Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mega Man I: Elec Man's Stage Breakdown

Intro: A Not-Quite-Horrible Mistake

    Notice something different about Elec Man's stage? If not, please stop holding your laptop or tablet sideways and place it in the upright position again.

    So, yes. The very first Mega Man game featured an entirely vertical stage. Actually, the second one did, too, and the comparison and contrast between the two will, eventually, provide us with some interesting looks at how the developers learned from game to game. The format was largely dropped in later games, though, and most of the reasons for that will become quite clear as we look at this one.

    Before I start with any criticisms, though, I'd like to point out some rather good points about the stage that become apparent pretty immediately:

  • The music is quite good; it's arguably the best theme in the first game, and certainly one of the more frequently remastered and remixed.
  • Graphically, this stage is one of the more elaborate in the game, and while logic of place isn't the strongest, it gives a great sense of atmosphere. The navy blue sky and orange...whatever it is (tower walls? machinery?) contrast well and there is some variety in the tiles used throughout.
  • The hazard selection in this stage is, for the most part, consistent and rational, and shows thought on the designers' part in considering the kind of challenges that would work in a stage configured like this.

    Unfortunately, the end results still weren't quite right. Let's take a look at some of its issues in depth:

Part 1: A Very Mixed Bag


    That first room. Oh God, that first room. There isn't a single person who has played this game who does not hate that room with a burning passion. Otherwise, to be fair, the area is not that bad; as we'll see, the developers made some good use of their design 'theme' for the stage and included some smart tutorial elements to boot.

  1. I am going to be as understanding of this room as I can; as I stated before, the purpose of this endeavor is not to rate things on a good/bad scale, but to understand as thoroughly as possible the actual effects of design choices, and to some extent what intentions likely were behind them. That being said, it's no bloody joke; this screen is annoying. The three Spines occupying the platforms here will almost certainly hit any player who is approaching these jumps without a weapon that can destroy them (the Rolling Cutter, Hyper Bomb, or Fire Storm, really, since the Elec Beam is acquired here and there are no blocks to throw with the Super Arm); this makes the three jumps, already requiring a lot of precision, intensely aggravating. Only the lack of severe consequences for failing (a mere 3 points of damage from contacting a Spine) keep it from being a game-breaker.

    Now, I think I can see why the developers might have placed this challenge at the very start of the stage. It isn't a tutorial element, really; it's too challenging. What it is is a 'gate'. Gates are a design element that don't really feature heavily in the Mega Man games, for the most part, but they're pretty simple in practice: they are intended to keep a player from going somewhere or doing something until a certain condition has been reached. I'll deal with them much more thoroughly once I start deconstructing the Metroidvania genre, which relies heavily on this device to manage player conveyance. For now, though, I believe this was placed here as a mild form of gating, to discourage first-time players from attempting this stage first. Why? Well, that will become apparent a bit later on.

    Meanwhile, though, the end result is still intensely frustrating, and I think it was ill-advised. There had to be a better way of signalling to the player not to come here first.
  2. The meat of the stage begins here, unfortunately with more of the same. The bottom of these two copy-pasted screens contains two more Spines on the two platforms the player must navigate to reach the ladder up, and since they are only two tiles wide each, it is virtually impossible to avoid damage without a weapon to kill them. The next screen, however, is a fairly well-done tutorial element to introduce the player to the Electric Arc hazard he will be dealing with later in the stage. During the run-up from the ladder, there is plenty of time for him to observe the arcs firing, and the loud buzzing noise signals 'threat' pretty clearly. He must cross the arcs here to proceed, but the timing is forgiving and the platforming is easy, so even a novice should quickly become confident, which is important because this threat will be used a great deal in this stage.

