Mega Man 5 ReviewJonathan Stark
A lot of people say that the Mega Man series started to cash in at Mega Man 3. I am more forgiving. In my recent playthrough, I saw definite additions made to both Mega Man 3 and Mega Man 4 that were affective enough to become synonymous with the character (the Mega Buster springs to mind) and effective enough to expand on the strategies of the game (the slide move added an entirely new dimension to the game).
For me, the first cash in is Mega Man 5. The earliest sign of the falter is the music. Instantly it is less recognizable and catchy than the previous four games. It failed to pump its way into my head and start an adrenaline fueled party that would soon invite my fingers and gaming skills to tag along. Instead, this was the first Mega Man game where I found the music to be occasionally irritating and distracting. In a way, this was helpful. I no longer had to fear dying because I was trying to jump and shoot in time with the beats. It was a hard price to pay, though, for improved concentration.
Still, this is a video game, not a rock concert. Show us something more substantial to complain about, you say! Ah, but the music was only the first sign of danger. The next halting moment came with the introduction of the bad-guy lineup. My reviews of the Mega Man series have been based off of the Robot Masters and their stages. I excitedly unearthed new ways to beat Fire Man. I wistfully revisited the power of the Metal Blades. I mentioned how much I thought Hard Man looked like a submarine and discovered Dive Man looks exactly like him. Then I turned to Mega Man 5 and...
Ouch. I wasn't interested in a single one of these guys. Wave Man? Crystal Man? Gyro Man? It sounds more like a dance group than a lineup of villains. I'll admit that Mega Man Robots can't usually be judged off their names. As far back as Guts Man, some of them simply weren't compelling. We've seen the likes of Dust Man, Hard Man, and Ring Man, for god's sake. But something about this particular lineup set off warning bells in my mind. Was it the music whispering warnings in my ears? Or was it Star Man beaming out at me from the roster, a starfish plastered to his face? Maybe it was just paranoia. Let's find out.
Wave Man 4/10
This stage annoys me (and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the game). It annoys me on a number of levels. For one, it's a water stage that only hints at water. The water in this stage is safely contained. The majority of the time sees you running along a giant series of pipes, through which you can imagine a more interesting stage is flowing. At only three points do you interact with water: when walking over pipes, sometimes the water bursts through and hurts you; you ride bubbles up a particularly slow section of the level; and there's a jet-ski portion. But there's no underwater segment and the Lord Triton-inspired boss is almost a parody of a water themed Robot Master. Even Bubble Man laughs at this guy. He reminds me of a child who puts on six water wings before he tests the temperature of the water with one toe. If this guy has anything to do with water, it is very much from afar. If you had pictured a fight in which you'd struggle to move against waves of powerful water blasts while the Robot Master laughed at your vain attempts from the other side of the room, then you shall be disappointed. His waves are actually tiny water spouts that burst out of pipes. Fear the rage of Leaky Faucet Man!
If, like me, you live in the Pacific Northwest, you may have found yourself at some point taking a trip to the coast and finding-instead of sand and sun-high cliffs and dark forests. The question you may rightly utter at such a moment is where's the beach? I ask the same question here. Where's the beach? You would totally expect Wave Man's stage to have actual sand and waves. The jet skiing is fun, and saves this stage from an abysmal score. But it comes too late and is followed by the abysmal boss encounter described above, ultimately leaving a sour taste in the mouth.
Star Man 1/10
If you've read my Mega Man 4 review, you'll know that one of my favorite things about the series are the themed levels. At first glance, Mega Man 5 seems to take this higher... literally. You've got a guy named Star Man? Then his level will definitely take place in space. There will be rockets and meteors and Metall's wearing rocket packs. But you know, the whole thing feels too easy to me, like they didn't have to stretch very far to make this happen. Space seems like it could have been the starting point for all sorts of interesting tricks and design curiosities. Instead, it steals the low gravity gimmick that would have gone with the missing underwater stage. In fact, it's designed like an underwater stage, too, using death spikes on the ceiling to make your low-gravity jumps harder to pull off. We've seen this before and I liked it better when it was wet! Hold all puns and that's what she said jokes.
It might seem odd that I'm complaining about the inclusion of mechanics whose absence I bemoaned in Wave Man's stage, but it all has to do with the theme. With Wave Man I want water. In space I wanted something new, something I hadn't yet explored in previous games. That doesn't happen here, and overall you get a forgettable level built on existing mechanics. The final stage of Mega Man 2, which takes about thirty seconds to navigate but features an actual alien at the end, was a more memorable space level.
