Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)

As 1993 drew to a close, Super Nintendo owners everywhere were wondering one thing: Where was Mega Man? The previous two years had seen Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and numerous other high-profile gaming properties with 8-bit roots make the leap to Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse. The absence of Capcom’s super fighting cash cow, already a six-time headliner on the NES, was positively glaring. Finally, December brought with it the Japanese release of Rockman X, predictably retitled Mega Man X for its North American rollout the following month. Whatever Capcom had been waiting for, it was worth it. This spin-off was destined to become one of the system’s most revered games, not to mention one of the brightest stars in the galaxy that is the extended Mega Man franchise.

But why? At first glance, it may not be obvious what the big deal is. The broad strokes of Mega Man X’s storyline and structure seem entirely in keeping with the blueprint established by the NES hexalogy. Robots are running amok at the behest of an evil mastermind? Check. Stopping them involves defeating eight boss robots in the order of your choice, followed by an assault on the mastermind’s lair? Check. Overcoming each of the initial eight bosses equips you with a new special weapon that one of the others is weak to? Check. In truth, Mega Man X’s overwhelming success is a rare testament to the power of just a few carefully chosen artistic and mechanical tweaks to radically reinvigorate a stale formula.

Set around a century after the events of the main series (or classic series, as it subsequently became known), Mega Man X follows the exploits of its eponymous robot hero. Archeologists stumble upon X, the final and greatest creation of the late Dr. Light, sealed in a capsule and use his design as the basis for a new breed of fully sentient robots, the Reploids. Unfortunately, some Reploids turn against humanity and are dubbed Mavericks. The newly-reactivated X now works as a Maverick Hunter, mentored by his more experienced partner, a too-cool-for-school brooding loner type by the name of Zero. The duo’s latest assignment is to locate and defeat Sigma, leader of the Mavericks and a former Maverick Hunter himself.

The new setting and characters are the first crucial things the developers nailed. Mega Man X clearly set out to be a more mature take on the googly-eye cartoon robot bashing of the mainline titles. You need look no further than the design of X himself for proof of that. He’s noticeably taller, leaner, and more chiseled than his childlike NES ancestor. By story’s end, he’ll also experience more in the way of loss than classic Mega Man ever did. Despite this trend, Capcom wisely refrained from going overboard. X’s journey is still one defined by bright colors, driving rock music, and brisk jump-and-shoot violence of the 100% robot-on-robot variety. Nothing about it comes across gratuitously angsty or overwrought. To put it one way, it’s a tad too serious for X to have a cute robo-dog sidekick like Rush, yet not so serious that he can’t do battle with a mechanized penguin who belly flops around the arena. A fine line indeed.

On the gameplay front, a pair of inspired additions to X’s movement are responsible for much of the improved feel. He can cling to walls as well as execute a speedy forward dash that effectively replaces the ground slide from older games. The importance of the dash in particular can’t be overstated. It can be canceled into a forward jump at any time, even coming off a wall, and these mighty lunges cover more space more quickly than standard running jumps. Dash-jumping through a stage at breakneck pace is a real thrill and the maneuver also has no end of utility in the boss fights.

Complimenting this faster movement is the game engine’s ability to smoothly scroll the screen in all directions. Screens in classic Mega Man games always scrolled horizontally or vertically, never both at once (i.e. diagonally). Furthermore, vertical advancement was strictly of the all-or-nothing flip-screen variety. Combining this newly unrestricted scrolling with the wide open layouts of Launch Octopus or Storm Eagle’s stages and the aforementioned dash-jump, X can literally soar. It’s another exhilarating experience with no parallel in prior entries.

A final key strength of Mega Man X is its stunning presentation. I’m not merely referring to the usual high quality Capcom audiovisuals here, although the sprites, backgrounds, and energetic synth guitar-driven soundtrack are all rightfully iconic. I’m talking about the extraordinary amount of care that went into making the game’s world feel more like one concrete, interconnected place than a chain of isolated stages. Defeat Chill Penguin and the perilous lava which normally fills Flame Mammoth’s lair with be extinguished. Taking down Storm Eagle interrupts the power supply to Spark Mandrill’s level, subjecting it to periodic blackouts and weakening its mid-boss. These nifty interactions aren’t limited to the locations, either. The Boomerang Cutter can actually sever Flame Mammoth’s trunk, depriving him of one of his primary attacks. This uncommon attention to detail is simply a joy to behold throughout. Heck, I didn’t even notice until my most recent playthrough that one solitary bat enemy out of the dozens haunting Armored Armadillo’s mine is based on the original NES design. It’s the little things, you know?

