Old games used to get overly serious and realistic art.
Arcade games and console games are fundamentally different in a lot of ways. While the hardware, game mechanics, and depth of narrative might be the most obvious, there is something at the core of the two that keeps them separated. Before going in depth with my retrospective review on Mega Man (1987), I’d like to first analyze the intention behind the design of an arcade game and a console game.
We’ve written about arcades before. The period from the late 70’s to the mid-80’s is known as the Golden Age of Arcade Video Games. As the popularity of arcade games decreased by the end of the decade, console games were experiencing a boom thanks in part to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Because of this shift, many old NES games feel more like arcade games. The fundamental purpose of a console game is to provide you with satisfaction to justify your purchase of the game. Games are usually not very cheap, so designers try to make their product the most worthwhile for your money (ideally, at least). Arcade games, on the other hand, are all about taking your money in small sums (quarters), giving you a brief, enjoyable, and difficult experience, and then encouraging you to play again to go further and get a higher score.
Mega Man feels like an arcade game. It is so hard that it feels punishing at times and so addictive that you can’t stop coming back to it. The amount of trial and error inherent in the classic platformer makes the experience feel like learning a song. Through your failures and deaths you wind up developing something resembling a rhythm. You know which screen is coming next or which flying penguin is going to dive on you. I wasn’t able to beat any levels on the first try, but on the attempt where Idid beat them, it looked like I was an absolute professional.
Though the level design was difficult at times, there were several gems hidden throughout. As an avid player of the Mega Man X series, I knew that each boss gives you a new weapon to your arsenal. And I also knew that each boss weapon was super effective against another boss. They usually make sense, barring a few mix-ups (Ice > Fire? I guess that means… thunder on the ice guy? Okay.) For example, Elecman’s weakness is the weapon you receive from the truly epic Custman (my only reasoning is that scissors cut wires?). Elecman’s level is full of these small platforms with enemies on top that make avoiding them difficult. If you switch over to the Rolling Cutter weapon, you’ll notice that the odd trajectory of the attack fits the level design perfectly. The level becomes much easier if you use the Cutsman’s weapon to get through it. Ideally, by the time you reach the end of the level you will be pretty comfortable with using it.
I stand by what I said about completing each level being similar to learning a song. That said, Iceman’s level is like learning a song and then being expected to flawlessly improvise with someone else who is also improvising. Everything is typical Mega Man gameplay, and then this happens…
Those platforms shoot sideways. Okay, okay, annoying, but whatever it’s a challenge. Oh, but they also move in a completely random and erratic pattern. Well that just doesn't sound fair. Oh, and one more thing, we’re going to throw some robot penguins at you for the last half of this part of the level. But wait, that might be too difficult. Let’s make sure the player has a platform to rest on halfway through. Good point, but we shouldn't make it too easy for them. This is a video game after all, this is serious business, not Soviet Russia Handout Land. Let’s cover that platform in ice. Video game ice. Which science has proven is twice as slippery as regular old boring ice.
The other issue I have with this game is about rationing out lives. There is a checkpoint immediately before each end of the level boss fight. Should you die in the boss fight, you will respawn there with full health and one less life. The game is so difficult that many times I would reach the boss, look to see if I had an extra life lying around, and just let the boss kill me so I could tackle him with full health. That is just poor design. Also, your health replenishes with each respawn, but your ammo does not. This means a particular difficult stretch of a level will become progressively more difficult. The general difficulty of this game is also distributed oddly. It is very difficult in the beginning when you don’t have any special boss weapons, and especially difficult in the end (cough, Boss Rush). The middle portion of the game is by far the easiest. This uneven difficulty may be annoying for some players.
You can tell the designers were on to something when you play Mega Man. It has vibrant colors, an excellent soundtrack, and surprisingly rich and deep gameplay, with little secrets here and there. The game is pretty easy to find. I played the PS2 port from the Anniversary Collection, but you can also find it on the virtual console. Though Mega Man 2 is widely considered better than this game, this is the game that has lent its design to Mega Man’s character in the new Smash Bros., as well as the fact that one of the bosses from this game appears in the new Smash Bros.
Favorite Song: Elecman Stage
Favorite Boss: Cutsman, I actually have a shirt with him on it!
Favorite Weapon: Magnet Beam, of course.
Fun Facts: It’s Mega Man, not Megaman. I’ve been making that mistake for over a decade.
- Joey Edsall