Mega Man ReviewJonathan Stark
It's taken me 20 years to beat Mega Man. It is a judiciously difficult game. It isn't the kind of "endless enemy" difficult of Castlevania or the "make one wrong step and die" difficult of Ninja Gaiden, but it is that special class of difficult nonetheless found in classic NES games. It's the kind of challenge which requires you to know each level by heart before you can squeeze through. And therein lies the real delay in my victory.
I have spent my share of evenings playing one section of a game over and over until I beat it (the One Shot, One Kill mission of Call of Duty 4, on veteran mode, comes to mind), but generally after achieving victory on one of these super hard missions, I'm spent. This is where the modern save feature comes in handy. Mega Man didn't have this. The first Mega Man didn't even have passwords. If you wanted to beat it, you had to do it in one sitting. There was no turning off the game; no learning a level at a leisurely pace over the course of a couple of fun-filled days. Usually I burnt out around the time I'd beaten the first six bosses and gotten to Wily's Castle. Those who have played the game may remember the Yellow Devil in the first stage of the castle and, well, yeah... that's where I invariably gave up.
The other reason it took me so long is because Mega Man 2 came out. And then Mega Man 3. And then Mega Man 4. And so on and so forth until eventually Mega Man X made all NES Mega Men irrelevant for the remainder of my childhood. It was certainly difficult to go from the detailed graphics and smooth controls of the SNES Mega Man all the way back to a Mega Man who couldn't slide tackle, couldn't charge his gun, and would drift a few inches before coming to a stop. The incentive just wasn't there, not when we had these newer, sleeker offerings.
So why did I go back?
There is something I call "the itch." Other gamers may know what I'm talking about, when I describe the itch as that nostalgic call to revisit a game. Sometimes the itch is triggered by music, or a particularly memorable environment from a game. For instance, I only have to hear the first few plunking piano notes of "The Secret" to want to revisit Secret of Evermore, and sometimes while walking through downtown Portland, I feel the sudden urge to visit Fourside in Earthbound. Every few months, I get that same itch to play the NES Mega Man titles. But I haven't been able to place the source of the itch. Where does it come from? I decided I needed to revisit the series to find out.
The first thing I realized is that, while no one denies the innovations of the first game, no one really gives it full credit, either. Here is a game which took difficult platforming and boss battles and gave players a legitimate way to sidestep the challenge. Not the cheater's sidestep of Game Genie or even the passcode judo of Contra. These were legitimate powers, gained from beating the bosses, which made the levels easier, especially when the right power was applied to the right level. In my experience, it was the first platforming game to reward strategy.
Yes, yes, people say. It started everything, but the later games did it better. In this manner, the first Mega Man has been relegated to a kind of "beta" status, with most people considering the series to really kick off with the second game. It's a fair point; many of the true Mega Man standbys do start off in the second game. I even agree with the point, but then you have that itch, which included the first game. Something had kept me coming back for 20 years, and it went beyond controls and graphics. What was it?
And then it hit me. The Robot Masters aren't "beta." Each game in the series has its own, proprietary set of Robots that can't be found in later games. Despite the fact that playing any of the later titles was a smoother experience, nowhere else could I tackle that unique set of NES bosses. Victory wouldn't be complete until I had seen them all fall and bested the similarly unique Wily's Castle. And then, because it's what I do, reviewed them.
Fire Man 5/5
Ice Man and Fire Man always felt like a pair to me. Not just because of the ice-fire comparison, but because they were the only two Robot Masters in the first game to have clear themes and stick to them. Between them, they have the two best powerups, with Fire Man's ability being almost game-breakingly useful. Fire Man also happens to be a pacifist, or at least a reactionist. No, really. I always thought he was one of four or five Masters that couldn't be taken down without taking damage, because the guy spazzes all over the place and lobs flaming waves at you so quickly that the screen often starts to flicker with the graphical strain. But try going into the room and just standing still. Fire Man tones it down considerably, calmly standing in one place and firing the occasional shot while you peck away at his life. Conclusion: Fire Man is a pacifist at heart.
Ice Man 5/5
Now, Ice Man is a Robot Master I appreciate. First of all, I've always liked his design. He's a little Eskimo guy in a parka! Alongside some of the crazy Mega Man designs, it feels comfortingly simple and approachable. And he's not wearing a stupid helmet. Props for that. His stage is one of the better themed ones, too, very easily working in ice, a brief aquatic section with penguins, and the first appearance of the disappearing blocks. That alone makes it memorable. His weapon is also incredibly useful, being able to freeze enemies in place; allowing you to run past those cyclopean jumping bots that soak up about seventy hits before going down.
