Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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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!

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 a year later 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.

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.

I like junk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this is to say that I like junk.

And I still don’t like Mega Man 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we should.

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

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

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

But that’s not all we expect.

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

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

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

Well, I say never…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s great!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s Mega Man 6 as a whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the thing:

I love Mega Man 5.

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

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

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

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

When I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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