creates forced everybody to familiarize themselves with the same limitations, and to engage the game without those additional offensive and evasive capabilities.

Mega Man 9 did offer somewhat of a concession there, however. It was the first game in the series to make DLC available, and one of those options was the ability to play as Proto Man for the first time ever.

This version of Proto Man could slide and charge his Buster, much like Mega Man could in Mega Man 4. But that wasn’t all; he also had a shield that deflected projectiles (so long as you were in the air and not firing).

All of which makes it sound as though Proto Man’s run of the game would be far easier…except that there were some artful tradeoffs.***** Proto Man didn’t have access to the shop, he took double damage, he had more significant knockback from enemy attacks, and he could only fire two Buster shots at a time, compared to Mega Man’s three. Then again, playing as Proto Man meant you got to hear his iconic whistle at the start of every stage, so maybe it was worth it.

Playing as Proto Man was a great bonus, but the mode removed all of the story sequences and felt more like a novelty…a more punishing sprite-swap than anything else. I have to admit that this is something Mega Man 10 did far better than this game.

There were other bits of DLC available as well, including harder difficulty settings, a fairly dull extra stage with another boss (something else Mega Man 10 did far better, as we’ll see), and my personal favorite: Endless Mode.

Endless Mode was almost as good as the game itself, and (living up to its name) was endlessly replayable. The mode would hand you all of the special weapons in the game and toss you into a randomized series of corridors. Every 30 or so screens you’d have to face a Robot Master.

It was that simple, but it was extremely addictive, and it’s one of the highlights of the entire series to me. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it further than a screen or two. Just once (if memory serves) did I make it beyond 100 screens, and when I did I was sweating and tense.

Endless Mode was, essentially, the chance to play new Mega Man content whenever you wanted to. And while you could devote enough of your life to it that you catalogued and memorized all of its surprises, there was more than enough content there to keep most players happy for a very long time. (Mega Man 10‘s equivalent mode wasn’t nearly as good, however, and felt as though it contained significantly fewer modules.) It also made a scoring feature — not seen since the original Mega Man — feel meaningful. Nobody cared about beating their high score in that game…but getting further in Endless Mode than you ever had before? Now that felt good.

And, so, yes, that’s a lot of gushing. But we haven’t even started praising the single best set of weapons in Mega Man history.

As you’ll recall, I was very happy with Mega Man 7‘s loadout overall. In fact, I honestly couldn’t ask for anything more. And yet, Mega Man 9 gives us so much more.

In previous installments I’ve voiced my disappointment that the weapons felt as though they were designed in isolation from the stages. They were fun things for Mega Man to hurl around the screen, sure, but they didn’t feel tailored to the games themselves. They felt, at best, as though they’d been plugged in after the fact, and at worst as though they were just differently shaped projectiles for the sake of fulfilling a quota.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that with (at least) eight new weapons introduced in every game, the well had simply run dry. There was no real way to design a truly great arsenal of original weapons anymore. And I would have agreed. Mega Man 9 gleefully proves us wrong.

The weapons here are not only fun, but they’re useful. They’re versatile. They’re worth playing with, even when you don’t “need” them. And, most impressively of all, nearly all of them of them also function as utilities, meaning poor, overtaxed Rush can revert back to his basic Coil and Jet functions.

The simplest of the new weapons is probably the Plug Ball. It’s a cross between the Spark Shock and the Search Snake, but with an actual purpose. The Plug Ball drops directly to the ground and runs forward, around platforms, across the ceiling, and pretty much anywhere else it can get without crossing gaps. It’s powerful and fast, which in many games would earn it a spot among the best weapons. Here, it gets outdone by everything else, and that’s a great thing.

Next there’s the Jewel Satellite, which is even better than the Junk Shield, but feels more specifically like an upgraded version of the Leaf Shield or Star Crash. Four jewels orbit Mega Man and will take out weak enemies easily, only breaking if they hit an enemy powerful enough to withstand them. (This actually makes it superior to Jewel Man’s own version of the weapon, as his Jewel Shield chips away each time it’s struck by a Buster shot.) You can throw it when you’re done using it, but you can also move while it’s active, which makes it extremely handy in nearly all of the game’s long gauntlets.

The last of the “standard” weapons is the Magma Bazooka, an enhanced version of the Atomic Fire. It’s chargeable, like its forebear, but it launches three projectiles instead of just one, making it a decent spread weapon.

The rest of Mega Man 9‘s arsenal is truly great, though.

The Concrete Shot deals a decent amount of damage, but its main selling point is the fact that it creates temporary blocks to stand on. This is a huge asset when it comes to many of the game’s tricky platforming challenges; it’s not easy to aim the Concrete Shot precisely, but the odds are good you’ll get it close enough to create a foothold somewhere helpful. You can also use it to climb higher than you normally would, as well as block lasers late in the game and solidify the lava blasts in Magma Man’s stage and the fortress.

The Laser Trident is super fun, and a great example of doing the “differently shaped projectile” right. Not only is it powerful, but it’s ammo efficient. What’s more, it flashes and makes a really cool sound…and since this is a video game, flashing and making a cool sound is a legitimate selling point. Additionally, it pierces armor, and will sail straight through rows of enemies. What’s more, this is Mega Man 9‘s weapon for tearing down certain barricades, which makes it worth grabbing early so that you can reach items that are otherwise blocked off. It can also destroy the lava blasts you’ve hardened with the Concrete Shot. It gets a lot of use.

Then there’s the Tornado Blow, which is retooled Gravity Hold that wisely doubles as an assist to Mega Man’s jump height. Trigger it at the right time and you’ll get a lot of extra lift on your ascent, which is a pretty cool feature. It also adjusts some of the platform heights in the fortress. The Hornet Chaser is the game’s homing weapon, and the fact that it actually works makes it a very rare thing indeed. What’s more, the hornets will seek out and collect items for Mega Man, many of which can’t actually be obtained in any other way. Do you really want that large health that fell into the death spikes? Sure you do. Hornet, chase ‘er. (Aaaand just like that, I get the joke behind Splash Woman’s weakness.)

The best of the batch is the Black Hole Bomb. This one is powerful, steerable, and triggerable at will. You can feed it into almost any area of the screen, detonate it, and watch as enemies and projectiles are drawn into it and erased from existence. Do it above yourself and get ready to be showered by the falling health and ammo of your swallowed foes. The Black Hole Bomb consumes a lot of ammunition, but the sheer value of the item absolutely justifies the lack of efficiency, and it’s one of my favorite weapons in the entire series.

The special weapons prove that Inti Creates did its homework. They looked back at previous weapons, determined what made them fun to use, and ensured that they were woven into gameplay experience itself. For once, you didn’t just pull a weapon out because it would deal more damage to a certain enemy; you pulled a weapon out because it was the best answer to the puzzle posed by a given room.