    One more thing to note about these two screens. Take a look at the closeup to the right. Do you see how the designers used the copy-pasting to create an optional, one-way double-back path with a Big Life Energy as an Optional Path Incentive? Clearly this was a peace offering to make up for the difficulty of the first screen, and perhaps to help a first-time player if he missed the timing of the Electric Arcs just before. A clever use of what would otherwise have been an unfortunate side-effect of stage compression techniques (all too common in early NES platformers) to ease difficulty and player frustration. I'm impressed. Of course, it does mean taking damage from the Spines again, but that amounts to less than what the Big Life Energy heals.
  3. This two-screen section introduces a new enemy type, the strange-looking Watcher, which appear about five seconds after the screen loads in groups of three from the top and bottom. When they reach horizontal alignment with the player, their eyes protrude and fire twin lightning bolts at the player. This is considerably more advanced enemy behavior than most mooks we've seen so far; only the Sniper Joes have been more sophisticated. And they were created for this specific situation, it's pretty clear. The layout of these two screens is a rare instance of vertical movement that isn't really a proper OROC; the player need merely stay on the ladder, and indeed can't really do anything else. The ladder thus effectively restricts the player's movement, creating an instance of a Restriction Challenge, in which the difficulty arises from circumstances preventing the player from using his normal capabilities - in this case the ladder limiting him to slow, mono-directional movement. An interesting idea, and relatively successful; once the player understands that the lightning bolts cannot simply be dodged (the Watchers coming up from the bottom make simply dropping from the ladder and re-grabbing it a poor option), he will fairly quickly arrive at the solution of pausing and methodically eliminating each Watcher as it reaches his altitude - something like a Threat Management Challenge, only less chaotic.
  4. This area features the use of Appearing Blocks, which we are encountering for the first time in this series. They will be a staple hazard in the series from now on, appearing in every single game we'll be dissecting, and it's worth a look at some of the techniques the designers used here, though they're quite basic. We'll see more complex examples later on in Ice Man's stage, which features the hazard more prominently.

    Yoku Blocks are generally timed so that two are on-screen at any moment. Usually there are four blocks or groups of blocks that appear, creating a 'cycle' of four phases in which two groups are present on-screen, allowing the player to make jumps. It is possible to 'skip' a phase by timing one's jump just as the current block disappears, but this requires solid timing and foreknowledge of where the next block will appear - something the developers expect the player to be able to do virtually everywhere these blocks are used, including here. The creation of two distinct 'paths' here is also going to be a common theme; later configurations, even in the first game, will make smart use of this principle to create longer single paths while conserving 'cycles'. The initial jump straight up is the hardest one here due to the necessary timing, but it is a low-pressure challenge and so does not grate overmuch. Oh, and it's a Blind Path Choice, too, since the next screen up can't be seen from here and has power-ups as a reward for taking the left path. It's difficult to get back to the main path from there, but possible, and the power-ups are minor (just three Small Weapon Energy), so it's fairly benign.

    One more thing: notice how the sprite for the Yoku Blocks here match up with the background? It's a nice touch of logical design, indicating perhaps that the blocks are coming out from the wall.
Part 2: Approaching the Next Tower


    This area serves as a sort of palate-cleanser after the long vertical area preceding it. Vertical movement in Mega Man games tends to feel limiting due to the lack of smooth scrolling, and the monotone orange of the first Section gets oppressive after a while. The background here is navy-blue sky (1), and a fairly simple but somewhat challenging platforming challenge leads directly to a ladder that takes the player to the next tower. The Big Life Energy at (2) is basically a death-trap; the developers intended to lure novices here with the promise of more health in order to teach them not to be stupid. Since it's in the player's choice whether to try it or not, it's a fairly benign example of malicious design, used to teach the player caution and discretion.

Part 3: A Choice of Ways



    You recall the very minor Path Choice from before? Well, that was just a preview. Here we find the single most significant Path Choices in the entire game, making up almost half of one of the longer levels between the two: an extended Equivalent Path Choice followed by a Blind Path Choice gated at the end by an obstacle requiring a weapon the player may very well not have (though there are hints along the way), and riddled with traps and annoying enemy encounters no matter which choice the player makes. If people do not remember this stage kindly, this section is why. Let's take a more in-depth look.


