Rank 9 “Maze of Death” by Flashman85
The final level of Tier 3 is easily the most divisive in the contest with judge scores ranging from up in the 90’s to down in the 20’s. My own opinion of this level is that it’s a fantastic idea which just isn’t fun to play due to its actual execution. As you can probably tell from the name, this is a nonlinear level and the ultimate goal is to free up the exit by destroying barriers after going down various paths. Starting off with the good aspects of the level, there are plenty of health and energy refills scattered throughout it and many barriers are used to created shortcuts; you may need to start at the first room of the maze every time you die, but you can skip a good chunk of content if you’ve already reached and destroyed a barrier. There are also a few secret passages to find, some of them optional and some of them mandatory, which generally enhance the experience.
The trouble begins when the level stops being all that nonlinear. The starting room allows you to go in all four directions and from here it really is an open-ended maze where you can pick your path on your quest to find and reach the exit. However, this is actually a surprisingly small portion of this large level and once you exit out of the initial maze you are dropped into a watery area with a choice between a path leading down and a path leading up. It may seem like you are still being given some freedom over which path you want to take through the level at this point, but it’s not much of a choice at all. Both paths lead to barriers which you must destroy to block the exit, but only the bottom path initially leads to the exit and the shortcut which connects the two paths can only be opened from near the start of the top path. In other words, though you can choose to go up or down, deciding to take the bottom path first will inevitably lead to you hitting a wall and needing to backtrack (or die and warp back to the start) in order to take the top path before once more going down the lower path.
Potentially needing to perform a good bit of backtracking because you chose the wrong path first is a pain, but the real issue with this level is the design for the individual rooms. Several of the rooms in the initial maze are loaded to the brim with enemies which immediately start attacking and several of the rooms which don’t double down on enemies make up for it with the presence of instant death lasers or other hazards. Once the leave the maze you are greeted with the water room which I mentioned earlier. This room is multiple screen-lengths long and is filled with spikes and dozens of mines which detonate when Mega Man gets near them. As a result, the best way to get through this room is to slowly inch forward until a few mines trigger, back away, and repeat the process, sometimes deliberately getting hit by a mine in order to avoid spikes with the help of invincibility frames. It’s a slow and tedious process, but at least there’s a barrier at the end which makes it so you never need to go through the room ever again after the first time around. From this point on many of the remaining rooms are either once more occupied by far too many enemies, flooded by hazards, or otherwise just not at all fun to deal with, such as in the case of a room with a series of vertical Guts Man platforms where you need ridiculously perfect timing to make it to the top and failure drops you straight down on top of a mine back in the water room; I found a way to skip the Guts Man platform room entirely by jumping and glitching Rush Coil partially into the wall because it is by far the most frustrating room in the level if you try to go through it ‘properly’. The final room of the level is actually a well-made little puzzle which involves finding a way to get around a row of Sniper Joes which are endlessly being spawned on top of each other by machines above them, but I only know the correct solution to this puzzle from watching another playthrough because during my own attempts I was so desperate to just be down with the level that I used an E-tank to heal to full and simply tanked the damage from the Sniper Joes as I marched to the goal. This level is ultimately at its best when it tosses secrets and puzzles at players, but it spends far, far too much of its duration focusing on large groups of enemies and clusters of hazards.