A Critical Look at Mega Man 4 Stages: Skull Man

Skull Man's Stage and Music mm4skull_01

This right here is Super Ball Machine Jr. It fires large balls that bounce from the walls, increasing in speed with each bounce. Unfortunately that feature doesn't come into play much, as walking forward while shooting is enough to handle most of them. The one on top gets a little more room, meaning he can fire the ball upward before we destroy it, and it'll come back down at just the right angle to hit while we walk forward. The next new enemy is Togehero, who lazily drifts forward while moving up and down a bit. He's easily the least dangerous of the small, floating enemies we've seen.

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The Ball Machine on the ground will fire a shot that bounces around the room before coming down behind us, but it takes long enough to do so that players are likely to have moved on before it comes back. The last one is in the same situation as the first few. Definitely a wasted opportunity here, as the bouncing behavior of their shots could have been deadly if more of them had a chance to shoot somewhere other than right in front of us. In the next room we meet Skeleton Joe, who is such a terrible shot that getting hit almost takes a deliberate effort. A single shot incapacitates him and lets us walk through him without harm until he puts himself back together, while only a charge shot destroys him completely.

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This area is filled with Shield Attackers and Battontons. Shield Attacker is a little more fun here, as their placements and the terrain make this a fun area to jump through, while the Battontons encourage moving forward over stopping to fight each of them. It's also nice that a couple are placed above the ground a little, allowing us to slide under them.

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Eddie shows up here with more goodies. The next ladder leads to a new idea for the series. Walking to the right instead of continuing upward takes us on a different path to some items. While split paths have been around since the first game, we haven't seen them get their own screens before. This area is just a series of horizontal paths with Shield Attackers in them. The higher paths lead to the rewards, and the top path is easiest since we have room to jump, instead of having to run away until they turn around. Though the second highest path leads to the E-Tank, Rush can give us a boost from the other side. Walking back is easiest on the bottom path, as there's only one enemy there.

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Continuing upward, we run into Skullmet and Imorm. Skullmet can only be hit on the side the eye is on, and fires shots in an arc when we're in front of it. They're also a much better shot than Skeleton Joe. Imorm falls from the ceiling when we get close, then creeps around the floor. Imorm takes two shots and Skullmet three, but their placements here are pretty good, with the top Skullmet providing cover fire for the lower one, and the Imorm giving the top one some protection if it doesn't die to a screen scroll. Imorms get a little more dangerous in the next screen, with a couple dropping from the low ceilings and one protecting the small platform below. We can backtrack from there for the E-Tank, but the lower gap is a difficult jump, and for once Rush Coil doesn't trivialize it.

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The jump to the right is a difficult one as well, and there's an Imorm waiting to drop before we've had a chance to land. The last Imorm gets a good spot too, as most players won't be expecting more enemies with the ladder in sight. Continuing down leads to the last section, filled with Togehero and Skeleton Joes. The first gap here is another that requires Mega Man to be slightly off the platform before jumping.

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Again, Skeleton Joe is just a really awful shot. Most of their shots don't even reach the platform, and the only place we can get hit when standing still is directly under the middle one, as he can drop bones straight down. The one case where their habit of aiming so far behind us works in their favor is when we're running past the middle one. Even if we do take a hit there, a bunch of refills are available at the end.

Super Ball Machine Jr. and Skeleton Joe are hurting this stage badly, as both had the chance to offer an interesting challenge, but the former's placement didn't allow it to shine and the latter's aim makes it mostly harmless even with three on the screen at once. The middle sections worked well enough, but the stage lacks any sort of gimmick and the hardest challenge it offers is a couple awkward jumps. There just isn't much to it.

It does offer one of the game's better music tracks though, and I can't deny that what seems to a mountain peak filled with robot dinosaur fossils is a pretty neat location, and the change to a sunset background color at the end was a nice touch. It's a fun level to run through as a player could easily make it through the whole thing without stopping, but better stages have been able to provide that kind of momentum while still providing interesting obstacles and a reasonable challenge, such as Spark Man.