Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mega Man I: Analysis Intro, Bomb Man Analysis

Introduction to My Analytic

The Non-Linear Factor

    A key feature of the Mega Man series, and one that it is not easy for me to handle neatly in a serial blog, is the non-linear flow of the first part of each game. The player has the option to attempt any of the eight (or, in the first game, six) Robot Master stages in any order, and to facilitate this each one is designed to be possible without any power-ups or special weapons. However, some stages seem clearly designed to be either significantly easier or significantly harder than the norm.

    The 'Rock-Paper-Scissors' style of boss weakness that the series featured from the start also works with this design choice, allowing a player who has completed one stage a clear 'next' choice, if he knows which boss is weak against the weapon he now possesses. These weaknesses are not always obvious, often requiring a first-time player to experiment, but since they do nothing to punish beating a stage 'out of order', that does little to break the flow of the game.

    Because I have to review the stages of each game in some order, it will not really be possible for me to rate the stages of a game by difficulty clearly until I have done them all. Mind you, I know for my own purposes from years of playing the games how they stack up, but I can't really demonstrate it. Nevertheless, the flow of a given stage often gives a hint of whether that stage was designed to be a 'break-in' stage or one the player is intended to tackle later, and it is those hints that I will use in my analysis.

Difficulty is Subjective...Mostly

    For me, there are only two difficult parts of Mega Man I: the two boss rushes in the second and last Wily stages. I know at least one person by acquaintance for whom both of those are (or were, anyway) quite easy. For most people, the game is fairly hard almost from start to finish. It all depends on the player's general platformer skill and familiarity with the game. Therefore, take my difficulty ratings, such as they are, as opinions, colored by my own aptitudes and experiences.

    Even so, there are still objective measures to be found. The amount of stage in a given moment that is 'covered' by a hazard or enemy, the ratio of safe footing to unsafe, the 'power' of the hazards in terms of health-cost (from zero to instant-death), and the speed at which the player is forced to complete it; all of these are at least to some extent quantifiable, and therefore provide an objective underpinning to that opinion.

    Taking both the objective and subjective elements of difficulty into account, I am going to use a simple 1-5 scale to indicate the difficulty of each section in a stage, as follows:
  1. Dreadfully easy, requiring nothing other than a basic understanding of the game's controls and features. Anyone capable of playing can do this without effort; this level is usually relegated to 'breathing space' between stronger challenges, or else tutorial elements at the beginning of Robot Master stages.
  2. Requires competence in the game's basic actions, but little more. After a few tries, even a beginner can do it without much effort, and an experienced player will barely notice it.
  3. Attention and focus will be required of the player; an experienced player will not have much trouble if he is not being careless, but a beginner may have significant problems at first.
  4. A significant challenge, enough to catch even an expert player from time to time, and a major hurdle for beginners; this is the level of challenge that usually forms the 'climax' of a normal stage in most games.
  5. The hardest the game gets; these are the moments that experts remember as 'that hard part' and frequently fail even after many replays.
    The use of a numerical scale broken up by section will allow me to make visual representations of a level's changing difficulty, something I intend to do.

Hazard Population and Distribution

    Another easy choice for visual representation is the distribution of hazard and enemy types in a stage; since this often ties into the effectiveness of the challenge and tutorial elements in a stage, a simple chart showing their rough placement from section to section will give a quick overview of the elegance of a stage's construction, especially when cross-referenced against the difficulty chart. I hope.

Bomb Man's Stage: Analysis

Stage Division

    For purposes of simplicity, I will be using the stage divisions I made earlier, subdividing by the numbered lists; this will effectively eliminate a few of the flat, uneventful moments in the stage, but shouldn't hurt my analysis too much. Just so you don't have to scroll up to remember what those divisions were, here's a visual representation of it:

Arranged into block formation for efficiency; image references individual sections but
not necessarily their arrangement.

    Note that in some sections there is 'blank space' in the form of flat terrain with no notable features. In 5 this serves the gameplay purpose of allowing the Sniper Joe to exhibit its tailing behavior, but in the others it serves as breathing space to lend a sense of pacing to the action of the stage. I could probably subdivide these 'negative spaces' into their own sections, but I think it makes more sense from the standpoint of challenge analysis to leave them integrated, since they do not affect the challenge of the level one way or another, but merely pace it.

Challenge Diagram

   Bomb Man's stage isn't that hard, overall. The double-peak in the second half of the stage is where the climax of the action occurs, first on the Threat Management Challenge and then on the High Pressure Challenge. If anyone is wondering why I did not make the latter a '4', the answer is that some of the difficulty of that challenge is fake, due to the sudden appearance of a previously unencountered enemy in very unfavorable circumstances, and that challenge is negated once a player is experienced enough that the psychological element of surprise disappears.

    Readers familiar with the general shape of plot tension arcs will recognize this as resembling one. I suspect that this is, first of all, one of the reasons that Bomb Man's stage feel so smooth and well-paced, and also why it makes such a good starting stage. While it doesn't stand out as one of the better stages in the entire series, by the standards of this game it's one of the best. It's not without flaw, however.

Hazard Population

    Some of those flaws can be seen in this chart. While for the most part the various enemies and hazards are introduced in forgiving circumstances early on and then re-introduced later in more threatening situations, flying shells stand out as appearing only late in the stage, and during the single most difficult section. This is a major design misstep, uncharacteristic of the series as a whole but still not absent. I think it would have been preferable to have substituted more Killer Bullets; by the time the player reaches the difficult Section 9, he has already had plenty of time to become acquainted with their behavior, and their sine-wave movement would have provided as much real challenge as the Flying Shells' eight-way shot.

    Of course, Killer Bullets themselves are introduced during the second-most difficult section, though the result is not as egregious, especially because there does not seem to be a better place to have introduced them. If I were tasked with re-tooling the stage, I think I would eliminate the Screw Bombers from Section 3, which are never used again in the stage and therefore do little to further its development, and introduce Killer Bullets there instead, and replace the Flying Shells with Killer Bullets in Section 9 as well.

    Another flaw, though I suppose it must ultimately be forgiven, is that the stage simply does not have much unique character. It is the only one of the six Robot Master stages to feature Sniper Joes, but otherwise it has little to characterize it. Most of the game's basic hazards are present but not utilized in very creative ways, the scenery is slightly bland and difficult to interpret from the standpoint of game logic, and the most memorable section of the stage is memorable mostly for the frustration it causes players on the first encounter. As a tutorial stage it does a fairly good job of familiarizing the player with the game's basic elements, but otherwise it has little to set it apart.

    Still, this was the first game in the series, and many of the distinct features of Mega Man are present only in concept or rudimentary form; the stage does what it seems to have been intended to do without any fatal flaws, and its structural features will be seen more than any others in later stages in the series, as we will see, so I am going to have to give this one a favorable judgment. It was a strong start to a strong game. Next time, we review a stage that does not get off so well: Guts Man's.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

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