Guts Man 1/5
The most memorable thing about Guts Man is the series of stomach-wrenching jumps in his level, which you have to make over a long section of bottomless pits. Otherwise, Guts Man is a enigma to me. He's important to somebody, because he's been brought back in several games and even serves as part of the logo of the Anniversary Collection, but he's basically the brute of the series; the obligatory "big guy." I never understood his name and how "guts" relates to the mining theme of his level. His power is the most useless in the entire series. Get this: it lets you pick up blocks. Not just any blocks, but very specific blocks that are only seen on something like five screens in the entire game. I'm annoyed whenever I beat Guts Man and get that stupid power as a reward.
Cut Man 2/5
Another Robot Master whose design and power don't really do anything for me but who is apparently loved by someone at Capcom because he shows up all over the place. He looks like a bunny. He attacks with scissors. That puts him on the same threat level as children who don't know to keep the point down when running. I will say that I like the Cutarang better than most of the later Mega Man boomerang weapons. It cuts through multiple enemies, which makes it incredibly useful. Why later boomerangs take this out, I don't know. Without this, it would just be a regular shot that's harder to aim. The level... well, what are you going to do with "cutting" as your theme? Make it an emo stage? It's all metal and ladders and it's really grey and bland. Like a placeholder for other graphics that never got put in.
Elec Man 4/5
Elec Man is a Robot Master who wouldn't stand out except for one thing: he can kill Mega Man in three hits. That's a distinction that I don't think any other Robot Master can claim, even though most of them look a lot cooler than a guy with a lightning bolt plastered to a funky helmet. The fun of fighting Elec Man comes from trying to see how long you can avoid switching to his weakness. He's sporadic about his movements and whips out those electric bolts with barely any sign of when he's going to do it. Because of this, taking him out with only the Mega Buster presents one of the hardest challenges in the entire series. His stage, on the other hand, is unremarkable. It uses electricity as a theme only in the basest sense, with little electric zapper traps spread around in a few rooms. The coolest thing about it, aside from the catchy electronic theme song (I see what you did there, Capcom), is the final climb to Elec Man's room. It's one of the only Mega Man boss rooms that you enter from the bottom, making the start to the fight a little disorienting and again adding to the difficulty.
Bomb Man 2/5
What I find funny about Bomb Man is that he uses a conventional weapon to attack. I mean, anyone can chuck grenades around haphazardly. He may as well have been called "Team Fortress Classic Man." At the same time, I kind of like it. With most of the Robot Masters you can't think too hard about what's going on. Like where is Skull Man getting his skulls from? and why? But I don't have to stretch my imagination too far to understand a robot chucking bombs. As far as the stage goes, the originality lands somewhere around Elec Man's. It's that same dull grey and unthemed stage design placed alongside an obligatory Bullet Bill enemy. Like Elec Man's stage, it ends interestingly, with you falling into Bomb Man's chamber. But it's a much less impressive fight that follows.
Wily's Castle 3/5
The Yellow Devil. A boss that gave me nightmares as a child. This guy had the effect of a propaganda bomb on me. I always thought, "if this hulk of a boss is the first guardian of the castle, then what kind of demon is coming next? How hard is Dr. Wily going to be? How long is it going to take me to beat this castle?" The answers in my head were: it's too horrible to think about; the hardest boss in video game history; not in time for supper, I'd better turn off the game. The real answers are: some giant bubble that's weak to every weapon; pretty easy and exceptionally susceptible to the Cutarang; and about an hour and a half, most of it spent on the Yellow Devil.
That's the legacy of the Yellow Devil. He represents the entire Wily's Castle to me. He's actually not that difficult a boss, but he arrives at a very awkward point in the game. While most of the Robot Masters have patterns that can be taken advantage of, Yellow Devil is the first boss that you have to learn the pattern in order to beat. The switch is not an easy one to make, especially after a stage full of pits and instant deaths that leaves most players twitchy. Losing your last life to Yellow Devil and having to start the level completely over is extremely demoralizing. Demoralizing enough to dominate my childhood memories of the first Mega Man title.
I came to Mega Man with some concerns that its age would put me off completing my planned revisiting of all six NES titles. What I discovered is that it remains an interesting title. I don't see it as a beta-test that can't be revisited in light of its more sophisticated siblings. In fact, I think most reviewers have got it wrong. They say that Mega Man has aged poorly. I don't think that's the case. Mega Man offers unique thrills from most of its bosses and requires a different kind of dexterity than the later games. Where it suffers is in its lack of imagination. Too many of the levels are grey and uninteresting. They are demoralizing in the same way that the Yellow Devil is. Just as he extinguished my motivation to beat the game for 20 years, the bland settings take away the motivation to reach the entertaining bosses. This is the one innovation that wasn't present until later games and truly was in beta for this first run. It's not something that's come about because of age, however; it was always missing. Overlooking that, I'm glad I came back for a victorious run through. Rarely has a credits roll looked so good.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.