Retro Review: Mega Man IV (Gameboy)

Mega Man IV for the Gameboy is very similar to its immediate predecessor, Mega Man III. It’s a game with uneven, often unfair difficulty, and which doesn’t add enough to the formula to really justify its existence. At this point, the Mega Man series on Gameboy was clearly getting stale.

As with previous Gameboy Mega Man games, MMIV is split into two sets of four bosses. Capcom was especially lazy this time, presenting all eight bosses in the exact order you’ll likely want to fight them. The first set of bosses, from the NES Mega Man 4, are fine, but the game begins to fall apart in the second half. The latter stages experiment with more side paths and non-linearity than is normal for a Mega Man game, but these stages tend to be overlong and filled with exacting jumps and instant kill traps. They are, in short, not very fun.

Mega Man IV also suffers from general slowness. The game is plodding, and can be unresponsive as a result. This is not what you want in an exacting game like Mega Man, especially when you’re replaying a stage specifically because the slowness caused you to miss some pixel-perfect jump.

It’s not all bad, though. Mega Man IV makes decent use of its weapon selection, and the special new weapon designed for this game is very useful during the limited time you have it. The game is very generous with items and lets you buy more tanks of various types, though they don’t help with pits, spikes, and other death traps. Beat also makes a return here, useful but not as overpowered as in some of his NES appearances.

On the whole, Mega Man IV is more Gameboy Mega Man, and you should know what to expect if you’ve played previous games in the series. The snappy gameplay of the NES is too much for the Gameboy, and the challenge has largely been changed to that of memorization and perfect jumping. It’s not a terrible game, but it doesn’t do the series justice, either.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Mega Man 7

Mega Man 7 is a strange entry in the Mega Man series. It’s the first main series game to be on a system other than the NES, though it came out after the first two Mega Man X games. In some ways it is a traditional Mega Man game, while in others it’s a massive departure.

The most noticeable change to Mega Man 7 is that Mega Man is comparatively huge compared to the NES games. The terrain is even larger in comparison, resulting in cramped rooms with a lot less going on per screen than in previous games. Your jump and slide cover much more distance than they used to, and as a result the game feels very cramped. There are a number of jumps made tough not by their distance, but by hazards directly above you that are hard to avoid due to the small play area.

Another big change in Mega Man 7 is that only four of the eight bosses are initially available. The other four become selectable after a certain point in the plot. This allows the design of the final four stages to breathe more, since the designers can take for granted that you have the first four weapons when playing them. However, it makes the boss order even more linear than in previous games, since the cycle of weaknesses still spans all eight bosses. Now, not only is the order set for you, the optimal starting point is as well.

Not all of Mega Man 7’s innovations backfired, however. The game introduced the currency known as bolts which give you an evergreen drop item and let you pick up spare energy tanks and such without having to replay particular stages. There are a number of special items to be found in the eight stages, most of which can alternately be purchased with bolts if desired. The two Rush suits from Mega Man 6 make a comeback, here combined into a single set of armor. The power of flight is changed to a diagonal air dash, but it’s still a fun set of armor to use. And don’t worry, the traditional Rush Jet is back for all of your flying needs.

Some of Mega Man 7’s bosses are seriously out of character for the series, like the vampiric Shade Man, but on the whole they aren’t a bad bunch. The proper weapon will have a more dramatic effect on a given boss, an idea introduced in the Mega Man X series, but the wrong weapon can actually power up some bosses. The weapons themselves are pretty middling by Mega Man standards. Several are genuinely useful outside of boss fights, and you can switch quickly between them with L and R, but most the weapons find little use. Still, there are some clever ideas, and the game’s shield sets a new series standard for both its effect and its animation.

It’s worth noting that Mega Man 7 has very nice graphics, though the sound isn’t nearly as memorable as tha of some of the early entries in the series. The art style is extremely cartoonish, which in truth Mega Man has always been, but it seems a bit exaggerated with the detailed sprites and wide color palette available on the SNES.

All in all, Mega Man 7 is a pretty forgettable Mega Man game. It doesn’t do anything particularly memorable, aside from having a brutally hard final boss, but it’s not egregiously bad or anything. The quality of the series has declined over time, and that hardly starts with the seventh entry. Still, if you can get it cheap via the Virtual Console or a collection, Mega Man 7 is worth checking out. (The price of the SNES cartridge, on the other hand, is not.)

Review Score: C

Retro Review: Mega Man X

Mega Man X is the quintessential example of how to turn a great NES series into a great SNES series. Far beyond simply upgrading the graphics, Mega Man X takes the Mega Man formula and adds to it considerably, creating a new series clearly descended from its predecessor yet still distinct.

