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Ranking the core Mega Man games

December 16,2017 19:22

Sadly, this game has nothing to do with the perfectly decent Mega Man & Bass that appeared on Super Famicom and, later, Game Boy Advance. Instead, this black-and-white release for the Japan-only WonderSwan handheld does its own thing ... and its own ...and more »


Capcom’s Mega Man for NES turns 30 years-old this week. Although the series sat dormant for the better part of a decade, fans were thrilled to learn the 11th chapter in the Super Fighting Robot’s quest for everlasting peace is on its way next year on every platform under the sun. With the franchise approaching one milestone and gearing up for another, now seems like a perfect time to take stock of the 20 different Mega Man platformers to date and ask, once and for all, which are best ... and which aren’t.
Capcom has published more than 50 unique Mega Man games over the years, across half a dozen different spinoffs and sub-franchises. For this list, however, I’ve focused strictly on the original, “classic” Mega Man games: The ones starring a small robot boy, formerly named Rock, who battles against Dr. Wily’s mad schemes for world domination in the year 200X.
I’ve also limited the list strictly to platform action games — which means none of Mega Man’s board game, adventure, sports, racing, or tactical RPG spinoffs have made the cut. Likewise, games featuring Mega Man cameos (e.g. Marvel Vs. Capcom) have been excluded as well. This is all about a blue ’bot and the endless struggle to keep the peace by jumping, shooting and stealing powers from vanquished enemies.

Mega Man (PC)Capcom
20: Mega Man (PC, 1990)
Capcom has made some poor Mega Man games in its time, but none of them quite compare in relentless wretchedness to the Mega Man games that came from other companies. This was the worst of the bunch: A half-baked, unbalanced, hideous-looking game featuring only three bosses in some of the worst stages ever committed to code.
Mega Man for PC feels like some sort of one-man side project built without access to any Capcom code or assets ... which is precisely what it was. For some strange reason, though, Capcom signed off on it anyway. Released concurrently with Mega Man 3 for NES, and featuring Mega Man 3 box art, this might be an even bigger bait-and-switch than the dreadful PC port of Street Fighter featuring arcade screenshots on the box that showed up right around the time Street Fighter 2 debuted. Which, come to think of it, was also a Capcom release. Hmm.

19: Mega Man 3 (PC, 1992)
While not as wretched as the first PC Mega Man, this sequel (yes, they skipped Mega Man 2) has even less to do with the actual NES games than its predecessor. It began life as a completely unrelated game concept and had the Mega Man brand grafted on midway through development. Think what Nintendo and Rare did with Starfox Adventures, except immensely terrible. On the plus side, it does at least have six bosses to deal with and a proper chain of weapons and weaknesses. But it still isn't fun, or good.

18: Mega Man & Bass: Challenger from the Future (WonderSwan, 1999)
Sadly, this game has nothing to do with the perfectly decent Mega Man & Bass that appeared on Super Famicom and, later, Game Boy Advance. Instead, this black-and-white release for the Japan-only WonderSwan handheld does its own thing ... and its own thing is pretty terrible. With memorable bosses like Aircon Man (as in “air conditioner”) and a deeply annoying habit of turning the action sideways mid-stage to take advantage of WonderSwan's vertical orientation option, the best thing you can say about this sloppy, lifeless game is that it never left Japan, sparing the rest of the world its ignominy.

17: Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge (Game Boy, 1991)
At this point in the rankings, we see a massive leap in quality for the games: Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge may not be great, but it does at least bear Capcom's official signet ring and consist of assets and mechanics taken straight from the excellent NES games. In fact, that's the entire gimmick behind the series' first four Game Boy releases: Swipe several stages and bosses from NES games, remix them, and add a new final gauntlet to survive. Unfortunately for this first attempt, Capcom (and development partner Minakuchi Engineering, which also collaborated with Nintendo on a number of its own Game Boy classics) didn't quite get the balance right. Controlling NES-sized sprites in the Game Boy screen resolution makes for lots of unfair, untelegraphed deaths: Pits you couldn't see, enemies attacking without enough warning to avoid. It's savagely difficult, but not in a good or satisfying way.

16: Mega Man III (Game Boy, 1992)
Conceptually similar to Dr. Wily's Revenge (except containing a different mix of warmed-over NES stages), Mega Man 3 suffers from many of the same problems as its portable predecessor. The action feels entirely too cramped on the tiny screen, and the newly created elements in Dr. Wily's fortress stage are punishingly difficult. While there is certainly something to be said for being able to play a fairly faithful adaptation of the NES hits on the go, this game hasn't aged well at all.

