Mega Man 4 ReviewJonathan Stark
In my mind, the original Mega Man series is a trilogy ending with the defeat of Gamma in Mega Man 3. Mega Man 4 feels like a different game than its predecessors. Not entirely different-this is still recognizably Mega Man-but there has been a change in the approach to the design.
Or I suppose you could just call 4, 5, and 6 the Mega Buster Trilogy.
The Mega Buster is Mega Man's newest ability. It lets him charge his normal shots, if he wants, into one BIG shot that looks cool and does more damage. The downside is that it takes a while to charge, so you have to choose carefully when it's worth it to use or if it makes more sense to just fire a bunch of little shots. Also, it makes a really annoying sound the whole time you're charging it.
The inclusion of the Mega Buster changes more about the game than you might think. Knowing Mega Man is now armed with the ability to take out smaller enemies with one charged hit, the developers focus less on running him through a gauntlet of enemies. Or rather, they now put these gauntlets in intentionally inconvenient spots; usually over pits and right after tough jumps (so you get knocked back into those pits). In Mega Man 4, we see a return to some of the deadly platforming sensibilities of the first game. I'm talking the kind of timing where you have to leap right at the edge of a ledge to make the distance over the gap while also shooting an enemy out of the air before you smack into it. The Rush powers were made less easy to use, as well. Capcom really wants you to platform in this title.
Dr. Wily also seems to be aware of Mega Man's new power. He's built giant mid-bosses for many of the stages that seem designed purely to test the Blue Bomber's skill with the charged shot. These mid-bosses are one of my favorite parts of Mega Man 4. Each one is intended to match their Robot Master's theme and their supersized forms makes fighting them seem all the more epic.
The Robot Masters also come well equipped to deal with the new danger, for the most part (we'll talk about Toad Man later). I never realized, until I looked it up on Wikipedia, that Mega Man 4's Robot Masters were all designs submitted by fans. If I were Keiji Inafune, I would be somewhat uncomfortable with this, because I believe that Mega Man 4 has the best designed Robots in the series up to this point. Let's take a look at them.
Bright Man 8/10
His stage doesn't feature a mid-boss, but it uses the theme well. For instance, there's a cool interplay between two of the enemies. One is a giant light bulb that tries to float into you. Shoot it down and the stage goes dark. But following close behind is a Dompan, a walking firework dispenser that, when killed, puts the lights back on in a quick fireworks display. The couple are at their best late in the stage when you are trying to make a series of precise jumps over swinging platforms. The switching on and off of the lights can be a fatal distraction.
In contrast, the part with the crickets and totem poles is, uh, a little less themed, but we'll let it slide this time.
I see Bright Man as the BluRay release of Flash Man. He has a very similar weapon that stops time but, hey, you can actually shoot while this one is active! His fight is very similar, too, and he even stops and shoots at you in the same angled pattern that Flash Man used. He's a bit brighter (no pun intended) than Flash Man because sometimes, after freezing time, he'll do away with the shooting and just jump on you. There's no way to avoid taking this hit, which makes Bright Man infamous among no-damage runners. It is entirely up to luck whether he decides to use this move.
Or is it? It turns out someone has looked at the code for Bright Man and figured out how to keep him from doing this freeze shot (it's based on how much damage he's taken), but since you'd have to be insane or psychic to figure this out without being straight up told about it, Bright Man still counts in my mind as a bit of a dick.
Toad Man 8/10
In past Mega Man games, it was common for enemies to have nothing to do with the stages they were a part of. Mega Man 4 strives to change that (totem poles aside). Toad Man's stage takes you through a full progression of an environment, starting you on a windswept terrace and moving you into the sewers to eventually face the Robot Master. Outside, you are bombarded by the weather, which tries to blow you off of ledges and which obscures your screen with pounding rain. In the sewers, you face rats, amoebas, fish, and a giant snail that serves as the mid boss. Everything fits well with the dcor and so you stay immersed in the level and in the action. At least until you get to Toad Man.
