Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mega Man 6 - Failure to Transition
How Capcom betrayed my expectations and almost put a permanent black mark on its record.

For however down I was on the game prior to its release, the unapologetic Mega Man 5 somehow proved itself to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience despite its subscription to the formula and predictability that was working to dampen my enthusiasm for the series. I found it to be a fun, feel-good video game--much more energetic and spirited than its drab, tonally flat predecessor. Yet, while I was a fan of Mega Man 5 and returned to it with far greater frequency than I did for the entries that sandwiched it, I regarded it much the same way--as another formulaic episode with a disappointing cliffhanger ending that did nothing to convince me that it was worth continuing to emotionally invest in this series.

While Mega Man 5 had taken me on a pleasant detour, we inevitably arrived right back at the same stopping point. And as it stood a year earlier, I was pretty much done with the idea of Mega Man on the NES.

After all--the 16-bit era was now in full swing, and it brought with it this amazing new SNES game called Mega Man X, which proved that you could adhere to convention and yet shatter the mold with a sincere application of ambition and ingenuity. Who needed another by-the-numbers NES Mega Man game when a masterfully designed, rockin' evolution of the series was now  strutting its stuff on this graphically superior next-generation machine? I mean, I still had my NES hooked up right next to it, since I harbored strong feelings for the 8-bit wonder and didn't want its run to end (also, I needed a place to play those gobs of older games my brother was still scooping up via clearance sales at his friends' stores), but I certainly wasn't keeping it there because I desired another redundant Mega Man sequel.

I protested as much because Mega Man 6 had already been announced in Nintendo Power and was scheduled to be released in March of 1994, a mere two months after I'd reveled in the explosive, enrapturing Mega Man X, which was still holding every ounce of my attention. I didn't have too much mental energy left over to devote to Mega Man 6, whose previews revealed it to be exactly what I expected: Another set of 8 Robot Masters and a new main villain to command them. "Are they even trying anymore?" I wondered.

To be fair, there were some interesting tidbits: Apparently the traditional Rush abilities would be done away with in favor of a new fusion system that would provide Mega Man a gravity-defying jetpack and a power suit that would allow him to punch through certain obstructions. I liked the idea of the real boss-fake boss mechanic, which was said to add a minor exploration factor to each stage. And I learned that two of the game's Robot Masters, Knight Man and Wind Man, had been designed by American kids as per some contest Capcom would run concurrently to the planning of a new series game. "To have your country represented in a Japanese game?" I considered. "How cool is that?"

But none of what was written suggested that there would be any meaningful changes to the standard formula. The plot was again paper thin, which really didn't matter at this point; no one would have been dumb enough to fall for another "Wily is the actual villain!" swerve, anyway, even if Capcom had gone the extra length to dress it up (Nintendo Power, not even to insult its readers' intelligence, continued its trend of unceremoniously unmasking the "new" series villain as a Dr. Wily alt). Hell--Capcom hardly put in any effort at all, as Mr. X was just Wily with a beard. I knew that the Mega Man character was intended to be a bit naive, but his unquestioning trust of this Mr. X, who just appeared one day out of nowhere, made for a portrayal of a complete fool (not that the so-called genius Dr. Light and his friends showcased any more in the way of common sense). Really, this whole thing reeked of a cynically conceived rehash.

Now let's be serious here: There wasn't any chance that I wasn't going to go out and buy Mega Man 6 day one even though no real rationale for doing so was forming in my brain. One wasn't, that is, until after I'd finished Mega Man X, whose overarching storyline captured my imagination for how it intriguingly, though cryptically, connected to the original series, which I'd so grown to love over the previous half-decade. Now I had a viable reason for wanting to own Mega Man 6: I needed to know how the original series would conclude--how it would set in motion the events leading into Mega Man X. Would Mega Man die? Would there be any allusions as to Light's creation of Mega Man X, like maybe a scene where we'd see him working on a new prototype in secret? Would Zero (who I assumed was some type of revision of Proto Man) show up in any form? I was very excited for the prospect of seeing the build-up to this transition--the possible connections I obsessively wondered about for months--if not for the actual game.

That's what Mega Man 6 was supposed to be for me.

