Even one year into the lifespan of the Super Famicom – known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) abroad – Mega Man 4 became a bestselling game for Nintendo’s aging Famicom (NES) console. The game Capcom executives originally saw little potential in had a presence on the console only Nintendo’s own characters could rival, and it wasn’t going to stop there. Continuing the momentum from the previous games, artist Keiji Inafune helmed a new project that would see the creation of the series’ fifth installment. Having established a formula by this point, development proceeded uneventfully.
The game was released domestically in December of 1992 for the Famicom under the name Rockman 5: Blues’s Trap!? – Blues being the Japanese name for the character Western players knew as Proto Man. It surfaced in the United States shortly afterwards before being released in Europe months later. In those regions, Capcom’s American branch once again excised the subtitle, renaming it Mega Man 5. With four predecessors boasting highly similar gameplay, does Mega Man 5 bring anything meaningful to the table?
Analyzing the Experience
In the year 20XX, the heroic robot Mega Man has defeated Dr. Albert Wily for the fourth time. This time, the mad scientist had blackmailed a benevolent roboticist by the name of Mikhail Sergeyevich Cossack to launch an attack in his stead. Fortunately, Proto Man, the secret older brother of Mega Man, had saved the good doctor’s daughter, Kalinka, at the last minute, freeing him from Dr. Wily’s influence.
Two months later, things take a turn for the strange when Proto Man suddenly begins leading an army of Robot Masters in a series of destructive acts across the world. To make matters worse, Proto Man then kidnaps Dr. Thomas Light – Mega Man’s creator. Mega Man is left confused as to why his ally would do such a thing, but he is left with no choice but to stop him.
Even in the days when development teams consisted of a small group of people, it was practically unheard of to have five installments of a series – excluding spinoffs – debut on the same console. However, while other series would frequently reinvent themselves with each installment, the Mega Man series kept the same basic gameplay across the four installments leading up to this one. Playing Mega Man 5 reveals that it doesn’t provide an exception to this rule. It retains the familiar, fast-paced, run-and-gun gameplay that defined the series up until this point.
By Mega Man 5, it became clear that the strength of the average Mega Man installment lied primarily in its Robot Master lineup. By Mega Man 4, it felt as though the team was starting to run out of ideas when going over fan submissions. While resorting to more abstract designs was a necessary move given that the first three games exhausted the four classical elements many times over, the Robot Masters’ themes started becoming much more boring with Dust Man and Top Man being prime examples of this decline.
For Mega Man 5, the title character finds himself facing off against yet another set of Robot Masters: Gravity Man, Wave Man, Stone Man, Gyro Man, Star Man, Charge Man, Napalm Man, and Crystal Man. The Robot Master lineup of Mega Man 5 is a bit strange because it manages to be both a step up and a step down from Mega Man 4 at the exact same time. The primary material advantage these Robot Masters have over their immediate predecessors is that their themes lend themselves to far more creative level designs. This is the most obvious in Gravity Man’s stage.
True to his theme, gravity commonly inverts itself according to flashing arrows on the walls of his lair. This forces the player to make several interesting jumps – sometimes with gravity reversing itself while Mega Man is airborne. The gimmick that defines Gravity Man’s stage is so inventive, Capcom could easily have made an entire game revolving around it. In fact, it’s somewhat disappointing that the idea only appears in one stage because I would argue the team didn’t get enough mileage out of it. You get to see the interesting effects these sudden gravity changes have on gameplay, yet the stage is over before you know it.
There is a silver lining in that other stages have a knack of pitching interesting ideas as well. Wave Man’s stage subverts how a typical water-themed stage pans out by forcing Mega Man to traverse an ocean using a jet ski. In practice, it’s an ordinary auto-scrolling level, but it stands out from your typical example by actually being contextualized. Similarly, Star Man’s stage takes place in outer space. The low-gravity effects mimic how Mega Man usually fares underwater, thereby justifying the series’ strange physics in a more roundabout fashion. Even without incorporating gimmicks into the stage design, Mega Man 5 still has more interesting visuals than those of its direct predecessor. This is especially apparent with Napalm Man’s jungle-themed domain and Charge Man’s stage, which takes place on a giant train.
The takeaway from this is that, when it comes to Robot Master design, Mega Man 5 is a step up in terms of memorability. They same, however, cannot be said about the weapons they grant Mega Man upon defeat. Mega Man 5 is considered by many to have the single most useless set of Robot Master weapons in the history of the series – certainly as of the debut of this game, if nothing else. Both Mega Man 3 and Mega Man 4 featured weapons that were seldom useful outside of exploiting Robot Master weaknesses. This was likely in response to the weapons from Mega Man 2, most notably, the Metal Blade, having the ability to completely break the game’s challenge. I personally feel they overcorrected, and Mega Man 5 takes this unfortunate trend to its logical conclusion by rendering many of the Robot Master weapons completely useless.
There is exactly one weapon that doesn’t have any significant drawbacks: Gyro Man’s Gyro Attack. It’s an intuitive weapon that fires a single spinning propeller. While it is airborne, you can press up or down on the control pad. Doing so will cause the propeller to turn in that direction. It is especially handy for targeting enemies that are otherwise out of reach – especially at lower elevations. It may not be the flashiest weapon, but it is, by a significant margin, the best one in this game.
