Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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I probably pushed most of the Mega Man fans away when I said I actually wasn’t all that keen on Mega Man 3, and I’ll push the rest of them away by saying that I absolutely love Mega Man 4. It’s a truly wonderful game, and one of the best in the series. That’s not a popular view, I know, and it’s one that I was surprised to arrive at myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yes.

I mean that.

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

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

It was my loss.

Mega Man 4 is incredible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Toad Man, you just shoot him.

That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All because you’ve been programmed to fight.

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

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

I want to love Mega Man 3. I really do. It’s often spoken of in the same breath as genuine classics. It’s rarely criticized for anything other than superficial reasons. It’s adored, with many fans holding it up in comparison with Mega Man 2, as though it’s impossible to declare which of the these great games is better.

I will declare. Mega Man 2 is better. And I don’t see how Mega Man 3 can even compete.

But I want to love it. I really do. Mega Man 3 does so much right. It introduced the slide, which is now a distinguishing feature of Mega Man’s moveset, and which so elegantly adds an entirely new wrinkle to navigating stages and avoiding enemies. It introduces not one but two great new characters: Rush the utility dog and Proto Man, our hero’s moody and conflicted older brother. On top of that, its soundtrack contains some of the best tracks in video game history.

And yet…it’s not a great game.

It might be a good one. It probably is.

But it’s not great. It’s flawed and unbalanced. It’s glitchy and in some cases more rickety than the first game was. It’s a step backward when it had all the potential of being another great leap forward.

And so as much as I want to love Mega Man 3, I don’t. I can’t. And this is probably going to be the saddest review of it you’ll ever read.

By the time Mega Man 3 was released, I was already a firm acolyte of Mega Man 2. My friends and I played it endlessly. We designed Robot Masters and stages of our own. (One of mine was VCR Man. He probably wielded the weapon Planned Obsolescence. My friend Jimmy asked why they all had to be Man. Why not Woman? It would be decades before he got his wish.) I even bought and read that terrible Worlds of Power novelization.

So, no, I wasn’t looking at Mega Man 3 with an objective viewpoint. (Worth repeating: as an individual forming an opinion on somebody else’s work of art, that would have been impossible.) But neither was I closed off to it. In fact, I liked Mega Man 3 a lot more then than I do now. It’s only time and reflection and a greater capacity for articulation that I’ve come to realize how…disappointing it really is.

It’s not, however, a game devoid of new or interesting ideas. In other words, it’s not disappointing in the standard way that sequels are disappointing, in which the same beats are repeated to diminished returns. Mega Man 3 pushes itself, and does some truly fantastic stuff along the way.

Where it falls down is in its execution, and that represents its step backward. Whereas Mega Man 2 proved that the developers had the potential to refine their ideas to incredible, unforgettable degrees, Mega Man 3 slid right back into Mega Man territory…throwing so many new ideas around that none of them feel complete.

I know, I know. Who am I to say any of this? Don’t people love Mega Man 3? Isn’t it highly regarded? Isn’t it a classic video game?

It is. And I’d never attempt to take those accolades away. But I do think that Mega Man 3 is a better game in our minds and memories than it is in reality.

I want to love Mega Man 3. I want to adore it. I want to be able to say that it took every ounce of merit from its predecessor and enhanced it.

But I can’t.

I try, and I try, and I can’t.

I can say a lot of things in its favor. I can make a list of all of the things it gets just right. I can gush about stage tunes like Gemini Man, Top Man, Magnet Man, Shadow Man, and Spark Man all night long. But then I play the game, as I have to, and it find it impossible not to trip over its mistakes. Impossible not to question its design philosophy. Impossible not to…wish I was playing almost any other game in the series.

I know. I know.

I’m a terrible person.

But let’s focus on the good up front, because Mega Man 3 has loads of it.

My favorite thing about the game — aside from its stellar soundtrack — is a brilliant, tiny tweak that a lot of people probably don’t even notice started here. In first game, Mega Man would defeat a Robot Master, pick up a mysterious object, and get bumped back out to the stage select. It was up to the player to pause the game in the next level to see that they had a new weapon…which I’m sure many early gamers overlooked entirely. Mega Man 2 made the acquisition of weapons more explicit, with some text (and a pulsing beat) explaining what you got.

That’s fine. That’s more than fine. In fact, that small improvement was all we needed.

But Mega Man 3 does it so much better. Now Mega Man stands alone in the empty boss room for a moment, then leaps into the air and is showered with swirling particles. In fact, it’s the same effect used by the Robot Master (and Mega Man himself) when he explodes…only now it’s reversed and directed inward. It’s a perfect visual indication that somebody has lost the duel, and somebody has won. To the victor literally go the spoils.

Then the pause window pops up so that you can see a new weapon in your inventory, at which point its energy bar noisily fills…tempting you to rip right into your new gift and start experimenting with it. It’s great. It’s a lovely tweak to the stage-ending sequence, and it’s the best celebratory moment the series has offered us yet.

And then we get a great splash screen with Mega Man caught mid-leap (always the best way to catch a Mega Man sprite, as our history of jumping through boss doors has empirically proven) and yet another fantastic, searing song blazing in the background. It’s a longer song than you probably realize, too; let the screen sit for a while and enjoy it.

But there’s a dark corollary to all of this incredible, impressive, weapon-get bombast…and that’s the fact that the weapons absolutely stink.

None of them feel very fun to use, and in a game that’s built around experimentation, that’s a real problem. What’s more, they’re often buggy, lending them an air of carelessness that makes you wonder why you’d want to play with them if the developers didn’t bother properly coding them.

Of the weapons, the Shadow Blade is probably the best. It’s essentially a Metal Blade crossed with a Rolling Cutter, and that’s a good thing, because those weapons were great. Its range isn’t wonderful, but it’s still the one weapon worth using. And there’s the Needle Cannon, which is more or less innocuous. It’s a differently shaped Buster pellet, and hardly fills the mind with possibilities. Present, but inoffensive.

Then there’s…the rest.

The Magnet Missile is great when it works, which it often doesn’t. Its intention is to home in on enemies, but it will many times miss them entirely or phase right through them without causing damage. The Hard Knuckle crawls so slowly across the screen that it’s literally always faster to kill enemies with your basic weapon, even when they’re technically weak to the Hard Knuckle. The Search Snake makes some snakes. Nobody cares.

The worst are the Spark Shot and the Top Spin. The former just freezes enemies in place, much like the Ice Slasher, but this time Mega Man can’t switch weapons to kill the stunned enemy; all you do is freeze enemies in your own way. It’s awful. The Top Spin is just odd; it’s a pirouette Mega Man can only perform in the air, and it’s a crapshoot whether you or the enemy you strike takes the damage. And how much damage. And how much weapon energy it uses. If you wanted evidence that Mega Man 3 has sloppy coding, look no further. (Having said that, though, once you get the Top Spin you really should spin through the boss doors at least once.)

The most puzzling is the Gemini Laser, which introduces so much lag to the game that it’s almost unusable, and there’s no excuse for that. While Mega Man and Mega Man 2 both lagged at various points, it was always understandable; so much was happening on the screen that of course the little NES would struggle to keep track of it all. With the Gemini Laser, all you’ve done is fire a weapon. You know. Your primary way of interacting with objects in the game. The lag is inexcusable.

We spoke for a bit in Mega Man 2 about how the weapons were given a layer of nuance by allowing them to do things other than fly straight forward when the B button is pressed. Mega Man 3 takes this a step backward, with much less — and much less interesting — complexity.

In this game, only three weapons allow for any degree of adjustment. The Shadow Blade can be thrown in many directions, like the Metal Blade. So far, so good. The Hard Knuckle can be steered slightly up or down by pressing the appropriate direction on the D-pad after firing, and the Needle Cannon can be rapid-fired by holding B.

And that’s it.

The Top Spin does at least ask the player to think differently about how to use it, as you need to press A to jump and then press B while in the air, but no player should ever be using the Top Spin so that doesn’t really count.