Mega Man 9 is so slickly designed and perfectly presented that it retroactively makes the best things about the previous games in the series look like happy accidents rather than deliberate choices. Sure, the other Mega Man games were largely great, but never had they felt so deliberate. Here, every gear feels perfectly placed and finely tuned. It’s a deceptively complex machine that improves upon the stacks of blueprints that inspired it. It’s a game that must have been subject to endless playtesting, because as cruel as some of the sequences can be, especially to new players, everything feels right.

It seems as though Inti Creates took the same approach to the stages as they took to the weapons…replaying them all, parceling out moments that worked and moments that didn’t, and reverse engineering the entire Mega Man experience to find out what really mattered underneath all of the clutter.

And it worked. In addition to offering my favorite batch of weapons, Mega Man 9 may also offer my favorite batch of stages. Some of them are fairly basic Mega Man fare, but Splash Woman’s stage is one of the better and more varied water stages in the series. It has a variety of interesting enemies, each of which requires a unique approach. The octopus enemies have to be coaxed out of their pots, the mines force you into a brief and hectic dance, and the fish that torpedo you from the sides of the screen require you to be constantly ready on the trigger. The death spikes here aren’t even too bad, as the water physics are almost always present, giving you more maneuverability and allowing you think at a more reasonable pace.

Galaxy Man’s stage is probably my favorite, for sheer flair alone, with the teleporters being a fun little mechanic and the 8-bit futuristic aesthetic being exactly the sort of environment I would have fallen in love with as a kid. Hornet Man’s garden-themed stage is a nice, unexpected approach, and Magma Man’s stage does the impossible and makes a fire level more fun than frustrating to play.

For sheer variety, though, I think Tornado Man’s stage is the most impressive. It has spinning magnetic platforms which are used in multiple ways and can be handled in multiple ways, but it also leans into the weather theme more than we’ve ever seen the series do before. It opens with a clear, sunny stretch to help you get acquainted with the enemies and magnets, but then you’re working against the wind while stormclouds obscure hazards and platforms alike. Then you’re navigating a frozen area with slippery ice physics. And then you’re flying forward with the wind at your back, forcing you once again to come to terms with movement and momentum in a whole new way. It’s a really great stage, and an easy standout.

The Robot Master duels themselves are also a lot of fun and rewarding to figure out, with most of them requiring you to pay attention to more than just the boss and his (or her!) direct attacks.

Splash Woman asks you to watch for her Laser Trident from above and fish from the side. Jewel Man’s shield fragments fire back at you any time your shot connects with them. Tornado Man’s fight may actually be the best, as your location dictates where his Tornado Blow will appear. (Tornado Man’s design also hearkens back — and narratively forward — to the design of Harpuia, a recurring character from the Mega Man Zero series, which is some efficient continuity.)

I think the only duel I really don’t like is the one with Plug Man. It feels as though there’s just a bit too much to keep track of there, with multiple Plug Balls zooming around the screen and dropping from above, while Plug Man himself hops around unpredictably. Electricity-based Robot Masters tend to be among the most annoying, and this one doesn’t break the tradition. It’s the only fight I think is too busy, and the only one I still haven’t been able to complete Buster-only without taking damage.

The soundtrack does a lot of the work toward making the levels feel as great as they do, without a single weak track in the game. Jewel Man and Plug Man have probably my two least favorites, but they’re still great. Hornet Man’s is a bouncy, flighty tune that I always find myself enjoying more than I expect to. Concrete Man’s is a hard-edged homage to Wood Man’s theme, the first industrial forest level in the series. Tornado Man’s is a swirling, pulse-pounding masterpiece that fits perfectly with every weather condition his stage throws at you.

Splash Woman’s theme is beautiful, buoyant, and blue, and it ranks high on my list of all-time favorites. Magma Man’s is my favorite fire theme in the series, with a raging composition that evokes fiddles and brass intermittently and makes the entire area feel far more playful than it rightly should.

But Galaxy Man’s? Oh. Oh, Galaxy Man’s…

That song is a masterpiece. It’s the best track in a game full of standouts, and I’m sorry that the stage it underscores is the easiest, because that means I get to hear it that much less frequently. It’s almost too good, with it sometimes distracting me from the action on screen and causing me to make foolish mistakes. I love it, and there’s not a single track in Mega Man history that I’d rank higher.

I do have one complaint about the soundtrack, though: all of the stage themes sound like they could be Dr. Wily themes.

I don’t have the vocabulary to explain why, but if you think back to other strong themes from the previous games (Elec Man, Bubble Man, Snake Man, and so on), they feel tailored to their levels. You couldn’t play any of them underneath a Wily fortress stage, because it wouldn’t feel right. They were written for one particular area, and couldn’t survive in another.

In Mega Man 9, though, every stage’s theme sounds like a potential fortress theme. Thumping. Excitable. Drawing you forward. And while that’s by no means a bad thing, I find it a bit odd. It’s as though Mega Man 9 is full of fortress music as opposed to Robot Master music. Great compositions, but often they feel less tied to the identities of their levels.

That’s truly reaching for a complaint, though. And while I ladled out some disappointment above, if you can move past those rough edges — and many people were certainly able to — you have the best Mega Man game in ages. Possibly even the best ever.

I’ve gone back and forth — and even as I write this sentence I continue to go back and forth — about whether or not I prefer this to Mega Man 2. In my mind, Mega Man 2 is my easy favorite. But playing them again, reappraising them so close in time to each other, I’m not as sure.

Mega Man 2 has its ropey moments, as we’ve discussed. Mega Man 9 irons nearly all of them out. Sure, it introduces one or two of its own, but it also has better stages, on the whole. It has a better fortress. It has better weapons. It even, incredibly, has better music.

So I really don’t know. In a way, it doesn’t matter. I can pick either one today and change my mind tomorrow. And the mere fact that I can ask myself this question speaks volumes about just how successful Mega Man 9 really was about what it set out to do.

According to the old saying, you can never go home again. Mega Man 9 heard that and replied, “Like hell you can’t.” It provided a genuinely great — and remarkably true — retreat to a time when, for many players today, games actually meant something. When they were hard as hell and you’d stay up all night passing a controller back and forth just to make it one stage further. When you gathered around the TV to cheer and howl with dismay whenever something incredible happened on the screen.

I shouldn’t have been transported there. I was too old. I was too far along in my life. Video games didn’t mean the same thing to me that they meant then.

