Sorry, human race; I’ve decided to be reckless and run two Anatomy series at the same time. After speaking with Keiji Inafune this past week and hearing him talk about some of the early days of the original Mega Man, I got to thinking about the game’s design. And, well, that got me thinking about it… anatomically.
Mega Man was pretty unique in its time for the way it let you start on any one of six stages. There is no single “right” order in which to play Mega Man, though certainly some sequences prove to be more advantageous than others. But because you can go about jumping into this game however you like, each of the six Robot Master stages essentially has to work as the game’s first level. In other words, each has to convey the purpose and mechanics of the adventure.
As such, this series will vary a bit from the norm (and, god willing, will distinguish itself as a completely different project than Glass Knuckle’s formative work). Instead of going through the game on a level-by-level basis, I’m going to divide it instead into different thematic groupings or topics that span multiple levels. A non-linear anatomy, you could call it. For instance, in this first part, we’re going to look at the first area of each stage (basically, the first sequence until you scroll vertically) and how each reveals the workings of Mega Man in a different way… and how they encourage you to follow an ideal route.
The title screen
When you begin the game, you jump immediately to a level select screen. By default, the cursor sits on Cutman. If you don’t know any better, you’ll simply begin with Cutman, not realizing you can switch around until you finish the stage and your cursor defaults to an empty rectangle. As it happens, Cutman is indeed one of the least difficult levels of the game, so there’s a definite logic at work here. If you don’t “get” Mega Man, you’ll begin on a suitably introductory stage by default.
At the beginning of the game, Mega Man has an extraordinarily limited move set. He can run, jump, climb ladders, and shoot in two directions. That’s it. No ducking, no shooting upward, no sliding, no special moves. So in order to begin defeating stages and gain new abilities, you need to be able to best both an entire level and the boss at the end with this extremely basic set of skills.
Cutman is one of the less devastating bosses you can face in this game, and appropriately his level reflects his mild temperament. (It also gives a clue to his weakness right out of the starting gate, but you wouldn’t know about that the first time you play the game.) The stage begins with a series of structures whose roofs create a higher tier of platform running parallel to the ground. And, right away, you’re made to learn to climb ladders, as the brick blocks here block the path forward. You can’t simply run straight ahead; you need to fall back a short distance and climb the long ladder to the roof, using the high ground as a means to bypass the bricks.
Immediately after you begin scrolling the screen forward, a trio of little flying enemies called Bladers appear at varying heights. Generally, they’re arranged in such a way that they don’t fly at Mega Man’s height; in order to destroy them, you need to jump to hit them. If a Blader is below you – likely, given that you need to take to the rooftops here – the only way to take it on is to drop down to ground level and shoot it, or else exploit its movement pattern. Bladers will break from their forward motion in order to home in on Mega Man’s location with a quick, sharp movement, and with proper timing you can shoot them the instant before they hit him.
Further ahead, you need to leap over pits. These are pleasantly low-stress pits that you can jump easily, but they do demonstrate the reason it’s a bad idea to fall into empty holes.
Finally, the end of the first run of Cutman’s stage leads you to a dead end where a ladder is guarded by a pair of Beaks, wall-mounted turrets that open their indestructible shells to reveal a gun that fires a stream of five bullets at a gradually depressing angle. One of them is specifically set to hit you as you climb the ladder that leads up to where you can advance to the next area, which will reveal the fact that being injured while climbing causes Mega Man to lose his grip on a ladder and fall. You can also master the timing of hitting temporarily invulnerable foes here, as well as learn to evade weapons that fire at fixed intervals and set angles.
As a small bonus, the leftmost Beak demonstrates the way Mega Man’s bullets pass through walls. By climbing the ladder and firing at the Beak, you can safely destroy it from behind.
What you learn here: Ladder-climbing, blocks, leaping to deal with enemies at other heights, tactics for dealing with temporarily invulnerable enemies, firing through walls
What the design says: This ain’t so bad. Let’s kill Cutman.
In contrast to Cutman’s stage, Gutsman’s level is insanely hard unless you have the proper tools. It’s a short level, but intensely difficult. Curiously, though, Gutsman is one of the easiest bosses in the game; you can take him down with Mega Man’s default weapon, no trouble. Getting to him, however….
From the very beginning, Gutsman’s stage poses some advanced challenges. Here you face, for the first time, Mega Man‘s iconic Metool enemies. These guys hide beneath invulnerable hard hats and briefly emerge from their armor to fire at you. Unlike Beaks, though, Metools expose their weaknesses (their eyes) for about a second before dropping their helmets again – just long enough for you to shoot back, but you’ll only be able to hit them if you anticipate their action and fire right before they emerge. And then you need to leap immediately to avoid their bullets.
On the plus side, you can largely use the terrain to your advantage. The Metools are stationed on platforms of varying heights, invariably above you. Since you don’t stand directly in front of the, it’s not too tough to pass between the safe spots in their projectile spreads. The second Metool, however, is situated just far enough back from the edge of its platform that you have to leap onto its own level in order to trigger its attack – Metools remain hidden until you come within a certain range – forcing you to master the preemptive attack and leap combo.
