How Capcom managed to exceed a long-suffering kid's sky-high expectations.
You could say I was smitten with Mega Man 2. I played it almost every day, whether I was at home or at Dominick's house, and my thoughts were constantly occupied by images of the game, its characters, its music, and just about every facet of its being. As it continued on a daily basis making its impression on me, I also found myself dreaming of a sequel and what could be done to top what for me were life-altering games; that is, subsequent playthroughs of what had become my favorite game plus my slow, loving acceptance of its predecessor, Mega Man, only stoked the flames of my desperate desire for more. I spent boring days and tedious school hours drawing pictures of prospective robot masters, brainstorming possible storyline scenarios, and wondering about a time when I'd finally find tangible evidence of a sequel, if such a thing could exist.
Though I hadn't yet become a regular reader of game magazines, I'd pick up a randomly branded rag each month and pore over each page for the sole purpose of hopefully seeing any kind of news on a "Mega Man 3" or anything that could prove its existence--a news blurb covering some obscure Japanese event, a rumor, a screenshot. Anything. Sadly, nothing would ever turn up. It was painful.
In the middle of 1990, I became a subscriber to Nintendo Power. While my motivation to do so was mostly driven by my affinity for the NES, a large part of that driving force was my need to lay eyes on what was being built up in my mind as an almost-mystical Mega Man 3. My first issue, Volume 13, was a bust--it was the magazine's first dedicated issue and covered Super Mario Bros. 3 exclusively. While I was indeed one of the millions who had since been captured by Mario Mania and would soon be joining the slobbering masses in pining for Mario's biggest adventure yet, the Mega Man hype train was still loudly grinding its way around my brain's perimeter, trumping every game in question even if one of them was the most anticipated sequel ever.
I anxiously approached the mailbox every day that July hoping that the next issue had arrived even though I knew the magazine was bi-monthly and I was probably weeks early. The wait was excruciating. Each week felt like months (which is actually how I remembered it until I created a timeline chronicling my NES years; it's proof of how different a kid's perception of time can be). When Volume 14 (the one with Disney's Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers on the cover) showed up beside my door in mid-August, I began quickly flipping through its pages when it finally happened: Mega Man 3 was real! It was covered as part of a recap of 1990's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and relegated to a small portion of page 24's bottom-left corner; there was only a snippet that included a preview of the game's plot--that Dr. Wily had come to his senses and reunited with Dr. Light for a top-secret project--a screenshot of Mega Man jumping about the as-of-yet-unnamed Gemini Man stage, and the reassurance that the same development team was creating it. The information was bite-sized, but it was gratefully quenching, like a drop of water to a near-dead desert-traveler. Mega Man 3, which I knew relatively little about, was nevertheless destined for the top spot on my Christmas list for that year.
More than ever, the wait was becoming unbearable.
I spent the morning hours and a few between-meal breaks attempting to conquer the first eight robot masters. I started with Snake Man's stage, which forevermore would be my initial choice, and had a little bit of trouble taking him down. Not only were my single shots failing to drain even one bar of his health--Snake Man was absolutely crippling me with direct contact. This was certainly a change from Mega Man 2. I mean, this game was tough, man. The stages were manageable, but these robot masters were absorbing Mega Man's pellets like none before them. So I tried a few other stages, gathered an energy tank or two, and endured several intense showdowns with Snake Man before eventually winning one of a great number of undisciplined slugfests (there was no time for pattern recognition, after all!). Up until this point, I had figured that Mega Man 2's "Normal" challenge-level was the standard and that the original's was the anomaly--something that was "corrected" a game later. My many battles with Snake Man were a cold slap in the face of reality; everything I knew was wrong. Furthermore, if I had an "A game," I was going to have to bring it.
Unexpected challenge-level aside, I was in my glory. I completed the first third of the game that day (the first eight robot masters, basically), with much trouble, but I enjoyed every second of the experience, whether it was learning the layouts of the robot masters' stages; speeding through stages with the useful slide maneuver; taking stock of the new assortment of robotic minor enemies and particularly the "hard hat" forms; getting to know Rush and experimenting with the new transportation-based abilities he provided; wondering about the intentions of the mysterious figure later identified as Proto Man; or taking in the game's aesthetics (mainly the music, which like each respective original-series game was the work of a different composer and the source of its unique flavor). There were no disappointments. I didn't want to stop playing, really, but family and the day's many activities took precedence over video games, so I'd have to hold off until December 26th, the second-best day of any kid's Christmas break.
