Editorial: The Game That Changed The Classic Series

Previously, I covered the concepts that made the Mega Man Classic series fun. This week, I narrow down the one pivotal game that changed that series and set it on a new direction. While Mega Man 2 introduced and refined a few overarching concepts that became series staples, it was Mega Man IV for the Game Boy that set the Classic series on its post-NES course and established a number of innovations.  The Mega Man series of games in general (and the Classic games especially) is usually accused of relying on aged gaming mechanics and not generally thought of as embracing innovation from one installment to the next. While it is true that any significant change in gameplay is marked by the introduction of a new series (such as RPG elements and 3D gameplay defining Mega Man Legends), small tweaks and innovations are commonplace in each of the games, with some innovating more than others.

The Game Boy sub-series is usually ignored when discussing the evolution of the Mega Man series. Similarly, Mega Man IV often gets overlooked in favor of the space-bound Mega Man V, and yet, it was IV that truly took the series took a new direction. The introduction of an ongoing story and Dr. Light's Shop came along with a renewed focus on weapon versatility, greatly refined level design, and establishment of new gameplay tempo made IV one of the pivotal installments of the series. 

In Japan, IV was released just weeks after Mega Man 6. But despite its small stature, it was IV that set the evolutionary course for the rest of the series and beyond. And while Mega Man 9 and 10 are often lauded as attempts to recapture the magic of Mega Man 2, even they are in no small way another part of Mega Man IV's legacy.

(Warning: Classic series spoilers ahead! We wouldn't normally worry about it, but since some people might now be waiting for a Nintendo eShop release...)

The cohesive, ongoing story was one of the significant innovations of Mega Man IV. Previous installments in the Game Boy sub-series did not feature any dialogue, let alone cutscenes that went beyond shots of the Skull Castle and Wily Space Stations. The NES series was barely any better: Mega Man 3 gave no explanation of nearly anything, making the cutscene in Dr. Light's Lab before Skull Castle seem a bit abrupt (unless, you know, you read the instruction manual, but who liked to read in 1990?). Mega Man 4, 5, andfeatured introductory scenes before the title screen, with a brief story scene of Dr. Wily revealing himself to be the puppet-master coming later.

This all changed with Mega Man IV, as gamers were given a four-color bonanza of cutscenes that told an ongoing tale. While the story itself was fairly generic for the series (Dr. Wily steals four old Robot Masters from an expo, eventually escapes to his fortress and then to space), it was the first time in the series that the plot continued to unfold in separate cutscenes. Using both in-game graphics and surprisingly detailed animation, Mega Man IV set the stage for an ongoing narrative to be a cornerstone of the series. Over a decade later, even the NES-style Mega Man 9 and 10 utilized the same formula for storytelling.

With the ongoing story came Ballade, the Game Boy sub-series' obligatory extra robot. While Enker, Quint, and Punk were more-or-less mindless drones, Ballade showed a little more personality. On top of being featured in the introductory cutscene and the mid-game story sequence, Ballade appears in the ending and, after telling Mega Man that he has seen the error of his ways, sacrifices himself to save the Blue Bomber from the collapsing Wily Star.

Thus, Ballade is the first in not just a long line of characters who seemingly perish yet miraculously return later on, but he is also the first new character with ambiguous loyalties that plays an important part in the plot. This would become a trend which continued with Sunstar, Bass, Duo, and King, to say nothing of the Mega Man X, Zero, and ZX games.

The introduction of Dr. Light's Shop in Mega Man IV may be its most obvious innovation. Compared to future installments, the shop in IV is fairly useless; even so, the limited selection of items still plays a great deal in making the game a bit more bearable for those who are less accustomed to seemingly impossible jumps and navigating amusement parks of death (like, say, Crystal Man's level). Stocking up on extra lives and tanks may have brought the challenge of the game down, but its optional nature made it the perfect Mega Man-style solution to making the game more bearable.

Mega Man IV also includes several gameplay innovations. In my earlier article, I detailed how special weapon versatility is one of the bedrocks of fun for the series. While some may disagree, it is clear that with IV, this aspect of gameplay became more integral after languishing during the last three NES installments. More interesting still was that this shift toward versatile weapons meant tweaking the weapons ported from Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5; the Ring Boomerang could now fetch items, the Rain Flush douses flames and opens paths, and the Charge Kick destroys certain blocks new to IV.