As I had become tradition, I went out and bought the game on the day of its release, immediately brought it home, and retired to my room, where I'd spend the next few hours undoubtedly playing it straight on through to the end. I don't have many specific memories of my first sampling of Mega Man 6, but I remember feeling a sense of deja vu, that my experience with it was a total repeat of Mega Man 4 in how my mind would drift off as I played it, the content so utterly familiar--so uninteresting at times--that I could reduce it to a peripheral exercise and succeed all the same; I felt as though I was playing a game that existed only because it was a new year and Capcom needed to have another one of these Mega Man game on store shelves. What a far cry it was from just four years back, when I spent every waking moment daydreaming about the upcoming Mega Man 3, which delivered on its promises and set my world on fire. These weren't the kinds of thoughts you were supposed to have when playing a brand new game.

There was nothing technically wrong with Mega Man 6. I mean, it played just as solidly as any other Mega Man title before it, and it could even manage to grab my attention for long stretches whenever it introduced anything that deviated from the norm. I perked up, for instance, upon gaining access to use the Rush Fusion mechanic, which felt genuinely new; I had fun pounding my way through walls (and shielded hard hats, finally!) with my power suit and taking on whole stages with the jetpack. At least the first time through the game, I enjoyed using these abilities to find secret rooms, uncover shortcuts, and fully explore each stage in pursuit of the real Robot Masters (though, I didn't enjoy having to wait through those tedious demonstration scenes, even in their shortened form, that activated every time I needed to equip one of the suits). I extracted what entertainment value I could from what struck me as an otherwise pedestrian Mega Man game.

But, really, everything playing out on my screen, from the wall-crashing and the jet-boosting to my usual weapon-chain experimentation, was mere routine and largely extraneous in light of what I was truly seeking from the game. My only true desire--the only driving force behind my excitement to finish Mega Man 6--was to reach that final level of Skull Castle and defeat Dr. Wily to initiate the endgame sequence that I hoped would match the one I'd meticulously, obsessively pieced together in my head over the course of the previous two months.

After I destroyed Wily's ship and again brought the pitiful doctor to his knees, everything start playing out as I expected it would: Mega Man finally captured Wily and brought him to justice, the visual of a newspaper headline and a text summary confirming his incarceration. "Here we go!" I prepped myself, my eyes intently glued to the TV. "Right after this screen fades, stuff is gonna go down!" 

Well, not quite yet, the game decided. First there was a little matter of a rather nicely presented montage that briefly spotlighted the 8 Robot Masters, who displayed their skills to the accompaniment of a finely weaved medley of their respective stage themes. "All of this padding has to be slow build to a grand finale and an epic cut-scene that'll tie everything together," I theorized as I watched the montage play out. After seven scenes had elapsed (I was counting), the last Robot Master, Yamato Man, started doing his thing, at which point I started leaning forward, toward the TV, in anticipation. "Here it comes!"

Aaaaaaaaaaaand then the credits began rolling. Quickly, my excitement began to wane, my spirits dampened by an oncoming feeling of dread. Staff rolls, you see, always had an air of hopeless finality to them; they were a sure sign that the fanfare had demonstrably ceased in preparation for a punctuating visual of a company logo and an empty, continuous black void. I began deluding myself: "Oh, I see. The credits will finish rolling, and then it'll transition into a Mega Man X-style ending, with something similar to how Sigma appeared on that monitor and foreshadowed future events. That's gotta be it!"

As the "Presented by Capcom" text crawled its way onto the center of the screen and appeared to stop dead center, I could feel my heart moving into my throat. Suddenly, there was only desperation as I hoped to see some sign--any sign--of additional post-game content, be it a screen fade, a change of music, or any text that wouldn't soon be rendered inert. Instead, I looked on in horror at the screen's bottom-left corner to see the ominous words forming letter by letter. Their completed message: "To be continued." I was stunned but still under the spell of my own delusion; I waited and waited for something more to appear, but nothing ever did--no meaningful postscript, no surprise cut-scene, and not a single hint of anything resembling those scenes I'd so vividly constructed in my mind.

The reality of the situation slowly started to set in. Exasperated, I stood there for an additional minute or two, my gaze frozen on the TV, as it became painfully obvious that the game was over and my only reward was the knowledge that more like it were on the way. Oh, yeah--I was pissed, and I wasted no time in externalizing the inner monologue that had been building inside me by frustratingly ranting about how stupid Capcom was for leaving me hanging like that. 

"I spent $50 for that?!" I shouted, now questioning the integrity of a company I always considered trustworthy. "They're going to continue the original series even though there's absolutely nothing left in the tank?! But it was supposed to be over, and you were supposed to use this game as a platform to transition into the X series? What are you doing?! What are you thinking?! Are you that creatively bankrupt?!" 

