I've had a strange urge in the middle of 2021 to play video games in series form. VGFamily regulars have already seen that come to fruition in the form of my Dreadline series, going through the 2D Metroid games in anticipation of Metroid Dread. I've also played through the first few Kirby games, all three Kid Icarus games (though I haven't beaten Uprising yet), and, most ambitiously, the whole run of Classic Mega Man.
No matter how deep your Mega Man knowledge is, I still think it's valuable to clarify what I mean when I refer to the Classic series. Mega Man as a franchise has been spun-off and re-spun-off so many times that even for fans of the series it's hard to even know what games are out there (let alone keep track of the lore, which is a whole separate nightmare). There's the X series, the Zero series, ZX, Battle Network, Legends, and more. Those series will sometimes have their own spinoff games, like Network Transmission, X Command Mission, or The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. When I say Classic, though, I'm referring to the numbered, no-frills, no subtitles series with the original Blue Bomber himself. Just straight up Mega Man, distilled.
As I played these games back-to-back-to-back, I had in mind to rank them all as I went. You know, the age-old practice of pitting these games against one another and deciding which one I like best. I started to realize something as I went on, though: it's sort of a disservice to these 11+ games to break them up individually. I think the best way to approach the Mega Man series, even when ranking them, is to group them up.
There are a few things that lead me to think along these lines. First of all, the Mega Man games are pretty short, each game clocking in at maybe 10 to 15 levels. When you plow through the series in quick succession like I did, they start to blend together. You start to see the similarities across different games far more than you see the differences between each one. I can't exactly tell you what my favorite boss from Mega Man 2 is, but I can tell you that I generally like the Robot Masters from 1-3 more than 4-6. I might not be able to pinpoint if I like the level design of Mega Man 9 over Mega Man 10, but I can tell you that the more recent Classic games show a maturity of game design over the old NES run.
Playing the series all in order made it harder, rather than easier, for me to rank the individual games. I actually lost interest in the exercise as I went. I started playing for breadth rather than fine details, I'm glad that things turned out this way, because I think I had more fun. I don't want to rank them any more. In fact, I refuse to. I will not do it. I will never tell you that my final ranking of Mega Man games looks something like 2 > 7 > 9 > 11 > [R&F] > 3 > 10 > 5 > 6 > [IV > V ] > 4 > [III > II] > 1 > 8 > [I]. I simply won't, and you can't make me.
Instead, allow me to present a useful grouping of Mega Man games that I think aids in viewing the series as a whole.
Group 1: Retro Classic
Games: Mega Man 1, 2, and 3
The oldest, the simplest, and quite possibly the best group of the series. The Retro Classic trilogy is where it all began, and it started off on a great foot. Well, OK, Mega Man 1 hasn't aged the cleanest, but there are so many ideas that you can see forming. The first game in the series may have been a bit of a rough draft, but Capcom really figured it out by 2, which is by far my favorite individual game in the series. Nostalgia certainly plays a role in how much I love 2, but every time I revisit it I'm reminded of its brilliance in level design, boss fights, and moment-to-moment action. Many people will take 3 as their favorite for their money, which is a respectable choice even if it's not my own. 3 is awesome, but its reach exceeds its grasp sometimes, causing insane sprite flicker and slowdown in its most interesting sections.
This group is characterized by mechanical purity. There are very few frills and gimmicks here, and the platforming is tough but pure. The lack of charge shot makes things a bit cleaner and certainly less noisy. Even as Capcom was finding their footing with the Blue Bomber, it didn't take them long to strike gold.
Group 2: The Charge Shot Trio
Games: Mega Man 4, 5, and 6
You'll never guess the defining characteristic of this set. Yes, the charge shot has become a staple not only in the Classic series but in basically every spin-off out there, but this is where it started--and where it's the most integral. These games are designed entirely around the charge shot, which ends up becoming their downfall. Every enemy is tuned to be taken down with a charge, which means you are holding that B button down for basically the whole game, which means an NES sound channel is permanently dedicated not to the games' awesome soundtracks but to a high-pitched whine. It's a shame, because there is a lot to love here. I liked 4 far more than I remember on this playthrough. I realized that 5 is an unsung bright spot in the franchise. I was reminded that 6 is pushing the NES hardware as far as it can possibly go. This trio is fairly middle-of-the-road, hampered by its overcentralization on the charge shot, but even middling Mega Man is still top shelf game time.
Group 3: Neo-Classic
Games: Mega Man 7, 8, and 11
The almost 20 years between Capcom-developed Mega Man games left me in a weird spot when it came to placing 11 in a group. I ended up deciding that it fit best, spiritually, with 7 and 8--despite the many years separating them. Each of these games is on a different platform, each of them has a new spin on the formula, each of them has a new design for Mega Man. Every one of them is a reaction of some kind; 7 is a reaction to the success of the X series, 8 is a reaction to new hardware and new capabilities, and 11 is a reaction to a long drought of new games.
Even though I think 8 may be the weakest of the entire series due to its various missteps, I think this is a phenomenal group, perhaps right behind the Retro Classic set. Even 8, for all its flaws, has bright spots that simply can't be ignored. 7 is a nostalgic favorite of mine, but even upon replaying in the context of all the other games I can't help but think it's one of the best-designed games in the series. 11 was a sight for sore Mega Man Fan eyes, a reminder that this long-standing franchise can be as fresh as it's ever been. The Blue Bomber lives!
Group 4: Retro Revival
Games: Mega Man 9 and 10
This group could also be called the "Inti Creates Duo" or something, since these are the two games that Capcom offloaded to the brilliant indie developer. Inti did exactly what we all wanted them to do: give us the Mega Man that we remembered. Their inspiration from 2 and 3 is obvious, eschewing the Charge Shot and focusing more on alternative weapon usage. Protoman is playable in these games, fittingly carrying the slide in his arsenal, a move that was introduced in his debut game. These games move beyond what the NES was actually capable of, but pay unabashed homage to the series' NES roots. While 10 is mostly iterative on 9's groundwork, I think that 9 is an absolute masterstroke of a game. Bosses, alt weapons, level design, and music harmonize to deliver some of the best Mega Man out there. If you are someone who has never played a Mega Man game before, I think 9 is a wonderful place to start.