I’ve been writing about Mega Man over on Anatomy of a Game, and while it’s all well and good for me to say, “Hey, this was a pretty great game,” that all gets a little fuzzy in the blur of history, you know? Mega Man arrived in Japan in December 1987 under the title Rockman, a venture by the generally underwhelming home console division of Capcom, and it marked a massive departure for the company. Not only was it hands-down superior to everything Capcom had developed and published on consoles to that date, it put the company’s internal studio on equal footing with the best developers on Famicom. For comparison, I’ve picked out the most comparable games released within three months of Rockman on either side. In this context, I really think the game stands out – only a couple of games come close to its level of control precision, the speed of its action, the depth of its mechanics, and its graphical finesse.
Air Fortress (HAL): A simple shooter that doesn’t play as well as it intends to, Air Fortress has its moments – its structure isn’t entirely different from Wario Land 4 – but never quite reaches classic status.
Castlevania II (Konami): Recurring theme here: The only titles that really stand on par with Mega Man come from Konami, who for my money were the single best third-party developer for NES. I’d even argue that they were better than Nintendo in some respects. Less revolutionary, but more consistent. How many truly great NES games did Nintendo develop? Konami didn’t hit as hard, but it hit more steadily, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of constancy. Simon’s Quest has its problems, but it looks and sounds great, and its design demonstrates a lot of ambition.
Faxanadu (Hudson): A legitimate action RPG, Faxanadu has high-minded goals but its repetitive graphics and imperfect design keep it from achieving all it aspires to. Big world, moderate exploration, RPG leveling almost but not quite offset weird collision detection, easily exploited design, and a pervasive sense of mediocrity.
Rambo (Pack-in Video): I like this game, but I also recognize that it’s kind of terrible. Exploration and wilderness survival thwarted by some really stupid design decisions and incredibly vague objectives and stage layouts.
Star Wars (Namco): The weirdest Star Wars game of them all, this platformer isn’t as terrible as it looks. But it plays awkwardly and isn’t particularly fun, either.
Karnov (Data East): This game feels like a relic of 1986, not an early 1988 release. Janky, confusing, and poorly controlling, it’s a mess.
Konami Wai Wai World (Konami): A surprisingly clumsy effort from Konami, the multi-character swapping and sloppy mechanics make it feel like a spiritual predecessor to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a lot of ways.
Contra (Konami): A legitimate masterpiece, this shooter took a solid arcade game and made it amazing. Top-notch level design, a brilliant set of weapons, great graphics and music – Contra totally spanked Mega Man.
Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (Vic Tokai): Kind of a disaster of a game, it combines a lot of modes (side-scrolling action, sniping, horizontal shooter, first-person maze exploration) and does them all pretty poorly. But, you get to shoot cybernetic Hitler clones at the end, so that’s kind of neat.