The ultimate Mega Man retrospective

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Since his introduction in 1987, Mega Man has starred in more than 100 video games spanning nearly every console and handheld in existence. After several hugely successful titles, Mega Man ceased to be a game character and became a part of pop culture, with countless references across all mediums and cameos in even more Capcom titles. Most recently he's been confirmed to star in Mega Man 9 for WiiWare (we have an exclusive look at it right HERE), and the deafening cheers and praise for the NES-style gameplay have been overwhelming. After all these years he's still one of gaming's most beloved and well-known mascots.

Despite the numerous sequels and spin-offs, his original six NES games easily remain the most beloved. Sure, the X, Battle Network and Star Force series have kept the franchise alive, but millions only know him as a blue-bodied robot that steals powers from other robots and uses them to efficiently destroy evildoers. That's why our image-heavy look back will focus primarily on the classic series that made him, Capcom and creator Keiji Inafune so popular. It all began 21 years ago with...

The first game in the series established everything the entire franchise would be known for - tackling a set number of robots and using their weapons against the rest in a paper-rock-scissors fashion. Each boss had a weakness (and resistance) to every other weapon in the game, so half of the experience was figuring out who was weak against what, and what the best order to fight them all would be. There's always one proper way, though most fans spent enough time fiddling with the powers to find alternate paths (or just power through using Mega Man's weaker arm cannon). Once they're gone, you're off to take down Dr. Wily, a mad scientist who continues to make more and more robots in each game.

Mega Man hit US shores with now-infamous box art that's been the subject of numerous articles, each acting like no one had ever noticed it before. But, just in case you've never seen it compared to the classy Japanese art... behold.

Even with addictive gameplay mechanics that made trial and error seem exciting, Mega Man probably wouldn't have made such a splash if it weren't for six cleverly retro robot enemies that you had to assassinate. These specific targets, with names, distinctive silhouettes and unique attributes, made the basic run-right-and-shoot gameplay more personal. Look at Mario and Link's enemies - mostly weird things meant to be easily toppled, never with as much thought put into them as the hero. With Mega Man, the bosses were the stars, and became the one thing fans couldn't wait to see with each sequel. So, who's who in Mega Man 1?

Weakness: Guts Power
Gives you: Cut Blade
What it does: Shoots a pair of scissors out in an arc

Most levels in Mega Man games are modeled after their robot master; if the boss is Wood Man, the level is set in a forest, stuff like that. Cut Man doesn't follow that at all, taking place in small city with lots of ladders. After a minute or so you'll notice how irresistibly catchy and upbeat Cut Man's music is - the same can be said of just about all 46 robot masters in the entire series, making it one of the most heavily remixed games on OverClocked Remix.

Weakness: Hyper Bomb (Bomb Man)
Gives you: Guts Power
What it does: Lets you throw specific piles of rubble at enemies

Guts Man has gone on to be one of the most popular robot masters, reappearing in various forms throughout the series. According to the literature, ol' Gutsy was originally programmed for land reclamation, heaving this and pushing that. When he lands from a jump, the whole room shakes and knocks Mega Man off his feet.

His level reflects his constructo-bot stature, filled with conveyor belts hauling goods over bottomless pits. Mega Man X pays a slight homage to this level's music in the Armored Armadillo level. The most important thing Guts Man did, however, was introduce us to the Metools, hardhat-wearing enemies that have become Mega Man's Koopa Troopa, appearing in just about every game in all shapes and sizes.

First they just sat there motionless, only firing if you got to close. Then they learned how to run around. Soon enough they were driving trains, piloting jet packs and building gigantic mechs so large they took up most of the screen. Expect to see more Metools in the future.

Weakness: Elec Beam (Elec Man)
Gives you: Ice Slasher
What it does: Beam of ice rips across the screen, freezing certain objects

Our first guess would be that Fire Man's weapon would melt Ice Man... but ice is frozen water so this does make a bit of sense. This artic locale is the first area Mega Man visits covered in a slippery surface, making simple jumps all the more complicated. On top that, there's also a series of disappearing blocks you have to memorize, a bastard puzzle that'd plague gamers in subsequent games.

