Saturday, July 18, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Second Chances - Memory Log #40

Mega Man III

As I hurried along the well-traveled path toward the game aisle in Toys R Us, my thoughts untainted by silly ideas like "careful consideration" and "self-reflection," I couldn't have known that my plan to purchase Mega Man III was influenced not by an earnest desire to experience the Blue Bomber's latest adventure but instead the imperceptible symptoms of a worsening illness. Had an appropriate branch of medicine existed back then, its specialists might have been able to identify the cause and perhaps explain to me what it was that triggered that prolonged phase during which I was fatigued on sequels but would continue to buy them, anyway, as if somehow obligated.

Hindsight has taught me that I had been corrupted by "the sickness"--that the subversive forces of marketing had rendered me unable to resist the seductive advances of companies like Capcom, which had become adept at saturating media with information and imagery as to create the illusion that players were missing out on something truly special if they were failing to keep up. Its insidious influence was the reason why I decided that Mega Man III needed to be a part of my life even if I feared that it would turn out to be a pedestrian effort.


Now, you might argue that track record should count for something--that my continued enjoyment of the previous Game Boy titles, despite their shortcomings, should have been a solid enough reason for me to be excited about playing a superior-looking sequel. But then you'd be neglecting to mention that there was another side to that record: Capcom's propensity to rehash an established formula to the point of exhaustion. By 1993, I'd began souring on sequels mostly because very few were offering anything substantially different, their newest entries content to confine themselves to the safe haven of predictability; I didn't think it was so crazy for me to expect more from a third or fourth installment of a popular series, be it a reimagined style of level design or a meaningful evolution to an existing game mechanic.

I was betting that the recently announced Mega Man III would likely feature neither. Early previews were vague enough to where I couldn't be certain of that suspicion, sure, but I had track record to back me up; that is, I didn't have to look any further than proximate releases Mega Mans 4 and 5 to realize that Capcom was now stuck in a mode and increasingly unlikely to take any significant risks with its prized franchise. 


Thus, I wasn't so shocked when Nintendo Power Volume 44's full-length Mega Man III preview plainly confirmed that the formula for Capcom's latest was exactly what I was expecting: The remaining four Robot Masters from Mega Man 3, an intermediate stage featuring a Mega Man Killer, four Robot Masters from Mega Man 4 (their habitats comprising a grounded Wily fortress), and a final Wily compound--a pure copy-paste job in more than one respect.

I couldn't muster any amount of excitement over what I was seeing, yet I wasn't prepared to tell myself lies about how this game was skippable; I knew that I was going to run out and buy Mega Man III regardless of my current level of disinterest.


I played it safe and started with Snake Man's stage, as I always did in the NES game, and could sense right away that Mega Man III was more ambitious than its predecessor in terms of its immediately perceivable aesthetic qualities. As I played through subsequent stages--following the weakness chain I knew so well, naturally--I took note of how favorably the game's graphics compared to even its NES counterparts; though lacking true color, the visuals were sharper and more detailed, and the stages' backgrounds were full of cool, unique graphical elements like patches of animated palm trees and elongated spinal columns, which I thought was a key differentiator in a game whose design and structure were largely recycled from existing games. I was glad to see that Mega Man III was provided some degree of ownership over this material where the previous games were content to borrow wholesale.

The composer, Kouji Murata, abandoned the idea of creating distinctive tunes for each Robot Master stage, choosing instead to revert back to the practice of re-sampling related NES tunes, but I didn't see that as a regressive measure. No--I thought he did an outstanding job of recreating the classics, his efforts a compelling case for their permanent return; in fact, the soundtrack's composition reminded me a lot of the music in Wily's Revenge, whose wonderful arrangements were more melodious than their NES counterparts and boasted a more sustained energy (I'd give the soundtrack in Wily's Revenge a big edge, though, since its pieces were more boldly structured and featured a number of striking alterations). 


My favorite tune was actually one of Kouji's unique compositions: The moving opus as heard in Wily's ocean fortress, the game's final stage. I thought of it as one of the series' best tunes, its contrasting combination of upbeat and melancholic tones working together to create a reflective atmosphere as the means of spurring me on toward the finish (think of a movie montage where the hero determinedly races toward his final destination while besieged by mental images of his previous hardships); it fostered a pervasive air of culmination as it looped repeatedly over that lengthy final stage, its emotional resonance powerful enough to where I could almost be convinced that a grand finale--Mega Man's last stand--was nigh. That never was the intention, of course, so I ultimately came to interpret this piece more as an encapsulation of what Mega Man's world meant to me.

Though, there were some considerable drawbacks obviously resulting from the developers' aesthetic ambition. For one, the game was plagued constant slowdown to where extended portions of stages were seemingly elapsing in bullet time; the aging Game Boy simply couldn't keep up with all of the onscreen action plus the blinking, flashing and quivering background- and foreground-texture animations. Most annoyingly, the processing issues were also negatively affecting the game's ability to read control input, the sustained lag regularly eating up my button-presses and often resulting in an idle Mega Man when I was sure I jumped or slid. 


