Friday, October 17, 2014

Mega Man 5 - Prototypical But Fun
The Blue Bomber's last NES adventure might have been the start of a downward trend, but this one provided some pause.

Now, I'm not going to waste time boring you with some long diatribe about how I was burned out on the Mega Man series and resentful of Capcom for how it squandered any and all momentum generated by the expectations-shattering Mega Man 3 by rushing out an underwhelming follow-up that felt like a pure regression and dampened my enthusiasm for a series whose newly announced games once held the power to shake the entire gaming world to its core (besides--I couldn't shove all of it into one sentence). 

No--I can sum it up, instead, by saying that Nintendo Power Volume 42's unceremonious announcement of Mega Man 5 registered to me as nothing more than a tepid shoulder shrug. There wasn't anything to it: This preview of Mega Man 5, which was allegedly representative of a top-tier gaming franchise that once commanded cover-story-level attention, didn't even warrant more than three low-resolution images and a condensed paragraph's-worth of explanation whose most notable qualifier was "Expect great control."

The fire was gone, not just for me but apparently for even the enthusiast press, whose job, I thought, was to drum up excitement for high-profile releases such as these. It's not that I could blame them; I mean, how could you get excited about a samey-looking Mega Man game on an "outdated" system when the 16-bit wars were in high gear and currently producing ambitious, amazing-looking games like Super Mario Kart, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Out of This World and Streets of Rage II? What came to me was the sad realization that even a treasured series like Mega Man could fall into a terrible rut and find itself left behind.

Nothing was more indicative of the series' stagnation than Mega Man 5's described scenario, which Keiji Inafune and the gang wrote up on a cocktail napkin that one weekend. The details of the plot, which Nintendo Power revealed two issues later in the game's first full-fledged feature, read like a joke. As relayed by new ally Dr. Cossack: It appeared that Proto Man had gone insane, created eight Robot Masters to assist in his city-wide rampage, and kidnapped Dr. Light as collateral. I didn't buy into it for a second, nor could I imagine any other kid being even momentarily blinded from the obvious; it was a plot so contrived and insulting that the magazine's staff thought nothing of nonchalantly spoiling the "big twist"--that Wily was the true mastermind behind this deception--only pages later, not even trying to front that the story was worth investing in with the box's opening line "You knew it all along."

It's not that story was ever that important to Mega Man; it's how it was presented that bugged me. Falling back on the same swerve three times in a row read to me as a warning sign that a desperately formulaic game was likely.

Now, I was of course going to put Mega Man 5 down on my Christmas list for that year, anyway, since I had become an unrestrained sequel hound (not to mention that requesting it as a gift would give me access to a potentially disappointing game without having to spend my own money), but I wasn't looking forward to it at all. My rationalizations for listing it were that (a) I wasn't anywhere near ready to abandon my beloved NES, which still stood prominently on my the bottom-left side of my wheeled TV stand; (b) there weren't many late-'92 SNES titles that interested me; and (c) I could always count on the notion that even an unexciting Mega Man game was a safer choice than any from the piles of junk that were currently lining the shelf wall in the games section at Toys R Us.

I didn't have lowered expectations for Mega Man 5. I had no expectations.

The SNES and Game Boy titles I received that year (like Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins) indeed took precedence over Mega Man 5, but I managed to find some time to devote to it during the latter portion of that always-blissful six-day period between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, when I'd still be on that holiday high and had nothing but free time to enjoy my new games. Though, still jaded by my experience with its predecessor, I went into Mega Man 5 expecting to dislike it--my sense being that I'd quickly define it down as "nothing special," toss it aside, and return to it some other time.

But as I played it, something was happening: I found myself having a good time. I started with Gravity Man because he had the most interesting-sounding name and occupied that honorary top-middle Air Man spot, which always felt like a natural starting point. The action in following immediately gave off a vibe that felt more spirited than Mega Man 4's, though I couldn't satisfactorily articulate why that was (it might have been the use of brighter, eye-popping colors or the music's distinct tone and composition). It just had a nice feel to it.

I was soon introduced to the stage's gravity-reversing mechanic, which I instantly found more interesting than any of the stage contrivances found in the previous game. There were earlier video games that experimented with gravity-flipping and ceiling-crawling, but theirs were normally stiff and glitchy; Mega Man 5's take on the mechanic, in contrast, felt just as smooth as the action on the ground. I still felt that the charged Mega Buster shot (whose animation had changed to resemble more of an atomic blast) detracted from the challenge, but I was having a lot of fun using it to blast away Mega Man 5's more-stealthy assortment of robot menaces (like those groups of initially concealed B Bitter cannons)--particularly when I could eliminate multiple enemies at a time with a single shot, which always felt satisfying.

