- Capcom, 1987 -
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Man of Steel or Near-Human Robot?
In 1987, Capcom introduced its famous franchise and series, Mega Man. With its original rock-paper-scissors' approach to action, it is robot versus robot in a match for the future of Monsteropolis. But, is the "Blue Bomber"'s first appearance "rock"-solid or does it belong on the scrap heap?
What's blue? Fires off shots faster than a speeding bullet! Is more powerful than a locomotive (when using Gutsman's power, that is)! And able to leap deep chasms in a single bound... (well, with the aid of his Magnet Beam, that is)! Look! Up in the sky! It's... It's... IT'S... super, no, no... It's MEGA MAN.
It's the classic battle of man, ahem... robot versus robot, or even robot versus nature (fire and ice, in the most literal sense). Mega Man (known as Rockman in Japan [See why in the Trivia/Little Known Facts section found on the Mega Man Specs page.]) masterly took the popular hand game of Paper, Rock, Scissors, and digitally-rendered it into an 8-Bit, futuristic world of robots. (To further the point, Gutsman embodies "rock" as he tosses stones, while Cutman sports a pair of "scissors" upon his head; no paper equivalent seems apparent, but hey... two out of three ain't bad.)
This notion was a true game changer, a significant marker on the timeline for gaming design. The idea of defeating a foe, collecting and absorbing his power and using it strategically on other foes that are susceptible to its attack sent ripples that rattled the creative cages of many a game developer. This may have been Mega Man's greatest legacy — games ranging from Kirby's Adventure, the Pokemon series (to an extent) and G.I. Joe to 8 Eyes, the Street Fighter series (to an extent) and more — have adapted this technique, or similar mechanics in formulating games.
Dr. Wily presents his six Robot Masters. Choose wisely when battling. Dr. Wily will appear after the six Robot Masters have been beaten.
Another milestone in gaming that marks Mega Man's magnificence was its freedom of movement — that is, allowing the player the free will to decide and explore different stages in the sequence that he/she saw fit; instead of following the forced path that the programmer(s) intended, which was the predominant standard in most games of the time (Games like 8 Eyes [again], Power Blade, DuckTales and Super Mario Bros. 3 adopted similar free modes of game play.).
Finally, Mega Man became Capcom's unofficial mascot and blue chip property that kind-of started it all for the company — meaning that it planted the seed for Capcom's lucrative, ever-propagating sequels, ports and remixes, such as seen in other titles, like Street Fighter (Street Fighter 2, in particular to a ludicrous extent) and Resident Evil. Mega Man would go on to have a record six titles on the Nintendo Entertainment System alone!
You've heard all about why the title is memorable from a historical, academic sense, now let's learn more about
the actual soul of the game and what makes it so fun to play — the truly important impression left by this title. With that, let's take a page from the game's manual, and "Get ready for some very exciting challenges."
You portray Mega Man, a "near-human robot," created by the venerable, Santa Claus-like, Dr. Wright and his assistant, Dr. Wily, who forgoes a comb, to look conspicuously like the great Albert Einstein. Wright and Wily proceed to build six additional robots to help perform specialized tasks for the betterment of the society of Monsteropolis: Cutman would fell trees and work with lumber; Gutsman would pulverize and move boulders (What does his name mean??? Is this another lapse in translation with Capcom, sort of like the incongruities found in its Ghost 'N Goblins title? [Click here to read Ghost 'N Goblins review.]); Iceman would complete tasks in sub-zero temperatures; Bombman would provide the explosives expertise for clearing out land; Fireman would torch and melt ore and alloys for metallurgical purposes; and Elecman would conduct electrical work and even supervise nuclear power plants.
But, all does not go as planned, as the devious Dr. Wily furtively reprograms the six taskmaster robots for his pursuit of world domination. It is your goal as Mega Man to seek out and defeat the rogue, humanoid robots to inherit their special powers, and then eventually bring Dr. Wily to justice.
Much of Mega Man's appeal comes in developing a feasible strategy and a good route or order for fighting the six robot bosses. Since certain Robot Masters' special weapons inflict more damage on specific foes than others, part of the fun is discovering which weapon beats whom.
