Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be mega-busting on the go with the portable Mega Man series.
Note that all publication dates are for the first North American version of each game – they were typically released first in Japan, and sometimes re-released on other platforms. Like my previous Mega Man article, this one is sourced primarily from Hardcore Gaming 101.
Capcom had scored a major success at the end of the 1980s with its Mega Man platforming franchise. Designed around home consoles, rather than arcades, the series seemed inextricably linked with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Meanwhile, Nintendo had opened up a new market with its portable Game Boy hardware; this debuted at North American retailers on July 31, 1989 after making its first appearance in Japan on the one hundredth anniversary of the company’s April 21, 1889 founding. The Game Boy skyrocketed in sales and Capcom saw an opportunity to bring its Blue Bomber to a new mobile audience.
Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (1991)
Robot Masters: Cut Man, Ice Man, Fire Man, Elec Man, Enker
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
In spite of its interest in a lucrative portable market, Capcom seems to have had its hands full with console game development. The first portable Mega Man game, like its successors, would be outsourced to an independent studio and only published by Capcom once development was completed. Luckily, the project lead at this chosen studio – Minakuchi Engineering – was a fan of the original NES series.
This love of the already-classic Mega Man series led its first outing on the Game Boy to be primarily a look back at earlier content. Memory constraints permitted only six stages, and four of these are heavily influenced by stages in Mega Man (1987) and Mega Man 2 (1988) while still integrating interesting new mechanics. Access to these four is similar to earlier console outings, as the player has the opportunity to complete them in any order. Once all four stages are beaten, and the robot master bosses’ abilities acquired for use by the player, access to the fifth stage opens up. After the player makes his or her way through a lengthy level set in Dr. Wily’s castle, he or she is able to play the final stage and defeat Dr. Wily.
The bosses in Dr. Wily’s Revenge are, themselves, largely recycled from earlier games; four robot masters appear at the end of the game’s four first stages – Elec Man, Cut Man, Ice Man, and Fire Man – while four more appear to challenge Mega Man in a characteristic “boss rush” sequence in the penultimate stage. These latter four include Flash Man, Heat Man, Bubble Man and Quick Man, all from Mega Man 2. While each of the first four are challenged at the conclusion of a stage, the player must defeat the latter four, as well as a fifth unrelated boss, in a gauntlet sequence without access to any recovery items.
The only bosses unique to Dr. Wily’s Revenge are Enker, who the player faces at the end of the first Wily Castle stage, and Dr. Wily himself at the game’s conclusion. Enker is the first in a series of boss characters unique to the Game Boy series; these robots were designed by Dr. Wily with the express purpose of slaying Mega Man, rather than being co-opted by the evil scientist from their original peaceful goals. The “Mega Man Killer” boss would go on to become a tradition on the five series entries published on the Game Boy, as would using the weapons acquired from these enemies to defeat the final boss. Enker himself has a name likely inspired by the Japanese musical genre Enka and would go on to cameo in a handful of later games, including the much-maligned Mega Man Soccer (1994).
Keiji Inafune, the creative force behind the NES titles, was actually still involved in development of this portable sub-series. Sensing that his original sprites had aged poorly in the four years since the first Mega Man game was released, he worked to re-design them with the Game Boy’s limitations in mind. This was also important due to the hardware’s monochromatic color palette. Interestingly, Dr. Wily’s Revenge is the first instance since the series’ debut that Inafune had the opportunity to design a robot master – all of the designs for Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 had been received as fan submissions!
The first portable Mega Man game was received warmly at the time of its release. That critical appraisal has remained fairly steady over the following decades, and the game was re-released on the 3DS eShop in the 2010s. It is short, but this is in keeping with the core concept of Game Boy games being designed for completion in a single sitting; the hardware’s relatively brief battery life and the absence of save state technology in its early years kept long-form game design from gaining a foothold.
The game’s primary problem is its extraordinarily high difficulty level. Areas are compressed to fit on the small screen and, while this avoids the problem of hidden enemies offscreen that would plague the Game Boy Advance port of Mega Man & Bass (2003), it still left the player with little wiggle room when dodging obstacles or clearing jumps. The absence of mobility enhancements from the console series like the Rush Jet or Rush Coil similarly hampered the player’s ability to manually scale an area’s challenges down. This results in a punishing, if rewarding, first entry for the series outside of the NES.
Mega Man II (1992)
Robot Masters: Wood Man, Air Man, Crash Man, Metal Man, Top Man, Hard Man, Magnet Man, Needle Man, Quint
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
The first Game Boy Mega Man title had been very successful, selling well and being voted ‘best handheld game’ in 1991 by the readers of GamePro magazine. Capcom, of course, quickly got to work green-lighting a sequel. Unfortunately, they opted to outsource the sequel’s development to a new studio.
The development team at Biox seems to have lacked familiarity with the property and the series, consequently, experienced a serious drop in quality. Rather than mindfully integrating what worked in the original console series with new elements that hewed to the Game Boy’s unique environment, levels are more or less imported wholly from earlier NES games. The difficulty is scaled up as well, since these levels were not designed with a small monochromatic screen in mind.
