A Critical Look at Mega Man Stages: Going to the Dogs

Hello again everyone. Life's been busy for me lately, but I've left this hanging long enough, so let's play some Mega Man.

A flawed but fun classic! But didn't we...?

No, we're well past that.

Whew, close call.

Maybe sometime, but not yet.

Wait, you don't mean...

We did this too.

Where? Where we go? Is it behind this big, awful excuse for a game? Please tell me that's where it is.

There we go.

It's never time for that, but alright...

That's right, it's time to play Mega Man for DOS.

So here's the deal. I don't have the time to do another full breakdown of a main series game yet, but since I want to get this started again, I'm going to play this one straight through and try to give it the fairest assessment I can. This isn't a blind playthrough (I've been through it once before, a while ago), but it's a continuous one. I'll simply be commenting on what I see along the way, and since I know almost nothing about this game, I'm probably going to miss things. If anyone out there is an expert at this because a clueless adult saw Mega Man on the cover and gave it to you for Christmas, let me know if I'm missing anything interesting.

Upon pressing Fire, I had the terrifying experience most do when starting this up for the first time.

Run, man! Just run! Also, there's a dog after you.

We'll come back to that dog, but first, I didn't speed up this gif. That's how the game plays by default for most people nowadays.

That's assuming anyone bothers to play it nowadays.

Back when this game was made, it was common for the timing to be tied to the CPU clock speed. This generally worked out for computers at the time, but as processors got faster, the games did too. In fact, if any of you remember computers coming with a turbo button and wondering why it didn't make your PC run faster, this is what it was meant to fix. It locks the system to a set speed, so that programs written this way would work properly, meaning that it actually slowed your computer down.

The version of DOSBox I'm using defaults to 3000 cycles, so by slowing that down, we can play the game at a reasonable speed.

Bad doggy. =(

That dog that utterly destroyed me? It waits for you even after you die. There's no escape. Kill it, and it respawns. Run, and it jumps at you faster than can be avoided. Stand and fight... well, even at normal speed it's going to go badly for you.

I'd ask why Dr. Wily has a security checkpoint and why we're allowed through it, but it's not like that bar is going to stop Mega Man, or rather, this game's closest approximation of Mega Man. That's what the dog is for; if you can't beat the toughest enemy in the game from second 1, you're not getting any further. Welcome to Mega Man DOS.

Is that a camera above the door? Is Wily watching this? Is he going to post this to YouTube?

Here's what you do. Walking too far past it triggers an attack, but it allows you to get that far, presumably waiting for you to feel a glimmer of hope so it can rip it away. Since it wants you to get to that distance, don't. Just walk slowly in front of it and it'll safely follow you to the door.

They just realized they should have read the fine print on their contracts a little more closely.

Here we are at the Stage Select, so get your laughs in at the bad Mega Man portrait.

As for the bosses, Volt Man doesn't look that awful, but what's with the eyes on the other two? We've got two other Robot Masters wearing some sort of face covering helmet, and their eyes seem to just be stuck on the outside of them. It's kind of adorable. They both look a little freaked out, like nobody told them they'd be fighting Mega Man today.

Let's go with Dyna Man.

It looks like his power is lacrosse.

See any sort of theme here? Any clue what his power is? Me neither.

First dogs, and now bees. I think we all know what comes next.

Our first normal enemy of the game, these bees drop bundles of nails that explode into four projectiles on contact with the ground. I had to show their paths here, as these are very tough to spot against the background, though it's not so bad in motion.

We've seen a similar pattern back in Bomb Man's stage, and it mostly works well here too. Stand still when the nails are about to explode, and try to get between the outer and inner projectiles on your side.

The rough terrain and random spawning of the bees makes the nails hard to predict, but they also deal one damage, so getting caught in a bad position won't set us back much. Overall, I liked this area. The variation in floor height makes each nail drop a little different, though the low damage is just making up for throwing us in the deep end instead of introducing the bees in a safer environment.

These conveyor belts start simple, but on the next screen we need to quickly turn around while falling to avoid death twice. Still not too bad, though it's a little early for this.

Subtle.

Now this is baffling. There's some sort of compacted trash going down the belt, but we don't interact with it in any way aside from it making an awful noise when Mega Man touches it. However, the falling trash does cause damage. At the end... a pit with arrows in it. Guess we should fall that way.

Wow. Yes, you had better be holding left here, because this entire pit leads to death, and the belt on the ledge is moving towards it. It's funny that the arrows continue on after the first couple, as though that would help you if you weren't moving the right way from the start.

Next up is more falling trash, over a pit this time. It's neat that this is the same trash you just saw above, though falling into the pit on the upper level will still kill you, which feels unfair once you come down and see this.

