This stage is either the best or the second-best designed in the game, in my opinion. It isn't overly long or short, it keeps its threats both focused and varied, it is well-paced, and it doesn't end with another Big Eye. Call me petty if you want, but I despise that enemy and the way this game uses it and its big stupid telephone-shaped face. >:[
It's not without flaw, but it's a strong offering and would, along with Bomb Man's stage, become a model for later games - and rightly so. Take special notice of the nice logical touches to the graphical design, by the way - the lava flow that begins just before Fire Man's room flows down the vertical area leading to it and into the reservoir which takes up the entire bottom of the stage. Though it's far from being 'realistic' in any strict sense of the term, you get the impression that the developers had a clear sense of place for this area unlike, say, my favorite punching bag Cut Man's stage. I'm sure glad I embarked on this analysis or I wouldn't have ever known how much I don't like that stage.
Part 1: Refrain
This is one of the major reasons I like this stage. Look at this: the developers have neatly folded this area on itself to increase its length without needless padding. In doing so they also accomplished three worthwhile things with elegant simplicity:
- They restricted the player's jumping capabilities, limiting his options for defeating the lower two Screw Bombers (here represented by the green dots); since jumping over the shots of the two mid-height ones is extremely difficult, he must instead time his shots to destroy them before they have a chance to fire. This is still not unfair because beginning underneath all the Screw Bombers gives him a chance to see their behavior clearly even if this is the first stage he is attempting.
- They made good use of the diagonal and vertical shots of the lower right Screw Bomber, since the player must run over its position before he can get a shot off on it.
- They forced the player to use ladders early on in threatening situations, which will become a major theme of the stage in later areas.
This efficient and attractive design philosophy will mark the entire stage, with a few notable exceptions.
Part 2: Thema
I love this section. Seriously. This is the sort of section that makes the Mega Man series great. With the exception of Tackle Fires popping up from the lava near the pillar marked 1, there are no threats but the Fire Pillars, which go up and down regularly. The first screen is designed specifically to stop a first-time player short and make him wait a moment, since jumping into the Fire Pillar will obviously knock him back into the lava and get him killed. This gives him a chance to observe the full behavior of the Tackle Fire enemy, which is a perfect match for the Fire Pillars as a hazard - they fly up from the lava in groups of three then drift back down from the top of the screen toward the player, posing a serious hazard if the player chooses that moment to jump and interfering with vertical movement while the Fire Pillar does the same for horizontal.
All the jumps here are quite easy, and the timing for the Fire Pillar is simple. If the Tackle Fires come too close, the player can safely retreat to the previous screen, and only move forward when he is confident. It perfectly introduces the major hazards of this stage and gives the player a chance to observe them safely and get a handle on their behavior before tackling a forgiving but still real challenge, which is followed by a reprieve in the next two screens where he can choose to risk damage from more Fire Pillars for a couple of Small Life Energy drops at 2 before dealing with the double-threat at 3.
But wait, there's more! The Big Life energy at 1 also hints toward a feature that will become important for sequences later in the stage, and also in Wily's Robot Factory! It's not a very good hint, but it's something - the top of the Fire Pillar at 1 is the closest thing to the tantalizing Big Life Energy at the top-left of the screen, and a clever player who has beaten Ice Man and experimented with his new Ice Slasher (and who wouldn't have?) to observe its freezing properties might very well try to freeze the Fire Pillar, upon doing which he would discover that it turns blue and becomes solid, forming a safe platform. So the developers worked a sneaky tutorial on an advanced(ish) mechanic into an already very densely and expertly designed tutorial screen while still keeping things so under the radar that most players don't even realize they're being taught.
Yeah, I feel safe saying that this is probably the single best-designed screen in the entire game. I could probably write an entire blog entry solely about it...but there will be plenty of chances to do that for later, better games because this kind of dense, informative design quickly became a hallmark of the franchise. So, moving on.
Part 3: Episode
This screen is less good than the first screen of the last section, partly because this new hazard, the Fire Bolt, never appears again in the game and is also virtually identical to the Electric Arc from Elec Man's stage. Though, to be fair, the absence of ladders here does make them a little less annoying than their voltaic cousins, there are still some problems. To aid in illustrating these problems, I have labeled the three Fire Bolts in the game with completely random and non-allusive placeholder names.