Here's where the rock-paper-scissors analogy comes into play: If fire and ice do not pair well, can Fireman's power melt Iceman away? Can Bombman's bombs crack Gutsman's rocks, or does rock beat scissors with Gutsman's strength overpowering Cutman's blades?? [See Tips & Secrets section below for help on weapons and weaknesses.]
A lot of trial-and-error is needed and the six bosses' stages don't fall easily, but, again, this is the essence of what makes this game stand out. [See Tips & Secrets section below for help on the right order to battle the bosses.]
Mega Man, like so many others of that golden 8-Bit era, has a reputation of being "Nintendo-hard," and rightly so. But, along the way, Mega Man does get some reinforcements for both his "thermometer-shaped" health meter and weapon meters. He does this by touching the many small and large "energy capsules" that can be found on the levels or left behind after lesser enemies are defeated. 1UP's can be discovered or left behind, as well, but are very rare to collect, even more so than the scarce energy capsules.
Dr. Wily is worth a whopping 200,000 Bonus points, while the other robot bosses have random point totals available upon their defeat.
One thing that doesn't seem to be in any small abundance, however, is the bonus point capsules. They are dropped very often in this game, and can pile up to pull in a lot of points upon completion of a level. A running score is included in this game, and a randomly-generated amount of bonus points is, also, rewarded for defeating a robot ruler of a stage.
Mega Man's scoring system may have been a relic of Capcom's current forte and stable of arcade titles at the time (which is important to note because Capcom's developers made Mega Man in the midst of its long assembly line of arcade-ready hits, but somewhere in the process, maybe they realized that this game played out too smart, it was too well-conceived with its strategy-based approach and freedom of choice to just be dumbed down and dropped into arcade armageddon, so perhaps the score system remained as a vestige of an action game transforming into an adventure title, and moving up the game design food-chain evolutionarily, right before their eyes).
The game's sole weapon/item that isn't given after defeating a Robot Master — the Magnet Beam
— naturally, is found on Elecman's stage (get it, magnets and electricity). It is an ideal item to use on Iceman's and Gutsman's levels. Either Elecman's or Gutsman's weapons can remove the blocks standing in its way.
All scoring aside, Mega Man has spawned a number of direct descendants on the NES, and being that this is the prototype, it goes without saying that overall, there is a more rudimentary or cruder approach to platforming with the Blue Bomber in this title. Tackling some of the levels (Bombman, Elecman and Cutman, in particular), the player may feel underwhelmed by the look and feel of some of Monsteropolis' lands. Canvassed in a subdued spectrum of shades, these levels suffer from repetitive layout and less-than-memorable design, with the exceptions of the spheroid towers of Bombman's region and the circuit board wafer background, embedded with microchips and electrical surges arcing through tubes, found on the vertical stretches that comprise the realm of Elecman.
More stylistically-satisfying design can be found in the remaining trio of stages.
Iceman's stands out with its gelid icescape of frosty blues and crisp whites. Frozen palm trees (?!?) and snow stand in this wintry wonderland of wickedness — where Pengs (penguins) and plunges in hypothermic waters are just the tip of the iceberg. Some umph is added to the stage programming with the slip-sliding that occurs across glazed walkways (a clichéd hindrance that made its way into a slew of NES games), and the tricky block patterns that flash in to briefly materialize, then disappear just as quickly, leaving the rhythmless repeatedly falling and retrying with tears of frustration.
Iceman's stage can only be successfully conquered if the player has ice water running through her/his veins. As if icy surfaces aren't enough, floating blocks (like the ones pictured) appear and vanish to add to the stress.
Iceman's stage is ideal for the Magnet Beam power-up item. The misleadingly-labelled Foot Holders, almost seem to try their best to make Mega Man lose both his footing and his head, as their erratic, floating patterns and gunfire are a lot to negotiate, especially while being confronted with Pengs dipping in and out, above the wide, deadly expanses below.
Fireman's region is set aglow in lurid reds and oranges, and sets Mega Man playing a sort-of Jack-Be-Nimble-Jack-Be-Quick game of dodging lava flows and fiery licks of flame (reminiscent of Contra's Energy Zone). Killer Bullets, that emulate Super Mario Bros.'s Bullet Bills in appearance, and Tackle Fires, bespectacled in cool shades, and later seen in a similar manner as "Fryguy" on Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros. 2, drift down slowly and make it tough for Mega Man to not get burned and knocked into the lava pools.
