Gaming historians and manic completionists may, from time to time, decide to revisit the original 1987 Mega Man, on the basis that it’s an often-ignored but foundational part of both gaming history and the original Nintendo library.
Whether its worth doing so is up to personal preference.
Mega Man is, at the end of the day, the rough material for the actual first classic in the series, 1988’s Mega Man 2. Like with many new game franchises, there’s a lot of early-installment weirdness in the original Mega Man, like the frequent slowdown whenever more than one thing happens, the simplistic enemy design, one of the worst pieces of cover art in the history of the medium, and the completely superfluous scoreboard.
Most importantly, Mega Man is is, for some, the bad kind of difficult. Modern rereleases like the 2018 Mega Man Legacy Collection on Switch can compensate for some of that 1987 jank with save states and a rewind feature, but playing it unassisted, especially on the original hardware, can be a recipe for frustration.
With that in mind, if you do intend to run this gauntlet at some point, the original Mega Man is also the start of the series’ foundational gimmick: you can run the Robot Masters’ stages in any order you like, but the trick is finding the easiest route, and using your new abilities to exploit their vulnerabilities. We’ve got you covered there.
The following is what appears to be the designers’ originally intended route. It lets you exploit each Robot Master’s weakness in turn, which effectively means you’ll brute-force each fight. Later games would tweak the difficulty curve so you’d still get a decent tussle out of a Robot Master even if you were using their natural counter, but in the first couple of Mega Man games, it’s like bringing a machine gun to a knife fight.
Start with Bomb Man, who has the easiest stage to navigate and a very simple attack pattern. Every time he throws a bomb at you, you can jump just before it lands to completely avoid the damage from the explosion, then shoot him right after you land. You should have no problem here.
Next up is Guts Man, whose stage should give you more trouble than he will. It starts with some tricky jumps across ricky moving platforms, then puts you up against a simple but high-damage gauntlet of enemies. Guts Man himself can do a lot of damage if you get hit by his flung boulders, particularly since he stuns you every time he lands, but he’s so slow that you can easily lay Hyper Bombs in his path. Three of them will take him out with a bang.
With Guts Man’s Super Arm, Cut Man can be taken out in two hits. Just pick up the two blocks in his boss room and hit him with them. You do need to be careful however, as the blocks won’t be replenished if you lose a life and have to restart the fight. That said, Cut Man’s only real plan is to run straight at you, so the fight should be over before you know it.
From there, head to Elec Man’s stage. Having the Super Arm on deck lets you take a few shortcuts through the vertical part of the level, and you’ll be able to grab the useful Magnet Beam along the way. Elec Man himself is the first really dangerous Robot Master, primarily because his Thunder Beam inflicts about 30% damage to Mega Man on hit; fortunately, three shots from the Rolling Cutter will slice him down to size before he can really get started. While you can beat Elec Man without the Cutter, it’s only worth doing if you’re going for style points.
From this point forward, things get a little easier, as Elec Man’s Thunder Beam is one of the more dangerous weapons you get in Mega Man. It’s got a nice big projectile, so it can scrape enemies off the floor and ceiling for you, and fires in three directions at once.
If you don’t mind cheating, the Thunder Beam also gives you access to the infamous menu glitch, where you can damage an enemy repeatedly by calling up your weapons menu repeatedly while they’re in contact with a Thunder Beam projectile. This is an easy way to deal with otherwise-difficult enemies like the infamous Yellow Devil.
Ice Man is easy enough to defeat using the Thunder Beam, whether you use the menu glitch or not, but his stage is the real problem here. Without the Magnet Beam, there’s a section about halfway through that requires you to make your way past a series of moving, shooting platforms over a bottomless pit, which requires nearly perfect execution. For many back in 1987, Ice Man’s stage was the big brick wall that kept them from completing Mega Man for years.
With the Magnet Beam though, you can brute-force it by laying down a series of temporary platforms of your own and just running straight through the area in about ten seconds. The trick is knowing how the Magnet Beam actually works, because it’s finicky; if you hold down the fire button, its temporary platforms can extend out to a surprisingly long horizontal range, which lets you circumvent most of the dangers of the stage by running along the top of the screen. After that, Ice Man is an anticlimax. Three hits from the Thunder Beam will melt through his health.
Finally, there’s Fire Man. Some players recommend hitting him relatively early, as the Fire Storm is a surprisingly versatile weapon. It fires a horizontal projectile and extends a short-lived shield around Mega Man at the same time, which can be useful against enemies like Cut Man who want to stay in your face all the time.
It’s easiest if you save Fire Man for last, however. Once you reach him, it’s just a question of jumping over both him and his waves of flame, then shooting him in the back with the Ice Slasher. It takes about eight hits to knock him out cold.
From there, you’ll head into Wily’s Castle, which is a gauntlet of traps punctuated by increasingly difficult bosses, and you don’t receive free weapon recharges between each stage anymore. Good luck. You can cheat your way past the toughest bosses with the Thunder Beam menu glitch if you like, and if you do, that makes the rest of the game much easier than the start of it was.
Keep in mind that you can’t clear the first stage of Wily’s Castle at all without the Magnet Beam. If you skipped over it the first time through Elec Man’s stage, you’ll have to double back for it now. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you have to fight Elec Man again; Mega Man will simply teleport out once you reach his boss room.
The first Mega Man is more restrictive about its level design than the games that would come after it. You can start with any Robot Master, at least in theory, but several of them are much tougher than others.
Bomb Man, Cut Man, and Guts Man are all easy to take on with the basic Mega Buster and a can-do attitude. All three have simple patterns and take a respectable amount of damage from standard shots, so you can start with any of the three and probably muddle through.
That said, Guts Man is definitely the hardest of the three to handle with just the Mega Buster. The trick comes down to knowing when to jump, as his thrown boulders are hard to avoid until you pick up the knack. Stay on the left side of the room, jump over them just before they hit the floor and shatter, and keep shooting Guts Man while he’s in the air.
Elec Man is the first real hard gate of the game, however, and you’ll want the Rolling Cutter to deal with him. It’s also helpful to have the Super Arm from Guts Man in Elec Man’s stage, as it lets you pick up the Magnet Beam without having to backtrack for it later.
From there, you can run the game as normal, using the Thunder Beam to kill Ice Man (with or without the pause-button glitch), then taking out Fire Man with the Ice Slasher. The big issue is and remains Ice Man’s stage, but there’s nothing for that but to either learn the proper execution or cheese it with the Magnet Beam.
When you do finish the original Mega Man, consider it a feather in your cap. While it’s been consistently overshadowed by its sequels, Mega Man is quietly one of the toughest games on the NES, with a couple of fights like the Yellow Devil that have gone on to become iconic. It’s arguably the weakest of the games in the original 8-bit series, but it’s still a foundational part of games history that allowed its sequels to build upon its ideas in bigger and better ways.
So, whether you are experiencing the game for the first time, or going through on a challenge run, tackling the Robot Masters is sure to to be easier armed with the knowledge of how best to defeat them.