I'm sure there was also a "serious" threat to "never again buy a Capcom product" buried somewhere in there. But that's how I felt. I was so genuinely upset with Mega Man 6 that I decided that I was never going to play it again, or, well, not for at least another couple of months ("So don't mess with me, maaaaaan!"). Really, it featured nothing so compelling that I would want to return to it any earlier; lacking the hook of that transition I so desired to witness, Mega Man 6, I concluded, was nothing more than a shameless retread and clearly the worst of the bunch.

Though, after some time had passed and the anger began subsiding, I indeed gave Mega Man 6 the second shot I felt it deserved. Approaching it more sensibly--able to see it for what it was rather than what I wanted it to be--I could admit that it wasn't really the world-destroying game I'd made it out to be; it was just your run-of-the-mill Mega Man game, an intentionally iterative effort from a development crew that wasn't looking to achieve anything greater (plus they were obviously saving some of their creative energy for the soon-to-be-announced 16-bit Mega Man 7).

It was a solid game, as I'd originally termed it, but its proximity in release to Mega Man X only highlighted its over-reliance on convention while magnifying its mundanity. For instance: While I liked that the cast of Robot Masters featured cool new entrants like Knight Man, Centaur Man and Tomahawk man (while I liked his design, I, like all other kids, had no idea what a "Yamato Man" was supposed to be), who stood out from the usual archetypes of "ice," "fire," "wind" and "explosive," there was nothing special about how they moved about or operated; in fact, they seemed more somehow more limited than any of the Robot Masters before them, each relegated to predictably scripted movements and two lame attacks. 

Also, there was no sense that bosses were unique in regard to their susceptibility, all of them incurring the same rate of damage (three or four bars) for their respective weaknesses and neatly falling in battle. Remember when the Air Shooter could devastate Crash Man, or when you had to put in some additional work to destroy Pharaoh Man after freezing him with the Flash Stopper? Well, Mega Man 6's developers didn't. And, really, why bother using any of their weaknesses when a charged Mega Buster could damage them just as much and perhaps work more effectively in some cases? "Didn't the developers learn anything from the previous entries?" I wondered.

Save for a few of them, the minor enemies were either uninteresting or archetypical of past foes that were far more memorable; the surface-dwelling, flame-propelled Cyber Gabyoall, for example, paled in comparison to the personality-filled Spines and Springers of yesteryear, and even the game's brand of wall-mounted cannons and mechs were boring and derivative.

Then there were the usual issues that plagued the latter three NES titles. While Mega Man 6 was a pretty tough game regardless of how well equipped you were, it still doled out far too many in the way of 1ups and energy tanks, most of which were haphazardly strewn about in the open if only to justify the Rush abilities. And while I liked putting to use the new Rush powers, I had to admit that the jetpack in particular pretty much nullified any in the way of good level design. I mean, why bother jumping onto and across rotating wheels and weighted platforms when you could simply fly over or around them? Add in all of those easily accessible shortcuts and you get the sense that the designers structured the game as if most of it wasn't worth seeing. The one that really made me shake my head was the icy obstruction in the second Skull Castle stage; it took minimal effort to reach and allowed you to skip half the stage! Why?!

The game was filled with strange design choices. They'd construct an entire room around a collection of nimble enemies or one of those big bruisers, like the Power Slam, but forget that you could neutralize them by firing through walls, leaving only rooms whose biggest threats were instead their slow-moving rotary devices. Also, there were times when stages felt kind of empty; there'd be instances where I'd face, say, two or three uninhabited rooms in succession, which was clearly resultant from all the course correction required by the unnecessarily numerous collection of shortcuts. 

I can't think of a bigger microcosm for the game's issues than the events following the Robot Master boss rush: A ninth capsule appears, signifying what you'd think would be the traditional fake-out Wily battle, but entering it simply ends the stage, as if they didn't even have the will to draw up even one of those cliched skull-faced hovercrafts. "Is Capcom aiming to have less and less content in each game?" I wondered. And the final Wily battle was a joke, all three of his unimaginatively conceived ships going down to the same weapon (Silver Tomahawk) with about the same rate of damage. There was no doubt about it: This was the worst of the latter three games.