Much as I endeavor to avoid total puff piece reviews, I struggle to dredge up anything meaningfully negative to say about Mega Man X. You’ll run into plenty of the old Super Nintendo slowdown when things get hectic, sure, but beyond that I’d really have to force it. This first X game is an all-around masterpiece, one of the best of its generation. By starting with a tried-and-tested action-platforming template and infusing it with memorable new characters, snappier movement, and a presentation to die for, Capcom produced the first true creative landmark in the saga since 1988’s Mega Man 2. As with the classic series, later X sequels would squander some of this initial goodwill with their rote repetition. Sigma always comes back à la Dr. Wily, he always has eight new Mavericks in tow, etc. Mega Man X itself, though? It’s one for the ages; a thoroughly lovable, endlessly replayable, damn near perfect video game. Bravo.

Mega Man 6 (NES)

Is it just me or does Wily look like he might be enjoying that? Awkward.

Mega Man 6 made its Japanese debut in November of 1993, a mere month before the franchise’s shiny new spinoff, Mega Man X, hit the Super Famicom. We North Americans didn’t get a crack at it until March of 1994, two months after our version of X. Talk about late to the party! Seemingly content with being yet another slight twist on the formula established by the first two NES Mega Man entries, it was destined for a minute fraction of the critical acclaim and commercial success its more innovative 16-bit cousin enjoyed. It’s long been regarded as the one of the most redundant of Mega Man’s many sequels. Even more so than the fourth and fifth games, if that’s possible.

Like all the main line titles after the fourth, I missed out on this one back around the time of its release. That’s a shame, because while I do understand the audience burnout six highly similar games in seven years can engender, I had a blast with Mega Man 6. It’s an improvement on the lackluster 5 in virtually every way and at times comes close to rivaling 2 and 4, my personal favorites of the NES hexalogy.

The evil Dr. Wily is back and he’s brought another eight robot masters for you to take down and gain new weaponry from. There is some pretext of a new story, of course: A fellow named Mr. X who runs an international robot fighting tournament has seized control of its contestants in a bid to take over the world. Oh, and he just happens to look exactly like Wily wearing shades and a vampire cape. This setup is so transparent and hokey that I honestly can’t tell if the developers didn’t give a damn anymore or if they were aiming for self-parody. I suppose I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter.

Flimsy as the Mr. X conceit is, it does allow for some interesting new boss and level theming. Each robot master is associated with a particular region of the world this time. Knight Man calls a European castle home, for example, and Blizzard Man hails from snowy Canada. A couple of these characterizations are less than flattering. Ersatz Native American Tomahawk Man comes to mind. Regardless, his Wild West stage (complete with dramatic sunset and six-shooter packing cowboy bots) is a memorable one. My favorite of the bunch in terms of visual design is Centaur Man, the first non-humanoid robot master.

Not only are these bosses a striking lot, the special weapons Mega Man earns from them are quite useful. Although they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by this point, they cover the usual bases well. You have the rotating shield, costly full screen attack, ascending and descending shots to compliment the straight ahead Mega Buster, etc. They’re relatively balanced this time, too. You won’t find anything as overwhelming as Mega Man 2’s Metal Blade here, but neither will you be forced to make due with hot garbage like Mega Man 5’s Charge Kick or Power Stone.

Beat the bird also makes his return. As before, you’ll need to collect an assortment of letter icons (four this time) in order to unlock him. Finding these letters requires the odd measure of locating hidden alternate routes to the robot masters’ rooms and defeating them there rather than in their regular digs. Unfortunately, Beat has been greatly toned-down from the cutesy superweapon he was in the last game, so this involved process isn’t ultimately worth it in my book. One hidden gadget you will want to acquire is the Energy Balancer. Found in a well hidden room, this sucker automatically distributes weapon energy pickups to inactive items in your inventory, ensuring you never waste an ammo drop again. Truly a godsend.

