Sunday, September 18, 2016

Wordly Weekend: Mega Man (NES)

I'm sorry, I know the hilarious travesty of Mega Man's American box art is probably the most infamous example of packaging in video game history, but Leave Luck to Heaven represents games with NA covers whenever possible, right down to the "Angry Kirby" nonsense. Even so, just look at the contemptible thing: the indistinguishable geography, the structural disaster that is the building on the left (what's with the stairs? The random stone well?), and last but certainly not least, the mess of proportions, colors and physicality that is Mega Man himself. It's the prime example of 80's game boxarts attempting to make their respective games look way more badass than they actually were, and with how Mega Man underperformed in sales, it backfired miserably here. For shame, Capcom!

Not that Japan wasn't guilty of the same practice, you understand, but its respective cover for Mega Man--I'm sorry, Rock Man--was far more in-line with the game's aesthetic: the plush, wide-eyed animation style commonly found in 80's anime. It's clear from the very moment one lays eyes on the select screen line-up of Robot Masters that this isn't a game meant to channel any sort of realism, but the more light-hearted antics of Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man.

Could it also be said that Mega Man matches the quality of those classics? Capcom's Mega Man games are only challenged by Konami's Castlevania in how they are the most celebrated NES action titles not associated with the Nintendo name, and that's being fairly generous considering Mega Man himself is a more recognizable 8-bit icon than Simon Belmont, what with his blinking doe eyes and squat one-inch stature. Yes, they are classics, although to what extent is debatable considering how much Capcom unabashedly milked the games (of the original series' ten entries, six are on NES).

Many agree the first three are the cream of the NES crop, and I'm included in their ranks. It's funny how all six games are homogenized around the same gameplay and aesthetics, yet it's those first three games that stick in everyone's memory. In this sense, the original we're reviewing today is a curious delight -- to my mind, it doesn't reach the heights of Mega Man 2 (the series masterpiece) or Mega Man 3 (the runner-up), yet it's such a genuinely strong first effort that I consider it a near-crime the former overshadowed its place in gaming history.

Forging the design that would soldier on in countless sequels and spin-offs, Mega Man revolves around six levels that culminate into their respective "Robot Master" bosses. Each is defined by a singular trait (Fire Man, for example, wielding the power of, well, fire) that also houses a weakness. as defeating any one Robot Master absorbs their power into Mega Man's own (which lets player experiment with Robot Master weaknesses). Each Robot Master can be tackled in any order, and once all are defeated, you head to the castle of dastardly Dr. Wily to halt his evil schemes.

Needless to say, it's a non-linear action take on rock-paper-scissors. As opposed to the physics-bound goofiness of Super Mario Bros., Mega Man relies on a level of strategy and planning not commonly found in action platformers. While thankfully this doesn't seep into the actual gameplay, it allows for nearly every run as divergent as you want it to be; for instance, do you proceed in the order of Robot Master weaknesses, or just go about any which route you wish?

As mentioned earlier, this level progression system hardly renders the original unique in retrospect, but its superiority lies in that very same retrospection. Yes, it lacks the fanciful features including Rush the robot dog and the Mega Buster and the like, but that it's forged only around three mechanics --Mega Man's arm cannon, the Robot Master abilities and good ol' fashioned jumping--ensures it's not bloated with unnecessarily flashy features, instead relying on pure grit to overcome its trials.

Which means that as fun as it is shoot things, it's also undeniably difficult. Like any other 8-bit action game, Mega Man is actively punishing in its damage-sponge robots, leaps of faith, touch of death hazards (watch out for spikes!) and grueling boss patterns. The Robot Masters in particular give Super Mario Bros. games a run for their money in that their toughness matches the rest of the level, and even memorizing their attack patterns and weaknesses won't ensure you'll make it out alive (as seen with the countless close shaves endured with Ice Man).

