Happy Birthday Mega Man! is a three part editorial on how Mega Man changed my life as a gamer. The Blue Bomber has a special place in many a gamer’s heart and I am no exception. All my work this week is dedicated to that little blue robot who showed me what I could do if I never gave up.
My love of Mega Man didn’t start at the same time it did for most kids. I got to see a friend play Mega Man 2 at one point, but he was one of those pals that always had a game to show off but never gave you a turn. You’d think I would have made better friends by the time Mega Man 3 came around, but I was still only a spectator to the Blue Bomber. It was only when I talked my parents into a weekend rental of Mega Man 4 that I got my first taste of the game. I don’t know how your first time went, but for me that first taste was bitter.
I wasn’t very good at games at that point. My eight year old reflexes hadn’t gotten me to the princess in Super Mario Bros, and hit a brick wall when I fought two Abobos in the forest in Double Dragon. I was a capable player at best, and I was not prepared for just how hard Mega Man 4 stomped me. It didn’t matter what stage I picked; I was met with relentless resistance from a force that had been specifically designed to beat me down. After having watched my friends make their way to the bosses with ease, I just wanted to see that boss door. If I could just manage to make it to one of those doors then I could return the rental with pride.
I only ever made it to one door in Skull Man’s stage, and walking through showed me just how little I’d managed to accomplish. Skull Man has a pattern that I know quite well these days, but at the time he seemed to be a clairvoyant juggernaut, barreling into me and countering all of my shots with his shield. I’m sure he cleaned out a lot of players at the time, as the addition of the Mega Buster had made the regular shots just about useless against big enemies. For me, it was just one more thing I couldn’t keep track of in a series of frantic fights that chewed through the few lives I’d managed to limp to the room with.
But I’d made it to the door, just like I’d wanted to. I might not have been able to kill what was beyond it, but I’d made it.
That was probably my first taste of real accomplishment in a video game. I’d been playing them for years by the time I’d gotten around to Mega Man 4, but had never had much luck with them. At best, I would goof off for a little while until I met real, hard resistance. At that point, I usually just gave up. Games were becoming a lot like sports for me in those days, the sort of activity that I just wasn’t built to be very good at. Games were just too hard after a while, and I didn’t really feel like having something else in my life that I had no skill at. I still played them to have fun, but unless they were easy I never put much effort into them.
I accomplished what I set out to do in my short time with Mega Man 4, though. I’d actually wanted to succeed despite the game’s merciless nature. It might have been the fact that I’d wasted one of my precious few weekend rentals, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there is something about the Mega Man games, a careful balance of difficulty and fun that rarely occurred in the NES era. Many of the games of the time were hard, but few of them ever felt hard in a way that felt fair. There are some challenging spots in Mega Man that I dread to this day, but not to the same degree as the birds in Ninja Gaiden. Mega Man was challenging without being sadistic, always spurring you on to greater heights without arbitrarily making it harder. When I died in Mega Man, I could always tell you what I should have done right.
It was months later when I saw Mega Man 4 on sale for fifteen bucks at a Blockbuster video. I didn’t have enough money on me at the time, and had to endure an agonizing two weeks while I saved up my allowance. I was almost shaking on the way to the store, afraid that someone had swooped in and bought it since I’d left. It was still there, though, and I was soon taking the game home with me. I popped it in the system a few hours later, then took it out a few times to uselessly blow on it before I was back in the action. The game came flooding back to me as if I’d only been playing it days before, and it wasn’t long before I was falling onto spikes, missing jumps over pits, and getting steamrolled by Skull Man all over again.
I kept pushing, though, and found that I could make it to other bosses with a lot less difficulty. Toad Man was a fun first victim for a new player, although it was hard to contend with all of those stupid waterfalls. Fighting him was like beating up on kindergarten kids to make yourself feel better after getting picked on by the school bully. All he did was kind of jump around the room, praying you’d stop hitting him. It was a small, crummy victory, but I savored it as if I’d just beaten Ghosts N’ Goblins without losing a life. A win was a win, after all.
I won’t lie, I laughed a little bit when I got the Rain Flush ability. I probably shouldn’t have laughed that much since it’s a pretty sweet power. It let me kill just about everything on screen, and since I didn’t have to aim it I could use it on tricky enemies that would only move into shooting range at around the same time they were going to knock me off a cliff. (It was nothing compared to Metal Blades, but that’s something I wouldn’t find out for months.) It softened the game up a little bit, and started to teach me an important lesson about how these games work.
Mega Man is about gaining that first foothold. You might have to play for hours and try out every stage a few times to find it, but once you do then you can start making progress. Not every power is obviously helpful or well-programmed, so you’ll hit a few duds along the way, but even those flawed powers work on the bosses. Even the most stupid, useless ability would do extra damage against the boss enemies of each area, and figuring out the best way to tackle the stages you had to play through was just another part of the game.
In some other games I played, you had the same skills on the opening screen as you did at the ending. You might be able to grab a power-up or two along the way, but fundamentally, nothing about what I was doing would change all that much. Mega Man handed out powers that could turn the whole game on its head. The Rain Flush was one of those powers for me, since it let me skirt through sections I wasn’t quite skillful enough to sneak through on my own. It gave me that tiny boost I needed to keep going, and since it was placed in the hands of one of the easiest enemies, I think Capcom knew it too. They seemed to be helping me out on purpose.
Now, I knew about boss weaknesses from watching my friends play, but I had no experience with Mega Man 4. Still, water and electricity didn’t seem like they would mix, so I went after Bright Man next. That was a ghastly mistake, and while I enjoy the weird mix of enemies and platforming when I play the stage now, I hated it back when I first played it. The level may as well have been one huge pit for how many times I went tumbling down into its deep caverns. This was when I became aware of how much I panic when around instant-death hazards, making stupid mistakes that cost me the few lives I’d scrounged up.
I gave up on his level, and would eventually have to give up on Dust Man, Drill Man, Ring Man, and Pharaoh Man. I didn’t even try Skull Man. His powers had grown to mythical size, where he moved with an impossible grace that let him intercept and beat anything I tried to do. I wasn’t even thinking about going up against that again, and wouldn’t for a very long time. That only left Dive Man, and I selected his stage feeling a little defeated. If this guy beat me, I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
Images courtesy of gamefaqs.com