But Mega Man 9 took me by the hand and led me there anyway. It led many people there. And we found each other. Maybe this time it was online, sharing stories and tips and videos, beating the game during a live stream for others who had never seen the ending, comparing high scores in Endless Mode or showing off the achievement we’ve earned…including that incredibly rare and maniacal one that requires you to beat the game without taking any damage. Hell, my review of Mega Man 9 for a site I used to work for is what inspired Nintendo Life to reach out and hire me. The game singlehandedly turned me into a professional critic.

It was perfect, and part of me wishes the series ended forever, right here, on a note higher than any of us had any right to expect of it. What’s more, it would have left us with three trilogies, forming a perfect three-act structure. In the first three games, the young hero finds his footing. In the next three, he slowly loses his way and credibility, but not his drive. In the final three he struggles through a crisis of identity to find and redeem himself.

I know the phrase gets thrown around a lot, so forgive me for bumping the ball back into the air, but there really is no better way to put it: Mega Man 9 was what you thought you remembered of Mega Man, but it provided a better, more careful, more meticulous experience than Mega Man actually was. It was also self-aware to the point it had a number of genuinely good jokes sprinkled throughout, in particular the montage of Wily begging for his life.

Inti Creates was having fun. And why not? If gamers got to revisit and rediscover the games of their youth, developers had every right to enjoy the same opportunity.

So, okay. I’ve danced around the question enough. Was it better than Mega Man 2?

I don’t know.

And, again, it doesn’t matter.

But I think I’m going to give Mega Man 2 the edge. Not because Mega Man 9 isn’t, strictly speaking and removed from nostalgia, the superior experience. But rather because it means one thing to set the standard for the entire series, and something else to live up to it.

I’ll pay my respects to the pioneer, because his successors wouldn’t be here without him.

Best Robot Master: Splash Woman
Best Stage: Tornado Man
Best Weapon: Black Hole Bomb
Best Theme: Galaxy Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

—–
* The games themselves fluctuated wildly in terms of quality, but I think it’s safe to say that playing as Zero remained a fairly consistent highlight.

** Would there be any interest in a Mega Man Zero retrospective done in this style? With only four games it would be fairly easy, but I also have no clue who would or wouldn’t want to read it.

*** It was also released on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, making this the first Mega Man game to be multiplatform on release, but I played the WiiWare version, so that’s my point of reference. I’m unaware of any meaningful difference between the three releases, but please let me know if you can report any.

**** The main exception is the stretch of Splash Woman’s stage that borrows the bubble ride from Wave Man, but there are also some fun recreations of previous game levels parceled out in Endless Mode.

***** There’s also the fact that Proto Man’s Buster is lower to the ground, but I couldn’t decide if I should list that as a positive or negative attribute. I’d say there are an equal number of ticks in both columns, so I’d consider it a wash.

October News! Updates! Features!

Happy October! I know, it’s weird, I didn’t expect to live this long, either.

October is one of the months I look forward to most on Noiseless Chatter, and I really hope you do, too. We’ve got a lot coming up, and so I wanted to take a moment to let you know how the coming weeks will unfold.

– Trilogy of Terror: Oh yes. Trilogy of Terror is one of my favorite features to write, and though we’re only into its third year of existence, the feedback and traffic I get from it tells me you enjoy it, too. Each year I write longform essays about three related horror films in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I’ve got some truly memorable ones for you this time around, along with a theme I very much hope you’ll find as fascinating as I do. I have the first two posts drafted already, and just need to take screenshots to finish them off. I’m thrilled to get to share these with you. What films will they be? You’ll have to tune in and find out. The first installment goes live on Oct. 17, the second on Oct. 24, and the third on Oct. 31. I hope you’ll join me.

Red Dwarf: Red Dwarf is coming back again! Since I’ve reviewed the previous two series on this blog, I figure I might as well do this one, too. I’m not exactly sure when it starts — evidently the online premiere dates still aren’t determined? — but I’ll be here, reviewin’ and stuff. Series X was pretty awful with moments of greatness and series XI was pretty great with moments of awfulness, so I have genuinely no idea what to expect from series XII. Maybe the vending machines will have sex.

– Fight, Megaman!: Another of my favorite features is Fight, Megaman!, but that has a rapidly expiring shelflife. I’ve already covered eight of the 10 games I’m going to look at, and I actually just have the final review left to write. We’re almost to the end of the journey…except that I’ve decided to do something a bit more than I’d originally planned. After Fight, Megaman! is complete, I’m going to flesh out my analyses even further, correct a few things, elaborate on a few other things…and publish it as a book. The book will even feature many games I am not covering here, such as Mega Man & Bass, the Game Boy titles, and various spinoffs. I’ll keep you posted as this progresses, but I hope this is something that satisfies everyone. If you don’t want to buy anything, you still get the entire feature, as promised, here for free. If you do want to buy a book, you get some nice bonuses for your money, and hopefully some cool artwork. Stay tuned.

– Fight, Megaman X!: And, hey, speaking of spinoffs…a number of you have asked if I’ll cover the Mega Man X series next. The answer has to be no; I’m not as familiar with or in love with that series as I am with the classic style games. But we will be covering them here after all! Friend of the website Samurai Karasu will pick up when Fight, Megaman! leaves off. I’m very much looking forward to reading those along with you.

– 5th Annual Xmas Bash!: We’re talking about all my favorite Noiseless Chatter things today. The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is coming soon. I’ll post details as soon as I have them, but you can expect another five hours of forgotten Xmas specials, holiday commercials, bizarre Christmas music videos, the best live chat on the internet, and so much more. I’ve made a lot of progress putting the stream together already, and after I finish Trilogy of Terror, work will start on that in earnest. If you’ve joined us before, I hope you can make it out again. And if you haven’t…really, come on now. It’s a live stream of vintage Xmas dreck, commentated in real time by people much funnier than me. (Such as you!) Be there!

– Choose Your Own Advent: Last year I debuted a Choose Your Own Advent feature, in which I published an essay about a different novel every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 24. I have an idea for bringing the feature back this year…but it will really come down to how much time I have. My fingers are crossed, but obviously my priority will be the Xmas Bash! Therefore, if this is a feature you really want to see again…speak now!

Anyway, that’s just a taste of what to expect, and an excuse for me to gush a bit early about Trilogy of Terror. It’s going to be great, and I’m excited to hear your thoughts on what I’ve chosen to exhume this year.

I’ll see you soon!

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 8, 1996)

Boy, I hate Mega Man 8.

I’ve played worse games, of course. Plenty of them. In fact, if I made a list of the 50 worst games I’ve played, Mega Man 8 probably wouldn’t be on it. But I do truly hate it.

I don’t hate bad games, usually. As I’ve discussed before, I like junk. I like trash. I like watching the wheels fall off. There’s a giddy thrill to that which holds genuine appeal for me.

