Mega Man 4
Based on: The art of business deception, the sport of shark-jumping, and the gameplay of a dozen Capcom platformers, including every Mega Man game that came before.
Business relations in the Mega Man series have taken interesting turns since the first game. Just like the real business world, alliances have been forged, broken, and then remade whenever there was an opportunity for "promoting world peace" or "destroying mankind" in order to become rich and famous.
In the beginning, Dr. Light and Dr. Wily teamed up in order to create a groundbreaking line of utility robots to introduce within a number of blue-collar labor markets. These first few iconic robots were capable of clear-cut lumber milling, large-scale excavation and construction projects, and preparing cute little snow-cones. The pair were acknowledged for advancing the state of the art in robotics, making the April 200X cover of Wired magazine, the front page of The New York Times, and becoming technologist celebrities overnight. With the Light & Wily LLC partnership established, and a year's worth of robots on back-order, the attention from both government and angel investors grew to a fever pitch.
Even with all the money in the world at their fingertips, a crack in the partnership began to form. Dr. Light believed that pre-orders for robots would sustain maximum profits from both the private and public sectors well into 201X. Meanwhile, Wily's business plan was at once attractive and unconventional. With the backing of a consortium of military dictatorships and religious fundamentalists, Dr. Wily proposed rebranding the utility robots as Robot Masters, and using them to threaten world destruction and extort money from the Group of Eight. Angel investors forecasted unprecedented profits from Wily's strategy, and Dr. Light was forcibly ousted from the board of Wily's new megacorporation of evil.
Advancing to the present game, we have a history of attempts at world domination, and a prevailing of Dr. Light's "keep it simple, stupid" design philosophy as opposed to Dr. Wily's own "things with good graphics that look badass" policy. Wily's business partners were becoming irate about a downturn in engineering quality, beginning with the uninspired duo of Top Man and Snake Man, and culminating with the final Light/Wily cooperative project Gamma, a three-story tall monstrosity that could have been used for world domination but inevitably just "looked cool" and got owned by a sixteen-pixel-high sprite.
At this point the members of the board were about to drop Dr. Wily on his ass, but the mad genius proposed a devious, liability-reducing scheme that government agencies had been employing for decades. Rather than employ his own engineering staff, whose incomes had risen alongside this noticeable drop in quality of designs, Wily fired his own engineers and decided to contract the work out to a little-known Dr. Cossack. To keep operating expenses at a minimum, Wily again incorporated a uniquely evil business strategy -- he kidnapped Cossack's teenage daughter and used the robot designs as ransom.
What Mega Man 4 shows gamers is that this business strategy has some serious flaws. Whereas Mega Man 3 had only a pair of defectively retarded Robot Masters, here we have no less than seven:
Furthermore, Dr. Cossack was unprepared for Mega Man's own upgrades. Toad Man shows that Cossack obviously hadn't considered the addition of Mega Man's slide from the third game. Even worse was the fact that each Robot Master could be easily vanquished with the charged power of the hero's new Mega Buster. Dr. Light's fortune from military contracts was at no risk from this new set of robots.
If Wily's own engineering output had jumped the shark in Mega Man 3, it is this fourth game that jumps the shark for NES Mega Man fans. Not only are a majority of the bosses in this game terribly lame, but the incentive to beat them really isn't there -- the weapons are typically lackluster rehashes of what has came before (with the exception of the often ineffective but situationally-awesome Rain Flush).
As with many Mega Man games from this point forward, the sole pleasure is simply seeing what madness a stage will try throwing at you. Particularly for 1991, the enemy designs and art were truly SNES-quality, save for the color depth. Toad Man's stage had gigantic snails within its deep-plunging sewers, Dive Man's stage had torpedo-launching sperm whales, and Ring Man's stage had hippos -- because nothing says "I LOVE YOU" like a missile-launching robotic hippo. The stage graphics were also improved, with changes to make the foreground tiling less noticeable and more natural.
However, getting a game right is really about nailing every little detail, not just the artistic ones. And even though the Mega Man games are generally solid platformers, they'd never really get the little details right again.
In Mega Man 3, our hero received a new best friend in canine helper Rush, named for Dr. Light's love of the famed Canadian rock trio. Unfortunately, Rush's trio of powers in this game bears more resemblance to the Presto album than 2112 -- the Rush Marine is effectively useless except in two areas of the game, and the Rush Jet now auto-scrolls to the left or right, destroying the free-moving awesomeness of his original Jet form. Offsetting this change are the completely optional and unnecessary Balloon and Wire Adapters, which provide smaller-scale, finer-grained platforming controls as their only benefit.
Dr. Cossack's Russian-themed castle feels cold and oppressive, but has very few challenges that feel truly insurmountable. Upon learning that Wily is really pulling all the strings behind the scenes, we progress to Wily's castle and end up at a stage full of Metalls/Hard Hats. It's great fan service for losers who thought this game would be as good as the first three, but the element of fear is simply missing. In its place are bright graphics and an uppity happy musical theme that does nothing to set the appropriate tension. All the Wily music in Mega Man 4 feels like an anime hero infiltrating the enemy base to inevitably save the day again. Perhaps this is appropriate after three other Mega Man games, since Capcom knows they can sell us on this idea again and again.
But as Wily's little contracting scheme shows, you can't simply buy quality with money. Tender loving care and attention to detail can only come from pure, solid dedication. And I can't imagine any team of video game developers that are inclined to make basically the same game year after year without fatigue. That being the case, why do gamers like ourselves continue to be sucked in? Is it so difficult to accept and be comfortable with a fresh, new idea that has the same love and attention we once expected from somewhere else?
Just like starting a wildly successful business, it's a secret to everybody.