Equipment-wise, however, the real MVPs are the two Rush Adaptors. As their name implies, these are a new take on Mega Man’s helpful canine companion, Rush. Instead of manifesting as various helpful utility items like the Rush Jet or Rush Coil, he now merges directly with Mega Man’s body, resulting in two additional forms for our hero with their own innate advantages. The Power Adaptor adds a chargeable punch attack that deals heavy damage and can smash through some walls to reveal goodies and pathways. Better still is the spectacular Jet Adaptor, which allows Mega Man to fly at will, albeit for no more than a few seconds at a time. Minor as that sounds, this added freedom of movement totally alters the feel of the game. Once I gained access to it via defeating Plant Man, I never wanted to take it off. No wonder it features so prominently in the game’s cover art!

As I said, this one really surprised me. I was fully expecting it to come across as tired and perfunctory as Mega Man 5 did. What I actually got was one of the more creative takes on the classic series. It’s certainly not perfect. The plot is daft and veterans may well find it a tad too easy for it own good. It’s neither as iconic as the second installment nor as fine-tuned as the fourth. Despite this, the new enemies and settings are packed with personality, while the Rush Adaptors offer fresh takes on controlling the Blue Bomber himself. Factor in Capcom’s generally high audiovisual standards and the proven strength of the core Mega Man gameplay loop and you have a winner on your hands; one that deserves far more recognition than it gets. Mega Man 6 serves as a worthy capstone to its legendary star’s exploits on the platform of his birth.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Super Nintendo)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A blue-haired lass with the unlikely name of Princess Prin Prin has been kidnapped by demons. Only her knightly consort, Sir Arthur, is brave (or foolhardy) enough to attempt a rescue…and he’ll need to do it twice before it sticks.

Yes, welcome back to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, perhaps the most simultaneously loved and hated saga in all of classic gaming. The sterling quality of these games is undeniable, as is their mocking brutality. Difficult action-platformers from the outset due to fiendish enemy patterns and a two-hit health system, it’s dirty tricks like the aforementioned blindsiding of new players with the requirement to finish each stage twice in order to view the true ending that push them over the edge to infamy.

That brings me to my subject today, 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, aka Chōmakaimura (“Super Demon World Village”) in Japan. As the third game in the franchise and the first to be developed with a home console in mind as opposed to the arcades, players at the time may have expected Capcom to mellow out a tad with this one. Nope. If anything, they doubled down on the sadism with longer levels and something no home port of the previous two GnG games had: Limited continues. The result was far and away the most challenging installment to date. Good thing it was also the best.

I realize I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers with that last statement. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ immediate predecessor, titled simply Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, is quite excellent in its own right. It introduced a golden armor power-up that let Arthur charge up and release a different magic attack for each of the game’s many weapons. Additionally, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Arthur was able to lob shots up and down in addition to the usual left and right. There are many who swear by this enhanced shooting and consequently consider Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the best of the lot.

While it is unfortunate that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns to the more restrictive horizontal attacking of the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I feel it more than makes up for this with new additions of its own. The bronze armor has been included as an intermediate upgrade between the default steel suit and the potent gold one. It strengthens Arthur’s primary weapon somewhat without allowing for full magic use. There’s also a shield which offers some small amount of extra protection against projectiles. Best of all is the almighty double jump, my personal favorite mechanic in the series. The ability to trigger a second jump any point during the first works wonders for the chronically slow Arthur’s maneuverability and paved the way for the game’s creators to include more elaborate platforming scenarios. It feels so liberating that I often find it tough to go back to earlier GnG entries.

Another factor that endears Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to me is its level design. Capcom really upped the ante here with a host of dynamic environmental set pieces scattered throughout the first five areas. Arthur weathers surging tidal waves on a dinky raft, rides a fleshy moving platform through a maze of writhing, gas spewing innards, and risks being swept away by avalanches in the obligatory ice level, among other wild predicaments. Pity this approach is abandoned for the final two stages inside main villain Sardius’ castle, though. These contain nothing new or interesting to marvel at, just an abundance of imposing baddies coupled with some strict time limits.

Cap this overall strong package off with some of the best graphics and music to grace an early Super Nintendo release and what’s not to love? For starters, try some of the worst slowdown to grace an early Super Nintendo release! The action here starts chugging at the slightest provocation, a significant issue in a unforgiving game with a heavy emphasis on timing. This effectively adds another learning curve to an already demanding experience. There is a fan-made “restoration” hack available that removes much of this slowdown if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, your best bet is to simply wait for your brain to adjust to the inevitable speed inconsistencies. It’ll happen eventually.

