Feature: Mega Man Retrospective - Part One

25 years young

Twenty-five years ago today, the world was introduced to a super fighting robot — the Blue Bomber himself — Mega Man. Known as Rock Man in his native Japan, Mega Man earned global fame and popularity, introducing gamers to a unique and challenging franchise that, unsurprisingly, became a piece of classic gaming history.

Looking back at the series, it's easy (and admittedly tempting) to lump them all into one long, repetitive experience. After all, many of the tropes are consistent: a batch of robot masters, a weakness chain, new weapons to use, a final fortress, and so on. In fact, it's difficult to look back after ten main games and see the original Mega Man as the revolutionary experience it really was.

What we'd like to do, in honour of the 25th anniversary of this still beloved franchise, is take a look back at those main series games — rather than include the X series and so on — and give each of them their due. After all, every instalment brought new quirks and gimmicks to the table, and that goes all the way back to the very beginning, with the most innovative title of them all: the original Mega Man.

It's important to place the first Mega Man game in its proper context. Released in 1987, the game found the NES in its infancy. For the purposes of comparison, 1986 saw releases like Balloon Fight, Urban Champion, Excitebike and Pinball; these were small, limited experiences that were certainly revolutionary in their own way, but which more or less represent textbook examples of simplicity today. Super Mario Bros. released in 1985, but that was a clear exception. Most games were still repetitive, single-screen adventures, and it would take years for the industry to catch up with the precedent set by Nintendo's legendary platformer.

1987 saw the system's library taking massive steps forward, with classic adventures such as Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and, of course, Mega Man. Games were beginning to expand their boundaries, offering larger, more dangerous, and certainly more immersive experiences, and it's no surprise that the three forerunners mentioned above are still regarded as classics today.

Mega Man was particularly innovative in many ways. For starters, and most obviously, the game allowed a non-linear progression. While The Legend of Zelda offered an open world, Mega Man's approach was one of isolated stages that you could conceivably play in any order. In doing so, the game both prevented gamers from getting stuck forever on a difficult section, and allowed them to make progress in whichever sequence they felt most comfortable.

Of course, this was also aided by the game's weapons system, which allowed Mega Man to adapt the offences of fallen bosses for his own use. Stages that seemed impossible at first could be a breeze with the right weapon, and tricky bosses could be felled easily if you used the weakness chain to your advantage. Building such an impressive arsenal over the course of the game was a truly innovative step for a platformer, and it immediately gave the game a strong and enduring identity.

Looking back, however, the original Mega Man is mainly notable for the things that were later refined or eliminated in the series. Its selection of six robot masters seems positively skimpy in the face of the now-traditional eight, and its pointless — and too easily exploitable — scoring system was a holdover from arcade gaming that didn't exactly work well when tied to the Mega Man experience.

Further, its punishing difficulty was mainly due to flawed physics, poorly programmed enemies, and sequences that relied entirely upon luck (such as avoiding the notorious Big Eye enemy, or clearing Ice Man's floating platforms). Mega Man may have laid the basic groundwork — and unquestionably set the precedent for the rest of the series to live up to — but it was its sequel that really solidified the legend.

Making its predecessor feel like a trial run at best, Mega Man 2 appeared two years later to universally glowing reviews and exceptional worldwide sales. The game was a popular and critical masterpiece, and it's rightfully credited with single-handedly providing the series with the momentum needed to keep it alive.

Refined physics, an expanded roster of robot masters, an even stronger soundtrack, better level design, more impressive graphics and whole other set of fantastic weapons to play with came together to make this one of gaming's best sequels. It's the first game in the series to feature a password system — which was much appreciated as the original required a complete playthrough in one sitting — and also the first to award Mega Man with secondary items for defeating bosses. The Magnet Beam in the original game was found lying in a level, and was that game's only utility. Here we have three of them, and since they're provided when beating certain bosses there's no way to miss them this time around.

This is also where we expand on the types of enemies Mega Man would face. The original featured classic boss types such as Ground, Blade, Explosion, Fire, Ice and Electricity, but Mega Man 2 added Nature, Time, Water and Wind to that mix. It was also the first game to feature a shield weapon, which strengthened our hero's defensive capabilities rather than offensive, and the first chargeable weapon. It's also worth noting that this game marks the first appearance of the E-tank, which allows for a full health recharge, and an optional easier difficulty in the Western release, making this a significantly more accessible adventure than the original.