Toad Man is a Robot Master to be pitied. What other Robot Master has this as their program: IF shot THEN stop attacking. GOTO hell. Toad Man cannot attack if you shoot him. When you shoot him, he'll slowly try to jump on you. Sometimes he hesitates before this, giving you a frustrated look like, Really? You're not going to let me get off a single shot? It's pitiful. I'd even say heart wrenching. But I don't care that much.
Ring Man 10/10
I want to make fun of Ring Man, I really do. I want to put him in the same junk heap as Top Man and Quick Man, pointing and laughing as I see the three of them trying to bust their way back to prominence with the use of toy tops, tiny boomerangs, and plastic pool rings; the kind you throw in the deep end of the pool to try and incite children to accidental deaths.
But I can't, because Ring Man chucks those same rings at me with such force that they knock my hair out. He was supposedly built specifically to assassinate Mega Man. That's a pretty awkward destiny to be handed, considering how that turned out for the last twenty or so Robot Masters who fought the Blue Bomber. To his credit, though I eventually got down Ring Man's pattern and beat him, the little bugger was quick enough to kill me something like seven or eight times.
The stage is what really wins me over, though. It's fun to run through, because each piece of it was set up to mess with your head and test your reaction speed. First, you're tested by ledges which get sucked towards or away from you as you run over them. You learn that jumping over these ledges is best. Then these floating Saturn enemies (because Saturn has rings, you see) show up to block your jumps. So you learn to shoot them from a distance before making the runs. Just as you're learning to deal with them, you're put up against a, uh, Hungry Hungry Hippo on a giant platter. Now you have to shoot out the rings of the platter to bring the Hippo down to your level so you can fire at it. And so it goes, with the stage continuing to mess with your ideas of what the rules are... and occasionally throwing in a Hippo to straight-up confuse you.
Drill Man 7/10
Drill Man seems a little forgettable to me. It might be that his whole stage takes place underground, whereas most of his robot buddies have levels that feel more environment spanning, or at least explore their environment a little more. Even Bright Man and Dust Man's stages make you feel like you're wandering further into some horrible factory. There is one very intense part of Drill Man's stage where you are being pelted by boulders and, while you're trying to dodge them, you have to take leaps of faith into nothingness. You're really aiming to hit switches positioned mid-air. If you hit the switch, you'll make the next section of the stage appear just before you land on it. If you miss the switch... well, that's that. It's a hectic and chaotic part of the game which instantly makes you forget that the level itself is kind of boring.
Drill Man puts up a similarly hectic fight. This is especially surprising as he spends a lot of the fight underground, digging his way invincibly around beneath you. This could have made the fight really drag on, but because he gives you no clues as to where he is, it ends up feeling a little bit like you're fighting the shark from Jaws, waiting for him to pop up right underneath you. Then he chases you around, shooting drills up your ass, and I'll be damned if I wasn't running away for all I was worth. Rarely has the boss room felt like more of a cage than in this fight.
Pharaoh Man 10/10
Pharaoh Man's stage is actually kind of stale, even though it has a nice progression from sandy wastes to pyramids, and then to the depths of the catacombs. The enemies are nicely themed, from mummy robots to scorpions, and they have varied patterns that you have to learn to take care of them effectively. Other than this, everything feels almost too straightforward. There's a long string of spike sections, but slow moving platforms are provided to safely carry you over them and it doesn't require a lot of finesse to stay on. There's also no mid-boss, which feels like a lost opportunity in a stage with such an obvious theme. In fact, I do happen to know there was a cancelled Sphinx boss; it's not surprising, because the level feels like it's lacking something.
All of that is moot, though, because Pharaoh Man is hands-down the coolest of the Robot Masters in this and any other Mega Man game. As a child, I always thought he radiated some kind of special power that set him apart from the other Robots. He seemed mystical and mysterious, as ancient as the tombs he was built to explore. As an adult, I respect him because he's fast, vicious, and durable. Like Bright Man, he seems to be an update of a Mega Man 2 boss; in this case, Quick Man-even sharing his weakness for time stopping weapons. Fight him without that, though, and he's an extremely fun challenge, whom you have to lure into using his slower attacks so you have a chance to hit him. He also gained notoriety for being the only Robot in the cartoon series who didn't act like an idiot. Every other Robot (especially Cutman) rushed into the show with an ineffective pizazz that only served to make them look especially ridiculous when Mega Man stole their power and blew them through a wall. When Mega Man steals Pharaoh Man's power, Pharaoh Man socks him across the jaw. He's like an adult that wandered into a child's playground on recess and decided to rock everyone at dodge ball.