I couldn't wait until the next day when I could get back into it. The thought of being reintroduced to the Mega Man 2 bosses continued to fuel my excitement. I just wanted to see them again--to gauge how they fit into this world that was aesthetically similar yet somehow colder and grittier. I was a little bit disappointed to learn they were apparently being paired together and lumped into just four of the already-conquered stages, but I was happy to learn that the stages in question had been redesigned, even if structurally similar in parts. I loved the idea that there was more to robot-master stages than what Mega Man previously explored, as if theirs were metropolises that spread out in all directions and housed unseen but complex systems. I also liked how certain events were foreshadowed, like the Giant Metall from Needle Man's reworked domain whose lifeless helmet was previously seen encased in the original stage.
Whatever the route, everything was building up to my rematch with Metal Man. I already knew, via another Nintendo Power spoiler, that I'd actually be fighting universal "Doc Robots" that only mimicked our previous contenders (probably due to cart-space limitations), but I still thought the whole idea was wild, and I was nevertheless tickled by the sight of the static Metal Man sprite being lowered down into its temporary host. It wasn't a perfect recreation of the actual Mega Man 2 battle, and the palette differences required that his Metal Blades were colored orange, but it was a memorable encounter and one of those vividly remembered defining moments.
I was never able to figure out who Break Man was supposed to be or why I was fighting him. Was his appearance another of Wily's distractionary tactics? Was this the foe Proto Man was training me to fight? Was it a nefarious Proto Man, himself, donning a strange cyclops visor and hoping it would be enough to hide his true identity, like a more-obvious Clark Kent? There was no real follow-up to it. I didn't give it much thought the first time through, since I was more preoccupied with thoughts of a return to Skull Castle. Dr. Wily "ran off with Gamma," I was told--a storyline twist that was actually effective the first time--and the final act drew near. What was waiting inside for me besides the Rock Monster? What visual treats would I witness? Would any Mega Man foes like Elec Man or Guts Man be returning, too? The dolts at Nintendo Power also ruined the surprise return of the Mega Man clone and gave away its one-shot weakness to the Top Spin, so I was expecting more in the way of reunions.
To Nintendo Power's credit, it did also supply me some useful tips for putting my new weapons to use. It also showed me, for instance, how to effectively deal with an early obstacle in the reworked Spark Man stage--the ladder-climbing Jamacy that made ascending impossible unless you quickly rebounded a Gemini Laser off of either wall of the narrow shaft or tossed a Shadow Blade upward. More relevant to my current predicament was the famously noted tactic for taking out a precipice-lingering Hammer Joe early in Skull Castle's first stage: Fire a Gemini Laser at the lower adjacent wall and watch it rebound its way overhead and strike the Hammer Joe in the back! A Mega Man experience always felt more complete when you could put your weapons to work in logical ways and certain challenges were devised to require them.
My trek through Skull Castle didn't feel quite as epic as my original romp through Mega Man 2's unrivaled estate. I thought the first-stage "crab machine" boss (or "Kamegoro Maker," one of many names I wouldn't know until a decade later, since the game's manual was far less detailed than its predecessors') was a bit weak--especially compared to the previous game's thrilling Dragon chase, which was an awesome scene--and nothing really stood out as topping what I'd seen prior. But Mega Man 3 always had moments that pumped me back up after any lapse in excitement.
For one, I was really jazzed to find myself rematched against the Rock Monster, which looked better than ever and even had a new trick; it was the first castle boss whose weakness wasn't obvious, and it felt good to figure out on my own that you could pump Hard Knuckles into its eye, even if it didn't really match the feat of using the Elec Beam to accurately strike down the terrifying original from Mega Man. There weren't any other big surprises, but I still got a kick out of seeing the Guts Man-like Junk Golems on the boss-gauntlet stage.