We'd also like to give Ice Man the official "Lamest Boss" award too, for being nothing more than a dude in a coat. Whee!

Weakness: Fire Storm (Fire Man)
Gives you: Hyper Bomb
What it does: Throws a big ol' bomb that detonates into sparkly shrapnel

Bomb Man has the dubious honor of being the simplest boss to beat first. On one hand it makes him look like he's lending a helping hand, offering a simple kill so you can then take his Hyper Bomb over to Guts Man and then on to the next. On the other, he's a just a wimp and if it weren't for his music and relatively challenging, spike-filled level, he'd beat out Ice Man as the lamest boss of the first game. His end-of-level hallway is actually a tower, not a horizontal gauntlet.

Weakness: Ice Slasher (Ice Man)
Gives you: Fire Storm
What it does: Fire spins around Mega Man, one flame spurts forward

This level is such a goddam nightmare to get through. Not impossible, just freaking annoying as hell. There's one-hit deaths, exploding enemies, floating fireballs, turrets that spray bullets everywhere... the list goes on. At least the music remains choice, right?

Weakness: Cut Blade
Gives you: Elec Beam
What it does: Shoots beam of electricity forward, up and down

Elec Man's stage plays like a mix of Cut and Bomb, with lots of vertical climbing and chances to die. Its one unique property is the Magnet Beam hidden behind Guts Man blocks - it fires a long, flickering blue beam you can briefly stand on. We recommend picking it up, as it comes in handy multiple times (Ice Man, specifically).

Mega Man Powered Up

D'AWWWWWW aren't they CUTE? You might notice two in there that don't ring any bells - that'd be Time Man and Oil Man, two 'bots invented just for the update. You can opt to "capture" the bosses instead of destroying them, effectively altering the series' surprisingly robust timeline. It also gave each robot a personality and drive, two attributes that were expectedly absent in the NES version. Hey, if you want Cut Man to have a "strong sense of justice" and Elec Man to be a clichéd wannabe celebrity, have at it. It's sure better than what Captain N did to them...

Je... Jesus. What. Do they even know what a Nintendo is? The only thing powerful enough to wash this filth away is the sequel, a game often included in every "Best games of all time" list.

Mega Man 2 was something of a side project, a "rouge effort" according to creator Keiji Inafune. The first game was moderately successful but wasn't exactly a hit, so Capcom allowed the team to create a sequel as long as it didn't interfere with other projects. Mega Man 2 ended up being the best-selling game in the series, spawned 100 other sequels and made the cover of a now-famous issue of Nintendo Power that helped hype (i.e. brainwash) countless kids out of their minds. Strange feat for a sequel to a game most people didn't play, let alone adore.

It wasn't all hype though - the levels, bosses, music and final area all showed great improvement, especially themed areas like the run-fast-or-die area of Quick Man or the high-in-the-sky leaping during Air Man. It was also loaded with new features, some of which were meant for the first game

Weakness: Metal Blade (Metal Man)
Gives you: Bubble Lead
What it does: A bubble glides along the ground. Wow

Most of this stage is suitably underwater, slowing down the controls and adding a huge oomph to Mega Man's jump. Spikes usually line the ceiling, making one-hit deaths extremely easy if you're not paying attention to the enhanced/impaired jumps. Bubble's music has been remixed multiple times, perhaps most notably by the NESkimos and Minibosses.

Weakness: Leaf Shield (Wood Man)
Gives you: Air Shooter
What it does: Fires three tiny tornados upward

Battling through cheap hits, bottomless pits and obscured platforms may not sound like fun, but... hm, actually this is one of the most annoying stages in Mega Man 2. Even facing Air Man, with his room full of invincible tornados, is a chore. Didn't stop bands, DJs and mixers everywhere from playing his music with enthusiasm usually reserved for the national anthem at NASCAR's opening day.

