Mega (Drive) Man or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Blue Bomber

MMA1

As technology embraces platform agnosticism, the term ‘format war’ has become increasingly archaic. The last generation of video games emphasized this beautifully where, for all the differences in silicon between PS3 and Xbox 360, the games were fundamentally indistinguishable to the casual observer. This trend continues as the new generation brings broadly similar hardware together, with only a shift in emphasis or, whisper it, marketing vim to separate the competition. No, the great format wars are in the past, consigned to history’s out-tray alongside terms like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘economic growth’.

Yet what battles they were. The software catalogue between Sega and Nintendo were as different as Club 18-30 and Saga Bus Tours, though with fewer hangovers and less venereal disease. This profound contrast drew our battle lines. We were Napoleon, we were France: arcade games were our Austerlitz, role-playing our Waterloo and platformers the Western Front. For every sortie led by Sonic and ably assisted by Sparkster or Ristar, there was a counterattack by Samus Aran or even the general himself, Mario. Nintendo’s storm trooper amongst all this had been loyal since Spaceballs graced cinema screens, whether you called him Rockman or Mega Man was irrelevant, what counted was which controller you held when you played his games. That controller invariably said ‘Nintendo’.

For any decorated Sega veteran of the early 1990s Mega Man was Nintendo alright. Not Mario-Nintendo, nor Kirby-Nintendo, but more Nintendo than Ice Climbers or Pit. It may say ‘Capcom’ on the box and the title screen, but the Blue Bomber was so close to Nintendo you could probably find him in a Kyoto tea house bankrolled by Shigeru Miyamoto’s expenses account. For many, Mega Man had simply been bundled-up in a mental box labelled ‘Nintendo’ and ear marked as an experience unlived for a single format household, as most were. Yet in 1994 here he was, appearing on the Mega Drive, slipping in like a double agent. How could you trust such a duplicitous swine?

At the time of Mega Man: The Wily Wars’ western release the 32X had burned half as bright, lasting a tenth as long, and the Saturn had wheezed onto, and remained upon, the shelves. In a world of polygons by the hundreds of thousand and colours by the million, it was hard to see the relevance of a re-skinned title originally developed when its 48 colours – six of them grey – was the de facto standard. Hindsight is wonderful, it reminds us of our ignorance and foolishness. How ignorant and foolish I was.

You have read the clichés about the precise controls, the demanding timing and how deeply tricksy the level design could be. This is as true on the NES as on the far more powerful Mega Drive. Granted, the graphics have had a cosmetic overhaul worthy of a budding Playboy model, yet more important are the ‘improvements’ that were omitted. In 1987 Mega Man could not duck, neither could Alex Kidd so it mattered not, yet in 1991 Sonic overhauled the platform genre and, by The Wily Wars’ 1994 release, such limitations seemed antiquated.

Given that The Wily Wars was, at heart, new versions of the first three Mega Man titles, changes beyond the cosmetic may not be expected. However, subtle alterations were made in boss attack patterns, and an original section called Wily Tower was created. Obstinately the lack of a duck remained, more surprising is the NES sprite limit, allowing Mega Man a mere three bullets on-screen at once. The Mega Drive could have drowned the screen in a projectile torrent, yet the limit forces tactics on an otherwise adrenal experience. Similarly, the missing duck forces the player to use their slide to avoid damage, a skill needed for the bosses, the Robot Masters, while also forcing creativity on the level designers to create a rhythm of safe-zones within the levels. Even the flip-screen sections have a puzzle-like cadence in traversing the enclosed room. Scrolling would have interrupted this and shows that Mega Man’s brilliance lies in omission.

MMA2

All this effusive, ebullient praise ignores the pivotal feature, the difficulty curve, or rather, its non-existence. A standard challenge builds to a peak, supporting and rewarding the player through power-ups. Most commonly a ‘bullet sponge’ approach increases difficulty, rendering higher levels a near impossibility without enhanced abilities. However, Mega Man uniquely allows the player to choose the level order. Thus, each stage must be simultaneously the first and the last, approachable with anywhere between no Robot Master weapons, the spoils for level completion, or all of them. In short, the levels cannot merely rely on bullet sponges and power-ups for difficulty. Whilst designing such a level is Sisyphean, the payoffs are immense, creating a uniquely challenging title regardless of progress. You are good at Mega Man because you got good at Mega Man, not because you have upgraded your pixellated slaughter-pal.

Naturally this results in a starting difficulty pitched somewhat higher than Green Hill’s sub-30 second yomp, or Mario’s Goombacide. Consequently the generous continue system, which never robs the player of more than a single level’s progress, compensates wonderfully. Even a player failing more explosively than a Michael Bay film will always learn a little bit more, sharpening their skills that extra fraction and placing completion one step closer. This is a fundamentally different reward loop than, say, becoming Super Sonic. Even the extra difficulty of the final Wily Fortress levels operates within this framework. Here the player is asked to do ‘more’ with ‘less’, not ‘harder’ and ‘new’, as most games would.

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The NES’ limitations created a highly iterated, precisely honed experience without peer. Perhaps, like me, you ignored Mega Man because he was on ‘Team Nintendo’, or maybe you see him as a 1980s relic. That would be to willfully ignore a defining video game which resonates far beyond its host platform. Modern HD re-imaginings, spiritual successors of classic titles, and indie games steeped in 8- and 16-bit design all bare testament to the significance and brilliance of Kenji Inafune’s creation. To ignore that would be to miss out as completely as Elmer Fudd misses rabbit stew. Does anybody really want to be a hungry Elmer Fudd?

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