When Mega Man's creator, Keiji Inafune, spoke recently at the Game Developer's Conference, he discussed the need for Japanese video game companies to reinvent the brands that brought them so much success in previous years. While we still do not know what the future will bring, it makes sense at this time to reflect on what made the older Mega Man games so successful. While each series of Mega Man has its own qualities, most can trace at least part of their success to the original Mega Man Classic series of games. With sixteen installments of similar side-scrolling action, not only is the Classic series the cornerstone for the rest of the franchise, but it provides a long enough timeline and enough installments to compare and contrast which qualities worked to make them so much fun. And examining the aspects of the series that made these games so fun to play hopefully will shine a light on what we could expect from future installments of the Mega Man franchise, as well as hopefully starting discussion on the mechanics we love and the ones we don't.
So, what makes the Mega Man Classic games so fun to play?
It is a simple question with as many answers as there are people, and while I cannot nail down all the reasons for everyone, I believe most people come to love these games because of the weapons, level design, and the role of choice. These three aspects of the Mega Man game design are separate aspects of the games, yet they are tightly connected and they each play an essential role in the Mega Man formula.
Reason 1: Weapons and the Art of Getting Stronger
One of the chief characteristics of any Mega Man game (even most of the spin-off games and series) is the mechanic of gaining weapons and abilities from defeated bosses. Many games feature the player gaining powers and abilities over the course of the game; for some genres, like RPGs, that is a defining characteristic of the experience. While most action games now feature some sort of mechanic where the player gains abilities and grows stronger over the course of the game, Mega Man has been utilizing this mechanic in a rather unique way since its inception.
The manner in which this mechanic plays out in each individual game goes a long way towards the overall quality of the title. Of course, each of the Classic series installments had Mega Man gaining powers from fallen Robot Masters, but not all of them actually featured the same degree of usefulness from these weapons. The original Mega Man featured several weapons that not only damaged enemies but also interacted with the environment, making Mega Man stronger. The Ice Slasher froze the fire pillars, the Super Arm and Thunder Beam destroyed blocks. Simple and straight-forward yes, but yet these added functions have the psychological impact on the player-- it shows the player that old obstacles are now not-so insurmountable.
Now, fast forward to Mega Man 6, an installment generally thought to be weaker, and you'll see an issue. Absolutely none of the Robot Master weapons have any functionality beyond their usefulness in destroying enemies and bosses. The Rush Jet and Rush Power Adapters also make these weapons an afterthought outside the boss chambers.
The Rush Jet allows the player to skip sizable portions of each stage's obstacles (and to reach certain alternative routes), while Rush Power's charged shot allows the player to destroy certain blocks (a functionality usually reserved for a particular Master weapon). Now, Mega Man 6 has other issues to be sure (Mr. X? Really?), but its awful mismanagement of Robot Master weapons goes a long way in making it one of the weaker installments of the Classic series.
Now understandably, there will be some nonbelievers. But let's fast forward to Mega Man 9, and you'll see this mechanic in full bloom: The Concrete Shot makes enemies (and giant lasers) into platforms, the Splash Trident is the obligatory destructive weapon that eliminates certain obstacles, and even the rehashed shield weapon, the Jewel Shield, now has the added property of reflecting nearly all shots and destroying all minor enemies without being destroyed.
The Magma Burst is chargeable and burns enemies, while the Tornado Blow can make certain platforms rise and gives Mega Man a super-high jump. The Black Hole Bomb can only be used one way, but it’s unique (if you forget Mega Man V) in bringing all nearby enemies into itself and destroying them for as long as it is in use. The Hornet Chaser not only kills far away enemies but grab distant items. And the Plug Ball? It uh, doesn't do anything. Sue me.
There is something to the idea that the player needs to be constantly reminded of his or her progress through the game. With Mega Man Classic, the player is constantly reminded of this progress through accumulation of the player's fallen enemies. Additionally, and in a little less academic of a sense, getting weapons that can not just destroy things better and faster and with more oomph, but also help the player out in an additional functionality makes the game even more enjoyable because it gives the player more choices (and opens the level design for more challenges).
