Monday, May 27, 2013

Mega Man: Elec Man Stage Analysis AND Critique

Part 1: Analysis

Stage Divisions

They're oddly organized, yeah, but look how rectangular I managed to make it!
    Right off the bat, we can see there's a lot more variety here than in Cut Man's stage, both absolutely and screen-for-screen. Despite several of the stage's flaws (which I will outline here), this one fact goes a long way towards making it more entertaining than Cut Man's. In the post on Cut Man's stage, I said there were two stages worse than it, and this was one of them, but after having played and analyzed it further I may retract that. It has some notable flaws, but on the whole it's pretty strong, especially considering how many different ideas the developers were trying out here.

Difficulty Chart

    I had problems with this one. Elec Man's stage has relatively few individual points of high difficulty; the stage tends, from my observations of beginning players, to draw most of its challenge from a number of individually low-pressure challenges which, if not handled consistently, lead to death by a thousand cuts, especially considering the near-total lack of enemies that can be safely farmed for Life Energy drops (Watchers are dangerous, so farming them is risky, and Spines cannot be killed without a Special Weapon, the most practical of which is the Rolling Cutter, which the player will need to face Elec Man safely). The only high-pressure challenges in the stage are the two horizontal Sections, 5 and 9, and the total lack of any active threats renders them relatively tame despite the presence of an instant-death pit hazard. So I tried to reflect in this chart the areas where the player is most likely to take some damage, with the understanding that while each individual area is relatively easy taken in isolation, when taken as a series the player needs to pay some pretty serious attention in order to make it to the end.

    Honestly, it's not a bad idea; the designers used pacing and the game's mechanics with what may very well have been a careful selection of threats to create the sense of a marathon stage in a fairly small area. The player is forced to play the long game, as it were, exercising more caution than seems necessary because each little loss will add up without much chance for recovery. In that light even the rather frustrating Big Eye at the end makes a kind of sense from the standpoint of the slightly malicious design theory that prevailed in that time: it provides a surprise test to see if the player has been careful enough. "You must have this much health left to proceed." I don't think it worked quite right, but the idea is sound and the stage definitely had a lot of thought put into it - perhaps more than any other we've looked at so far. The basic problem with the stage is really just that in practice it ends up being frustrating, which I think is why players tend not to react terribly positively to the stage.

    Of course, there are some flaws in the execution, too. The Big Eye at the end is a piece of malicious design that would soon be eliminated from the series. The overall pacing is still a bit spotty, with a lull in challenge in the middle that breaks the sense of escalation. And the very first room is terribly designed; it's tricky even for an expert player and totally ruins the sense of flow and freedom from which the game's controls derive much of their pleasure right from the start. As a warning of what the stage is going to be, it does fine, but I have in mind one specific change that could have been made, within the limits of the stage's already-chosen mechanics, to make it better.

Hazard Population

    And the stage manages to do all of the above with no more hazard types than the brief Guts Man's stage! This diagram shows the integration the developers achieved with Elec Man's stage; almost every hazard is encountered more than once. However, it's important to note that some of this integration is also illusory - for example, in Section 6, the Spines and Electric Arcs are not both going to be encountered in any one playthrough because of the divided nature of the stage. Still, it's a nice change from the two stages we looked at earlier - the stage presents a more or less clear logic of progression and switches things up often enough to stay interesting; no obstacle overstays its welcome, as we saw in Cut Man's stage.

Part II: Suggestions for Improvement

    This section is experimental. I doubt I'll be doing it for every stage, and probably not even for many, but I was too strongly tempted by the strong ideas swimming under the surface of Elec Man's stage. These are obviously only 'suggestions' in the most distant sense of the term; the game is more than 25 years old now and I have no plans on making a ROM hack of it, or ever playing one. All I'm doing is seeing if the concept that I have teased out of the stage design through my analysis can be strengthened by a few minor changes. Not a full re-design (way too much effort for no real reward), just some minor changes. Call it a 'dry test' of my methodology, to see if I can get practical results out of this project. And, of course, none of these suggestions are intended as personal criticisms of the team that made the game. Hindsight simplifies everything, especially over 25 years of distance, and I'm an idle philosopher considering the matter in the abstract at my leisure, while the developers were technicians in a fast-paced, for-profit industry working with new, difficult hardware on a strict deadline.

    Anyway, here goes:

Suggestion 1: Provide an alternate route on the first screen.

    This seems so obvious now; and, to their credit, the developers used techniques similar to this in later games, especially after Utility Items became more varied and central to the gameplay. Here, all I have done is shift the area of play left a bit to eliminate some wasted space and place a ladder on the right side of the screen, blocked by a Super Arm Block. This setup preserves the developers' intention (as speculated by me) to give beginning players a warning that this is not the best stage to do first, but it also does two other things as well.

    First, it provides players who are approaching the stage later in the game with a superior way to eliminate the annoyance of dealing with the Spines (especially since the only practical Special Weapon to use on them is the Rolling Cutter, which is essential for defeating the boss), and in doing so preserves for them the sense of flow that is so essential for maintaining the player's enjoyment of the game's mechanics.

    Second, if the player is trying this stage before beating Guts Man, it sends a clear message right from the start that the Super Arm might be a good thing to have in this stage - even more clearly than the beginning of Cut Man's stage before; players who do not make it all the way to the Magnet Beam would thus have some nice conveyance to go beat Guts Man before coming back even if the haven't seen the Magnet Beam hiding behind all those blocks yet.

Suggestion 2: Build Up to the Big Eye at the End

    At first I thought I was going to suggest eliminating it entirely, and that would certainly be what a modern developer would do, since frustrating the player through malicious design tends to be frowned upon now. But I want the stage's basic concept to stay the same, and since the final test is important to that, I would keep the Big Eye. The real problem with it is that the player has no real warning of it, other than the fact that there has been a Big Eye in 3 out of 4 stages so far. So, instead of leaving Sections 5 and 9 totally blank, throw a Big Eye in each of them. The horizontal platforms at the start are more than long enough to allow a player sufficient time to kill them without a serious threat, and placing one at the open-air top of each enclosed vertical area would condition a player to expect one, making the escalation of having to face the last one in a much smaller area precisely that - an escalation, and not a nasty surprise.

Suggestion 3: Fix the Guts Block Dead-End

    Yeah, you knew this was coming. I would not eliminate the Guts Block dead-end entirely, though. It's got one good thing going for it - it gives the developers a chance to force the player to use his newly acquired Magnet Beam if he got it, while letting players coming to the stage without the Super Arm proceed normally. I would just place the Guts Block at the beginning of the dead-end instead of the end, and make sure at least one screen of the divided area had Watchers to provide the player with fodder for Weapon Energy drops. Then the Magnet Beam challenge could be free to take up a whole screen, and the player could be given an optional power-up, like a 1-Up, instead of a face full of Flea.


    Well, that wasn't so bad, was it? I am honestly a bit surprised. I remembered disliking Elec Man's stage intensely, and I still can't exactly say it's my favorite, but it seems that Elec Man's stage is really a very strong design idea marred by two or three poor design choices, which in hindsight might easily have been fixed, and were generally avoided in later games. I look forward to comparing it with the very similar Crash Man's stage later, especially since it includes a very similar split-stage design near the end.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

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