If you added up all of the games, collections, and spinoff series, I think Mega Man would come out the most populous series in gaming history. I won’t even begin to guess (or look up) the number, but let’s just settle with pointing out that it went well beyond an NES fad. You could argue that the series nowadays is mostly playing to nostalgia, and simply continually trying to update itself with wilder 2D graphics as console hardware moves along, but I would disagree. I think the ongoing popularity speaks to the strength of Mega Man’s basic ideas and gameplay. And while the first game may not be the best, it’s still high up there as one of the tops of the classic series.
Mega Man sets up the core elements that remain little-changed throughout the series’ history. You play as boy-robot and janitor Mega Man, created by robotics genius Dr. Light. His partner, the foreshadowingly-named Dr. Wily, stole control of six other robots assigned to specific duties and districts inside the city of Monsteropolis. Wily intends to use these robots and their powers for world domination. Knowing that the city’s only hope lies in his last remaining prototype, Dr. Light orders Mega Man to drop the broom, snap on an arm cannon, and go take out the trash.
Now there had been scrolling platform adventures before, which is the entirety of Mega Man’s gameplay. While it was still a fledgling genre, MM didn’t offer much to redefine the basics. Jumping across multiple levels while climbing ladders and avoiding enemies had been well established, as had shooting balls out of a gun and collecting powerups. Hell, even anime robots were old hat. And really, if that’s all the game had, then we probably wouldn’t have seen a Mega Man 2. We definitely wouldn’t have gotten to Mega Man Xtreme Battle Network Legends X8 Zero Hyper Fighting Edition.
Then what makes Mega Man so special? The obvious answer is gaining a boss’ special ability after defeating them. It was a unique feature that would become the series’ hook. But it’s also in the wide variety of enemies you encounter. They don’t just look different, they all have individual patterns and specific ways to defeat them. Whether it’s waiting for an armored enemy to peek out and reveal a vulnerable spot, or shooting floor traps to freeze them in place and rush through before they reactivate, many of Mega Man’s screens feel like mini-puzzles of just the right amount of creativity and challenge. It’s only when so many small challenges build up without respite that the game starts to lose its luster.
The first Mega Man is pretty damn hard. Like so many early NES titles, you’ll have to beat the game in one sitting, with no passwords to help you mark your progress. You can only shoot horizontally, another common limitation for platformers of the time, which prevents you from safely hitting most enemies as they approach. Baddies regenerate if you leave the screen and come back, so retreating for a better shot is often a bad idea. You have an uncomfortable amount of timing challenges and environment hazards, like the fire pillars, mounted gun emplacements, or Gutsman’s entire level.
Meanwhile, limited powerups convey meager benefits, with the smaller life balls making nearly useless impacts on restoring your life bar. And while you can take a few hits of normal damage, frequent insta-death spike pits or lava traps wait for ill-timed jumps, or for enemies to knock you out of the air and straight in. Oh, and I hope you’ve been paying attention to all the bosses’ patterns, because you’ll have to beat every one of them a second time, in a row, without powerups between the battles, in the final level. It ain’t easy being blue.
This is where the landmark ability to select any level in any order comes in. Mega Man is not a linear quest, and the weapons you gain from bosses in one level can help you in areas of another. There’s the obvious benefit of being able to use Iceman’s weapon to easily defeat Fireman, but you also can use Elecman’s multi-directional shock to defend yourself against hard-to-hit enemies, or use Gutsman’s strength to open up easier paths in levels. There are a lot of these crossing opportunities, making it impossible to take advantage of them all in one game.
While I’m sure FAQ authors or true fans could argue this point, there doesn’t appear to be a single “best” order to tackle the levels. Different playthroughs will show you different opportunities and give you the ability to figure out a path that works best for you – which is actually masterful because it eases all the replays you’ll have to do anyway due to the lack of passwords. If you learn something from your last play that you can apply or try differently in the next, you’re not simply having to play through the same levels again to get to the point where you last died.
I can offer no complaints about the graphics. They’re bright, sharp, and inviting. Each area has an easily recognizable theme, from the rocks of Gutsman’s level to the orb towers in Bombman’s (Cutman’s stage is a little weak, but ehh…) Mega Man looks the part of a plucky little robot hero, and special attention has been given to his face and expressions. First, his face is actually large enough to register distinct eyes and a mouth. Second, he blinks, looks determined when he runs, and grimaces when he gets hit (complete with little cartoon pain clouds). In many ways, he becomes a real character instead of a loose collection of pixels, and since you’ll be looking at him throughout the entire game, it helps that he’s fun to watch. Enemies never blend in with the backgrounds, and each one is instantly discernible from any other, making their patterns easy to prepare for.
Mega’s easy to control too. He jumps accurately, and higher depending on if you hold the button or tap it. Aside from being unable to shoot at angles, you won’t have any control limitations preventing you from laying down a stream of energy balls or hitting the different timing challenges each enemy presents you with. Really the only trouble you’ll have are with particularly quick jumps, like the ones required to dodge the sliding floor traps. There’s a brief delay between touchdown and your next hop, as well as the ease of hitting your head on the ledge above in many levels. This can force you to play certain screens over and over again to get the timing right, but this is rarely penalized. Long drops that take you to four or five screens ago, or spike pits, are the annoying exceptions. Enemies also reappear if you move or get knocked away from their start point, which can also draw out the game and frustrate the player.
Great sound effects await you, with personal highlights being the squeak of Mega Man’s shoes, and the sound of him teleporting into the level. I even like that it sounds like a collapsing pile of bricks when he gets hit, even though it makes little sense. The music is legendary, fitting the futuristic theme and the “fun” feel of the game perfectly.
Here of course, is the rub. Mega Man’s a fine game, but Mega Man 2 is so perfected as to make this one almost not even worth playing. MM1 still shows the rough edges of a fledgling idea, like the reuse of rather standard enemies across all levels, and the painful lack of a password system. You probably won’t beat it, and if trying to turns you off to the entire series, it isn’t worth playing. It’s a fun challenge for fans, but I recommend you come back to this game if you love Mega Man 2. No, really. It will still be here when you return, and you’ll probably have a better appreciation for it after having a blast with the sequel.
Start of a great series. Great visuals, great gameplay, great production values all around.
Tough jumps and timing challenges, a pretty unforgiving boss gauntlet, no passwords.