On a more positive note, the second game is more expansive in scope than its portable predecessor. The player still fights his or her way through four stages in any order, defeating a robot master at the end of each and gaining that boss’ power; this time, the first four robot masters are the Mega Man 2 bosses that had not appeared in Dr. Wily’s Revenge. Following those stages, the player tackles Wily’s Castle with a twist – each of the four robot masters Mega Man faces off against in the castle have stages of their own! The second set of robot masters include four that had appeared in the NES’ Mega Man 3.
After that, the player is able to challenge the newest Mega Man Killer. Quint is a robot from the future who has been pulled backwards through time, by Wily, to defeat his arch-nemesis. Hilariously, Quint’s weapon is a sharpened jackhammer. Once Quint is defeated, Mega Man gains the ability to use the jackhammer; sadly, the weapon is almost impossible to hit enemies with. The final level of the game and the characteristic battle with Dr. Wily occur aboard a space station, hinting at future developments for the Game Boy series.
Mega Man III (1992)
Robot Masters: Snake Man, Shadow Man, Spark Man, Gemini Man, Snake Man, Shadow Man, Spark Man, and Gemini Man, Punk
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
Wasting no time, Capcom produced a third game in the portable Mega Man franchise. Luckily for fans, the publisher recognized its error in having Biox develop Mega Man II and returned to Minakuchi Engineering for the third game.
Little would change in this entry, though its plot was a touch less ambitious than the time-traveling and space shenanigans of Mega Man II. In this adventure, Dr. Wily is using a rogue oil platform to steal energy from Earth and must be stopped by the Blue Bomber once again. He has pulled in four robot masters originally encountered in the NES’ MEga Man 3 and four more from Mega Man 4.
In addition to these returning bosses, the player is tasked with defeating a new Mega Man Killer sub-boss before challenging Wily himself. This new creation, Punk, seems to have been a favorite of series co-creator Keiji Inafune – much later, when Inafune was bringing back characters in cameo appearances for the spin-off sub-series Mega Man Battle Network, Punk was the only Game Boy Mega Man foe to make the cut.
In addition to the return to basic quality that Minakuchi Engineering brought to the table, the visuals saw a conspicuous improvement in the portable series’ third entry. Rather than importing NES sprites wholesale, Minakuchi Engineering opted instead to redraw game environments from the ground up. This resulted in level design aesthetics which spoke to the unique Game Boy screen size and palette limitations. There was nothing revolutionary about Mega Man III, but it was the strongest of the portable entries so far.
Mega Man IV (1993)
Robot Masters: Toad Man, Bright Man, Pharaoh Man, Ring Man, Crystal Man, Napalm Man, Stone Man, and Charge Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
As with the series’ console parent franchise, the Game Boy Mega Man games grew more plot-oriented with each entry. The fourth game starts simple enough, with Dr. Wily nefariously reprogramming robots at a museum exhibition, but ends with a battle inside an oversized tank and one final climactic confrontation in space.
Of course, the structure remains similar to preceding episodes. The player must battle four robot masters drawn from Mega Man 4 and four robot masters drawn from Mega Man 5. Even within this fairly traditional packaging, however, Minakuchi Engineering was beginning to take some interesting chances. In particular, they added new functionality to the powers gained from robot masters – for example, the rain flush could be used to put out fires after being acquired from Toad Man. This is an enhancement from its appearance in Mega Man 4, where it was simply a means of doing damage to opponents.
The most exciting aspect of Mega Man IV is its new Mega Man Killer sub-boss named Ballade. This enemy has a comparatively well-formed personality based around a martial honor code: while he fiercely opposes and will work to defeat a foe in battle, he reserves the highest loyalty for those who defeat him. Consequently, he actually saves Mega Man from certain death in a heroic sacrifice at the game’s conclusion.
One final curiosity in this penultimate Game Boy Mega Man is the introduction of sliding difficulty. In a manner that would be emulated by later Capcom games – Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4 come to mind – the difficulty is reduced if the player loses enough times on a single stage. In the context of the game, this is done by Dr. Light powering up Mega Man’s weapon. It does not carry over if the player uses a password to continue from where he or she left off, but I’m sure this led to many more people completing the game than otherwise would have.
Mega Man V (1994)
Robot Masters: Sunstar, Terra, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Neptune, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, Uranus
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
After four entries that were derived in large part from their console predecessors, Capcom’s Game Boy Mega Man series moved into uncharted waters with Mega Man V. The new title, again developed by Minakuchi Engineering, features no levels or robot masters drawn from previous games. Instead, it includes an entirely unique plot and bosses inspired by the Milky Way’s planets.
At the outset, Mega Man is badly defeated by a new foe named Terra and is outfitted with a new weapon called the Mega Arm. This replaces his Mega Buster in appearance (it fires a fist projectile), but is mechanically indistinguishable. Dr. Light also designs a new assistant character, a cat named Tango, to accompany Mega Man on his new adventure. With these updates, the player is set free to challenge eight new robot masters in any order.
