I’ve said it before, but videogames are inordinately complex. I’m not (just) talking about how many programmers it takes to animate the leading man’s nose hair, no, I’m thinking of the basic design going all the way back to Mario. Jump physics “feel wrong”? Game is crap. Powerup distribution makes the game too easy/hard? Game is crap. Level 2 Boss is impossible and there’s no skipping it? Game is crap. It seems like a million little pieces have to work 100% in tandem, or the whole thing tumbles down the dumpster hole. In a way, this is true of many mediums (how many times have you seen a movie with an interesting plot but insipid dialogue), but considering how much a videogame is impacted by how the player “feels”, well, I admit there have been a few videogames I quit inside of five minutes. Tekken: Death by Degrees, I’m looking at you.
Mega Man basically got it perfect on his second shot. Mega Man 1 had its share of… weirdness with terminal falls and noisy platforms, but Mega Man 2 just about perfected the formula for many games to come. Yes, things were added, like the slide and mega buster, but I can see why Mega Man 2 deserves as many accolades as it receives, as it’s a very well-constructed game from top to bottom. Assuming I’m willing to ignore the boobeam trap, of course.
And, honestly, Mega Man is comforting in its familiarity. When Mario, the Belmonts, and even Contra couldn’t seem to pin down one 100% same gameplay style between titles (I can fly now? I can be a pirate? What the hell is Contra Force?), it was heartening to have “the same, but with a new cast” every year or so. Hell if the franchise was created today, from Mega Man 2 on, every Mega Man title could practically be an expansion pack.
Oh God I just realized how badly I want a new eight robot masters every year…
The Mega Man Gameboy titles were an obvious attempt to translate those great games to a portable system. Save Mega Man V (which I already… kinda… discussed), each of the Mega Man Gameboy titles reused robot masters, incidental bots, and stage hazards from their “big brother” NES titles. In general, this led to a mix of different robot masters comingling (Quick Man and Cut Man in the same game? Why, I never!), and, sometimes, the opportunity to use new techniques against old enemies (eat mega buster, Snake Man!). But, overall, the first three Gameboy Mega Mans were… lackluster. Not completely bad, mind you, just another example of early portable ports that were greatly compromised compared to their console brethren.
And then there’s Mega Man IV.
Mega Man IV is actually a pretty great game all on its own. It combines the fun of Mega Man 4 and 5 superbly, introduces Ballade, the final (and pretty cool) Mega Killer, and the geography of many of the areas (like the interiors of the gigantic Wily Tank) are pretty splendid. This is the kind of Mega Man game I’d like to play on the go, and really makes me lament the fact that I ignored it for so long (thinking it’d be just as underwhelming as its Gameboy ancestors). I didn’t play this title until well after Mega Man Mania was cancelled (sometime around the GBA days), and more’s the pity.
However, the changes to the Mega Man formula this game does make really highlight what works so well in the “real” Mega Man series.
The first and most obvious issue is that everything is cramped as hell. Mega Man usually has full reign of the entirety of the NES’s vertical space, and his little metal boy sprite doesn’t take up that much real estate. Not so on the teeny tiny Gameboy screen. Now, in the previous three Mega Gameboy titles, the dedication to aping the old level design was held above actually fun level design, so things like Elec Man’s disappearing blocks became… frustrating. Meanwhile, in Mega Man IV, levels finally feel like they’re designed for the Gameboy, and not just ported. This is great for the minute-to-minute gameplay… but can be a little disorienting for someone who has played Mega Man 3 a billion times, and isn’t used to hitting the ceiling so often. Mind you, the most open areas (Toad Man’s stage comes to mind) still seem to retain a sprawling feeling, but the feeling that an unseen enemy may be lurking just out of range gets pretty insistent as the stages proceed.
