The Best, and Worst, of the Blue Bomber

Ranking all the Mega Man Classic Games

The Definitive List

The Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. franchise is huge. Considering the first game in the series was a financial let down, and the sequel only came about due the core team demanding they be allowed to work on it (on their own time, off the books), it’s impressive that the series would go on to host 64 games (and counting) and multiple sub-franchises. That doesn’t even count all the ancillary materials, like various anime series, and toys, and more. Frankly, being a Mega Man fan and tracking through all its materials can be a lot.

With that in mind, then, let’s try and get our heads around the classic series. We’re not going to cover the Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, Mega Man ZX, or Mega Man Battle Network games here. Those are their own style of games and feel very different. Whether you think one sub-series in the franchise is better than another is even more subjective than trying to determine which game is better. Instead we’re keeping our focus on the original, classic series, the main titles of which existed on the NES, SNES, Playstation, and more modern consoles. If it’s a proper, numbered entry then it gets on this list (with two clear exceptions we’ll cover). Let’s see how the adventures of the Blue Bomber stack up:

Mega Man

The Bargain Bin

Before we get into the main meat we should address some of the weird diversions in the main series that don’t really need to be discussed in detail. Not all of these are bad but none of them would make a real, definitive list of the series:

  • The DOS Games: These cheaply made games were designed by a single coder and while we have to respect the effort, these games are near-unplayable trash.
  • The Portable Games: Specifically we mean games I through IV on the Game Boy, the Game Gear title, and the Mega Man & Bass sub-par sequel. Not all of these are bad, and many of them are pretty playable, but they are all generally rehashes of the console titles and feel like “also ran” games you played when you couldn’t get ahold of the mainline editions
  • The Fighting Games: Mega Man was dropped into two games that were just boss fights with the robot masters, and this was considered a full experience. They’re fine if this is all you wanted, but the games feel slight, like they need something more to make them interesting. You know, like full levels…
  • Wily & Light: Mega Board: This is a strange play on Monopoly and while I like the game for what it is (and have actually played it more than once just because) in no way feels like a “proper” Mega Man title.
  • Mega Man Soccer: On the other hand, this game is crap and no one should ever play it.
  • Mega Man: Battle and Chase: Speaking of unplayable games no one should ever have to suffer through, no one wanted or needed a Mega Man racing game and this is the proof as to why.
  • Street Fighter X Mega Man: It’s open for debate whether this is an official title or not. It started as a fangame that was then picked up by Capcom for release during the 25th anniversary of the series. It is fun, if unbalanced, and maybe a tad too “fangame hard”, but Capcom did make it semi-official so… count it if you like but it doesn’t make our main list.
  • Mega Man: Powered Up: I know there are people that love this game, and that’s fine. It’s a decent remake of the original title in the series, and it adds in some new features people liked (like playing through the game as each of the robot masters). At the same time, though, this is a remake, so putting it on the list feels a lot like saying “each of the collections also makes the list.” It’s not a mainline entry so it stays off.

And now, with those out of the way, we can get to the real list.

Mega Man 8

The Mega Man series struggles with transition. There’s a balance that has to be maintained between the expectations of the past and doing something new with the series. If you stay mired in the past the games will suffer (we’ll cover that soon enough). If you deviate too far from the core mechanics, though, players rebel and say, “this doesn’t feel like Mega Man.” It can be hard to find that balance, especially when transitioning from one console to the next with the expectations that more powerful hardware entails.

There’s a lot that Mega Man 8 gets right: its graphics, its sound quality, its basic controls and the smoothness of play. At the same time, though, the game has a few big deviations that absolutely make the game feel strange and not quite right. The first is the Mega Ball, the new item added into the game in the intro stage. The Mega Ball is a weird item that’s both a weapon and a platform and while speedrunners love it (because it’s kind of broken) it also feels like a very strange deviation for the basic formula. It’s like adding in Rush but without making him as easy to use, as interesting, or fun in his mechanics. The Mega Ball is just strange.

