Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Mega Man Legacy Collection

Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC

Mega Man Legacy Collection
Mega Man Legacy Collection bundles together the first six Mega Man games from the NES, all of which follow a plucky robot hero's struggle against the mechanized hordes of Dr. Wily. The anthology also includes a database, and art gallery, and a set of unique challenges created just for this release.
Mega Man wasn't meant to survive. As longtime series producer Keiji Inafune relayed, CAPCOM's heads initially didn't want to make a sequel to the original 1987 Mega Man. They were content to leave it an impressive but not particularly profitable stand-alone NES game. Mega Man 2's staff got the go-ahead only after they agreed to work on the game in their spare time and dedicate their daytime hours to more important projects. A simple corporate change of heart, and Mega Man 2 could've been canceled.

Fortunately, Mega Man 2 saw release, became a widespread success, and laid the groundwork for a small empire of Mega Man sequels, spin-offs, merchandise, questionable cartoons, and, of course, compilations. The older portions of the series reappeared in collected form over the years, but Mega Man Legacy Collection attempts a truly accurate presentation of the first six games as they were on the NES—plus a few extras.

Newcomers might start with the first Mega Man; not because it's the best in the line, but because it shows just how much the subsequent games would evolve. Make no mistake, it's very progressive for a time when the typical NES action game was Mighty Bomb Jack or Kid Niki. Even its hero is more distinct. Mega Man is a puffy little robot hero facing an outbreak of rogue automata led by the scheming Dr. Wily; in other words, Mega Man is Astro Boy and Kikaider dropped into a Casshern plotline. Yet CAPCOM arranged his battle in creative style. Mega Man can take on the game's first six stages in any order, and defeating each level's robot master earns him a new weapon. It brings strategy along with the usual running, jumping, and shooting. Players must discover which weapon work best against which bosses, and how each new piece of the arsenal opens up new parts of a stage. Even today, Mega Man invites an experimentation that many games ignore.

Of course, the first Mega Man remains a rough draft. The characters are half-cute things that reflect a pop culture spread from superhero comics to googly eyed anime, but they're still simple. The robot leaders are so straightforward that they're a little dull, with only the hulking construction robot Guts Man (that's Guts as in "hard work and guts," not innards) standing out among Ice Man, Fire Man, and Bomb Man.

The game's also built with grueling old-school design. Later games offered healing energy tanks and less lethal spikes, but Mega Man has no such salves. The final multi-stage trek through Dr. Wily's castle would be fiendish without a merciful glitch: pause it at the right time, and you can multiply the damage done by certain weapons.

If Mega Man is a crude garage demo, Mega Man 2 is its brilliant, vindicating, and somehow even more earnest studio-taped successor. The premise remains the same, though Wily's army of robot generals expands from six to eight. It's a much stronger game all around. The bosses are memorable, pushing the same cartoon appeal with new quirks: Bubble Man wears a diving suit and Wood Man (don't snicker) is a living stump, while Air Man is an anthropomorphic wind turbine and Metal Man wears a buzzsaw like a doctor's reflector. Every stage has unique details driven on by some great music. It may be a mere NES game, but the faux instrumentation is rhythmic and catchy.

Mega Man 2 is also an easier game, but it's better for it. The weapons granted by the bosses are engaging and useful, to the point where the Metal Blade and its multi-angle firing can safely replace Mega Man's default weapon. Anyone skilled in old-school games shouldn't need more than an hour to make it through Mega Man 2, but along the way they'll see many staples of the series perfected: jumping from one disappearing block to another above a sea of magma in Heat Man's stage, dodging lasers on either side in Quick Man's subterranean lair, suddenly finding an enormous mecha-dragon chasing Mega Man across tiny blocks, or facing Dr. Wily in what may be the first (and last) instance of a Mega Man final boss shocking the player.

The game even toughens up by just the right measure toward the end, as a boss in Dr. Wily's castle needs careful planning (and perhaps multiple tries) to finish, and Wily's final form is impervious to all but the least useful weapon. After all, the best challenges have a small, carefully measured dose of pure bullshit.

Beyond that, Mega Man 2 feels like a game its designers genuinely wanted to make—and fought for the chance to make it. Each boss and level stands out, and ideas are never reused so much as to grow old. Nothing is bloated, and nothing is held back for sequels. Mega Man 2 has that desperate inspiration that comes from designers (and directors, writers, and musicians) knowing that this is their big chance. If it was to be Mega Man's last outing, they were going to send him off in style.

Goodbyes weren't necessary, of course. Mega Man 3 followed in 1990, and it rode similarly high. The game found Dr. Wily supposedly reformed and working with Mega Man creator Dr. Light, though this proved only the first of many predictable betrayals. It feels very much like an expansion of Mega Man 2's core ideas: large robo-bosses are more detailed and numerous, Mega Man's robot dog Rush handles transportation, and a sliding move makes our hero more agile. Mega Man's brother Proto Man (another Tezuka/Ishinomori homage) also pops up in the middle of certain stages.

Mega Man 3 isn't an even stage. Inafune himself resents the game a little due to CAPCOM rushing it to market in the wake of Mega Man 2's success. The code allows for more cheats than other Mega Man titles, and the game needlessly puffs itself up with return trips and reused material. After the eight robots are defeated, Mega Man goes back to four remixed versions of their stages and fights Doc Robot incarnations of the Mega Man 2 bosses. That sloppiness isn't without benefits, though. Other Mega Man games link bosses in a circle of weakness: beat one of them, and you can use his weapon to take down another boss easily. It's not so in Mega Man 3, where three stage masters are linked in a trio that players can't break with other weapons.