Mega Man 7Capcom
15: Mega Man 7 (Super NES, 1995)
The mere existence of this game was something of a miracle; the original team on the game dropped the ball, leaving an internal Capcom team (staffed by many who would later found Inti Creates) just a few months to pull something together and ship it. Despite the immense time crunch, the devs found time to include lots of wonderful details, such as special animations for hitting a boss' weakness and a Ghosts ’N Goblins-themed Easter egg in the vampiric Shade Man's stage. Still, despite the obvious love on display, there's something off about this game, making it the least appealing of the mainline Mega Man titles.

14: Mega Man II (Game Boy, 1992)
Long-time Mega Man boss Keiji Inafune has proclaimed this the worst Mega Man game of all time, but he's wrong. Mega Man II for Game Boy has some issues — the graphics and music feel more compromised than in other portable adaptations — but they're mostly technical. Working in the game's credit, the difficulty balance on this one is set to be far easier than in the other Game Boy Mega Man conversions. That does a lot to compensate for the fact that the shrunken viewpoint contains so many cheap deaths and unavoidable hits.
Plus, unlike several of the other NES-to-Game Boy titles, all eight robot masters get their own stages to rule (as opposed to the Game Boy formula of dumping the second half of the bosses into the Wily fortress stage). A masterpiece? Nah, but better than advertised.

13: Mega Man & Bass (Game Boy Advance, 2003)
Originally appearing only in Japan as an extremely late Super Famicom release, Mega Man & Bass made its way to the U.S. a few years later on Game Boy Advance. Maybe that's fitting; like the monochrome Game Boy Mega Man games, MM&B contains a lot of rehashed elements from another platform (in this case, sprites and even bosses from Mega Man 8 for PlayStation and Saturn), rendered slightly more difficult and unfair than one might prefer due to the reduced overall pixel resolution. Not a terrible game, but one that's certainly compromised. If you can track down the Super Famicom version, you can bump this entry about four spots upward on the list.

12: Mega Man IV (Game Boy, 1993)
Of the four Game Boy titles that consisted primarily of warmed-over NES assets, the final definitely holds up best. Everything here feels refined and, most of all, fair. The stages may lead to showdowns with recycled NES boss characters, but they throw in a lot of new elements and ideas along the way (including an item shop), which helps fight the sensation that you've seen this material already in a better form.

Mega Man 4Capcom
11: Mega Man 4 (NES, 1992)
The fourth NES Mega Man remains one of the most controversial entries in the series, and for good reason. Where the second and third games introduced improvements to the basic formula, Mega Man 4's big change felt like a bridge too far: It introduced the charge shot mechanic, allowing players to hold down the fire button to boost the power of Mega Man's Mega Buster cannon. The problem is, the game doesn't really feel designed to make use of it. It diminishes the value of the weapons you collect along the way, and being forced to charge up to damage certain enemies slows the action to a crawl.
Capcom wouldn't really figure out how to properly integrate a charged shot until Mega Man X. Here, it simply undermines the flow (and audio!) of the game, a huge flaw in an already somewhat lackluster set of levels, weapons and bosses.

10: Mega Man V (Game Boy, 1994)
The final monochrome outing for Mega Man is also his most refreshing. It took five games, but Minakuchi and Capcom finally came up with some new stage concepts and Robot Masters for Game Boy. This is the one handheld entry in the classic series to contain an all-new, full-length Mega Man adventure, and it's pretty great.
Rather than facing off against "[whatever] Man" robots made by Dr. Wily, Mega Man instead battles a series of droids based around a planetary theme ... which also gives the levels an excuse to take place across the solar system, leading to some interesting mechanics like reduced gravity. While still limited by the constraints of the system, this really does come across as the realization of everything the portable Mega Man entries had aspired to be and do.

Mega Man 10Capcom
9: Mega Man 10 (Various, 2010)
The second and final retro-style modern-day Mega Man entry, Mega Man 10 builds on Mega Man 9 in many ways ... but, at the same time, it also emerges as something of a letdown. The bosses lack inspiration, the stages feel predictable and rote, the secondary weapons lack punch, and the difficulty balance feels wildly uneven. On the other hand, the music might be the best in the series, the game offers a ton of interesting downloadable content, and you can play as multiple characters.
Overall, though, despite Mega Man 10's strengths, it adheres to rather than upends series conventions the way its predecessor did, serving as a reminder of the thin line between brilliance and banal inherent to Mega Man. It's something the NES games struggled to stay on the right side of, and Mega Man 10 feels like a callback to the lesser 8-bit sequels ...

