When I was nine years old, there were three kinds of videogames: those I liked, those I didn't and Mega Man. Entranced by its cartoon-world of toothy helicopters and robo-penguins, I did not expect the game to be so hard. I had to shoot things while hanging from ladders. I could never get hit on ledges, because Mega Man would recoil in such a large spasm that he'd fall into any abyss. And the stages were so long. Now, I could've put up with these things if I only had to think about one butt-kicking level at a time. But as soon as I pushed the start button, I had to think about six levels. At once.
Capcom's little blue robot made me angry, rapt, sweaty, lovesick, disoriented, thrilled, frightened, and most of Snow White's seven dwarves. Taking the game back to the video store was a relief; no longer did I have to untangle a writhing wormball of emotions whenever I thought about robots. Yet, part of me was sad, too. Mega Man was a good game; I just needed to grow into it. I kept hearing the old man in Gremlins tell Billy Peltzer, "Someday, you may be ready." It's taken me a decade and a half, but I finally am ready to tackle Dr. Wily's minions again. With the advent of a new Mega Man retrospective, the wait has been well worthwhile.
The Mega Man Anniversary Collection celebrates the Blue Bomber's 15th birthday (though by my count he's old enough for a driver's license and to see an R-rated movie by himself), and it's one of the most ambitious re-releases I've seen. All of Mega Man's adventures are crammed into one disc, with enough room left over for unlockable extras (and for less than $30, too). I hope Nintendo and its Super Mario Advance parade are taking notes.
Mega Man's story is a simple one. In Monsteropolis, in the year 200X, our hero and his brothers are built by Dr. Light. But Light's evil assistant Dr. Wily reprograms Mega Man's siblings for his own ends, and now it's time to kick some shiny metal ass. With only a plasma gun, Mega Man must save the city the only way he knows how: by committing lots of armed robbery. Each of the renegade robots has his own special weapon; whenever Mega Man destroys one—yoink!—he takes that weapon for himself. Such Robin Hood-style kleptomania isn't unheard of in games, but it's unusually fundamental to Mega Man's gameplay. The protagonist uses his stolen arsenal against the other robots with proto-Pokémon strategy.
The way that strategy interacts with the game's overall structure separates Mega Man from most platform games, or indeed, from most games in general. It's not enough to know if Gutsman is weak to blades or bombs; players must use this knowledge to choose their path through the game. Mega Man doesn't immerse its players in game-induced tunnel vision, unlocking the next level only after the previous is completed. Instead, all of its main stages are open from the beginning. Players can pick off the Robot Masters in any order they want.
This choose-your-own-adventureness was what blew my mind as a child. Mega Man threw me into a sea of vicious robot-sharks and shouted, "Swim!" I'm a big girl now, but the game's smorgasbord of choices still overwhelms me. Where do I start? Does fire beat Plantman, or ice? And what the hell is a Tengu?
I can't blame Capcom for my ignorance. But do they have to exploit it so gleefully? Not only have they come up with Tera's Least Favorite Puzzle Ever; they've thrown it around like rice at a wedding. Blocks appear and disappear, and Mega Man must hop across them like a bunny while making sure the block he's standing on doesn't evaporate and send him crashing…usually into a pit of spikes. Even worse, this puzzle tends to occur in pairs. Many times after sweatily guiding Mega Man to solid ground I'd think, "Thank God I never have to do that ever—crap!"
Nevertheless, the Anniversary Collection's developers have done a lot to make the Mega Man series more kid- and novice-friendly. It has an Easy Mode, with fewer and weaker enemies. There's also a "Navi" mode where characters like Dr. Light and Protoman give helpful—if sometimes poorly translated—hints throughout. Mega Man's friends Eddie and Beat the bird can even point him in the right direction. Players can give themselves three or five lives to start with. Plus, the disc can save to a memory card, eliminating the need for pesky passwords. (Mega Man purists can forgo saving and use the passwords if they wish.) Call me a sissy, but I welcome these changes with open arms.
I wish the developers hadn't messed with the controls, though. In the original Mega Man, as in every other Nintendo Entertainment System platformer on earth, the A button jumps and the B button fires. This is the natural order of things. But in the GameCube version of the Anniversary Collection I played (the GameCube version!) the "jump" and "fire" buttons are reversed. Why? Maybe the developers thought the button-switch would be more comfortable for players who cut their teeth on games like The Ocarina of Time where the A button really does fire. Or maybe they're just not very nice. In any case, I spent some time jumping at enemies and shooting my way into pits before getting used to the change.
Perhaps the biggest change in the Anniversary Collection is its boatload of extras. I like unlockable extras in videogames, and I thought the Anniversary Collection's DVD-style bonus features were perfect for a "special edition" retrospective. It has an interview with Mega Man's creator Keiji Inafune, as well as storyboard drawings of him and his fellow robots. But I wanted more. My insatiable nostalgia craved TV commercials or perhaps a Mega Man-themed episode of Captain N: The Game Master, but I never got them. Instead, I unlocked remix after remix of Mega Man tunes. They were very well done; still, why were they sequestered in a room marked "Secrets"? I would've much rather had them incorporated into the games so I could listen to them while I played. Still, these are greedy complaints, ones that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the games. And aren't the games what Mega Man's legacy is about?
I can't thank Capcom and Atomic Planet enough. They've let me into a world I wasn't developmentally ready for 15 years ago, but which still makes me feel like a kid again. I always knew I'd come back to Monsteropolis someday. Thanks for waiting, Mega Man.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.