A Critical Look at Mega Man Stages: Ladders

With the Nintendo Entertainment System series complete, I'd like to spend a few posts exploring some of the objects and designs as they were used throughout the games, and see what can be learned from them. For today, let's have a look at ladders.

The basic function of a ladder is to lead the player from one screen to another vertically, and their use in this image is the most common, with one leading offscreen from each corner to make the player cross the room to reach the other. Stairs and one-way platforms can accomplish the same purpose, but ladders are a compact solution, and work well for this type of game. We've seen plenty of ladders used only for this purpose in a stage, linking rooms vertically to add some variety to what could otherwise be a straight hallway.

Ladders also put Mega Man in a different state. The player can only climb, shoot, or fall, making threats more difficult to dodge. Falling is both a penalty for being hit and the only way to quickly avoid incoming damage, so ladders often make flying enemies and projectiles more dangerous. This screen shows good early use of that, with a short climb through incoming bullets followed by an opportunity to stand and destroy the turrets.

We see more of this throughout the series, with enemies or arcing shots blocking a ladder. Since Mega Man only shoots sideways, this is a good way to make special weapons more useful, or even required.

Climbing into a room from below is very different from walking. With players unable to hit enemies right away with the normal shot, they must take some time to get in position, and have the option of leaving the room to try again. This allows for some enemy positions that would not have been fair without the ability to escape, and was frequently used with Big Eyes and their equivalents.

This can work to the player's advantage, allowing a safe area to use special weapons from. The last image combines this with the threat of a slow climb, as the enemy can both prevent players from getting into the room safely and knock them off the upper one as they try to escape.

The same applies when climbing down, but the option to fall encouraged the designers to punish players for being too careless, leading to a handful of memorable surprises.

In a couple of cases, spikes were used for the same purpose, killing anyone trying to fall early while surrounded by them.

Some enemies become much more dangerous when left alone for a second or two, and even a short climb into a room can give these the time they need to cause trouble. This Harry in particular is much tougher to take down before it starts rolling around than the others in its stage, while the other enemies shown here also have a delay to their actions that the player has a harder time taking advantage of on these screens.

This can work in the middle of a screen as well, with long climbs giving the enemies more chances to attack within a small area.

Ladders can change interactions with enemies in other ways too. Having to climb makes this electrical trap a little tougher to avoid, the ground enemy gets a chance to fall on a climbing player, and the last offer different vantage points to attack from.

Grabbing a ladder also adds an extra layer of danger to a pit, as pressing up to do so is a little harder than just holding to the side when jumping across. Having to grab hold of a ladder that's barely within reach is one of the most heart-stopping moments the series can have without involving enemies or moving traps.

Special items were given some interesting uses with ladders as well, from needing them to reach one to complete or bypass a segment, to a unique case where Rush can be used from a ladder to avoid a fight.

Because they take less space than a Mega Man-sized hallway, ladders are useful for breaking a room into separate pieces, leading to long alternate paths in a vertical stage, showing the player an optional area, or just splitting a room into different playable spaces.

Their size also makes them ideal for hiding small secrets. When hiding something below, they're harder to spot than a hole, but when noticed, the player will know it's safe to investigate.

Mega Man made use of its ladders in a variety of ways, and stands as a good resource to learn from even today. One of the most unique areas involving them was this: A horizontal hallway filled with short ladders and enemies that could use them, giving the player many potential options for moving around, and more directions to watch for threats. Though short, this area is a personal favorite for how different it feels from the majority of the series' gameplay.