Featuring the six Mega Man games released on the Nintendo Entertainment System between 1987 and 1994, Mega Man Legacy Collection showcases how seemingly minor tweaks to a series can have significant effects on its kinetic potential. Throughout these games, the idea remains the same: Have your titular blue robot blast enemies, make tricky jumps, and gain new weapons by defeating end-level bosses. But due to such variations as bosses taking slightly less damage from your primary weapon than they did before, or the Rush Jet going perpetually forward instead of moving only with the player’s input, each game offers a different type of experience in terms of ratcheting up or decreasing player tension across similar scenarios.
One might regret starting from the beginning with Mega Man, as it lacks many of its sequels’ helpful items (such as energy tanks) and has slippery controls that can result in the hero not stopping where you intend him to. The latter issue becomes especially irritating during Ice Man’s stage, which requires the player to execute precise movements on icy surfaces, some of which are tiny platforms that disappear and reappear. The game’s toughest challenges are creatively diabolical, such as when you have to jump between moving platforms that also shoot bullets at you. Even though the villains’ weaknesses are easy to guess (Fire Man is vulnerable to the weapon you attain from Ice Man), you take significant damage each time you’re hit, so you can never relax until you know the stages and enemies inside and out.
Mega Man is so rough and simple that it’s understandable why Mega Man 2 is such a popular entry in the series. While it’s true that it somewhat reduces the protagonist’s tendency to slide forward and introduces the energy tank (a health-restoring item that can be saved for later use), this sequel is overrated in terms of innovation. Illogical design plagues some of the items, such as the Time Stopper, which runs out of energy so fast that it’s almost useless, and the sidekick dog Rush, who prevents Mega Man from being able to fire bullets. Like its predecessor, Mega Man 2 doesn’t give one much choice but to memorize enemy and level patterns in order to advance; if you don’t know the exact patterns of threats so that you can proactively take a safe position, you’re most likely taking damage. This rule is exemplified in the merciless Quick Man stage, which requires swift movement through a series of rooms before unstoppable laser beams destroy you instantly.
Mega Man 3, one of the most thrilling action games of its time, trumps the achievements of its predecessors through small yet impactful changes to Mega Man’s movement and the tone of the proceedings. In addition to eradicating the problem of Mega Man’s feet unintentionally sliding forward, this sequel adds a ground slide that renders dodging attacks less awkward and more possible. In enabling more reactive responses to danger, this new move exposes the more memory-based action of the previous two entries as too rigid and predictable. In having the hero climb ladders faster and shortening the delay when the game scrolls horizontally or vertically from screen to screen, Mega Man 3 improves even more on the kinetic tempo of the series, thrusting rather than dragging the player into the next challenge.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Mega Man 3 is its bittersweet undertones about the protagonist’s status as a robot that destroys other robots. This element first materializes in the title-screen song that’s unusually bluesy for the series before being hammered home at the level-select screen. Mega Man’s frowning face rests in the middle of this screen, his eyes moving with the cursor in anticipation of the robot that will be his next target. The anxiety captured by this visual is bolstered by the accompanying music, a 10-second looping melody that expresses Mega Man’s conflicted and rugged duty. And a similar sense of gravity is conveyed in the music and Mega Man’s visage during the weapon-gaining segments.
The later games never build on these suggested existentialist themes and mainly focus on simplifying the action, with an occasional unconventional challenge (Gravity Man’s stage in Mega Man 5 has you switch between walking on the floor and on the ceiling). Starting with Mega Man 4, Mega Man’s standard weapon can be charged for a more powerful bullet. Certain enemies that might have taken multiple well-aimed shots to destroy in a previous entry can be annihilated with one charged shot. Only Mega Man 6 takes this more relaxed direction to the most logical (and entertaining) conclusion, creating a power fantasy in which the player can use a jetpack to go almost anywhere and power-punching armor to confront anything head-on. Unfortunately, part of the legacy here is the not-always interesting quality of making things easier to conquer.