A delightful game—if you play it in the right frame of mind.
Devoted readers of my reviews (hi, Mom!) know that I do not have a great deal of respect for Capcom games in general. Capcom has an annoying habit of taking hit games (Mega Man, Final Fight, Street Fighter) and running the franchise into the ground with numerous sequels. Those games that aren’t hits (Bionic Commando, Strider) become inexplicably acclaimed cult classics, despite the fact they aren’t really anything that special.
So I had every intention of revisiting the original Mega Man title and writing a harsh review of it. But a funny thing happened along the way: I actually found myself enjoying the game! I still have reservations about it, which I will detail below. First, though, I need to eat some crow and say what’s good about this game.
The graphics are quite nice for an early NES title. Some game companies, including Capcom, tried to do too much too early in this department (I submit Commando as Exhibit A), but I think they hit the sweet spot here. There may be a little too much red and blue in the color palette, but otherwise the graphics are very well done, with little flicker or slowdown. The same praise goes for the music and sound effects. NES music/sound is generally annoying, but here it’s rather atmospheric and catchy.
As for the gameplay, it takes a little getting used to, but once you get a feel for what the designers were going for with Mega Man—puzzle-oriented platforming, alternating with cool boss battles—it’s hard to resist coming back for more. Even when you die from a cheap hit or an unexpected enemy appearing on screen, it makes you mad, but it also makes you feel good, since you’ve explored a little more of the game and now you’ll have the knowledge to help you do better in the future. Mega Man definitely dishes out its carrots and sticks at the same time.
Some of the jumping puzzles are truly devious in design. While many are straight-up mazes, some add timing elements, where blocks appear and disappear at fixed intervals in a given sequence. The player has to observe this sequence and then figure out what blocks to jump on, and in what order, to get to the other side of the screen. It’s a pretty simple mechanic, but these puzzles work really well. They are frustrating, but certainly not impossible, and quite rewarding once you’ve figured them out. The controls are more than adequate to the task, too. Modern console gamers will probably say the controls are unresponsive, but the control is actually very tight…it’s just that the jumps themselves are often challenging.
The boss battles are clearly the highlight of the game, though. Every time Mega Man defeats a boss, he gets that enemy robot’s special power. The six different robot boss characters can be taken down in any order, but there is also a really neat “rock-paper-scissors” dynamic at work here, so it may pay to go in a particular sequence. For example, Fireman might be vulnerable to Iceman’s attacks, in which case you would want to beat Iceman before taking on Fireman. Some experimentation may be necessary to find the right combinations, but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s actually a pretty nice way of adding replay value to the game without just throwing more levels at you.
The most damning thing about Mega Man, and the reason why I originally intended to write a negative review of it, is that it seems crushingly, unfairly difficult at times. This is partly the fault of the game’s designers for not including some kind of password or save game feature. It was still relatively new for this kind of arcade game to have a clear “finale” to it, and they clearly weren’t sure how to handle it yet. Even a really good platform gamer would need 4-5 hours minimum to get through this game—but who in this busy modern world has the time (or patience) to plug away for 5 or more hours in one sitting?
I think the first lesson of Mega Man is this: you can make a good platforming game into a great game if you have a save feature, some difficulty settings, and an endgame that is humanly possible to beat. Mega Man doesn’t have those things, but Mega Man 2 does. Even Capcom can learn from its mistakes!
The second lesson is that a good game can seem really bad when you compare it to the wrong kind of game. I always compared the Mega Man games to Super Mario Bros. 1,2 and 3. In retrospect, that comparison really biased me against the MM series. Mega Man isn’t Mario; he jumps around platforms, but he doesn’t blast through them with speed or by busting up bricks and stomping on his enemies. No, Mega Man has to get through the levels with patience, puzzle-solving, and some clever shooting. It’s an entirely different kind of experience, even if the two games look very similar. In fact, I’d say Mega Man is closer to classic PC action games (Lode Runner, Jumpman, Prince of Persia) than it is to Super Mario.
Aside from the fact that the trial-and-error gameplay can turn into a grind, my only other complaint is that Mega Man is a pretty bland protagonist. He’s totally upstaged by the boss enemies, which seems a little odd for a superhero. Maybe it had to be this way, but it still bothers me.
The Bottom Line
I hated Mega Man at first, but now that I’ve played it more, I have to admit that I like it. It’s clever and charming—just enough so to offset its unreasonable difficulty level and occasional bouts of tedium. Fans of 2D platformers should definitely play Mega Man, but remember: he ain’t no Mario.