5. Mega Man Legends 2 (PlayStation, 2000)
I'm going to hazard a guess that, with the jump into the 32-bit era, Inafune and his team were unsure of how Mega Man could be adapted into 3D. This uncertainty led to two paths: a continuation of the Classic and X series in the familiar 2D style as well as an experimental 3D action-adventure so far removed from the traditional template that it was Mega Man in name only. That game, of course, was Mega Man Legends.
As with the first Mega Man on NES, Legends felt more like a proof of concept than a fully realized game. The rough third-person shooting controls took some getting used to, the ruins that Mega Man explored were excessively dark and barren, and the complete disassociation from its predecessors made it difficult for the game to attract a sizable audience.
Despite all that, Legends was able to create a living world populated by the best characters in the entire franchise. Thanks to voiced in-engine cutscenes with surprisingly detailed facial animations, fans fell in love with the tomboyish Roll Caskett, the hilariously inept Bonne pirate family, and the adorable Servbots, which looked all the world like overgrown LEGO minifigs.
With that foundation firmly established, Mega Man Legends 2 was able to expand the world further while correcting all the first game's shortcomings. The broken tank controls of before were streamlined thanks to the DualShock's analog sticks, and the once sparse environments were given a heavy facelift. But beyond those necessary changes were a bunch of subtle tweaks that resulted in a truly complete product.
The first Legends introduced us to the cast and the fun situations they find themselves in, but Legends 2 raised the stakes and crafted a story so profound that it impacted the entire franchise narrative. When you reach the end of Legends 2, you realize that the entire line of Mega Men and their comrades in arms have been engaged in a futile struggle, and mankind's ultimate fate was set in stone from the beginning.
Most Mega Man games are not deep, emotionally charged experiences. Mega Man Legends 2 was an outlier; it's no mystery why so many fans want to see the tale continue.
4. Mega Man V (Game Boy, 1994)
The first four Mega Man games on Game Boy each followed the same pattern: take four Robot Masters from its NES eponym, take another four Robot Masters from that game's direct sequel, then top it off with an original ninth Robot Master. For example, the first Game Boy installment featured Cut Man, Elec Man, Ice Man, and Fire Man from MM1; Bubble Man, Heat Man, Flash Man, and Quick Man from MM2; and a "Mega Man Killer" called Enker whose weapon could reflect enemy attacks.
While entertaining enough, they couldn't quite shake the stigma of being condensed versions of the real games on home consoles. It wasn't until Mega Man IV that the portable line actually started challenging its big brothers in scope and polish. Still, no one could have expected that Mega Man V would wind up being the most unique platformer in the entire Classic series.
This time around, bosses weren't hand-me-downs from the NES stable. Instead, we got the Stardroids, nigh-invincible alien warrior machines named after the nine planets in our Solar System -- this was of course back when Pluto was still counted as a planet. And instead of a charge shot, Mega Man would fire his entire fist like a rocket, an ability which could be enhanced to latch onto enemies for additional damage or to retrieve out-of-reach items.
The space theme affected everything from the soundtrack to the army of completely original stage enemies. MMV simply had its own identity, completely distinct from its NES cousins. Of course, it turns out that Dr. Wily was pulling the strings all along, but in a surprising twist, he is not the final boss. It's one of the many curveballs the game throws at you, challenging your expectations of what you'd normally see in a traditional Mega Man.
Mega Man V demonstrated that there were many other potential branches that the series could grow along. It's such a shame that the Game Boy off-shoots ended here and that the later Classic entries would never again stray so wildly from the standard template.
3. Mega Man 2 (NES, 1989 / Wii Virtual Console, 2008 / PlayStation Network, 2011 / 3DS Virtual Console, 2013 / Wii U Virtual Console, 2013)
The original Mega Man on NES demonstrated a potential for greatness, but it needed more time to be properly fleshed out. While Capcom's top dogs looked at the poor sales and didn't think a sequel was in the company's best interests, the dev team was so passionate that they were allowed to work on Mega Man 2, but only in their spare time. With all the chips on the table and nothing left to lose, the team put everything they had into this dream project.
Mega Man 2 is now remembered as one of the best games on the NES, the launchpad for Mega Man fandom, and the inspiration for many future action platformers.
There are so many things you could name as the single defining feature of MM2, but it was how they all worked together that elevated the game to legendary status. There was the soundtrack, an addictive selection of '80s electronica- and rock-inspired chiptunes. There were the bosses, a rogues gallery of Japanese tokusatsu knock-offs. And there were the weapons, which were as practical in battle as they were fun to just goof around with.
