Long ago, there was a time when Zero was merely the amount of fashion sense the average American had, when Battle Network was just a pet name for the TV station that showed The A-Team, and when only creepy people would talk about wearing their dog as a suit.
Long ago, there was Mega Man.
The premise was simple: Two scientists, Dr. Light (called Dr. Wright in the manual) and Dr. Wily, worked together on a series of human-like robots designed for important tasks such as blowing stuff up and not freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures. Dr. Wily, struck by the notion that he could take over the world with these robots, reprogrammed them for world domination, and possibly light housework.
This would not do.
To stop the wily plans of Dr. Wily, Dr. Light sent out a hero. That hero was…(na na na na) super fighting robot (na na na na) Mega Man!
Fighting to save the world.
“Fairly revolutionary” and “rather creative” are two terms I would use to describe the original Mega Man. “Spine-meltingly difficult” is another one.
On the surface, it’s just a typical platformer of the era, albeit with better graphics than most of its peers. There’s the standard running/jumping/shooting/falling down a hole and screaming about it gameplay characteristic of the average platformer. There’s also a score meter taking up precious space at the top of the screen, reminding modern players that this game comes from a less-civilized time when players were still competitive and actually cared about comparing their performance to others’. The game also features roughly the same level of difficulty found in most 80s platformers, the kind of difficulty that used to drive people to sell one of their kidneys to afford a hint book—sometimes in the middle of a playing session (usually during Guts Man’s stage).
But Mega Man dared to be different by allowing the player to steal the special weapon of every boss they beat and by giving the player the option to go through the first six stages in any order.
If I’ve done my math correctly, that means that there are 720 unique ways you can go through the game, with a different combination of weapons each time.
How’s that for replayability?
Along with the ability to claim defeated bosses’ weapons came the rock-paper-scissors game mechanic where each boss is weak to a certain weapon. Guts Man’s weapon (tossing around big rocks) beats Cut Man, who throws boomerang scissors, and Mega Man is made of paper and easily gets torn to shreds by Elec Man.
That being said, I’ll reiterate that the game is a challenge. Extra lives appear infrequently; surviving the onslaught of stage enemies often requires wise use of your special weapons; there are some heavy-duty jumping puzzles that require lots of practice/luck/skill/all of the above; most of the bosses are relentless in their attacks; there are no energy tanks to refill your health meter mid-battle; and there’s no password or save system so you can take a break.
However, the challenges are well-designed and rarely unfair, and frequently creative. There are blocks that appear in a set pattern that you must memorize to proceed, timing your jumps carefully and swearing as you chuck your controller at the screen after fifteen minutes of continual failure. There is a big golem boss who continually breaks apart into smaller chunks, flies at you, nonchalantly dislodges your head from your shoulders in the process, and reassembles on the other side of the room. You even have to re-fight all of the stage bosses in the final stages of the game, but with no energy tanks to save your artificial skin when they come one right after another.
These are all things that we may take for granted in Mega Man games nowadays, but back in 1987, blah blah lecture about how you young’uns are all spoiled with your wall jumping and your turbo controllers blah blah.
Compared to future installments in the Mega Man Classic series, though, the original is a little rough around the edges in many regards. Some examples: Mega Man comes to a sliding halt from running as though his boots secrete ice cream; you can still be killed by a boss’s on-screen projectiles after the boss is destroyed; the amount of sprite flicker makes me suspect that almost everything in the game is equipped with a faulty cloaking device; and I’ve been glitched off of so many of the shifty-looking moving platforms that hover over spike floors and bottomless pits that I’ve become paranoid about ever standing still on them.
Despite all this, Mega Man is still enjoyable and rewarding to play. The fair challenge of the game is such that, when you complete a stage or beat the game, you can revel in your accomplishment because it was nothing but practice and skill that got you there (and possibly Game Genie). The special weapons are all useful (well, Hyper Bomb is iffy) and fun to use—I love the “browmph” sound that Fire Man’s weapon makes and the fire shield that accompanies it—and picking up parts of the landscape with Guts Man’s weapon to heave at your enemies is a hoot. And the music, though it’s sometimes a bit simple and usually sounds like it was performed by helium-filled birds and chipmunks, creates just the right atmosphere of high energy or tension throughout the whole game.
It may not be as streamlined as other Mega Man games, and the difficulty might be a bit much to some, but the original Mega Man is a true classic that challenged the conventions of the platformer genre and paved the way for decade after decade of endless sequels and spinoffs.