Mega Man 5Capcom
8: Mega Man 5 (NES, 1992)
... namely, like Mega Man 5. You could kind of feel the Mega Man team running out of steam with this one. The bosses and weapons come off as a bit trite, the stage layouts frequently feel rote and even the series' notorious escalated difficulty level is nowhere to be seen: This is by far the least challenging NES Mega Man game, at least up until the brutal gauntlet at the very end of Dr. Wily's fortress. That said, the game does have plenty of bright moments: Gravity Man's stage features the NES's second-best use of inverted gravity, and Wave Man's level introduces auto-scrolling shooting to the series (which works well here but would go on to be used in far less appealing ways in later games). It's uneven and sometimes uninspired, but despite its by-the-numbers approach, you can tell the creators were trying.

Mega Man 6Capcom
7: Mega Man 6 (NES, 1994)
As with Mega Man 5, you get the sense Capcom's designers were really struggling to bring something, anything new to the table with yet another game on the same hardware. But by golly, they tried. Mega Man 6 introduces a number of small elements to keep the Mega Man formula lively, ranging from a new basic power for Mega Man (a jetpack) to branching stage paths in which secrets have been tucked away for curious explorers. As one of the final games ever released for NES, it also quite unsurprisingly has some of the best music and graphics on the system, and unlike Mega Man 5, the extra weapons you collect along the way feel useful and fun. The fatigue of relentless near-identical NES sequels tends to color this game negatively among fans, but in hindsight it stands out as one of the more underappreciated chapters in the classic Mega Man saga.

Mega ManCapcom
6: Mega Man (NES, 1987)
The game that started it all got things more or less right directly off the starting blocks. Sure, there are some elements here that would prove to be superfluous (it's the only classic Mega Man with a score tally, complete with enemy drops that exist strictly to award points). And yes, you only take on six Robot Masters instead of eight. OK, and the way you can miss the Magnet Beam even though it's required to complete the game isn't ideal.
But still, the fundamental concepts that would carry Mega Man through three decades of sequels and spinoffs debuts here with remarkable clarity of purpose and inspiration. Mega Man himself changed very little over the years, and the freedom to play levels in any order and use the weapons you earn by beating each stage's boss remains one of gaming's simplest and most compelling ways to enhance replay value. Later games would improve on the foundation Capcom set into place here, sure, but that foundation in and of itself wouldn't really change all that much.

Mega Man 8Capcom
5: Mega Man 8 (Various, 1997)
Time has been kind to the sole 32-bit entry of the classic Mega Man franchise. It felt like a relic at the time: a defiantly 2D side-scroller filled with gentle pastel colors released as the entire industry rushed headlong into polygons and angry darkness. Two decades later, however, it stands as a technical high water mark for the franchise, with the finest hand-drawn animation of any Mega Man game and some pretty solid design ideas.
Only two factors drag down this otherwise excellent game. First, it features entirely too many auto-scrolling sequences whose questionable design required the dev team to add visual and voice indicators to guide players (JUMP! JUMP! SLIDE! SLIDE!) — never a good sign. Secondly, the decision to remove health-restoring Energy Tanks combined with the mandatory use of a gimmicky unique weapon (basically, an explosive soccer ball) turns the endgame sequence into an absolutely miserable uphill battle entirely at odds with the remainder of the game. Still, two missteps amidst so much excellence equals a great game regardless.

Mega Man 3Capcom
4: Mega Man 3 (NES, 1990)
It always comes down neck-and-neck in any fandom argument to a bitter feud between Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3; it's this series' version of the Super Mario Bros. 3 vs. Super Mario World argument. Well, here are the cold, hard facts: Mega Man 3 simply isn't quite as good as its immediate predecessor. It's a close call, but Capcom had to put Mega Man 3 to bed a bit ahead of schedule, and you can tell it's rushed in places. Some of the stages feel sloppy and incomplete (especially the boring grind through the fish egg sections of Gemini Man's stage); the weapons feel like dull retreads of Mega Man 2's; weird collision glitches result in unfair deaths in unlikely places; and the Wily fortress stages don't offer much in the way of memorability.
That said, Mega Man 3 adds a lot of great stuff to the Mega Man universe. Loyal robo-canine Rush replaces the generic numbered Items of the last game. Mega Man's slide move adds new opportunities for game design and combat challenges. And while some of the stages are bewildering messes (why on earth does Top Man inhabit a greenhouse?), others (such as the rippling floors of Snake Man's stage) leave a lasting impression. And the "Doc Robot" remix stages put a new spin on four levels while offering a new perspective on Mega Man 2's bosses. An all-time NES great, regardless of its ranking.

