One Giant Leap, 1987: Mega Man

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: evil scientist Dr. Wily meets his match in Mega Man

We’ve covered a lot of groundbreaking, innovative titles so far in this series. But obviously you don’t get one of those every single year. Sometimes, we won’t be covering revolutionary games. Sometimes, we’ll have the opportunity to talk about games simply because they’re good. And I can think of no better place to kick that off than with Mega Man. The Mega Man games are, for my money, the absolute best of the NES era. They’re the ones that require the least adjustment to palatable to a modern audience,1 they’re the ones that most define the NES aesthetic in retro throwbacks, they’re even the ones with the best soundtracks.

So what makes Mega Man so good? It all comes down to structure. Mega Man games have a somewhat unique structure; rather than being strictly linear, the player chooses which levels they want to tackle, and in what order. This gets interesting because each level’s boss (or “Robot Master” in the game’s parlance) drops a unique weapon when defeated, and each Robot Master is weak to one2 of the others’ weapons. Additionally, sometimes stages will have special feature that react to another stage’s weapon, such as the pillars of fire in Fireman’s stage that you can freeze with the Ice Slasher.

This serves two purposes. First, it gives players an outlet if they get stuck on a stage, or especially if they get stuck on a boss. Instead of continuously ramming yourself into a brick wall, why not try another stage? Maybe something in there will make the one you’re stuck on easier once you come back. But secondly, and in my opinion even more importantly, it forces these stages to play fair. Because any stage could theoretically be the player’s first, every stage has to be beatable with just your standard Mega Buster. Therefore, these powerups get to actually meaningfully raise your power relative to the stages. If you have even one you’re stronger than the Mega Man the stage was balanced for. So unlike some games with upgrades, where things get harder at the same rate the player gets more powerful and you’re just on a treadmill the entire time, in Mega Man you really get to enjoy the feeling of getting stronger.

Mega Man also has a strong structure on the micro level. Stages are broken up into discrete chunks, each separated by a screen transition. Maybe this was for technical reasons, to give later parts of the level time to load, but like many great games they build a strong design that turns this potential weakness into a strength. The game treats each of these chunks as a mini-level into itself, and then combines chunks to iterate on ideas or to provide a changeup where necessary. This results in a much more focused experience than the free-wheeling levels of something like Super Mario Bros.

For instance, Ice Man’s stage starts with some left-to-right jump and shooting, mixing that up by adding water and flying penguin enemies with strange sin wave movement patterns, but then hits a screen transition falling down a pipe. From here, we get one of the series’ famed disappearing block puzzles, with the pace of the level slowing way the hell down as the player has to sit and analyze something before advancing. Fitting the theme for this month, this isn’t groundbreaking or anything, simply a strong execution on what would eventually come to be a standard level design philosophy.

And that really sums up the legacy of Mega Man. It’s not likely to make a top 100 most influential games list any time soon, but it’s easily one of the best of its era. It’s a game that executes on the then-omnipresent jump ‘n shoot framework extraordinarily well. Even if NES games traditionally haven’t been for you I’d recommend giving the Mega Man series a look.

Stray Observations:

  • You can cheese the Yellow Devil boss by shooting it with the Thunder Beam, then pausing and unpausing a bunch while it’s hitting him. I strongly recommend that you do so; life’s too short to fight Yellow Devil straight-up
  • It can be kinda hard at times to talk specifically about Mega Man and not its sequels. This is a very iterative3 series, so in many ways Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 are just the first game, but better. They ditch superfluous elements like the score, expand on ideas like the magnet beam, and add entirely new mechanics like sliding.
  • The best Mega Man Classic song is MM2’s Wily Stage 1; we had a whole tournament about this and everything.

Other 1987 platformers of note:

1987 gave us the tough-as-nails run-n-gun game Contra, which is best known for its association with the famous Konami Code. Which, do kids today know about the Konami Code? I feel like it was a huge nerd culture in-joke through the end of the aughts, but then just kinda disappeared. Anyway.

We also got two divisive sequels to classic games, with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Both games would gain infamy for their obtuseness, even relative to the era, though they also have their defenders due to their relative uniqueness in their respective series.

Next Time: Does anyone else have a sudden urge to visit Universal Studios Hollywood? Since there’s a pandemic on, I guess we’ll do the next best thing and check out Super Mario Bros. 3