Mega Man 8, though, I hate. It’s not “fun” bad. It’s “tedious, irritating, pointless” bad. In fact, if it didn’t have the Mega Man name attached, I don’t believe there’s any chance at all that it would be remembered today. It doesn’t stand on its own merits, it isn’t entertaining, and it absolutely is not worth playing.

I honestly expected that the game would grow in my estimation this time around. I’d played it a handful of times before, at least once to completion, but here, now, for this series, I’m opening myself up. I’m digging deeper. I’m finding things I’ve never found before and, as I’m forced to articulate my opinions, I’m learning that I sometimes feel differently than I thought I did.

But Mega Man 8 is the same old game I’ve hated for years. If it’s grown in my estimation it’s only done so by some negligible amount. The one thing I can say for sure is that I’m reminded of all the reasons I pushed it away in the first place.

This is probably the right time to mention that I never had a PlayStation. That console hit its peak when I was firmly in the Nintendo camp, and its superior successor arrived when I had more or less stopped playing video games altogether.

Is that the reason I missed out on Mega Man 8? I’m going to say no, since I also missed the two previous Mega Man games the first time around. The series had lost its grip on me. Perhaps if I had owned a PlayStation I would have gotten Mega Man 8 as a gift at some point. But I doubt I would have sought it out. And if I had…man, I would have wished I hadn’t.

I grew up with Nintendo. For me, it wasn’t a company…it was a promise. The video games they made — and the games released for their systems — were escapes for me. Many years later, literature would scratch that same itch, and far more deeply. But when I was young, when I had little to look forward to and a lot to run away from, video games were an important coping mechanism. I could pick up a controller and have a say in what happened. I could try again and again to beat the same level, and eventually triumph. I could start out weak, and end up strong. The Mega Man games were probably the perfect distillation of that mindset, and I believe that’s why they resonated with me so strongly.

And, of course, I didn’t think of “video games” as being my escape; I thought of “Nintendo.” It’s a name that still, to me, sounds like the name of a friend. I had an Atari, but it didn’t grab me the way the NES did. Or the Game Boy did. Or the Super Nintendo did. I got a Nintendo 64 as well, and I loved it, but at some point during its lifespan I found myself with less time to play and less interest in what I was missing. I didn’t turn my back on Nintendo…I just lost touch with my friend.

I was aware of the PlayStation, but, to be frank, it never impressed me. Not back then. That’s an opinion I’ve been fortunate enough to revisit much more recently, and I like the console now. Back then, though…I didn’t really see the appeal.

I remember the controller feeling awkward to use, which is something I’m sure I was not alone in; it was redesigned relatively quickly. I remember the offputting fact that the games came on CDs. I was used to playing CD-based games on my computer, and was already well familiar with how easily they got scratched and how temperamental the reader could be. I remember those early PS1 graphics looking…well terrible. The colorful worlds I expected in video games were replaced with darker, murkier textures that looked neither realistic nor inviting. And so I played some PlayStation games with friends, and I had fun, but I never felt as though I was missing out by not having one.

Until I played one game: Resident Evil.

Playing Resident Evil the first time was one of my formative gaming moments. I remember my friend Mike bringing it over. I remember passing the controller back and forth with him and my other friend Dave. I remember the thick, visceral tension we felt as soon as we booted it up.

While this doesn’t sum up all of the feelings about Resident Evil I had that night, it’s worth emphasizing one thing: it scared the living crap out of me.

It’s silly to look back at it now that its cutscenes and writing and voice acting have been eviscerated mercilessly, but back then…I guess we just didn’t care. I still remember thinking those things were terrible — we were already in the habit of watching bad horror movies, and Barry’s delivery of the word “blood” alone had us rolling as hard as any of those films did — but somehow that wasn’t important. Maybe the acting was terrible, but was that really what mattered? We’re trapped in a mansion full of zombies and intricate death traps. Any laughing relief we get from that is bound to be fleeting; around the next corner we might have to use our last two bullets against a monster that will kill us anyway.

Resident Evil is the game that convinced me the PlayStation had merit, simply because it did something no other game had been able to do. No, being frightened wasn’t high on my list of priorities while gaming, but the fact that Resident Evil could elicit that response from me…could trouble and upset me psychologically…could tap into a part of my brain I had never truly had tapped by a game before…that meant something.

Of course, Resident Evil was developed be Capcom. And I’m currently playing through The Disney Afternoon Collection on my PS4, which is reminding me of just how important Capcom was to my experience of the NES. More than any other developer, I think, Capcom defined video games for me. It defined my expectations. It defined my sense of level design and progression. It defined my taste in game soundtracks. It defined what it meant to play. And then, years later, with Resident Evil, it defined so much all over again.

I love Capcom. Whatever silliness and shenanigans they may get up to today, they’ve earned a permanent place in my heart by creating a huge percentage of the games I remember fondly.

All of which is to say, if anyone could have given the world a great Mega Man away from Nintendo’s consoles, it was them. They understood the formula. They proved with Mega Man 7 that the aging series had life in it yet, and they proved with Resident Evil — in the same year as Mega Man 8! — that they could provide compelling, defining, important games for that generation’s unexpectedly successful new console.

What they produced instead was a game I hate.

And nobody’s more disappointed by that than I am.

Funnily enough, the one thing I really enjoy about this game is the one thing for which it’s most often reviled: the animated cutscenes.

I’m not saying they’re good. In fact, let’s clear that up right now: they’re absolutely terrible and they deserve the mockery they’re destined to receive through the end of time.

Having said that, though, I enjoy them. They’re silly, cheesy, cheap, and poorly acted. Which is…pretty much exactly what I hope for whenever I crack open a movie that looks terrible. There’s an appeal to genuine garbage, and Mega Man 8‘s animated sequences occupy an incredible sweet spot that only the truly best of bad entertainment can achieve.

Despite the fact that I didn’t play this game upon release, those cutscenes still hold nostalgic value for me. In late high school, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled by Comedy Central. The Science Fiction Network bought up the rights, and aired it early on Sunday mornings.

I’d wake up, turn the television on, and enjoy one of my favorite shows. Then, after that, they’d show an anime film. And, here’s the thing: it wasn’t good anime.

I don’t remember any specific films they showed, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of context. Suffice it to say this was years before Adult Swim used Cowboy Bebop to teach Americans that anime might be worth watching. The Science Fiction Network was, I’m sure, just plopping something cheap into a timeslot before the bulk of its audience woke up. And so we got poorly dubbed, poorly animated, slapdash wastes of time instead.

And I loved them. My friend Nate and I both enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 and found ourselves transfixed by whatever silly, forgettable anime garbage followed. We’d talk about it the next day in school. And watching the cutscenes in Mega Man 8 reminds me of that. It reminds me of watching those films and mentally preparing notes to share with Nate. It reminds me of laughing with him in the hallway. Had either of us played this game back then, I’m sure we would have tracked the other down as quickly as possible and forced them to play it. It was just the right kind of bad when it came to those sequences.