The previous screen places a large obstruction which the player must either go over or under to proceed. The former requires that he have either the Magnet Beam or Ice Slasher, and will deposit him on the platform from which Tom fires. From there, it is a simple matter to time a jump onto the platform which cuts off Dick, then back up to deal with Harry. The player has ample time to observe the timing and the placement of the platforms virtually guarantees that he will jump off Tom's firing block, which is important.
On the other hand, going under the earlier obstruction will lead him to Dick's firing block. This is problematic because of one major difference between Fire Bolts and Electric Arcs: whereas Electric Arcs are totally harmless when not firing, Fire Bolts retain a tiny ignition flame directly to the right of their firing block which damages Mega Man if he touches it - a nice touch of realism, but problematic from a design perspective, since here it means that the player has no way to avoid taking damage from Dick because Tom's firing block prevents him from jumping.
Fortunately, there is no real danger here unless the player is at very low health, since the platform below Dick will catch him, but punishing a player with unavoidable damage simply because he has not beaten either of two other stages yet goes against the non-linear philosophy the developers seemed to be striving for. Yes, as we will see, the game is not quite as baldly non-linear as it appears, but a plain damage-gate is poor form, and it and the two others that this stage features go a long way toward establishing this stage's reputation for punishing difficulty, which I do not feel it otherwise deserves. Okay, so maybe I named that one 'Dick' just a little allusively.
Anyway, after dealing with either Dick and Tom or else just Tom, the player deals with the somewhat higher-stakes Harry; the player must land on the small block directly underneath Harry's bolt in order to clear the gap, but if he does not jump back up quickly enough he risk getting knocked back into the pit below. If he is lucky he may land on the safe ground around the pit and be able to jump back, but it's a slim chance, and even then he must still risk being hit again. It's not the worst death-trap in the game, but it's a nice little escalation for a hazard that we will immediately thereafter never ever see again. I like words.
Part 4: Variation
This area forms a nice counterpoint to the ascending area immediately prior, and serves to ramp down the tension just a bit before the stage becomes very intense. It is also the final area before the stage's checkpoint (which areas I have neglected to mention in the past four analyses because I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about them).
The only hazards are the Fire Pillars at 1 and 2 and Tackle Fires coming up from the (seeming) hole at 3. The terrain makes it fairly simple to avoid them, but their real purpose is to remind the player of their respective behavior because things are about to get real very, very soon. They serve that role perfectly adequately, and the three Small Life Energy Drops placed in an easy-to-get nook provide a buffer to make it extra-easy to get through alive if you've gotten this far. The developers are coaxing the player forward, but it is really an example of Suspicious Video Game Generosity, as will become clear in the next section. This is not bad. Quite the opposite, in fact - it is some of the clearest and most sophisticated pacing we have seen in the game so far.
By the way, that hole at 3 is fake. There is ground immediately below it, and even though it is in another horizontal section, the game registers it and it supports Mega Man. Needless to say, I never discovered this until very, very recently because as a child playing Mega Man I, who wants to risk death right before a checkpoint just to test something like that? The reason the developers left it was to provide graphical justification for the Tackle Fires, I assume.
Part 5: Crescendo
This section forms the climax of Fire Man's stage, and it does quite a few things very right. The first can be observed taking up most of the bottom of the screen: the lava.
Unlike in every other Mega Man game, lava in Mega Man I is purely aesthetic; it has no collision programming and this screen is identical to any other mostly-pitfall area in the game...except for the way it looks. But the lava is an animated tile, and the flashing, bright-orange graphics signify 'danger' in a clear and obvious way, lending a far more palpable sense of risk and stakes to this section that it would have had had they left it out. This is an excellent use of the NES's advanced graphical capabilities to enhance player experience, and since (as I pointed out several posts ago) the Mega Man series eventually showed some of the most impressive 8-bit graphics the NES ever had, it's important to note that their efforts began right at the start of the series.
