It was an inversion of the traditional platformer. The game featured a level selection with 6 available levels from the start, rather than being stuck to a linear selection of levels such as Super Mario Brothers.
Having trouble on Bomb Man’s stage? Run to Fire Man’s stage instead. Annoyed with Fire Man’s stage? Try your hand at Guts Man’s instead. Even if a particular stage was too difficult to advance, there was always the possibility of a change of scenery to keep the experience fresh and enjoyable. By opening up the order of levels to the player, Mega Man avoided the pitfall that other platformers of the era fell into.
This sandbox approach to the level selection also incentivized players to acquire the right weapons for the right boss. Beating a boss meant you’d gain their weapon, which in turn could be used to compensate for your own short-comings. Ice Slasher could freeze enemies in place, Thunder Beam shot a huge blast that would also send waves above and below you to hit foes out of your normal range, Super Arm would allow you to life blocks in your path, and so forth. Bosses had weaknesses to different weapons, increasing their utility. Players would find out which boss was easiest to deal with at first, then work their way through the weakness chart.
Structurally, Mega Man was a stroke of brilliance for the exact reasons listed. However, the implementation was still not completely there. An issue Megaman II would tackle.
Mega Man 1 is an unpolished game, albeit not a bad one. The bosses in Mega Man are very unbalanced. For example, Cut Man has a ridiculously simple pattern and takes more damage from your Mega Buster than any other boss in the game. However, Elec Man has crazy high resistance to your basic attack, his main attack covers an unpredictable amount of space, and hits for around a third of your health. Making it so that there’s no other real alternative than to beat him using his weakness.
There are some rough edges here and there that unfortunately, you have to fight with the whole game. Pausing the game activates the end of the Mega Man’s teleport animation. This cancels out whatever he was in the middle of doing. If you’re on a ladder, this will immediately drop you off unless you’re holding up before the animation ends.
Falling physics are strange as well. The falling speed varies depending on if Megaman jumped or just fell down. Certain unkillable enemies make noises like they’re taking damage, making it confusing if you’re actually hurting them or not. And so forth. None of this is unmanageable, but it does build up into a slightly more frustrating experience.
Art and Level Design
While Mega Man is a little more basic than later games in the franchise, it’s still fun. Each stage is based on a couple of different basic concepts. Elec Man’s stage has you climbing a giant tower and makes ladder traversal a focus. Ice Man’s stage has slippery ground and builds a few sections around the infamous disappearing blocks that would become a Mega Man standard. These are very simple concepts, but they’re still fun because the game builds enough of a challenge around them without lingering on a single concept for too long. As a result, each level has a consistent theme that is satisfying to master.
However, once again, the lack of polish gets in the way a bit. While the structure of the levels is interesting, the art leaves a little bit to be desired. Mega Man was famously designed to be blue because the NES had more shades to work with. This was smart design, but setting all the main levels before Wily’s Castle to a blue background (barring Fire Man’s stage) makes each level same. The artists wanted to keep the sky blue to stick with a consistent daytime theme, but this was a bad choice to go against Mega Man’s blue sprite. The gray or brown backgrounds help diminish this problem, however, his sprite doesn’t really pop out like he does in later games.
We’re glad that Capcom at least continued to give Mega Man a chance to thrive after the first game. Even if it needed the work, Capcom was clearly onto something with the formula and they knew it. However, it’s clear that the original Mega Man needed some work if it was ever going to take off. Hardcore Megaman fans will find still find it worth a look if nothing else to better understand the history of the franchise. If you’re not though? There are other Mega Man games worth looking into first.
Next week: We look back at the NES Classic, Mega Man II