And then there are all the level deviations. There’s the auto-scrolling shooter stages, where Mega Man rides around on a Rush platform and collects power-ups while shooting at waves of enemies. We’ve had little auto-scrollers before (such as the jet-ski in Wave Man’s stage of Mega Man 5) but these were small diversions and not the meat of the same stage. The same goes for the snowboarding stages which, again, are the dominant portion of their levels. They’re interesting, sure, but they shouldn’t be the whole of the level.

Balance is key and the balance of Mega Man 8 is off. While it’s not a terrible game per se (none of the mainline Mega Man games are terrible, which is why we’ve limited our scope for this list) it does feel like the least best effort of the whole franchise. That’s likely why, after this game came out, the series rested for a bit before the back-to-basics Mega Man 9 came out.

Mega Man 7

Speaking of transitions, Mega Man 7 was the first game in the mainline series to appear on the SNES. Note, not the first game in the series to appear on Nintendo’s second home console, as that would have been Mega Man X, which was originally positioned as the Blue Bomber’s 16-bit continuation. And also not the first classic series game to appear on the SNES, as that was Mega Man Soccer. This was the first adventure for the original iteration of Mega Man and it was designed to show how the series could evolve and change while still staying true to the classic gameplay. It… struggled to make that point.

For starters, the gameplay feels weirdly slow. Considering Mega Man X had been out for two years, and it had the dash mechanics and speed and power going for it, it’s weird that Mega Man 7 feels so sludgy. Mega feels like he’s stuck in molasses, slowly trudging along. The game feels slower in a way that you have to experience to understand, somehow even slower than the last NES game for the series, Mega Man 6. Something is just off here.

Also, there’s a heavy reliance on collecting items. Multiple power-ups and Rush abilities are scattered throughout the game, and while they can be useful it makes the game feel less like classic Mega Man and more like an off-brand Mega Man X clone. It’s pretty clear Capcom’s team was struggling to figure out how to bring Mega Man into the 16-but era and were throwing everything they could at the wall to see what stuck.

Which they didn’t need to do. Mega already made the jump to 16-bit. It was called Mega Man X and it was great. Mega Man could have stayed on the NES and let the next generation handle the future, at least until it was time to transition again. It leaves Mega Man 7 feeling like an ill-fitting oddity, one that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Fun, at times, but never quite nailing its style or tone.

Mega Man 11

And now we’re in for the other “transition” game, and it’s the one that tried to show us what a Mega Man game would look like in the modern era… and that’s basically Mega Man X again. In fairness, the game is pretty, updating the series into 3D polygon graphics in a way that actually works (unlike some of the later Mega Man X titles). It has style, it has flair, and it has some pretty good tunes to go along with, making for a very handsome presentation that, while not the classic sprites of old (which I will always lament) works for the era it was in.

At the same time, most of its new ideas seem like they were borrowed from other sources. Mega Man gets two new gears, a power gear and a time gear, and he can use both of them to affect the game around him. The power gear lets him amplify his weapons, creating more powerful effects and bigger damage. You know, like the upgraded buster for X in his side-series. It’s nice to have variable weapon effects, especially when you’re using their helpful benefits to traverse the stages more efficiently, but this is the kind of upgrade that should have been kept in an X game and not a mainline title.

Meanwhile the time gear acts like “bullet time”, giving players the ability to slow down the world around them while traversing stages. It’s useful, for sure, but it basically amounts to using the Flash Man Time Stopper at will, a power-up that has existed in the series since Mega Man 2 all the way back in 1988. That’s the opposite of fresh and new despite what the plot of the game (and the marketing materials from Capcom) would say. Do I like it? Sure. Is it useful? Yes. Should it have been a major mechanic in the game? That’s debatable.