This concept was continued in Mega Man V, expanded greatly with Mega Man 7, and still continues to this day. In UDON's Mega Man: Official Complete Works, Keiji Inafune and the staff of Mega Man 7 describe this mechanic of weapon versatility as an important aspect of the design of that game. While most fans see Mega Man 7 as the start of this substantial push back toward weapon versatility, it was Mega Man IV that refocused this aspect of the series and provided the base from which its successors drew substantially.

Released three weeks earlier, Mega Man 6 beat Mega Man IV to market and introducing alternative paths in several levels, but it was Mega Man IV that integrated this concept with weapon versatility while also featuring numerous extended dead-end paths containing hidden items, and even single-room dead-ends that featured Proto Man. Every Mega Man game since IV further developed branching paths, hidden item areas, and secret locations.

One of the greatest legacies of Mega Man IV is one most up to interpretation. Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge and Mega Man III from the Game Boy sub-series were notoriously difficult because there were too few alterations made to allow for NES-style gameplay on such a small screen. Mega Man's sprite, as well as those of his enemies, were simply too large and his weapons too slow to allow for the same style of quick running, jumping, and shooting that defined the series in the beginning.

It was with IV that the level design began to account for the tiny maneuver space and slow-moving weapons. Many levels feature gimmicks which reward a more deliberate approach, a manner more attuned to Mega Man's relative size to the rest of the screen and the slower speed at which the game moves due to the hardware constraints. As players navigate the levels, the focus is more on understanding the gimmicks in each level. Surviving Crystal Man's growing and shrinking pillars, jumping on Napalm Man's flying drills, and navigating with Bright Man's automatic platforms are all gimmicks that take center stage. The enemies that pepper these stages are part of the challenge of navigating these gimmicks, but it is here that the Mega Buster is utilized best. Given the slow speed of regular shots and the infrequency of enemies, it behooves the player to always have a Charged Shot ready. 

Similarly, the slide is much more in tune with the smaller maneuvering space and the focus on navigating the gimmicks of each level. It gives Mega Man an advantage in a game where he takes up a considerable amount of space relative to his small stature in the NES installments. Simply put, the tempo of Mega Man IV jives not just with the small screen, but with the Mega Buster and the slide.

Replaying Mega Man 7, Mega Man 8, and Mega Man and Bass, one can understand how they might be best described as developing from the path determined by the innovations of Mega Man IV. Not only do these games include more polished story sequences and expansions of the shop concept first pioneered by IV, but they also force the player to take on the Robot Master levels in two waves, just like the Game Boy sub-series. They all feature versatile weapons and more interesting level designs and features that can be traced back to ideas that first developed or were reintroduced in IV.

However, it is the tempo of these games that is perhaps the greatest inheritance from Mega Man IV. Until Mega Man 9 reverted the series back to NES proportions, the Classic series of games following IV kept the same tempo as the monochrome classic. Mega Man 9 and 10 continue nearly all innovations first seen in IV, but arguably the single most important change they made was to simply reduce Mega Man's size relative to the rest of the screen and change the tempo of the game back to the NES standard. After crunching the numbers, the math is that in 7, 8, and Bass, Mega Man's size relative to the rest of the screen is much more similar to the Game Boy games (all hover around 2% of all pixels displayed on the screen, compared to the NES-style games where Mega Man constitutes less than 1% of pixels (see a full comparison).

Mega Man NES vs GB

While both of the recent installments feature clever new gimmicks and wonderfully challenging level design, the overall expanded scope of view and faster gameplay meant that the Mega Buster and slide were deemed no longer necessary, as they were when the series followed IV's tempo. Mega Man 9's producer, Hironobu Takeshita, essentially stated that taking away the Mega Buster and slide was the price of establishing a better sense of balance with the return to the proportions of the NES games.

Mega Man IV might be one of the most under-appreciated and underplayed installments of the series, but it radically changed the direction of the series and introduced and revamped a number of concepts that became series staples. Along with Mega Man 2, it is the most influential chapter in the Classic series.

Screenshot Credits: Mega Man 5 screenshot from VGMuseum.