It shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been popular. Oh I don’t mean because the game sucks, far from it. I’m talking about the giant elephant in the room that comes up whenever the first Mega Man game is brought up. Here take a look:
I’ve been looking at this box art for over 20 years now and I still think WTF when I see it
Seriously what the hell? How in god’s name did someone actually think that actually got the point across? That Mega Man went on to become one of the most popular gaming icons of all time speaks volumes about the quality of the games he stars in.
Mega Man was released in 1987 and immediately stood out from the pack. There were plenty of platformers at that point, but none of them imbued their main character with as much character as the blue bomber. Nearly every aspect of his character shows through in his sprite. When he attacks his arm morphs into his cannon and even during his normal walking animation you can see the determination on his face. When he gets hit you can see him wince in pain. And he blinks! Such small details, but they added so much. The bosses you face also exhibit the same level of polish and truly are characters unto themselves.
Mega Man innovated in nearly every aspect starting with the stage select screen. The ability to select which boss to tackle first was so awesome at the time, and even to this day trying to figure out the best boss order is an awesome rush. There have been plenty of games that have used this mechanic since then, but the Mega Man series still remains the only one in which the order you tackle the levels affects how challenging the game is. It also served as a great replay value incentive, as you could play the game and tackle the levels in different order every time. The non linear level select is one of THE best elements of the franchise.
The biggest innovation came from gaining a boss’s weapon after defeating them. This was mind-blowing for the time. That would have been enough to push the game (and series) into god tier status, but was taken a step further. Each boss was weak to a specific weapon. The possibilities here were just incredible; you looked forward to fighting a boss just to see if a weapon you had just obtained would completely decimate them in seconds. Finding the optimal order to breeze through the game became the goal. Many games gave you power-ups but they always paled in comparison to what the bosses possessed. Now you got to use them. It was like a childhood dream come true and would become a hallmark of the series.
You see that? You get to do that too after beating them.
All of these gameplay innovations would not have amounted to much if the level designs were terrible but the stages shined just as bright as the play mechanics. Every level followed the boss’s “theme” and informed the enemies and obstacles you would face. From the enemies to the traps they all fit. The weapons you received sometimes also came into play while traversing the levels and also helped you obtain other power ups, further emboldening you to figure out the best order to take out the robot masters.
This particular installment in stark contrast to the rest of the series is freakishly hard. A part of it comes from being the first in the series so properly adjusting the difficulty would have been challenging. But frequent spike pits, bottomless pits, etc. don’t help. A lot of the enemies take away large chunks of life; in particular the Big Eye’s that guard the entrance to every boss. And speaking of bosses, while it is nice that you can tackle them whenever you want, the truth is for this specific installment, outside of 1 or 2 you will get murdered trying to fight the rest without exploiting their weakness. The difficulty ramps up even further in Wily’s castle. I doubt most gamers that have played the game in its heyday made it past the Yellow Devil. And he’s the first frickin boss!
You will learn to hate this mofo and all he represents. What would that be? The steel toed boot crushing your dream of seeing the end of this game.
The last stage has an insane boss rush, one that requires near perfect execution to stand a chance. There is no down time between each boss to refill your life or weapon meters; you face the next one right away. It’s funny when I look back, my elementary school started at 9 so we would go over to a friend’s house and try to finish a variety of different games before leaving, with this being one of the most frequent targets. We were eventually good enough to make it to Wily’s fortress in about an hour but that damn Yellow Devil was the brick wall we couldn’t tear down.
For those that like a good challenge or would just like to see the roots of the Mega Man series this still remains a fantastic game that will keep you occupied for few hours if not even longer and is definitely deserving of its classic status.