If I had to create a personal Mount Rushmore of games that shaped my tastes it would consist of Super Mario Brothers, the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mega Man. Each of these titles brought something new to the industry, were leagues above their contemporaries and have achieved classic status. Mega Man in particular was one of the first platformers to forge its own identity and break away from the SMB mold. It would introduce gameplay ideas that legions of games still incorporate to this day. It would also go on to establish Capcom as a household name after the tragic ports of 1942 and Ghosts N Goblins. This is an undeniable classic and one that holds up pretty well today.
There is no question that Mega Man was destined to be a star. There are many great games that go unnoticed yet I know Mega Man would have found an audience regardless of its year of release. That being said it also helped that it was released in that nascent period where every new title was scrutinized. With its innovative gameplay and great character it stood out upon release in 1987. That ghastly box art also played a part in it I’m sure. I don’t want to know how that was cobbled together because it really does a disservice to the game. I’ll bet many picked up the box just to figure out what the hell the doofus on the cover was even doing. It’s actually brilliant in an unexpected way but I digress.
Upon starting the game you are greeted by the six robot masters and have your pick as to who to target first. This was revolutionary at the time for a variety of reasons. Up until that point games followed a linear order. If you were stuck you had no choice but to try repeatedly to make progress. The stage select not only allowed you to tackle the game in any order but see most of its content from the start. As cool as this feature was Capcom took it a step further.
At the end of every greatly designed level you fought its boss and once defeated absorbed their weapon. This was mind-blowing and insanely cool as each robot master had unique powers that were now at your disposal. Mega Man innovated even further by giving each boss a specific weakness, making the order in which you tackled the game crucial to just how challenging it would be overall. It also added replay value to the game as well. The rock, paper, scissors element is a large reason why the series has endured for so many decades. Even at its worst you can look forward to a cool set of bosses with awesome abilities to steal. There are many games that have cribbed this mechanic yet it all started here and would become the series’ defining trait.
The level design is spectacular and further solidified Mega Man’s classic status. Each world is thematically appropriate with a unique set of enemies and obstacles to match. It added a humongous deal of variety and elevated it above its generic contemporaries. Finding creative ways to apply your expanding power set to find hidden items was an enticing reason to revisit completed levels. It should be noted that this first installment is shorter than the games that would follow. There are only six robot masters and a few stages in Dr. Wily’s castle. That doesn’t mean you’ll get through it any faster as this is just as difficult as games like Castlevania.
Mega Man is the most difficult of the NES games in many ways and most will not see it coming. The levels and their enemy placement are tuned a bit higher than normal and some might even say it’s a bit devious. Many enemies such as the Big Eye inflict disproportionate amounts of damage and appear frequently. There are many platforming segments such as the beginning of Gutsman’s stage and the last bit of Iceman’s level that pull no punches and came as a bit of a shock to most gamers in 1987. Even the boss battles are brutal if you aren’t equipped with their weakness. Those that are accustomed to energy tanks and such will be shocked to find no such crutch. The game can be brutal and makes no apologies for it. There isn’t even any password support so it has to be done in one sitting!
This was the brick wall that stopped legions of us back in the day.
I don’t want to paint a dire picture but when it ramps up it can be brutal. Wily’s Castle has a very large difficulty spike which was not uncommon for that period. The Yellow Devil in particular is a “shit got real” moment that hobbled players for years. But that pales in comparison to the boss rush that comes later. Here you’ll fight three in succession with no breaks in between. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I was even able to beat the game back then. I suppose when you have nothing else to play you’ll ram your hard against a brick wall until it crumbles. It helps that Mega Man is awesome.
The Mega Man series has become a classic in video game history and it is easy to see why. Although most of the praise is usually reserved for the second game in the series it would mean nothing if the first game did not lay down the foundation it was built on. Some of its elements are dated yet Mega Man is still a great game that will especially challenge those that are used to the amenities later games introduced. Classic.