Considering this was the first new, mainline entry in the series in nearly a decade (when it was released) it was nice to have Mega Man back, but it was clear the team at Capcom (who no longer had Kenji Inafune working with them) struggled to understand what made the classic series specific and endearing. It lost the flavor and just didn’t feel quite like Mega Man.

Mega Man

On the other end of the spectrum we have the original game. If any game should feel like a Mega Man title it would be the game that started it all. But the series we all envision, with the mechanics we know and the style of gameplay we expect didn’t come about until the second game of the series. Before that we had Mega Man in 1987, a game that was very much feeling out what worked and what didn’t.

The basics of the game are here: the Blue Bomber, going through robot master stages (only six this time) fighting the bad guys, collecting weapons, and then going off to Wily’s Castle to finish the job. Mechanically it works well, but there are enough differences that keep this from feeling like the rest of the series. It’s a draft of the series to come but now quite the finished product that the Capcom team would eventually devise.

Take the points system, which is random, weird, and adds absolutely nothing to the overall experience. Points come from pellets, from killing enemies, and from bosses, but they don’t actually reward you in any way. You don’t get extra lives from points, like in other games. You don’t get special bonuses for clearly stages with more points, Literally the only thing you get from the points is the points themselves, which is why they were removed from the second game onwards. Who cares about a meaningless mechanic?

There’s also the way boss areas are handled. Later games gave you a checkpoint in a short, empty room so you could grab a breath and get ready for the fight. This game, though, put more enemies and traps in the hall leading up to the boss, making the transition halls just another part of the stage. I understand the desire to keep the intensity up, but there was no reason to make these sections special areas if they were just going to be more of the same. It’s weird, and feels better once the halls were emptied for that needed moment of peace.

Finally, there’s the last rematch fights. Unlike in later games, where the bosses are kept in capsules waiting for your big fight against all eight in a row, here the bosses are put into a couple of stages, two in one stage, four in the next. For the final four you have to defeat all four, in a row, without a break, any extra health, or E-tanks (as those didn’t exist in this game). It’s rough and, for the casual fan, too much of a challenge spike. The way the later games handled it is much better (even Mega Man X, which played as an homage to this part of the experience in the Sigma Tower stages) gave more of a breather between the boss fights.

This isn’t a bad game at all (it actually is decently high on the list, all things considered) but it is uneven. It needed a second pass to make it feel right, and that second pass was Mega Man 2. That’s the game everyone remembers fondly as one of the best games ever. The original Mega Man, though, had a few kinks that really had to be worked out to get good.

Mega Man & Bass

As the second game for the SNES, Mega Man & Bass could learn from the mistakes of Mega Man 7 and really work to improve the overall formula. And it did, presenting a much tighter and more focused game. It was, however, also a much harder game than just about any other title in the series, one that was so brutally difficult that it became the true legacy of the title. When you wanted to play a tough-as-nails Mega Man title you needed look no further than Mega Man & Bass.

Weirdly it was also the second adventure for the SNES after the series had already moved on to the PlayStation. Coming out in 1998 it arrived in the twilight of the SNES’s life, long after most fans had moved onto the next generation of gaming with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Fans weren’t exactly eager to go back to the older console where there were newer games, and newer adventures, to be had. This game was positioned at the wrong time and the wrong place to really find the fans it could have had.

The game is flawed, due to its difficulty, but also interesting. It has adjusted mechanics that don’t alter the game too far but still keep things feeling somewhat fresh. The enemy select screen is a flowing grid where new levels unlock as previous stages are cleared. This allows for strategy in the game, figuring out where you want to go and how you’d like to tackle bosses. Plus, you can get a power-up that lets you deal more damage when at extreme low health which adds more tension, and more strategy, to the boss fights. And finally the game allows you to play as either Mega Man or Bass, the first time the series ever allowed that, giving players two versions of the game to play.

Despite the time it was released the game had a lot of promise. Maybe with tweaked difficulty, and a different console for its life, this game could have been a huge success. Instead it fell through the cracks and didn’t really get noticed until after its U.S. release on the GBA five years after it arrived on the SNES. That console was probably where the game should have been all along.

