Mega Man V
Based on: Star Wars, the Solar System, redemption, robot love, and other themes never before seen in a Mega Man game.
In late 1998, the Game Boy Color arrived. Curiously, this came at the end of a four-year drought without a single Mega Man game on the original Game Boy. If Capcom had kept its usual pace, we would have seen four additional Mega Man games in that time. Unfortunately the public and the media had long since come to the consensus that the Game Boy was dead.
History shows us that it was actually all the other, fancier color systems that bought the farm -- the Game Boy always had numbers, battery life, and quality games on its side. Case in point: the Pokémon plague brainwashed millions of children circa 1997, with a "dead system" as its transmission vector. But what chance do facts have in the face of conventional wisdom?
And so while the fifth GB Mega Man game -- cleverly entitled Mega Man V -- was another step forward for the series, it was a textbook example of the wrong game released at the worst possible time. At long last, the Game Boy was host to a completely original Mega Man game, one still steeped in the tradition of the NES originals yet featuring entirely new content. But by this point, the audience for traditional NES-style Mega Man games was so small, portable or otherwise, one wonders why Capcom didn't bring out its creative guns sooner. 1994 would have been time to start fresh with a completely new Mega Man series on the Game Boy. Instead, that year saw the end of the line for the original 8-bit Mega Man series.
It's a hell of a send-off. You've got nine new Stardroids from every planet in the Solar System to take care of, tons of new graphics, a bit of interplanetary travel, and the best set of special weapons since Mega Man 2 on the NES. And although the slow-as-molasses gameplay speed lingers on, Capcom finally corrected some issues that had been nagging the Game Boy series since the beginning.
Seeing how the other portable Mega Man games often borrowed graphics from the NES games down to the pixel, they tend to feel cramped and busy in the GB's lower resolution. This is much to the disadvantage of the poor Robot Masters, who have a hard time dodging our hero's comparatively powerful and large Mega Buster. The Stardroids, though... They still took damage quickly, but their speedy and effective attack patterns included flight; clinging to and jumping off of walls; stampeding; and causing the ceiling to crush you. For once, the Robot Masters could dish out pain as well as they take it.
Just as the Robot Masters gave some claim to being "Masters" of their domain, Mega Man V marked the first time in a while that the special weapons could claim to be "special" in something other than the Special Olympics sense. Again, they were uniquely suited to the smaller screen, particularly Venus's sweeping Bubble Bomb that put ceiling-crawlers and flyers within easy reach. The Black Hole weapon obtained from Saturn was something else entirely, not only drawing smaller foes into its event horizon but bursting into an incendiary ring that damaged everything else. Impressive -- a weapon that sucked, but in Mega Man's favor. And the Salt Water, despite being the lamest weapon concept ever, had a controllable arc and split into pieces, making it a handy tool.
Even Dr. Light had been hard at work, creating an upgradeable Mega Arm to replace the Mega Buster, an autonomous buzzsaw robo-kitty named Tango, and a new Rush Jet capable of space travel through an honest-to-god Gradius?-style shooter stage complete with Death Star-like boss. Yeah, some of these bonuses cost P-Chips, but at least there was a truly compelling reason to collect as you conquer.
As nice as all these improvements were, the level design, artwork, and music all seemed to be a slight step back from the superlative Mega Man IV. There were secret crystals to hunt down, extra lives and Energy Tanks hidden along little cul-de-sacs, and a couple enormous mid-stage foes, but nothing quite as impressive or tension-building as Crystal Man's stage from the prior game. As long as the portable series employed stages and themes from the NES games, the artwork remained recognizably elemental, making it easy to imagine color even where none existed. But once Mega Man began to hop between planets of rock and metal, this visualization was no longer so easy. And despite the impressive new spinning and rotating foreground elements, the feeling of constant motion found in Mega Man IV was largely missing; background animation was again scaled back to gameplay indicators like gravity arrows and falling rocks.
Objectively, Mega Man V's gameplay improvements resulted in the single most polished 8-bit Mega Man game, a standout among its peers. Yet ironically enough, Capcom's habit of introducing incremental improvements made the extra effort put into this game that much more frustrating. Stardroids, planet-themed levels, epic space battles -- these were all ideas that deserved far better than the tired original Mega Man formula. If Mega Man IV took weak ideas and molded them into something special, Mega Man V took pure creative inspiration and diluted it into just another solid Mega Man game.
Frankly, I was hoping for something more out-of-this-world.