Perhaps the enigmatically-named Gutsman was named for the guts it takes for Mega Man to try to make the terrifying jumps in the beginning of the stage.
Gutsman's land is represented by a rocky quarry or excavation site, fiercely guarded by Met, the series' enduring and endearing mini-foe whose big eyes peer from beneath the hard hat enclosure that so suitably protects it, and Picket Man, whose pickax attacks are difficult to elude. This level, which is easily the game's shortest stage, would be a pedestrian stroll, if it wasn't for some of the game's scariest and toughest jumps; Mega Man must ride across a conveyor system on broken rails that drop their contents into the abyss below. Nerves of steel and much practice must be devoted to overcome this fearsome fate.
Upon reaching Gutsman's room, the battle showcases a touch of early creative, enemy innovation (a foreshadowing of more clever design to come) — Gutsman's girth can be felt as he leaps and lands with seismic force, leaving Mega Man temporarily-paralyzed as he tries to regain his footing.
Fighting Gutsman will leave you on shaky ground.
Once Mega Man dispatches the six malfunctioning robot bosses, he must chase down the one mad scientist who prescribed the bad dose of crossed wires — the malcontented Dr. Wily. His fortified structure serves its purpose well; subdivided into four smaller stages and filled with nasty surprises to spring upon Mega Man, its trappings doing their best to aid and abet Dr. Wily's fugitive retreat (by UFO, no less).
This game is notorious for giving fits and the first leg of the final stage proves to be a make-it or break-it for many — Wily posts Big Eyes (capable of draining a third of Mega Man's energy in one hit) as his first line of defense, then follows them up with flaming torches and fatal, spike-lined ceilings and floors containing those unpredictable Foot Holders once again that can't easily be avoided, even with the Magnet Beam stair-steps.
The Rock Monster is a paragon of enemy design. Maybe Capcom should have given it the name it had in Japan originally: Yellow Devil, a more fitting name. Mega Man is stuck between a rock
creature and a hard place (please forgive the pun), when dodging this behemoth.
For those battle-tested players who are able to bypass the booby traps, Dr. Wily reserves his biggest obstacle yet (and quite easily, the game's most difficult challenge). The game's brilliant enemy design shines brightest as Capcom unleashes the Rock Monster (aka Yellow Devil) — a diabolically-conceived, gigantic creature that is formed, piece-by-flying-piece.
Normally, only one or two hits can be registered in the fraction of time that the Yellow Devil is fully-formed, but thanks to an unintentional breach in the game's programming that can be exploited, Mega Man can knock this goliath down to size in mere seconds (Read more about this later or learn how to do it here.).
Upon defeat of the Rock Monster, Capcom sets the die in motion for future installments by beginning the trend of resurrecting the fallen robot masters from the scrap metal heap, and hoisting a veritable boss run upon Mega Man. He must re-encounter the bosses from before, and hopefully can utilize his newly-minted, full stock of weaponry to find which item best neutralizes each boss. Revitalized versions of Cutman and Elecman await our hero on this second stage. Upon their second downfalls, Mega Man finds himself pitted against his equal, as he must face the Mega Man clone.
After being left ragged from that encounter, Mega Man sloshes through a sewer/waterway system to fight CWU-01P, an aquatic enemy encapsulated in large bubbles that must be dodged and popped at least 7 times. The battle starts off slowly, but builds to full-steam ahead, as the later versions of the enemy rush quickly around the room's perimeter, making for a tough dodge-and-burn contest.
Would the real Mega Man please stand up?
The fourth and ultimate section finally reveals Dr. Wily, whose epic battle rivals that of the Yellow Devil's. Having a calm, cool head and quick reflexes for dodging may not even be enough to bring the renegade doctor to justice. (If this proves to be true, learn an easier solution here.)
Before arriving at his chamber, you will see what looks to be a production line for Gutsman — 15 inert statues of the Robot Master line the ceiling, safely tucked away into the background! Do you recall fighting Cutman and Elecman a few levels back? Well, now you get the opportunity to practice your skills on their four, recycled cohorts: Bombman, Fireman, Iceman and last, but not least, a real Gutsman!
