Dissecting the mechanics and design of MegaMan 5 to learn good design by example

  • Blitzen
  • 04/19/2008 12:00 AM
Understanding Fun Game Design
Case Study: Mega Man 5

By Blitzen

Part of being a good game designer is understanding good game design. Amateur or not, I’m sure we all want to try to make games that are fun. After more than a few hundred hours of study and contemplation from playing games, I feel competent enough to think that I can dictate what is and isn’t good game design, and think that I can dissect games to the extent that allows me to understand their mechanics on the most basic levels. This is the first in a series of articles aimed at dissecting good game design in hopes that some of you will take away the valuable lessons we have been taught by history, or be inspired to innovation. First I am going to look at a commercial game. Later on in the series I will start to assess RPG Maker or community games. These aren’t reviews necessarily; they are observations and analyses of the stuff that makes up a game.

I take a claim that things can be fun just for the sake of being fun, and should be explained where they can provide some utility to teach us something about game design, and this is what I plan to do. So lets get started. This is basically what I think makes MegaMan 5 a great game:
1) Built on established conventions
2) Challenges the player within the conventions
3) Challenges the player with new takes on traditional conventions
4) Breaks occasionally from traditional gameplay to something different
5) Rewards the player with new, visible, and significant advancement
6) Manages balance and strategy throughout

I really like the MegaMan series as far as design is concerned. The whole series rests on two principals.
1) Play the levels in any order you want.
2) Beat the boss, get his weapon.

Mmm, Gyro Man. Sounds delicious.

MegaMan 5 works within its established tradition. It is relying on a thus far tried, tested and true formula. What then separates it from its predecessors? The answer isn’t complete overhaul, its new content and subtle innovation. There are a couple ways that this subtle innovation takes place. A number of them involve not shattering the mould of established gameplay conventions, but veering from them just enough to offer a new and enjoyable experience.

First off, the game was familiar enough for you to understand how the game responded to your inputs.It’s a platformer, a familiar genre on the NES. Moreover, there have already been four MegaMans so this isn’t something obscure. The basic ideas behind interaction are simple: you push left, MegaMan moves left. You can jump and spikes kill you. You shoot things and they die. Easy-to-master basic skills allow the game to have its accessibility. Some conventions established within previous MegaMan games are here as well. For example, you can slide, and charge your weapon. You’ve also got Rush, your cool canine companion, who can help you out. To the average player, none of this is new stuff, so they should feel ready to pick up and play. This kind of accessibility is appealing, the kind that is based off the familiarity of a genre, but makes itself unique by its own familiar conventions WITHIN that genre.

MegaMan seems to have misplaced his hat.

Where the game start to veer from something familiar is the new challenges it poses. In each MegaMan game there are eight new Robot Masters that need to be vanquished. Each has an attached level, and in addition to this there are new final levels, so this is hardly the same game as before. Each level presents new challenges that allow the player to use their problem solving abilities to take the skills they have learned and overcome obstacles, like tricky jumps, different and new kinds of enemies. The level design is mostly very well done. Some of the screens force you to look at them and think, "How am I going to get out of this?" while others force you to shoot wildly until you find your way out of the frame. Rarely are they dull to look at either.

Ooo, kinda like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In as far as providing challenges that bend conventions, the GravityMan level is such a good example of this. Rather than a straight forward romp through the perilous and fantastical quickly constructed factories of the robot master, there were parts of the level which featured inverted gravity. Now jumping up meant jumping down, and you might fall into upwards bottomless pits. This variance allowed the player to apply his knowledge of the game to a new challenge: navigating the upside-down level. Its interesting to think about how a player will respond when you take a fundamental convention, like gravity, and invert it completely. Another example of a new take on a traditional convention is the idea of the weapon you get for beating ChargeMan, the Charge Kick. Normally when MegaMan slides, it is to move quickly out of harm’s way or get into tight places. The Charge Kick takes this convention and adds to it: now MegaMan can do damage to enemies by sliding! I thought that this was fairly innovative, having a weapon that you don’t shoot at all, but is activated through one of the other player inputs. Considering the conventions you wouldn’t think that having a weapon that happens when you slide would come up at all. The thing is though, when you’re using this weapon you want to be careful not to slide around too much, or else you’ll run out of energy pretty quickly, so suddenly, there is a new element of strategy to using the skill. This, I think, is a great example of how a game can provide a new challenge by adding to or bending old conventions.

