by Jed Pressgrove
The release of Mega Man Legacy Collection raises an old question: “What is the best Mega Man game?”
For years, this question has inspired a strand of criticism known as the overly sentimental Mega Man 2 review, which, if nothing else, matches the overly sentimental tone of the game. Mega Man 2’s intro enshrines its protagonist as a defender of justice standing on the top of a building, the wind blowing his hair. Takashi Tateishi’s music starts slow and romantic before awkwardly speeding up to make the cliche of a hero watching over a city seem significant and exciting.
Mega Man 3, the greatest entry of the prolific series, sets a far different tone with its more straightforward title screen. It’s immediately apparent that Yasuaki Fujita is a more sophisticated composer than Tateishi and Manami Matsumae, who scored the original Mega Man. Fujita’s opening notes are bittersweet like the blues (it wouldn’t take much of an imagination to visualize a harmonica), and when the song changes tempo, it forms a sudden yet natural-feeling crescendo, avoiding the contrived anticipation of Tateishi. In Mega Man 2, Tateishi’s music speeds up to get you pumped up. Fujita’s opening music in Mega Man 3 accomplishes the same while carrying a hint of sadness.
The level select screen of Mega Man 3 builds on this complication. In contrast to the boring level select screens from the first two games, Mega Man 3 puts the protagonist’s face right in the middle of the screen, his eyes moving with the cursor as you browse the robot villains. This anticipation might have been nothing more than a presentation trick if not for complementing elements. Mega Man’s frown is a departure from his usual blank expression, suggesting a weariness about his robot vs. robot fate. The level select screen’s music (the best track of any Mega Man game) supports this interpretation. The lead melody, while catchy and upbeat, evokes tragic possibilities. The music of Mega Man 3’s predecessors was never this ambiguous, and it wasn’t until Mega Man 6 that the series would try to replicate this pathos at the level select screen.
The emotional framing of Mega Man 3’s title and level select screens instills the ensuing action with a sense of rugged duty. After you defeat a robot villain, the weapon-gaining segment recalls the hero’s conflicted seriousness. This effect deviates from Mega Man 2’s funky and tedious post-level sequences, which become especially ridiculous when Dr. Light shares vague references to items. Compared to the original Mega Man (which didn’t waste time with such scenes), Mega Man 2 doesn’t value simplicity. Mega Man 3 redeems Mega Man 2’s approach with style and substance.
Mega Man 3 would only be half as remarkable without superior action and weapons. Mega Man 2 often receives credit for surpassing the original and making movement a little less slippery and the journey more forgiving. Yet the protagonist in Mega Man 2 still pointlessly slides forward a bit if you don’t release the directional pad through a jump, contradicting the requirement of precision landings. Mega Man 3 corrects this issue and adds an actual slide, a maneuver that, once performed, brings about the realization that Mega Man should have always had this dynamic capability. In lacking this move, the first two Mega Man games ask for more memorization of levels and enemy attacks so that you don’t find yourself out of position. Mega Man 3’s slide represents an extra reflex, allowing the possibility of a skillful evasive reaction. The tactic may seem minor, but unlike Mega Man 4’s charged shot, the slide can’t be removed without rendering the proceedings awkward (as demonstrated by its absence in the beginning of Mega Man X).
The other small tweaks in Mega Man 3 combine for a considerable improvement in pacing and aesthetics. The hero climbs ladders faster, and there’s a shorter delay when the game scrolls from screen to screen as you advance. These two changes sharpen the kinetic rhythm of the series — one of the best sensual pleasures of Mega Man 3 occurs when you scroll up or down a screen while climbing a ladder. It’s the difference between being propelled and being dragged on a dull ride.
The most obvious attraction of Mega Man 3 is a selection of weapons and items that doesn’t inspire head scratching. Mega Man 3 has no lazy missteps like Mega Man 2’s Time Stopper, which runs out of energy so quickly that it resembles nothing more than a throwaway power-up. The laughably named Item 1, Item 2, and Item 3 from Mega Man 2 get replaced by different forms of Rush, Mega Man’s robot dog. Unlike the case with Items 1-3, you can fire your standard cannon while using Rush. This change isn’t about fairness so much as keeping the action logical and appealing. Mega Man 3’s Search Snake trumps its predecessor’s Bubble Lead, which, curiously, wasn’t bubble-like and, absurdly, required to defeat the final boss in Mega Man 2. Mega Man 3’s most experimental weapon (by the series’ standards), Top Spin, illustrates again a subtle attention to detail. Depending on how carefully you initiate contact with an enemy, Top Spin can be a frustrating energy drainer or a unique way of handling problems. Top Spin, like the slide, enriches the grammar of action in a way that only Mega Man X’s wall scaling and dash jumping can rival.
Mega Man 3 is more epic than Mega Man 2, but of course the former has the enviable position of coming after the latter. This advantage shines when Mega Man 3, while revising four of its primary levels, reuses the eight robot villains from Mega Man 2, forcing you to cycle through weapons to pinpoint weaknesses before being annihilated. These trials emphasize another minor yet major difference between the two games: in Mega Man 3, your standard weapon doesn’t hurt bosses as much as it did in Mega Man 2, creating especially suspenseful moments when both you and the enemy are on the brink of destruction.
As we all know for various reasons, greater length doesn’t always mean better. Some of Mega Man 3’s later challenges may remind you of this maxim. The fight with sea turtle robots is surprisingly innocuous. Although Mega Man 3’s version of the Yellow Devil results in a less monotonous battle than in the original game, its inclusion implies the production team was too comfortable with old ideas. While the concluding bosses are more interesting concepts, that you can use Top Spin to eradicate the final enemy in one hit is a design flaw that encourages know-it-all gamers to feel good about themselves.
These observations play off the notion that other games are closer to perfection than any Mega Man entry. Mega Man 3’s addition of a mysterious family member, Proto Man, can’t match the understandable melodrama of the father-son relationship in Ninja Gaiden (1988). From a standpoint of action, the gymnastics of the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy outweighs anything that the Mega Man franchise can muster. Mega Man, as a shooter, can’t compete with the traditional Contra series. And if we consider games that involve gaining the abilities of enemies, Kirby’s Adventure is a more consistent masterpiece. But Mega Man 3 is still a better action game than most, and its dramatic kineticism transcends the modest foundation laid by its ancestors. For that, it’s worth remembering.