Sunday, March 7, 2010

Megamania look - Megaman 1

With every classic videogame series there's always that humble first game. It's usually not the best of the series and it's clear that there's either major issues or ideas that just haven't been perfected yet. The ideas are there at least and everything is in place to deliver an excellent game eventually. Megaman 1 is the purest example of this ideology.

The Megaman series is rife with standards and tropes that have become a part of nearly every game. To start off the player chooses from eight robot masters to face off against. Okay strike that in this game at least there are only six(The PSP remake known as Powered Up adds two new robot masters at least). All of them are based on everyday things only now they're associated with deadly robots. Cutman fights with what looks to be boomerang scissors, Elecman fights with electricity, Fireman uses fire, and well you get the idea. After choosing a robot master the player goes through a stage based around whatever the robot represents so expect lots of slipping around in Iceman's stage as well as lava to play in during Fireman's stage.

The structure of each stage for at least the first six games is very straight-forward. There are horizontally scrolling areas broken up by one-room sections where the player climbs a ladder or something so it's not just one straight line to the boss. There's one mid-level checkpoint and another before the boss. These stages can include any or all of the following:

-A variety of different enemy robots to destroy. These robots can leave behind powerups that restore health/energy or even 1ups.
-Bottomless pits
-Spikes on the floor, ceilings, and walls. These are always instant-death to the touch.
-Some stage-specific gimmick like disappearing blocks, some kind of moving platform, and so on.
-Parts of the stages either recommend or require a special item. Megaman 1 has one in the form of the ability to create platforms for crossing large gaps or climbing vertical shafts when a ladder isn't within reach.

At the end of the stage the player will face off with the boss who always has a certain pattern to their attack. At this point the player can choose to fight with their regular weapon(or Mega-buster as it's usually called) or they can use the weapon the boss is weak towards to end the battle quickly. In Megaman every robot master that Megaman destroys will give him a weapon. All of these weapons require energy to use and are useful depending on the scenario and application. More often than not however these weapons are used on bosses that are weak towards them. It's a great system since more skilled players will fight without weapons as the mega-buster is decent enough for any situation. After defeating all of the robot masters Megaman will enter Dr. Wily's lair which is another four or so stages. There are also bosses at the end of these stages and even a final encounter with every robot master towards the very end. Unlike prior stages these masters are all fought one after another with maybe an item to replenish some health in-between. Of course since the player has all of the weapons they're more than capable of making short work of everyone.

Megaman himself has also gone relatively un-changed for every game. Though he gets a handful of moves in the sequels he's most dependent on the basics like running and jumping. His jump is of the standard "tap to hop/hold to jump higher" variety and he can't speed up like Mario or some other platformer characters. He can't duck and his mega-buster fires three shots at a time. For all intents and purposes Megaman is perfectly designed as far as controls go. The levels are designed around these basic actions and transitioning from moving to jumping to shooting is flawless.

So now that all of the boring stuff is out of the way let's talk about the first game. I hate to say it but this one just isn't any good. There are many problems that range from level design to the boss battles. However let's start off with the most apparent flaw. Why is there a score? This has always struck me as the most bizarre aspect of the first game. Here we have a game where each stage can be replayed an infinite number of times. The person with the highest score is always going to be the one who has absolutely nothing better to do. Furthermore there are even items that add to the score at the end of each stage. I'd rather have healing items drop than these useless things. It never really made sense in Super Mario World and in other similar games, though at least those had some benefit for scoring(it served as a means to an end when you jumped on enough bad guys to get a 1up y'know like: 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000?, 8000, 1up). Getting a highscore in Megaman 1 is worth nothing. Thankfully this was ditched in all of the sequels though it would re-appear in some form for spin-offs like the Megaman Zero series.

Really though that's just nitpicking compared to the very poor level design. Megaman 1 is very repetitive and it just doesn't make any sense. There are some very clever situations to challenge the player like jumping between platforms that fire bullets but there are a few areas that are simply carbon copies of prior sections but with maybe a new enemy or an additional power-up. The structure is also poor most of the time. For example in Gutsman's stage the hardest section is at the very beginning. There are these moving platforms that fall when crossing certain sections of the belt they're attached to. Once the player figures those out the rest of the level is extremely easy in comparison. The worst part about these challenging sections is that the game never really does anything with them. Once the player successfully gets past one particularly challenging section they'll most likely never have to deal with it in the future. What we've grown to expect from these games is that we'll see certain sections again but with more enemies, less platforms, or some other obstacle to give the area an extra challenge so the game can keep up with the knowledge and skills we've acquired while playing.

The one standard that holds true for all Megaman games is that trial and error plays no small part in getting through them. Learning the patterns to bosses, escaping the toughest traps, and surviving anything usually comes down to dying until the player gets it right. Death is never any huge punishment as the stages take about 5 minutes to beat anyway and over time the player will eventually be able to master each stage to the point where they never die and possibly won't take damage at all. Thus new challenges and different ways of handling every situation should be a constant in every Megaman game. This is where the first title truly falls apart as the level design just doesn't hold up in terms of challenge or creativity. It's not all bad though as some situations allow for the player to use weapons to bypass obstacles. For example the trickiest part of the Iceman stage can be almost entirely avoided by using the item that creates platforms. Furthermore jets of fire in Fireman's stage can be frozen with the ice weapon for easier progress. Still at times it's obvious these ideas were still in their infancy as a lot of them crop up again in the Wily Stages to serve as glorified keys.

The other major flaw is in the boss-fights. While these robot masters have patterns they either do too much damage or too many attacks are unavoidable for the player to do nothing but use whatever weapon the boss is weak towards. This makes the boss-fights come off as one-dimensional as some weapons can kill a boss in three hits. These same bosses can also kill Megaman in three or four hits. Sure one could take the chance using only the mega-buster but with odds like that it's not worth the hassle. Heck with a boss like Fireman I'm not sure how anyone can expect to dodge his relentless waves of fire.

On the bright side this game gets practically everything else right. Megaman controls spectacularly as he has just the right amount of momentum to make the trickiest jumps and while he can't jump his small-size provides enough room to dodge attacks. This game also manages to remain a fairly decent challenge to the very end even if the stage design becomes predictable although this might be more due to certain bosses than anything.

Regardless everything is definitely in place to create a good or even great game. All that needs to be done is to work out the problematic areas and sure enough Megaman 2 arrived and in most respects it's a class act. I'll get to that one later.

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