Weakness: Time Stopper (Flash Man)
Gives you: Quick Boomerang
What it does: Shoots tons of tiny pink boomerangs, great with auto-fire

A somber lead tune is betrayed by the immense speed and urgency Quick Man's level contains. Early on you have to move through rooms as fast as possible while beams tear in from either side, and if they even graze you, you're instantly dead. Later, the lights go out, with the level lit only by fire-headed enemies you have to destroy anyway, so it's back to dark. A very cool stage in an already cool game.

Weakness: Atomic Fire (Heat Man)
Gives you: Leaf Shield
What it does: Encircles you with a relatively impenetrable wall of leaves

Takes place in a forest, naturally, with big drums and pounding tunes you might hear if such robo-woods actually existed. Mostly remembered for the three fire-breathing robo-dogs, who set a precedent for big mid-level bosses in the series (similar to Bubble Man's giant fish). If you charge Atomic Fire up to its maximum, you can take out Wood Man in one sad shot.

Weakness: Air Shooter (Air Man)
Gives you: Crash Bomb
What it does: Fires a bomb that hooks into walls and explodes

More vertical climbing and conveyor belt riding, much of which is made easier by using the jet sled to zip around. Crash Man himself seems tough, but actually has a very predictable pattern - three easy shots from Air Man and he's out.

Weakness: Metal Blades (Metal Man)
Gives you: Time Stopper
What it does: Freezes everything on the screen (including you)

Another slippery level intent on chucking you into enemies you otherwise might have avoided. Making to Flash Man isn't too tough, and once you get there you'll kill the crap out of him. He's one of the weakest, easiest bosses in the series, felled by Mega Man's default arm cannon. On top of that, his Time Stopper is kinda useless against everyone but Quick Man - but his music is fantastic.

Weakness: Quick Boomerang (Quick Man)
Gives you: Metal Blades
What it does: Toss a gear in any of eight directions

His name is Metal Man yet everything about the level is gears and cogs - shouldn't he be Gear or Cog Man? Even Clock Man would suffice. Regardless, his weapon is one of the most versatile in the series, letting you fire in eight directions and depleting extremely slowly. Later, in Wily's castle, you have to fight all the robots again in any order you choose, giving you the chance to use their own weapons against them. Metal Man dies in one hit (two on regular difficulty) by his own blades. How embarrassing.

Weakness: Bubble Lead
Gives you: Atomic Fire
What it does: Longer you hold the button, the more it charges, then fires

There's a rather loooong floaty-disappearing-block puzzle halfway through the level; we usually avoided it entirely by whipping out the jet sled and cruising past. Battling Heat Man is simple - the lighter-shaped idiot doesn't do much beyond charge at you.

Clearing all the bosses then takes you to Wily's castle. Get used to it, cuz it's gonna happen in every single game from here on out. At first we were jazzed about seeing Wily's digs, but right around Mega Man 5 we were over it. The robot masters are the best part, hands-down, and trudging through more levels seemed like a chore. Yes it let you utilize all the weapons you'd spent time amassing, but damn, those Wily stages were sometimes a drag.

Tempering things somewhat were the bosses inside the castle. The first Mega Man had a fairly large rock monster (Yellow Devil in Japan), but MM2 has two now-famous bosses that just about any 8-bit gamer will recognize. They were huge, but with the right weapon they went down with hardly any effort. Let's pause to remember their valiant sacrifice, throwing themselves in front of Mega Man so Wily might get away.

The final hallway is fairly creepy and unsettling for an early NES game. There's no music, just the sound of acid dripping from the ceiling. When you finally meet Wily, he rises into the air and turns into an alien; the only weapon that hurts him is Bubble Lead (you had to figure that part out yourself). Beating Alien Wily reveals it as a holographic projection the real Wily's controlling from afar. Then the ending, which made one GR editor weep his then-nine-year-old eyes out. Impressive then, less so now, but, ah, well maybe you had to be there.

The whole experience here:

Brett Elston

A fomer Executive Editor at GamesRadar, Brett also contributed content to many other Future gaming publications including Nintendo Power, PC Gamer and Official Xbox Magazine. Brett has worked at Capcom in several senior roles, is an experienced podcaster, and now works as a Senior Manager of Content Communications at PlayStation SIE.