The handheld Mega Man games, up until now, have been remixed mashups of two NES titles each. Some of them hewed more or less closely to the source material, while others were emboldened to evolve the original ideas is exciting new directions.
Mega Man V, however, throws the very concept of "source material" aside. It's the last game in the classic handheld series, and clearly the development team wanted to go out with a bang. We're glad they did, because the end result is a title that unexpectedly stands shoulder to shoulder with the best games in the series.
The differences are apparent from the opening sequence. Rather than Mega Man facing yet another threat from Dr. Wily, he and Roll (in her only Game Boy appearance) are attacked by Terra, one of five Stardroids that have invaded Earth. (In another rarity, Mega Man launches an offensive against another four, in an attempt to halt the attack before it happens.) The fight doesn't end well for our hero, as the Stardroids are constructed of a material much sturdier than any of Wily's creations have been.
This means Mega Man needs an upgrade to his buster, and that comes with the welcome side effect of a new charge shot, in the form of a fist that launches across the screen. It can further be upgraded to grab items (which is tremendously helpful) and latch onto enemies (which is not, but is still awfully fun to do). Additionally, Dr. Light introduces a new companion: Tango, a robotic attack cat.
All of this happens before the game even begins, and that represents a good number of differences right off the bat. Mega Man V wants you to know that whatever follows, it's not going to be what you expect; that's great, because what follows is one of the best action platformers the Game Boy ever had.
As in the previous games, there are two sets of main bosses. This time, however, they are not Robot Masters. These are Stardroids; looming cosmic threats that have been awakened, somehow, and it's up to Mega Man to fight them off. Doing so will require him to navigate a series of very, very long stages, each of which has its own unique traps and hazards, culminating in a boss fight. Defeat the boss and earn their weapon. It's a classic formula, but what makes Mega Man V stand out is just how charmingly it explores it.
The level designs are great. Gimmicks and hazards are not segmented, but rather combined. For instance, Jupiter's stage has both space physics and ice. Saturn's stage has shifting gravity and the slowing of time. Just when you've adapted to the quirks of one stage element, you can expect to encounter another; of course, this is all on top of the standard Mega Man concerns, such as enemies, bottomless pits and death spikes. It's a lot to keep in mind at any given time, which makes replaying these stages a very rewarding exercise in accomplishment by degree.
Although the stages in the previous Mega Man handheld titles were remixed — often significantly — there's no doubt that the relative lack of new special weapons to play with was a disappointment. Aside from the Mega Man Killers, none of the bosses in those games gave you anything you hadn't seen, and mastered, already.
Here, though, everything is fresh; while that makes it pretty inevitable that a few of them will be disappointing (such as the glob of salt water known as...Salt Water, or the upgraded Super Arm known as the Deep Digger, which sadly still relies on rare external ammunition), there are some excellent ones in the mix as well. The Spark Chaser is a powerful laser weapon, as well as one of the most fun to watch go about its business, and the Grab Buster allows you to not only deal damage to enemies, but to steal their health for your own use. That makes it a very valuable weapon for those times when you're limping around a dangerous stage, only a bar or two keeping you from death.
The bosses, as well, are all new — in fairness there are some returning faces, but they're welcome surprises and we won't spoil them here. We applaud the willingness to experiment, but we have to admit many of them have pretty easy patterns to figure out. The simplicity of the bosses is counterbalanced by the absolute insanity of the levels, but it's more than a little strange to think of a major boss as a "breather."
In fact, the entire game feels like a slight step down in terms of difficulty. For many, that might be a good thing. For those looking for a major challenge, they may have to resort to self-imposed limitations, such as avoiding the shop or only using the Mega Buster.
The final word, however, is that these issues barely register as issues at all. The sheer amount of fun and creativity employed by the development team is on display, and it's contagious. While some bosses might be too simple, some weapons could be more useful, and some stage themes could be more memorable, all of it ultimately builds to a brilliant, lengthy, rewarding experience that more than makes up for any missteps by how much it gets absolutely right.
Mega Man's final Game Boy outing is easily his best, and it's interesting to note that while his NES titles were arguably losing steam, his handheld titles were getting steadily better. Putting the first three NES games and the last three Game Boy games in a row would probably give you the ultimate 8-bit Mega Man experience, and the fact that you'd be ending on Mega Man V — a game of impressive breadth and variety — would leave you with an excellent sense of universal closure.
Mega Man V isn't a perfect game, but its imperfections are charming, addictive, and even fondly memorable. It's an instant highlight of the 3DS eShop, and is guaranteed to remain one.
Mega Man V, against all odds and exceeding any reasonable expectation, turns out to be one of the best Mega Man games, period. The difficulty might be a tad low, and the soundtrack only intermittently hits the peaks we've come to expect from the series, but all of that is made up for by an endlessly creative experience, ten new special weapons, and a whopping fifteen main bosses. This might be one of the most overlooked games in the Blue Bomber's catalogue, but that just means it's primed for rediscovery. If you have any interest at all, you'd be doing yourself a great disservice by passing on Mega Man V.