What helped to magnify these inadequacies were the level designers' sinister tendencies. I was only two or three Robot Masters in before it became painfully clear that Mega Man III was far more difficult than its immediate predecessor, whose difficulty was comparable to the dumbed-down "Normal" mode in Mega Man 2. More so than they did in the previous games, the level designers liked to use the cramped screen dimensions as a recurring obstacle, the worst of the stages littered with those close-quarter jumps where you were required to rely on pixel-precision and jump right at a platform's edge if you hoped to avoid hitting your head and falling into a gap. They also loved their cheap surprises, including an abundance of blind spike drops and the obnoxious placing of enemy spawn-points just beyond the screen border, which led to repeated instances of me being knocked into a pit, before I could even react, by an enemy that appeared out of nowhere.

They also had a thing for spike traps, which they used to a maddening effect in a couple of stages including Dust Man's, whose corridors were loaded with expansive spike pits in accessory to the aforementioned cramped jumps. This is where the game started pissing me off. I almost lost it in the hellish Dive Man stage, whose surfaces were practically made of spikes; there was a particularly nasty sequence toward the end where spike pillars and oscillating spike-lined platforms were placed everywhere, and I had to find a way to negotiate around them, again with pixel-perfect precision, while dealing with explosive mines and the irritating Mantans, which were always swimming in at awkward angles. I actively feared this stage more than any other; its looming presence would fill me with dread whenever I'd play Mega Man III.

I could tell that the designers were well aware of their mania. They weren't handing out Energy Tanks like lollipops because they were nice people; oh, no--they were doing it because they knew I'd need them to compensate for the insane enemy rate, the extensive damage ratios, and crippling bosses like Little Suzy (a giant Octopus Battery), which could repeatedly demonstrate for me the lovely mechanic of shaking the screen and eating my button input.


That's how I would summarize my time with Mega Man III: I was having fun with it, but the design choices were keeping me in a constant state of aggravation.

Take the battle with Mega Man Killer Punk, for instance: I thought he was a memorable foe, but all I could think was that his attack pattern had to have been conceived with a more spacious game in mind. I mean, I had good reflexes and all, but there was just no way that .005 seconds were enough for me to distinguish between Punk's high and low charge attacks. My reaction time improved over time, yes, but the game's unresponsive nature surely didn't; so even then, I still had to rely on luck to emerge victorious.

My conclusion was that Mega Man III wasn't a game meant to be "won." It was something you simply had to endure

After playing through Mega Man III two or three times in following, I was pretty much done with it; I avoided it for almost a decade because I'd determined that it was just too frustratingly difficult to be enjoyable, the cruelness of its level design far eclipsing the worst I'd ever experienced in any of the NES games. "Why would I want to play Mega Man III and drive myself to anger," I wondered, "when I'd be better suited to find enjoyment by playing the reliable Mega Man II?"


When I returned to Mega Man III via emulation sometime in 2000 (solely for the purpose of gathering information for my ill-fated Mega Man site), I realized that it wasn't as brutally tough as I originally gave it credit, and I surprisingly wasn't disliking it as much as I'd thought; it was as maddeningly designed as I remembered, certainly, but I was suddenly finding myself welcoming of its eccentricities even if I lacking for a sufficient reason. I also felt the same way about its two successors, which I avoided for a similar length of time. Hindsight, now, tells me that I had grown to appreciate them for their forgotten values and how their nostalgic vibes reminded me of a time when two of my greatest loves in this world were Mega Man and the Game Boy, both of which belonged to an era that had long since ended without me noticing. 

Time has taught me that these games were the last of their kind--their collective a vestige of an era when the Blue Bomber was such a force that he demanded yearly installments across two separate platforms. That he no longer commands that type of power is probably why I'm more forgiving of these games than I probably should be; considering their fading legacy, it seems more appropriate to cherish them in spite of their shortcomings.


I place Mega Man III and its successors, much like I do the NES entries post-Mega Man 3, in that special class of games whose meaning has changed over time: To the younger me, they represented the retreading of familiar ground--a reminder that the classic Mega Man series was content to be merely what it was and nothing grander. But to the person who has since watched the world change over the course of two decades and five generations of hardware, his thoughts tinged with fear that the medium's history is perilously close to being tossed away like a diseased albatross, they now emerge as a symbol of what he could never stand to lose.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, I agree that the difficulty of Gameboy Mega Man III was pretty brutal (moniker-wise, I would have liked it if Capcom had used the Japanese "World" sub-title in America too, to differentiate it more from the NES releases), but I prefer that to the insulting cake walk that was Mega Man II (I beat that one in two hours, tops, after opening the box--it's too bad that it didn't have a "Hard" mode like the NES version, as that would have given it more replay value--I wonder if there's a Game Genie code to double the damage enemies do?) Dust Man's stage is the one I really dread in MM3; I particularly hate those rising/lowering sections of blocks that you have to navigate through. It has never occurred to me that the frame rate/slowdown during the Giant Suzy battle could be the reason for my control pad/button inputs not reading, I just assumed that the shockwaves from the cyclopean machine's landings were doing that and it was an intentional gameplay mechanic of the battle (similar to how large bosses in other games can stun/interrupt you if you're on the ground when they land/stomp on terra firma).

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    1. Oh, Suzy's screen-rattling eating the player's input is surely intentional, but what makes it worse is that the battle is also plagued by unintentional (I think) frame-rate issues. It's emblematic of how the latter three Game Boy titles disregard system limitations in the name of ambitious graphical design.

      Solid games, though.

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