It's fitting that Mega Man 3 introduces our hero's antagonistic, cocksure older brother Proto Man, as the game itself seems to eternally duke it out with its own brother Mega Man 2 for the coveted title of Best in Series. But wherever you may fall on the question, there's no doubt that this third installment in the classic franchise makes a darned strong case for supremacy.
By this point, the Mega Man formula was so well known that Capcom was able to advertise the game with a full-page ad that said in big, blocky text: MEGA MAN 3. ANYTHING ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW?
In fact, we could leave our review at that, as well. Not only do you know what to expect from any classic series Mega Man title by now — non-linear progression through Robot Master stages, a slew of new weapons to play with, great music, fun utilities and a devastating final gauntlet — but Mega Man 3's particular reputation also, no doubt, had many of you grabbing it on day one.
There's a reason it's so adored today, and stands out among all of its impressive predecessors and sequels. In fact, there are many reasons. The Robot Masters are among the best in the series, the music was elevated to an even higher plane of chiptune composition, Mega Man learned a few new ways to maneuver around the levels, and four — arguably five — additional levels were added between the eight main stages and the final fortress.
Whew. And that's just a brief overview. Mega Man 3 had an extremely difficult task in measuring up to the success of Mega Man 2, and some might say that a task like that was impossible. Regardless, the development team absolutely did their best, and left us with a legendary follow-up.
The core gameplay remains the same. You jump with A and fire with B. Pausing the game brings up a menu that lets you select any Robot Master weapons you might have earned, each of which — at least in theory — can make certain parts of the game much easier. Additionally, however, Mega Man can now slide, a quick evasive stunt that can be activated by pressing down and A. Playing with the circle pad can make this a bit too easy to trigger, though, so it might be worth getting used to that D-pad placement all over again.
On top of that, we also have the debut of the aforementioned Proto Man, who plays here a more active version of the role he'd play in the series moving forward: that of friendly antagonist. He beams into three Robot Master stages to challenge you to a mandatory dual, and into a fourth to help you proceed. You'll also square off against him in an isolated boss fight before the fortress stages, as Capcom wanted to make absolutely certain he made an impression on gamers. We think it's safe to say that he did.
The other new character that made a strong impression is Rush, who puts a much more personal face on the utilities from the previous two games, and consequently makes them even more fun to use. Rush is Mega Man's faithful robotic dog, and you begin the game with the ability to use him as a coil to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Two other upgrades are unlocked as the game progresses, but we'll say more about those later.
The graphics are crisp, the levels varied and colourful, and the boss design is stellar, with some genuinely interesting patterns to suss out and react to. The music, of course, is fantastic, with themes like Gemini Man's, Shadow Man's and Magnet Man's ranking among the best the series has ever had.
Unfortunately, the game does have some issues. They certainly don't keep it from being an all-time classic, but they are worth mentioning.
Perhaps the most annoying is the abundance of slowdown. Certain areas feature so many enemies that the NES hardware simply couldn't handle it, and the game would slow to a crawl. This issue of course remains intact in the game's re-release, and it definitely does affect the sense of momentum that these levels should have. At least one boss fight suffers strongly from it as well, and firing the Gemini Laser nearly anywhere will turn the entire room into a laggy mess. It feels like sloppy coding and design, and isn't up to the standard set by the rest of the game.
Speaking of the weapons, this batch is pretty disappointing for a Mega Man game, with very few of them being much fun to use. The Search Snake crawls along the ground but, for some reason, doesn't affect enemies that are too low to hit with the buster. The Spark Shock paralyzes enemies, but doesn't let you switch to another weapon until the paralysis wears off, limiting its usefulness substantially. And the Top Spin is legendarily glitched, making Mega Man's first contact weapon a nightmare to use against the Robot Master that's supposed to be weak to it. The Rush adapters are similarly disappointing, with the Rush Jet proving to be far too useful, and the Rush Marine being limited to the very, very few water sections in the game.
The additional set of levels before the final fortress are a nice gesture, but in practice they don't feel anywhere near as well polished as the rest of the game. There are, for example, areas of these stages that can trap you if you've run out of fuel for Rush, without providing you with either a way to harvest more or to kill yourself...meaning you'll just have to reset the game. That, at least, gives the Restore Points another boost in usefulness. The recurring boss of these levels also has a very large sprite and a dodgy hitbox, making a few of his patterns very frustrating to fight against without an E-Tank.
But these are minor gripes, and while they're definitely noteworthy we don't feel that they detract much from the actual experience of playing the game, which is still one of Mega Man's finest outings, and one we couldn't be happier to have on the go.
It's no exaggeration at all to say that Mega Man 3 was one of the shining jewels in the NES library. The fact that many gamers don't even consider this the series' peak says more about the quality of the series overall than it does about any shortcomings to be found here. Unfortunately the game does suffer from some slowdown, a glitchy weapon and relatively careless level design, but those are all easily outweighed by everything Mega Man 3 gets right. Fans of the blue bomber can argue rankings all day — it's fun! — but there's no arguing against the fact that this is a must buy for all of them.