Storywise Mega Man 3 doesn’t offer much that the previous games did not. There are some bad robots, and Mega Man is a good robot who kills them off one by one, then smacks their boss around for a bit.

It’s with this game, though, that I’d argue that Dr. Light goes from trusting to learning disabled. In Mega Man Dr. Wily betrayed Dr. Light, turned all of the robots they designed together evil, and set about destroying civilization. In Mega Man 2 Dr. Wily, unprovoked, built eight evil robots for the sole purpose of destroying civilization. In Mega Man 3, Dr. Light helps Dr. Wily build an enormous robot to protect civilization, but doesn’t bat an eye when Wily asks for the keys and offers to go get it washed.

There’s seeing the best in people, and then there’s seeing nothing at all. Dr. Light is a boob.

The truly unimpeachable things that Mega Man 3 brought to the table are the two new characters, and we can learn a lot about the value of strong characterization from both of them.

Prior to Mega Man 3, there was a simple triumvirate. Dr. Light (appropriately mistranslated in this game as Dr. Right) is the good scientist, Dr. Wily (irrelevantly mistranslated in this game as Dr. Wiley) is the bad scientist, and Mega Man is the player’s avatar, advancing the cause of one and beating back the cause of the other.

It’s easy, and a pretty common video-game setup: there are forces of good and forces of evil, and you’re the middleman. (Middle Man 3)

This game adds the first wrinkles to that formula with two new, important characters: Rush and Proto Man.

Rush is essentially just a charming face slapped on Mega Man’s utilities…but it’s a change that matters. The simple fact that these gadgets now resemble a dog makes them feel more important, and more significant to our hero. They’re not stepstools this time; they’re a friend.

While the Magnet Beam was something like a panicked afterthought in the first game, Mega Man 2 made its Items feel natural and better designed for the gameplay. Mega Man 3 goes a remarkable step forward by giving them personality. And the best part is that it’s entirely implicit.

Does Rush Coil function any differently than a springboard would have? Of course not. But by giving it a proper name (as far removed from Item-4 as it’s possible to get), we give Rush a sense of individuality. By further making Rush a dog, we tap effortlessly into the implied relationship between a little boy and his beloved pet. (Mega Man’s youthful appearance in the sprite art becomes an immediate benefit at this point.) And by adding the slightest flourishes — such as having Rush’s tail wag briefly when you select him from the menu — we believe in Rush.

The Magnet Beam was a thing. Item-2 was a thing. Rush is a dog. Mega Man 3 figured out how to make players genuinely care about a utility decades before Portal faced the same question.

The fact that we actually see Rush transform in three ways in this game (Rush Coil, Rush Jet, and Rush Marine) future-proofs him as well; if the then-hypothetical Mega Man 4 didn’t require any of those things, Rush could simply transform into something else. Like a real dog, Rush wouldn’t be a disposable fancy; he was now part of Mega Man’s family.

And speaking of family…

Proto Man. Boy. Is there a cooler character from the 8-bit era? Proto Man with his cape and permanent shades probably holds the title pretty securely.

There’s an air of mystery about Proto Man that runs through the game and makes his story — whatever his story may be — far more compelling than any kind of idiocy Dr. Light is engaging in with Dr. Wily. He turns up in four of the main stages, each time accompanied by his distinctive whistle. (Which you can hear right now, I’m certain.)

I remember each of these appearances being thrillingly tantalizing to my young self. I remember arguing with friends about them. Who was this guy? Was he a bad guy? Was he helping us? Was he testing us?

It was strange. In three of his appearances, Proto Man does actually attack Mega Man…but he always seems to be holding back. He doesn’t do much. He hops around and fires, but most of the common enemies are better at getting in hits than Proto Man is.

But Proto Man keeps appearing. He feels meaningful in a way that other recurring enemies don’t. Those, after all, are destroyed when you defeat them. Proto Man, instead, teleports away and clears a path forward for you. There’s something deliberate behind his behavior. Other enemies are programmed to defeat Mega Man, and so they fight to the mechanical equivalent of death. Proto Man, clearly, has something else in mind.

Most intriguing is his appearance in Gemini Man’s stage. There he doesn’t fight you. He could — and he might be considering it — but he doesn’t. He just…stares. He watches you. He stands motionless. Sizing you up? Questioning you? Respecting you as an equal?

We’ll never know, because he opens the path forward and leaves without a word. Without firing a shot. Without anything but his somber whistle.

…and that’s it. There’s a fight with him after the Doc Robot stages (in which he’s referred to as Break Man…perhaps another mistranslation), and then he saves your life when Wily’s castle crumbles at the very end. That’s all we really know.

Until we finish the game and watch a scene marked EPILOGUE.

We see identification cards for each of the robots Dr. Light built in Mega Man. They run backward. Elec Man. Fire Man. Bomb Man. Ice Man. Guts Man. Cut Man. Then the good guys we already know. There’s Roll, Mega Man’s sister. And Mega Man himself.

And, finally, the mysterious Proto Man, revealed in a note as being “brother of Megaman.”

It’s the closest thing to a true twist ending any Mega Man game has had, and it’s a good one. It forces us to reconsider the events of the game, yet doesn’t definitively answer any questions.

Was Proto Man fighting Mega Man to make sure he was prepared for what’s to come? Possibly, as he removes barricades in four stages that Mega Man would not be able to remove on his own. Or was he seeking some kind of revenge? This is also possible, as Proto Man will gladly enough kill Mega Man should the fights go that way. Which may be telling; Proto Man won’t fight to his own death, but he’ll sure as hell kill his brother.

He eventually saves Mega Man from Wily’s crumbling castle, yes, but does that mean all is forgiven? Does that even mean he likes his brother? Does he feel obligated to save him? Hell, does he regret saving him?

The answers are never quite revealed, no matter how long Proto Man has remained a series staple. And I like that. I like that we never truly know the depth of his allegiance. And I like that his story is almost entirely implicit, hinging on a single, loaded line of text at the end of the game. A sibling rivalry. Father issues. Conflicted loyalties. All suggested, but never divulged.

His Japanese name — Blues — speaks even further to his sad demeanor, and is much more evocative than his Western name, which is just a clue that he came first.

Proto Man is by far the richest of Mega Man’s characters, if only because he’s the only one who can’t be fit into a box. Dr. Cossack in the next game similarly straddles the line between good and evil, but once his motivation is revealed it’s impossible to see him as anything except firmly on the side of good.

Proto Man…well, we still don’t know about Proto Man. He was never used again as effectively as he was in this game, but that’s okay. Because…well…how do you top that?

But Mega Man 3 isn’t about Proto Man. As much as we can debate the merits of individual games, or weapons, or items, or characters, or plots, the entire Mega Man series is really about one thing: boss battles.

That’s something I never quite realized as a kid. Sure, I liked certain Robot Masters more than others, but I was never quite sure why. I tended to be drawn to the explosion-based Robot Masters, as you can probably tell, even though I hated using their weapons. I kept coming back to Bubble Man often enough that he was the first one I learned to outwit. I couldn’t stand fighting Gemini Man, but he was clearly so cool that I couldn’t dislike him.

The Robot Masters — by and large Mega Man’s bosses — were distinct. They had personality, even if it was entirely implied by their music, their stages, their arsenal, their speed, their agility, their aggressiveness.

Metal Man wouldn’t make a move until you did, for instance…unless you took too long, in which case he’d lash out in boredom. Guts Man would stun you by stomping the ground and use that opportunity to close in, fencing you into a corner. Heat Man pelted you with a volley of fire the moment the fight started, not letting you so much as blink before he’s on the offense.

Other Robot Masters, though, such as Magnet Man and Snake Man in this game, just barrel from one side of the screen to the other, working through their routines as though you’re not even there, secure in the knowledge that they’ll successfully bulldoze you before you learn to fight back.