Mega Man 6

As the last game for the series on the NES, it did feel like Mega Man 6 was on fumes when it came out. It was the 14th title in the series, and the sixth mainline entry, in seven years. That’s a lot of games in a short time period, and it’s hard to innovate or evolve under such tight pressures. Because of that, there was a real sense of “this is just more of the same” lingering on this sixth entry.

In fairness to the game, it did try to innovate in a couple of ways. The first was how the bonus power-up for the game was collected. Mega Man V (which we’ll get to in a bit) introduced Beat, the flying robot bug that was essential to beating the end game bosses efficiently. In that game you had to collect Beat’s letters, and you do the same here but, instead of doing that via platforming challenges in the stages you gained Beat by finding alternate boss chambers in four of the robot master stages. These alternate boss fights are exactly the same, it’s just that one gives you the bonus reward and one does not.

Meanwhile, Rush received a major rework, going from a robot dog you ride on to one that grafts to you like armor. The two modes are Rush Jet, which is like a jetpack now, and Rush Power, which let you punch a power fist after charging. Both of these abilities were interesting, it kind of limited in use, and neither felt as good as classic Rush, even if the attempts and changing up the formula were appreciated.

Outside of these reworks, though, the game felt like “just another Mega Man adventure.” Capcom had nearly run the series into the ground at this point in its life and this sixth game just couldn’t escape feeling like another adventure, among all the adventures. Just another day in the office for the Blue Bomber instead of something special anymore.

Mega Man V

Here is our one special oddity from the Game Boy series. While most of the Game Boy games took the robot masters that appeared in the NES games, reusing a combination of them for the portable title, Mega Man V went a different route, creating a new bunch of robots (the Stardroids) for Mega Man to fight. These weren’t based on any existing robots, instead creating a wholly new story and adventure for players to explore.

Frankly, this was pretty cool. This was the kind of formula change up the series needed, giving Game Boy players something new, and special, for their efforts. While the game did feel like a sequel to the previous Game Boy adventures, continuing to push forward the engine and mechanics from those adventures (so if you played Mega Man IV you knew how to handle Mega Man V) it also gave players new experiences, new robots, and new ideas. In a series that had, at that point, seen 16 games (counting two Mega Man X releases as well), new was a big deal. The Capcom team did something fresh and that was worth rewarding.

Now, the Game Boy titles had felt like also-rans, and even here the game does struggle to escape the idea that you’re just playing another classic adventure. New robots and new stages don’t change the fact that the formula could only be pushed so far. If you’d played the six main entries, and the four previous Game Boy titles, this game would struggle to feel that fresh. The invention of the Stardroids and their addition to the canon was nice, but not so interesting that lapsed players were going to come back. It was hard to grab attention for the series when the SNES was there, getting new X games every year.

Still, as the swan song for the classic series in its roots (this was the last 8-bit game until Mega Man 9 came along much later), Mega Man V does what it can to send the series out on a high note. It’s not perfect, but the effort was much appreciated.

Mega Man 4

By the time Mega Man 4 came along, the series had already seen a number of entries in a very short time span. There were the three previous titles, plus Mega Man in Dr. Wily’s Revenge on the Game Boy, and the first or two (incredibly shitty) DOS games. But even if you only paid attention to the NES titles, this was the fourth game in five years. That’s a quick series of adventures in short order and only so many new ideas could come about with that kind of turnaround. As such, Mega Man 4 was the first game in the series that felt like it didn’t even try to innovate.

The game has one new idea: the Mega Buster. Make no mistake, this was a big innovation, defining Mega Man’s gun here (and in many sub-franchises) for the foreseeable future. Mega Man could charge up his buster and fire a more powerful shot. He could only charge up a single level (the second charge level would come with Mega Man 5) but this added something new to the repertoire. On the grand scale of new ideas this wasn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as the slide, or Rush, from Mega Man 3, but it was something.