A lone technical hiccup is one thing, but those limited continues constitute a proper design misstep in my eyes. There’s an immense amount of trial and error involved in any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game. The endless tries previous ones afforded you were essentially their lone concession to basic human decency. Earning extra continues by collecting money bag items is possible and indeed relatively easy in some stages. Still, the game as a whole can come to a premature end if the rate you gather these items is ever exceeded by the rate you mess up. This is most likely in the final stage, which is cunningly engineered to contain a bare minimum of money bags. Getting a game over here, especially in the second loop, is cruel even by GnG standards.

Maddening as these few flaws can be, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ many positive qualities far outstrip them. It’s considered a Capcom classic for good reason and if its reputation as a savage 16-bit struggle doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for one lush, thrilling trip to hell and back. If not, well, there are probably dozens of more easily rescued princesses out there. Sorry, Prin Prin. I’m just sayin’.

U.N. Squadron (Super Nintendo)

Hey, Super Nintendo fans: Are you ready for the sort of pulse pounding, face melting action that could only come from the most extreme intergovernmental organization on the planet? That’s right, I’m talking about the United goddamn Nations! So strap in, punks, because they’re coming at you with all 193 member states and at least as many ways to kick your ass in their official video game adaptation, U.N. Squadron!

Yeah, so Capcom’s 1991 horizontal shooter U.N. Squadron has nothing at all to do with its real world namesake. It’s based on the manga Area 88, about mercenary jet pilots operating out of the war-torn and wholly fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom of Arslan. Given Area 88’s obscurity outside Japan, a new name for the international editions made sense. I only wish they’d arrived at a more viscerally appealing one. The name is all that’s been changed, too. This isn’t one of those cases where licensed elements were stripped out of a game wholesale. The Area 88 characters and the eponymous air base itself are still present in U.N. Squadron.

In most games of this type, such details wouldn’t really matter. U.N. Squadron, however, uses its license to justify a number of clever design choices which set it apart from its contemporaries. For example, the first thing you’re expected to do is pick your character. Each of the three playable pilots has his own special ability. Shin Kazama is able to power-up his plane’s main gun the fastest. Mickey Scymon can carry the most missiles, bombs, and other limited use sub-weapons. Last, and definitely not least, my main man Greg Gates recovers from damage twice as fast as the rest. Be advised that once you choose, you’re committed for the duration of your current playthrough. In general, the durable Greg is ideal for beginners, Shin shines at the intermediate level, and Mickey is hard mode.

After you’ve settled on a pilot, you next need to choose your plane and its special weapon loadout. The manga’s mercenary premise is represented brilliantly here by an in-game economy based on your performance in battle. Every target you destroy and mission you complete earns you cold, hard cash in addition to the standard points and extra lives. You’ll want to scrape together all the blood money you can in order to afford better planes and more powerful weapons over the course of your campaign. I love the thorny strategic tradeoffs baked into this shop system. Loading your jet up with as many added weapons as possible will increase your odds of survival, but you’ll lose every penny sunk into them if you’re shot down anyway. Similarly, upgrading your ride from the default Crusader, which has no particular strengths to speak of, to a more capable craft like the Tomcat or Thunderbolt can be helpful in the mid-game. At the same time, doing so may prevent you from ever being able to afford the very best plane, the million dollar Efreet.

You now have a pilot, a plane, and an arsenal. Would you believe you’re not making decisions yet? U.N. Squadron also works in a tactical map screen that doubles as a mission select menu. You’re given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to which order you want to tacked the game’s ten stages in, apart from the first and last ones, which are fixed. Complicating things further, a few map markers represent mobile air or sea units advancing on Area 88. If they make it there, you’ll be forced to fight them off regardless of your personal preference.

All this player choice cropping up in what’s typically an extremely straightforward style of game is emblematic of a Capcom tradition that dates back to the 1986 NES port of Commando: Heavily retooling an arcade title with an eye toward bolstering the home version’s replayability. U.N. Squadron’s arcade iteration from 1989 had traditional linear stage progression and restricted each pilot to his own signature aircraft. If it wasn’t for the loss of arcade’s two-player feature, this deeper Super Nintendo release would be superior in every way.

Of course, these fancy options need to be in service of some quality shooting action or the whole production would be in vain. I’m happy to report that U.N. Squadron doesn’t disappoint, delivering some truly remarkable gameplay and level design. Controls are precise and responsive. The six planes and eleven special weapons are all effective in their own ways and fun to experiment with. The various areas you battle in have distinct visual identities and their unique topographies actually inform your tactics. Enemy patterns are diverse. Bosses are huge, deadly, and immensely satisfying to take down. As if this all wasn’t enough, it also boasts audiovisual pizzazz to spare and runs significantly better than much of its early Super Nintendo competition, putting the likes of Gradius III and Super R-Type to shame in the framerate department. Simply put, this was Capcom at their peak, doing what they did best. Cracking stuff.