I feel bad giving Star Man such a low score, because it really feels too expected. My creative side wants to give him a 5/5 just to psyche you out. Yet, as boring as my score is, Star Man is more boring. Star Man is as weak as his stage. He has no weapon; he just has to get lucky and hit you with his star shield. Sometimes, out of sheer frustration, he'll launch the shield at you and it moves across the screen about as quickly as a glacier. Not one of my favorite Robot Masters.
Crystal Man 1/10
I mentioned in Star Man's review that the stages here don't seem to have worked very hard for their theme. Crystal Man's stage is where this pushed me over the edge. Okay, sure, the stage is made of crystal. And there is one enemy who shoots them. But it is a literal interpretation of the Robot Master's first name with little effort made at imagination. The rest of the enemies are almost completely random. We get balls floating on springs, mice, and street sweepers that shoot at you. Even Crystal Man's weapon looks more like a grey bouncy ball than a crystal. If Capcom was able to come up with consistently and cleverly themed enemies for Ring Man's stage (I still chuckle about the Saturn enemies), then why can't they do it in Mega Man 5? If you're going to be this lazy with the themes, why not just have Blue Man and Red Man and Yellow Man? At least in Mega Man 4, Yellow Man's stage would have had evil suns and a Big Bird mini-boss. Also, the crystals all over this stage shimmer with neon colors. Oh god, my eyes, they shimmer constantly.
Gyro Man 6/10
I was seriously hoping for a nice lamb-filled Pita to make an appearance in this level. Unfortunately for my stomach, gyro in this case doesn't refer to food but instead to helicopters. Oooooh! So that's why there aren't any helicopters in the entire stage. Right. Instead you get evil chickens. That's right. CHICKENS. It's another where's the beach moment. Perfect example: this stage begins with an elevator ride. There are no enemies, no death spikes, nothing to do except stand there and enjoy the music and the fluffy white 8-bit clouds. If this weren't an NES game, I would say it was there to load the next part of the level. It's that idiosyncratic. Why is this here?
I actually do dig the Robot Master's design. It's cool to see a flying Robot Master. I like how he whips his propeller off of his back to chuck it at you and I enjoy that the top of his boss room is covered in clouds that prevent you from seeing where he'll drop down from. It doesn't have nearly the tension of Drill Man's fight, though. Maybe because Gyro Man's strategy is incredibly easy and Drill Man was an effin' psychopath with chainsaws for hands. I do applaud Gyro Man's weapon, which lets you change its direction after you shoot it. I like that the developers were striving to add a new mechanic to the series after having already designed thirty weapons for Mega Man to use. Uniqueness becomes tricky on the thirty-first try.
Stone Man 3/10
I will say this for Stone Man: of the brutes of the series, he's the most interesting looking, basically being a Golem with a great falling apart into bricks animation. But for being a giant bruiser, he's also the least effective of his brothers, doing this animation any time he jumps too high and having no attack aside from trying to land on you (I hardly count that easily dodgeable and incredibly slow circle-thing as a genuine attack). He's also another one whose stage has been given literal treatment without much thought. Yes, there's a lot of stone. That makes it about as original as Guts Man's stage and you know that any time I mention Guts Man I'm about to dish out a low score.
The real reason I dish it out here is because of the monotonous marathon you have to pass in order to reach Stone Man. Stone Man has the longest stage of any Robot Master in the series-to this point-and it is the best definition of enemy gauntlet. There's about ten seconds of platforming that seems to hint at more coming... but no, instead you encounter spikes underneath long bridges. It's actually harder to reach and die on the spikes than it is to just walk across the bridges, so I don't know why they are there, except maybe as a backdrop for the final string of slow moving enemies blocking the way to Stone Man's room. I'm not against an enemy gauntlet, if the enemies are interesting to look at or fun to fight. Only one enemy in the entire stage has anything to do with rocks, though, and he goes down pretty quick. The rest of the time you are fighting indistinct floating shapes, some of which shoot, some of which don't, and all of which die in one shot. The Metalls also show up in abundance, and the little guys are a standby of the series, but they just can't carry such a long stage on their own.
