Was “Mega Man” always the most punishing game ever? Seriously, am I just getting old? Playing the “Mega Man Legacy Collection,” released yesterday on the PlayStation Store from Capcom, I was struck by two things that date the games most of all:
A.) It’s really, really unforgiving. We’ve become accustomed to games that hold our hand, give us multiple tries, and generally teach us what to do next. Not “Mega Man” or its five sequels.
B.) We were remarkably forgiving of game franchises that essentially trotted out the same game with every sequel. It’s funny that I hear so much complaining about “Call of Duty” and even “Assassin’s Creed” games losing their spark because the companies behind them repeat themselves annually instead of taking the time to really craft new experiences when the first six “Mega Man” games, all included in this collection, are essentially identical.Having said that, these six “Mega Man” games are undeniably essential to the history of the form. I’m old enough to remember when they were “breakthrough,” and can now more appreciate them as “nostalgia” (isn’t it funny how everything makes that shift eventually?) From 1987 to 1993, Capcom released six “Mega Man” games (many more have been released internationally since, and the franchise has sold over 30 million copies worldwide), and they were MASSIVE. I haven’t played one of these games in over twenty years, and I was amazed at how familiar they were, even the addictive earworm of a theme song that I could have easily picked out of a Name That Tune contest.
The “Legacy Collection” includes all six games with few bells and whistles. In fact, they look almost identical, down to the archaic menu screens and 4:3 presentation.
If you’re totally unfamiliar, there were two reasons that the “Mega Man” were breakthrough. Unlike the Atari or Nintendo games of the day, you felt like you had some choice as to how these games unfolded. Believe it or not, as clunky as they sometimes look now and as simple as the concept sounds, the “Mega Man” games helped introduce deeper authorship to games. Your “Super Mario Bros.” experience was nearly identical to your friend’s. However, “Mega Man” games were designed so you could pick the level you wanted to do next. Looking like a twisted “Brady Bunch” menu screen with your character in the middle and enemies in the other eight spots, each “Mega Man” game allows you to pick the order in which you defeat your enemies. And then when you defeat the bad guys, you get their powers, making it easier to complete the other levels and access hidden areas in later games.
The first “Mega Man” wasn’t even that big of a hit (partially because the cover art was hysterically horrible and because it was damn-near impossible to beat) but critics embraced it, largely for the reasons mentioned above. Capcom and company tweaked the formula slightly after that first game, and you can see gameplay improvements immediately in “Mega Man 2,” but definitely by “Mega Man 3,” which I remember being a major game for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Think about how many games have come and gone in the 28 years since “Mega Man” debuted. Think about how many games have been influenced by the style, authorship, and even difficulty of these titles. We’ve reached a point in the history of gaming in which we have “Classic Games” much like we have Classic Rock in music—artistic creations that influenced everything to come. Is “Mega Man Legacy Collection” the most fun you can have with your PS4 this week? Heck no, our rave reviews of “Madden NFL 16” and “Until Dawn” make that clear. But it’s a fun throwback to some of the most important games of all time. Most of all, it can offer insight into how we got from “Mega Man” to “Until Dawn,” believe it or not. Consider it Video Game School, right from your couch.