Mega Man 3 was highly regarded upon its 1990 release. Unbeknownst to the people who bought it, however, the project had to overcome myriad roadblocks in order to see the light of day. Director Akira Kitamura had left Capcom and would later quit making games entirely while his replacement, Masayoshi Kurokawa, frequently clashed with the team, causing him to leave the project halfway through. This resulted in artist Keiji Inafune taking up the reins, forcing him to compile their work in a very short amount of time. Consequently, many ideas were left on the cutting room floor. For example, the team expressed the desire to replace the famous stage select system in favor of a linear level progression or take inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been recently released, and implement a map system. Both ideas were shot down by Capcom executives. While Mega Man 3 remains a beloved classic, it does bear signs of its taxing production cycle for those who dig beneath the surface.
Although Mega Man 3 could have been considered a grand finale for the series, Capcom realized that the title character was their answer to Mario. With a formula that lent itself well to sequels, a fourth installment was an inevitability. Production of Mega Man 4 went much more smoothly according to Mr. Inafune, who worked as one of the three designers for this game. As a result, he and his fellow staff members often held this game in higher regard than its direct predecessor. The game was released domestically in December of 1991 as Rockman 4: A New Evil Ambition!! before abridging the title abroad to Mega Man 4 a month later. Mega Man 4 is notable for being the first installment in the series released after the debut of Nintendo’s Super Famicom console in November of 1990. Was Capcom able to give those who hadn’t yet adopted the new platform an experience worthy of its acclaimed predecessors?
Analyzing the Experience
Having clashed with the nefarious Dr. Wily three times in the past, Mega Man has finally put an end to his evil deeds. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one with an ambition for world conquest. A scientist hailing from Russia, Mikhail Sergeyevich Cossack, contacts Dr. Light. Much like Dr. Wily before him, Dr. Cossack is deeply insulted that his accomplishments have gone ignored and intends to prove to the world his superior engineering skills. To this end, he sends out eight Robot Masters of his own to conquer the world. Once again, Dr. Light calls upon Mega Man to stop this new threat.
After the defeat of Dr. Wily, Dr. Light has been working on an upgrade to Mega Man’s Mega Buster weapon. Under the looming threat of Dr. Cossack, Mega Man has an opportunity to test it out on the field. After holding down the “B” button, which is usually used to fire the Mega Buster, for a few seconds, Mega Man’s sprite begins to flash. When you release the “B” button, the shot fired is significantly stronger and greater in diameter than a standard one.
Many shoot ‘em ups, most notably Irem’s 1987 classic, R-Type, pioneered the idea of a charged attack, which is performed in a manner similar to Mega Man’s upgraded Mega Buster. The basic principle for using it is the same. A charged Mega Buster attack is ideally used when you’re on the defensive. Attempting to go for a charged attack every time is, more often than not, inefficient given how long one needs to hold down the button.
This new, improved Mega Buster is the most significant change Mega Man 4 brings to the table, though it also reintroduces a concept that hadn’t been used since the original game. The series’ inaugural installment allowed players to revisit Robot Master stages after clearing them. Although it didn’t serve much of a purpose, one of the stages featured an item required to complete the game. It was therefore put into place to prevent players from rendering the game unwinnable.
Mega Man 4 allows players to revisit stages for a similar reason: two of them have items that may prove useful for Mega Man’s quest. The first is the Balloon, which dispenses floating platforms similar to Item-1 from Mega Man 2. The second is a Wire, which is activated by holding up on the control pad and pressing the “B” button. It dispenses a claw that grabs the ceiling, holding Mega Man there until the player presses either down on the control pad or the “A” button to jump. Neither are required to complete the game, so there isn’t too much of a punishment for missing them, but it can make certain sections easier. Notably, one must access up hidden paths in order to reach these items, lending a degree of exploration to the series it isn’t usually known for. Once Mega Man obtains them, he is returned to the most recent checkpoint he has reached.