Could it perhaps be too difficult? Some Robot Master weaknesses aren't very apparent, so the game has to rely on certain context clues within the levels; for example, Cut Man is weak to Guts Man's Super Arm, used to pick up heavy blocks littered across the former's stage and boss room. There is some decent balance across the board, my favorite example being how anyone can memorize Ice Man's disappearing rock platforms with some careful observation.

It falls apart in other places; the game's non-linearity comes to a halt with Elec Man, who hides the vital Magnet Beam necessary for Wily's Castle. This tool can only be uncovered with the aforementioned Super Arm, and this only becomes apparent more than halfway through the level. Mega Man simply isn't the game for this kind of foreshadowing, and with the Magnet Beam being the only way to fully circumvent certain obstacles (such as Ice Man's flying Foot Holders, which by themselves are a tad too random in their placement and tend to frustrate with their mid-air laser blasting), it's a problem.

By and large though, there's hardly any missteps in foe placement and the like; in fact, the game takes steps for the player to navigate around the stage's intricacies. Take the spiky Gabyoalls (try saying that three times fast!), which patrol about on platforms and attempt to shove off Mega Man when he intrudes upon their territory. They rank among the game's most annoying enemies, but they're momentarily paralyzed by a single shot, so they're easily neutralized.

And if you have the Rolling Cutter, all the better: they're destroyed immediately. The fun of Mega Man lies in its replayability and figuring out how the game works. While the Elec Man/Magnet Beam thing limits the potential for experimentation, it's impressive how many quirks and enemy weaknesses can be perceived and utilized through the Robot Master powers. This is further perfected in Mega Man 2 and 3, but that the first title can be this experimental in spite of its flaws is worth noting.

All the better that it's so pleasing to look at. As mentioned previously, the graphics are overtly clean with a bright aesthetic. It's as much of a sci-fi adventure as it is the home of a Saturday Morning Cartoon; not too goofy, but with enough light-heartedness to win anyone over with the likes of beady-eyed blue robots and flying robot penguins.

Hammering this balance down is the wondrous music by Manami Matsumae, which is the perfect complement for such a world. Level themes dip into either motif in accordance to not merely the Robot Masters involved, but the overall motif for their respective stages. With the Cut Man Stage often being the first stage players tackle, it's only natural its theme would thrust us into action. Like the majority of the soundtrack, it's 8-bit catchiness at its finest.

On the other side of the spectrum lies the Elec Man Stage music. Apparently designed with electricity in mind, it's another song that accompanies not the character, but of the level itself. The stage is constructed vertically, with tricky ladders, vigilant Gabyoalls and electric currents seeking to knock you down. The ensuing frustration is only natural, so an upbeat theme is necessary for encouragement.

None of which we find in Wily's Castle. For the record, this is not the beloved action masterpiece found in Mega Man 2, and yet I consider this a distinctive runner-up. Ominous and foreboding, it compels us further down Wily's lair and overcome his traps one by one. Only the Guts Man Stage rivals this theme in their apprehension, which are executed not with darkness but a building degree of menace.

Any and all praising of Mega Man's sound design typically revolves around the music--and deservedly so!--but there is one sound effect I must elaborate upon. Every time Mega Man lands after jumping, a distinguished "plink!" noise always greets his impact. It is absolutely, unabashedly sci-fi; the one detail that defines Mega Man's character as a robot. That we, as the players, are the ones initiating the sound further links us into the game, and furthermore its world. Being a recurring theme throughout the series, I can't help but imagine it as the primary source of Mega Man nostalgia.

Mega Man is not a clumsy, forgotten progenitor, but is instead the treasured 8-bit example of how to initiate a long-running series. It stumbles into traps common of the era, but they're never anything fatal; not anything to the extent of how Capcom dragged the series into tedium, anyway. It's an overtly-solid action game that entertains with its creative non-linearity and thrills with its engaging Wily Castle set pieces/big boss sequences, all foreshadowing what was to come with its famous sequel.

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