Probably the single most influential change in the Mega Man X series was giving X the ability to climb walls with jumps. This radically changes stage design, allowing for a lot more verticality and clever constructs, but more importantly it gives you a lot more room to dodge bosses. Instead of playing with the bottom of the screen, the whole thing is now in play, and even the relatively huge bosses like Flame Mammoth don’t take up so much of the screen that it becomes a problem.

The flashier additions to the formula are also a ton of fun. X can collect four separate upgrades that enhance not only his abilities, but his look. It’s a lot of fun going from the relatively simple NES-style palette to something with gold and white in it. And the dash ability becomes fundamental to how the game is played, making Mega Man X far more frenetic than the original series ever was. (Indeed, all X sequels would include the dash as a basic ability going forward.) In addition to the upgrades, X can extend his life bar and get reusable sub-tanks that fill up from extra energy, replacing the energy tanks of the original series.

At its core, this is still a Mega Man game, and that means 8 bosses whose weapons you can earn. While the game does have a very specific rotation of bosses with dramatic weaknesses to the appropriate weapon (often being stunned by the correct choice), most of the weapons themselves are very useful even outside of boss fights, making for one of the better selections in the series. Being able to quickly flip between weapons with the L and R buttons encourages experimentation. Defeating a boss does more than just give you their weapon, as well: many stages will change in some way depending on whether you’ve defeated a specific boss. These changes don’t follow the weapon vulnerability pattern, giving you a good reason to revisit stages and experiment.

Even the stage and enemy design are remarkable in Mega Man X. Enemies have a ton of personality, such as flying heads that laugh at you when they score a hit, or monsters that look around for you when they aren’t already engaged. The levels tend to be a lot of fun with memorable music, and contain memorable sections like the mine cart sections of Armored Armadillo’s stage.

Overall, Mega Man X is an absolutely fantastic game. It’s not great in the same way as Mega Man 2, but perhaps that’s why it succeeds. This is a new evolution of the Mega Man concept, much more kinetic and a bit less precise. It’s not quite as perfectly balanced as its best predecessors, but it makes up for it by just being tons of fun.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Mega Man III (Gameboy)

For the Gameboy Mega Man games, in many way the third time was the charm. The four-and-four bosses system finally makes gameplay sense, and this feels more like a Mega Man game than its predecessors.

Once again, you’ll fight four bosses each from two NES Mega Man games, but this time the second group are actually found in named stages like the first. This alleviates the issue with the previous Gameboy Mega Man games where the core concept of Mega Man, figuring out what weapon to use against what boss, was largely defeated.

If there is an issue with Mega Man III, it’s that it becomes much harder in the second half, sometimes unfairly so. Ironically, the stages representing Mega Man 4, one of the easiest games in the series, are all quite challenging. They tend to be very long and filled with instant death traps and pixel-perfect jump requirements. Essentially, every stage needs to be memorized like the Guts Man or Quick Man stages from the NES game.

While Mega Man III does a good job making at least some of its special weapons worthwhile, enemies aren’t your main problem in Mega Man III. Your real foe is the size of the screen. With such limited real estate, all of the spikes you see are that much more threatening, and the game features some of the most evil crushing ceiling rooms you’ll ever find. If you’re a fan of this kind of challenge, you’ll love this aspect of the game, but it goes a bit beyond what I think is generally reasonable.

Most of the bosses are well translated from their NES incarnations, though due to the level design you’ll often arrive at boss rooms low on health and lives, which makes things difficult. Energy tanks are hard to come by in Mega Man III, so to win you’ll really have to learn each stage. The bosses outside of the eight robot masters are another story. You’re generally fighting in very cramped quarters, sometimes not even the whole Gameboy screen, and these bosses hit extremely hard. You’ll need perfect reflexes to dodge every attack.

The developers get a lot of credit for making a Gameboy Mega Man that really plays and controls like one of the NES games. They do sometimes overdo the amount of things on screen at once, leading to some pretty drastic slowdown, but the game doesn’t feel off like Mega Man II did at times.

On the whole, Mega Man III is probably the best of the first three Gameboy Mega Man games, though its difficulty should not be underestimated. The game can be frustrating, but the majority of it is solid Mega Man fun.

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Mega Man 6 (NES)

Even many Mega Man fans skipped Mega Man 6 back in the day, released as it was well into the SNES era and shortly after the superlative Mega Man X. It’s too bad, because this is a bit of a hidden gem in the series that went back to basics (though not nearly as much so as Mega Man 9 would, years later). It does suffer from some pretty lazy boss design, but the game works rather well.

