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

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

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

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

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

10) Indiana Jones Trilogy

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

9) Action 52 / Cheetahmen

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

8) Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties

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

7) Street Fighter 2010

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

6) Back to the Future ReRevisited

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

5) Virtual Boy

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

4) Godzilla

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

3) Ghostbusters

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

2) Bible Games

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

1) Castlevania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the thing:

I love Mega Man 5.

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

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

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

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

When I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I love it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but why would I do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s one kind of story.

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

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

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

But I listened.

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

My target became human.

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

I still killed him. I had to.

But it meant something different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)
—–
* 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.)

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