Retro Review: Mega Man 4 (NES)

It’s hard not to point at Mega Man 4 as the game where Mega Man started to go off the rails. The game has its ups and downs, but the largest factor in its downturn in quality is the addition of the charged Mega Buster shot. There is a good game hidden beneath the surface, but it’s dragged down by some dreary design, the constant charging noise limiting the music, and a design that plays it incredibly safe. I do want to give them some credit for finally putting all the special weapons and items on a single-page inventory screen, though.

It’s hard to believe that Mega Man 4 is the first game in the series with a strict 8-boss order, but along with everything else, it doesn’t help. It’s one of several annoying traditions this game would establish for the series, along with having a set of non-Dr. Wily stages in the same format as the subsequent Dr. Wily stages (spoiler alert!). Mega Man 4 doesn’t miss with everything, though. Several stages have side paths that exist only to offer extra Energy Tanks as extra items, which I like. It also introduces two utility items to supplement the three Rush forms. It does seem like ability bloat at times (especially considering that the Rush Marine is useful exactly once in the whole game), but the idea of hiding optional items in stages rather than having them be won from bosses is a good one the series would revisit.

The weapons in Mega Man 4 are actually pretty well-designed, but it doesn’t matter because the Mega Buster is usually just as good or better. The charged shot throws off much of the balance of the game, and several enemies seem to be designed around the timing of the shot charge. The game doesn’t offer enough challenge to incentivize weapon experimentation, and you’ll find yourself switching mostly just to hit enemies that you can’t otherwise line up for a direct shot.

Mega Man 4 isn’t a bad game, and outside of the context of its two predecessors it may even be remembered fondly. Instead, it’s indicative of the the growing problems in the series and takes a lot of blame for starting that trend. It’s fine if you want more Mega Man, but there are plenty of better options to play.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Mega Man 3 (NES)

Following up a classic like Mega Man 2 is not easy, but Mega Man 3 gives its all in trying to do so. Mechanically, little has changed aside from the addition of a slide that speeds up play and offers some interesting action. Despite that, Mega Man 3 feels a lot different than its predecessor. Its more vibrant, with weirder bosses (Top Man? Hard Man??) but more great level design.

Mega Man 3 is aesthetically fantastic, but the gameplay suffers from a few unfortunate design choices. The most problematic is the weapon selection. The Top Spin may be the most useless Mega Man weapon of all time, and half of your arsenal are basically just powered-up arm cannon shots. The Shadow Blade does a good job of being a much more balanced version of the Metal Blade, and no weapon overpowers the others as the de facto main weapon, which is good. It does mean that there’s not much excitement to be gained by earning any particular weapon.

Perhaps more exciting than the weapons are the powers of Mega Man’s new canine companion, Rush. These replace the utility powers of the previous games, but Rush is much more interesting and this is the most fun the Rush Jet would ever be, in my opinion. I never get tired of jumping off of Rush, collecting a powerup, then jumping back on him when he’s done flying under the platform I was on. Nothing else in the series makes me feel like as much of an action hero.

Mega Man 3 marks the first game in the series with no truly ridiculous difficulty spikes. The Yellow Devil returns without any cheats available to cheese past him, but energy tanks go a long way towards making that fight fair. Probably the toughest section of the game is the set of four revisited stages starring Doc Robot. This boss impersonates all 8 bosses from Mega Man 2, two per stage, a concept which sadly wouldn’t be revisited in the series. The difficulty here stems from a lack of continue points and the need to try out various weapons against each version of Doc Robot. This section also establishes the series tradition going forward of having two sets of endgame stages.

Overall, Mega Man 3 is a very solid game that can be among the most fun in the series. It doesn’t hold up as well as Mega Man 2, but it doesn’t have any major issues that drag it down. It’s just not as superlative as its predecessor, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Mega Man 2 (NES)

Mega Man 2 makes many improvements over its predecessor, and establishes the majority of motifs that would define the original Mega Man series. The game is much more polished, but what really makes it shine is how thoughtfully it is set up. Unlike every other Mega Man game, Mega Man 2 doesn’t feature anything approximating a single order to beat the bosses in. This is the most free-form the series would ever be.

