Well, hey there, classic game from my childhood that I never played. What’s a thing like you doing in a place like Steam? Come here often?
Yeah, so, Mega Man! The classic! I got started with the series with Mega Man X on the SNES, and that’s a game I played very thoroughly (hadouken!). I was reminded of it recently watching Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits play through old awful Sonic games – reminded me of another franchise that has gone spectacularly off the rails in recent memory (Mighty No. 9, or How to Dissapoint a Fanbase). I picked it up in the achingly authentic Mega Man Collection, and whipped through it.
Unlike most of the games I analyze here, I haven’t completed it. I’m not sure that I will…the Yellow Devil is The Worst, and it might be a meat wall I can’t chop through. But I’ve given it a fair shake, having worked my way through the six levels. This game is Danny DeVito in It’s Always Sunny – nasty, brutish, and short.
So, some lessons learned:
The Challenge of Jump vs. Shoot
Basic idea of a Mega Man game is “jump & shoot,” but in this earliest iteration, the challenge differential for these two activities is exxxxtreeeeme (I believe this remains a series hallmark). Don’t shoot right, you lose a bit of health and have to soldier on wounded, but if you’re quick with a trigger and decent at pattern-recognition, you can last long enough to get a recharge. Don’t jump right and you die and have to repeat the last 5 minutes of gameplay.
I’m generally a fan of mechanics that create extreme reactions – and binary systems like the spikes and pits in Mega Man certainly do ratchet up the tension. But the jumping mechanics aren’t intuitive or enjoyable enough to make these challenges fun to engage with. The blue bomber floats like a butterfly, but sinks like a rock wearing an anvil on its head. He slips and slides around at the slightest touch, and it’s difficult to tell when he’s going to fall off an edge and when he’s going to stand there with a toe over it (or if that toe is going to get singed with fire, causing him to flinch and dragging him off the narrow ledge). There’s a big gap between what you want your avatar to do, and what it actually does. This makes the jumping challenges less fun than the shooting challenges – things you have to do, not things you get to do. The Mega Man Collection has an option to save a game state, and while I wasn’t really tempted to use that option during the run-n-blast sections of play (I don’t think I used the option at all during Cut Man’s stage, for instance), I used the hell out of it whenever I finished a challenging platforming section. I had confidence I could do the shooting again. I didn’t have much confidence in doing the platforming again, and it wasn’t going to be fun to try again.
The other place where I abused the state-save feature was when dealing with the disappearing blocks for Elec Man and Ice Man. So, yeah, jumping puzzles. The game also expects you to master this mechanic, to be very precise with it, to time it so that you’re jumping off blocks just before they disappear or jumping at an angle underneath a low-hanging ceiling (both going up and coming down). There’s a lot of concentration on a mechanic that just isn’t a whole lot of fun to use and typically carries a massive downside if you don’t get it right.
Mega Man Metroidvania
I suppose the term “Metroidvania” is a little anachronistic applied to the original Mega Man, but there are early shadows of this design trick coming into play here. Guts Man’s weapon and the Magnet Beam specifically play a big role in creating and using new paths. As someone who often plays games for the sense of surprise and novelty that comes with exploration, this was some of the most fun I had. Freezing flame with Ice Man’s weapon was also a fun element, and destroying the little floor zippers with Cut Man’s weapon seemed to reward cleverness (though this particular trick may have been a bit over-used).
I almost wish they had done more with this, perhaps as in Cut Man’s stage, Elec Man’s stage and Fire Man’s stage where there were big hints as to what the boss is weak against in the path you take to reach the boss and what weapons are useful there.
I find the use of “ammo” for these weapons hurts this a bit, as you don’t have a lot of freedom to explore the consequences of using those tools in new situations without some significant cost (especially in that scenario where the useful weapon is also the weakness of the boss). If you know what to apply, you do it, and conservatively, since there’s no guarantee of having enough left for when you need it. It’s not a rewarding decision point, it’s just a tax on doing something fun – using a tool for its intended use of overcoming a specific obstacle. It punishes experimentation too harshly.
…as an aside, I also really like the visual distinction between the different equipped weapons. Adds a bit of character, and it is a fun bit of novelty when you see the costume changes. I suppose this is also born out in Final Fantasy X-2, right?
Hi-Score & Random Drops
Early Nintendo games had scores because that’s just what you do, man, but Mega Man’s scoring system comes with an interesting mechanic: there are pellets you can gather to increase your score, that the enemies drop.
These pellets are The Worst. Not because they appear, but because they take up space in the random drop rotation that could be better used on weapon recharges or health recharges – things that are very valuable to the player. If you just replaced the score pellets with weapon recharges, you’d have a game that encouraged you more to use those cool weapons in unusual circumstances, and it could’ve given you options for progression like in Elec Man’s stage.
Checkpoints + Limited Lives + Continues
This is a great formula, but it didn’t ping on me until playing Mega Man that this is a triad that feeds into itself and creates a pretty rewarding cycle.
Checkpoints encourage you to push forward, even if you’re wounded and struggling, because death will just drop you back there, stronger than you were before. Hypothetically, with infinite lives, you can grind through almost any damaging situation, getting to a checkpoint (however damaged) and then respawning to recharge.
Limited lives takes away that strategy, but doesn’t remove the value of the checkpoint. You still can die to recharge…just not as often as you’d like. You need to get better at the next part, and not die.
Continues play into this after you’ve lost those limited lives, sending you back to the start or letting you choose another stage. This is good since it can help provide alternate challenges for someone stuck on a stage, without forcing them to fight *everything* all over again. That these are infinite is important, since it keeps the gameplay alive, even when you keep failing to progress.
It’s not too shocking to me that Nintendo used this system quite a bit in the ensuing decades of side-scrolling platformers.
- Using weapons on bosses and to open up paths in stages
- Health to absorb hits in a shooting fight.
- Checkpoints + Limited Lives + Continues to keep the game going without making it trivial to bypass any threat.
- Kludgy jumping mechanics that nonetheless demand precision
- Limited weapon recharge drops from enemies (too many score pellets!)