Replaying it for this review, I think I laughed harder than ever. It’s truly incredible stuff. The legendary speech impediment of Dr. Light is topped only by the same actor’s inability to get any of his lines right, resulting in stumbles that are, for some reason, left in the final edit. There’s Mega Man’s idiotic mispronunciation of Bass’s name. (As well as Bass’s masterful rejoinder: “Shut up.”) There’s Duo, whose voice actor seems to have recorded his lines in the middle of the night while trying not to wake his sleeping grandmother.

It’s gloriously bad.

The story this time around is fairly involved, by Mega Man standards. There’s some kind of unexplained intergalactic clash between opposing forces of good and evil. Good wins — which is nice — but the conflict sends a batch of “evil energy” to Earth, where Dr. Wily finds it before Mega Man does. From there it’s eight bad robots and a fortress…the same melody as ever…but at least it’s not Wily in cataract glasses being handed the keys to the Death-mo-tron 2000 by an increasingly moronic Dr. Light.

Introducing the conflict as an external force that Mega Man must then fend off from his home turf is a smart move, and it makes the stakes feel somewhat higher. We know Mega Man can topple Wily. He’s done it how many times now? But the dark energy from beyond the stars is an unknown quantity. The fact that the game does nothing with that (you can remove it entirely from the plot and nothing would change) is a bit disappointing, but it still makes your task in the game feel larger and more important than it actually is.

Thinking about the story reminds me that there is one other thing I like: THE END CREDITS.

…I’m actually not saying that as a punchline. I really do like the end credits. They include scans of the artwork submitted for the Robot Master design contest that was held for almost all of the original Mega Man games. Fans would send in their creations, and the developers would choose the winners, redesign them, and include them in the game. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I’m pretty sure the competitions were Japan-only, with the exception of the one for Mega Man 6, which — in nice keeping with the theme of the game — allowed Robot Master submissions from all around the world.

The competition for this game, from what little I’ve read, included some guidelines. They wanted one Robot Master to have long arms, another to have two heads, and so on. Fans came up with their ideas, sent them in, and we see a bunch of those actual submissions as the credits roll. It’s pretty adorable and the one true touch of personality to be found anywhere in the game. It’s also a nice use of the CD format; including actual scanned picture files isn’t something you could do on a cartridge.

And that’s…it. Amusingly bad cutscenes and charming fanart. Mega Man 8 offers little of value beyond that, and it’s one I rarely feel compelled to return to. When I do, I am reminded quickly of why that is.

Part of the problem, to me, is that only around half of the stages feel like Mega Man stages. (This is the same problem that plagues some of the Mega Man X entries as well.)

A Mega Man stage is built around a few things: platforming, fighting/avoiding enemies, and experimenting with special weapons. A truly great stage makes all of those things feel natural and fun, as well as challenging. In fact, when you think about Mega Man title — any game, any stage that comes to mind — you’re probably picturing something that’s right in line with that basic framework.

You’re probably not picturing stages like we get here, with shoot-em-up sequences, endlessly scrolling cyber mazes, and memory-based rocket sled segments.

Those things aren’t Mega Man, and I think it’s important to note that the one time we did have a stage-based genre bend prior to this (Wave Man’s wave bike in Mega Man 5) it functioned almost identically to what we know of the Mega Man formula. The vehicle was a kind of ingenious illusion. You were still jumping and shooting. You were still playing a Mega Man stage. The presentation tricked your mind into believing it was something else. Granted, you couldn’t use special weapons in that section, but it was basically a single autoscrolling room that in no way worked against your understanding of what Mega Man is or what it expects from you.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining about variety, but I’m really not. What I’m complaining about is the implementation of that variety.

When a game in one genre crosses temporarily into another, it should by and large remain true to what the core experience of the game is. We can — and should — expect variety in our games, but it needs to be a natural and organic variety, rather than a cumbersome, forced Frankensteining.

A few examples may help. In the final stretch of Kid Icarus, protagonist Pit sprouts wings and the game goes from being a (fairly) standard platformer to something more like a shoot-’em’-up. But the principles of the core experience remain. You’ve been trained by the previous levels to understand the patterns with which enemies swoop across the screen, the action of your projectile remains comfortable and familiar, and in practice the only true difference is that you no longer have to worry about slipping into a bottomless (and lowercase) pit. It feels like a genre shift, and it is a genre shift, but it’s one that’s so natural all it does is remove one of your previous mortal concerns so that you can focus more directly on the final battle. It’s a genre shift that is also an empowering and effective narrowing of focus.

There are also the turret sequences in any number of action games. Half-Life 2, The Last of Us, and pretty much any 3D action shooter at some point. These moments find your character behind a powerful, heavily armored, stationary firearm, and they turn the game, temporarily, into a classic-style arcade shooter. Again, though, it’s a natural shift and it narrows the focus. You no longer have to worry about taking cover, about health, about navigating the environment, about looking for secrets, about managing inventory, or anything else. After however many hours of doing those things, you get to hunker down behind some heavy artillery and mindlessly mow down the very same enemies that have been making your life miserable. Joel or Gordon Freemen or whomever else you happen to be playing as gets a bit of a rest, you as a player get some important catharsis, and then you’re back on the road.

On the less organic side of the coin, you have things like the street race in Chrono Trigger, or the various shooting galleries in the Legend of Zelda’s 3D era. Those are shifts that, quite simply, aren’t integrated. One kind of game stops, and another, completely different, kind of game begins. The steady grind and increasingly bleak atmosphere of a profound, complex RPG gives way to an underwhelming echo of Excitebike. The careful combat of Link’s adventure — in which every swipe of the sword and raise of the shield matters — gives way to a sudden requirement for speed and accuracy. In each of these examples, the shift is something for which the game has not prepared you and which will prepare you in no way for the rest of the game to come.

It goes without saying that Mega Man 8 falls into the latter category. And, as with the examples listed above, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the genre shifts themselves are bad or unenjoyable. Rather, all it suggests is that they’re poorly and gracelessly implemented.

Then again, they are bad and unejoyable, so nevermind.

The best of them is easily the Rush Jet section in Tengu Man’s stage, probably because it’s the most straightforward and intuitive. It’s not miles removed from the wave bike, so while it may take a few seconds to adjust to having vertical movement, your instincts as a Mega Man player will serve you decently well as you gun down waves of flying enemies. It still doesn’t feel right or much like a Mega Man game, but it’s simple and inoffensive enough. Additionally, the integration of assist characters leads to some fun cameos, giving Auto and Eddie a chance to fight for the first time ever, and letting Beat get aggressive one last time after his demotion to pit-rescue utility in Mega Man 7.