This, however, is cake. The real challenge comes immediately after the small Metool gauntlet: A trio of moving platforms that glide along parallel tracks. You can hop on the first one and it’ll move you along safely. But once you drop down to the second one, you’re almost certainly going to die. When the left anchor that connects the platforms to the rail encounters a frayed portion of the track cable, it causes the platform to pitch forward and dump Mega Man into the bottomless pit below. This happens in a split-second, without warning, and it’s a total shock the first time it happens.
The middle track has a couple of frayed spots, but the bottom one is practically half-missing. Also, the platforms move out of sync with one another, so it’s possible you could be forced to ride the middle platform back and forth several times until you have the opportunity to drop down. Once you get the timing and mechanic here, it’s not so hard – but as a first stage, it’s utterly harrowing.
Strangely, this isn’t teaching you a mechanic you’ll use throughout the game; the frayed cable tracks only appear here and in the very final stage.
After all this, the area still isn’t through, as next up you encounter a group of Bladers. Then you’re forced to face a gauntlet of Picket Men, who stand their ground and chuck picks at Mega Man. You’re forced to come to terms with a few factors here: The Picket Men can defend themselves with their shields (and will, if you move too close to them). Their attacks travel in an arc that homes in on Mega Man’s location. You need to understand space management to take them on: You can’t stand in one spot and attack without taking a few picks to the face, and you don’t want to advance on them too quickly or else you’ll come face-to-face with them and cause them to raise their shield. Only by moving deliberately toward them can you triumph… though this becomes considerably more difficult when you also have to navigate over a pit (into which you can be knocked by the recoil of taking a pick to the face) in the process.
What you learn here: Metool tactics, using uneven ground to your advantage, maddeningly difficult sliding platforms, leaping to deal with enemies at other heights, managing space against aggressive enemies with high defense values
What the design says: Go away.
Elecman’s stage is interesting because it’s the only one that begins by making you move vertically. It’s quite complex and daunting, which actually works out to be OK; in this case, the difficulty of the level design corresponds to the boss at the end. Elecman is extremely difficult to defeat as the game’s first boss, and by making the barrier to reach him quite high, Capcom discourages the unworthy from making the attempt.
Again, though you won’t realize it if this is the very first level you’ve attempted, the design (specifically, the enemy placement) encourages you to tackle this level only after you’ve acquired the proper weapon from another boss. The enemies here – called Spines – glide slowly back and forth across the floor. However, once you come to stand on the same level as them, they accelerate rapidly. So this small setup of four short platforms, staggered in height and patrolled by Spines, is very difficult to clear unscathed. Once you leap onto the first platform, the first Spine speeds up, giving you about two seconds at most to hop over to the next platform. But that platform is patrolled by another Spine, as is the one above the first ledge, and each time you reach a new platform its tiny guard will race to attack you. You have to jump again almost the instant you land, and the gap between the two columns of platforms is just wide enough that it’s easy to fluff a jump.
Spines are too short to shoot while standing on their level – standard bullets fly right over them, and Mega Man can’t duck – but if you hop up and fire at just the right height, you can hit them. Standard bullets don’t hurt them, though, so this only stuns them. It’s possible to hop-shoot-jump, hop-shoot-jump your way to the top, but not easily. This simple-looking screen is devilishly complex and encourages you to perhaps consider an alternate route your first time through the game.
What you learn here: Quick-reflex platforming, dealing with seemingly invulnerable foes
What the design says: You’ll probably have better luck elsewhere.
Iceman’s stage offers some advanced considerations right away. The icy ground has low friction, which affects Mega Man’s inertia; rather than stopping immediately when you cease running, he slides to a halt. This inertia particularly affects his ability to reverse direction – if you try to turn around, he’ll run backward, slowly, for a moment. However, you can cancel out the inertia of ice by jumping, which causes you to rise straight into the air as usual. It’s not realistic, but it does offer a workaround for a tricky physical mechanic.
As first stage choices go, Iceman is a terrible place to start. Not only do you have to learn the basics of the controls, you have to do so with slightly altered physics. And the game doesn’t go easy on you; as soon as you scroll to the right, you encounter one of the more devious standard enemies in the game: The Crazy Razy.
A Crazy Razy is an odd robot with independently operable upper and lower body portions. If you let it come too close to you as it marches forward, it’ll split apart. The lower half will keep on marching, but the upper half will hover slightly above you, harassing you with short, dive-bombing attacks. Crazy Razy is somewhat taller than Mega Man, so if you shoot it while running, you’ll hit the lower half. It takes a few shots to destroy, but you can kill the lower half… though that still leaves the upper body in play. On the other hand, if you make a short hop and fire, you can destroy the upper half in a single shot. This has the side benefit of also destroying the lower half at the same time.