I thought the stage was well-designed and invited fast-paced action while still supplying cleverly conceived predicaments where you had to stop momentarily and consider the best means for navigating around, say, a storm of hovering, homing Pukapellies while hanging upside-down on a ladder positioned opposite a ceiling with a spike pit. I liked how part of the background in the compound's upper portion scrolled as I moved, which seemed pretty advanced for an NES game. And even the fight with Gravity Man, himself, was one of the more creatively crafted battles I'd had with a Robot Master since Mega Man 2.

Every stage in Mega Man 5 seemed to have a new surprise for me. There was the gravity-switching mechanic from Gravity Man's stage, as discussed. Wave Man's stage broke from the norm and featured a sequence where I had to ride a cannon-equipped jetski while dealing with robotic sealife, equally mobile Sniper Joes, and a unique mini-boss in the form of giant octopus (named, unimaginatively, Octoper OA). Charge Man's stage had me traversing across and through a moving train by alternating between the cars' roofs and their crowded innards, either instance augmented by a screen-shaking animation and accompanying bumping noises that did well to simulate actual train movement. 

Gyro Man's stage had an elevator that slowly carried me up amidst a gauntlet of spikes that I was tasked to quickly work around (it also saw the return of Air Man's obscuring cloud-cover, which made for a nice nostalgic touch!). And the later-encountered final stage of Proto Castle, in one of the more impressive visual feats in NES history, would actually collapse, swiftly scrolling down in a never-before-seen way as I'd blast away sections of the stony pillars that were apparently holding it up. Even old standbys like low gravity, conveyor belts, water currents, and snaking platforms (seen most recently in Super Mario World) were used to create interesting challenges.

The were memorable little touches everywhere: Stone Man's stage introduced a new type of hard hat called "Metall Mommy," which split into three smaller metalls after being shot. Another new, thematic form of Metall took to riding atop mini-trains in Charge Man's stage, emitting cute little "choo-choos" before firing. New Sniper Joe variant Apache Joe took the skies and attacked with its one-man helicopter as you fought against the elements. There were DuckTales-like walk-through walls that enticed the player to breach them and nab the plainly visible power-ups hidden within.

Wave Man's stage had a second standout sequence where you had to hop your way up three screens using large and small bubbles as they emerged from the fissures below (Mega Man 9's creators were apparently enamored with this sequence, since they repeated it, almost pixel-for-pixel, in Splash Woman's stage). The giant, intimidating ED-209-like robots ("Dachones") always gave me pause as they stomped about and fired lasers. And there were also these weird floating platforms that caused Mega Man to spin around as they carried him in a specific direction (this animation was also used on the post-Robot Master weapon-get screen); while the spinning, itself, served no actual purpose, I thought it was neat that I was finally able to see how Mega Man looked from different angles.

The new system of collecting "Beat Tablets" (whose collection provided Mega Man a robotic bird helper that would attack any enemy in the vicinity) was also a fun extra challenge, and procuring them was always worth the effort.

Mega Man 5 was filled with these types of memorable details, which worked to afford it a unique personality. In time, I came to label it "the ideas game," since it struck me as the creation of a development group that was being forced to create a formulaic game but strived to separate it from the pack by stuffing in as much inventive content as they could under the circumstances. Now, you could argue that I only feel this way because I went in with no expectations, which would make it easier for even moderately refreshing material to resonate beyond its true worth, and you might be partly correct; however, there was no denying that I was having a hell of a lot more fun with Mega Man 5 than I did with its predecessor. 

Yes--I finished it in only one day, as I did Mega Man 4, but I did so for a very disparate reason: Mega Man 5 kept me in a constant state of intrigue, as I couldn't wait to see what it would throw at me next. I wasn't in a rush to complete the game just for the sake of it--my motivation was to see it through to the finish so I could hurry up and play through it again!

What was clear to me was that Capcom had finally mastered the NES hardware. I thought as much any time I gauged Mega Man 5's backgrounds, which were super-detailed and sometimes featured dominating, attention-grabbing visuals like the parked train seen at the start of Charge Man's stage and the mountain ranges as viewed from Stone Man and Wave Man's stages (and I bet you're shocked that these caught my eye). Also, Napalm Man's Vietnam-inspired stage had these amazingly animated palm trees that I liked to stop and look at whenever mad tigers weren't trying to pounce on me. Every backdrop in Mega Man 5 seemed to be brimming with animation and movement, whether it was flashing lights, glittery crystals, pulsating clouds or raging waterfalls.

