In 1991 the world got a fourth entry in what had quickly shaped up to be one of the NES's most popular series. This game was Mega Man 4, and expectations were high. After all, the first game laid down a solid — if static — template that resonated very well with gamers, the second game refined the formula substantially and gave us an enduring classic, and the third entry added fun gameplay wrinkles and important new characters to the mix.
Mega Man 4, therefore, was in a position that did its legacy no favours. With the bar having been raised so high by its predecessors, there really wasn't much it could do but disappoint.
However, upon revisiting it, we're happy to report that the disappointment isn't too overwhelming. It's still a very fun game which adds its own little flourishes to the tried-and-true formula of the previous games. While its reputation suggests a big step down from what came before, we'd argue that the decline in quality is at least somewhat exaggerated.
The game begins with eight Robot Master stages that you can play in any order. Clearing them and defeating their boss will give you a new weapon, which you can use to make other stages easier; each one is the weakness of another Robot Master somewhere on the board. So far, so similar. Mega Man 4, however, does innovate in its own way; most notably in the form of the chargeable Mega Buster.
In previous games, the buster was your starting weapon, and was weak by design. The idea was to get you excited about the special weapons you would earn by defeating bosses, because they'd allow you to carve a more effective path through the game. However the fact that you can charge up your shots this time around means you actually start the game with a quite powerful weapon, and that can throw off the balance somewhat. Holding down B allows you to fire a more powerful shot when the button is released, and that means you effectively have unlimited ammo for one of the game's strongest weapons.
However, it's important to note that charging is optional, and the entire game can be played through and finished without charging at all. In fact, for the purposes of this review we played through the game without charging even once, which definitely made the game harder and put it almost on par with the previous games in terms of difficulty, but was still possible. Of course, that doesn't excuse the fact that the game wasn't rebalanced to make the charged shots less overpowered, but it does at least leave the choice in your hands as a player.
Some other innovations include two hidden utility items, stashed away in the Robot Master stages. The first Mega Man game had a utility to pick up as well, but it was both clearly visible and mandatory for completing the game. Here it's up to you to find them, and we recommend that you do because the Wire Adapter especially is a great deal of fun to play with...and can even be used as a weapon if your timing is good enough!
Then there's the second set of stages before the final stretch, which was an idea present in Mega Man 3 that has been refined here to a complete fortress of its own, resulting in a more varied and interesting journey toward the end of the game.
So far we haven't had much to say about Mega Man 4 in a bad light, and that's because it's still very good. However there are a few items we should highlight. For starters, the soundtrack is a definite step down from what came before. While some tracks, such as Dive Man's, Skull Man's and Bright Man's are highlights, there are a lot of dull songs that simply don't feel as inspired as they did in the previous games.
The Robot Master weapons are also a bit of a mixed bag. The Ring Boomerang is a great, fast short-range weapon and the Pharaoh Shot is both chargeable and aimable, but the Dive Missile is a homing weapon that orbits frustratingly around its targets without hitting them and the Skull Barrier is a shield that hardly blocks anything.
The Robot Masters themselves fall into similar issues, with too many of them having simplistic patterns — only Drill Man, Pharaoh Man and Bright Man put up much of a fight — and Toad Man himself having no chance whatsoever to attack you as long as you keep shooting him, which we guess means his AI was designed exclusively to triumph over people who've never played video games before.
The new characters introduced to series lore also run the gamut from interesting to forgettable. Russian madman Dr. Cossack is easily the most complicated villain Mega Man has faced, but new ally Eddie just puts a face on those random item capsules from Mega Man 3, and doesn't make the same impact Rush did when he represented the utilities from previous games.
The whole game actually feels like two halves stitched together. On one side you have ideas and gameplay from earlier entries refined even further — such as Bright Man being a better implemented version of Flash Man, or the sprite limitations of Mega Man 3 being handled much more smoothly — and on the other you have programming that feels rushes or untested, such as the copious glitches that can be triggered in Cossack's auto-scrolling stage, or the long, dead stretches crying out for more inspired level design.
Mega Man 4 is a good game, but it's also where the seams start showing. Fortunately it's still worth a buy, even if it's only so you can play around with the Pharaoh Shot.
It's almost not worth saying at this point that Mega Man 4 marks what many would describe as the downward slide of the classic series. However it is worth saying that it's still a very good game. The soundtrack may not be a match for its predecessors but it's still pretty solid, and while the game seems to alternate between perfect refinement and total carelessness, most of Mega Man 4 does manage to stand beside the previous three games. It's absolutely worth a download for fans and anyone else looking for another great — if not particularly inventive — platformer to have on the go.