211244 is a quasi-random number.

Mega Man: get equipped… with suboptimal choices

October 16, 2002 review

Capcom released onto the game world something very magical and rare when they published Mega Man. They gave us the power of choice. They built in the possibility — even the likeliness — that players would choose suboptimal paths for the game.

For those not familiar with Mega Man’s system, here is the gist of it. Before playing, the player is presented with a menu of boss robots. But if you haven’t read up in your recent Nintendo Power, you wouldn’t know which to choose. Not only that, but you really wouldn’t understand why you must make the choice. Making that selection takes you to that robot’s stage, and you will battle your way to the boss, itself. Here is already part of the designers’ genius, which I will discuss in a moment. You may do well in your battle against this robot, but statistically you will do worse than average. Why?

Let’s say you managed to defeat the boss through shear skill and determination. Your blue hop-happy friend will be bestowed a new power; one which he steals from the very soul of the bested robot. This new power is typically a weapon, but occasionally it offers some utility. But whatever it is, you can be pretty sure there is one robot who is susceptible to it.

Ah-ha! Though they’ve presented it to you as a choice, Capcom has actually built a very particular order to the game. But the cleverness of Mega Man is that it won’t tell you want that order is. And this is why you likely made a suboptimal choice for your first level and first boss. Now you shamble through all the levels and note which robot is weak to your newest weapon.

Here is the other tricky bit that I made note of above. The designers have to know that players (who aren’t cheating) must trounce through most of the levels several times. And so each stage must be engaging. It must be interesting enough to bring players back, but not so frustrating as to cause them to give up. But they typically walk this balance very well.

Certainly this is not the first game that gave players choice in their exploration. Consider that Zork and its brethren had already broken that sort of ground. In fact, that is one of the things text games were very strong at, in a way that is very strange to players of today. Exploration is almost a prerequisite of our games. It is, sometimes, painfully restricting when the world is not opened up for us to poke and meander around.

Perhaps a game like Super Metroid would not exist if Mega Man had not prompted this idea of freedom to roam and end up in quite possibly the worst possible situation. The concept was tweaked and refined and expanded as the many millions of sequels came through the pipeline. The Mega Max X series is a prime example. Not only would Mega Man obtain the weapons of the bosses through combat, but exploration of hidden spots along the map would present the hero with power-ups. Imagine high-jumps, wall-breaking blasters, and the power to slide. These weren’t granted by the bosses, but were found in other places and offered their own new means of exploration. And so stages were intentionally developed to be revisited with both new weapons and new means of mobility.

What does it mean to give players the choice to pick a suboptimal path? How does it affect us to learn only by doing? Is the Mega Man system different from the try-and-die mechanics of some FPSes or the wonky kinetics of a physics-based game? Does it count as a puzzle? On the surface of it, one might not think so. But it does give the impression of a puzzle after some thought. The goal is to arrange the pieces in their proper order, through trial and error. Sometimes, perhaps, by logic. But sometimes it’s not straightforward: would ice disarm heat, or would fire beat cold?

Much of the fun in the Mega Man line is figuring out the correct order for oneself. Some of it comes from cursing graphically at the TV. But players owe Capcom a thanks for the blue bomber who, curiously, never really bombed that much after the first game.

I think Mega Man and Bomberman need to have words with one another.

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