As a kid, I never realized the distinction in fighting style. It’s hard to realize it when you’re struggling just to survive. I’d run at an enemy, guns blazing. Hopefully the enemy died before I did. When possible I’d dodge return fire, but I was both panicked and unskilled enough that this wasn’t reliable. I’d fire wildly and hope for the best. Once I got a special weapon, I’d find whatever Robot Master I could and pelt them blindly with that instead.

As an adult, it’s different. I don’t use special weapons often — aside from the capsule room refights and some of the more particularly irritating bosses — because I realize now that these are a series of duels. It’s not about showering the room with projectiles; it’s about watching, reacting, learning, responding. It’s about identifying and anticipating patterns. It’s about the graceful exchange of attacks and retreats.

And there really is something beautiful about Mega Man’s better boss fights. When you learn how to fight a Robot Master — not beat, but truly match wits with — it becomes a thing of elegance. Of beauty. When you learn how to manipulate a Robot Master in such a way that they sacrifice their upper hand…when you trick them into leaping into what would have been a stray shot…when you stun them in place…when you behave in such a way that they no longer how to respond…

It’s wonderful.

It’s truly, deeply wonderful. Because it requires you to respect them as adversaries. It requires you to learn to think as they do. It requires you to figure them out, and to identify hidden chinks in their durable armor. They stop being a boss, and become instead a satisfying rival.

What’s more, their ultimate predictability and exploitability make sense within the games’ universe: these are robots. They are programmed. They behave in certain ways. Some of them have better AI than others, but they’re all defined by a sequence of code. That’s because they’re video game enemies, yes, but it’s also because they’re robots built and programmed by scientists within the game. When you outwit a Robot Master, you’re also outwitting his designer. You’re playing a game of violent chess.

Bomb Man, for instance, is programmed to flee you, which is only something you’d discover if you keep trying to run right into him. Keep the distance between the two of you narrow enough and he’ll keep hopping around, helplessly open to your shots. The fact that this hinges upon counterintuitive behavior (contact damage hurts you, and you have a long-range weapon) helps it to function as a quiet puzzle in the background of the fight…one you may not even realize is there to be solved.

And he’s not the only one. Crash Man is programmed to jump and fire whenever you shoot, which means if you’re already in the air when you do so he can leap into your projectile and miss you with his. Heat Man will go into a strictly defensive mode whenever he is hit, which means you can prevent him from attacking at all (barring his initial volley) if you’re quick enough on the trigger. If you hit Elec Man with a Buster shot every time he raises his arms, he’ll never attack you. All of these are puzzles that encourage players to experiment and reward careful attention.

(Short digression: this illustrates another reason I don’t particularly enjoy the Dr. Wily stages. While those bosses tend to be bigger and more technically impressive, there’s little grace to them. They’re nearly all just big, powerful bullies. Their battles aren’t balletic; they’re a gradual chipping away at walls.)

Mega Man 3‘s bosses overall don’t feel as satisfying to me as many of the earlier (and later) Robot Masters. They’re not terrible, exactly…they just feel less…designed. I don’t get the same satisfying sense of unraveling behavioral code here that I get from the other games.

Gemini Man is a welcome and glorious exception to the rule, as his fight is actually an interesting one. Not only does it consist of two bosses, but it has two phases, really pushing the Gemini angle in exactly the right way. (The stage has nothing to do with the theme, so the boss fight might as well go nuts with it.)

In the first phase, Gemini Men are programmed to circle the room and collide with you, but they also stop and return fire whenever you shoot at them. This either means that you need to fire when they’re both in the air and can’t attack or that you need to be already leaping their projectile before they shoot it. Then, in the second phase, there’s only one Gemini Man, and this one jumps when you shoot at him. That’s both important to know in order to actually hit him, and your best method of avoiding him as he paces around: shoot and then quickly slide underneath.

It’s a great boss fight, but it’s almost the only one. Snake Man and Magnet Man both go back and forth across the screen, firing at standard intervals. Spark Man does the same, firing at non-standard intervals. Hard Man fires, jumps, fires, jumps. Needle Man and Shadow Man just go haywire, jumping and firing at rates too quick for any reasonable player to comprehend. Top Man is an idiot.

So many great Robot Master concepts, but so little thought went into their execution. They don’t feel reactive in the way that Gemini Man and other great Robot Masters do. Rather, it feels like you have no impact at all, and they’d be going through the same routines, unchanged, even if you never showed up at their doors. That’s simply not satisfying.

That’s not the only problem with the boss fights, though: there’s also lag.

Mega Man 3 lags constantly, for no clear reason. Fights with Spark Man, Gemini Man, and Snake Man all slow the game to a crawl…and there’s nothing else happening. The least Mega Man 3 should be able to do is process its showcase duels without falling apart, but it can’t. It even struggles with minibosses, such as the cats in Top Man’s stage. It’s one thing if the player allows too many enemies to follow him into a taxing area, but in these cases it doesn’t take more than a boss showing up for the game to sputter and choke.

And we’ve already spoken about the Gemini Laser; just using it seems to cripple the game, which indicates that the lag is a coding issue. Mega Man 3 is full of things that just don’t work properly.

Not to mention the fact that the aesthetics of the Robot Master levels aren’t as naturally themed as they previously were. Sure, Snake Man makes up a lot of the deficit, as he’s a snake who shoots smaller snakes that crawl around a room made of snakes in a level made of other snakes, but Hard Man is just…in a gorge. Top Man is in some kind of plant nursery, I guess. And Needle Man is an angry plum on a pirate ship? I have no idea, and the lack of care doesn’t end there.

There’s the off-center hitboxes, particularly Shadow Man’s and Gemini Man’s. There are the Junk Golem enemies that continue to attack after they’re dead. There are the cloud platforms in Snake Man’s stage that will glitch you into a bottomless pit. And the best thing I can say about the Wily stages is that the Yellow Devil’s new breasts are incredible.

Then there’s the Doc Robot stages…remixed versions of four earlier stages with new hazards and layouts, featuring spiritual rematches with Robot Masters from Mega Man 2. It’s a great concept that, to put it honestly, is absolutely terrible in execution.

The stages don’t feel fair or interesting, functioning more as tedious gauntlets with oddly-chosen checkpoints than actual tests of anything we’ve learned as players. The fact that it’s possible to get stuck with no way to progress or die if you run out of energy for utilities, requiring a full reset of the console, makes me suspicious of just how much these stages were even playtested.

Mega Man 3 just feels a bit…careless.

It has great ideas. It really does.

And I want to love it.

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I want to play it and love it and shout from the rooftops about how great it is.

But I can’t.

Because as much as it introduced, it also regressed to feeling raw and experimental rather than tight and rewarding.

It gave us great characters and more great music.

But its Robot Masters don’t behave in interesting ways. Its weapons aren’t worth using. Its stages range from uninspired to careless. It’s glitchy. It’s unfair. It’s mindlessly punishing and yet too easy, providing few examples of genuinely fair challenges but also throwing so many extra lives and E-tanks at you that it feels impossible to lose. (I ended my game with 20 and 9 respectively when I replayed it for this review, and I was not playing carefully at all.)

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I do.

But maybe it tried to do a bit too much. Just like Mega Man.

And, as with Mega Man, it took the next game to show us how to do it right.

Best Robot Master: Gemini Man
Best Stage: Gemini Man
Best Weapon: Shadow Blade
Best Theme: Gemini Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 3 > 1

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

Let’s talk about a masterpiece.

Mega Man 2 is, simply, a game that cannot possibly be spoken of too highly. It’s one of the most important games of the NES era, and one of the absolute best games overall. It’s not perfect — whatever unhelpful definition of “perfect” we decide to endorse today — but it does much of what it sets out to do perfectly. It’s a finely honed, impressive, addictive, tight, magical experiment that pays dividends far beyond what anybody — gamers, critics, the developers themselves — ever imagined.

That’s certainly great. What makes it even better, though, is how little Mega Man 2 actually had to do differently from its predecessor. Almost everything here was already present in Mega Man. All Mega Man 2 had to do to become one of the best-regarded games of all time was tighten the bolts. It singlehandedly demonstrates the importance of polish.