Dust Man 8/10
No amount of Mega Buster charge will save you from being crushed beneath a heavy mechanical press. At least, I figure that was Dust Man's sentiment when he choose this level as his base. I think it's also why there are enemies called Up and Downs which leap up unexpectedly from the pits to knock you off course and cause instant death. The whole level is very slow paced, what with having to stop by pits to shoot the Up and Downs, and having to proceed through the afore mentioned mechanical press only when it's raised. There's also a long section over spikes that you cross by jumping on blocks which slowly rise into place. The blocks don't move or disappear, but you have to be patient and wait for them before moving forward. So, again, a lot of waiting around.
There's no level near as slow as this in the rest of the game, which ends up actually making this stage very difficult. Dust Man is one of the later Robots in the weakness cycle, and by this time players will have gotten so used to going fast that being forced to slow down becomes a legitimate challenge. The same can be said of Dust Man, who has a projectile attack that is easily dodged if you just keep your cool. But he's also slow to fight, since when he's not shooting he likes to stand still and sucks you towards him... during which time he's invincible. It's easy to lose your patience and just start trying to wail on him while he shoots at you-at which point you'll inevitably mess up the timing and get killed. I like that there's only one stage this slow and I appreciate that it seems to have been a conscious decision which really does make the game harder.
Skull Man 9/10
Mega Man 4 is the first game since the original where you can go back to levels after you've beaten the Robot Master. This is a nice return for the series, because it lets you decide how prepared you want to be for the Castle stages and thus removes any right I have to complain about cheap endgames. If you don't want to spend the time to build up your stock of lives and energy tanks, then you have brazenly accepted the full-on challenge of the Castle and shouldn't pretend like the developers didn't give you an out. And if you do want to spend the time to gather your resources, then you want to do it here, in Skull Man's stage. It's easily possible to pick up three Energy Tanks and an extra life on each run of the stage, and that doesn't count anything that enemies might drop for you.
The design of a Robot Master who is basically a skeleton seems half cool and half lazy. After all, he's pretty much a white Mega Man with a skull for a head. Somehow the design works better in the actual stage. I think it's just fun to run around a level made of rib cages and spines and populated by Skeleton Joes who fall into a pile of bones when you shoot them. And, regardless of Skull Man's simplicity in design, it is good to see a useful shield power from a Robot Master. This time you can actually move while using it. Yay for innovation.
Dive Man 10/10
I love this guy's stage. It marks the triumphant return of the water level and with much more going on than in Bubble Man's stage. The water level rises and drops with the tides; the mini-boss is a gigantic whale; there's a hidden area down what looks like a deadly pit; and underwater mines block the final approach to Dive Man, who finishes up the level with a good low-gravity fight. I don't miss the spikes from Bubble Man's ceiling that kept you grounded; there's something fun about bouncing to the top of Dive Man's room and floating all over the place while trying to dodge homing missiles and what looks suspiciously like M. Bison's Psycho Driver attack.
One note: in my last review, I mentioned that Hard Man looks like a submarine. Does anyone else think that Dive Man looks almost exactly like him? Am I right? Anybody?
The Cossack's Citadel 10/10
Grrrah! Big scary Russian! It does seem a bit odd to me that Mega Man got involved in the Cold War sometime in the mid-90's as opposed to doing it back in the 50's and 60's when it was really in vogue. Nonetheless, there you have it. A snow-covered castle houses the final stages of Mega Man 4. The snow is actually put to great use in the first level. It covers up a hidden energy tank, it blocks you from seeing smaller enemies, and the ice mechanics are surprisingly immersive for an 8-bit game. Your first few moves on the ice just leave Mega Man running in place while he builds up traction and then he suddenly slides madly forward with little ability to stop. Watching him pump his legs to no avail really does draw up memories of trying to walk on a frozen pond or across an ice rink. There's even a painfully tense sequence where he has to navigate these slippery surfaces while jumping over a series of pits... and the pits are filled, of course, with Up and Downs.