Difficulty-wise, U.N. Squadron is simultaneously fierce and forgiving. You’re quite unlikely to finish it on your first try, as considerable trial-and-error is required and you’re limited to just three continues. Your saving grace is the damage system. Unlike in most shooters, you won’t be blown out of the sky by a single stray bullet. Rather, you have a sort of conditional health bar. Taking a hit will put you into a special danger state for a few seconds. If you get hit again while in danger, you’re toast. Survive the danger period, though, and your health will recover to slightly less than what it was before you took that hit. You can’t repeat this cycle forever, sadly, since four or five consecutive hits will deplete the bar fully and leave you in danger indefinitely. Still, that’s four or five more hits than I’m used to being able to brush off in these games. It helps.

Any way you slice it, this is a top shelf shoot-’em-up, one of the best ever made for the SNES. Even the most strident of genre snobs, who never hesitate to give the console grief for its pokey CPU, generally hail U.N. Squadron as a masterpiece. In a perfect world, it would have been the start of a magnificent series. Instead, its legacy is limited to a lone arcade pseudo-sequel, the obscure Carrier Air Wing. About the only complaint I can muster is that it’s yet another case of a vintage shooter with no true built-in autofire for your main gun. Either game developers back then were all in bed with the turbo controller manufacturers or they vastly overestimated their audience’s fondness for incessant tapping. Oh, well. I suppose if any game is worth a little finger pain, it’s this one.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis)

You know what’s pretty great? After nearly three years of regular game reviewing, I’m not even close to running out of personal milestones. Today, I get to tackle my first compilation in the form of Mega Man: The Wily Wars (aka Rockman Mega World in Japan), a 1994 Genesis remake of the first three NES Mega Man titles with some interesting bonus content thrown in. ‎Wily Wars was essentially Capcom’s take on Nintendo’s Super Mario All-Stars from the year prior, which similarly crammed four spruced-up 8-bit Mario outings onto a single SNES cartridge. Believe it or not, there was a point in history when enhanced reissues of hit games from the previous console generation were considered novel and exciting rather than lazy cash grabs. We all sent telegrams and had polio back then, too. Good times.

Wily Wars is famous (or perhaps infamous) for being an early example of a digital-only game release. While Japan and the PAL regions got it on a standard cartridge, North Americans were out of luck unless they happened to be subscribed to the Sega Channel download service. It wouldn’t be sold here again in any official form until 2019, when it appeared as one of the 42 pre-installed titles on the Sega Genesis Mini plug-and-play system. This didn’t stop hardcore American Mega Man fans from importing, bootlegging, and emulating it like crazy in the intervening decades, of course.

Since I’ve already covered the NES incarnations of Mega ManMega Man 2, and Mega Man 3 in full detail, you may expect me to gloss over the fine points of Wily Wars. Alas, I’m not off the hook that easy. Sure, everything in those reviews still holds true and I encourage you to check them out if you’re curious about the individual development histories, plots, or strengths and weaknesses of these games. Be that as it may, frequent Capcom sub-contractor Minakuchi Engineering did the actual porting work on Wily Wars and the result isn’t a perfect one-for-one recreation. Many of the differences are insignificant, such as some weapon damage values or ammunition counts being tweaked ever so slightly, but there are major ones which fall into four broad categories: Graphics, sound, play control, and performance.

The new graphics are adequate. They’re much in the same mode as the ones seen in Super Mario All-Stars. That is, they occupy a middle ground somewhere between the 8-bit source material and what you’d typically see in a game designed from the ground up for 16-bit hardware. The level of detail is well beyond the humble NES, yet you wouldn’t mistake these assets for something out of Mega Man 7 or Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo. The standout element by far is the new background art, particularly in Wily Wars’ interpretation of the first Mega Man, which originally utilized stark single color backdrops because of the minimal cartridge memory available circa 1987. The extra visual data goes a long way toward making it appear the action is unfolding in real locations rather than on chaotic assemblages of ladders and platforms floating in endless void.

