Sunday, July 6, 2014

Mega Man 4 - The Crossroads
If the third installment set a new high standard, how did Capcom attempt to follow it up?

After what felt like an endlessly long wait drenched in increasingly unreasonable expectations, Mega Man 3 arrived with thunder and somehow delivered upon everything I was looking for in a sequel and more. It left me feeling overindulged and utterly satisfied, as if Mega Man 3 was the only Mega Man game I'd need for the rest of my life and the Blue Bomber could just as well retire in glory. Basically, I'd seen all I needed to see and had no desire for a sequel of any sort.

Though, it hadn't even been five months after Mega Man 3's release and there I was hearing murmurs of a "Mega Man 4," which began regularly appearing on the "NES Planner" lists of Nintendo's Power's Pak Watch feature. I was caught off guard by the chosen mode of revelation--the underwhelming nature of it leaving me feeling less than enthralled and unable to even feign excitement. I was mildly interested, mind you, but more so because I was curious about what it was going to be.

Mega Man 4 was formally unveiled in the magazine's 31st issue, in a preview that dropped the following details: There was a new villain in town named Dr. Cossack, who wanted to destroy Mega Man for unknown reasons. There were eight new robot masters. The slide maneuver and Rush were back. And the previewer really liked the idea of hopping over spikes using mechanical grasshoppers. "That's it?" I thought. "There are no changes or updates to the basic formula? No surprise returns? No big gimmick to set it apart? There's just a hippo on a giant platter?" Not for a single second did I buy the idea that the self-important Dr. Cossack would turn out to be main villain--a sentiment as shared by Nintendo Power, whose editors agreed that the plot was so flimsy that they thought nothing of just casually spoiling Wily's involvement (along with everything else about the game) in the next issue's giant feature.

While I didn't feel motivated to do anything but glance over the details, there was a strange sense of compulsion gnawing at me; it was as if I knew Capcom had a firm grasp on my soul and I was probably going to buy Mega Man 4 anyway, regardless of my misgivings. I spent the rest of the year agonizing over it, trying to figure out why I felt compelled to purchase a game that wasn't really lighting my world on fire. Once I began leaning toward "buy," it was only a matter of convincing myself; I asked myself questions specific enough to narrow down the choice to one game: "So if we're nearing 1992 and the NES release-schedule is rapidly drying up, thanks largely to the specter of the soon-arriving SNES, then what else will there be for me to play on my beloved system? Now that I'm mostly spending my own money on games, which companies are most reliable? What other NES developers even make this kind of game anymore?"

I recognize it now as the power of marketing, which had a way of making kids feel as though they were missing out on essential video-game experiences if they didn't keep up with the successive installments of their favorite series. And guess what? It worked.

I went to Toys 'R' Us and picked up Mega Man 4 the day it was released. Maybe it was an early taste of buyer's remorse, but I didn't feel good about things. I mean, to hand over more than $50 of my own money for a game I really wasn't anticipating felt kind of icky. After arriving home, I upheld my obligatory ritual of reading over the manual (a routine that by then had lost all of the sense of mystique and preparatory entrancement I remember being gripped by in my early NES years) before unenthusiastically loading Mega Man 4 into my NES. I perked up for a bit as I watched its sterling intro, which summarized the previous games' events before segueing into the latest threat to world peace; the emotive scene was accompanied by one of the best musical transitions I'd heard in a game, from the somber piece that colored the explanation of how much damage the wars wrought to the rockin', powerful tune that embellished Rock's transformation into Mega Man and provided a big jolt of energy to the game's starting action.

I was pumped to get started, but the high wouldn't last long; I hadn't defeated more than two robot masters before I fell into a state of indifference as it became apparent that Mega Man 4 was content to stick closely to the established blueprint and offer nothing in the way of surprises. It had all of the makings of a solid, high-level game, but it just wasn't clicking with me, and I had to consistently refocus because my mind would begin wandering. "Why can't I just enjoy this game?" I'd wonder whenever there was a break in the action (like those admittedly cool-looking get-equipped transition screens). I didn't have a term for it then (and wouldn't for another eight years), but I was obviously having my first experience with "sequel fatigue," wherein a game's conventions become so overly familiar that it's easy to become detached as you merely go through the motions. 