Of all the things they decided to keep from the regular games...

These vanishing blocks killed me quite a few times. They're not hard by main series standards, but this doesn't control anywhere near as tightly as a Nintendo Entertainment System game, and it's much easier to miss a small platform.

There's a couple low blocks at the end that allow an escape from the lava (which doesn't instantly kill you here), but I kept taking enough damage before getting out that I died in the next segment.

Oh, now you decide that avoiding things that can hurt you is a good idea, after already deciding to play this game.

Once again, we have to deal with an upward spread of projectiles. This time they rise from the pits, and we need to stand on the edge closest to where they appeared to avoid the outer ones. This is tricky but doable, but that object moving along the rail on the ceiling is also an enemy we need to avoid on the higher platforms.

Once we see different platforms, that rail thing starts dumping lava on us.

The general idea here is solid: an enemy drops things on you from above, and you have to keep running forward to avoid it. That strategy isn't completely reliable, though, as sometimes they drop a little in front of you, and the platform in the middle image forces us close enough to the top that we can be hit by the enemy itself.

I like the idea when it works, but it's a little too roughly implemented to be fun, and the sudden change in enemy behavior is telegraphed only by the change in terrain, which you wouldn't expect to be related.

We then pass under the lava and have to avoid drips in a way similar to the end of Mega Man 2, but with no change in ceiling height or spacing to make it interesting.

More bees. This room has more open space and feels like it should be easier, but the bees were more likely to spawn inside other boxes in the first area, dropping their nails harmlessly inside the terrain. Now they're flying by at jump height more often and hitting low ground, making the nails spread closer to you.

Also, with the last area using a slightly different spread, I got used to moving closer to the nails when they dropped and taking a hit because they don't spread as far as I expected, like in this last image.

Here's the strangest moment in the level. Various timed obstacles appear in our way that can be dodged with roughly the same timing. Someone took the time to draw three completely different objects, yet put no effort into mixing up how they attack or what we should do to avoid them. On top of that, the last one doesn't hurt us, instead making the same grindy beep noise as the floor trash.

That small gap shows a lot about the thought behind this area. It seems to be here because the designer didn't want the belt leading to a wall, so this makes it look like the setup has more purpose.

Gameplay-wise, seeing something like that makes me want to explore it, especially with the change in terrain art beyond it. The designer tried to have the area make more sense visually, and ending up sending the wrong signals to the player in terms of how they should interact with it in the process. Happens all the time in games, and it's worth drawing attention to here.

Unless you can get in there somehow, but I know the weapons won't let you do that, and I don't know of any other usable items in the game.

This is the part of the stage that will really bug you.

After a climb and fall through an area with only a weapon refill in it, we reach this. So far, this stage has had a couple decent moments and been bland at worst, aside from the controls making the vanishing blocks harder than they should be. Here, we reach something genuinely awful.

We can't shoot these ants, and while it's possible to jump over them, we have a pixel or two of leeway to work with. I pulled off dodging an ant once, and quickly gave up and let them hit me afterward. As you can see from the health I lost, there's a lot of them, with a health refill at the end, as though the designer is apologizing for something he could have just not done in the first place.

With that, we've reached Dyna Man. He jumps around dropping some sort of bomb, which is standard enough behavior for Mega Man.

The problem with him is that his jumps are like those of the big stomper enemies in the series, sometimes high and sometimes too low to run under. This probably can't be done without taking damage unless you have some luck, but that's not unusual for the earlier NES games, either. What makes this feel less fun is that he's just running into you instead of being themed in such a way as to justify it a little, like Air Man or Quick Man.

Luckily, we have an easier time with a damage race in this game since bosses have no invulnerability when taking hits. Just fire at him as much as you can, and he'll go down in seconds.

Get equipped with math?

Victory results in the familiar ring explosion, a calculator, and artwork that looks much more on model than anything else in this game.

With how much these DOS games are hated or made fun of, they're not all bad. The bees, lava projectiles, and even the vanishing platforms all looked like things that could come from the main series, and if the game controlled a little more like those, they'd play just fine.

Then we have the contrast of obstacles that seem to be broken and a long stretch of nearly forced damaged at the end, and it all falls apart.

Also, did you notice that I'm almost never shooting until reaching the boss? I made no effort to avoid images of me firing, this stage just doesn't give me much reason to, since even the bees take multiple hits, and the enemies I most want to get out of the way are too low to shoot. It's really weird playing an entire stage while ignoring the "shoot" half of Mega Man's jump n' shoot gameplay.

This series isn't back to a weekly schedule yet, but the long break's over, so I'll take on the next stage as soon as I can.