In fact, Mega Man 2 feels a bit like a rewrite. Forgive me for going all literary on you, but that’s sort of what I do. Writers out there understand — even if they’d prefer not to — the value of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. No matter how good we think our first drafts are, they’re not as good as they should be. I’ve spoken before about how I’ll often go through around 100 revisions of a post here before it ever goes live. And when it does I inevitably find something I wish I had written differently.

That’s not to say that my first drafts don’t have merit. They do, if only as foundations for the superior text that I’ll build on top of them. In fact, I’d argue that everyone’s first drafts have merit in that way; it’s up to us to make good on that merit, to respect it enough to cut what isn’t working, to give ourselves over to the material so that we’ll act in its best interests, to not cling to our mistakes and missteps. It’s a difficult process, and it’s not one writers often let anyone else be privy to. Your favorite novel — whatever your favorite novel is — sort of sucked at one point. It really did. It’s just that you never saw it until it sucked a lot less.

Mega Man is the first draft. Full of great ideas, heavy with potential, and just excited to get out into the world and show an audience what it has to offer. Mega Man 2 is the rewrite. Bigger, yet leaner. Just as daring, but smarter. Every bit as charming, but smoother in its delivery.

Mega Man 2 is a great game. It’s the one I’ve played through the most, it’s the one I know best, and it’s the one I love the deepest.

It’s also, unfortunately, the game that set a precedent that would ultimately cripple the series…but we’ll come to that later.

The leap forward is evident from the opening moments of Mega Man 2. When you slipped the first game into your NES and turned the system on, you’d see a static and silent title screen. Press start and you’re tossed right to the stage select. I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I think it’s just as fair to say that Mega Man 2‘s opening beats the pants off of it.

We get a little bit of exposition that explains not only the concept of this game, but of the previous one as well. After all, if you didn’t have the instruction manual — which you certainly didn’t if you rented it — you never would have known the story of Mega Man without finishing it and watching the end credits. Which you certainly didn’t, because you were 10 years old and terrible at video games.

Mega Man 2, funnily enough, knows that its audience likely wouldn’t be familiar with its predecessor’s plot even if they played it, and it lays out the story of both games up front. The year is 200X. Dr. Light built Mega Man. Dr. Wily flipped some robots’ switches to EVIL. Mega Man kicked their butts, and now Wily has built some robots of his own to strike back. The arms race is officially in full swing.

It doesn’t really seem like the most impressive video game story, but it starts to feel impressive as the camera pans upward…and upward…and upward…windows on a building gliding downward as the music picks up pace…as we sonically and visually climb…as we soar to the top of this impossibly tall building to find something…something important…something meaningful…

And it’s Mega Man. Himself. Alone.

He’s just staring into the distance. Perhaps down at the city. The night wind ruffles his hair. He’s waiting for you, but he’s in no rush. He’s content to wait forever.

When you press start, Mega Man responds to you. To you! And you’ve barely done anything yet! He puts his helmet on and teleports away, ready to fight. He’s at your command.

Before you’ve even started the game you’ve engaged with it, you’ve interacted with it, and you see exactly how far the series has already come. That silent, static title screen from the first game sure feels like a lifetime ago. Mega Man 2 represents a cosmic leap (teleport?) forward, even though it doesn’t have access to any tools that the first game wasn’t already using.

It’s just, already, using them better.

The fact that Mega Man 2 released only one year after its predecessor was both a remarkable achievement and a foreshadowing of the eventual series fatigue that would quickly set in, and which Mega Man has never been able to shake. Granted, Mega Man 2 did release later in North America, giving the first game a little more breathing room, but every single year between 1987 and 1998 would see a release of a new, main-series Mega Man game in either the East or the West. In fact, 1992 saw the release of both Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5 in the US, and this is to say nothing of the myriad spinoffs and side series bearing the Mega Man name.

Even as kids we got sick of the games being pumped out so frequently, and ridiculed the series for it. To be frank, that’s probably also why we stopped playing. I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t feel like I’d be missing much if the company making the games treated them like they were disposable.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that a gap of just one year separated Mega Man and its sequel, which was a remarkable achievement that all too quickly became a worrisome pattern.

We’ll deal with those games later, though. (Aside from Mega Man & Bass, which I may just treat as an aside in the Mega Man 8 review. I’m open to feedback on that.)

The concept of an incremental improvement to the sequel (as opposed to a more substantial reinvention) was obviously nothing new to video games, but the oft-mentioned triumvirate of “strange second entries” — Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda 2, and Castlevania 2 — stand as a point of comparison that shows just how confident the Mega Man series was in its own formula.

Those other games followed up their huge initial success with brave experimentation, and so Mario did away with his patented stomp, Link began to accumulate experience points, and Simon Belmont taught a crash course in Engrish. The Blue Bomber, however, did the same thing he did last time around. The other three franchises moved their bets around the table, but Mega Man let his ride.

It was the smart bet. While those other three franchises view their second installments as black sheep today — interesting curios that are fascinating mainly for how quickly their ideas were discarded — Mega Man 2 is one of the NES’s crown jewels…and, for my money, the best of the series.

So, what’s different?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff. Eight Robot Masters instead of six. Twelve weapons and items to play around with rather than eight. A map screen for the Dr. Wily stages. A password system, for honest and dishonest use as we saw fit. A capsule room for the boss refights, rather than haphazardly (and unevenly) scattering them around the last few stages. E-tanks for an invaluable health refill.

Fine.

We know all that. It’s worth remembering just how much of what we now know as the Mega Man formula this game establishes, sure, but those are just things. Things we can list. Things we can point at. Tangible things we can arrange into a nice list of bullets and never think about again.

What really matters is the difference in how the game feels, and that comes down to the changes made in less obvious areas: the controls and the design.

When I refer to the controls, I refer to pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Mega Man himself controls more tightly. The physics are tweaked so that both climbing and falling feel more natural, and he no longer suffers from that slight skid that plagued him in the first game. (I have a friend who swears that Mega Man still skids in Mega Man 2, and it wasn’t corrected until Mega Man 3. My friend is mentally ill.)

But I’m also referring to something you might not expect: the controls are actually more varied than they were in the first game. You can play Mega Man 2 just as simply as you played its predecessor, but you can also tap into a layer of additional complexity, which is where much of the fun comes from.

In Mega Man, all of the weapons worked the same way: you’d press B. That’s it. For your default Mega Buster that’s certainly fine, but you’d press B to toss a Rolling Cutter, B to throw a Hyper Bomb, B to trigger the Fire Storm…and, really, it doesn’t take long to see that all you’re doing is attacking with differently shaped projectiles.

That’s not to say that Mega Man‘s weapons are bad, but it is to say that they’re simple. They lack nuance. If you and I use the Ice Slasher we’re both using it in the same way, because there is only one way to use it.

Mega Man 2 retains the simple “press B to shoot” mantra of the first game, but it doesn’t stop there. Press the D-pad along with the B button to launch a Metal Blade in any of eight directions. Hold the B button to rapid fire Quick Boomerang after Quick Boomerang. Press the D-pad after pressing the B button to throw the Leaf Shield. Hold B to charge the Atomic Fire.

The weapons in Mega Man 2 encourage and reward experimentation, whereas the weapons in Mega Man did not. The weapons in Mega Man 2 expect you not just to play with them, but to learn how to best use them.

Of course, now we’re veering into design, and rightly so, because that’s where we can talk about the utilities.

In Mega Man, the Magnet Beam — the game’s single utility — was, I suspect, born as a graceless answer to the game’s own design flaws.

I have no way of confirming this for sure, but the Magnet Beam’s ability to place a number of straight, flat platforms directly ahead of Mega Man seems like a way of addressing a playtesting problem with the flying Footholder enemies in Ice Man’s stage. As I discussed last time, their AI is genuinely random, which means that they can — and often do — drift around without concern for ever actually getting you over the pits. They are your single mode of transportation across Ice Man’s chasms, but they have no particular interest in assisting you. This means that you could pretty easily end up in a situation in which they’ll never bring you across.

