Growing Up with 25 Years of Mega Man, One Series at a Time
I’ve been playing Mega Man almost as long as I’ve been playing video games. And I’ve been playing video games almost my entire life. The little guy’s been fighting evil for 25 years now. With any luck, he’ll mirror the longevity of pop culture icons like James Bond, living to celebrate his fiftieth.
But what IS Mega Man? Over the years, Mega Man has meant many things. Whether it’s side-scrolling action, competitive RPGs, or grandiose, 3D adventures, the Mega Man series has made its mark on the medium across an absurd amount of titles. Each have their strengths and their diehard fan bases.
Mega Man: Gaming’s Astro Boy
Like many people, my first introduction to the Blue Bomber was Mega Man II. My family was too turned off by the original game’s famously terrible box art to give it a chance. Perhaps that’s for the best as Mega Man II, love it or hate it, solidified a framework that would be used for years to come. Sure, no Robot Masters would ever be as iconic as those found in the original game, but in comparison to the sequel it just felt loose and overall less coherent than what was to come (not to mention a bit glitchy).
The classic series married the player freedom of tackling stages and gaining new weapons and items in any order with the incredible designs of mostly linear levels. And it did it all with some of gaming’s most memorable soundtracks and art direction that evoked the endearing style of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy.
While the later series had their share of amazing games, they would never be the universally recognized icon that the original Mega Man character still is today.
Mega Man X: Let’s Get Angsty
Mega Man X marked the smartest sequel in the entire platforming side of Mega Man‘s legacy. Dashing and wall climbing changed the game substantially and would be copied and pasted verbatim into two series after it. The first game in particular built on the ideas of the classic games by actually having your chosen stage order affect the hazards you came across. Beat Chill Penguin and watch as poor Flame Mammoth’s stage get’s neutered with sheets of ice smothering the once deadly lava.
Adding collectible armor pieces, maximum health expansions, and reusable Sub Tanks made poking through every nook and cranny of a stage all the more interesting. To this day, I hold the original Mega Man X as the greatest Mega Man game ever made and my second favorite game of all time, just under Super Metroid.
It’s just a shame I can’t say the same for its later entries. The X series did have a few good games in X2, X3, and X4, but once it hit X5, things took a noticeable hit in quality. X6 and X7 are damn near unplayable (though that didn’t stop me from completing them) and X8, while a step in the right direction, still felt incredibly loose compared to the early games.
Mega Man X represents both the best and the worst that Mega Man has to offer, all in a single sub series.
Mega Man Legends: Saturday Morning Charm
Before there was Ocarina of Time, there was Mega Man Legends. 3D combat aided by Z-Targeting, a huge, interconnected world to explore that was packed to the brim with secrets, and vibrantly animated characters helped draw in players willing to give this huge departure a chance.
It’s easy to fall in love with Legends. It was like playing a cartoon long before cell shading was a common visual style in games. It may have been low-poly, but a vast array of facial expressions plastered onto each character along with an impressive amount of fully voiced dialogue brought the game’s cast of colorful characters to life.
But its charm didn’t just come from the aesthetics. Characters, even among the antagonists, had a strong sense of family. Their playful interactions left lots of room for humor. And yet all the lightheartedness was sprinkled (and later flooded) with lots of mystery, intrigue, and plot threads about the origin of life itself.
It broke my heart to see the third game get cancelled, especially considering the cliffhanger the second game left off on. Sorry, Mega Man, but it looks like you might be stuck up there for a little while more.
Mega Man Battle Network: Gotta Catch ‘Em All
Like many Mega Man games, the Battle Network series often got slammed for reusing the same systems over and over again. But I can’t stress enough how impressive the battles in this RPG spinoff were when I played the first game in the series. Using a combination of real-time, grid-based movement and consumable attacks, Mega Man Battle Network created a battle system that I’m shocked hasn’t been ripped off by anything (other than its successor series).
It was speedy, yet strategic. And collecting new attacks scratched the collector itch to the point that later games started splitting versions similar to Pokémon. The battle system also lent itself well to being a social experience with players fighting against each other to see who had the strongest Mega Man.
Longtime Mega Man fans were rewarded with re-imaginings of their favorite Robot Masters from the classic games while younger players concentrated on the addictive mechanics. It was a clever idea, but my attention switched when the next form of Mega Man game was introduced.
Mega Man Zero: Everybody Hurts
If you thought Mega Man 9 was hard, wait until you see what Inti Creates was doing earlier with Mega Man Zero. Best known for its punishing difficulty, the Zero series requires a bit of bravery to get through, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The games had flaws, for sure, but all four of them are worth your time.
X took a more serious tone than Classic while Zero started cutting everything in half. The Japanese versions of the games even had inexplicable blood flashes (or oil if you want to try to bring reason into this). What was once a kid-friendly series had become a very bleak tour through a desolate future where items are creatures who died when you used them and a boss begs you to kill him as he loses control of himself.
Mega Man Zero was not afraid to play with new ideas. Weapons that level up and ranks that reward your performance with power ups were just a few experiments that came and went. It also excelled at providing context, especially in the first game, using actual characters of varying military ranks and divisions as bosses instead of throw-away bots.
Best of all, though, it actually ended with dignity. For a game as surprisingly story focused (for a platformer) as the Mega Man Zero series, providing a short arc with a deliberate beginning and end was the right move.
Mega Man ZX: R.O.C.K. On!
Mega Man ZX is the half-baked version of my dream Mega Man game. It combines the fast action originally laid out by Mega Man X with the exploration of Metroid. At least it wants to. The problem is that the user interface for referencing where you are in this map is atrocious. Also, there are far more key card gates than there are ability gates. I call this the lazy man’s approach to open map design.
Yet, I still really enjoy both ZX games. What it lacks in map design it makes up for in an evolution of Mega Man‘s most iconic feature: power stealing. Rather than changing colors and getting a new weapon, ZX let’s you essentially transform into different characters which can be powered up individually. The second game increased the number of these forms drastically. And while not all forms are practical for regular play, the amount of freedom you have to switch in an instant to different characters is hard not to love.
Mega Man Star Force: The Guy with the Space Glasses
Mega Man Star Force is the weaker little brother of the Battle Network series. The streamlined nature of its RPG battles may make melee attacks more useful, but it comes at the cost of a far less strategic, twitchier experience. It also has a painfully unlikeable main character that whines his way through the entire first game. The good? He has Space Glasses™, so I guess he can’t be that bad.
The Brother Band system is Star Force‘s best idea. By connecting with other friends, the Brother Band allows players to get stat boosts and even share attacks, further encouraging people to seek out other players. The wireless (and limited online) capabilities of the DS also helped make connecting up less of a hassle than the link cable of the Game Boy Advance.
Star Force is easily my least favorite Mega Man series, but there’s still fun to be had with it. The third game in particular actually has some rather engaging character customization options and a better variety of fights.
Mega Man’s Future
With talk of brand confusion by Capcom U.S., it’s hard to say what form Mega Man will take in the future. We’re assured that the brand isn’t dead and Capcom is understandably reluctant to announce anything too early after the cancellation of both Mega Man Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe.
Whatever happens, I’ll be there to see what the plucky blue robot is up to. In the meantime, I have some Street Fighter X Mega Man to take care of.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 17th, 2012 at 12:46 am and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.