Slapdash work aside, Mega Man 3 still impresses. The game's robot masters are entertaining and stylish, even if one is named Hard Man, and the stages offer plenty of challenge. Proto Man, while not affecting gameplay much, brings some much-needed ambiguity to a largely plotless game. The weaponry, while not as useful as Metal Blade, stands out well even when Mega Man's just trudging through a level. It's a creative outing—and perhaps the last really memorable game Mega Man would get on the NES.

Something is missing in Mega Man 4. In ways that don't matter, it's a better game than Mega Man 3. Instead of facing recycled stages and enemies, Mega Man takes on the castle of Dr. Cossack in between defeating eight level-leader robots and heading off to Dr. Wily's fortress. In visuals, too, it's an improvement, sporting many larger mid-stage bosses and less flicker in the graphics. It adds a new attack to Mega Man's regular Buster shot, which can now charge up a powerful bolt when the fire Button is held down.

Even so, Mega Man 4 is blander. The master robots seem lazy in their encounters with Mega Man, whether they're generic designs or the more outlandish Toad Man, Pharaoh Man, and Dust Man (the last of which was the work of a young Yūsuke Murata). The same goes for the weapons they relinquish, most of which seem like duller versions of previous Mega Man arsenals. There's a subdued, moody undertone to much of the game, particularly in the more inventive levels, and it bogs down the goofy appeal of the game. Mega Man isn't supposed to be gloomy. Save that for the Mega Man X series.

Mega Man V continues the holding pattern. It's entirely within the Mega Man formula: a legion of haywire robots threatens the world, and Mega Man picks his way through stages headed by the revolt's eight leaders. Dr. Wily is behind it, though this time the megalomaniac frames Proto Man as the mastermind. Even the game's prologue isn't convinced.

If it's hackneyed by this point, Mega Man 5 at least puts some style into its clichés. The game is brighter and quicker than Mega Man 4, with a sharper high-tech look replacing the dour tones of its predecessor. And if masters like Napalm Man and Crystal Man (another Murata submission) aren't as slick as the second game's cast, the robots and their weapons have a toylike appeal.

The levels offer only a few standouts, but they're good ones: Gravity Man's stage tosses Mega Man to the ceilings and back, while Wave Man's level breaks into a leisurely seabike shooter. The game only stalls out at Proto Man's castle, which offers dull palette-swapped robots as bosses. Well, it's not Proto Man's fault. He didn't build it.

Mega Man 6 courts self-parody in its setup. The robot masters are come from an international competition, showcasing the likes of Yamato Man, Tomahawk Man, Knight Man, and Centaur Man. They're hijacked by the mysterious Mr. X, who looks a lot like Dr. Wily but is of course an original villain with no connections to Wily whatsoever.

If nothing else, Mega Man 6 looks better than its predecessors. It came at the end of the NES era, and its backgrounds and animation show CAPCOM's experience with the hardware. Yet it's uninspired beneath. For all of their silly appearances, the bosses aren't interesting when faced in battle. The weapons are uninspired, and the music offers only one truly memorable track (that'd be Flame Man's level). The sole innovation is a line of power-up armor for Mega Man. Like the chargeable Mega Buster, it's another reason to ignore the rest of the weapons.

The Mega Man series lost its inspiration, but it was hard for CAPCOM to make a truly lifeless Mega Man outing on the NES. The gameplay remains solid in the later games, and the formula still works. Each title's bosses form a puzzle of vulnerabilities, tasking you to figure out a stage leader's weakness through experimentation and vague hops of intuition. Sure, Blizzard Man probably takes extra damage from Flame Man's weapon...or vice versa. But what's the logical Achilles' Heel for Star Man or Drill Man or Needle Man? It's fun to learn just how each weapon fits into the equation, especially when that discovery is backed by exact controls, upbeat music, and adorable, wide-eyed robots.

The Legacy Collection presents all of this better than any other Mega Man roundup. True, it's not as large as the Mega Man Anniversary Collection from 2004, which packed in Mega Man 7 and 8 as well as two arcade games. Yet Legacy Collection is far more careful in its presentation. The games are exactly as they were on the NES, with filters offering either clear and sharp pixels or various filtered monitor views. It's not without drawbacks, though. The Digital Eclipse engine that runs the games seems oddly demanding on PCs. In preserving the titles it also painstakingly includes all of the flickering sprites and occasional slowdown encountered in the NES originals, and that's a dubious loyalty. An NES-like authenticity was the collection's highest goal, but graphical glitches are more a technical issue than an aesthetic one. Fixing them would be comparable to removing dirt and scratches from an old film, and few complain about that.

No secret games hide within Mega Man Legacy Collection, but it packs plenty of entertaining features. A Challenge mode strings together bits of stages from all six games. Some are boss rushes, some are loosely linked by common enemies, and one drops you into the Mecha-Dragon battle with only seconds to react. Also engaging are database and galleries that detail just about every enemy, including some rejected robot master designs straight out of the Mega Man: Official Complete Works book. It also lets players skip straight to boss battles, and that's handy for testing weapons and seeing just who offers the toughest fight. For my money, it's Shadow Man from Mega Man 3.

The Legacy Collection isn't an all-encompassing chronicle of Mega Man, but it ably captures his first great heights as well as his slide into mediocrity. And even that mediocrity is enjoyable. Whether they're classics like Mega Man 2 or merely decent outings like Mega Man 6, they're ably crafted titles that rank well above the typical side-scrollers of any era. Mega Man might've been a one-shot in CAPCOM's original plans, but Legacy Collection shows just why it deserved more.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : A

+ Fun side-scrolling games all around, with Mega Man 2 particularly great
There's a noticeable drop after the third game

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