The worst of them, just as easily, are the rocket sled sections. We’re introduced to them in Frost Man’s stage, and beaten mercilessly by one in the first Wily stage. These turn Mega Man — a careful, experimentation-based platformer — into a frantic, twitchy, perfection-demanding chore. It’s essentially a version of the Turbo Tunnel from Battletoads that barks instructions for each upcoming obstacle instead of showing them to you ahead of time. (Battletoads. Now there was a game that could hop genres.)

Often, Mega Man fans will impose upon themselves additional limitations to find new ways of enjoying the game and increasing the challenge. This can take the form of speed runs, no-damage runs, Buster-only runs, Kirby runs (which see players using only the most recent special weapon they obtained) and more. I’ve done a few of these myself, and, in fact, I’ve been thinking for years about attempting a run through Mega Man 10 without using the Buster at all. (Which is only possible there due to the inclusion of the bonus weapons* you get from DLC stages.)

In a way, the rocket sled sections feel a bit like one of those challenges. It’s a speed run married to a Buster-only run…and while you can take damage, you sure as hell don’t have much room for error. The sections scroll quickly and if you miss a jump or end up pinned against a wall, you’re starting over. But the difference, of course, is that those kinds of challenges are optional. They don’t appeal to everybody, and that’s for good reason; they’re artificially difficult. The artificial difficulty of the rocket sled sections — with the infamous, interminable, and completely unhelpful JUMP JUMP SLIDE SLIDE narration — is mandatory, and it makes Mega Man 8 feel a lot less fun.

Mastering a game to the point that you can play it perfectly is a satisfying journey that unfolds over a long period of time. Mega Man 8 demands it out of the gate. That’s not satisfying; it’s obstinate.

And while the argument could be made that the rocket sled in Frost Man’s stage prepares you for the one in the first Wily stage, the fact is that it doesn’t. Wily stages have always abided by the philosophy of testing what the player has learned. Nearly always, that has to do with platform and enemy behavior; it’s up to you to remember how these things work from your earlier encounters, and failing to prove that you do remember will have a stiff penalty. In other words, you see a platform or an enemy, and you don’t get to “learn” how to handle them; you already should have learned, and now it’s do or die.

The rocket sled, though, doesn’t work the same way. A player can’t see it the second time and understand how to handle it, because “handling” it boils down to obeying a rapid series of barked commands. That’s it. There’s no amount of preparation that can help, and the window between each command and the moment you should execute it varies just enough that you can’t develop a reliable rhythm. You just need to listen, attempt, and fail every single second of the segment. Eventually you’ll make it through, if you even want to, but that won’t be because you mastered anything. It will be because you memorized or lucked into the right pattern. Then there’s the fact that jumping seems to have an odd delay in these sections, which means you actually have to hit the button just before you need to jump…

It’s awful. I can’t say enough about that.

Two other stages have less obtrusive gimmicks. One of which I basically hate, but the other I like a lot. In the former category, we have Astro Man’s stage. And, to be honest, it’s kind of a cool idea.

The stage is broken into three smaller types of stages, which themselves are each repeated in the same sequence. We start with a straight platforming section, then there’s an endlessly looping maze, then there’s a race up through a collapsing tower. After that, we get more difficult reprises of the platforming, maze, and tower sections.

In theory, I like that quite a bit. Teach us a few things, then test us on what we’ve learned. That’s good. Break down a long stage into a series of memorable setpieces. That’s good. Use three gimmicks in compact ways instead of padding each of them out into their own stages. That’s good.

Which means it must be the execution where it falls down.

None of these sections are especially fun, and the maze is irritating and out of place. Once again, it’s not the same genre as Mega Man. Players aren’t used to large, complex rooms without a clear path forward.

No aspect of it is fun, and nothing is communicated well. Colored switches control similarly colored gates, which is fine, but a green switch may control one green gate and not another green gate, making what should be a clear cause-and-effect relationship feel needlessly hazy. Gates can open up passages that can only be accessed by looping through the maze again, but players may stumble mindlessly around for an extremely long time before they realize the maze loops at all. And throughout the entire segment, there’s no clear indication of what you’re even looking for. Eventually you’ll find a skull-shaped indentation in the floor, and the maze is over. But if you don’t know that that’s what you’re seeking, it’s impossible to feel like you’re making any progress; you’re just wandering until the game lets you stop. That isn’t any fun.

I will give credit to Astro Man for introducing a new stage type, though. Once you get complacent with air, water, fire, and ice stages, it’s refreshing to toss cyberspace into the mix. It’s not a stage I enjoy, but it does lay the groundwork for more successful implementations of the theme, such as Sheep Man’s in Mega Man 10 and Cyber Peacock’s in Mega Man X4.

The other gimmick that works much better comes in Sword Man’s stage, which quizzes you on (and helps you develop) your knowledge of the first four weapons you’ve collected: the Ice Wave, the Flash Bomb, the Tornado Hold, and the Thunder Claw.

This is a concept that wouldn’t have been possible prior to Mega Man 7. While I don’t personally like the idea of separating the eight Robot Masters into two groups of four (which would never happen again after this, though Mega Man & Bass somehow came up with a worse idea), it does allow stage designers to rely on the player having certain items in their inventory. Here, they turn the first half of Sword Man’s stage into a test of your worthiness, as though Sword Man won’t deign to face a nobody.

The stage begins with four rooms that are each themed around a special weapon, which is nice for two reasons. The first is that this encourages players to actually use special weapons. I gave up on using them somewhere around Mega Man 4, as they simply didn’t feel very fun anymore. As a result, I’m sure I’ve missed out on some good times and fun moments playing around with them. Thanks to Sword Man, I actually do tool around with half of Mega Man 8‘s arsenal. As a bonus, Sword Man’s weapon — the Flame Sword, with a hilariously pronounced W — is worth using on its own, which means I actually get at least some mileage out of five weapons. That’s a pretty good ratio.

The second is that it helps players to feel empowered in ways beyond strength. Typically special weapons are worth using because they’re powerful, and can therefore take enemies out more quickly. Here, their power is irrelevant; you’re using them to light rooms, remove obstacles, steer objects, and throw switches. It’s rare that a Mega Man weapon feels like something more than a weapon, but in this stage that happens four times over. It provides ways to solve problems that aren’t reliant upon wholesale robot slaughter, and that’s admirable.

Sword Man is overall a highlight of the game. I love the concept of his stage, I love the weapon he gives you, and I love his battle, which feels as much like a duel as any of the best fights in the series ever have. (His fight is right up there with Ring Man and Freeze Man, as far as I’m concerned.) He also seems to have personality, which is something oddly lacking from a game with voice acting and more complex animations.