Notice, he wears a helmet, kids. Safety first.

In addition to being nifty, these kinds of things provide a break from the traditional gameplay, offering something different to the mix. There are elements of this in other places, like in the WaveMan level where you jet-ski and fight a giant octopus-thing. The mechanics are still pretty much the same, but the idea that you are somewhere different, on a jet-ski, leaping over seaborne obstacles and fight octopi is enough to make the realize that this is something new. The notion being that the player thinks, “Oh cool! I get to go jet-skiing!” and the experience being different enough in presentation and mode to provide a new experience, is a break from the traditional gameplay, that piques interest and has something of a “wow factor” to it as well.

There is always a wow factor when you defeat one of the robot masters and get a shiny new weapon to use in your quest against Dr. Wily. Part of what makes this such a good reward is the fact that for each robot you defeat, you get a weapon that is new, visible, and significant. Each weapon is something pretty much unique to the master that you defeat, and the little spinny-roundy-dealy that happens when you acquire it tells the player that “This is something new!”. Each weapon does something different, and the really innovative weapons – like the ones that come from ChargeMan or GravityMan, which inverts the gravity in the level and sends enemies flying skywards – have very visible effects. The idea of these rewards being visible is an important part of what makes them worthwhile. The visibility is enhanced by the fact that MegaMan’s color changes when he uses the different weapons. And lastly, each weapon has significance. None of them are useless, because in the balance of the game (another well-established convention of the series) each robot master is uniquely weak to the weapon of one of the others. This balance allows each weapon a utility that shouldn’t be ignored, and is a really good way on ensuring that there is no useless prize after any pursuit. The balance of the game is such that it requires a little experimentation to find out which weapon is good against which robot master, but it only the comprehension of a ten year old to realize that this is the way that the game works.

One of the new features in MegaMan 5 compared to its predecessors is the introduction of Beat the Bird. By collecting the letters “MEGAMANV” that are scattered throughout the levels of the master robots, you get a helper that will fly around and go medieval on your enemies. The fact that you have a helper that you don’t jump on is new. He flies around on the screen and puts on quite a show, so he’s visible. And he is actually pretty good at giving it to the bad guys so if you use him when you’re in a bind he can prove to be quite significant. This feature seems to be well implemented as a reward and as a weapon.

I admit it. I suck pretty hard at MegaMan.

So what have we learned? Basically I’ve spent some time telling you that MegaMan 5 is a sweet game, but in addition to knowing that now you understand why. How is this useful to you? Well, for starters, I encourage each of you to try to incorporate the ideas that I think made MegaMan 5 a good game into your own games. First, make sure its accessible and easy to understand how the game works, by working within a genre. But don’t stop there: add conventions of your own to the gameplay so that the player has a toolbox of skills to conquer the challenges you present to him. Secondly, make sure these challenges are well done, don’t make them impossible, but make them require at least some critical thinking to achieve the optimal result. Once the player is settled into the conventions of the game, start to bend or add on those conventions, and bonus points for you if you do this in unexpected or innovative ways. Make sure that as the player plays they get rewarded with something new, visible, and significant, to encourage further play or add to their toolbox of skills. Lastly, make sure the game is well balanced, keep difficulty and opportunity both in check and make sure that this balance is decipherable so that the player can understand how to use it to their advantage.

So I hope you think that was worth your time, and thanks for reading my thing and hopefully you got something useful out of it. Ahoy.


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Good work Blitzen m'boy! I need some good solid practice with Megaman... I'm terrible at it. Also, you should hang out at RMN more!
Megaman 5 was always my favorite back in the day.. being as it was the only one I actually owned. >.> Very valid points on the game design though!
all megamans were great
considering the fact that
the first was megaman 1 and the last was megaman 6
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