Charge Man 8/10
Nevermind what I was just saying, this is the definition of enemy gauntlet. This has to be the only Mega Man level in history without a single platforming challenge. It's ridiculous. There's one screen with death spikes, and the spikes are in the opposite direction of where you're going. It's like the programmers put them there to be pasted elsewhere in the level and then forgot. Or maybe Charge Man is transporting them for the other Robot Masters. I say this, because Charge Man's theme is a freight train, and it's actually a pretty pleasing idea. This is one of only three stages (Gravity Man and Napalm Man being the other two), that gets clever with its theme.
Here, the theme and its corresponding enemies (like Metall's riding miniature locomotives) do a lot to distract me from the enemy gauntlet and kept me interested throughout the run. Gyro Man's chickens and Crystal Man's mice are also back, but here they make sense! Hey, you do see those things on trains!
Charge Man himself is a train and the animations for him are pretty enjoyable. He shoots steam out of his smoke stack, he chuuuuus to emulate a train whistle, and when he rushes after you he kind of hunkers down and just goes for it-chest out, head down, and looking more like a train than ever. It's like fighting an action figure, and that makes the whole thing pretty enjoyable.
His power up is pretty forgettable, on the other hand. There's a reason the Top Spin, of Mega Man 3, wasn't used by most players. It made you slam yourself into the enemy in order to damage them. That's idiotic and completely antithetical in a game where you have a powerful gun with infinite ammo. It worked for Samus Aran, but she could run at Mach 5 and turn into a spinning ball of death. The Top Spin was no Screw Attack. Want to know why? Because the screw attack was effective as soon as you pressed the jump button. The Top Spin requires expert timing and an innate knowledge of an enemy's pattern to be effective.
The Charge Kick isn't quite that bad: in fact, it helps immensely against one or two of the castle bosses, but it's still an extremely limiting move. You can only perform it while sliding. So you can only hit enemies that stay on the floor. Of course, like the Top Spin, a few crazed gamers have gone online and posted videos of them beating all eight Robot stages with just the Charge Kick to prove its worth, but it still fails to impress me because I can do the same thing a lot easier with the regular Mega Buster.
Napalm Man 6/10
Wow. Napalm Man has the first stage in Mega Man history that makes me feel a little politically uncomfortable. Set first in the forests of what is undoubtedly Vietnam (complete with roving robot tigers), and then in desert caves which seem to be ominous reminders of the Middle East, this Robot Master might as well be called US Foreign Policy Man. It's an easy stage, though, and Napalm Man's not all that impressive, especially for being named after a particularly nasty form of explosive ordinance. He's part tank and part jet plane. The best way to describe him is as a transformer that doesn't transform. He is cool looking, for all that, and I like that this stage actually put some thought into delivering an interesting theme, despite the political, uh, incorrectness. I wonder if a Nuclear Man stage would be based off of Hiroshima. Maybe that's why there isn't a Nuclear Man.
Gravity Man 10/10
Every lineup needs its star hitter and even Mega Man 5 has one: Gravity Man. Gravity Man's stage is incredibly fun and the only one in the game to use a mechanic entirely unseen before. Gravity changes throughout the stage at set points, so that sometimes you have to plan to jump over a set of spikes on the floor and then land past another set of spikes on the ceiling. It's a clever concept that got me truly disoriented, immersing me for the first time in the game. The fun ends too soon, though Gravity Man keeps up appearances by switching the gravity constantly during his fight. You'll never be on the same gravity pull as him, meaning that he'll be on the ceilings while you're on the floor and vice versa. With most weapons, you'll have to lead the shot as he switches gravity, hitting him mid-fall. Doing this successfully makes you feel awesome no matter how many times you pull it off.
Proto Man Castle 10/10
The first stage of Proto Man's castle sets you up for another run through an enemy gauntlet. There isn't a lot of platforming and (being a Castle level) no theme, but you won't notice because you'll be focusing all your energy on staying alive. This is a stage where the toughest enemies have been lifted from each stage, paired together with the tigers from the Vietnam jungle, and sent after you from higher ground. The second stage adds in platforming elements and flying enemies. Now you're dodging enemies on both the ground and in the sky, and you're starting to think that it would be much simpler to just let a tiger eat your face. The third stage makes all the flying enemies harder to kill and throws in two very tense sections where you have to ride a snake of blocks in an unpredictable pattern across long stretches of bottomless pits. And there's mid-air death spikes. Might as well give up.