The most jarring change in Mega Man 6 is the removal of all the usual utility items. For the first time since Mega Man 2, you don’t start with the Rush Coil. Instead, you can pick up two Rush upgrades that don’t use energy and change how Mega Man plays. Both prevent sliding and charged shots, with the Rush Power compensating with a powerful (though short-range) shot and the Rush Jet allowing you to fly with a jet pack. If that doesn’t sound cool to you, well, maybe skip Mega Man 6. The Rush Jet can only fly so long at a time, but it’s super fun to use and my biggest series regret is that they never did something quite like it again. (Much like Mega Man 3’s Rush Jet, I guess giving the player that much control just causes too many game design problems.)

The bosses in this game are lame beyond belief. Not only do they cover heavily-treaded ground by having Flame Man, Blizzard Man, and Wind Man, three of the bosses are just variations on (actual historical weapon) Man. The weapons are nothing to write home about either, and the game suffers from the same problem as the other later NES games where the Mega Buster is as good a choice as anything. The main choice you’ll make is whether to give up the charge shot for a Rush attachment.

While the bosses are lame in concept, they do at least look cool, and the stages have stronger thematic elements than many other Mega Man games. Tomahawk Man has an old west feel, Yamato Man feels very Japanese, and so on. There are a number of memorable stage design elements in play here, from the “flower” energy pellets in Plant Man’s stage to the super-cool upside-down waves in Centaur Man’s stage. (Side note: “Centaur Man”? So he’s half horse, half man, another half man, but also a robot, I guess?) These stages also branch quite frequently with the use of Rush attachments, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s cool, but it also leads to alternate bosses, which are how you get Beat.

Most Mega Man games have an agreed-upon “best order” but Mega Man 6 takes that to a new level. You’ll want to fight the four Beat-related bosses later so you can get to the proper alternate rooms to fight them, which basically means that not only is the order set, the starting point is as well. Which is fine, I guess, but it’s kind of going against the whole concept of Mega Man. Fortunately, Beat isn’t quite as ridiculous here as he was in his debut.

It’s easy to tell that Capcom was on the right track with Mega Man 6, and I think Mega Man X (which came out after Mega Man 6 in Japan) proved beyond any doubt that they still had it. The basic Mega Man series took a strange turn once it got off of the NES, though, which is probably why we eventually ended up with Mega Man 9 and 10. Still, this is a very fun game, and not as laughably easy as its predecessor, so it’s worth checking out. Though like its predecessor, it’s quite expensive to pick up in NES cartridge form, so maybe stick with one of the dozen collections that have been released.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Mega Man II (Gameboy)

Mega Man II uses the same structure as its Gameboy predecessor, using four bosses each from Mega Man 2 and 3 on the NES. A few significant changes to the formula result in a much smoother experience, though not one without some significant flaws.

Once again, you find yourself choosing from among four bosses to start with, in relatively classic Mega Man style. None of these stages is particularly difficult, in contrast to the previous game. However, the balance is somehow very off. Many enemies take way more firepower than you would expect to defeat: for example, bats take multiple shots. The stages also have several areas where the enemy placement results in a pretty unfair situation no matter what you do. However, you have energy tanks this time around, and with the exception of some obstacles, nothing seems to do all that much damage to Mega Man. The result is stages that don’t feel unfair, but don’t entirely feel like Mega Man, either.

The bosses are well translated to the smaller screen, using similar patterns to their NES predecessors but scaled appropriately. There are several valid starting points in the rotation, and no stage acts as a major barrier without a given weapon. The weapons are strangely limited, often using a lot of power per shot, but you don’t really need them in most cases. If anything, it’s a bit too easy.

After a short cutscene following the initial bosses, you’ll be introduced to the next four. Here is where the game kind of loses its way. Compared to Dr. Wily’s Revenge, these bosses at least have their own stages now. However, the game considers all four one single stage, so your weapons don’t get refilled between them. Worst of all, the game again gives no indication of which boss is which. As a result, these second four stages are necessarily pretty easy.

The new elements added to the game are generally well done, though the special boss and his unique weapon are decidedly odd this time around. The game is longer than its predecessor, but much easier, to the point where you’re likely to complete it much faster. Still, it has a respectable number of stages for a Gameboy game of the time.

How you feel about Mega Man II will rest heavily on why you like Mega Man games. If you’re in it for the tight play control and high challenge, this will not be the game for you. It’s a bit sloppy and easy to power your way though. But if you just enjoy the general Mega Man gameplay and collecting weapons, this isn’t a bad game at all.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Mega Man 5 (NES)

By the time Mega Man 5 was released, the NES was getting old and so was the Mega Man series. The game has a lot of the same issues as Mega Man 4, though it was designed a bit better to compensate. In many ways, this is just an improved version of that game. This is also one of the easier entries in the series, resulting in a fun but ultimately forgettable game.