Things are rougher on the audio side. Sound effects are underwhelming, with many of the most common and visceral ones from the NES games (giving and taking damage, the Mega Buster firing) coming through weak and muffled here. Most of the music is also a tragic downgrade. The bulk of Wily Wars’ expansive soundtrack is, naturally, rearranged versions of established tunes. Unfortunately, these tracks are too often twangy and abrasive, wallowing in all the excesses of stereotypical bad Genesis music. All those great old beats and melodies remain, they’re merely stifled by insipid production. The exception is some of the new stuff by composer Kinuyo Yamashita, which at the very least gives the impression of being written with the Genesis in mind.

A more severe sticking point for me is the handling on Mega Man himself. He feels heavier somehow, his movements ever so slightly less responsive. The rapid firing capability of his default Mega Buster weapon has also been toned down for some reason. It’s not enough to make Wily Wars unplayable, just enough to serve as a constant low grade distraction for those accustomed to the originals. When you’re talking about a series renowned for its fast action and fluid, precise controls, the slightest blemish is going to stand out all the more.

Compounding the problem of a less agile and quick shooting hero, Wily Wars is plagued by regular bouts of severe and frankly inexcusable slowdown. On paper, the CPU in the Genesis is several times more capable than its NES counterpart. If we only had Wily Wars and the NES games it’s based on to judge by, however, we’d have to conclude the opposite was true! This actually alters some of the gameplay drastically. The normally fearsome Yellow Devil boss, for example, is a pushover in Wily Wars due to the way the game limps along at half speed for the duration of the encounter.

With the majority of its meaningful alterations being for the worse, I can’t in good faith recommend Wily Wars as anyone’s introduction to these three legendary games. Nifty as some of the new artwork is, the NES renditions sound and, more importantly, play much better. Seek them out first and foremost.

That said, Wily Wars does manage to get a couple things right. First, it provides experienced players with a fresh perspective on three all-time classic action-platformers. I clearly didn’t love all of the audiovisual updates, but they kept me playing regardless, curious to see how the next new take on a familiar area would look and sound.

Then there’s the mini-game known as Wily Tower, which is unlocked by completing all three of the primary games on a single save file. It consists of seven new stages, each populated by its own unique boss on top of an intriguing mix of regular enemies and platforming hazards from Mega Man 1-3. These Wily Tower levels also allow for an unparalleled degree of flexibility when it comes to Mega Man’s inventory. You assemble your own custom arsenal from a pool of 22 special weapons and seven utility items! Want to be absurdly overpowered? Load up on brutally effective gear like the Thunder Beam, Metal Blade, and Rush Jet. Fancy a challenge instead? Try the trashy Bubble Lead, Spark Shot, and Top Spin. Wily Tower is fan service done right. I only wish it was around twice as long, which would effectively make it a full-fledged Genesis-exclusive Mega Man adventure unto itself.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is an odd duck, simultaneously a poor starting point for newcomers and a one-of-a-kind curiosity every established fan of the Blue Bomber should experience at least once. Thus, though I wish I could love it a lot more than I do, it still warrants a qualified recommendation.

Mega Man 5 (NES)

Mega Man 5? Have I really reviewed five of these suckers already? That seems impressive somehow…until I remember it’s not even 4% of the sprawling extended franchise. Guess I won’t be finished with this little blue bugger anytime soon.

This installment represents uncharted territory for me. It’s the first of the six NES Mega Man outings I never played back around the time of its debut. Like most Nintendo kids in 1992, I was spending most of my time deep diving into everything the new Super Nintendo had to offer. Still, I have high hopes for this one. Revisiting Mega Man 4 proved to be a great time. I found it to be significantly more polished and better paced than the fan favorite third game. Let’s see if Capcom was able to maintain that same level of quality here.

Mega Man is, of course, the brave robot boy who protects the world of the future from the countless schemes of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wily. Most games after the third make a feeble stab at tricking players into believing a different villain is behind all the mayhem, only to reveal to the shock and awe of absolutely no one that it was really old Wily pulling the strings all along. This time, Mega Man’s own brother, Proto Man, goes rogue and kidnaps their mutual creator, Dr. Light. Uncovering the truth behind this apparent heel turn requires Mega Man to do the exact same thing he always does: Defeat eight robot masters in any order, take all their special weapons, and then storm Wily’s ridiculous skull-shaped headquarters with his new arsenal in tow.

