Mega Man IV
Love is a funny thing, especially if you're silly enough to apply it to a discussion about videogames. But just like actual love between real people, when it's right you can feel it. Right there in your bones.
Mega Man IV for Game Boy adds some small details to the Mega Man formula, and it's so right that you can't miss feeling the love. Together, they're like the extravagant prom dress, or the fine lace lingerie that makes a stunningly beautiful woman even more attractive. Is it the animated backgrounds and subtle stripple-transparency effects that are so far above and beyond the typical Game Boy game? Or perhaps the newly-introduced P-Chips which serve as currency for Mega Man to buy upgrades, extra lives, or E-Tanks? P-Chips are a wonderful new addition to the Mega Man template -- a currency (almost like coins in Super Mario Bros.) which offers small but lasting benefits for those who cash them in. Sure, Dr. Light's "store" only sells one permanent upgrade, but the psychological incentive to collect and horde P-Chips made the idea into a series mainstay. Even if they changed the chips into nuts and bolts.
But let us return to my pipe dream for a moment, where I presume that in the absence of some kind, intelligent, wonderful woman in my life I can instead love a terribly outdated videogame. So! Not only does Mega Man IV dress well, but she's been working out since we last dated, a few months back. This chick has burned off her excess fat -- gone are the bullshit low-ceiling-clearance jumps that made the previous Game Boy outing so aggravating; forgotten is the unreliable Rush Coil that wasn't always guaranteed to work on spikes. In their place are challenging-but-fair platforming exercises which force even veteran players into that pleasingly familiar zone of concentration.
A Mega Man game lives or dies by how fun the pure platforming sections are, since that's really what players spend most of their time doing. If defeating Robot Masters and abusing their special weapon represents coitus, platforming is the foreplay that comprises the majority of successful lovemaking. And like the Carry Item and falling icicles of Dr. Wily's Revenge, Mega Man IV's levels are designed around clever and original platforming elements. Only now there are exactly zero disappearing blocks.
Take Napalm Man's stage: On the NES, this level features a nondescript section in which the player charges through a straightaway cave, encountering huge tunnel-boring drills that fall to a single Mega Buster blast. On Game Boy, these drills are unleashed everywhere, serving both as moving platforms as well as traps that make tight caves unbearable. Many stages feature strings of unstable stones that shake and then descend one square each time they are touched, forcing the player to adjust for height and distance while hopping back and forth precariously. But most impressive is Crystal Man's stage, where entire portions of the level deform and collapse in real time. Within a hair of a second, unlucky players must choose between an endless drop or being unceremoniously crushed as ground and ceiling rapidly converge.
When Mega Man IV was first released, many families already owned a Super Nintendo, and its first Mega Man outing -- Mega Man X -- was brimming with a variety of shifting and crushing foreground elements. So perhaps it didn't quite register back then how interesting the deforming terrain in this game was. In retrospect, Mega Man IV's engine is even more impressive, since it accomplishes these effects by adding and subtracting foreground tiles in real time. The rushing waterfall in Toad Man's stage, the crushing pillars in Crystal Man's stage, and even bosses on Wily's battlecruiser utilize foreground in dynamic and interesting ways.
Combined with the brilliantly detailed and animated foreground and background art, Mega Man IV looks and feels very much alive, in a way few other 8-bit platformers ever attempted. One impressive detail -- the Flash Stopper weapon obtained from Bright Man is capable of halting time, not only freezing enemies but the dynamic foreground as well.
The levels themselves are noticeably larger and more ambitious than previous Mega Man games, with widely branching forks and paths, secret areas, and dead ends. But we're not talking fully non-linear territory like Metroid or a complete departure from series conventions like Adventure Island IV?. It's still the same Mega Man experience, with detailed cartoonish enemies and the trademark enormous robo-fauna, only polished and improved to a new, higher standard. Once again, the music is note-for-note perfect (aside from the slightly rearranged boss music for the first wave of Robot Masters), while the newly composed themes employ stereophonic strobing and chorus-delay trickery that make Game Boy earbuds absolutely sing.
In short, Mega Man IV is a terrific example of platforming done correctly, right up there with Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 for NES. One could complain about the weaksauce Robot Masters or the merely passable special weapons, but like a soul mate, we must be willing to accept the smaller flaws in order to better appreciate the total package. You'd certainly take this girl home for the night, but you just might love her forever.