Then again, when considering all of the other weapons, it’s not an especially high bar. Gravity Man’s Gravity Hold sounds great on paper. You can use it to damage all onscreen enemies, sending defeated ones flying out of the screen. The problem is that its damage output is horrible considering the sheer amount of energy it consumes and enemies defeated with it do not drop any items. Wave Man’s Water Wave creates spouts that rush forward much like the Bubble Lead. It is completely useless if Mega Man is not standing on solid ground. If it weren’t for its competition, the Stone Man’s Power Stone would have been the single most useless weapon in the game. It creates three rocks that spiral outward. Mega Man has to be a specific distance away from his target to hit them with it. He will miss if he is too close or too far away. On top of that, it doesn’t even have the courtesy to be especially damaging.
Anyone who made fun of the Top Man’s Top Spin may owe that weapon an apology if they ever had to use Charge Man’s Charge Kick. It is activated by sliding, allowing Mega Man to decimate any enemy in his path. To be fair, it can be devastating in a skilled player’s hands, but for anyone else, it is situational at best. The Crystal Eye Crystal Man provides is thought of to be the second-best weapon behind the Gyro Attack. It fires a large crystal ball that splits into three upon hitting a wall. Just like Gemini Man’s Gemini Laser, its main drawback is that you cannot shoot more than one at a time, rendering Mega Man defenseless in the meantime. Star Man’s Star Crash, while not as profoundly useless as Skull Man’s Skull Barrier, as it can be thrown, is still only capable of shielding Mega Man from but a single attack. Finally, Napalm Man’s Napalm Bomb brings to mind Bomb Man’s Hyper Bomb in how it is an incredibly slow weapon that only bounces along the ground. While it may have had a niche use dispatching enemies at lower elevations, the Gyro Attack a much better choice due to its speed and ease of use.
“What ramifications does this have on gameplay?” a savvy player may ask. After all, a good player would learn to rely on the Mega Buster – exclusively if possible. Robot Master weapons have limited charges, but the Mega Buster can always be used. Therefore, the useless Robot Master weapons shouldn’t have an adverse impact on the experience if you’re only utilizing them for boss fights. However, it is in those exact scenarios that the problem manifests. In many cases, you’re better off using the charged Mega Buster to fight Robot Masters. Wave Man in particular uses attacks that form a wall, making attacking him with his weakness, the Charge Kick, impractical. The only downside is that, as a possible response to how overpowered it was in Mega Man 4, the Mega Buster now loses its charge if the title character is struck. This factor isn’t especially difficult to deal with, however, and it still renders many Robot Master encounters trivial.
If anything, this problem is the worst it has ever been because, at the end of the day, Mega Man 5 isn’t especially challenging. The original Mega Man towered over its successors in terms of pure difficulty, but by Mega Man 5, the series had reached the point where even beginners could find it a breeze. It’s not an especially good sign given how many installments the series had by this point. I can say this game is the easiest in the series thus far not only because of the unchallenging Robot Master fights, but just the fact that it is unusually generous with handing out extra lives. You could get extra lives randomly from enemies in previous games, but they were typically rare. Here, it seems to be much easier to get several just walking down a corridor. You still need to have strong platforming skills to see things through, but you aren’t under nearly as much pressure this time around.
Mega Man 5 has also been accused of not bringing anything significant to the table. This isn’t entirely true, as it does introduce significant one mainstay. Skeptical of Proto Man’s culpability, Dr. Cossack gifted to Mega Man a robotic bird named Beat to help him on his quest. Beat can be unlocked by collecting a letter from each of the eight Robot Master stages, which spell out “Mega Man 5”. Once Mega Man has done so, he can summon Beat at any time. As if to make up for the generally useless arsenal, Beat completely shatters any semblance of difficulty the game may have possessed. He homes in on any enemy, damaging them simply by making contact. The real testament to the weapon’s usefulness is that it is the final boss’s main weakness. Dr. Wily isn’t especially difficult with just the Mega Buster, but Beat renders him a complete joke.
This last piece of information may seem a bit contradictory given that Dr. Wily wasn’t even mentioned up until now. While some may have been tricked into believing Proto Man has gone rogue given what a wild card the character he was in the past, it naturally turns out that Dr. Wily is behind everything. The Proto Man launching attacks is an imposter created by Dr. Wily called Dark Man. Just like with the previous game, Mega Man has to go through Dark Man’s castle before storming Dr. Wily’s immediately thereafter. Just like last time, while I do think it makes for an epic endgame, it also means that half of the stages must be completed in a single run. The stages themselves are fairly short, but it’s still a lot the player must accomplish in one sitting, and an inconvenient glitch or power surge can invalidate their efforts.
Drawing a Conclusion
If I didn’t make Mega Man 5 sound too exciting in my review, I feel it is worth mentioning that it is far from a bad game. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it is a better introduction to the series than its inaugural installment. This is because, while the original Mega Man was very inconsistent with its difficulty, Mega Man 5 has a far more gradual learning curve. One could argue said learning curve is, in reality, a completely flat plane, but it still offers a fairer challenge that wouldn’t be so off-putting to a newcomer. For that matter, for all of its faults, I feel has a bit more energy to it than its direct predecessor, which can be appreciated as you’re going through the Robot Master stages.
However, even if it is an improvement over Mega Man 4, Mega Man 5 is far too safe for its own good. While I would be more likely to recommend it than not, many players point to this installment specifically to when the series officially started becoming stale. That it featured the single worst arsenal of weapons in the series thus far certainly didn’t help matters. The biggest appeal of the series involved experimenting with strange weapons and exploiting weaknesses, yet the most viable approach in Mega Man 5 involves brute-forcing the Robot Masters using the Mega Buster more often than not. It’s a game that somehow misses the point of the series while also improving upon its predecessor’s weaker elements. I can, at the very least, agree that it’s not a high point for the series, but if you’ve played through some of the better installments over and over, revisiting Mega Man 5 could easily be worth your while.
Final Score: 6/10