1994 was a great year for 16-bit action games. The Sega Genesis was in the prime of its life thanks to the excellent Sonic the Hedgehog series. Meanwhile, the Super NES was starting to prove itself as a serious contender with its deluge of new games on top of offerings like Castlevania IV, Contra 3, and Actraiser. Even the malnourished TurboGrafx-16 showed its paltry few owners a good time with the Bonk series.
The rise of the 16-bit generation led to more and more NES owners stuffing the Boxy Grey Lady into their closets and garages while the new hotness took over the family TV. But anyone who held off on doubling their bits after '92 still had access to some well-polished NES action titles. Taito in particular offered a lot with Little Samson and The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, two games that are unfortunately better known for their insane eBay prices than their great platforming action. Capcom also delivered Mighty Final Fight, an adorable super-deformed beat-em-up.
One game Capcom didn't deliver to the NES was Mega Man 6. Well, it did—but only in Japan. Nintendo picked up and published the Blue Bomber's sixth adventure in North America on March 15, 1994, three months after Mega Man X arrived on the SNES. It's hard to believe classic NES Mega Man still had something to offer the action genre in a post-Mega Man X world. Like many fans who jumped into the future with X and Zero, I balked at the very idea of looking backwards.
Mega Man 6 is now over a quarter of a century old, and it still receives side-eye from action game fans. One problem is that it exists in the shadow of Mega Man X, which is frankly one of the best action games ever produced. Another problem is right there in its title: Mega Man "6." By the time the game arrived, the classic Mega Man series was regarded as something of a joke. A good one, to be sure, but a stale jest your well-meaning dad has told again and again.
For ages, I thought of Mega Man 6 as a faded, unspectacular punctuation mark for a pedigree NES action series. If you dig deep enough, you'll find old 1UP articles wherein I laugh at its feeble staleness. But after re-playing Mega Man 6 for the 25th anniversary of its North American release, I see now that I wasn't being fair to it. It's a good, fun game that actually has some interesting ideas and levels that are satisfying to work through. I suppose I spent all this time comparing it directly to Mega Man X, which is neither necessary or fair. Mega Man 6 stands on its own merits, and if you own it (say, via the Mega Man Legacy Collection), it's absolutely worth a go-round.
One reason I disliked Mega Man 6 is because I thought its story was stupid. To be fair, it is. An individual named "Mr. X" (not the same Mr. X who can be modded to wear a Speedo) finances a robot-building competition, then turns the winning robots to the Dark Side and begins taking over the world. When Mega Man literally asks "Why?", Mr. X tells him he's been manipulating Dr. Wily all along.
The "Dr. Wily isn't evil anymore!" twist was old by Mega Man 4, but I do think Mega Man 6's robot design contest angle is a good one. After all, Mega Man 6 marks the first time North Americans were allowed to contribute to Japan's celebrated tradition of designing Mega Man robots. Michael Leader, an American, designed Wind Man. Daniel Valee, a Canadian, designed Knight Man. The rest of the Robot Masters include Yamato Man, Blizzard Man, Flame Man, Plant Man, Tomahawk Man, and—my favorite—Centaur Man. Mega Man 6's Robot Masters are a strange-looking bunch, but when you remember each one is supposed to represent a different country, you understand why Mega Man has to fight a horse hybrid from Greco-Roman myth whose race is infamous for heavy drinking and debauchery.
Each Robot Master's lair is outfitted to represent its home country, too. Plant Man hangs around a level that resembles the Brazilian rainforests, albeit with robotic foliage. Tomahawk Man's (admittedly culturally insensitive) level is engineered to resemble the Wild West, and has a lovely sunset to go with it. My favorite is Blizzard Man's stage, which has mean-eyed curling puck robots sliding to and fro. I'm still a little surprised Knight Man, not Blizzard Man, was designed by a Canadian, but it is what it is.
Mega Man 6's levels are made even more interesting with their abundance of secrets. There are lots of cracked walls to break down, some hidden items to discover, and even occasional branching paths that might shepherd you into a fight with a "fake" Robot Master. While beating the fake still counts as a victory, you miss out on collecting the parts for Mega Man's robo-bird buddy, Beat. By the way, Beat is a maniac in Mega Man 5 and 6, where he pecks enemies to death instead of simply rescuing Mega Man from pits. If you miss one of his parts, it's not the worst idea to go down the path you initially snubbed.
Exploring Mega Man 6 thoroughly is only possible with the aid of the Rush Adaptor parts, which are likewise won by taking down Robot Masters. These parts, which offer Mega Man the option to fly for short distances and punch real hard, replace Rush's traditional role as a springboard and a jet sled. I miss Rush's gormless doggy-grin, and it's seriously cumbersome how you're expected to sit through a small cut scene every single time you equip one of the Adaptors, even though you can skip the animation. Still, I found myself enjoying how the stages encourage you to use the Adaptors to punch down weak walls, shatter armored enemies, and reach mysterious ladders in high places. Mega Man 6 tries hard to differentiate itself from Mega Man 5; probably a little harder than it needed to, given its release window.
Mega Man 6 still feels slow and a little awkward next to the smooth and suave Mega Man X. Even the best classic Mega Man games, like Mega Man 2 and 3, tower over it. But I spent years dismissing it as a desperate and cynical attempt to grab money from game-starved NES owners (who I now realize were anything but starved for good action games at the time). It's not, so don't breeze past it next time you sit down for a classic Mega Man marathon. Get equipped with Rush Adaptor, keep a wary eye on Beat's blood-covered talons, and enjoy the strong ending to Mega Man's NES career.
I spent a little too much of my history as a Mega Man fan spitting on Mega Man 6 instead of appreciating its interesting Robot Master designs, its inspired levels, and its nice graphics. It's not as good as Mega Man 2, 3, or Mega Man X, but it's a solid action game worthy of helping the NES bow out.