But I continued returning to Mega Man 6 every now and then because I thought it had a few things going for it and deserved credit for such. Even the sturdiest mold couldn't fully restrain the creativity of Capcom, and it showed in some of the game's fun ideas. I liked the Robot Masters' new screen-filling intro, which went beyond the norm in providing details as to their locations, powers, and specifications even though it was mostly superfluous and you weren't afforded enough time to actually take it all in. And I thought there were quite a few inventive scenarios, including oil pits that could be ignited by the projectiles of two separate enemies. A springy sequence where you could bounce high into the air to collect the small energy pellets that doubled as the seedy middle portions of plants as seen in the background. A rising and sinking ship (like the one encountered early on in Rockman & Forte) defended by Cannon Joes. Upside-down, bobbing pools of water (how does that even work?) whose downward flow was a necessary assistant to your long jumps. 

It introduced the Energy Balancer, which helped to eliminate a lot of the inventory-switching when I had to grind for weapon energy. I thought the wall-walking Power Piston was a standout castle boss even for a game filled with generic robot guardians (really--another easily defeated Hard Hard-controlled vehicle?). While I didn't notice it at first, I very much appreciated that revisited Robot Master stages (at least those that contained Beat letters) featured palette changes to reflect the elapsement of time between my previous trek through them--a nice nod to the stage-altering mechanic of Mega Man X. And, as I was pleasantry surprised to learn much later, they had a lot more fun with the Power Suit than I originally realized, allowing you to maneuver blocks over the fake-Beat ("Peat") dispensers to cut off their entrance and to damage the Mechazaurus by striking and reflecting its spiky platforms back at it.

One thing Mega Man 6 had that all others lacked was what I considered the most stressful jumps in the entire series; there were two similar C-shaped rooms whose spike-lined surfaces required that you navigate around them by executing a well-timed wraparound motion, the jetpack needing to be activated at just the right moment. I so feared these rooms that I'd always try to avoid them by taking the deviously placed shortcut accessed just a few screens back--if I could ever get the timing. It was one of those video-game challenges that always began weighing heavier on my mind as it drew closer, its specter growing ever larger in my periphery. *shudder*

As disappointed as I was with Mega Man 6, I was somehow able to look at it through a clean lens. You could probably chalk it up to my affinity for Capcom, which I was proud to say surely continued is mastery over the NES hardware, by 1994 creating games that were probably unimaginable in the console's early years. Mega Man 6, the culmination of its efforts, had some of the most highly detailed graphics I'd seen for the system, limited slowdown, and yet another home-run 8-bit soundtrack; the composer, Yuko Kadota, was responsible for such great tunes as that ending medley, which I recorded and used in my Costumed Celebrity Dance Show (basically, I'd have my He-Man figures--which I pretended were wrestlers dressed up as lizards, knights, and rock people--dance to the video-game music I'd record off the TV). 

Specifically, I loved the foresty backdrop of Plant Man's stage, the mountainous atmosphere of Tomahawk Man's stage, and the medieval decorum of Knight Man's stage (and for whatever reason, I was tickled to learn that its ringed hooks/door-knocker assets were borrowed from DuckTales 2. It was a sign of the developers' laziness, sure, but knowing where it came from always made me feel as though I was making some kind of great observation).

As time went on, thinking about Mega Man 6 brought upon feelings of sadness, because it served as a reminder that it was the last time we'd ever see the Blue Bomber in his iconic 8-bit form (well, at least for another decade). Times they were a-changin', and so too was Mega Man.

Truthfully, I still long for a Mega Man game in which Capcom provides that sense of transition I've been seeking for 20 years; in retrospect, it makes me happy that Mega Man 6 wasn't the original series' swan song despite my wishes for such. Now that I've long since gotten over that day, I'm instead thankful that Capcom continued doing its best to keep the NES relevant at a time when everyone else had abandoned it. It's only with two decade's worth of acquired wisdom that I can turn around and say, "You know what? I wish they'd made more of them." Had I known just how much I'd come to cherish the NES and its legacy, I might have come to embrace Mega Man 6 as a champion of preservation.

So while Mega Man 6 remains my least favorite of the six NES titles, I still hold a special place for it. It will continue to see action, providing desired sustenance, during my semi-frequent Mega Man binges for however long I continue indulging in them; playing it will always fill me with feelings not of past angst but with regret that it's a capper rather than a link to more like it. I can't send enough thanks to Capcom and Nintendo, which published the game in North America, for how they provided my beloved NES a little spark of extra life, however fleeting. 

After all--the console deserved some lovin' in its twilight years, and my old pal Mega Man was happy to provide it a hug.

Oh no, you didn't

But I'm glad you did.

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