Takes a Small Dive and Grows Dusty, Despite Bright Spots
Apparently, Team Rockman thrives off adversity. After the hardships of designing Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 amidst time, financial, and personnel constraints, the rock-steady team set to work on Mega Man 4. Unlike their past two dev cycles, they faced comparatively few setbacks while working on Mega Man 4, adding some ideas they had been chewing over for years (such as “Eddie”) and new staff (such as designer Hayato Kaji, whose involvement in the series would forever alter its path). With less turbulence and more luxury than ever before, the team opted for a gameplay alteration so fundamental that fans still dispute its qualities to this day, along with production that blows its predecessors out of the water.
In Mega Man 4, evil Russian scientist Dr. Cossack follows in Dr. Wily’s footsteps by building eight robot masters to challenge Dr. Light and Mega Man. Several beats of varying predictability follow, most of which fail to resonate with the emotive force of the Mega Man 2 intro or the Protoman subplot of 3. Yet for the first time, the story is told with clarity through longer cutscenes, including a lengthy intro to set the backdrop. The story is largely forgettable, but the intricate manner in which it’s told conveys a newfound narrative polish.
Along with clearer storytelling, Mega Man 4 features improved graphics. Along with some frilly effects, they allow for detailed environments that provoke a sense of place through the block-by-block density of their vision. Levels like Skull Man’s could have easily just been “another rock level,” but the art direction entices in near every screen, making stages stand out aesthetically even if their design lacks the nuance of its visuals. The sound design, however, is less of a forward leap. The grating sound of the charged Mega Buster means many players will listen to the same shrill pulse for much of their playthrough. This has the added downside of drowning out the game’s tunes. While not as iconic or catchy as those in 2 or 3, Mega Man 4’s soundtrack is worth a listen.
In large part, gameplay in Mega Man 4 is identical to that of 3. One minor addition is Eddie (or Flip Top), an NPC that drops a random item upon approach. While his character design is endearing, I find Eddie’s gimmick an indicator of the looser, less pinpoint-precise design philosophy of 4 compared to the meticulously calculation undergirding 3. Personally, in a game as merciless as a Mega Man, I’d rather have a predetermined or player-chosen item than a randomly selected one, as it feels inconsistent with the overarching experience.
Despite the introduction of fan favorite Eddie, the Mega Buster is no doubt the most critical (and controversial) addition to Mega Man 4. In 4, the player starts out with the new ability to partially and fully charge the buster. When partially charged, the shot deals the same amount of damage but increases in size. When fully charged, the shot remains at an increased size but doles out triple the damage. While it seems the growing consensus is that the Mega Buster sabotaged the series, some players appreciate the change of pace.
Personally, I think the Mega Buster is one of the central reasons the game does not quite measure up to its predecessors. While some levels feel adequately designed around the Mega Buster (such as Ring Man’s and Pharoah Man’s), much of Mega Man 4 feels either like a pre-Mega Buster entry that can easily abuse or so oriented around the Mega Buster that any tactic other than charge shots is neither fun nor feasible. Because of this, the Mega Buster further disincentivizes usage of other weapons. To salten the wound, the Mega Buster charges up slowly, meaning the game often encourages slow defensive play as the player waits to charge up before progressing. By making Mega Man 4 less skill-based, slower, and more linear in one fell swoop, the Mega Buster betrays the series’ design doctrine in several ways.
Level design is arguable the strongest component of Mega Man 4’s design. The heavy emphasis on environmental effects (from Toad Man’s rain and wind to Bright Man’s player-triggered darkness to Pharoah Man’s quicksand) changes the game’s pace by directly affecting Mega Man’s movement, and also helps distinguish one level from the next. The vast array new platforms work in tandem with the environmental effects to regularly change game feel, providing sometimes startling variety even in one stage. Unfortunately, these more clever and innovative sections marred by some blander and lackadaisical sections that retread old turf. By repeating many themes of past games with little notable alteration, much of the game lacks freshness because it sets itself up for comparison to past entries. Fortunately, those that do feel fresh, such as Ring Man’s stage, are brimming with ideas and ambience (even if that particular one is also plagued with a pair of minibosses that are never fun or interesting to encounter). It’s also worth noting that the game features some optional paths with hidden secrets, but they come across as half-baked in their brevity.
Perhaps the lowlight of Mega Man 4, most of the bosses feel like benchwarmers for previous robot masters. Almost none of the eight RM’s feel like a suitable thematic capstone to the level they follow, and most of them suffer from shallow movesets, unbalanced difficulty, a been-there-done-that vibe. Even conceptually interesting ones, like Toad Man (whose Toad Rain deals damage to anything on screen), can be cheesed for an easy boring victory, displaying a lack of polish even in the game’s more innovative ideas.
Likewise, few of the acquired weapons are noteworthy, and most are revamped (sometimes inferior) versions of weapons seen in the first three games, including the obligatory shield (Skull Barrier), boomerang (Ring Boomerang), time-stopper (Flash Stopper), and homing weapon (Dive Missile). Even new ideas come across as lazy, such as a ball of debris/dust called the Dust Crusher that peculiarly divides into four pieces upon hitting a wall.
On the whole, it’s easy to hate on Mega Man 4, but it does a lot right. Some levels are borderline fantastic, platforming is varied and innovative, environmental effects provide a welcome change of pace, Rush is more fun and useful than ever, and the game’s second half is considerably longer than its predecessors. It is still, for all its infamous crimes, a good (and maybe even great) game that stands alongside the best action-platformers on the NES.
However…when seen as part of a timeline that includes its storied predecessors, it’s tough to not interpret Mega Man 4 as a backward step for the series. Notorious starting weapon aside, it is the most forgettable entry in the series thus far because it lacks the finely-tuned challenges, meaningful split-second decisions, discrete senses of place, and design intrigues of its predecessors. Perhaps detrimentally affected by Team Rockman’s newfound development luxury; it lacks the creative boldness of 2 and the perfectionism of 3, instead being an almost-too-polished mishmash of past ideas with a major controversial new one. Mega Man 4 is a very good but disappointing game, and the first entry in the series that fails to meaningfully push it forward.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Entertainment System (reviewed), PlayStation, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, Mobile; Publisher: Capcom ; Developer: Capcom; Players: 1 ; Released: 1991
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Mega Man.