By 1992, most players had a pretty good idea what they were in for with a new Mega Man title. This goes for the plot, the mechanics, the cartoony graphics, the rocking soundtrack, everything! These are incredibly consistent games, almost to a fault. That’s why when it comes to assessing Mega Man 5, I’m going to focus on the three key elements which are guaranteed to vary meaningfully between entries: The level design, the boss fights, and the various special weapons and tools Mega Man acquires.

The stages themselves are a real treat. Gravity Man’s has you fighting on the ceiling thanks to a gravity flipping gimmick similar to the ones seen in the previous year’s Metal Storm and Shatterhand. Charge Man’s deftly uses the visuals and sound to sell the idea that you’re in a moving train. Most compelling of all is Wave Man’s, which features the series’ first true vehicle segment. Mega Man pilots a jet ski here, a year before Mega Man X introduced ride armors. On the downside, Stone Man’s suffers from the same generic cave syndrome that’s plagued nearly all stone/rock-themed masters over the years and Crystal Man’s, pretty as it is, has too much stop and go for my taste. For the most part, though, these are some fun areas to blast through and a high point of Mega Man 5.

On the other hand, the robot masters themselves largely fail to impress. They do showcase some neat ideas here and there, such as Gyro Man’s tendency to hide in the billowing clouds filling his arena. Despite this, they were all simple to take down and I rarely felt like I needed to exploit their individual weapon weaknesses to come out on top. Comparatively basic patterns and modest damage output make them less of a threat than their Mega Man 3 or 4 counterparts. This is compounded by the increased availability of extra lives and energy tanks this time around. While difficulty preferences are obviously subjective, I think most gamers would expect and desire more than token resistance from these guys.

Speaking of wanting more, the special weapons in Mega Man 5 are a sorry lot. Only the steerable Gyro Blade and screen clearing Gravity Hold saw regular use during my playthrough. The rest are either too weak or too situational to bother with. This is doubly true since Mega Man retains his Mega Buster charge attack and it’s arguably stronger than ever. It ramps up to full power quicker and the shot itself has a larger area of effect. The designers attempted to balance this out somewhat by having the charge be lost whenever Mega Man sustains damage. In my experience, this doesn’t quite offset the improved fire rate. It was debatable whether or not the charge shot was the best weapon in Mega Man 4. Given the competition here, there can be no doubt.

Or can there? Although he’s presented as more of a side character than anything else, there is one optional weapon available in the form of Beat the robot bird. Unlocking him requires you to collect eight letter icons, one in each of the robot master levels. I recommend you put in the effort because Beat, well, beats ass. When active, he’ll automatically zip around the screen seeking out enemies and dealing heavy touch damage to them. He can make mincemeat of almost anything in his path, including the bosses in the final stretch of the game. Dr. Wily’s ultimate war machine? Easily reduced to scrap by a good pecking. Enjoy this avenging avian while you can. He’s toned down considerably in all his future appearances.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m reviewing Mega Man 5 the week after Thanksgiving, as it comes across like a plate of reheated digital leftovers. It features some creative stage designs and I did enjoy Beat the bird, both as a handy bonus item and an adorable addition to the greater Mega Man universe. Beyond that, it offers little in the way of new ideas and a mediocre at best selection of robot masters and special weapons. As with virtually  anything cast from the classic Mega Man mold, it’s a cut above the average action-platformer and remains well worth playing for fans of the genre. I certainly don’t regret giving it go. In the narrower context of its own legendary series, however, it’s simply a poor man’s Mega Man 4. You can really sense the developer fatigue setting in with this one. With a mere eleven months between the two releases, I reckon that should come as no surprise. These games may be all about tireless robots, but the teams behind them are all too human.

Mega Man 4 (NES)

Come on, ride the train! Hey, ride it!

I’ve been getting pretty esoteric with the import stuff these past couple weeks. Time to head back to the well and draw up some more classic Mega Man goodness! 1991’s Mega Man 4 is the first NES entry in the series to debut after the introduction of the Super Nintendo, yet it still only marks the mid-point of the Blue Bomber’s adventures on the old gray box. When other established franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania hastened to join the 16-bit revolution, Mega Man was, in a sense, the system’s last veteran hero standing by the time Mega Man 6 dropped in 1993. I’m not sure if any current or former Capcom staff are on record detailing why the company waited so long to migrate their flagship character to the new hardware. If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the established 8-bit Mega Man formula was so robust and cost-effective to iterate on by that point that annual releases on mature hardware were seen as low risk/high reward endeavors by management.

