Mega Man 4
For me, Mega Man 4 marked the end of the NESís prime years. I certainly didnít see it as such at the time, but in retrospect itís tough not to see the hard demarcation between the systemís vibrant peak and its dwindling twilight years. Mega Man 4 is where that line was drawn in the sand for me.
This isnít to say the NES up and died the day Mega Man 4 hit stores, because it didnít. Nor am I suggesting Mega Man 4 a disaster of a game, because it wasnít. The game simply marked the point at which most developers began maxing out the system, when their reach began to exceed their grasp, when 16-bit envy set in and the NES library began to suffer for it.
The arrival of technologically superior competitors like TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis didnít spell the instant demise of the NES, of course. In many cases, it pushed NES developers to work even harder to create the most incredible 8-bit experiences possible. Even with the Super NES looming on the horizon, the NES had a few good years of satisfying life left in it. But it also had games like Mega Man 4, which suggested the writing was on the wall.
Mega Man 4, as you might expect from the fourth annual iteration of a series, was a well-made yet thoroughly predictable videogame. It held no surprises for loyal fans, sending its titular hero through eight selectable stages to defeat the themed robot master within, win its weapon, and advance to take down Dr. Wily in a skull-shaped techno-castle. The plot made a furtive attempt to throw gamers off Wilyís scent by introducing a new foe named Dr. Cossack, but after Wilyís pretense of retribution in Mega Man 3, few were fooled -- if they even cared in the first place. Mega Man wasnít exactly the sort of game you played for its stirring plotline.
No, you played Mega Man games because they offered tightly crafted run-and-jump shooting action in beautifully designed stages populated by huge robots crammed with personality. In that regard, Mega Man 4 didnít disappoint. Its level themes were far more coherent than Mega Man 3ís weird mish-mash of designs, and the enemy robots were more artfully rendered than ever before. It was definitely the most technically accomplished Mega Man game to date.
The problem, however, is that all that visual finesse and programming expertise and general sense of coherence was squandered on a game that felt largely uninspired. For the first time, Mega Man felt like he was simply going through the motions. Mega Man 2 had offered tremendous creative leaps over its predecessor, and Mega Man 3 added depth and refinement to the mix. Mega Man 4 offered very little new, and what modest additions it made were uninspired at best, game-ruining at worst.
The new collection of robot masters took their cues from Mega Man 3ís Top Man, making an art of insipidness. Dust Man is the obvious offender, in truth a weirdly named garbage compactor of an enemy, but Mega Man 4 had a full slate of lame ducks. Pharaoh Man and Toad Man reek of the designers trying too hard -- or rather, of not vetting user contributions scrupulously enough -- while Ring Man was completely insipid. Even the submarine-themed Dive Man was a dud, despite the fact that a submarine-themed robot enemy should have been amazing.
Mega Man 4ís biggest failing, however, was in its sole addition to the seriesí core mechanics: the charge shot. The series earned success thanks in large part to the thoughtful design given to Mega Manís capabilities; the hero began each game capable but intrinsically weak. Only by defeating his enemies could he add new powers to his arsenal, and even then each new addition was only situationally valuable. The default arm cannon wasnít terribly strong, but it was universally effective. The central action of the first three Mega Man games was deliberately balanced, encouraging players to experiment with different power-ups and always leaving the basic ďP-shooterĒ as a fall-back for when the available extra weapons were no longer suitable for the challenges ahead.
The Megabusterís charge shot changed that. Suddenly, the arm cannon was no longer a flimsy tool of last resort; it could be charged in just a few seconds to become nearly as powerful any of the robot mastersí weapons -- and unlike Mega Manís secondary powers, it had infinite ammo. While the charged shot was rarely exactly as powerful as a sub-weapon when used against something vulnerable to that particular weapon, it came close. And it didnít need to be swapped out or recharged, and there was never any question that it would work against a given enemy. The ability to charge Mega Manís blaster almost completely obviated the need for sub-weapons, especially since the first eight levels of the game had to be designed to allow players to approach them in any sequence and thus couldnít require the use of specific extra powers.
Worst of all, the oscillating hum it made while being charged occupied one of the NESís precious sound channels, cutting into the music. Mega Man 4ís soundtrack was far more percussive and less memorably melodic than its predecessorsí, most likely because it had to be composed around the fact that most gamers would run through the levels with the fire button held down with the constant warble of weapon-charging humming atop the tunes. The impulse to simply play through the game with the Megabuster alone even spoiled the pacing; the brisk run-and-gun action slowed as gamers spent more time waiting for their weapon to charge. In short, the charge shot broke the game.
And that is the late NES era in a nutshell. The state of console game design had truly matured on Nintendoís machine, evolving from brief single-screen diversions patterned after the arcadeís golden era to dense, multi-layered adventures and complex action creations. By the dawn of the í90s, the design and ambition of the best games had largely surpassed what the NES was capable of supporting. Mega Man 4 was limited as much by technology as by stagnation and legacy. The very elements that undermined its design worked smoothly in its 16-bit successor, Mega Man X, because X was built from the ground up to support those features. Mega Man 4, however, was the point at which Capcom found itself trying to cram too many features into too limited a framework.
The NES continued to soldier on for several years with a healthy supply of great games, many of which even managed to realize their designersí ambitions within the restrictions of the NES. Yet in games like Mega Man 4 we see a figurative passing of the torch as the mediumís leading developers reached their limit and began looking forward to the greener pastures of the NESís successors.
As for Mega Man 4... itís a pretty good game. Itís no Mega Man 2, but it has its moments. Just try to resist the temptation to abuse the charge shot.