Maybe its best defined by some of its more memorable moments. Like the insta-kill laser traps in Quick Man's domain, which required split-second reaction time or the use of Flash Man's Time Stopper to successfully clear. Or the ridiculously long disappearing blocks sequence in Heat Man's level, which could be bypassed if you already acquired the "Item-2" jet sled. Or the big reveal that Dr. Wily was actually an alien in disguise -- but not really!
A loose and free-form adventure, MM2 was unfortunately not as balanced as its successors. The difficulty would suddenly spike without warning, as with the aforementioned Quick Man and Heat Man obstacles, while the overpowered Metal Blade weapon from Metal Man almost made the rest of the game too easy.
But perhaps that's why Mega Man 2 is so beloved. That beautifully chaotic blend of concepts that prevented the game from feeling too clinical -- you have to admire such purity.
2. Mega Man 6 (NES, 1994 / 3DS Virtual Console, 2013)
Mega Man 6 had the misfortune of being not only the sixth main entry in an increasingly repetitive series but also one of the last games for the NES, released at a time when the SNES had already found its stride. Players were weighed down by franchise fatigue and a desire to see the Blue Bomber make a proper leap into the 16-bit era. As a result, I feel that most people were unable to judge MM6 fairly.
Like with MM2's development, the MM6 team was laying it all on the line for one last hurrah, only now they possessed an exhaustive knowledge of the NES hardware and how to push it to its limits. Both the graphics and soundtrack were richer and more detailed than nearly everything else in the NES library, yet even those were merely indicative of even greater change.
With the exception of the Stardroids in MMV, none of the bosses in other Mega Man games were unified under a common theme. In MM6, each of the Robot Masters represented a particular nation and sported design elements that reflected their country of origin. Among the crew were Flame Man, a turban-wearing Arabian operating out of a Middle Eastern oil refinery; Tomahawk Man, a Native American in a ridiculously oversized ceremonial headdress; Yamato Man, a samurai guarding a feudal Japanese fortress; and so on.
But the biggest game-changer was robo-dog Rush's new functions. Since MM3, Rush had served as a support unit that could transform into a spring, jet sled, or submarine to grant Mega Man access to otherwise restricted areas. This time around, Rush merged with Mega Man to form one of two suits of armor. These suits could be worn indefinitely and did not consume weapons energy, providing players with entirely new ways to play, explore, and experiment.
Instead of breaking the game, these new suits offered a balance of advantages and disadvantages. Jet Mega Man could reach high ledges and ladders, but his flight path was affected by momentum and he could not fire charged shots. Power Mega Man could break through cracked walls and even damage shielded enemies, but his attacks needed to be made in close range. Most of all, both forms removed the slide ability, limiting Mega Man's maneuverability somewhat.
Rush suits aside, Mega Man 6 didn't innovate in any significant way, but it didn't have to. It took what worked before, expanded upon it, then polished the hell out of it. And the end product is nothing short of a technical and creative marvel.
1. Mega Man X (SNES, 1994 / PC, 1995 / Wii Virtual Console, 2011 / Wii U Virtual Console, 2013)
The quest for perfection -- the perfect movie, the perfect book, the perfect game -- is often deemed a foolish endeavor. Because really, what is perfect? There will always be flaws. But at what point are those flaws so imperceptible that a creative work can be considered flawless by any reasonable measure?
Mega Man X is a perfect game.
This is what a next-generation evolution is supposed to be. MMX retained everything that made the Classic series great and then some. The world was edgier, the graphics sleeker, the music heavier, and the enemies deadlier. New abilities like dashing and wall climbing altered the fundamentals of navigation and combat, and the incorporation of hidden armor parts and health extensions resulted in a dynamic difficulty curve for players of literally any skill level.
The option to play stages in any order has always been a hallmark of the franchise, but MMX added extra replay incentive by altering the topography of certain stages depending on which bosses you've already defeated. Did you find Flame Mammoth's fiery lair too difficult? On the next playthrough, you'd discover that the molten metal cools after you beat Chill Penguin. Combined with the aforementioned hidden items, you could tailor your experience however you saw fit.
And then there was Zero. With his red armor and long flowing hair, he became the definition of cool. Everyone want to be Zero. Everyone wanted to play as Zero. But you couldn't play as Zero, because he had to die so that X could realize his destiny. Sure, later games in the X series would downplay the significance of his sacrifice by constantly bringing him back to life, but there was something inspiring about the passing of the torch from the hardened vet to the young rookie.
Mega Man X is not just the best Mega Man game, it's also one of the best videogames ever made.
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