In fact, they seem to me to have less personality than the Robot Masters from any previous game. This might be an illusion, but it’s an instructive one. See, in the 8-bit era especially, gamers were required to do more than take what was presented to them; they had to fill in the gaps. The graphics were fairly crude, and often blocky and undetailed. Creating appealing visuals under these restrictions was a genuine art (and a number of games achieved it), but it was up to the player to look beyond the representation to the concept of what was being represented. The same goes for the aural presentation. There were no real instruments involved in any NES soundtracks, but if you ever “heard” a drum, a guitar, or a piano, you were meeting the game halfway.

This applies to less obvious aspects of the games as well. Beyond what we see and hear, it’s what we expect to see and hear. What does a character sound like? How does his mind work? Is he brave or reluctant? Is he learning his craft or has he mastered it? These things matter, because they change the story and therefore the experience. Playing as a professional and playing as a gradually smarter amateur lead to completely different game experiences. It’s why Maniac Mansion felt different from Sweet Home. It’s why Darkwing Duck felt different from Batman.

Those games left a lot of blanks for players to fill, and they left them largely out of necessity. There’s no room on an NES cart for voice acting, orchestrated soundtracks, and elaborate cutscenes. These were games in which “jump” and “shoot” constituted the lion’s share of interactivity throughout the entire library.

Eventually, though, we made it to the PlayStation era, with its CD-based media that did allow these things. Gamers respond well to them, and developers were, almost overnight, keen to include them. Now we can hear Mega Man’s nemeses as well as see them. Now we can watch them move with greater detail, which should give us a stronger idea of who they are. Now they can do more than launch projectiles and hop around getting shot to death.

But that ends up being a new problem rather than a solution. Because without those blanks left for players to fill in, they’re exposed as being hollow and without personality. They may look and sound better (both of which are debatable, but they may) than their NES counterparts, but they don’t look and sound better than what we saw in our minds as kids. It’s a step down. It removes the ability to use your imagination and fills in the gap with concrete rather than anything of creative merit.

Leaving little or no room for imagination isn’t always a bad thing, but it depends on what the developer wants to do. I don’t get to argue with my friends about what I think Nathan Drake looks like and sounds like…because there’s a definitive answer, and that definitive answer in no way cheapens the game or makes it more disappointing. But Uncharted — and the developers behind it — understand Nathan Drake well enough that we don’t wish we were filling in the blanks ourselves. In fact, we prefer being in the game’s hands, letting it unspool personal history at its own pace, letting it provide us with better jokes and more clever setpieces than we could imagine, letting it take us on a fully scripted, fully prescribed adventure with almost no detail left unprovided. That’s what Uncharted wants to do, and it does it well.

Mega Man 8 just provides a standard Mega Man experience, though. The fun of the series isn’t seeing where things go, because they don’t go anywhere. The fun of the series has always been the adventure we have in our minds. Mega Man 8 removes it from our minds, and places it instead on the screen, where it feels unexpectedly dull and lifeless. The characters talk, but they have nothing to say. Long animations play out, but they show us nothing of interest. The characters move more realistically, but we’re never given a reason to care about them or be interested in them. Even the winking, sweet comedy of Mega Man 7 is gone. Mega Man 8 is a game that carries itself with deathly seriousness, but without any sense of purpose.

Sword Man, again, is an exception, and possibly an accidental one. Capcom never fleshed out their ideas for who these Robot Masters are beyond extremely broad strokes, so they gave them some vague lines and hoped that would be enough. The bosses announce their attacks. They taunt. They express dismay when they’re defeated. None of which adds to the game in any way at all.

Except that Sword Man actually got some lines and animations that made him feel different. He bows to you before the fight, which is an unexpectedly honorable thing for a Robot Master to do. He compliments you on your skills if you avoid his attacks. And his entire stage, again, feels like a test of your mettle. In short, he doesn’t just fight a doomed battle the way most Robot Masters do. He engages with you as a player. He responds to your actions. He makes you feels as though what you’re doing makes a difference. That’s something the new technology of the PlayStation allowed for the first time in the series…and yet it’s only on display in one fight. That’s deeply disappointing.

There are some attempts made to spice up the formula, and that’s a good impulse, but I don’t think any of them work. The first and probably most obvious is the introduction of the Mega Ball.

In a very general sense, it’s a great idea. Dr. Light gives Mega Man a new weapon right out of the gate, meaning the player has two things to play around with before defeating any Robot Masters. This does, in theory, keep things fresh; by now we’ve had seven numbered games that familiarized us with the Mega Buster. Surely people playing Mega Man 8 know it inside and out, and can afford to direct their attention to a new gadget instead.

The problem with it is that the Mega Ball just isn’t fun to use. It plops a little sphere in front of Mega Man, which he can then kick upward at an angle. If it hits a wall or ceiling, it will bounce. And that’s…not really exciting. For a series that’s given us massive amounts of spinning blades, exploding bombs, waves of fire, powerful electric arcs and God knows what else, “here’s a soccer ball” doesn’t really spark enthusiasm. It’s an awkward and cumbersome addition to Mega Man’s arsenal that I never bother using…and I’m sure I’m not alone.

If that were that, it would be easily enough forgotten about, meriting a footnote at best. Instead, though, Mega Man 8 seems to believe that players will love the Mega Ball so much that they’ll spend entire sessions learning how to use it, exactly how it behaves on rebounds, how to predict several angles of trajectory into the future. As a result, the first Wily boss can only** be damaged by it, forcing its usage. What’s more, though, the boss descends temporarily down one of four very narrow chutes, meaning you’ll need expert aim and speed to hit it. It’s a test of mastery with a weapon the game never previously encourages you to play with.

That’s a real problem. The Mega Ball should be implemented throughout Mega Man 8 if it’s a mandatory key to escape the first Dr. Wily level. The game should be teaching you regularly to use it, to understand it, and to rely upon it. Enemies should be placed in positions that immediately suggest it as the best possible tool to take them out. Switches that release goodies should be placed in tight passages so that the player learns the angles at which the ball will travel to reach them. At the very least, a Robot Master or two should have the Mega Ball as a secondary weakness. Instead, it does only one unit of damage to all of them, actively discouraging players from learning how to use it during tense and frantic boss fights.

This is inexcusable, as the game clearly knows that it has opportunities to test players on weapon knowledge. Sword Man’s stage, once again, does exactly that four times over. But the Mega Ball never gets a workout, and then, suddenly, needs to be the most familiar weapon in your arsenal. That’s absurd and idiotic design.

Oh, also, if you lose all of your lives to that boss, there’s no checkpoint anywhere in the level for the first time in the game. Which means you need to do that maddening rocket sled segment again. So, have fun replaying the worst stage in Mega Man history.