But you won't! You'll keep playing. And you'll get better. Because that's exactly what a Mega Man Castle should be. Each level should step up the difficulty just enough so that by the time you reach the last stage, your fingers are twitching across the controller and your eyes start zigzagging all across the screen to pick up all the potential threats. It's that great adrenaline rush that is only achieved when a game has consistently asked you to do more each level without asking you to do too much. If a careful balance isn't struck with this, you'll find things either numbingly tedious or deprecatingly unbeatable. The balance is struck here, though, and made better by the fact that the right use of your robot weapons can give you a much better chance of surviving. You just have to be clever in what you use and when. It's a nice touch of strategic thinking with a payoff.
I cock an eyebrow at the last stage, though it's not bad enough for me to dock it a point. It's an empty, quick level that pretends like it's being tricky, with a puzzle where you have to shoot blocks that drop the ceiling down, but... well, it's a puzzle in the same sense that counting from one to ten is a puzzle. There's not only one right way to do this puzzle, there's literally only one way to do it. You cannot solve the puzzle incorrectly, because the only blocks you can shoot are the correct blocks. Sure, you'll die the first time because you won't know that you're dropping a ceiling of death spikes on yourself, and that's the closest the Castle comes to being cheap. After that, it's just a tedious repeat every time you die at the boss.
The bosses of Proto Man's castle are a bizarre step sideways in the castle tradition. Ever since Mega Man 1, the castle bosses have been known for their huge size. Here, though, they look more like Robot Masters. It's potentially a little disappointing in a game that already lacks the oversized mid-bosses, but boredom is averted by the fact that these guys are friggin' challenging. And, like their levels, each one is a step up in difficulty. The first one comes at you shootin'; the second has a shield; the third jumps all over the place and freezes you; and the last one jumps all over the place, has a shield, and shoots at you. Each of these guys has just enough of a tell that you can predict and dodge their attacks, but you have to be fast on the draw. And that's how it should be: the challenge here comes from figuring out what to do and then having to execute it well; not from random patterns or having to use a specific weapon to damage the boss (as I've complained about a couple times previously in the series).
Wily's Castle 8/10
Spoiler alert! Wily is behind everything and Proto Man is innocent! Alarmed gasp from anyone who hasn't been paying attention for five games. Anyway, Wily's Castle holds up much better here than it did in Mega Man 4. The difficulty level stays on the right curve, being just a step up from Proto Man's challenging stages. It's full of all the things you've come to associate with the crazed doctor by this point: spikes on the floor, spikes on the ceiling, spikes on the walls, spikes, spikes, spikes, spikes, spikes. And platforms that don't sit still for you while you are jumping around spikes.
... only to terminated with you facing another set of Wily forms that are completely laughable. Sigh. It's strange to me that the developers never seem to get the balance right with Wily. Either they make him almost entirely undodgeable or they castrate him of all weaponry. The first Wily form is the oddest one yet; he flies back and forth and then pauses for a very long time before the floor rises up to meet him. The answer? Move right or left. Then jump and shoot him. It's a long, boring fight because he's out of your reach most of the time. The last form is similarly invincible for far too long. It's another invisible Wily boss that likes to appear in spots where you can't reach him. Well, unless you have some Gyro blades left. I didn't at this point, so it was a long fight. Not a hard fight, but very long. A tedious end to the game...
... but it did little to remove the fun immediately preceding it. You know what the majority of Mega Man 5 feels like? It feels like a chore to complete before being allowed to play the real game. That game is to be found in the walls of the castle stages, where the challenge finally picks up and presents us with some of the best designed death traps in Mega Man history. It might fall apart a little bit with the final bosses, but by the time you get there you'll be ready to see the credit screen anyway, so you might not mind.
I didn't talk about Beat the Bird at all, because I didn't get him in my playthrough. I've seen videos of players using him to make the Castle levels much easier, which is a big plus in favor of the game design, despite all my complaints. Take your time to go back to each level and find all the secret letters which summon Beat and the last stages will be much easier to beat; or blaze through the game and expect a higher difficulty. It's a classic video game decision: faster but harder, or slower but surer? I didn't like the Robot stages and I did love the Castle, so I avoided finding all the secrets and instead just focused on playing my balls off in the last moments of the game. Being able to tailor your gaming experience puts Mega Man 5 ahead of the curve in an important way, even as it demonstrates some significant laziness. It figures that my favorite endgame falls in an otherwise unremarkable experience. Oh well. The best nights end with a bang, as they say.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.