As for the design behind the graphics, it's just as solid. The player begins this section hanging on a ladder with nothing under it but lava; having had half a stage to get used to the behavior of the Fire Pillars, the player must now drop from the ladder and move right to land on the narrow platform without going so far right as to hit the first pillar at 1, or risk being knocked back regardless. Many first-time players likely die here, but the stage is forgiving enough to restart the player on the safe spot of the second narrow platform, so as long as he has extra lives remaining he is spared at least one difficult jump.
Tackle Fires begin coming up as soon as the player enters the area, making the jump from one narrow platform to the next triply difficult - not only must he aim his jumps precisely to land at the far left of each and time the next to avoid the Fire Pillar, but he must pay attention to the Tackle Fires falling more or less constantly from the sky - or flying up just in front of him. The wide gap between the platforms at 2 becomes extra-stressful thanks to this constant environmental hazard. After a repeat of 1 at 3, which is not a flaw because it comes quickly enough to stay fresh and frightening, the brief climax comes to an end - and remains fresh in the player's mind as an incentive to stay alive for the following sections.
Oh, and in once more nice touch, the player gets a hint of the next area's hazard as he climbs up the ladder while gouts of flame spill from the chute to his immediate right. They are harmless here, but they serve the double purpose of explaining the lava flow and previewing the next screen. Can you tell I like this stage?
Part 6: Scherzo
And then they go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like this doo-doo. >:[
This is the second bit of inescapable damage in the stage. I say 'inescapable' because even though it is technically possible to skirt through the gouts of flame that fall past the player's path at 1 and 2, it requires such frame-perfect timing that it is virtually impossible - far too difficult to learn to do reliably without putting in more effort than it's worth (it's easier, or so it seems, on 2 than 1, even if the timing is theoretically the same, but still very hard). By using the Magnet Beam to jump straight up to the top ladder above 1, the player can avoid both firefalls, but rather than being a nice way to skip some challenge if you have it, it ends up being little more than a punishment for making it this far without it.
Part 7: Refrain
This area serves to ramp down the action of the stage while still providing enough active challenge to maintain engagement for the duration. It recaps the very first section, but with different enemies - namely Spines and Killer Bullets. The Killer Bullets begin attacking the player as he climbs the staircase at 1, while the Spines patrol the horizontal passages. Unfortunately, this is the third area with nigh-unavoidable damage in the stage, since unless the player has some means of killing Spines the horizontal areas at 2 and 3 do not allow the player to safely clear them with a jump. The spine at 2 can be scrolled into oblivion, but the one coming from the right at 3 is impossible to avoid. This is problematic, but in the face of all the excellent design decisions made in the rest of the stage I am willing to forgive a few mistakes.
Part 8: Coda
This area is simple enough to need little explanation; it is a simple run-up to the boss door. Tackle Fires rise up from the holes near the start, but a player can easily avoid them by not stopping. The Big Weapon Energy at the top of the delicately balanced ladder to the left is a nice handout to any players who have made heavy use of the Ice Slasher during the stage, especially since Fire Man is among the hardest Robot Masters in the game to defeat without his weakness. The two Fire Pillars in front of the door are timed to make it fairly simple to run past them without taking damage, and since all collision detection stops once the player touches the gate, a short hop at the end makes it even simpler.
Even as simple as it is, however, it makes for a far more satisfying and thematically appropriate end to the stage than just throwing a Big Eye into a room and calling it a day. Seriously, this stage and Bomb Man's stage feel much more complete and proper than the other four for that reason alone, even apart from their superior pacing and design.
Fire Man's stage is, in my opinion, either the best or the second best of the stages in Mega Man I. It has more focused and well-planned hazards than Bomb Man's stage, but also succumbs slightly more to malicious design. Both are well-paced, just long enough, and visually interesting, and both would become models for future stage designs - Bomb Man's is the archetypal 'starter stage', with its low difficulty level and steady, tutorial-filled pacing, while Fire Man's stage is the archetypal 'challenging stage' with its stressful hazards and compact but intense design. Of the two, my personal favorite is probably Fire Man's, since the platforming is overall more satisfying to an experienced player.
None of this is taking into account the Robot Masters themselves, of course. But that comes later, after my final analysis of this stage and some much more in-depth examination of Mega Man and the game's mechanical and enemy design philosophy.
Thanks for reading,