So, how do we address that?

We either improve their AI, which would be an unquestionable drain on the development staff’s resources and might still not provide a viable alternative…or we create another solution. And since Mega Man was already shaping up to be a game of alternate solutions, with special weapons that could be swapped out at will to best address any given situation, wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the game’s ethos anyway?

And, so, the Magnet Beam was possibly born. Mega Man can now create his own platforms, and he won’t have to rely on the game’s in-built bumbling, glitchy ones. Even the utility’s placement in the game feels like an afterthought. It needs to be somewhere, so it was put somewhere. The problem is the fact that the mandatory Magnet Beam is in Elec Man’s stage, yet it requires the Super Arm* to retrieve, which interferes with the any-order-you-please core of the Mega Man experience.

Already we’re able to see ways in which Mega Man 2 improves upon the first game. In Air Man’s stage we have our equivalents of the Footholders: the Thunder Chariots. These move in a fixed pattern, meaning you’ll never have to worry about whether or not they’ll let you make it over a chasm, and have an enemy on top that you’ll need to defeat before hopping on. This both retains the challenge of the originals and makes it far more fair.

Then, obviously, we have the utilities themselves. Item-1 is a small platform that slowly rises and can be placed three at a time. Item-2 is a rocket sled that rushes quickly forward in a straight line. Item-3 is a piece of hard candy that climbs up and down walls or some ridiculous thing there’s no point in using.

…except that there is, potentially, a point in using it. If it’s all you’ve got, you’ll experiment with it to fit your needs.

The big difference with the utilities in Mega Man 2 is that they don’t address fundamental design problems the way the Magnet Beam did. They’re given to you along with special weapons at the end of three main stages, and the game lets you treat them as new toys. Any one of them can help you make it to new places, but not all of them will. Or, at least, not easily.

If you need to reach a platform a little higher than you can jump, Item-1 is the obvious choice. But if you only have Item-3, you need to learn its quirks and figure out how to get up there using that instead. Or you need to place Item-2 and use it as a platform, jumping off quickly before it rockets you away from your goal. If you need to cross a long gap, Item-2 is the obvious choice…but you could also place a series of Item-1s, replacing each one as it disappears, hoping you have time to make it far enough horizontally before they lift you too far vertically.

Mega Man 2 is very much a game that rewards players for having the right tool for the job, but it doesn’t punish them significantly for having the wrong one; it just makes them work a little harder to get the result they want. Mega Man offered alternate solutions; Mega Man 2 offers alternate solutions to those alternate solutions.

All of which is to say that the game is perfectly designed, and there’s no room for complaint at any point.

ha ha you forgot what site you’re reading

Longtime reader Samuel Caribou had this to say in the comments to my Mega Man article:

The people who were making this game had so many crazy ideas that they were so excited to show off. Even if the Yellow Devil fight is admittedly cheap, you can tell the game designers were absolutely over the moon about it. This was 1987, and they were making a massive boss that would make enemies like Bowser look like a shrimp. […] These were ideas that needed quite a bit more time to cook, but the absolute tenacity that the team at Capcom had is something I’m awed by.

I think he’s right, and that’s also why it’s so hard to stay mad at the first two Mega Man games in spite of their faults. (Don’t worry. We’ll get and stay mad soon enough.) These games were bursting with so many new, unique, and exciting ideas that it’s difficult to begrudge them for having less-than-stellar execution.

The Yellow Devil fight was indeed cheap — and overlong, and annoying — but wasn’t it also thrilling? Ditto Mega Man 2‘s equivalent showstopper, the Mecha Dragon. Funnily enough, both bosses occupy the same space: the end of the first Wily stage.

The Yellow Devil fight was frustrating mainly because it’s almost impossible to understand what’s happening until it’s already killed you. You enter a pitch black room, and you stand there. Alone. Some worrying, anxious music plays. And then, all of a sudden, little chunks of…something zip inexplicably across the screen, with you standing in the way. Yes, they come in a pattern. Yes, the pattern is easy to learn. But no, there’s not really time to learn it before the chunks of Yellow Devil — which you see gradually assembling itself audience right — kill you. The collision damage is significant, and there’s no way to heal. You’re dead before you can even open fire.

But, again…thrilling. Looking back it’s easy to nitpick that fight, but it’s also still pretty easy to see why we overlooked its flaws and focused instead on its spectacle.

The Mecha Dragon pulls a similar trick. You enter a dark area. There’s nothing ahead of you aside from some narrow blocks. You start hopping along them. The screen scrolls automatically for the first time in either game. And then, just as you’re learning the rhythm of leaps and pauses, an enormous robotic dragon comes crashing through the platforms to chase you the rest of the way.

We all remember the spectacle…

…but, damn, this sequence is flawed. And cheap.

For starters, it’s a bit too much at once. The disorientation of the autoscroll is one kind of obstacle, but combined with the too-narrow platforms it becomes borderline unfair. The sequence doesn’t allow time to think; if you’re wondering what to do next, you’ve already fallen to your death.

Then there’s the Mecha Dragon himself, who can kill you by crashing up through the platform you’re standing on. Which means you’re supposed to stay as far to the right as possible. Which is both counter-intuitive (you already have limited reaction time…why would you stay to the right and reduce it further?) and impossible to guess (there’s no indication that anything will come crashing up from the bottom, let alone where it will happen).

Oh, and touching the Mecha Dragon is a one-hit death at this point…but at the end of the sequence, he’ll just do a chunk of contact damage. That means the developers deliberately made it less fair during the chase.

The other major lapse in design comes with the Boobeam Trap in Dr. Wily’s fourth stage. Here you have a set of turrets that can only be destroyed with the Crash Bomber…many of which are hidden behind walls that can only be destroyed with the Crash Bomber. The Crash Bomber itself is a very inefficient weapon, and you don’t actually have enough weapon energy, even with a full charge, to defeat the turrets and take out more than a small number of walls. And that’s assuming that you enter the boss fight with a full Crash Bomber charge, which you likely will not unless you know you’ll need it ahead of time.

As such it’s a bit of a puzzle boss, which can be frustrating in itself, but it’s made worse by the fact that if you die — which you unquestionably will your first several times fighting it — you are dropped into a corridor with enemies from whom it is very difficult to farm weapon energy. On top of that, you’ll need to use your utilities during the fight in order to climb up and around a the barriers, meaning that even if you do manage your weapon energy well enough, you’d better hope your managed your utilities just as well.

What’s more, the Boobeam’s projectiles are incredibly fast and well-aimed…not to mention the fact that they come from all directions until you take out some of the turrets, making it just about impossible to avoid taking significant damage.

In theory, I like the Boobeam Trap. It’s a wise decision to incorporate utilities into a boss fight after providing so many opportunities to play with them in less-dangerous situations. And yet I can’t imagine a worse implementation than what we got here. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “They were so excited about the things they could do that they ended up making stuff that kind of sucked a little bit.”

But, if you’ll notice, these design issues all come from the Dr. Wily stages, which I’ve already said are nearly always a bit of a letdown. The main stages in Mega Man 2 are incredibly fun, and even the worst of them is better designed than any of the stages in this game’s predecessor. They’re more varied, more clever, more full of secrets, and backed by what has got to be one of the all-time greatest gaming soundtracks.

Sure, Heat Man’s tune is bit weak by comparison (perfectly fitting of its environment, though, I concede), but when it came time to choose a best track for this article, I was conflicted. At least half of the main stages have songs that deserve the title, and another three are…well, pretty darned close.

There’s the soaring majesty of Air Man’s theme. The prancing tease of Quick Man’s laser drop. The slippery disco of Flash Man’s maze. The meditative haze of Bubble Man’s song. The music here is just incredible, and I don’t think it’s possible to sing its praises enough.