MM2’s greatest strength can be a weakness at times, though. Metal Man’s weapon in particular is insanely overpowered, in terms of its general utility, energy efficiency, and even how many bosses it’s useful against. The manual suggests beginners fight Metal Man first because his weapon is the most useful, and that’s an understatement. While Mega Man 2 does offer some other interesting weapons, you’re usually better off using the Metal Blade than anything else.

The focus on one overpowered weapon aside, the structure of Mega Man 2 is very interesting and leads to a lot of replayability. Some bosses have several weaknesses, and there are even easter eggs like Metal Man being incredibly vulnerable to his own weapon in the rematch. There are a few lame weapons, and MM2 establishes the series tradition of requiring the least useful weapon to fight the final boss with. Even those weapons have their uses if you look for them, though.

One place MM2 really shines is in its level design. These levels and their fantastic music are very memorable, between the huge Air Tikis in Air Man’s stage to the multi-tiered ice hallways of Flash Man’s stage and the force beams of Quick Man’s stage. Of course, memories of those force beams are unlikely to be especially positive. This is a difficult game, and even though it has two difficulty levels, the easier of them doesn’t do anything to make environmental challenges like these any easier. (Fortunately Quick Man’s design is so cool that it’s easy to forgive him for having such an unfair stage.)

There isn’t much to say about Mega Man 2 except that it’s a lovingly-crafted and perfected follow-up to the original Mega Man. The difficulty spikes are mostly smoothed over, and the game is filled with set pieces that are cool now and were positively mind-boggling in the NES era. The dragon boss in particular comes to mind. This is a classic that any Mega Man fan owes it to themselves to play. These days, there are so many version available that that shouldn’t pose any kind of problem.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Mega Man (NES)

The central idea of Mega Man is pretty basic: you choose from among a list of bosses to pursue, and you get their weapons when you defeat them. It’s such a good premise that it’s not surprising just how large the series eventually became. But the original Mega Man hadn’t quite perfected the formula yet.

Mega Man is actually an incredibly short game, with only 10 levels in total. Unlike its successors, this game has no password system, so you’ll need to finish it in one sitting. This will take a lot of practice, because while the levels are short, they range from moderately to extremely challenging.

The single biggest problem with Mega Man is its uneven difficulty. The platforms in Guts Man’s stage are famous for being unforgiven, though fortunately they are the first thing you’ll see so you won’t waste time replaying the rest of the stage. The Yellow Devil (don’t look at me, that’s its official name!) is one of the harder bosses in the series… unless you cheat.  You’ll also need to defeat four of the six bosses in the same stage as the two-part final boss, which is appropriately the greatest challenge in the game.

Some of the basic six bosses are quite difficult unless you have the right weapon for them, but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? There is a pretty distinct order you should fight the bosses in, though you’ll only discover it by trial and error. It mostly makes sense, though I’d expect Fire Man’s weapon to be better than it is against Ice Man. Still, the satisfaction of finding the right weapon for a boss is what makes Mega Man Mega Man. The weapons are (almost) all useful outside of exploiting boss weaknesses as well, expanding your gameplay options in a most satisfying way as you progress through the game. That said, you may never actually use Guts Man’s powers, except to save energy for Elec Man’s.

The game even offers a utility ability, the Magnet Beam. It’s required to complete the game, and you’ll most likely need to revisit a stage you’ve already beaten to get it (which seems odd). It’s pretty cool that they would add something like this, though if you start the final stage without it you’ll just have to kill yourself to get back to the stage select. It’s kind of a half-baked (or maybe 3/4-baked) idea, much like the rest of the game.

Capcom hadn’t perfected the Mega Man formula yet when the first game came out, but it’s nonetheless a pretty fun one. It gets docked a few points for having unimaginative bosses and severe difficulty spikes. It’s a game you can skip if you want to, but is fun to look back on.

Review Score: B−