Mega Man 2Capcom
3: Mega Man 2 (NES, 1989)
Capcom famously chose not to greenlight Mega Man 2 at first, because the original game didn't make much of an impression at retail. The Mega Man team believed in the concept, though, and created this sequel on the sly. And it shows: This is clearly a passion project through and through. Yes, it has some rough patches. That one boss in Wily's fortress is a design nightmare, and the Metal Blade weapon is so versatile, powerful and inexpensive to use that it prevents players from appreciating how great the rest of Mega Man's arsenal is here.
Overall, though, Mega Man 2 sees Capcom hammering all the raw invention seen in the first game into a more refined experience. Scoring is dropped, replaced instead by a password save system and Energy Tanks to help players in a pinch. The Magnet Beam becomes the three Items, each of which have their own situational value. The six Robot Masters become eight, yet despite the expansion each one inhabits a unique environment and wields a distinct weapon with practical applications within the game world. The game presents you with multiple solutions to even the toughest scenario. Can't hack the endless vanishing block gauntlet in Heat Man's stage? Hop on Item-2 to scoot past the pits. Quick Man's laser grid getting you down? Freeze the beams with Time Stopper — though doing so puts you at a disadvantage against Quick Man himself.
Meanwhile, the graphics are stunning, especially those giant bosses in Wily's lair ... and speaking of Wily's lair, Mega Man 2 set a new standard for NES soundtracks, with more than a dozen memorable themes. The U.S. version even includes an easy difficulty option to ease new players into the action. This remains the best-selling Mega Man game of all time for a reason: It was quite simply one of the best games ever published on NES, and it remains a masterpiece.

Mega Man 9Capcom
2: Mega Man 9 (Various, 2008)
Mega Man 2 wasn't the last time Mega Man would be truly great by any means, and in fact one of the series' ultimate high points would be built years later specifically with Mega Man 2 as its launching point. Debuting nearly 20 years after Mega Man 2 first hit, Mega Man 9 adopted a deliberately backward style: Not only did it debut on Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with graphics designed specifically in the NES mold, it even rolled back the workings of Mega Man action to adhere to the restrictions of Mega Man 2. No charge shot, no sliding, just simple run-and-jump action.
While this approach could have come off as cynical, Mega Man 9 walks a fine line between nostalgia-bait and genuine understanding of the advantages inherent in NES-style fundamentals. The graphics may look old, but they allow the action to be fast and responsive. More than that, though, Mega Man 9 plays off of decades of fan expectations. It uses its retro visuals and music to put players in an 8-bit mindset. Then, it systematically subverts each and every one of those expectations. The game stops just short of flat-out trolling, but you have to admire the way it constantly applies its mechanics in a way that works just a little bit differently than Mega Man platforming and traps normally play out. Mega Man 9 forces long-time enthusiasts to rethink their assumptions and stay on their toes, sometimes even taking sections of previous Mega Man games and reworking them to devastating new effect.
Meanwhile, it gets all the basic details right. The music sounds incredible. The weapons have practical value while maintaining a unique look and style. The bosses largely break from the standard fare, with unconventional appearances that range from Galaxy Man (a walking flying saucer) to Splash Woman (a mermaid, and also the series' first female boss). All of that culminates in Wily's incredible fortress, a no-holds-barred platforming and combat gauntlet to test the most capable player's skills. If Mega Man 9 has a flaw, it's that the game is a real experts-only affair, designed to challenge Mega Man pros. But as a love letter to fans from long-time stewards of the series, it's absolutely unmatched.

Mega Man: Powered UpCapcom
1: Mega Man: Powered Up (PlayStation Portable, 2006)
Still, the best Mega Man is, in a sense, the original Mega Man. Mega Man Powered Up hit PlayStation Portable back in 2006, and on its surface it's nothing more than a simple 3D remake of the first NES game. In truth, however, Powered Up offers so much more than a mere retread.
For starters, this remake allowed some long-time staffers to go back in a rework the promising-but-rough original Mega Man into something that fits more comfortably with the other games in the series. Besides a straight polygonal remake of the NES game, there's also a "new style" mode that adds an introductory level, completely reworks stages and battles — including a massive reinvention of the final Dr. Wily showdown — and inserts two new bosses and stages (Oil Man and Time Man) to bring the Robot Master complement up to the standard eight.
But that's not all! Powered Up also includes 100 challenges stages to master. And there's a secret bonus to the game as well: Any time you defeat a Robot Master without exploiting its weakness, you'll spare its life and recruit it as a playable character. All told, Powered Up allows you to complete the game as all eight Robot Masters, four different versions of Mega Man, three versions of Roll and even Protoman.
On top of that, Powered Up also contains a comprehensive level construction kit, complete with online sharing features. That's right: nearly a full decade before Super Mario Maker, Mega Man beat Nintendo to the punch.
The sheer amount of content in this package takes a very good game and elevates it very nearly to perfection. Powered Up remains unmatched by any other Mega Man release. Heartbreakingly, it performed below expectations at release — with its cutesy art style and retro gameplay, it felt more like a Nintendo-friendly creation, and it proved a poor match for the style-obsessed PSP user base of the time — and Capcom never followed up on it. But that simply makes Powered Up all the more precious.

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