With the first three games of the Mega Man series, I got the sense that the developers were constantly attempting to improve the series’ formula. The original game was highly innovative for its time by letting players choose the order in which to play the stages. Unlike many contemporary examples, there was a fair bit of strategy involved in these decisions due to Mega Man gaining a Robot Master’s weapon upon defeating them. Mega Man 2 kept the same premise, but the developers improved upon the gameplay in key aspects, adding a password system, energy tanks, and two additional Robot Master stages among other things. Although Mega Man 3 didn’t quite turn out the way Mr. Inafune and company intended, their ambition cannot be denied, as the game introduced the ability to slide and remixed four Robot Master stages.
The reason this bears mentioning is because, while the production of Mega Man 4 wasn’t plagued with nearly as many problems, it doesn’t stand out as much as its three predecessors. Contemporary sequels were often used as a chance to reinvent the series. While developers may have used the same concepts, they would often introduce vastly new mechanics once the technology – or their ability to utilize it – improved. The result is that even in installments retain recognizable gameplay, such as Castlevania in relation to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, showcase a lot of growth.
When playing Mega Man 4, I didn’t get the feeling that the developers were truly challenging themselves. The level design is just going through the same motions as the previous three installments. You guide Mega Man through eight challenging platforming stages before having him assault the main antagonist’s fortress. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, and the game does feature more mini-boss fights than previous installments to add some variety, but if you have played the previous three games, you know exactly what to expect.
What really doesn’t help this perception is the Robot Master lineup. Because the series is defined by its boss fights, it stands to reason that if they aren’t up to par, the experience suffers as a whole. It should be noted that, contrary to what one might think, the Robot Masters of Mega Man 4 were not created by Capcom themselves.
Starting with Mega Man 2, Capcom held contests, allowing fans to send ideas for boss characters to appear in the game. Owing to the strict deadline imposed upon Mr. Kitamura and his team, they couldn’t wait until after the submissions arrived before commencing development. As such, they had a vague idea of what kinds of bosses they needed for each stage – such as a nature-themed one awaiting players at the end of a forest, hence Wood Man. The winners would receive prizes such as blousons, soundtrack tapes, and seals.
The astonishing thing about this proposition is how Mr. Kitamura and his team were able to make a comprehensive game out of the 8,370 entries they received. If one were not privy to this piece of information, they could easily conclude that the development team designed the Robot Masters themselves. This is because the level design in those games tied so well into the motifs, it was though the winners’ creations were destined make the cut from the very beginning.
Quite a few fans observed Robot Masters from Mega Man 3 such as Top Man and Hard Man and concluded it had an overall weaker lineup than that of Mega Man 2. Although I liked the Mega Man 3 lineup, I do admit they didn’t stand out quite as much as their predecessors. This problem may have been caused by the fact that, as a result of the franchise’s sudden burst in popularity, Mr. Kurokawa and his team received nearly 50,000 entries. This means even if they had ideas of what Robot Masters they needed, they still needed to sort through every single one of those 50,000 entries in order to keep the contest fair. Combined with another tight deadline, and I can believe they simply had to make concessions in order to instill some semblance of order in the development process. This could have meant choosing less-imaginative designs due to severe time constraints.
From the new wave of entries, the team created eight new Robot Masters for Mega Man 4: Bright Man, Toad Man, Drill Man, Pharaoh Man, Ring Man, Dust Man, Dive Man, and Skull Man. The winners, one of whom happened to be a young boy from Miyagi named Yusuke Murata, were awarded golden Rockman 4 cartridges. This time, Capcom had received a staggering 70,000 entries. This is where the bottom fell out. Even if the production of Mega Man 4 was far less eventful, picking the best eight entries out of a possible 70,000 is a daunting task. I can believe that the abundance of choices caused Mega Man 4 to lack the cohesion of its predecessors.
After experimenting with boss weaknesses in the previous two installments, this game could be considered a return to form. That is, each Robot Master has a single weakness apiece and they form only one circle. Understandably, the team ended up choosing more esoteric themes for their Robot Masters in order to avoid stagnation. The problem is that while one could deduce boss weaknesses in the previous three installments through a little ingenuity, Mega Man 4 frequently reduces the process to a guessing game. While it would make sense for Toad Man’s acidic Rain Flush to short out the electric-themed Bright Man, how anyone is supposed to guess that Dust Man is weak to Ring Man’s Ring Boomerang or Dive Man is grievously harmed by Skull Man’s Skull Barrier is a mystery.