After defeating these space-based “Stardroids,” one on each planet of the Milky Way, Mega Man has to battle his way through all four Mega Man Killer bosses from the earlier Game Boy games. Only after doing this is he able to fight Dr. Wily. The sinister scientist is not this game’s final opponent, however, bucking almost a decade of tradition. Dr. Wily is instead betrayed by Sunstar, a solar-oriented robot, who takes the fight to Mega Man after Wily is defeated. After Sunstar is beaten, Mega Man and Wily escape the space station and return to Earth.
Though this would be the last Mega Man title published on the Game Boy, it was not intended to be the character’s last adventure on Nintendo’s portable hardware. Instead, a colorized version was planned for 1998 alongside Link’s Awakening DX and Wario Land II. Unfortunately, this upgraded port was unceremoniously shelved and the game would remained confined forever to the Game Boy’s monochromatic palette.
Mega Man (1995)
Robot Masters: Bright Man, Napalm Man, Star Man, Stone Man, Wave Man, Toad Man
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
Bizarrely, a single Mega Man game was published by U.S. Gold on the Sega Game Gear platform in North America. The title would suggest a remake of the original NES entry, but this is not the case. Instead, studio Freestyle would develop a peculiar amalgamation of Mega Man 2, Mega Man 4, and Mega Man 5.
In a manner similar to its Game Boy forebears, Mega Man (1995) offers four stages and accompanying robot masters for the player to work through in any order – these include Stone Man, Napalm Man, Bright Man, and Star Man. After defeating each robot master and acquiring his power, Mega Man is able to visit the castle of Dr. Cossack; this is, of course, the same Dr. Cossack who had appeared in Mega Man 4 (1992) on the NES. Humorously, the castle’s stages are actually just levels and boss fights with Toad Man and Wave Man from Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5, respectively. Following this, the player moves on to Dr. Wily’s castle; here, Mega Man must make his way through a recreation of Quick Man’s stage from Mega Man 2 and a brief two-room stage drawn from Mega Man 5 before a final confrontation with Wily.
As that description suggests, vast portions of this game appear to be underdeveloped. Sprites are badly drawn, and are sometimes over-colored due to the Game Gear having a more expansive palette than the source games’ native NES. Eddie and Beat have been excised from their roles in Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5, so powerups are just scattered in empty rooms where Eddie would be; rooms holding the letters that the player needed to collect to access Beat in Mega Man 5 are entirely empty, on the other hand. Because levels are drawn directly from NES games, rather than having visual elements adapted for the tighter screen space as had been done in the Game Boy games, Mega Man (1995) suffers from the same limited view that fans would encounter in the Game Boy Advance port of Mega Man & Bass (2003). This results in a largely unplayable, unpleasant experience.
The game would become something of a collector’s item, but was a creative dead end. No other Mega Man game were released on Sega’s portable platform, and U.S. Gold would not publish any other titles in the series.
Mega Man & Bass (1999)
Robot Masters: Dangan Man, Konro Man, Aircon Man, Komuso Man, Clock Men (!), Compass Man, Mega Man Shadow
Soundtrack Link (YouTube)
This is an even stranger entry. It was never published outside of Japan and seems to have originated as a port of the SNES’ Mega Man & Bass (1998), so it wouldn’t normally merit inclusion on this list, but it’s too weird not to mention. Mega Man & Bass (1999) was published by Bandai on the Wonderswan portable device in Japan; Capcom had evidently lent the character to this publisher for the purposes of bolstering a weak release-window Wonderswan game lineup.
Narratively, it functions as a direct sequel to the SNES game from the preceding year. The player takes the role of Mega Man or Bass in stopping a group of time-traveling robot masters called The Dimensions from ravaging the peaceful Symphony City. These enemies are led by Rockman (Mega Man) Shadow, a Wily prototype designed to be an evil version of Mega Man. The robot masters themselves are among the series’ most eccentric, as they include one wielding paper fans, one inspired by a Japanese monk, and one resembling an oven.
Mechanically, the game is quite unique as well. It features the Wonderswan’s vertical mode – players could switch from playing in standard landscape format to a novel portrait layout when needed – though this element only appears in a single stage. More notoriously, the robot masters have no weaknesses to specific powers. The player still acquires weapons from defeated bosses, and can tackle the six robot master stages in any order, but the acquired abilities don’t have any particular efficacy against enemies; they simply alter the spread or delivery of Mega Man’s attack.
Like the Game Gear’s Mega Man (1994), this entry ended up as something of a one-off. No other titles were published on Bandai’s Wonderswan and the hardware itself rapidly faded away, done in by the ubiquity of Nintendo’s Game Boy and Game Boy Color. The game itself was not considered to be especially effective, as the vertical portion was plainly a gimmick and the controls were less responsive than players had come to expect in their Mega Man games. When a direct port of Mega Man & Bass was published on the Game Boy Advance in 2003, this quasi-sequel was not even mentioned.
None. Since the portable Mega Man series could itself be considered something of a spin-off from the console Mega Man series, this isn’t surprising.
What do you think? Which is your favorite portable Mega Man game? How do they compare to their console cousins? Do you like the unique Mega Man Killer bosses? Would you recommend these titles, are are they for completionists only? Discuss!