Secondly, and less immediately obvious, is the fact that Mega Man has less health. Your life bar is shorter in all the Gameboy games, and that creates a sort of dissonance between the “classic” rival bots and their new deadliness. Revisiting Toad Man’s stage again: here are some water rat bots. In Mega Man 4, they’re an inconvenience that is most likely to murder our mega pal only through some edge of a platform knockback. In Mega Man IV, a single hit from those rodents seems to drain a quarter of your life bar. There are less enemy bots per stage than in the NES titles, but since they’re all so powerful now, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. In mainline Mega Man, lesser bots are nuisances, but on the Gameboy, they’re downright deadly.
Of course, the shorter life bars also mean the bosses go down a lot faster, so, good, less Ring Man to deal with.
Now the health thing might be a pain on its own, but it couples poorly with the new P-Chips System. From a strictly theoretical perspective, I love P-Chips. Mega Man now has access to a shop, and, if you’re terrible at the game, you may incidentally accumulate enough P-Chips to buy a shiny new E-Tank or stock of extra lives. That’s great! No more do you have to farm that one E-Tank in Hard Man’s stage, you can buy your consumables, and defeat even the hardest robot masters with all the technique of Thomas the Thumbless Man. Life keeps getting better!
However, the downside is now that where there might once have been free energy for your health or weapons, there’s a P-Chip. This random mook could have dropped a lil’ energy refill, but, nope, P-Chip. And P-Chips are great!… they just can’t be used actually within the level you find them… so you’re stuck waiting to cash in your chips later. That’s super an’ all, but I’m dying now! And did I mention that weapon refills are really important in the later stages that don’t grant that “free” between level fill up? But don’t worry, you’ve got more P-Chips!
And, finally, we have the recoil factor. This is one subtle change that absolutely changes the game entirely. Now, whenever Mega Man fires a fully charged mega buster blast, he recoils juuuuust a little bit. It seems small, and it’s unlikely to impact a boss battle (probably when the mega buster is most abused), but wow can it make an impact over platforming segments. Carefully leaping from one platform to another is dangerous already, but there’s an enemy! Quick, shoot it! … But you were charging, so you fired off a mega blast, recoiled just enough, and now welcome to the abyss. While this never comes up on the NES games, here Mega Man has an actual reason to not be charging all the time. Scary platforms ahead? Stop holding down that B button and use your regular pew pews. You’ll be glad you did.
What does this all mean? Well, it illuminates exactly how Mega Man is make or break based on the tiniest changes. Overall, for better or worse, I would say most of these changes make the game more difficult. The closer ceiling is a pain, the recoil factor will get you killed, and P-Chips are very situational. I don’t need to mention (again) how a smaller life bar is going to end poorly. However, Mega Man IV is still a fun game. It’s more difficult than Mega Man 4/5, but it’s also just different enough to be interesting. Like the concept Final Fantasy 4 DS would eventually embody, this is a game that is fun for new players, and plays with veteran players’ expectations just enough to be a new experience. Mega Man IV is highly recommended because of how it tweaks its formulas.
But it just goes to show that every robot lives or dies thanks to a million little pieces.
FGC #168 Mega Man IV
- System: Gameboy and 3DS Virtual Console. I don’t think any other systems want that pea-green business.
- Number of players: One, because I don’t want to see that stupid link cable again.
- Favorite Robot Master (this game): Toad Man continues to impress through his own sheer lack of… anything. Dude can dance, and, other than that, he’s basically a slowly moving target. Dr. Cossack was having an off day, I guess.
- Did you know? This was the first Mega Man game to feature the Energy Balancer, the item that allows Mega Man to pick up weapon energy without opening the menu every damn time. You will note that this item became completely standard for the Mega Man X series.
- Would I play again: I would, but Mega Man V has all the cool stuff of this game, and a rocket punch. I can’t say no to a rocket punch.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Venetica for the Xbox 360! Venetica… isn’t that a font? I would play a game about a font fighting to become part of a default list of… oh never mind. Please look forward to whatever this is!