Alternatively, some weaknesses make sense, but the nature of the weapons from the Robot Masters’ themes aren’t immediately clear. For example, Ring Man, a Robot Master specifically designed for the purpose of terminating Mega Man, is weak to Pharaoh Man’s Pharaoh Shot. If you know the Pharaoh Shot fired balls of solar energy, this makes perfect sense. Ring Man is intended to be an allusion to the famous rings of Saturn, which are primarily composed of countless tiny water and ice particles. Naturally, these would be dried up instantly if exposed to extreme heat. However, this relies on the player knowing the Pharaoh Shot is a fire-based weapon. It is possible given real-life pharaohs were said to be manifestations of the sun god, Ra, but reaching that conclusion still requires a lot of mental gymnastics.
At the same time, I do give some credit to the team for how they implemented the Robot Master weapons themselves. This time around, there usually are a handful of situations in which they all get a chance to shine. In Mega Man 3, I found little use for them outside of boss fights or moments in which they were required to progress. This wasn’t the case with Mega Man 4, which sees the title character gaining an impressive arsenal. The Pharaoh Shot in particular stands out not only for being the sole chargeable Robot Master weapon, but also exploiting the final boss’s weakness. Making the final boss’s weakness an actual helpful weapon is highly appreciated after forcing the player to use the Bubble Lead and the Top Spin in the endgame encounters of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 respectively. Then, of course, there’s Toad Man’s Rain Flush weapon. Although Toad Man himself is considered one of the easiest bosses in the series, his weapon allows Mega Man to clear the screen of enemies using acid rain. Sensibly, it costs a lot of energy to use, but it works extremely well as a metaphorical panic button.
On the other hand, I feel the team got lazy with certain weapons. Bright Man’s weapon is the Flash Stopper, which is just the Time Stopper from Mega Man 2. The only difference is that Mega Man can actually fire his Mega Buster while using it. Granted, this does make it more useful, especially against Pharaoh Man, but it suggests the team was starting to run out of ideas. Meanwhile, the Skull Barrier stands out as the single worst weapon in the game. While it is more energy-efficient than the Wood Shield, it can only block one shot before disappearing. Its sheer uselessness is apparent when you try to use it against Dive Man. One of his attacks involves him lunging forward in a manner not dissimilar to M. Bison’s Psycho Crusher from Street Fighter II, so that his weakness requires you to get close to him negates whatever advantage it may have given you. You’re better off using the Mega Buster against him because it’s a dependable, ranged attack you will doubtlessly need practice with if you want any chance of completing the game anyway.
In fact, you will soon learn that the Robot Masters’ weaknesses are largely irrelevant in the presence of the new Mega Buster. Although I like the idea of being able to charge the Mega Buster, the game wasn’t properly optimized to handle it. A charged shot often deals as much damage as a Robot Master’s weakness – if not, slightly less. Although most of the Robot Master weapons have an advantage in how you don’t need to wait a few seconds for them to charge, it doesn’t change that, technically speaking, you’re always carrying a given boss’s weakness.
Because the staff didn’t care for how Mega Man 3 turned out, they likely did what they could in order to address some of its underlying issues. If you didn’t have a Robot Master’s weakness in that game, you were likely in for a brutal, drawn-out slog wherein you chip one tick of their life meter with each shot. However, because the weaknesses – even the Top Spin – were efficient at taking down the appropriate Robot Master, few people had a problem with this aspect. Of the ones who did take issue, nearly all of them agreed with the other side that the new Mega Buster solved the problem a little too well. As it undermines what made the series stand out so much in 1987, I can safely declare it to be a good idea marred by bad execution. That it has a highly irritating sound as it charges up only adds insult to injury.