Outside of that, this game felt like just another Mega Man adventure. Eight robots, then a secondary castle after, and finally Wily beyond that. Everything we’d come to expect from the series was here, in some form, with little in the way of changes or updates. If you’d played any of the previous adventures (but especially Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3) then you knew everything that was coming. It was safe, expected, standard. It was, in essence, Mega Man as an interchangeable yearly release. Mega Man 4 was the moment when the series became predictable. Not bad, no, but already the game started to feel just a little stale.

Mega Man 10

When Mega Man 9 came along it was bold and daring, a love letter to the fans that said, “so you really love Mega Man 2? Well, here’s the classic formula exactly as you remember it with none of what came after added in.” It was great, and that ninth mainline entry still stands as one of the greatest games in the franchise (we’ll have much more to say about it shortly). And then Mega Man 10 came along and said, “yeah, let’s do more of the same of that.”

I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with Mega Man 10. It is a fun, playable entry in the franchise that rates very highly on this list. If you were to ask “what five games should I play from this franchise?” this game would make the cut. It’s a well made, well designed, pretty solid sequel. The biggest knock against it is that, after Mega Man 9, this tenth game didn’t have anything new to say. It really is Mega Man 9 just again, with different weapons and bosses. If you loved Mega Man 9 then I’m sure you enjoyed Mega Man 10, too. But if you were looking for the series to say anything new, well, you had to look elsewhere. This was a solid but standard entry in the series in a franchise that, all too often, released just that. It’s good, but there were better with more to say about the series.

Mega Man 5

While the NES games are all generally held up as classics of the form, the subtle variance in quality was there for those really looking. What makes Mega Man 5 better than the fourth or sixth entries really comes down to what minor things you liked about one over another. The fourth, fifth, and sixth entries all feel generally the same, with the series coasting on most of its basic ideas and delivering one solid, if standard, adventure over another. This is a series with far too many games all released in short order, with Mega Man seeing 12 standard adventures in the time it took for Link to have three, or Mario to have six. That’s a ton, and only so much innovation could happen. The games, especially after Mega Man 3 all began to feel a little recycled, to a greater or lesser extent, as the formula slowly calcified.

The reason I consider Mega Man 5 to be better than the other two later NES titles, and even better than Mega Man 10 is that it tried to balance things just enough to keep the series feeling somewhat interesting and fresh. The robot masters had more style and substance to them, with some genuinely interesting boss fights (like Star Man’s low-grav or Gravity Man’s flipping gravity). There was the improved Mega Buster, which added a second power-level and rebalanced how it worked, making it a very useful utility. And there was the addition of Beat, which added in some collectable incentives for the player (before the X series came along and made that the normal) while also giving Mega Man a very powerful, late game weapon to rely on.

Maybe Mega Man 5 wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but it did have style, and polish, and just enough new going on to feel like a fun game. It’s hard to compete with the likes of the second and third game in the series, but this fifth entry was the closest the series came to matching those heights for nearly fifteen years.

Mega Man 9

Give credit to the team at Capcom, they realized something special they could tap into. When everyone else was trying to create the latest, greatest, most updated game for their franchise, the development team on Mega Man 9 decided to go retro. They embraced the back-to-basics approach and made a love letter to Mega Man 2, the game many would consider the peak of the series. When they could have tried to make something modern (for the era) and see what new ideas they could pump into the franchise to force it to evolve, instead they said, “hey, you love this game? We love it too. Let’s see what we can do with the limits of the NES originals.”

What that meant was a game that played as close to Mega Man 2 as possible while still feeling like a distinct game. Gone was the Mega Buster, the slide mechanic, and all the fiddly upgrades that had slowly leaked into the series overtime. Instead you have a striped down Mega Man who can do the very basic things you expect: run, jump, and shoot while fighting eight robot masters and then, eventually, Wily himself.