While there were still a few kinks to iron out — the fortress stages still felt a bit unrefined, and the weapons ranged from so-good-they-must-be-broken to almost worthless — Mega Man 2 is an absolutely stellar game, and arguably the best in the entire series.

In 1990, the world was introduced to the other game that tends to be awarded the coveted title of Best In Series, Mega Man 3.

Carrying forward all of the innovations of Mega Man 2, Mega Man 3 broadened the game universe by introducing two characters so important and natural to the franchise that it feels like they were there from the beginning: Rush, and Proto Man.

Rush was — and still is — Mega Man's faithful canine companion. In a further evolution of the utility items, this time it's Rush who allows you to access new places in interesting ways. Proto Man, on the other hand, is a mysterious, recurring antagonist that appears in various stages to test Mega Man's strength. At the end of the game you learn that he is — as much as any robot could be — your brother, and as the series progressed we'd continue to see him take on the dual role of ally and enemy.

This game also introduced the slide, which would be a series staple until the deliberate step backward of Mega Man 9. When sliding Mega Man is not only able to slip through narrow passages, but he also moves more quickly and reorients his hitbox, making it a fun and interesting evasive maneuver as well.

Additionally, this is the first game to feature a second set of levels before the final fortress: in this case, it's a revamped set of four robot master levels, more dangerous and housing Doc Robot, who channels the spirits of the bosses from Mega Man 2.

Of course, since this is Mega Man, the game isn't quite perfect. The Top Spin is the first contact-damage weapon in the series, but it's also buggy and unreliable. The Doc Robot stages feel poorly planned out, with sections that can trap you if you run out of weapon energy, without even offering a way to kill yourself; if you get stuck, you will actually have to reset the game. There's also a pretty unintuitive weakness chain (Needles kill the Snake, which kills the Crystal?), but the soundtrack is stellar as ever, and the challenge is definitely stepped up from Mega Man 2.

It's still debated where, exactly, the series began to feel repetitive, but we think it's safe to say that it takes place somewhere after the first three games. Mega Man 4 is a great game in its own right, but it definitely relies more on the series past than it does usher it into the future, and that's a tipping point from which the games never recovered.

Mega Man 4 introduces a proper second fortress — as opposed to the simple retreads of earlier stages found in Mega Man 3 — and it also introduces what quickly became a necessary twist: the false antagonist. Here, Dr. Cossack is positioned as the lunatic that must be stopped, and in the next two games it'd be Proto Man and Mr. X. In all cases, it's actually Dr. Wily, but at the time of Mega Man 4's release, this was a legitimately interesting twist.

The game retains Rush, but also introduces two optional utilities that can be found lying around in stages — the first time that was possible since the original game — that help out even more. It's mainly notable for introducing the charge shot, which allows Mega Man to increase the power of his default weapon by sacrificing rate of fire. Again, this would be retained until the deliberate simplicity of Mega Man 9, and while it was a welcome addition it also made the robot master weapons feel less useful. With infinite ammo and incredible power, Mega Man now started every game with his best weapon. For obvious reasons, that's a problem.

This game also introduced Eddie — a walking dispenser of random powerups — but not much else. Cossack never became the beloved secondary character that Rush or Proto Man did, but according to series lore he's the one who designed Beat — who makes his début in the next game — as a token of his appreciation for Mega Man's help here, so it's nice to see that his legacy, at least, lives on.

Another year, another Mega Man game. Mega Man 5 is still a great deal of fun, but the steady stream of new titles made each Mega Man game feel less special. The selection of robot masters here also speaks to a seeming dearth of ideas on Capcom's part, as we're now fighting trains and stone statues that fall apart when they jump.

The weapons are almost uniformly awful, as well, making the experience of earning them feel like far less of a reward than it ever had before. Even Rush's coil ability ends up nerfed, reworked here into more of a bouncing platform than a simple lift upward.

Of course, the game wasn't totally devoid of inspiration. Gravity Man's stage gimmick is an 8-bit version of what we'd later see in certain sections of Super Mario Galaxy, and Stone Man's optional areas help the game to feel that much more worth exploring. Wave Man's stage also introduces vehicle sections, which would later be used to much greater effect in the Mega Man X series, and the music in certain stages — Charge Man in particular — showed that the series wasn't entirely out of steam yet.

Otherwise, though, Mega Man 5 feels suspiciously by the numbers, and half-hearted at that.

Check back at the same time tomorrow to read about Mega Man's NES finale and his move beyond, and then back to, the 8-bit era.