A Perfect Bombing Mission
Thoughts on How to Make a Great Mega Man Game
Having steadily worked my way through the Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. series, I have developed this feeling that putting together the perfect game for the Blue Bomber is as much luck as it is craft. There are so many games in the series, many of which try and find new features to add in (to varying levels of success) that, clearly, it's hard to think up solid, new ideas for the series that don't somehow also detract from the overall package. Even just going back to the basics of the series is a trick that can only be pulled once, by Mega Man 9 (as Mega Man 10, a game that's good but not nearly as amazing, proved). So what makes a good Mega Man game?
It's a question I've honestly thought about for a while now, which surprises me because when I think about all the fandoms I'd actually ascribe to, Mega Man wasn't one that would have crossed my list. I like the games just fine, mind you, but I only played a couple of them growing up (as they came out) and never felt any big urge to collect them all. I was much more into Castlevania and TMNT than I ever was the adventures of the Blue Bomber, and yet I've written more articles about Mega Man than I may have for any subject outside Castlevania (of which I've done a detailed fan site, rewrote that fan site, and have had a long-running web comic about that series for over 17 years now). Clearly there's some love about the series on my end even if I didn't realize it.
So having looked at all the main series has to offer (and, on my own time, poking around at the various spin-offs) I think I have enough knowledge about the subject to take a stab at figuring out just what is required for a good Mega Man game, and for starters, as should be obvious, the game has to be a 2D platformer. Most of the games in the series are (outside the occasional oddity like Mega Board or Mega Man Soccer, of which the less said about the latter, the better) but this still clearly has to be part of the equation. Mega Man Legends bore the name of the series, and had many familiar characters in it (versions of them, at least) but it never really felt like a proper Mega Man game to me; something was missing. While there was running and gunning, the key platforming sections that are baked into the core of the series were missing in this title. It was a good attempt at turning the Blue Bomber into a 3D adventure hero, but I'm going to state, with certainty, that a proper Mega Man game is 2D.
Other basics of the series that, at this point, are core to the franchise, also have to be included. Our hero (whether it be Mega Man, Protoman, Bass, or whoever else you want to include, and I have no problem with anyone else, like Roll, getting thrown into the mix) has to fight eight robot masters at the outset of the game. Some games, like the Game Boy iterations (due to screen constraints) and the SNES and PlayStation entries, tried to break up these eight robot masters, usually into groups of four and four, but I feel like this detracts from the core sense of discovery that comes from having all eight opening bosses unlocked right at the start. With only four (or, in Mega Man and Bass, three) available at the outset your options are limited and you're forced to play well within the rules of the game. If you want to do something weird, like Reverse Boss Order, you can't on any game that limits your opening options.
Plus, having the bosses broken up like this means you already have some clue about where to go and what the boss order might be. All eight provide a plethora of options, places to go and things to see without knowing if you're on the “right” path or not. That journey, the sense of discovery, is so important and any limit on it means you're already given hints. The game is making itself, in some way, easier for you, and even a cruddy player like myself (who really sucks at these games) finds that kind of limitation stifling.
Of course, the eight opening bosses have to be interesting. No more basic Fire, Ice, Earth, Water, on and on for the bosses as we've seen all these more times than we can count (and they were once again used in Mega Man 11). There's so much more than the basic elements to choose from, as great bosses like Strike Man, Charge Man, Snake Man, and Metal Man have shown, so why not try and think outside the box on these? And, while we're at it, not every Mega Man boss needs to be a “Man”. We already had Splash Woman and then... nothing? Why not work in a little more diversity? If nothing else, it might inspire more interesting bosses all around.
The weapons they give out also need to be useful. A solid Mega Man game needs to have one good projectile, something with decent ammo that flies straight and true. Another two could have a slightly shorter range but a cool effect, like a boomerang that flies back like Quick Man or Cut Man had, or something that flies out before breaking into smaller chunks, like Solar Man's weapon. A shield-type weapon is fine, like Junk Man's weapon, but make sure you don't auto-fire it off when you move (a hobbling factor on the Leaf Shield) and that you get more than one use from the shield before it vanishes (unlike Skull Man's shield). A lobbed weapon is fine, but it needs to have better utility, like a blade that bounces with a solid arc after hitting the ground. We'll also grant at least one movement type weapon, like the Top Spin or Charge Kick, as long as its use is intuitive and there's plenty of ammo for it to be useful. But please, stop giving us cruddy screen-clearing weapon that have no utility and hardly enough ammo to take out the boss weak to it.
Speaking on the matter of weaknesses, we need a return to the era when bosses has hard and soft weaknesses. This was an idea brought in with Mega Man 2, where most of the bosses were weak to a few items at varying levels of weakness. Mega Man 3 also incorporated it and baked this idea into its weakness order, having two separate weakness “circles” thereby forcing the player to use a soft weakness for the second circle as they bounced back and forth between bosses. That was a neat touch and it something the latter games haven't really messed with. Soft weakness encourage experimentation and make the player feel like they've discovered new aspects of the play experience.
