Mega Man – Retro Games Review

Disclaimer – This review is part of a 7 part series of reviews for the the Mega Man Legacy Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to Mega Man.

The year is 20XX and for the most part, the world is at peace. Man and robot live in harmony thanks to the efforts of renowned scientist Dr Thomas Light. Not all is as it seems however, as the nefarious Dr Albert Wily reprograms 6 state of the art Robot Masters to aid him in conquering the world man/robotkind. With the world on the brink of collapse, Rock – Dr Lights robot lab assistant – requests to be converted into a fighting robot capable of taking down Dr Wily and his band of miscreants. Enter Mighty Knuckle Rainbow Battle Kid – or Mega Man for short.

Mega Man “rocked” our shores way back in 1987 with the aptly named – Mega Man for the NES. This landmark title spawned not one, not two, but 10 direct sequels, roughly 13,000 spin offs and multiple timelines among many, many other games and forms of media. What I am going to attempt to answer today is – Is the original Mega Man worth playing today?

Decisions, decisions…

Jumping into Mega Man today is a fairly quick process. There is no story, no character development, and limited name drops. If you want to know the indepth background of Mega Man you need to own a copy of the manual. Better yet, google it. There is a lot to this series if do a bit of digging, so if that’s your thing, get yourself away. The advantage of this is that once you boot up the game, you are plonked directly into the action – kind of.

Mega Man’s first screen is a level select, giving you an almost overwhelming number of stages to play through in any order you wish. The only clue you have as to what each level entails, is the mugshot of the boss for said stage. Due to having a whopping three sentences dedicated to this mysterious screen, you would think this has some sort of importance to the magic of Mega Man, and you’d be correct. Each time you boot up Mega Man you have the choice to play through the game in whatever order you see fit. Do you want to tackle Fire Man first, so you can nab his powerful flame projectile? Perhaps you want to wait and tackle Ice Man, so you are better prepared to deal with the inferno ahead. The choice is yours, and your first level will dictate your progression through the entire game (more on that in a moment). Replay value at its finest.

I’m blue…da ba de da ba daa?

Deciding which level to do first not only determines which stage you battle through, but it nicely ties into Mega Man’s defining mechanic – which weapon you will be taking into future stages. Everytime you defeat a boss you absorb its…orby bits (?) and gain a new weapon instilled with the power of your fallen foe. Each weapon has a specific boss in which it is strong against, with none of them being “weak” to your standard weapon. This makes your first encounter likely your most difficult – adding even more importance to your first pick. It is a brilliant combination of mechanics that make this 2D Action Platformer stand out amongst its contemporaries like Castlevania, Mario etc.

Due to Mega Mans limited combat options using his default Buster – only being able to attack in 2 directions, no ability to hit small targets and his pellets being incredibly small – these boss weapons are designed to be more than convenient boss killers. Each weapon expands Mega Man’s ability to tackle obstacles, some of which requiring a bit of experimentation to fully utilise. For example, Fire Storm is not just a line projectile, it also strikes ground targets and generates a brief AOE shield protecting you from contact damage. Thunder Beam hits foes directly above and below before sending out a large line projectile. Outside of combat, certain abilities assist in Mega Man’s ability to navigate his environment. Super Arm gives you the ability to lift and destroy certain walls gaining access to items and powerups, whilst Ice Slasher freezes fire to create platforms. Every weapon has a use, and is absolutely worth messing around with.

If only I had a weapon that could shoot beneath me…

Of course bosses and weapons are only part of the total package, so let’s dive into some of Mega Man’s other facets – namely the stages. Each stage is highly themed around the boss in question, often containing enemies and platforming obstacles unique to that environment. Recurring enemies are typically dispatched with a few well placed Buster shots, however the more unique enemies require a bit more thought to conquer. In Ice Man’s stage, just mindlessly shooting at a certain enemy will result in its head becoming a separate entity that moves erratically, and is much more difficult to destroy. The solution? Blast its head clean off, and the whole robot dies. Guts Man has an enemy that is totally impervious to damage and will attack on approach. In this case, you need to approach with caution and fire as it raises it’s helmet. These little bursts of creative enemy design turn the moment to moment gameplay of Mega Man from a simple run n’ gunner, into a game that rewards mastery and precision. A mighty feat indeed for 1987!