Thankfully, the developers decided to provide the player with a 1UP and a Yashichi before facing-off against the quartet and Wily. The Yashichi, Capcom's unique symbol that was used as a power-up in so many early titles, fills up Mega Man's life and all of his Robot Master firepower.
In closing, Mega Man, although crude and a little rough around the edges when played now, helped bring in sweeping changes that may not even be realized by today's late generational gamers.
For one, it brought a revolutionary idea of freedom to action gameplay. In an age when so many platforming and stage-based games were laid out in a linear, predestined order of play, Mega Man could choose, in any order, which of the six Robot Masters of Monsteropolis he would attack first, second, third and so forth. This definitely added a new twist and degree of strategy to the playbook of future developers and designers.
Secondly, the customization of the six, unique Robot Masters, each of whom were given distinct personalities and powers with uniquely-themed dominions to reign supreme over, was a fresh vision that opened the unlimited option for retooling in future games. Whereas many contemporaries simply reused rehashed bosses and similar layouts for their stages and backgrounds, Mega Man's attention to detail — especially with its quirky Robot Masters and the distinct level design that catered to each boss (especially Elecman, Iceman and Fireman) — would go on to become a keystone for the future development of the series.
And let us not forget that the game was originally called Rockman for a reason in Japan. Capcom put the rock into Mega Man, both figuratively and literally (Mega Man's sister robot, who was created for household tasks, was named Roll. Get it? Rock(man) and Roll!).
Whether it was the urgency felt from the nervous ticks of the staticky drumline that emulated the broken rail system found in Gutsman's stage, or the chirp-like accents and long phrases that ended in vibrato heard on Cutman's stage, or even, the tense overture calling you to action as your robot opponent poses at the boss selection screen, the musical bar was raised.
Music would become an integral and magical part of the Mega Man experience from the onset. Musicians, Yuukichan's Papa and Chanchacorin Manami, made sure that Rockman, well, rocked. They pushed the constricting limits of the NES' early soundchip technology by programming compact polyrhythmic and harmonic tracks that were tricked out by playful, metallic percussion and sound effects.
For all of the fine-tuning the audio had, developers made sure to give equal priority to the illustrative characteristics of the Blue Bomber and his fellow automatons.
The visuals of Mega Man and the denizens of Monsteropolis were rendered in a cartoonish, yet cute style that screams anime and manga (a forerunner in video game graphic artwork of this ilk... others would later include Golgo 13, Fist Of The North Star and Metal Storm on the NES, and later Mega Man X entries on more powerful systems). The seemingly-nonthreatening Robot Masters disarm the player with their mannerisms and moods, be they angry or not. Mega Man winces in a flash of pain, when he is temporarily stunned. He seems to light up with excitement when he leaps. He even blinks occasionally. Ironically, the level of detail in emotions humanizes our android hero, and adds an intricacy that separates this game from a number of other titles of the time: a sense of realism. Even Dr. Wily seems to be in on the act, as he raises his eyebrows in a kind of knowing nod to you and I, the audience and player.
For all of the beads of perspiration and sleepless nights of inspiration that Capcom devoted to Mega Man's sound and look, it would all be an exercise in futility had it not been for the fun mechanics of how this game plays. The sheer genius and inventiveness (like that of the game's inventors, Wright and Wily) are realized, when the player learns how different powers and items are interconnected. While other action games toiled in crossing platforms and simple tasks like smashing buttons to fire off some generic weapon x, Mega Man lent a level of sophistication to gameplay with a focus on combinatorics and knowledge of self and your foes' strengths and weaknesses.
But to be fair and to not get too carried away with all of the accolades, it should be stated that the game does suffer from its share of glitches and undesirable effects. After all, this was the first take on what would grow to become one of video gaming's most cherished dynasties.
One major issue plaguing the title can be found in troublesome aspects of the controls. Mega Man has a very bad habit of running and sliding a little too fast and far, especially when he inches up to touch an energy or weapon capsule. (We're looking at you — Stage 2 of Dr. Wily's Fortress, where the power-up capsules lie on small platforms floating above the sky below.)
