Thanks to edits from Cart Boy and NantenJex.
The structure of the Mega Man games, Capcom’s long running and long suffering action / shooter / platforming series, is nigh flawless. A cherubic robot boy has to fight his way through a cadre of thematically unique bosses, the Robot Masters, in any order the player desires. After beating all eight (six in the first game), he goes through a final stage, possibly fighting the bosses again, blow up some sort of giant robot or dragon, and win. It’s a satisfying formula, one that’s powered ten mainline games, six spin offs, an unofficial rock group, and an obscene plethora of MIDI remixes of its iconic rock tracks. Mega Man is one of the most iconic franchises of the NES for a reason, and not just because of how many games there were on the machine; it was a popular and captivating structure. A more traditional difficulty curve is shunted in favor of providing more player choice and direction, all oriented around a series of deadly, memorable battles. And I’d like to dive into one specific aspect of those fights I believe tie together all these disparate elements.
So, one of the first things you see when playing traditional Mega Man is usually something like this:
You’ve got eight baddies orbiting around a generic single image, which tells you everything you need to know. You’re surrounded by foes – visually identifiable, striking, and imposing ones at that – and the struggle against those foes will be the primary engine driving the game. If there is some kind of organization among them that makes you inadvertently prioritize some over others, you can’t easily see it.
Now, the lack of a strict order is itself a very good concept. Mega Man makes no pretense of following a strict difficulty curve – its stages often oscillate wildly in how tough they are without telling you – and it’s on the player to find the path of least resistance. You have a limited number of lives, but it’s less irritating here than in other games; it only forces you back to the start screen (after giving you a code to register what you’ve found or beaten) to try again, or another level at your leisure. The amount of choice is satisfying on its own merits.
However, I feel this would be a largely extraneous system – one whose lack of a real difficulty curve would be felt far worse – without one addition, specifically the system in which defeating a boss rewards you with their main weapon as a tool to use. That’s what ties each part of Mega Man together. It’s why the formula works, even though the franchise itself became stale as the sequels kept coming out in a conga line. Some of the later sequels and spinoffs played with this to varying degrees of extremes and success, but I’d prefer to focus on the formula as it is.
The first value from this is the most basic one: you have an immediate, clear form of empowerment. Each new weapon gives you a new way to fight, but more importantly, it’s a new weapon from and representing the last main opponent you had. Mega Man is notorious for an exacting difficulty, with the bosses representative of the trials players face in them. The Ice Slasher, Gemini Laser, and Bubble Lead aren’t just potential new tools; they’re trophies you’ve dodged, earned, and finally can use yourself. They’re also pretty powerful, often doing more damage than your basic Mega Buster and with an attack pattern that can hit certain enemies far more easily.
In addition, it also works as a satisfying form of progression. You keep them when you die; even in the iterations before Capcom introduced saving, that progression code makes losing your lives far less terrifying than in Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Castlevania. No matter how hard each successive stage is, you’ll always have those tools at your disposal. It’s much more elegant a solution than an elaborate skill tree or experience points, giving you something clear and direct.
That more focused depiction is furthered in a visual sense, with Mega Man’s colors changing to fit each new tool: green and grey for the Leaf Shield, brown and yellow for the Ring Boomerang, purple and pink for the Shadow Blade. This lets players remember what tool they’re using without having to go into the menu, but it also gives the weapons just a bit more identity of their own. Mega Man’s dark-on-light blue color scheme is iconic and visually strong, and switching it up with other colors only highlights how good his original design is. Befitting the character’s Astro Boy origins, there’s a Shōnen and superhero quality to it, and the alternate color schemes inadvertently bring to mind a long-running action hero changing or adapting his colors for the times.
Each weapon also runs on ammunition, which provides a new element of choice and challenge. You can’t just exploit a more powerful attack without a cost, especially since it could be the thing that makes or breaks the boss battle at the end of the stage. You replenish energy through items occasionally dropped by foes that refill whichever weapon you’re “wearing,” so using your new tools isn’t discouraged, but you’re meant to walk a fine line between experimentation and preservation. Some people (i.e. me) may end up just using the Mega Buster out of a fear of running out of ammo, but the game does account for players who want to explore the mechanics.
And while I think the symbolic element is ultimately more valuable, certainly the greatest mechanical value they have comes from a twist, that each Robot Master has a weakness for another Robot Master’s weapons, and exploiting it element can make punishing battles easier. Bosses are deliberately made stronger or weaker than each other to push you just a little into finding the “best” path, but this means that victory can greatly help you down the line. It also makes replaying stages more interesting, which is helpful because thanks to that level of difficulty, you’re likely to be doing a lot of that.
This is not to say the system is perfect, at least in practice. With so many different weapons, all of which need to be visually and mechanically distinct, it has been easy for Capcom to fall into a trap of them being horribly unbalanced – the Hyper Bomb from the first game is notoriously poor, for instance. Sometimes this works in its favor, a standout example being when the franchise’s most memorable final boss can only be harmed by the most infamously weak weapon in the game. And a lack of parity isn’t itself a problem; weaker attacks can have benefits unique to them, like a different movement pattern or the ability to hit a far-off enemy. It can, however, dim the appeal of actually getting these new tools. In addition, as the adventure nears its end and players start taking down Robot Masters at a greater pace, the new tools can feel more superfluous. The final levels – often with a gauntlet against the Robot Masters, fighting all of them a second time one after the other – gives some chance for more experimentation, but it can be less satisfying.
But on the whole, all of the predominant mechanics of Mega Man work together from the notion of these weapons. Going through stages at the player’s whim becomes more exciting with a brand new toy to test out. Taking a boss’s main tool as their own pushes the iconography of both, elevating them in the minds of fans. Even the final bosses become more exciting, with some carrying weaknesses for one specific weapon. Without them, Mega Man might only be a stunted difficulty curve, but they justify and empower the structure, design, difficulty, and attitude of the series. To an extent, they give it a bite that’s served it and Capcom well for decades.