My original two-day session with Mega Man 3 ended with an unforgettable first battle against Gamma, the originally intentioned "peace-keeping" robot, which was impressive in scope and filled the entire screen. The first form, with its tiny blue head and obvious Shadow Blade weakness, was no great threat and merely appetizer for the man dish--the fully operational Gamma with its drill horns, plate-shaped projectiles, and forehead-embedded control center occupied by Wily. I had a little trouble jumping up to the flat safe spot on its spike-fisted arm, which would periodically slide in from the right, so I instead used Rush Coil to springboard my way up to the screen's top-left platforms; I repeatedly leapt off the upper platform, each time trying to damage the glass receptacle with a different weapon (almost all ineffective and deflecting away) until the Search Snake revealed itself to be Gamma's poison (I never even tried the Top Spin). Having procured more than enough energy tanks, it was only a matter of conserving my weapon energy and not making contact with the receptacle, which was an instant kill. Gamma was soon destroyed, and Wily begged for mercy as expected.
When both Mega Man and Wily were subsequently crushed by debris, a shadowy figure resembling Proto Man swooped in and made the save, showing at least partial allegiance to the doctor even though it was too late to save him. The storyline events that followed indeed confirmed that it was Proto Man who made the save, and the ending sequence revealed the truth about our seemingly conflicted friend. Maybe it's because my brain hadn't yet experienced its growth spurt, but I didn't at all get what it was inferring. All I thought was "Oh, neat--they're showing the original Mega Man bosses and listing their innate abilities. But why?" It was good to see them again, anyway. I guess.
I wasn't yet ready to compare Mega Man 3 to its two predecessors, but I knew that I loved it. It was the first video game I ever looked forward to and waited for, and it delivered big time, meeting or exceeding all expectations; for me, no game in following would ever match its level of anticipation--not even the highly desired Super Mario Bros. 3. After a few weeks and several playthroughs, it became the replacement for Mega Man 2 and was the series game to which I'd return the most. It had everything I wanted in a game: Tight controls, level design conducive for fast action, great music, terrific stage settings, the mixing in of older enemies with those newly created, and a challenge-level that always kept me alert and focused. For almost fifteen years in following, I'd always answer the question "What is your favorite Mega Man game?" with one answer, without hesitation: "Mega Man 3."
Unfortunately, the game's cracks slowly became evident to me during my countless playthroughs in the years to follow. That I wasn't able to see them sooner was only thanks to the calculated efforts of Capcom, which knew how to play with our emotions and used our affinity for Mega Man 2 and other recycled elements (like the Yellow Devil) to mask any potential disappointments. It was and still remains in my "Top 3 Original Mega Man Games" list, but it's fluctuated about due to a number of shortcomings that weren't noticeable over the first few years, when I was so captivated by it. Its flaws include the over-supplying of energy tanks (you can hold nine of them), which makes a mockery of boss battles; handing out 1ups like DUIs at a Spears-family motorcade; truncated, scattershot Skull Castle stages that are nowhere near as memorable as those in previous games; being able to use Rush Jet to cheaply defeat the second form of Wily's pinbot machine; and too much jokey stuff, like the robot masters all being weak to their own weapons plus castle bosses that can be defeated in one hit with the Top Spin. Giving the eight starting robot masters two self-contained cycles (like Snake Man beats Gemini Man beats Needle Man beats Snake Man plus a larger cycle for the other five bosses) was an interesting idea, but it was also unnecessary and confusing.
There's a lot of slowdown, since the designers very often tried to jam in too much activity into spaces that are too confined. The overload of information causes the screen to sometimes flicker like crazy, obscuring the energy meters, health pickups, and even whole characters. There's a constant single-color vertical bar aligned to the screen's left side. And even the robot-master selection screen has a glitchy, fuzzy line running atop its lowest row. I don't know if any of this is the result of the the developers' ambition--that they simply lacked the proper restraint--or if some outside force was rushing them.
Don't get me wrong--even if I no longer consider it a master work, it's still a great game and one of the NES' best titles. I'm sad that Keiji Inafune regards it as his least favorite of the originals, citing time restraints and what he sees as a lack of polish (which backs up what I was just saying), when the three latter sequels exist; compared to these bland "yearly installments," it certainly has much more in the way of content, even if most of it is playing upon nostalgia. Simply put: It's the last great original Mega Man game Capcom released before the series fell into a pit of endless formula, becoming redundant and lacking any of the spirit or charm of the first three entries. Not one of them would ever again catch me in its web or exhilarate me quite like Mega Man 3 did.
By hanging onto the top spot as long as it did, Mega Man 3 proved its lasting appeal and showed just how powerful a video game could be. It will always be a star player in one of my standout memories of video games: That agonizingly long wait for a deeply desired sequel that delivered more than I ever could have hoped for and will continue to endure despite its deficiencies.