Rush’s role is reimagined for the first time in the series, which, again, should keep things fresh. Rush Coil is gone completely, for the first time since the character’s introduction, and Rush Jet can’t be summoned at will, being usable only in two stages. These aren’t inherently bad things, but the replacement transformations are underwhelming to say the least.

The only Rush transformation that assists with mobility is the Rush Bike. But there’s very little cause to use it and no areas that encourage it, apart from it being necessary to reach a single bolt in Clown Man’s stage. Rush Bike*** is unwieldy and unuseful. It allows Mega Man to traverse long, straight stretches of road quickly, but those barely exist at all throughout the game. You can conceivably use it when navigating platforms, but why would you want to be on a clunky motorcycle in those situations anyway? It’s easier and infinitely more convenient to not use it.

The other transformations are even worse. There’s Special Rush, which sees Rush sometimes giving you an item at random, and sometimes standing there doing nothing. It’s literally never worth bothering with, as the odds of you getting an item you actually need are very slim, and killing any given enemy can generate an item at random anyway. Then there’s Rush Bomber, which carpet bombs an area for you, but since you can’t control where the bombs land it’s far from a reliable way to clear a screen. Finally there’s Rush Charger, which operates the same way but drops healing items. That, sadly, is this game’s replacement for E-Tanks. If you ever wished you could trade a full and easy heal for the opportunity to watch a dog dump small energy pellets over spike pits and into inaccessible crannies, Mega Man 8 is sure the game for you.

The game also attempts to redefine the shop concept from Mega Man 7. That game allowed you to collect bolts from defeated enemies and in caches throughout the stages to redeem at Auto’s shop for useful items, such as E-Tanks or extra lives. Here, the concept is much different. Enemies no longer drop bolts; rather there are a small, fixed number of them scattered throughout the game, and grabbing them often involves miniature environmental puzzles. This isn’t a bad idea, but there are actually fewer bolts in the game than are necessary to buy all items in the shop. And this time, those items are unique upgrades for Mega Man that affect his Mega Buster, his knockback, and his…erm…ladder climbing speed. That means that Mega Man 8 is the only Mega Man game that is actually impossible to complete 100%. You can collect all the bolts, but there will always be some upgrades left on the shelf when you redeem them.

There’s also the moronic fact that the Exit Module — which allows you to leave completed stages — costs bolts…and the only purpose to revisiting stages in this game at all is to find bolts. Why in the world would you scour the world for bolts just to buy an Exit Module that allows you to go back and find more bolts to replace the ones you just spent on that piece of crap? There’s no other purpose for it!

Mega Man 8 also treats checkpoints in a way that I don’t especially like. In previous games, you’d simply, silently, unknowingly cross some invisible line in the stage. If you died beyond that line (and had another life, natch), you’d restart at the checkpoint. Easy enough. Lose all your lives and you’ll have to start again from scratch.

This game, however, throws up a loading screen letting you know that you’ve hit a checkpoint, which breaks the flow. It also fully refills your energy, which means there’s less incentive to play carefully, as you can count on a full mid-level recharge. This makes the miniboss fights that precede many of these checkpoints feel like mindless button mashing. There’s little point in learning their patterns and reacting gracefully if you can just brainlessly tank damage and end up with full health anyway.

Also, why does the game have to take a break to load the second half of the level? To be brutally honest, there’s no way in hell Mega Man 8 pushes the limits of the PlayStation in any way. The previous games all load lightning fast, and pushed their respective hardware far more than this game does. I understand that CD-based media will take longer to load, but there’s no reason a level can’t load in its entirety from the stage select. Stopping the level partway through so that Mega Man 8 can try to remember what comes next is embarrassing.

The worst part, though, is the fact that if you lose all of your lives, you can restart at that checkpoint. That discourages mastering the stages, making the experience feel much different from what the previous seven games provided. In those games, it was important to learn the placements of every enemy and obstacle, because it was a long way to the boss doors. In Mega Man 8 you just have to limp past a checkpoint, and then you’ll never have to worry about them again. It cuts the player far too much slack in a series built around gradual mastery.

In previous games, you could certainly get lucky enough to navigate a stage without learning it. But then if you lose your last life to the boss, you’ll have to start over, and luck won’t serve you as well the next time. You still have to learn. For Mega Man 8, being lucky is enough. You never actually have to learn a damned thing if you’re patient enough to force your progress.

How empowering.

In the end, though, Mega Man 8 falls down simply because it isn’t any fun. It doesn’t lean into its camp value, and indeed seems utterly unaware**** of it. It’s a game that doesn’t seem to care whether or not you play it, and certainly doesn’t go out of its way to help you like it. It’s a game whose few innovations are halfhearted and misguided, and which didn’t convince anyone — including Capcom — that the series had much reason to continue.

Mega Man 8 was ported the next year to the ill-fated Sega Saturn — with some different music and nostalgic visits from Cut Man and Wood Man — making it the first multiplatform Mega Man game…but that was it for the numbered games. Mega Man & Bass, one more classic-style platformer, was released in 1998 for the Super Famicom in Japan only. It wouldn’t be localized until 2002 — as a port to the Gameboy Advance — so small was the demand for another entry in the series. Reports are that it sold well, but evidently not well enough for Capcom to invest resources in another sequel.

The classic series was essentially dead. Mega Man X was still going strong — 1997 would see the first PlayStation installment with Mega Man X4, a game that did far better at demonstrating the ability of its own series to survive another generation — but the eternal clash between Doctors Light and Wily was brought to an unceremonious, unmourned non-conclusion.

Once Capcom’s cash cow, Mega Man was quietly retired. Yesterday’s hero saw the world move on without him. And the children and gamers that grew up with him, loving him, helping him…probably didn’t even realize he was gone.

Mega Man 8 sure didn’t give anyone much reason to miss him.

Best Robot Master: Sword Man
Best Stage: Sword Man
Best Weapon: Flame Sword
Best Theme: Tengu Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

(All screenshots courtesy of this wonderful man.)

—–
* I do wonder now if it’s theoretically possible here, thanks to the inclusion of the Mega Ball. I’ll never, ever attempt such a horrific undertaking, but I am curious.

** Not strictly true, as I’ve heard that the Ice Wave can also deal minimal damage, but that’s clearly not a feasible way to fight the boss, and I’m not sure there’s enough ammunition to kill it.

*** Online sources don’t seem to agree on what these transformations are called. I’m using the names from the original manual. I assume part of the reason for the confusion is that the items are never named in the game. I also assume that many players don’t even know they’ve collected Rush upgrades, as they aren’t told and would have to accidentally notice that they’ve been added to the inventory screen.

**** Much like Resident Evil, which was similarly unaware of its own silliness, but which made up for it in spades with incredible atmosphere and genuine scares.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 7, 1995)

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.

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