All of the stages of Cossack's Citadel are very tough and the challenge is almost entirely a platforming one. It's snow and ice in the first level, but later levels feature traps to match it: like spikes that need the Rush Jet to cross (much harder then the last game, because now you can get knocked off Rush). My favorite, though, is stage three, which is an all-out mad jump across tiny moving platforms set over a bottomless pit, while the screen scrolls to the left the whole time-reminiscent of Super Mario Brothers 3. This is where you recognize all the signs of a classic NES platformer.
Wily's Castle 8/10
But wait, what's this? The Citadel isn't the end of the game? The Russian and his crazy snatcher machine aren't the final boss? You mean Dr. Wily is back?! How dastardly and unpredictable!
Remember back in my Mega Man 2 review when I asked the rhetorical question what boss can only be damaged by a single weapon? Well, it turns out there's another one. And it's the final boss of the game. He can only be hurt by the Pharaoh Shot and the Ring Toss (or whatever it's called). Chances are, you've used up these weapons fighting the eight Robot Masters and the first two Wily forms. The final boss gets his own stage, so when I warped in I was shocked to see that there weren't any recovery power ups in sight.
I mean, doesn't that look like a good place for some powerups?
Granted, this time around there are at least some very easily killed enemies to help you recharge your weapons. This is stymied a bit by the fact that they have the most abysmal drop rate of any enemy in the game. I killed myself and just let the game restore me to full power, as much as it irked me to lame out in this fashion. That was the only time the final boss killed me. He is otherwise incredibly simple to fight, despite the fact that he's invisible 96% of the time. That should tell you how truly easy he is. A boss that is invisible, and I beat him without taking damage on my first try.
It's a disappointing final fight, but I found it hard to be upset. After two castles and six bosses (not counting the eight Robot Masters), and a very tough fight against Wily's earlier forms, I must admit I was kind've gamed out. This is why you shouldn't force players to play through eight stages without any kind of break. But that's a new-school sentiment, so I'll shut up about it.
Besides, the Wily Castle this time around is very short, with only two full-length stages. The first stage is the only themed Wily Stage I've yet seen, built entirely around the concept of Metalls (those little hard hat guys I've been calling Helmet Heads in my other reviews). The only enemies are Metalls: Metalls of every kind-spinning Metalls, underwater Metalls, and the boss is a giant Metall. There's also lots of death spikes and a long and terrifying underwater death spike sequence where the Metalls are perfectly placed to knock you backwards into a spike or ruin a jump with deadly consequences. This stage is frantic, but the theme makes it fun and is a reminder to me of the importance of theme. It's the reason why I don't usually enjoy Wily Stages nearly as much as the Robot Master stages. Theme is everything...
... which brings me to the main reason I loved Mega Man 4. More care has been taken here than ever before to keep true to the Robot themes. This is especially noticeable in the stages like Toad Man where you progress through several environments, but it is also evident in the incredible variety of enemies that inhabit every stage, most of them relevant to the particular theme. It is especially commendable in Ring Man's stage, who could have easily been the odd Robot out this time around. Mega Man 4 leaves no man behind!
This attention to detail is what really makes the experience fun for me and delivers on the promise of the premise, something I don't feel had yet been done consistently in the series. On a more visceral level, Mega Man 4 has an excellent amount of challenge and is easily the most balanced of the Mega Man games I've yet to play. Like Mega Man 3, the levels aren't stingy about powerups, including extra lives and energy tanks, but here you'll actually need them. Complex enemy patterns have been mixed with precise platforming sections to provide continuous action. Dying is fun in Mega Man 4 because it usually comes at the end of a long string of near-hits by enemies and near-misses over jumps. The one that finally gets you always feels like a crescendo more than a finale.
My only complaint about the game is that the final boss isn't very fun to fight. But that's a very tiny complaint amongst a world of praise. If you are going to begin with a Mega Man game, I would say make it this one. It was something I was fortunate enough to do by accident and look where it finally led me. When you start with Mega Man 4, you can't help but want to play the others.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.