Megaman is a brilliant game. I say this unclouded by nostalgia; I only seriously played the game a few years ago. There are a lot of incredible things to take away from the game, its level design, its enemy design… but I want to talk about the difficulty progression. Actually, calling it a difficulty progression doesn’t give it enough credit. Its an interactive narrative arc built right into the mechanics.
Megaman does something that very few games do: It has carefully constructed challenges which it then allows you to essentially bypass by using other elements of the game. Pretty much every individual challenge in the game is crafted with incredible precision around the mechanics of jumping and shooting horizontally. In order to progress, you pretty much have to “solve” the challenges like puzzles, memorizing an optimal path to jump and shoot at just the right time. When you first face a challenge, it will be extremely difficult. Eventually, the solution will become muscle memory, as you repeatedly get past it to face the next challenge in the level. Megaman, in the early stages, is a game about making you figure out how do do things the right way.
Then it gives you more tools. It gives you weapons with different patterns. You can find a gun that makes platforms. And here’s the best part: because you can play the levels in any order, (other than the boss weaknesses), they aren’t really built around having specific weapons. The carefully crafted challenges which at first seemed to have only one solution now have a multitude of ways you can get by them. You learned how to beat challenges the way the designer intended it, now you’re doing things your own way. It feels like you are now playing by your own rules, taking the situation into your own hands. What had at first been reflex puzzles now become resource management challenges, as you have to determine the best time to use your limited ammo on the special weapons. You can bypass whole challenges with the platform gun (although then you may not have enough ammo to bypass the next challenge). Thus the game creates an arc of personal growth; You begin the game simply reacting to challenges, and you progressively find ways to avoid the “intended” way to progress.
Now, for a moment, think about the lack of ego it takes to create this sort of system. To craft so many tight encounters, then let the player “mess them up” or bypass them all together with different weapons.
Another perfect example is Planescape Torment. You can bypass nearly every fight, including most boss fights, using stealth and/or dialogue options. If you have a high enough wisdom score, you can talk your way out of the final boss fight.
Hell, Super Mario Bros let you skip whole worlds of the game with the Warp Zones.
Think of how many games nowadays build these elaborate set pieces and cinematic boss battles. Can you imagine the designer who just spent countless hours creating that fight saying “okay, now let’s give the player a cool way around this”. If I were to name a primary sin of modern game design, it would be ego. So many games are an attempt to show off the coolest things they’ve made. You are led from vista to vista, from scripted fight scene to QTE laden boss battle. The player is restricted in their choices because that would get in the way of seeing this cool thing the developers made.
Keep your ego in check. Sometimes letting the player work around your cool bit of content can be a better experience than making them face it the way you intended.