Mega Man V
(JP July 22, 1994; US September 10th, 1994)
Known as “Rockman World 5” in Japan (a much less confusing name when keeping up with the absurd, sprawling continuity of the property), Mega Man V is the fifth “Mega Man” game available for the Game Boy. Released in the middle of 1994 and during a growing apathy among players for newer handheld games, it didn’t fare as well as its previous installments and acted much like a swan song for both the developer and quality action games for the console, in general.
As with Bionic Commando, the development of this game having been handed over to Minakuchi Engineering is relatively poorly known. The existence of the company is something that only recently came to an even remotely popular light with the release of the Rockman Complete Works book. In it, Keiji Inafune, the man often credited (very undeservingly, but that’s another subject) as the biggest force behind Mega Man, acknowledged that the games were outsourced and that the outsourcers often understood the series better than Capcom did.
Their first time handling Mega Man was with with the first Game Boy entry, Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (Rockman World), and despite some rough edges, they showed an excellent grasp of the design basics of the series. Perhaps wanting to catch the handheld entries up with the NES/Famicom ones, Capcom also contracted a second company to work on the sequel and managed to release it within just a few months of the first. The second company’s work was of a notably poorer quality than Minakuchi Engineering, however, and Mega Man II has since been seen as a black mark on the Game Boy entries. Justifiably upset with the incredibly mediocre work done for the sequel, Inafune pushed for Minakuchi Engineering to be the handlers of all subsequent Mega Man titles on the Game Boy.
With a demonstrably growing grasp of where to improve themselves, their four attempts at the series ranged from good to truly excellent and hit their pinnacle of quality with Mega Man V. Each previous handheld Mega Man game had borrowed heavily from the NES games and were a mixture of new and old assets arranged in entirely new ways, but this time around, all content was original and designed specifically to make this the best one yet. Inafune even pitched in original character designs for the game, and we saw the introduction of the feline counterpart to Rush, Tango the cat.
Although it featured an almost identical format to the last two games, with two sets of 4 stages to be completed followed by an especially difficult final stage, we saw a departure from the usual “Robot Master” bosses and instead saw the introduction of the Star Droids, a group of robots hailing from beyond Earth and intent on the singular purpose of destroying all inferior life. Based on each of the 9 planets within our solar system (okay, well, 8 planets and Pluto), the Star Droids took the aesthetic of the game in a direction that had previously been relatively unexplored.
If you’re unfamiliar, the usual Mega Man game features 8 separate Robot Masters, all with their theme prominently and plainly featured in their name. For example, a robot master named Skull Man featured a level predictably full of bones and skeletal enemies. Another named Clown Man has a level much like a circus with upbeat music and silly enemies. This theming is a tremendous part of why Mega Man has been so enduring within the minds of its players, because the variety allows for a lot of distinct and memorable content.
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In universe, most Robot Masters were created with a practical, peaceful purpose in mind and then altered slightly to be repurposed for fighting. The hulking Guts Man from the first game was meant to be a humble construction robot, for example. However, the evil Dr. Wily betrayed the good Dr. Light and repurposed these robots for world domination. Rock, the robot that Dr. Light created to act as his son, then volunteers to be modified into a fighting robot to help preserve peace among man and robot-kind, thus giving birth to Mega Man (Rock Man). These themes were very kid-friendly and echoed things that the creators had loved growing up, most prominently Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom).
Certain fans of the series had been loudly asking for the eponymous hero of the series to “grow up” and become more serious, however (a popular demand of games in the early 90’s), and the Star Droids were, in a way, a response to that. Featuring slightly more aggressive designs than your typical Mega Man fare and with their leader, Sunstar, being considered a doomsday weapon, their intent of genocide of the human race rather than just world domination set Mega Man V’s tone a slight bit darker than the series had dared to tread up to this point (but still much lighter than Mega Man X, released about half a year prior, had begun to take it).
This shift in tone brought a slightly greater uniformity to the otherwise more flexible theming present in previous Mega Man games, and each level was now working within more of a warlike aesthetic. For example, the Star Droid Neptune is loosely modeled after the Roman god of the same name, and his level has an understandably aquatic theme to it. However, it all takes place on an enormous battleship amidst the sea, with you beginning to raid it from the deck before entering. Most levels push the common themes to the side a little bit and focus more on the unified Star Droid aesthetic.
While I’d normally argue something like this might be a tad unappealing and now lament the encroaching “edginess” of games around this time period, Mega Man had so many chances to previously explore goofier themes that this acts as a breath of fresh air and helps make the game considerably unique amongst its peers. Musical compositions for the game are also completely original, catchy tunes, rather than ones borrowed from NES/Famicom series – which is what the previous Game Boy games did – and not a single basic enemy design repeats itself from a previous game. There are some returning bosses, but they act as a warm tribute to the previous Game Boy games and their inclusion is used as a knowing send-off to the series.