Which is pretty smart placement for these things. As you puzzle out how to destroy them, you’ll also discover the inertia-nulling side effect of jumping. Still, this is better tackled once you have some more experience with the game – and, fittingly, Iceman is pretty tough to beat with your default weapon.
And hey, that’s not all. Past the initial wave of foes, the icy ground gives way to water. Mega Man doesn’t use the same fluid physics as its sequels, so you can’t jump higher than normal here. The action does slow down somewhat, but I’ve never been able to tell if that’s because water is meant to create extra resistance of if something in this portion of the level causes slowdown.
In any case, here you have to deal with multiple enemy types at once – besides Beaks, which patrol short patches of ground, there’s also a host of infinitely respawning Pengs, which fly in from the right. Once you shoot one, another immediately spawn to replace its fallen comrade. Pengs are the poor man’s Medusa Head, moving in a similar (but flatter) sine wave pattern at a rapid clip, constantly placing pressure on you to react. The terrain works both for and against you here; while the floor underwater isn’t slippery and the uneven terrain limits the range of Spines, the constant flow of Pengs adds a dynamic hazard as you’re trying to hop over short columns and avoid bumping into Spines. Again, this is sophomore-level stuff, not Platforming 101. And it just gets worse later.
What you learn here: Ice physics, leaping to deal with enemies at other heights, managing unexpected enemy behavior, dealing with multiple threats on complex terrain, water makes you slower (maybe)
What the design says: I hate you and want you dead.
There’s an awful lot going on in the first screen of Fireman’s stage. Although Mega Man spawns in absolute safety, there are no less than three turrets above him that pop up at regular intervals and fire off arcing sprays of five bullets. They’re pretty easy to deal with in reality, but they seem awfully intimidating at first.
You can take away a few handy pointers here. First, if you try to take on the turrets – Screw Bombers – directly, Mega Man can only hit them once they pop up to shoot, which means you’re trading bullets. Second, climbing ladders is slower than running or jumping, so you need to learn the timing of your enemies’ actions. Third, if you combine these two factors you can actually stop at the top of the ladder, just before dismounting, and fire on the Screw Bomber while it’s still retracted, destroying them all safely from a distance.
The second screen is more or less a mirror image of the first, though with one fewer Screw Bomber. However, since the Screw Bombers here start on the same level as or below Mega Man, you can’t use the ladder trick to beat them. Instead, you have to learn to avoid their fire while advancing upon and destroying them. It’s possible to situate Mega Man into the gap in the lower Screw Bomber’s bullet spread easily enough, which means you only really need to worry about leaping over the ground-level bullet that the upper one fires out when it pops up without jumping high enough to smack into the bullet it shoots at a 45-degree angle.
After the turret gauntlet, you have to contend with a rather more harrowing sequence in which you have to clear several gaps by crossing a platform from which a pillar of fire rises at regular intervals. That in itself might not seem too dangerous, but at the same time a trio of fireballs called Tackle Fire that fly up into the ceiling and descend in a somewhat unpredictable meandering spread. You can shoot the Tackle Fires, but once they’re all dealt with, more will appear. They tend to emerge from the top of the screen directly above the jet of flame, making them very likely to bump into you and potentially knock you into the open fire below as you try to avoid the geyser of fire and reach the ladder opposite. On the plus side, there’s a health refill above and to the left that you can use to restore whatever energy you lose trying to navigate this hellscape.
What you learn here: Climbing and descending ladders, dealing with stationary enemies, the danger of pits, non-interactive timed hazards, managing multiple threats despite precarious footing, health refills
What the design says: Maybe try again later.
And finally, Bombman. This stage has the most uneven, broken-up terrain, requiring a great deal of basic jumping skills to leap from platform to platform. If you take the high ground, you need to be mindful of the Screw Bombers below, which pop up to fire at you. It can be tricky, but you can position yourself safely into the gaps in their projectiles. On the other hand, you can just drop down and shoot them, too. The high road lets your recharge your energy, though, and if you fall you can’t simply hop back up to the upper road as it’s too far up to reach.
Beyond the Screw Bombers, you need to navigate a field of pits from which indestructible hazards called Bombombs rise at regular intervals. They fire up into the air and, once they reach their apex, explode into fragments that rain down onto the ground below in a sort of arcing inversion of the Screw Bomber’s projectile patterns. These are situated so that, if you time it sensibly, the fragments of the Bombomb that rises ahead of you will impact harmlessly on the upper peak of the columns you use to cross the pit sequence. But then another will rise behind you, and its debris will hit your safe location. So you need to maintain constant, measured motion across the pits. Cautious movement will take you far; on the other hand, if you don’t take care, you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to a fragment that almost certainly will knock you into a hole.
This opening sequence isn’t really difficult and simply requires a bit of patience and observation. It’s a good starting place for the game, and fittingly the boss at the end is probably the easiest in the game.
What you learn here: Dealing with fast-moving enemies, dealing with leaping enemies, dealing with stationary enemies, the importance of caution around bottomless pits
What the design says: Come on in!