Another point of contention many fans had with this installment concerns the Rush Jet. When it was introduced in Mega Man 3, it was fully maneuverable. One stage even required players to use it in order to traverse a large expanse, turning the game into a shoot ‘em up. In Mega Man 4, it has been significantly depowered, now acting like Item-2 from Mega Man 2. You can press up or down in order to steer it until Rush hits a wall. I myself was disappointed by this development, but I can understand why it had to be done. The Rush Jet, as it was originally implemented, completely destroyed any challenge the platforming sections presented as long as you maintained the energy properly. This was easy to do because it only consumed energy when Mega Man was standing on Rush. With how it works in Mega Man 4, it’s still helpful, but you can’t always use it as your answer for everything.
As usual, defeating the eight Robot Masters allows Mega Man to pursue their creator – Dr. Cossack, in this case. If you thought the game was missing its obligatory ice-themed stage, his citadel staged in the frozen reaches of Siberia makes up for their absence. However, the particularly perceptive may have noticed something off about the game’s basic premise. Although Dr. Cossack could easily have been the type to take advantage of the power vacuum left in the wake of Dr. Wily’s exodus, it seems a little strange that one of his creations, Skull Man, happens to adhere to a motif utilized by his predecessor.
Things get even more suspect when you reach the end of the citadel only to skip the boss rush and fight the scientist right away. If that wasn’t enough, Dr. Cossack doesn’t do anything in the first few seconds of the fight – as though he is hesitating. Just when Mega Man is about to land the finishing blow, Proto Man warps in with a young girl. Her name is Kalinka Cossack. She immediately begs Mega Man not to fight her father. Dr. Wily, who miraculously survived the events of Mega Man 3, had captured her, coercing Dr. Cossack into building eight Robot Masters with the intent of world domination yet again. Furious that Proto Man betrayed him, Dr. Wily appears on the scene and challenges Mega Man to come to his new castle to stop him.
Even if Mega Man has never been a story-heavy series, I do like how many of these plot developments are conveyed through gameplay alone. I especially enjoy how, in the boss fight against Dr. Cossack, you don’t get to completely drain his machine’s life meter. This enforces the idea that Proto Man arrived just in the nick of time to save him. I also like that after the somewhat disappointing endgame of Mega Man 3, the designers put much more effort into these final stages.
On the other hand, because the endgame consists of eight stages in total, it means that roughly half of the entire experience must be cleared in one session. The game does show mercy in that, as usual, losing all of your lives merely returns Mega Man to the beginning of the stage with all of his weapons energy refilled. Even so, gamers frequently had to contend with the fact that a power surge or sudden faulty connection could compromise whatever progress they made if they weren’t allowed to save for a significant length of time.
Drawing a Conclusion
In the end, Mega Man 4 doesn’t display growth on the developers’ part as much as it does complacency, and it is consequently a textbook example of a token sequel. The fact that the title character uses the exact same sprites in this installment as he did in every single preceding one is the most obvious sign. To be fair, one could consider Mega Man 2 and, to a lesser extent, Mega Man 3 token sequels themselves, yet they were created because the team realized they had a winning idea on their hands and needed a few more tries to get it exactly right – a process many talented people go through. Mega Man 4, though not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, doesn’t have that same level of energy; it feels as though the team made it for the sake of making it.
As such, how much you should consider Mega Man 4 an essential experience greatly depends on your personal preferences. In many circles, the game has received a level of retroactive vindication. While people previously dismissed it as an unambitious, unnecessary sequel, it is now regarded as a solid entry in its own right. However, I think at least part of that conclusion was formed due to circumstances arising since the game’s original release. While one could make a fairly strong argument that Mega Man 4 was the weakest game in the series in 1991, such a conclusion would be highly inaccurate nowadays with several entries released since then bearing the title character’s name being far worthier of the dubious title. Regardless, I do think that Mega Man 4 is worth your time if you’re fan of Mega Man or platformers in general. It might even scratch that particular itch if you find you have played the series’ highlights too often. If you’re still unsure, you can play the first three games, and if you highly enjoy them, I can safely say, at its absolute worst, Mega Man 4 will only be a mild disappointment.
Final Score: 5/10