The visual design present in Mega Man V is the best the series has seen on a handheld and some of the best that anything with Mega Man attached to the title ever reached. It features an absolutely excellent grasp of how to use contrast to bring out the most detail in both the characters and the environments. Levels are also bursting with highly detailed pixel art and multiple animated tiles, making them feel both extraordinarily engaging and alive. Backgrounds are slightly timid with mostly using only two of the available four shades at a time, but still feature both high detail and and extremely competent looking art.
Many other titles around the same time period would use only two shades for the background and then also use that as an excuse to keep them utterly vacant, but Mega Man V managed to create a striking foreground and background balance with them. It makes the cartoony-looking character and enemy sprites really pop out, and they absolutely deserve to be showcased with how distinctive and animated they tend to be. One of Mega Man’s high points as a series on the NES/Famicom has always been incredible visual readability with no prominent artistic sacrifice, and the Minakuchi Engineering Game Boy titles manage to carry those ethics over with flying colors.
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The design trajectory for their earlier Mega Man games had them feature a much more stop-and-go pacing to better acclimate Mega Man-styled play to a smaller resolution screen. As the entries went along, they got better at making that play more consistently smooth and getting the absolute most out of the tiny little screen. Needless to say at this point, Mega Man V managed to hit the very peak of that design and features the smoothest and most enjoyable pacing out of their four titles. It’s essentially action-platforming on a handheld at among the best it’s ever gotten, and this title requires the least adjustment for a fan of the NES/Famicom games to do to get used to it.
Levels copiously feature new and creative platforming gimmicks or old ones arranged in more meaningful ways, and enemy design and placement are also at all-time highs. While the game does feature currency dropped from enemies, something I feel to typically be a big warning sign for an action title, there’s enough of it meaningfully placed in slightly hard to get to areas of the game for it to be enjoyable to pick up, and the items available at the shop are largely unnecessary or very slight passive performance boosts. While the game is definitely balanced around attempting a one credit or no death clear without needing to use the shops, you can always buy the familiar crutch in the form of e-tanks from there to cheese your way through every encounter if it’s really giving you that much trouble.
Mega Man’s charge shot has been changed to a detaching and returning arm to make players put a little more thought into mindlessly charging constantly, which is something the series really needed. The limited range and return time makes it a slight bit riskier to use, but more rewarding to execute properly. An item from the shop can be purchased to make it able to grab distant items, too, and getting it early allows you to grab items that would otherwise require tricky platforming or specific Star Droid powers to obtain. This kind of clever usage is something I heartily appreciate, because it never makes anything from the shop purely necessary for anything – just something neat that advanced players will be able to take advantage of.
Boss design is also what is quite possibly my favorite in all of Mega Man. Despite working within such jarring screen limitations, they manage to have some of the most engaging and creative boss fights the series has ever seen, and the game ends on what I consider to be the best final boss fight in any Mega Man game, to date. Bosses are all extremely flexible in that they’re balanced around being able to be fought with just your primary weapon, so it never feels like you need to grab their weakness before you get a fair crack at them. While easier than some of the previous games and leaving me a little dryer than I’d like in my thirst for a challenge, I can’t help but very strongly admire the creativity and presentation put on display here. To spoil one of my favorite innovations, one of Mars’ attacks is an undodgeable salvo of fire. The only way to avoid damage is to fight him on his own terms by rapid-firing back at him, deleting his projectiles one-by-one and getting a few hits in on him, too. This all happens very quickly and naturally in terms of how the fight flows, but adds greatly to both his thematic presentation as a representation of the god of war, and mechanically in terms of making a well-paced and interesting fight.
All-in-all, Mega Man V is one of the finest games to grace the series both despite and because of its arduous technical limitations. It looks, sounds, and plays up-to-par or better than the best of them, and it’s probably the most accessible game out of the handheld bunch for someone new to the series to just pick up and get into. The production values and design quality put into it stand in disappointingly stark contrast to how successful it seems to have been, however, and it acts as a somewhat of an unsung magnum opus to all 8-bit Mega Man design.
The later entries in the series being unable to outsell the earlier ones despite their overwhelmingly more obvious quality seems mostly due to the fact that interest in handheld gaming was beginning to decline at this time, and that once people had one or two handheld Mega Man games, they had enough. Handheld gaming was considered more of a novelty, and being able to say you had “[popular entry],” but on your Game Boy seemed to be what a lot of people wanted more than quality, original games.
Rather than focus on the somewhat depressing cynicism that arises from being forced to view a favorite game of yours in that particular light, I try to focus on the positive, though. Despite however people looked at it at the time and despite the developers most likely knowing full well they were seen as disposable help creating yet another novelty game, they tried their hearts out and created something truly remarkable. Though unsung and largely unrewarded, they worked ardently to create something for people to love and enjoy, and I have truly loved and enjoyed it. Why not join in celebration of these works and try the game out, yourself?