Reason 2: Level Design
When people throw around the words "level design," it's usually thought of as the art of making digital playgrounds interesting, engaging, and fun. Once you start throwing those adjectives around, though, you have to start thinking a bit deeper if you want to understand just what it means to have good level design. In the case of the Mega Man games, good level design is based around two separate but related concepts. The first is what kind of challenges each stage has and how those are introduced. The second is how the weapons interact with Mega Man's surroundings, allowing new kinds of challenges to be enacted and overcome.
A good Mega Man Classic game not only introduces interesting challenges in each stage, it introduces them in a manner that makes sense. Mega Man 3 does this incredibly well. Hard Man's stage has Big Bee enemy that drops little bees on the player, forcing the player to engage the enemy or try to outrun them. It introduces this enemy alone. Later, the stage features the Wanaan enemy that jumps up and bites you a second after you walk over it. It's annoying, but the player can deal with it in isolation, and it's manageable.
Later on in the level, both enemies are thrown at the player at the same time. In the second Skull Castle level, these enemies make a return and the player has to deal with them in a more complicated environment that requires more precise platforming skills. But the game's challenges never seem unfair or daunting, as it has taught the player the concepts by introducing them individually, then combining them. (The NSFW Sequelitis video covered this in pretty good detail, though they mostly discussed introducing concepts in each level rather than the cumulative effect in Skull Castle levels.)
Compare this with, say, the problems that confound Mega Man 5. The reason Proto Man's Castle seemed unfair and difficult when we all went through it in the early 1990s wasn't just because our motor skills and ability to recognize patterns were garbage (though that certainly was part of it), it's because there was a whole slew of concepts thrown at the player without as much preparation in the first half of the game. The first level threw back-to-back disappearing block puzzles for the first time in the entire game with zero room for error, thanks to spikes lining the entire floor (interestingly enough, Mega Man 4, 5, and 6 each have these puzzles only in the castle stages).
The second level featured a segment that demanded careful jumping between scrolling platforms with spikes right above and enemies all around. The third level had a segment where there was a constantly moving set of blocks that traveled all over the screen. The fourth level had blocks that, when shot, sent the ceiling crashing closer to the ground. Why did Capcom do this? Why didn't they utilize the switched-polarity concept from Gravity Man's stage? Why didn't they utilize the on-rails Jetski segment from Wave Man's stage? Why does Skull Castle feature an underwater portion when that concept was never used in any previous portion of the game?
Again, compare this to Mega Man 9. There are platforms that drop and rise from Concrete Man’s level, Galaxy Man's level has floating eye blobs that explode into many smaller blobs and robots that grab you and push you in directions. Hornet Man's level has the scissor enemies that go across the screen and then come back at you, Jewel Man's level has the platforms that swing based on your movement and the teleporting portal, and there are the platforms that flip you up and down from Tornado Man’s level. The bubbles-and-robot-fish combo in Splash Woman’s level, there's the shadow Mega Man enemies from Plug Man’s level, and the fire-lasers from Magma Man’s level.
And each of these concepts are introduced by themselves early in each level and then are combined later on with other concepts and challenges. Then, in the end, Skull Castle puts many of them altogether, and it never seems completely unfair or thrown together. True, some new concepts are thrown in during the final stages, but they are introduced with reduced threats and ramped up later (and ramped up considerably in the Hero and Superhero modes).
So, the take away here is obviously that level design has something to do with how challenges are presented to the player. But that was just the first part of good level design; the second part is that Robot Master weapons are used to interact with the environment and present new ways of overcoming challenges.
Of course, the first section of any Mega Man Classic game is to take on each of the Robot Masters in any order the player desires. Therefore, each of the first eight (or so) levels needs to be completed without any other weapon. But that's what makes the final levels of any good Mega Man game that much more enjoyable-the liberty to utilize the alternative functionality of Robot Master weapons in environments that are combinations of previously-seen challenges. Mega Man 1 forced the player to use both the Super Arm or Thunder Beam to destroy blocks and the Ice Slasher to freeze fire pillars in the first Skull Castle stage. Understanding the functionality of these weapons was essential to literally getting into Dr. Wily's lair.
Mega Man 6's Mr. X and Skull Castle stages, again, utilized the Rush Jet and Rush Power Adapters to the degree that relegated Robot Master weapons to be used only in the boss chambers. Mega Man 9's Skull Castle levels utilized several alternative functions back-to-back: Tornado Blow brought platforms up, Concrete Shot froze lasers, Splash Trident destroyed barriers, so on and so forth.