The music, though, would mean little if it wasn’t underscoring some truly great stage design. Bubble Man’s stage is probably the highlight, if only for the brilliant progression of its background and gimmicks. Mega Man starts outside of what seems like a dam, learning to manage his jumping and firing across narrow platforms with enemies of different sizes. Advancing a little further brings him to platforms that drop…a more urgent indication that careful attention to jumping will be necessary. Then there’s a long plunge down into a body of water, where more enemies of varying sizes invite him to manage jumping and firing again…only this time with water physics. The shrimp enemies move gracefully through the level, at angles that benefit them more than they benefit you. They’re a reminder that you’re on somebody else’s turf now…

Here is where you learn the ropes of Mega Man’s buoyancy, which at first is just a question of lining up his shots, but which will soon become a matter of life and death as the ceiling becomes lined with spikes at varying heights. After fighting your way through more enemies and navigating tight, deadly passages, you pretty much have a handle on the water physics. In fact, instead of the graceful shrimp enemies you end up fighting the clumsy, mindless frogs from the beginning of the level, only now there’s no pits and you’ve learned to manage the water. You feel like you’re more capable. More experienced. And you’re right. You’ve made progress.

Then, just as you start feeling comfortable, you’re outside again. It’s platforms with the waterfall in the background, and little robot crabs dropping out of the sky to knock you to your death. I hope all that stuff underwater didn’t cause you to forget the “careful jumping” lesson from the beginning of the stage! Finally you drop into a second, smaller reservoir, where Bubble Man waits…and you’re forced to remember the lessons of buoyancy again.

It’s a great level and a decent fight, especially if you’re attempting to clear it with no damage. And I admit that it holds some sentimental value as well: Bubble Man was the first Robot Master I ever defeated. Maybe that’s just because his stage was fun enough that I kept coming back to it. Whatever the reason, he gave me my first special weapon to play with…and inspired me to keep going. Almost 30 years later, I still am.

I won’t go through each of the levels, because then I’d never get to talk about any of the other games, but there’s a tangible love behind each one that I can’t help but feel every time I play. Crash Man’s incredible tower climb into the night sky. Flash Man’s pulsing, driving, twisting level that always feels more interesting and impressive than it really is. Metal Man’s accurately dangerous robot factory, swarming with traps and OSHA violations. Everything is just so…good.

They’re not all fantastic, though, I admit.

Heat Man’s stage is…okay. It’s not bad, but the disappearing block section is frustrating at worst and tedious at best. The block pattern is actually not difficult to learn, but it goes on far too long and, as with the Yellow Devil fight from the first game, there’s no way of knowing what the pattern is — fair or not — before it kills you a good number of times. It’s an irritating stretch in an otherwise incredible game, and as much as I love Mega Man 2 I’m content to pull out Item-2 and skip it every time.

Then there’s the Quick Man lasers, which…okay, they’re kind of bullshit. One-hit kills that you can’t quite predict. Of course, the Mega Man series freezes the action during screen transitions, which does help players to orient themselves during this section, and does give a brief insight into where the lasers might come from…but this is another stretch that simply can’t be completed the first time through. Fair stage design implies that a skilled player should reasonably be able to figure out how to progress without having to make any life-ending mistakes. Here, though, it’s just a mad dash through instant death traps, and the fact that I can do it easily today in no way excuses the laziness of those traps.

So, no, Mega Man 2 isn’t perfectly designed. But…I might say that it’s a perfect experience. The Mecha Dragon still thrills me more than it concerns me. The Boobeam Trap is simple enough, now that I know to expect it. The Heat Man blocks are easy to avoid. The Quick Man lasers, if anything, remind me of how tirelessly I worked as a kid to figure them out…and how I never gave up until I did.

The fact that I did give up on many other games when I didn’t give up here speaks to the incredibly high quality of Mega Man 2. I had no patience for crap like that as a child…but I kept going. Because, on some level, I knew that Mega Man 2 was worth it.

I haven’t second-guessed that thought since.

Ultimately, Mega Man 2 is the game we all thought we were playing when we played the first Mega Man. It still has its wrinkles, but what game doesn’t? It’s a refined version of the addictive template we experienced in the original, one so well constructed that it illuminates flaws that we never consciously realized Mega Man had.

Many years after I finished college, I got a job for the state government. I had a little Mega Man action figure on my desk. My boss used to love those games, too, and we’d talk about them. He was older than me, and yet his memories of the series were just as vivid and fond as mine were. We bonded over that.

One day he pointed to the action figure and said, “You know, that toy makes him look like a little kid.”

But Mega Man always looked like a little kid.

It’s just that we saw something so much bigger when we looked at the screen.

Best Robot Master: Crash Man
Best Stage: Bubble Man
Best Weapon: Metal Blade
Best Theme: Air Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)
—–
* You could also play through Elec Man’s stage twice, as the Thunder Beam can remove the obstacles that fence off the Magnet Beam, but that’s clearly not the intended method of retrieving it and is in no way any better a solution to the problem.

I love video games. For nearly all of my life, I’ve loved video games. Some of my earliest memories — and a huge portion of my fond earliest memories — involve video games.

I remember playing a skiing game on Atari with some friends at one of my birthday parties. We’d hand the joystick around and love every second of a game that was probably embarrassingly simple and still too hard for us to play properly.

I remember playing another Atari game with my uncle. I forget what it was called, but you each controlled a cowboy on a different side of the screen and you had to shoot each other while obstacles scrolled by. Only I didn’t want to play it that way. If you shot an obstacle, part of it disappeared, pixel by pixel. I wanted my uncle to help me shoot the stage coach that roamed vertically across the center of the screen until it was completely gone. I remember that being fun.

And I remember later, when we had an NES. My mother would come into the room I shared with my brother to play Super Mario Bros. To this day, it’s the only time I’ve known her to take an interest in video games, and this was a strong interest. Controlling a springy little plumber through colorful levels of endless surprises triggered something in her that no other game did. I can’t blame her. Super Mario Bros. did that for a lot of people.

I’ve been playing off and on ever since. I stopped for a few years in college, almost entirely, because I had two jobs and a full class schedule. There wasn’t much room for me to do anything aside from read for class, study for class, and embarrass myself in front of women. I was very busy.

Otherwise, though, I’ve been playing video games regularly. Games of all genres. All lengths. All skill levels. And to this day, if I’m asked what my favorite game series is, I’ll give the same answer I gave when I was seven or eight, whenever I played it for the first time: Mega Man.

I adore Mega Man. When I posted to this site’s Facebook page that I was considering doing a retrospective on the games, I got a good deal of engagement and encouragement. I don’t think that’s because anyone expected me to be especially critical of the games; people know how much I love Mega Man. How much I love playing the series. How much I love perfecting the series. There’s something in these incredibly simple games about a little boy in blue pajamas fighting evil robots that brings me back in ways that other games — including many games I’d call great — just don’t.

The Zelda series is bigger. The Mario series offers more variety. Just about any other game in existence offers a better story. (Mega Man stories are, without fail, “Go kill those things.”)

But on some level I must not care too much about any of that, because it’s Mega Man that has my heart. It’s Mega Man I play to unwind. It’s Mega Man that reminds me exactly how much fun gaming can — and should — be.

I’m pretty sure I played Mega Man, the first game in the series, first. It’s possible I started with Mega Man 2, especially since Mega Man didn’t set the world on fire the way its far superior sequel did.

Whenever I played it, though, I played the hell out of it.

I never owned Mega Man. I think one of my friends might have, but I know for sure that it was a frequent rental for us at the video store. It won us over for what’s probably its best-known gimmick today: the opportunity to play the stages in any sequence you like.

This was a design decision that I’m sure had nothing to do with video game rentals, but it sure worked out well for us.

Normally we’d rent games for a weekend and gamble on whether or not we’d enjoy them. The box art would call out to us and suggest worlds of adventure within, but rarely was the experience anything like what we felt was promised. We’d play plenty of games and be disappointed. Or — arguably worse — we’d play games that weren’t disappointing, but struggle to get past the first two or three stages.

