By now, if you want to play Mega Man you probably already have it. It's been previously released for the Wii and 3DS Virtual Consoles, after all. But if you've somehow managed to let the game pass you by — or just aren't sure if it's worth upgrading your old Virtual Console version — we're happy to walk you through the streets of Monsteropolis again. After all, Mega Man, for all of its faults, is still a huge amount of fun.
While a vocal group of fans has criticised the classic series for failing to evolve much between sequels, the fact is that this first entry pretty much got the formula right on its own. Rather than a series stubbornly refusing to change, it's more a case of a series that started out on such solid footing that there was little to do from there except smooth and refine the experience. As such, Mega Man is a game that will feel very familiar to anyone who's played later entries...though it might also be a bit rough around the edges.
The gameplay is simple: you jump with A and fire your weapon with B. It's gaming boiled down to more or less its most basic components, but what gave Mega Man such an identity at the time is something we take for granted today: an inventory of fun weapons.
When the game begins you'll be able to select from six stages, at the end of each you will face a Robot Master. Defeat the Robot Master and you'll reappropriate his weapon for your own use, and you can use that to make other stages — and other Robot Masters — much easier.
The idea of swapping out weapons this way was novel at the time, and it's still a lot of fun to play with today. There's definitely a problem of balancing — which, arguably, the series has never got exactly right — between the great weapons like the Thunder Beam and Rolling Cutter, and the borderline worthless ones like the Super Arm and the Hyper Bomb. They're all fun enough to experiment with, but the odds are pretty good you'll find the one or two that you like best and stick with them.
If you manage to defeat all six Robot Masters you'll be whisked away to the final stretch of stages, which are constructed to show off each of the weapons you've obtained...and the utility that you hopefully didn't forget to pick up in Elec Man's stage.
So far it sounds a lot like its sequels, but the first Mega Man game is, relatively speaking, a bit unpolished. For starters, the physics aren't as tight as they would later be, with Mega Man sliding forward a few pixels after he stops running. This doesn't sound like a big problem, but when a few pixels are the difference between life and death by collision, it can get frustrating to those who aren't used to it. There's also a strange thing that happens when the platform you are standing on — for instance, one generated by the Magnet Beam — vanishes: you "warp" quickly to the ground, falling with much more speed than you would have had you jumped down. This can easily catch you off guard, and is clearly a problem in the programming.
There are also wrap-around issues, which allow you to grab a ladder on the bottom of the screen by jumping up from the top, and can also cause you to take damage from enemies that literally couldn't be further away! Additionally you will die if you climb too high off the top of the screen, making the experience feel just a bit unrefined.
Of course, there are also "positive" glitches, such as the famous "pause trick" that will allow you to defeat bosses with a single Thunder Beam shot simply by pausing and unpausing the game with Select (or - ) repeatedly. These can be fun to play with, but also make Mega Man stick out as the glitchiest game in the series.
Additionally, there are stage elements set to a random number generator that can literally make them impossible without the assistance of the Magnet Beam, particularly in Ice Man's stage where his floating platforms will go wherever they want to go...and are under no obligation to ever get you over that bottomless pit.
All of this is fair game for criticism, but none of it detracts from this title's deep and satisfying charm. Mega Man may not live up to the heights set by its next few sequels, but it is absolutely a blast to play, and beating it — which the lily-livered among you can now do with restore points — remains one of the most satisfying accomplishments of the NES era.
The core experience of Mega Man has held up quite well, but it should come as no surprise when we say that it's a formula that was much refined for its two immediate sequels. This first entry is worth playing, but series newcomers might want to start elsewhere, as the unforgiving difficulty, lack of E-Tanks, slippery physics and unreliable stage elements might prove to be just a bit too daunting. It's fun, don't get us wrong, but its challenge is legendary for a reason.