Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mega Man: Two decades of awesome

Ah, Mega Man. My favorite video game series of all time. Enjoy a retrospective look at the Mega Man series that should help you to figure out exactly why it's so darn awesome (if you haven't recognized that already).

Mega Man title screenThe original Mega Man was released in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The premise was not unlike other platformers of its time: You, as the super fighting robot Mega Man, were to run, jump, climb, and shoot your way through a number of stages.

Bottomless pits, lethal rows of spikes on the floor, and robots big and small stood between you and the boss robot at the end of each stage. After squaring off against six different boss robots with names like Cut Man and Guts Man, you must blast your way through the fortress of their leader, the mad scientist Dr. Wily, and survive a showdown with him to put an end to his maniacal schemes.

Sure, that sounds fun enough, but it's really just Mario with a gun, right?

Wrong. For starters, Mega Man doesn't even have a mustache.

Beyond that, there are a number of key characteristics of the Mega Man games that make them unique, or at least that made them unique before other folks started seeing how awesome the games were and started copying them. Copycats.

First, the six Mega Man games released for the NES featured very clean and detailed graphics that rivaled, if not far surpassed, other games of their era. Compare the original Mega Man with the original Metroid, which was released the same year, and you'll probably notice a little bit of a difference.

Second, all games from Mega Man 2 on include a password system (or, in the case of the later games, a save feature) that--get this--keeps you from having to start over from the beginning next time if you shut off the game. Amazing! Nobody thinks anything of this now, but it was big doings back then.

Third, and more importantly, the Mega Man games allow you to select the order in which you go through each stage, as seen in this screenshot from Mega Man 2. (The name of the guy at the bottom center should ring a bell if you're familiar with my work on GameFAQs.)

Mega Man 2 stage select screenMost games in the series had eight bosses whose stages were immediately accessible at the start (they switched things up in several games, but I won't go into that). Assuming I haven't totally failed math, that's 40,320 different possible orders in which you can play through the game.

My head hurts now.

Fourth, and perhaps even more important than the tremendous replay factor, is the fact that after defeating a boss, you get to steal their weapon.

For example, if you fight beat Gemini Man in Mega Man 3, you get to add his laser weapon to your arsenal:

Mega Man weapon diagram - Gemini LaserPretty cool, huh?

Each boss is weak to the special weapon of at least one other boss, so part of the fun is figuring out which weapon to use on any given boss.

The first Mega Man game especially followed a rock-paper-scissors mentality where Guts Man's weapon (the ability to throw boulders) defeated Cut Man, whose weapon (thrown cutting blades) defeated Elec Man, the electricity-wielding robot (y'know, scissors cut electrical wires), etc.

Of course, all those features don't guarantee a good game, but the Mega Man series is also characterized by creativity (at least, the earlier games were), great play control, solid challenges, and killer music that make up for the often-threadbare and/or predictable plots of the games. Not like you're playing these games for the plot, anyhow.

There are also little touches that add a certain measure of charm to the series. Many of the characters, major or minor, have some sort of musically inclined names; Mega Man was created from a household robot named Rock (Mega Man is known as Rockman in Japan), who has a sister, Roll, and he gets support from characters such as Beat and Tango.

These support characters lend help of one kind or another and also give you more of a sense that you're not alone in your mission to save the world. The most notable of these sidekicks is Mega Man's robot dog Rush, who can transform into a springboard, a jet, a submarine, and even a motorcycle.

There's also the matter of seeing your path through the final stages of each game traced out on a map of Dr. Wily's (or the villain du jour's) fortress:

Mega Man 7 - Dr. Wily's fortressAnyhow, I think that's pretty neat. I'm too much of a fan for my own good, so I'll restrain myself right now before I get off into completely tangential babbling.

Of course, when I'm talking about all this, I'm referring to the classic Mega Man games. Given their immense popularity, there have been several spinoffs, such as the Mega Man X series that takes place 100 years after the classic series, which I plan to discuss at some point, and the Mega Man Battle Network series, whose existence I refuse to acknowledge. [Update from the year 2011: It's surprisingly better than expected.]

If you're looking to get into the Mega Man series, the best place to start is with the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox. It includes Mega Man 1-8 as well as the two arcade games, and you can probably find it for around $15-$20.

However, the collection suffers from many issues that did not plague the original releases of the games, so anyone other than a casual fan should consider pursuing the original releases when possible, and those with multiple consoles might think about avoiding the GameCube version because of the control scheme it uses.

