I've always been harsh to Mega Man over the last twelve years, but not necessarily for game quality (that depends on if I ever decide to cover some of the genuine garbage the Blue Bomber has been in during his long-in-the-tooth days). Mega Man has been an incredibly influential franchise to action platform games. HOWEVER, I still firmly believe many aspects of what he established have either become antiquated within the series or done better by other games like Shovel Knight and Shantae. Going back and playing the original Mega Man further cements this.
Again, this sounds like I'm taking more unnecessary potshots at this beloved character, but Mega Man has been both a hearty inspiration to me, as well as becoming one of the things that started to drive me absolutely nuts about the retro community. Mega Man served as a great launching pad for what it could become, and that was seen with sequels (Mega Man 3 being the best in the series. MM2 is overpraised because of the music. Come at me if you wish, I'll be outside of the Circle K with a 32oz strawberry-lemonade waiting for my ride to pick me up). However, like Zelda, the series became very formulaic within itself and ended up recycling its own ideas to the point of not feeling fresh after Mega Man 4. Even the X series went past its expiration date and declined faster than the term "Andy Dick's career" after X4.
This is already getting long-winded, onto the game itself. Honestly, it's a little tough to revisit. I'm going to try my best to not pick on it too much, because there are some positives. But I always feel more inclined to replay the sequels than to go back to the first one. Mega Man has received so many gadgets in later games, the first Mega Man feels like one of those products that tries to return to normal ingredients after spoiling and poisoning people for decades with additives that made people fat. Mega Man with no Rush, no Beat, two less Robot Masters, it's about as basic as you can get.
Capcom did hit on a fascinating formula with Mega Man, it's a game that taught some pretty essential fundamentals when it comes to level design. Introduce several situations at a time individually, and then incorporating those elements together as the level progresses, escalating in difficulty. The knowledge you've acquired in handling the placement of the enemy and the environmental hazards should prepare to deal with what turns into a NEW predicament fairly adequately.
The control scheme is simple. Mega Man shoots and Mega Man jumps. As mentioned, the controls don't quite feel as fluid or responsive. I feel Rock moves like he has a thin layer of pine tar on the bottom of his feet. He does gain momentum while walking forward and the same when he's coming to a stop, but it feels a little delayed and gummy. In Guts Man's stage, very early on, there's these moving platforms with gaps in the tracks that causes the base you're standing on to drop from beneath you. There's a split second to make the jump when the track gap comes back, it almost seems like it drops a frame shorter than it does going backward. But getting a sense of the rhythm, the jump, which used to bother me as a kid, is fairly easy to get a hang of with only mild practice. The weapons are kinds slow and not too fun to use (except maybe Elec Man, it's the strongest power-up skill), they're just essential to dispatching the robot master really quick, establishing the game's rock-paper-scissors meta of boss battles. They don't even have unique patterns, mostly they hop once or twice and fire a thing at you.
Each of the six stages including Wily's 4 levels and a boss rush are designed and themed a little differently from each other, some vertically, some horizontal, but always funneling downwards or upwards. And this is where some of the experimental elements of regular Mega Man rears one of its greatest flaws: the vertical stages just don't work.
The idea behind having a vertical based stage like Elec Man would imply that the tools in the game exist to deal with the obstacles as they come at you. Rock's offense is primarily 180 degrees and can't defend himself overhead efficiently without Fire Man's Fire Storm. Meanwhile, enemies will come at you from various angles and it takes greatly going out of your way to counter this. Rock can't move fast going up and down ladders, and if he's struck while on one, he's going down, down, down.
The visuals are decent. It's probably not very fair to be too harsh a critic in regards to this. The stages generally have a palette of two contrasting primary colors with two other hues speckled throughout. This was a trait adopted by most NES games due to the limited color range of the hardware. It's not bad to look at, these are some of the most famous sprites on the Nintendo. I used to be impressed that Rock's idle animation featured him blinking, that's a little surreal for a 5 year old.
There isn't a lot of motion to the sprites, and the enemies aren't too varied. The layout is generally this; one foot soldier, several obnoxiously fast swooping flying thing-a-ma-jiggers, mounted turrets, and some big hopping bastard towards the end of the level. And my most hated trope in the entire franchise, those stupid ass disappearing blocks. It's a noise I can hear in my sleep. "D-VVV! D-VVV! D-VVV! D-VVV!". Every time they appear, I'd rather do anything else than hop on them. Along with the puzzle taking forever to fire up so you can get a read on it while being accompanied by the most cynically loud and disruptive noise an NES could ever make, I'm confident that Capcom and Keiji Inafune were very self-aware about what they were introducing. I know a form of torture when I'm introduced to it. It's not even hard, it's just time consuming in every negative aspect.
In the challenge department, it's pretty formidable. Most of its difficulty stems from design flaws as opposed to tough for the sake of being tough. Mere repetition with the really basic boss patterns and aforementioned scenarios I talked about above, it doesn't take long to crack this game's code. Maybe the Yellow Devil provides a demanding fight, but I put him in the same category as the "D-VVV!!" blocks. It takes a while is not an adequate substitution for difficulty.
The problem is, it's just not fun enough to warrant that. And I'm not just picking on it completely due to the passage of time. Contra is in the same ballpark of challenge with an even simpler arcade philosophy (point gun in direction shoot), but it feels far more intuitive than Mega Man. I give credit to just how influential Mega Man was and the ideas it helped other games in the genre find its way. But outside of the nostalgia vacuum, this really isn't that good a game and it's hard to recommend visiting it. Just play Mega Man 2 or Mega 3, where the series really refines itself to the solid gameplay the franchise is known for, but the very first Mega Man is totally obsolete.