If we want to go pie-in-the-sky, maybe even think about alternate boss forms. This isn't something the games have really done -- the closes is normal and hard mode versions of the same fight -- but it could be interesting to see variants of the same boss type (think Fire Man, Heat Man, and Flame Man) all in “slot” in a game. The game randomly selects which version of the boss to bring out and you have to adapt to them when you're in their stage. It also means there could be extra weapons to earn and, at a minimum, it means that some weapons will have varying effect on the alternate versions of the bosses (again, bringing in the idea of soft and hard weaknesses).
(Of course, if you really want to do a mode where all the various bosses, and stages, and weapons, from the previous games are mixed up and put into a giant compilation / randomizer mode, might I suggest developing the big Mega Man Collection I pitched a while back...)
Before we move on from the opening section of the game, it's also worth deciding what powers and abilities the hero(s) should have. There will be some that would say classic Mega Man is the only character worth keeping, and that he should be limited to running, jumping, and shooting, without any Mega Buster upgrades or the ability to slide. Whether we want to include some form of Rush (or the various items, super arrows, and super balls) is up for debate and could be decided upon with the levels created, but a base level of hero abilities should be determined. Personally, I like the slide/dash that some characters in the series have as it adds to speed play. But if we want to appease more people, I think including a versions of Mega from Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 5 would suit all players. If you the older one, without the slide, then the stages would take out any one-tile high slide zones so all characters are on the same footing. And, of course, Capcom could DLC in some bonus characters, like Mega Man X and Zero, to add some variety and spice. Honestly, I think seeing X and Zero in 8-Bit and having them find Light Capsule, getting their upgrades and everything else, in classic style would be darn amusing.
The stages themselves need to be lengthy but not arduous. Some of the games, like Mega Man 8 featured sub-bosses in every stage plus break-points at the halfway mark. Those stages generally felt long enough, especially if we don't force a sub-boss fight into every stage and ditch the loading zones at the halfway mark (a requirement of the disc-based games we don't have to worry about now). On that front, the best stages in the series also avoid forced auto-scrolling or weird vehicles sections. No one really cares for the shooting sections or snow boarding areas in Mega Man 8, and most of the auto-scrolling areas, either vertical or horizontal, are reviled.
If we're trimming out some of the arduous areas that bog down the games, let's also try to keep the focus on the stages themselves and not the secrets you might find within. Using the Mega Man X games as an example, some of the best stages in the series come from the early games when the focus was on doing “Mega Man” but in 16 bit graphics. At a certain point, though, the collect-a-thon aspects took over and the stages were less about the experience, the theme and the platforming and the challenge of navigating the whole path, and more about finding the nooks and crannies. There are some stages in those games where, if you ignore the collectibles, you can be done in a matter of seconds, not minutes. And Mega Man 7 was almost as bad with all its hidden bolts and Rush abilities buried in stages. We need to avoid that so while I'm not opposed to some hidden items, let's ensure that the main thrust of each stage is the thematic quest from point A to point B.
When it comes to the stages, what's important is that they each have a clear design aesthetic with a couple of neat traps inherent to their location. Think the top platforms from Top Man, the force beams from Flash Man, the shifting sands of Commando Man. Enemies should be styled accordingly but the stage theme and its traps should fit toe motif as well. One section should introduce the traps, then the back-half of the stage can reuse them but in a more difficult way (like adding death spikes or bottomless pits into the mix). And, of course, once Dr. Wily gets involved, his castle can use an even more difficult version of any of the traps (along with some new tricks as well).
Before we get to Dr. Wily, though, we need to talk about the mid-game. Some of the best entries in the series put as much thought into the mid-way point of the title as the end game. Think Mega Man 3 with the Doc Robot stages or Dr. Cossack from Mega Man 4. The mid-game in later entries was swapped out for a single level or boss encounter before the second set of four Robot Masters was unlocked, and then it was just ditched entirely in recent games. Having a proper, fleshed out mid-game feels like something we should resurrect, though, because it adds needed length to the game. Just bouncing immediately to Dr. Wily means that the end game is actually shorter than the first “half” of the title, but if we bring back Doc Robot, or put a mid-way fortress (or, hell, do both, with random Doc Robot bosses to fight each time), I think that would really enhance the overall package.
And then we get to Dr. Wily's fortress. This one needs to be more than just am amalgamation of the traps and ideas set forth before. While some reuse is fine, the best castles have featured fresh ideas and new settings. Think the vertical floating section from Mega Man 9 or the exterior scaling of the tower from Mega Man 2. It's good to challenge the players but also to show them new sights to make them feel like they're completing an epic journey. Most importantly, the stage length for the castle(s) should match that of the Robot Masters. Some of the games, like Mega Man 3, dropped the ball on this front and made Wily's Castle feel like an afterthought. We need to avoid this in our perfect Mega Man game.
And then we unlock a hard mode, and special bonus stages, and extra playthroughs. Gamers like bonus content.
So yeah, I think that's a pretty solid roadmap. It's certainly a better plan than some of the games have followed (looking at you, Mega Man 8). Maybe one day Capcom will put out a Mega Man 12 and come up with a plan as good as (or better) than this. Mega Man 11 had its moments, but as good as that came was it still lacked in some areas. Next time, a plan like this could make for the perfect continuation of the series.