One thing I’ve always loved about Mega Man 5 is its boss design. There are some stinkers in here, but bosses like Gyro Man and Crystal Man just look very cool to me. The stage design was likewise cool, but not nearly as memorable as in some of the earlier games. There are some memorably obnoxious parts, like the falling crystals in Crystal Man’s stage that will inevitably kill you the first time you see them, but nothing so frustrating that you’d want to stop playing. The game is ludicrously generous with 1UPs and Energy Tanks as well, just in case you run into problems.

The weapons in Mega Man 5 are well-designed but once again pale in comparison to the Mega Buster in most situations. I appreciate how they conceptually improved the short-range dropping weapon with the Napalm Bomb, and the generally-useless non-shot weapon with the Charge Kick. It’s like instead of trying to make cool new weapons, they fixed a lot of boring old ones. That kind of seems like a theme for the game, in fact. Although that doesn’t explain the stupidly hard-to-aim Power Stone.

There are two things that stand out in Mega Man 5 as perhaps a bridge too far. First are Mega Tanks, which are not only hilariously overpowered, but appear repeatedly to make sure you always have one. (It’s easy to not notice since they don’t appear if you already have one, but if you make use of them frequently you’ll note they’re never far away, even in the final stages). Second is Beat, who at the very least is a legitimate challenge to earn. Each stage hides a letter, mostly in locations where you have one brief chance to get them and need to restart to try again, and collecting all 8 unlocks Beat. Beat just flies around killing everything, which is fine, but he also happens to be the weapon of choice against the otherwise quite challenging final boss. I mean, come on!

If you’re not put off by easy Mega Man games, Mega Man 5 is actually quite fun. I never get tired of Gravity Man’s stage and its gravity-reversing mechanic, and the game is a graphical treat by NES standards. It’s worth playing, though I wouldn’t recommend picking up a physical copy as they can get quite expensive. Fortunately, there are collections available on every modern platform (and some older ones, too!).

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge

Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge is a game with a good core concept, but very uneven execution. Rather than create all new bosses, the Gameboy Mega Man games re-use bosses from the NES series, but with a catch: there are four bosses each pulled from two games. Dr. Wily’s Revenge sets this model, but the way it does it is pretty odd.

By necessity, given the formula above, two of the six bosses from the original Mega Man are left out of this game. Guts Man and Bomb Man were good choices to do away with. The four remaining bosses all have completely new, and very difficult, stages. While the bosses are re-used from the NES game, the stage design definitely is not. The much smaller Gameboy screen leads to cramped screens, and the game is designed with this in mind. They actually do an admirable job of making the size of the screen a non-factor.

The problem isn’t in porting Mega Man to the Gameboy, but rather it’s in trying to make a six-level game hard enough that people wouldn’t beat it in one sitting. And this game is very hard, especially at the start. All four opening stages basically require one or more weapons for easy traversal, so you’re going to have a tough time getting started no matter what you do. There are few death traps early on, but you have a smaller life meter than in the NES games and tend to take damage pretty frequently. The early game is a war of attrition, and in Mega Man 1 fashion, there are no Energy Tanks to help offset that fact.

It’s the latter half of the game where Dr. Wily’s Revenge falls apart, though. Instead of giving the four bosses from Mega Man 2 their own stages, you simply fight them all in a row, getting their weapons as you beat each. Even worse, there’s no indication which boss is which until you start fighting them, and you need to beat them all in a single set of lives. A new boss with a new weapon follows the four of them, leading to a very long fifth stage that can be extremely frustrating. The stage design also takes a turn for the worse at this point, with a number of traps that will just kill you if you happen to guess wrong when entering the next screen.

Also odd are the boss choices here. Fire Man and Heat Man both appear, though their weapons don’t work on the same foes, and Flash Man’s Time Stopper seems somewhat redundant with Ice Man’s Ice Slasher in terms of stopping enemies. The Mega Man 2 bosses don’t have the vulnerabilities to the Mega Man 1 weapons you’d expect, either, leading to a lot of trial and error on a limited number of lives.

There are some cool ideas in the Game Boy Mega Man games, but the negatives outweigh the positives in this first entry. The game’s difficulty is frustrating and requires more memorization than skill, and you barely get to use half of your weapons since you earn them at the end of the penultimate stage. The only real upside is that it is an original Mega Man game, which can whet your appetite if you’ve run out of NES entries to play. But this is a game that can be safely ignored.

Review Score: C

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+