That I was unable to connect with Mega Man 4 was partly my fault because I hadn't yet learned how to make games last. At a point in life when there weren't many in the way of time constraints, it was customary for kids like me to buy a game and burn through it in an entire day, even if doing so seemed to devalue the purchase. In the case of Mega Man 4, I was so intent on hunting down a game element that was unique or captivating that I wound up finishing the game before my mother called me down for dinner at 6 p.m. I felt really bad about doing so and was mad at myself for falling hostage to such compulsions; for one thing, I knew it wasn't a good use of my money.

I also threw a certain amount of anger toward Mega Man 4, which I couldn't believe was over so quickly. Compared to the loaded, stunningly ambitious Mega Man 3, this tightly packed fourth installment seemed like such a regression--a "product" so light on meaningful content that I wondered if the same people made it. Also, I wasn't at all amused by the ending, which saw Wily simply escape via a rotating trapped door as Mega Man just stood there like a dolt. "If Wily can escape every time using such means," I questioned, "then how could Mega Man ever catch him?" Wily's "OK, bye!" absconding encapsulated the pointlessness of the venture and how Capcom could potentially contrive endless amounts of sequels by having Wily simply bolt by falling through secret hatches or diving into giant suction tubes. If Capcom couldn't be inspired so much as to even attempt to eclipse Mega Man 3, I protested, then they at least owed me some sense of closure.

Oh, I had other issues with the game: I didn't like how they tried to draw undeserved connections to the previous Mega Man 2 by reusing its robot-master-selection and stage-ending jingles plus an inferior remix of its credits theme (without even replicating the awesome second bridge!). It felt cheap, like they were trying to establish goodwill by siphoning nostalgic energy from a superior game. It struck me as the developers attempting to create cover for what they knew was a soulless retread. Nothing was more evident of their uninspired approach than their dressing up of established conventions with superfluous alterations and unnecessary accessories, which were meant to create only the illusion of change. 

The addition of the new helper character Eddie "Flip Top" was merely a cosmetic remodeling of Mega Man 3's mystery tanks. The Wire and Balloon Items--though their procuring added an intriguing exploration element to the game--were exceptionally limited, useful for only one or two optional platforming scenarios and otherwise made redundant by Rush's coil and jet abilities. As discussed earlier, they even rehashed the plotline from the previous game! Who didn't see Wily's involvement coming? You can't pull the same swerve twice in a row! And you know why Proto Man's motivation for betrayal was of course never explained? They wanted his appearance to be ambiguous enough to where you wouldn't possibly guess that he wasn't really the villain in the next game. Because you're obviously an idiot.

Why did they even include Rush Marine if they weren't going provide any terrain where its use was logical? Dive Man's stage was easily navigated without it, and there was only one watery sequence in following--a section of one of the Wily stages where the spike-lined passages were so narrow that it didn't make any sense to use it there. Also, the continued over-doling of energy tanks (up to a potential 9) created a playing atmosphere where you could approach boss battles recklessly, without any need for strategy or finesse, because you could just burn through an excess of reserve energy without fear of failure.

One of the game's big draws was the new Mega Buster, which allowed Mega Man to charge up his arm cannon and release bigger, more-destructive blasts. I thought it was a logical upgrade to the formula, but it was so poorly considered. It felt right when using it to plow past minor enemies, but it was so overpowered that it made almost all of the other weapons appear useless; it could damage a robot master with near-equivalency to its natural weakness, which took out all of the challenge of learning the actual weakness chain (only my correct application of the Flash Stopper seemed necessary, since Pharaoh Man was otherwise a beast). 

Except for maybe one robot master, a clear starter, being susceptible to the Mega Buster, the rest should have been largely immune to it, taking at most one bar of damage. Capcom never learned from this mistake and continued making sequels where the Mega Buster was a highly viable replacement to the robot-master weapons you'd think were intended to be utilized. Its addition was a nice idea, but some restraint was needed. I'll give it this: While its implementation was flawed and counterproductive, I admit that it was still a lot of fun to use, and I liked trying to catch myself in green or glowingly imbued phases when transitioning across screens and through boss doors. 