When you are not blasting enemies with pinpoint precision, you are gracefully leaping between platforms with cat-like precision. Platforming is super tight, with controls that are pretty darn responsive. Mega Man can change his direction mid air, his jump has just amount of hang-time and in general, it feels like you are in control, despite being in the most precarious position you can possibly be in. Unfortunately this is also where Mega Man stumbles slightly. As great as Mega Man is to control, those darn stages I mentioned earlier certainly do their best kick your bottom. This is due to a number of frustrating “retro” holdovers that plague games of this era. Low roofs, instant death spikes and blind drops and knockback all add up to a number of very cheap deaths that certainly ground my gears from time to time. Once you have fallen for these “newbie traps”, you probably wont fall for it again. This doesn’t entirely help soothe the feeling of betrayal after you lose your last life, resulting in a hasty hurtling straight back to the last checkpoint.

Anyone else see a grinning face on that middle orb…thing…?

Speaking of checkpoints and death, when you die you are restored to full health, however your ammo is not replenished. A harsh punishment for failure indeed, but one that is alleviated by many weapons having a fairly generous ammo pool. Regardless, be extra careful around those pesky spikes! Should you happen to run out of lives, your punishment is surprisingly none existent. Your score is reset to 0 – I know, terrifying – your health is restored, and all your ammo is refilled. The only downside is you lose your checkpoint progress. Considering the levels are fairly short, this is not all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

Once you manage to defeat all 6 bosses, you unlock the final set of levels. You are then thrust into a gauntlet of stages that force you to use all of the skills you have learned up until this point. Numerous back-to-back bosses stand in your way to Dr Wily, and your ammunition is not replenished between stages. This adds a whole new level to the traditional resource management you’ve had to deal with until this point, making these stages feel so much more tense.

Mistakes were made…

The bosses in these stages throw many, many spanners into the works. Firstly, you are not always fighting humanoid foes. Giant robots, floating floaty things, and even giant yellow sand demons (from Hell) await you – and it’s fricken awesome. A breath of fresh air that was not needed, but certainly welcome. The downside to all of this is the notorious, nightmare fuelled, previously mentioned Evil Yellow Sand Demon (from Hell) – the Yellow Devil. Bosses until this point have been highlights. Tense battles against enemies who can kill you just as quickly as you can kill them. Not here. The Yellow Devil comes out of nowhere, is almost completely impervious to damage and has an attack pattern that is almost impossible to read 73 attempts later. Oh and it kills you in about 4 hits. This guy is truly terrifying to face, easily being many magnitudes of difficulty above even the final boss in the game. I am not advocating cheesing this boss, however a quick google search may, or may not bring you a very handy cheese strat that you should totally, maybe use…I didn’t obviously, I am awesome…

So yeah, if you haven’t already gleaned from my almost universally positive reception to Mega Man’s gameplay – I kinda like it. But how do the graphics hold up? I mean this game came out in 1987 for Pete’s sake! Pretty well actually. Mega Man is an iconic sprite that stands out in any environment he happens to be in thanks to his big blue frame, large eyes, contrasting skin tone and super emphasised keyframes. Enemies are all well detailed and have a beautifully charming style that transcends the graphical limitations of the NES. In other words there are googly eyes everywhere, and it’s great. Bosses both big and small are memorable and in the case of larger foes, glorious to behold. The only issue with Mega Man is it’s stages. As good as they are to play, some of them – Bomb Man for example – are incredibly bland, or downright empty in the background department. A real shame considering how well everything else has aged.

Bland and a wee bit garish

What has not aged a day is the truly outstanding soundtrack. Just about every track in Mega Man is memorable and can be hummed after hearing it only once. Each tune fits its stage perfectly and elicits just the right response during gameplay. Special mention to the boss theme which instils a very special kind of terror when it kicks in. One that is only remedied by the incredibly satisfying victory jingle when you overcome your foe. An 8-bit masterpiece.

Mega Man may not be perfection in cartridge form and it may not reach the heighest heights the NES had to offer. Heck, it might not be the best in the series. What it is though, is an absolutely stellar game that certainly deserves to be played by anyone and everyone. It is simplicity at its finest.

What flaws it has, are remedied by the simple joy of shooting a whole hod of lemons at robots. The series can only go up from here. What do you think of Mega Man? Do you think it still holds up 32 years later? Let me know in the comments below.

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