I say that may have been worse because when it came to games we didn’t like, we didn’t really care how much we did or didn’t get to see. With games we enjoyed, though, the difficulty could be a real turnoff. We’d have a few hours over the course of a couple of days to get as far as we could. If we couldn’t get far — and if the game didn’t have a password system — that was it. And we’d likely never rent it again, because the one memory that lingered most firmly was that of some roadblock we couldn’t make it past.

Mega Man felt like a miraculous gift in that regard. Yes, it was punishing. No, we never made much progress. But the fact that we could actually see all of the levels…the fact that we could experience all of the levels…the fact that the game — the entire game! — was right there, letting us play it…well, we fell in love. My friends and I rented Mega Man over and over again. And we were never disappointed.

Other games felt like getting to explore a huge sandbox a few feet at a time. Fail to overcome some challenge or puzzle and that was it; you were stuck scratching around the same corner. Mega Man pulled out all of the boundaries and said, “Here. Have fun.”

We did.

Mega Man felt different from most other games. It stood out. On a less tangible level, I think it was just the feel of the game. The way it invoked — though none of us would have been able to articulate this at our young age — a comic book or a Saturday morning cartoon. It was all thick lines and bright colors…enemies with big, goofy googly eyes…varied environments suggesting the kinds of weekly adventures heroes would undertake in other media. We were drawn to it the same way we were drawn to certain TV shows or films…only this time we were playing it. It was a way to immerse ourselves in worlds we previously could only enjoy from afar, from the safety of our couches or bedroom floors. In Mega Man there was no such distance, and we were not safe. We died. A lot.

Here’s another one of my favorite early video game memories: a friend on my block said he could beat Mega Man. Nobody believed him. Why would we? It was a preposterous claim. Nobody could beat Mega Man.

We assembled at his house that afternoon. He picked up the controller, and we all crowded around him to watch.

He took unnecessary damage, I’m sure. He died plenty. He handled dangerous situations in idiotic ways. He probably cursed a bit. Hours passed. Maybe five or six hours. But we were riveted, because he kept making progress. And eventually…he really did beat Mega Man. Probably after a dozen continues and fifty or more deaths, sure, but he beat Mega Man.

We couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.

Today, of course, I can visit Youtube and call up hundreds of videos of people beating Mega Man. Without dying, without taking damage, without using special weapons. Speedrunning. Exploiting clever glitches. Playing Mega Man — a game I know better than I know most things in life — in ways I never would have imagined possible. I can watch World Record runs. I can watch players so graceful that their movements are like beautiful choreography. I can watch players so good at the game that they can narrate interesting facts and details as they play, never missing a beat.

But, somehow, it was still more impressive to me to watch my friend beat it in his bedroom that day.

There’s no comparison in terms of skill. My friend sucked. But he sucked less and less each time until, finally, he was able to eke out a victory. Our hearts were in our throats during that final fight against Dr. Wily. In fact, I’m sure it was the first time many of us had seen Dr. Wily. Or his stages, for that matter.

But he beat it. And we screamed and cheered. And I miss that.

I miss that communal joy that came from overpowering some challenging video game. I miss that feeling of discovery when we sussed out a difficult puzzle. I miss that feeling of elation when we found a false wall or a hidden powerup or some other secret, tucked away from the visible world. I miss that a lot. While the internet has made games so much easier to find and play and distribute, it’s made it harder to believe they matter. Back then, every victory was earned through sore thumbs and thrown controllers and profanity and teamwork. Today, I can look up a walkthrough. I can force my way through difficult areas with save states. And if I get lazy, I can just look up the ending and watch it on the video streaming site of my choice.

I almost never do those things, though. Because that’s not gaming to me. Gaming, to me, is what happened in my friend’s bedroom somewhere around thirty years ago, when a group of kids were glued to the screen, shouting advice, hoping against hope that the kid with the controller in his hand was actually going to do what he said he could do.

Am I romanticizing it a bit? Maybe. And while I’m going to romanticize Mega Man as well, I’ll admit that it’s not without its flaws. But there is a real, honest, genuine love I feel for the game, and to understand that love, I think we need to look at its place in history.

Mega Man was released in 1987. Again, I have no way of knowing when I first played it, but the game was released in only the third year of the NES’s life. Prior to Mega Man, nearly all of the games on the system were simple sports titles, uninspired platformers, or single-screen score attacks that hadn’t much evolved from the much more primitive consoles that came before.

Mega Man stood out, and it stood out sharply. Looking back at a list of NES releases, only a handful of games prior to Mega Man would I consider “must owns.” Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll toss Balloon Fight in there.

But that was it. The rest of the games were fairly forgettable. They might be fun to play — and let’s never discount the value of fun — but they didn’t…matter.

Mega Man mattered. It brought its own ideas to the table, and it set a precedent of quality that later games either did or didn’t live up to. And if they didn’t…well, we’d just rent Mega Man again.

That list of games above, I think, is important, because it doesn’t just represent the early greats on the NES; it’s a list of games that expanded upon, pushed the boundaries of, and defined entire genres.

Super Mario Bros., for example, became the immediate template for platformers. It defined the feel and the flow of the action. It cemented specific expectations of difficulty…how to be incredibly challenging without ever being “unfair.” It struck gold with its catchy, evocative music that singlehandedly rid the world of blips and beeps as viable soundtrack options.

I won’t go through each of the games — this is about Mega Man, after all, and I’m sure you know what each of them did to redefine gaming as we now know it — but Mega Man deserves a place on that list for its own irresistible ideas. We’ve already discussed the fact that you can complete the main stages in any order, but there’s also the series-defining choice of having Mega Man inherit the weapons of defeated bosses.

This was both a great bonus in itself, and an answer to one of the challenges of designing the game in the first place. After all, if you’re going to let your players complete stages in the sequence of their choosing, how do you define progression?

That’s how you define progression.

You reward them with a new toy. A toy that allows them to conquer future challenges in unexpected ways. A toy that changes the way they’re playing.

The weapons system in Mega Man did a great job of making the NES itself feel massive and versatile. Sure, the controller only had a couple of buttons (A and B, which we all referred to as Jump and Shoot), but Mega Man let those buttons control seven weapons and a utility. That’s eight things to play with when most games gave you one or two. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid both found ways to cram relatively large arsenals into the same constraints, but it was Mega Man that did it best and the most impressively.

…in theory.

In practice, let’s be honest: a good deal of these weapons are terrible.

The Rolling Cutter is a lot of fun — serving essentially as a very powerful boomerang — and the Thunder Beam has a wide range, enormous power, and low energy consumption. So far, so good.

Then you get the Ice Slasher, which only actually harms one enemy in the game: Fire Man, who is more easily defeated with your default Mega Buster anyway. It freezes enemies in place, which is nice, but is really only useful against the powerful Big Eyes…and even then you just freeze them in the air and run underneath them. Hardly thrilling stuff.

I have a soft spot for the Fire Storm, which surrounds Mega Man with a very temporary shield as it shoots a single projectile forward, but I’d be lying if I said it was anything impressive or even, in most cases, worth using.

At the bottom of the heap, though, are the two truly lousy weapons. The Hyper Bomb is initially pretty cool (I admit that I still love seeing Mega Man pull out a big, black cartoon explosive), but its frustrating delay makes it almost pointless; just about any enemy you could hit with it will move out of the way long before it explodes. This is a shame, because it should be a great weapon for those enemies who are too short for Mega Man to hit with his Buster.

And, of course, there’s the Super Arm…which one of my friends refers to as “Guts Man’s worthless thing.” I can’t really correct him. It’s entirely dependent on finding ammunition on the screen (big blocks that Mega Man can lift and hurl), and removing certain barricades — its one actual use — is faster and more easily achieved by using the far superior Thunder Beam anyway. You had one job, Super Arm…

Of course, Mega Man was just finding its footing. It wasn’t going to have a wealth of great weapons right off the bat; it was forging new ground. Having any special weapons was a bonus to players at that time. It’s really only with the benefit of hindsight (hindsight introduced by this game’s very first sequel) that the flaws in Mega Man stand out to any significant degree.