I returned to Mega Man 4 after about a week or two mainly because I wanted to justify my purchase and wring some value from it. And you know--as I played it, I wasn't having such a bad time; in fact, it was during subsequent playthroughs that I settled down a bit and actually found myself starting to appreciate Mega Man 4 for what it was. Now, let's not be mistaken: At no time did I entertain the notion that it was anywhere near the league of the superb Mega Man 3, which I regarded as existing in a stratosphere well out its reach, but I had to admit that it featured a lot of fun, interesting ideas. There were the current-based laser platforms in Ring Man's stage. The sinking sands of Pharoah Man's stage, whose inhabitants included the head-tossing, revolving-wall Mummiras (who might have been telegraphing Wily's means of escape). The rising and lowering water of Dive Man's stage. And the way whole sections of Drill Man's stage impressively materialized whenever I'd flip a nearby switch.

Though I had a tendency to unfavorably compare villains' castles to the well-constructed, unforgettable complexes from both Mega Man and Mega Man 2, I actually came to like the design of the Russian Dr. Cossack's Kremlin-based fortress. The opening portion of the first stage--the icy, hazardous fortress outskirts--was strongly remembered for the image of Mega Man chest-deep in snow and trying to reach solid ground as patrolled by mechanical Slinkies (named "Tom Boys"); I was a fan of the whole snowy, remote atmosphere as created by the inclement ground conditions and the tall, shadowy evergreens seen guarding the backdrop. Also capturing my imagination was the fortress' third stage, which stood out to me not due to its scrolling attribute or hurried platforming travails but because it took me on a trip above the castle heights, where you could see the gigantic onion-shaped tower domes below; it was a case where the details of the stage's setting thoughtfully matched the route as traced on the map, which Mega Man 3's castle designers couldn't be bothered to do.

The fortress' four bosses, while not among the series' most resonant, were pretty damn inventive; I don't know what graphical sorcery Capcom used to pull off that three-sectioned boss (the one that looked like a mobile control center) whose separate parts zipped across the room at three different speeds before joining together to create an enclosure that Mega Man had to preemptively breach, but it was an impressive sight. The floor-shattering ability of Mothraya, with its spiky protrusion, only heightened the tension of the fortress' first major encounter. And the Cossack Catcher, whose underside was fitted with a giant clamp, turned the tables on anyone who's ever used a claw crane to fruitlessly ensnare prizes from one of those obnoxious machines. You could see that there was some creative juice left in Capcom's tank.

There was less ingenuity on display in the design of Wily's castle, but I at least liked the theme of its bosses being giant-sized versions of a stage's recurring enemy. It was these types of little victories that shifted my opinion a bit, Mega Man 4 deemed worthy of my time but still a game whose content-to-just-exist juxtaposition left me feeling baffled, unable to understand how it could settle so. Really, how can a game feel special when its events play out exactly the same way as its predecessors' with less in the way of spirit?

There was a lot of good stuff here, but it was buried beneath half-hearted iteration. My takeaway was that Mega Man 4, though more solid than I originally gave it credit, started the original series' decline into pure formula, each successive game following the same pattern: Eight robot masters, framed-villain's castle, Skull Castle. Nothing more and ocassionally a whole lot less. That's how I'll always remember it.

It was only after a few years passed that I looked back on Mega Man 4 in a different light. I'd like to save the details of this shift in thinking until after I've covered a certain future Mega Man game, but I'll say that I was probably a little too hard on Mega Man 4. Its transgressions are real, and I now recognize its pedestrian existence as the product of Capcom's "annualization" of the series (which is a very disappointing tactic from a company that I previously associated with drive and ambition), but I'm glad it exists, for whatever reason it was created. If I'd known then that I'd come to so deeply miss this style of game--that it would soon virtually disappear due to consumers' growing disinterest in 2D games--I might have been inclined to cherish it. I certainly hold it in higher regard now, and while it's not one I'm likely to return to for a one-shot action-game experience, it always finds itself on the menu whenever I'm on one of those recurrent week-long Mega Man binges.

In the end, Mega Man 4 served as reinforcement for that old lesson: Sometimes you just have to accept things for what they are.

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