  1. The path begins here with a fairly clear choice: left ladder or right ladder. The dividing wall between them and the difference in background serve to graphically highlight the significance of the choice; without them the player might assume the ladders arrive at more or less the same place, as they did before. Watchers reappear here as well, and render the leftward ladder more dangerous until the player has dealt with them.

    The next screen up, the player sees the first fruits of his choice: either a gauntlet of Electric Arcs or another set of Spines situated on more narrow platforms. For a player without a weapon that kills Spines, this makes the right path...the right path.

    The next screen trades the twin hazards for another set of Watchers. One rather nice side-effect of the screen-by-screen movement is the variety of hazards the stage offers; though we've only seen a relative few sorts, they've been so well distributed and paced that the stage feels quite well-populated, something that has hindered some of the horizontal stages we've looked at. Of course, the fact that almost all of the enemies are fairly annoying (Electric Arcs that do little more than punish impatience, Spines that can't be killed by normal means, Watchers that are just plain bastards) cuts into this somewhat, but even so, at least the player isn't likely to be bored in this stage. If only Cut Man's stage had taken that cue...
  2. And here a player attempting this stage without the Super Arm gets his first hint of danger. The object here is unique in the game and when collected permanently adds the Magnet Beam to the player's arsenal. The Magnet Beam is the first in what will become a long tradition of utility weapons that serve little or no offensive purpose but increase the player's platforming options; this one is essential to completing the game, which is a shame because collecting it is optional, and even impossible without either having the Super Arm here or completing the stage twice (since the Elec Beam also breaks these blocks; it also kills everything, makes the best Reuben you've ever had, and totally had its way with your mother last night).
  3. The first screen in the following Path Choice echoes the previous; once more Spines patrol the platforms to the left while Electric Arcs jump the gap on the right. But past that, things get rather different. The next screen has Electric Arcs, while the third has the same on the left, and on the right just a couple of Fleas.

    Oh, and one more of those blocks, placed directly in the player's path and completely blocking any player without the Super Arm who chooses this path.

    There's not much to say beyond pointing out that this is a terrible design choice. I can't imagine why the developers did this. Perhaps in a future post I'll run through some possibilities for what they might have done instead, but for now we'll move on. Other reviewers have no doubt spoken of this misstep plenty already.

    This section was a bold move on the developers' part, but they lacked the experience to make the most of it. It was an interesting idea that fell flat in execution, I think because they tried to do too much; not only did they try the radical idea of splitting an entire half of a stage into alternate paths, but they also threw a game-critical power-up into the mix, behind a gate, and then give the player a chance to try it out at the end (since you can't jump up to the platform at the end of the second right branch once you destroy the block, you have to use the Magnet Beam; of course, if you *can* destroy the block, it's a cinch that you already got it, so there's that). It's an ambitious bit of game design for the time, and I think it overreached just a bit. After some thought, I think I am going to do a post going over some possible changes (all within the rough limitations of the system present in the game) to make this section work better. But it must wait until my breakdown and analysis are complete.

Part 4 and 5: The Quick End


    The stage closes with two more low-key sections, neither strictly worth a breakdown. First, a copy-pasted Section 2, followed by two last screens, the first containing two last Electric Arcs (not counting the six in the run-up to Elec Man) arranged similarly to the first two (1), and the second containing the obligatory Big Eye (2), this time contained in a small enough area to pose a significant threat to a player who approaches without enough life to take a hit. It is not safe to stay on the ladder, since the Big Eye's arc will most likely cover it, and there is not enough room on the platform to reliably kill it with the Mega Buster before it reaches the player. Running under it is a viable option...if the player is lucky enough for it to do a higher hop and quick enough to react to it; but there is no really safe way to deal with this encounter without a weapon capable of killing it quickly.

Oh No, Why No Videos?

    Okay, long story short: I haven't been able to get footage of Elec Man's stage besides my own yet, and this post has already been delayed enough at this point. I will go back and add video breakdowns as I get them completed, but I've been a bit busy the past few days and I wanted to keep the content flowing on this blog. Thanks for your patience, and don't worry, I intend to keep the feature.

Thanks for reading,
The Undesigner

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