Rockman's World: Mega Man on Game Boy
Based on: A timid impersonator who slowly finds his own creative voice.
By Jeremy Parish | June 8, 2009
The lazy downward arc of the Mega Man series is one of the more tragic legacies of the Nintendo Entertainment System. After a strong start and an exquisitely perfect follow-up or two, the series began a slow slide into stagnation, subsisting on rehashed concepts with a few misplaced innovations that only served to highlight the fact that the series' caretakers didn't really get what made the originals so good in the first place.
But a curious thing was happening over on Game Boy. Even as the NES games foundered and ultimately gave way to a miserable Super NES sequel, Mega Man's portable iterations were steadily finding their sense of identity. Initially conceived as a lazy rehash-cum-remix of the NES games, Mega Man's handheld outings -- usually denoted with Roman numerals in the U.S. and running under the banner of "Rockman World" in Japan -- steadily shed their creative emptiness to evolve into the exceptional adventures that their console counterparts had once been. By the time 1995 rolled around, the console series had flown wide of the point with the sloppy, unimaginative Mega Man 7?...and Game Boy fans were treated, much to their surprise, to the absolutely spectacular Mega Man V.
In Mega Man on Game Boy we have a sort of conceptual template for success that Capcom wouldn't fully grasp for more than a decade, when Mega Man 9 came along: namely, the value of working within clearly-defined technical limitations. The Game Boy simply couldn't stand toe-to-toe with the NES, and certainly it had nothing on the Super NES, so once the Rockman World team had hit the ceiling for what the platform was capable of churning out (around the time of Mega Man III), they focused instead on refining the experience. Animation was kept simple, level designs were tight and challenging as a matter of necessity, and Mega Man's skill set was kept rather more limited than on consoles. Where Mega Man 9 succeeded by eschewing many of the series' later additions in favor of a streamlined experience reminiscent of the earliest NES games, the Game Boy releases never actually lost that feel in the first place.
Of course, no one really paid much attention at the time, because the Game Boy was generally regarded as a pleasant little distraction rather than a viable platform in its own right. Plus, we were all pretty much sick of annual Mega Man releases that offered diminished returns with each empty sequel. Given that the portable games had introduced themselves with a callow rehash of a handful of stages from Mega Man and Mega Man 2, there was certainly little reason for anyone to expect anything but more of the same.
Yet the signs of the games' eventual greatness -- or at least of the developers' ambitions beyond the rote rehashes they had been directed to shovel up -- were right there from the very beginning. Once players had dutifully completed the levels culled from the first two NES games and transplanted wholesale into Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge (aka Rockman World), the hero suddenly found himself face-to-face with a deadly new foe by the name of Enker. And so it went in the subsequent titles, with the original elements slowly taking front stage over the NES rehashery until eventually Mega Man V featured entirely new material: original stages, original weapons, and original bosses that didn't even have "-man" suffixed to their names.
It's only been in recent years that the actual merits of Mega Man's Game Boy adventures have found a receptive audience as gamers look back on the series' best titles from bygone years and find themselves pining for new titles that hold up to Mega Man 2's standards. The Game Boy entries aren't precisely new -- but gamers who skipped over them the first time might just find in these inventive, polished, wholly classic episodes the next best thing.