This dependence on a formula established the decade prior hasn’t done Mega Man 4-6’s reputations any favors. You’ve probably heard the standard spiel before: The first three games are timeless classics that each blazed new trails by introducing revolutionary new gameplay features, fan favorite characters like Rush and Proto Man, or both. After that came the “me, too” entries; lazy paint-by-numbers cash grabs that shamelessly rode the coattails of their illustrious forebears.

With a setup like that, you’re probably expecting me to swoop in now and eviscerate this narrow-minded drivel. That’s what I foresaw myself doing all the while I was playing and enjoying Mega Man 4. Now that the time has come to commit my thoughts to writing, though, I’m just not feeling it. Truth is, the detractors have a point. The latter three NES sequels collectively do very little to expand on the gameplay or fictional universe of Mega Man. They’re really just spinning their wheels, creatively speaking. Anyone who remembers the triumphant launch of Mega Man X on Super Nintendo can attest to what a breath of fresh air it was with its faster, more dynamic movement and brand new cast of characters. It’s a great game that seemed even greater in its day precisely because we were so primed for a change.

Then again, these are games. Despite how much I’m able to nitpick after I’ve set the controller down, that core Mega Man loop (“kill eight robot masters, take their special weapons, storm Dr. Wily’s castle”) flows so well that I find it damn near impossible to hold their repetitiveness against them while I’m actually along for the ride. So it’s not so much that the common critique of these titles is inaccurate or unfair in any way, simply that it’s moot for all practical gaming purposes and, consequently, easy to forgive.

In terms of specifics, the one new thing of note Mega Man 4 brings to the series is the Mega Buster charge shot. You can now hold the B button down for a few seconds in order to ready a more powerful blast from Mega Man’s default weapon. This a classic example of a risk/reward mechanic, as missing your target when you finally do release the shot effectively wastes the extra time you spent charging it.

Some players adore this added layer of strategy. Others maintain that the charge shot was a mistake, since it deals so much damage that it renders the robot master weapons redundant. Put me down somewhere in the middle, albeit leaning slightly toward the anti-charge camp. I don’t think the robot master weapons are useless at all. In fact, this might be the best assortment we’d ever see in a NES Mega Man outing. Certainly, there’s nothing anywhere near as comically bad as Mega Man 3’s Top Spin. The real problem is the time needed to switch between weapons. Accessing the menu takes a couple seconds. It’s not much, but it does break the flow of the action each and every time, whereas just using the charged Buster instead doesn’t. I also get the impression that the designers upped the health of many common enemies in order to encourage players to use the new charging feature as much as possible. Everything seems to take one or two more uncharged shots to die than it would have in the earlier games. Maximizing your combat effectiveness therefore means holding that B button down (and tolerating the high-pitched noise it makes) for the majority of the game. I don’t consider this an improvement.

Fortunately, this installment has more than just a great selection of boss weapons going for it. The robot masters themselves are also fun and challenging to fight. Except for Toad Man. He’s just silly. The theming of these characters is getting ever more abstract, too, which can make guessing their weaknesses trickier. What’s Pharoah Man weak to? The Flash Stopper that you got from Bright Man, naturally. Everyone knows pharoahs hate flashing lights. Duh.

Mega Man 4 also continues to experiment with lengthening play time by adding more levels between the initial eight and Dr. Wily’s castle. Here, you have to face off against a Russian fellow named Dr. Cossack, who’s initially presented as the new mad scientist on the block. He’s actually a good guy being blackmailed by Wily, of course, because this is still a Mega Man game and tradition reigns. The important thing is that the Cossack stages represent unique experiences, as opposed to the cut-and-paste asset recycling of Mega Man 3’s Doc Robot levels. Another big plus: Both Cossack and Wily’s strongholds feel more complete than the rushed afterthought that was Mega Man 3’s Wily castle.

So, yes, Mega Man 4 is merely more run-of-the-mill NES Mega Mega and I don’t much care for its charge shot mechanic. It still looks, sounds, and plays better than at least 90% of its contemporaries, however, including sacred cow Mega Man 3. The robot masters, their weapons, and the game’s extended climax are all handled better here than in the last game, resulting in a more cohesive and satisfying experience overall. It doesn’t strike me as a true labor of love or a game for the ages like Mega Man 2 does, but I found myself appreciating it much more than I thought I would just for how well it nailed the fundamentals. Mega Man 4 doesn’t need to be great art. It’s a supremely competent action-platformer and that’s enough.