And it worked. In fact, it worked really well. The team focused on making a fun, balanced, and classic game that hit all the right notes. The levels were fun and innovative while staying true to the spirit of the classic games. The boss fights not only were fair but also were engineered such that, when you knew the weaknesses, each special weapon could target a boss strategically (and not just deal a lot of damage). And the weapons themselves were very useful, both against enemies and for navigating stages. This was a game that had all the right moves, the right way, and did it all just about as perfectly as it could.

The only reason any game rates higher at this point is because Mega Man 9 had to take inspiration from somewhere and it’s hard to do much better than the source material.

Mega Man 2

Mega Man was a draft of the game the programmers intended. It had the right ideas, but not quite the right balance, and it didn’t really carry itself as well as it could. The programmers loved the game, though, and wanted a second attempt… and Capcom wasn’t interested. The original title hadn’t been a massive success and the company didn’t see much reason to release a sequel. But the team was adamant and, after much convincing (and agreeing to work on the game on the side, while still getting their other projects done) Capcom let them develop Mega Man 2. And what came out was a classic of the NES era.

You can feel it, the love put into this game. From the levels, which are more varied and also far more detailed. From the music, which is layered with wall-to-wall bangers. From the bosses, which are all so cool, and they all feel very different. From the weapons, many of which are so very useful (and one of which is so stupidly broken that, even today, it’s still mentioned as one of the best video game weapons ever). This was every idea the coders could come up with, put into a single game, because as far as they knew they might not ever get another chance.

The game is brilliant. Flaws and all (and due to the rushed production schedule and having to work on this on the side, the game is a little unbalanced and uneven) the game is still great. It went on to become one of the only million-sellers for the franchise (alongside its direct sequel) and is often considered one of the greatest games, not only on the NES but in general. Period. All from a game Capcom didn’t want to make. How’s that for a legacy?

Mega Man 3

If any entry on here was going to be contentious, it was this one. I know there are fans of the series that absolutely hate this game, considering it too hard, weirdly balanced, and not as fun as the second title. I say they’re wrong, dead wrong. Mega Man 3 is the evolved form of the second entry, and it shows how the series could innovate (for the last time, really) before Capcom drove it into the ground.

The innovations are numerous. For starters there’s the slide, a mechanic that feels so natural and essential to Mega Man. It lets him become a tile shorter, and move quickly, adding in much needed strategy to the mechanics of the game. Then there’s Rush, the dog companion that replaces the weird items from the first two games. Rush Jet and Rush Coil are great items that find so many uses in the game (casually and for speedrunners). Sure, Rush Marine is silly and kind of useless when you have the doggo jet, but the dog in general is so great that he became the default item mode for future games.

Then there’s the Doc Robot stages. These were an interesting idea that I liked (even if other players don’t). They’re four of the robot master stages, made more difficult, with a copy-robot forcing you to, in essence, fight two of the robot masters from Mega Man 2 in each of these kaizo stages. Sure, these stages were hard, and the bosses were difficult as well, but the idea of taking these stages, remaking them, and then doing callback bosses from the previous game was just so cool. Later games simply put a second fortress section in the game, but I prefer this way of expanding the game’s play time.

Mega Man 3 had a rushed production cycle, as reported, with the success of the second game coming as such a surprise that the company had to do a quick turnaround to get the next game in the pipeline. There were likely ideas the production team wanted to do, and things that don’t feel quite right (like Wily’s castle feeling a tad short, and the intro screen being just a simple logo with absolutely slamming music). But what works here works so well that it balances out any minor flaws. This was the last great game in the series (until Mega Man 9) and the last time the series was at its true peak.

Whether you like Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3 better, both are worthy choices. But the innovations from this game came to define the series, and they pushed what we got in the second title to their natural peak. You don’t get to this game without Mega Man 2, sure, but you don’t have the rest of the series without everything Mega Man 3 did. It’s a classic, and, definitively, our top game of the list.