To conclude, the strength of level design is dependent on the right sequencing and combination of challenges the player faces. If each challenge is presented separately and then later combined, the challenges seem fair and surmountable. If the player can utilize the Robot Master weapons in new ways in these challenges, then the final levels are even more enjoyable.
Reason 3: Choice
According to legend, Hideo Kojima described his Metal Gear Solid series as providing the player with liberty, with the ability to make decisions on how best he or she would go about overcoming the challenges in a particular segment of the game. He juxtaposed this with the western notion of freedom, of how Grand Theft Auto allows the player the freedom to decide not just how best to go about the challenges in the game, but also the freedom to decide the challenges he or she wants to experience. Mega Man Classic, for all the options it gives the player, is solidly in the Kojima camp of liberty.
Without a doubt, one of the defining characteristics of the Mega Man Classic series is the liberty of choice it provides the player. This choice allows the player to feel like he or she is more in control of the game, even if the game has a predetermined end point. It gives the player the choice in how he or she tackles the first portion of the game, and it allows for experimentation in how many of the early challenges are met. Additionally, because players will often get all the way to the end of a level and be defeated because they lack a useful weapon, it multiplies the number of times the player will interact with a challenge that will come up again in the last half of the game.
Choice, or liberty, is not simply limited to how the player decides to go about the sequencing of stages. It's also an important aspect of how the player navigates each level.
There was a lot of grief about how Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 robbed Mega Man of his slide and Mega Buster, but these features disrupted the flow of Mega Man games-- essentially, it put the power of choice above the usefulness of weapons. It made Mega Man much more powerful from the get-go as long as a player understood how to manage charging and sliding, as opposed to encouraging smart use of weapons (or, on the design-side, forcing designers to think harder about the alternative functions of weapons).
This absolutely exploded with the Mega Man X series, with X having essentially 16 weapons (regular and charged versions), massively upgraded X-Busters (a quadruple shot), double air-dashing, hovering, helmet upgrades that can restore your health if you just stand still long enough, all-screen destruction blasts, etc. This basically made X indestructible by the time he hits the first fortress level (not to mention every level got pretty terribly designed by the time Mega Man X5 rolled around).
In the end, the friction of the game moved from being perpetually under-equipped and having to be smart with the limited options given to you by an arsenal of 8 Master weapons and a simple pea shooter. A huge problem that having so many optional game-changing items poses to a designer is that levels must be designed with the lowest common denominator; a designer has no idea if you went to the lengths to get all the upgrades, so the upgrades and items really just become ways to shortcut your own experience later on in the game.
As a side note, Mega Man 8 was pushing the series back in to more sane territory, as it featured a number of weapons that had alternative functions (sort of ironic now, given how much hate the game gets). Mega Man and Bass also worked to get away from the item craziness. And as a final shout-out, the Game Boy series actually did the series a huge under-appreciated (and underutilized) favor by splitting up the Robot Masters into two groups, as the second four stages could be designed to have the player use of the first four Master weapons.
While my 8-year old self hated the limitation of four stages to pick from, the benefit of more varied stage design far outweighs the ability to choose from eight stages from the get-go. Yes, I know that you will be hard-pressed to find places where Capcom consciously designed better stages that forced players to use the Master weapons, but it did happen on occasion (Napalm Man, Crystal Man, Jupiter, Pluto, and Uranus, to be exact).
As I stated in the beginning, I hope this illuminated for some what made the original Mega Man games so fun to play, while also shining a light on what aspects of game design we can expect to see in future installments of the Mega Man series. While I'm sure I did not hit on an aspect that someone finds essential to making the Mega Man Classic series enjoyable, the point here was to examine the interplay of three essential reasons why these games were enjoyable. The role of weapons and getting progressively stronger, the role of level design, and the importance of choice all came together to make some amazing video games.
There are certainly other factors that made this series resonate with players the world over, and there are many who may disagree with my analysis. The point here isn't to scientifically define what made this series fun, this is but a starting point from which to begin talking about what made some of the greatest moments in gaming. With any luck, we will again share some outstanding moments with our favorite blue robot.