Playing it now…yeah. It’s a bit rough around the edges. In fact, I’m sure that it turns people off when they try it for the first time. Mega Man was a standout title in its day, but now…well, it still has its charm and its obviously huge ambitions, but it probably doesn’t offer much else.

For starters, the game struggles and chugs constantly, as though its code is just barely holding itself together when there are more than a few moving sprites on screen. (This is probably true.) Mega Man himself controls in a strangely slippery manner, taking a few frames to stop moving after you lift your thumb off the D-pad. In a game that often demands precision, this is inexcusable, and most times that I play Mega Man now I go in knowing that I’ll take a lot of damage from obstacles that it’s more or less a crapshoot to avoid.

Then there’s the stage design, which is…a bit uninspired. In 1987 the NES was already home to a host of forgettable, bland platformers, and Mega Man, at times, is no better or more carefully designed than those were. It often suffers from the belief that throwing some enemies and spikes together makes a stage. Technically it probably does, but rarely does it feel like the product of anyone with a clear idea of what they want to do.

As such, I’m surprised each time I play Mega Man, simply because so much of the game is not memorable.

I’ll go to bat for certain stages, which actually do seem like they were designed with some kind of logical progression in mind. The best example of this is probably Cut Man’s, which begins with some simple jumps and ladders to let players learn the basics of the controls, adds in some simple enemies that can be defeated with a single shot, and then gradually introduces more complex ideas. We move on to the enemies that shield themselves at regular intervals, for example. We toss in some others that can only be shot while they’re hopping, because they’re too close to the ground to be hit otherwise. We start combining enemies with (relatively) tricky jumps. We introduce a flying enemy that shoots in multiple directions, and force a player to navigate ladders while dealing with it. Then we meet Big Eye, the game’s designated and recurring bruiser, and finally the boss himself, who is designed to challenge our ability to jump, shoot, avoid projectiles, and navigate obstacles at the same time. It’s the final exam at the end of a fairly well constructed course, and I appreciate that.

Bomb Man’s stage follows a similar sort of progression, and I’ll go to bat for that one, as well. Elec Man’s doesn’t — at least not to the same, impressive degree — and its favorite trick is to throw difficult-to-avoid enemies at you almost as soon as you enter a screen. (Not to mention those tiny crawling enemies that patrol platforms and are far more challenging than they ever are fun.)

But Elec Man’s stage actually has the best sense of implied progression, as you climb almost without pause to the very top of his tower, where the man (or Man) himself is holed away, generating power. You begin the stage at the base of the tower where the walls are a murky greenish color; when you reach Elec Man’s boss room, those same tiles are now a vivid and bright yellow. The suggestion, deliberate or not, is that the strength of the lighting changes with your proximity to the guy powering it.

That’s pretty cool.

But then you have stages like Fire Man’s, which is just a series of unfair traps and enemies raining down upon your head. Then there’s Ice Man’s, which is just sort of there and contains the two most frustrating passages in the game: the disappearing blocks and the much-too-long journey over bottomless pits atop glitchy enemies who shoot at you and move in literally random patterns…sometimes making it a genuine impossibility to clear.

Guts Man’s stage fares little better; it’s just a handful of screens long, and it actually seems to give up on itself before it can even decide what it wants to be. The same can be said for Guts Man’s theme tune, which is oddly abbreviated compared to most of the other songs in the game.

On the whole, though, Mega Man deserves major and serious recognition for its music.

The one-two punch of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda defined soundtracks for the rest of video game history. (Composer Koji Kondo wrote the music for both of those games, and as far as I’m concerned he’s one of the most important composers of our time.) Compare the sunny, peppy overworld music of Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda‘s more adventurous, compelling, driving equivalent. One feels carefree and light…the other weighty and significant. Then compare their underworld tracks; Super Mario Bros. feels damp and stuffy, in line with the muted blue color palette used in those areas, while The Legend of Zelda swirls and disorients, foretelling danger and encouraging wariness.

Video game tracks from that point forward were held to a certain standard; they didn’t just need to be catchy or cute…they needed to be evocative. They needed to not only fit the area, but fit the mood. They became an important and defining part of gaming in general. Not many games prior to Mega Man took that to heart, and it’s a challenge this series has always at least tried to meet.

Even in this first game’s comparatively weak and simple soundtrack, it’s easy to see how deliberate it is. Fire Man’s track feels like the spicy, faux-Latin tune you should hear in a metal corridor with lava underfoot and fire falling from above. Ice Man’s track is halting and chilly. Guts Man’s isn’t great, but it feels mechanical, shuddering, and stubborn, in line with the robot-operated quarry that it underscores. Elec Man’s is probably the best, feeling and sounding like electricity singing its way through a long stretch of transmission line. It’s lovely, and this game’s easy standout track.

Mega Man 2 would set a new standard for soundtracks in general, with its infectious, irresistible compositions that sound like chiptuned dance tracks from an alternate universe, but Mega Man laid the groundwork for that, and it deserves a great deal of creative credit for the achievement.

Once the six main stages are complete, Mega Man moves on to Dr. Wily’s final gauntlet. This is the pattern that the rest of the classic Mega Man series would follow, and it’s somewhat remarkable how perfect a template was set by the first game. Sure, starting with Mega Man 2 we’d increase the number of main stages to eight, and Mega Man 3 would introduce another set of levels between the main game and the final castle, but those are just tweaks. The core concept of treating the main stages as tutorials — as longform playgrounds for Mega Man to earn and practice with new weapons — with Wily’s Castle testing your ultimate mastery was a sound one, and it’s something the series, wisely, kept around for its entirety.

Mega Man does seem to lose a bit of personality in its final stretch…but, to be frank, nearly all of the Mega Man games do. Wily’s Castle is often memorable for its big setpieces (such as the Yellow Devil in this game, the Mecha Dragon in Mega Man 2, and so on) but the stages themselves are designed to be punishing rather than distinct. As such, I tend not to enjoy these stages as much. There’s more personality in just about any Robot Master stage than there is in any Wily stage, and Mega Man set that precedent for the series, too.

So, yes, it’s aged noticeably. It’s far from perfect. If I could wave my magic wand and fix anything I wanted to fix, I’d be fixing the game all month. And my love for this title is admittedly due to straight, unapologetic nostalgia. There’s nothing — literally nothing — this game does that isn’t done significantly better in nearly all of its nine sequels.

But I love it.

I love it more than I love most games that are, strictly speaking, better.

I love what it is. I love its flaws. I love its silliness. I love its weakest tracks and its most frustrating sections and its crappiest weapons.

I love Mega Man. And, yeah, maybe I love it mainly for the groundwork it laid, but I still come back often to this one.

It’s an absolutely perfect game to complete in one sitting. It’s the perfect length. It’s the perfect balance of fun and challenge. It’s the perfect example of a game that stumbles not because it’s confused, but because it’s doing so many new and exciting things for the very first time. It’s a giddy experience, knowing that every stumble here sets up a grand slam for its sequel.

It’s so much of what I love about gaming in general. And, yes, I still play video games, but few of them hit me the way this raggedy, flawed, ramshackle little daredevil hits me.

When a game comes out today, people ask how long it is. I’ve never understood why.

I can beat Mega Man comfortably in around two hours, and I’m not even that great at it. It’s a short game. There’s no getting around that. There are no unlockables. No alternate endings. No DLC side stories.

But I’ve played Mega Man what has to be a hundred times over the years.

What’s better? A long game you’ll play once? Or a game so good you’ll play it over and over again forever?

The entire Mega Man series answers that question for me. I’ll take a perfect, bite-sized experience any day.

Best Robot Master: Bomb Man
Best Stage: Cut Man
Best Weapon: Thunder Beam
Best Theme: Elec Man
Overall Ranking: 1 (Erm…this will make sense later.)

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

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