Even though the SNES had effectively stolen its thunder, it still felt to me that the NES was alive and kicking, continuing to evolve both technically and graphically even in its twilight years. And there was Capcom, chief among suspects, continuing to do what it had done since our paths crossed way back at the beginning: One-upping its peers by successfully pushing hardware to its limits, even if the hardware in question was an aging console that was becoming more and more obsolete. However muted by time and stagnation, Capcom did well to provide some spark for a system whose run I didn't want to see end. That's one of the main reasons I so appreciate Mega Man 5.

Now, don't take any of this as a forceful stamp of approval. I mean, Mega Man 5, for all the good it does, still isn't what I'd call a great game. It's very much held back by its subscription to the worn-out formula of "8 Robot Masters, fake villain's castle, real villain's castle." It also repeats all of the same mistakes made by its predecessor: It doles out too many energy tanks (up to nine in total), which trivializes what would otherwise be intense boss showdowns. There are far too many instances of 1up drops (something has gone wrong with your game if you're not already at nine lives by the fifth Robot Master). 

The Mega Buster continues to be overpowered to the point where it deals damage on par with any of the accumulated Robot Master weapons (which are largely uninteresting outside of the Charge Kick and re-directable Gyro Blade), almost fully negating the rock-paper-scissors system. The Super Arrow is useful but ultimately superfluous when Rush Jet is already available. Rush Coil has been unnecessarily altered into a weird pogo-style contraption whose movement is both jarring and somewhat glitchy. They diminish the value of ultimate victory by resorting to that same sense of silliness that this time allows you to defeat Dr. Wily with Beat, who does all of the work for you while you just stand there and watch. And the game ends on an entirely short closing sequence that again serves as nothing more than sequel fodder. I wasn't expecting any real resolution after what Mega Man 4 pulled on me, but come on.

The Proto Castle bosses are uninspired--they're all variations of a Dark Man prototype whose offensive repertoire entails gliding from one side of the room to the other while pausing only to fire its projectiles. I get that they wanted to establish a brand of robot dissimilar from the standard Wily fare in an attempt to veil the doctor's involvement, but none of that makes for the most exciting boss battles. To be fair, the Wily Castle bosses are much more inventive; in the battle with the totemesque Big Pets, for instance, you can shoot its individual appendages and cause them to rocket toward you, after which you can hop aboard and use their surfaces as platforms to effectively strike the otherwise-out-of-reach head. Also, the Wily Press boss can magnetically lift the entire ground level while it concurrently slams down and attempts to Crush Mega Man; a small spike pit in the floor's middle portion discourages tactical idling. This is what the series needed more of.

I could recognize that Mega Man 5 was redundant and formulaic, but it had too much going for it for me to spurn it as I had its predecessor. I thought it incorporated a whole lot of interesting ideas that strongly distinguished it in my mind from the games that sandwiched it. Its stage design solid. Its polished, detailed graphics were appealing to me despite the superficially samey appearance. And I found the musical score engrossing in a way I couldn't explain--at least not until years later. As I would come to learn, each original-series NES entry had a unique composer; for Mega Man 5 it was Mari Yamaguchi, who I can now credit with doing a great job of providing differentiation with a soundtrack that was more relaxed yet lively and spirited at all turns (her energizing, inspiring Charge Man theme among my favorites). 

Quite simply, Mega Man 5 was just plain fun to play. The SNES and Game Boy may have monopolized most of my attention in those early months of 1993, but I still found plenty of time for successive runs through Mega Man 5, which helped to keep my NES front and center for most of that year. That I was ready to accept Mega Man 5 for what it was, heaping no grand expectations upon it, made it digestible from the start, and from then on it never ceased providing me enjoyment and a reliably solid dose of Mega Man action. I have and will continue to maintain that it's the series' most underrated game and the best of the latter three NES titles. 

While I'd be apt to class it as just another binge game, usually played whenever I indulge in one of those week-long Mega Man kicks, it certainly leans closer to those games I look forward to playing.

So while the latter three NES Mega Man games might represent a decline in a once-fabled series, I wouldn't call it a complete downward slope. No--Mega Man 5 stands as a proud anomaly.

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