And an actual glitch (perhaps an unintended consequence of adding a pause feature) afflicts the game, but this one actually, provides a very beneficial side-effect: the gift of slow-motion. That's right! This hiccup in the programming allows the player to invoke a pseudo-slow motion effect to exploit a number of tough opponents in a single shot [See Tips below.]).
From a developmental point of view, the pacing of gameplay through the lands of the six Robot Masters is not equal. The stages just don't have a balanced feel. Some stages are very stressful and are virtually filled with landmines that stonewall the player's progress and make for disappointing play. When you embark upon the Mount Everest-esque reaches of Elecman's stage, then are forced to replay the level again to collect the Magnet Beam, this becomes painfully clear. Or when the challenges of timing your jumps to the beat of flashing blocks not once, but twice, then sweating through the fickle movements of the Footholders and flickering Magnet Beams that dominate Iceman's dwelling feel like they drain all of the fun and momentum out of the adventure.
Then again, you can just as easily race through the almost-deceptively easy Bombman's region in seemingly a few tick-tocks on the clock. Or zip through the rock-blasting site that Gutsman calls home in a flurry with a few well-placed Magnet Beams. The variety of the stages is an asset, but, the uneven swing between lengthy and sparse landscapes and the discrepancies between their challenge levels just makes the whole gaming experience for Mega Man feel unpolished and rushed.
One last complaint can be leveed against the game's sole item that is found and not collected upon defeat of a Robot Master: the Magnet Beam. Overall, the game's weapons are fun to test, as some have some very surprising results when used on certain enemies (like the Iceman item that can actually freeze some enemies, like the massive Big Eyes, in mid-air). However, the Magnet Beam suffers from lack of instructions (did you know that the longer you hold down on the fire button, the longer the beam stretches across the screen... all without taking away more from its energy reserves?), and the early limits on the NES' processor causes a lot of flicker that obscures the beam and can cause premature deaths as Mega Man may be standing on a firm surface one instant and the next, plummeting to a perilous demise.
Overall, Mega Man stands up pretty well, especially considering the early era from which it was developed. Just comparing it to some of its arcade-obsessed brethren also created by Capcom shows this: Ghost 'N Goblins [click here to read its review] couldn't hold one of its dreaded torches close to Mega Man's intelligence and diversity of design, while titles like Commando, 1942 and others were more-or-less unspectacular and uninspired shoot 'em ups that Capcom practiced and experimented on before delivering the goods with Mega Man.
When gazing upon the grotesquely-sketched box and trying to read through the painfully-written translations describing the game on the back of the box, many individuals may have had their reservations. It would be hard to fault someone for having doubts in a game that described its plot with the following eloquently-scribed language below:
It's MEGA MAN versus the powerful leaders and fighting forces of Monsteropolis — that strange multi-layered land of robot-like Humanoids created by the wrongly-performed experiments with human beings by Dr. Wily.
MEGA MAN — the chosen defender of the human race. For he dares to single-handedly penetrate Monsteropolis' seven separate societies to stop the rapid expansion of strange misrepresentations of humans.
MEGA MAN's goal is monumental. He must infiltrate seven separate heavily-guarded empires. By himself, he must break-down and destroy the followers of empire leaders: Cutman, Gutsman, Iceman, Bombman, Fireman, Elecman and Dr. Wily.
The action involves MEGA MAN, armed only with laser beam weapons, encountering strangely-configured Humanoids. They're atop, in and out of fortified prison-like structures strengthened with thick walls. Below icefields. Hidden amid gun turrets imbedded in concrete uprights, even in subterranean passages under icefields. WOW!
Will you and Mega Man penetrate the seven separate societies of Dr. Wily and preserve the human race? You're in control!
(What?!? Besides the fact that most of the back cover seems to contradict the story found within the inner linings of the booklet/manual, the poor translations makes one wish that she/he was "in control" during the editing and printing phases of the boxes... if only to make them intelligible!)
Luckily, a brave lot chose to forge on and not judge this game by its woeful cover art. Mega Man was crafted as a near-perfect human, and although he isn't quite a man of steel in Metropolis, his rust and tarnish are polished away enough to make for a satisfying and decent, if at-times, aggravating stay in Monsteropolis. Later sequels will set a silver standard that other games and series may never reach.
b. jones © 2015
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