For the rest of you, here's a quick crash course on the games of the classic Mega Man series:

Mega Man 1-6 were released for the old-school NES. These games were largely similar in terms of gameplay, with each new title adding or changing just enough from the previous one to make it a new, but still familiar, experience.

Mega Man 7 was released for the Super Nintendo and was markedly different from its predecessors due to certain design decisions and some tweaks in the game mechanics, not to mention the increased graphical and sound capabilities offered by the SNES.

Mega Man 8 was released for the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. There were differences between the two releases, but the Saturn version is generally accepted to be the superior version. I hesitate to show you the following, as it might immediately turn you off to Mega Man, but I think you need to be informed about the single greatest problem with this game--the cutscenes. (About 30-60 seconds of viewing should be plenty.)

I'm so sorry I had to do that to you. However, had it not been for the screaming, that might actually have been the least obtrusive cutscene in the entire game.

Oh, and I thought it might be helpful to add that Mega MAN should not sound like a GIRL. EVER.


Mega Man 9
is a downloadable game for Wii/PS3/Xbox 360 in the style of the NES Mega Man games (that is, with 8-bit-style graphics and sound). The game very obviously harkens back to earlier Mega Man games, especially Mega Man 2, and while it's the shortest game in the core series since 2, the additional downloadable content and achievements provide lots more play time for the dedicated gamer.

Mega Man 10 is basically a variation on Mega Man 9, but the replay value is off the chart. With multiple game modes and plenty of downloadable content, there's more than enough to keep you occupied. However, aside from the plentiful references to previous installments, the game fails to capitalize on its predecessors in a meaningful way.

I'm going to interrupt myself at this juncture to point out that you will sometimes see the Mega Man name printed as Megaman. There's no rhyme or reason to this that I can detect. I've learned to live with it.

Mega Man & Bass
was released for the Game Boy Advance, several years after the Japanese version, Rockman & Forte, was. This game combined the visual style of Mega Man 8 (and many of its enemies) with the sound effects of Mega Man 7 and gave the player the option of playing as either Mega Man or as Bass, a character introduced in MM7.

Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge was released for the original Game Boy (remember that thing?), along with Mega Man II-IV. The majority of the enemies and bosses are borrowed from the NES games, but the stages are different, and there are a few extras and changes here and there.

Mega Man V, also for the Game Boy, broke with the tradition of its forebears and invented an entirely new line of enemies and introduced several previously unseen challenges, marking one of the most creative installments of the series to date.

Mega Man was revamped and re-released as Mega Man: Powered Up for the PlayStation Portable. This version sports 3-D graphics, redesigned levels, and scads of bonus features, including two new bosses, short bonus challenge levels, and the ability to play through the game as all the robot masters. Also, the game has a kid-friendly look to it, with the characters nearly collapsing under the weight of their freakishly large heads:

Mega Man: Powered Up screenshotTwo arcade games were released, Rockman: The Power Battle and Rockman 2: The Power Fighters, both of which are essentially single-player or cooperative multiplayer boss battle gauntlets using bosses from Mega Man 1-8.

Of course, if you let any franchise reproduce long enough, it's bound to birth a few black sheep.

Specifically, Mega Man Soccer and Mega Man Battle and Chase, the racing game. Anyone who does not begin foaming at the mouth over the mention of Ice Man driving a snowmobile need not apply.

Not to mention the many Japan-only releases, or the two oddball Mega Man games for PC... Let's just say that there are dozens upon dozens of classic Mega Man games, and leave it at.

Now, if all those games aren't enough, there are a few different brands of Mega Man action figures out there, along with a Mega Man cartoon show that once was on the air in this very America! For two seasons! The casting was perfect, but the writing often left something to be desired. Often. But I'd take that over Mega Man 8's cutscenes any day.

Also, there's a not-Hollywood feature-length Mega Man movie that, in this one reviewer's opinion, does a pretty good job of capturing the feel of the games.

To conclude, this is a video that will sum up exactly why Mega Man is so darn awesome; it's the intro to the Mega Man cartoon, and if you don't enjoy it, we can't be friends anymore:

Interested in reading more? Check out the reviews I've written:

- Mega Man (NES)
- Mega Man 2 (NES)
- Mega Man 4 (NES)
- Mega Man 8 (PSX)
- Mega Man 9 (Wii)
- Mega Man 9 - Downloadable Content (Wii)
- Mega Man 10 (Wii)
- Mega Man 10 - Downloadable Content (Wii)
- Mega Man & Bass (GBA)
- Mega Man III (GB)

[Most screenshots filched from MMPU screenshot from Weapon diagram created using sprites from]

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