Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mega Man 2 - Rocking My World
How the Blue Bomber did more than just mega-bust his way into my heart.

If I could define my younger self in one word, I would most certainly choose "oblivious." I lived mostly in a bubble (not physical, of course) where the only things that mattered to me were whatever was currently going on in our house and whatever news, trends, and games to which my brother and friends were introducing me. That's the way it was when it came to the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, two systems for which I never bought a single game, since I was always content with my brother's existing collection. As far as I felt, I could play Toy Bizarre, Trolls and Tribulations, and Dino Eggs forever.

Not surprisingly, this trend continued through 1989, even after I became an NES owner, since the only titles that interesteded me were those that I'd already played at the houses of friends and cousins. Meanwhile, my spendthrift brother, who otherwise had limited interest in the system, was for some reason loading up on NES games and padding what was becoming a quickly growing collection. Without his penchant for amassing things he seemingly didn't need, I might never have discovered a lot of the games I wound up adoring. Though, one thing was clear: Even if I was still indifferent to the idea of expanding my horizons, I definitely wasn't hurting for games, what with all the options now surrounding me, and I was pretty content to stick to this mode of operation.

Everything changed during early September of '89 when my friend Dominick got a new game he just had to show me. It was Mega Man 2, whose box art depicted, as much as I could tell, some guy in a blue jumpsuit firing a laser at a highly nimble Paul Lynde as decked out in a purple boomerang-head costume. The actual game told a different story: Mega Man 2--starring, instead, a diminutive, arm-cannoned hero--was eye-catching with its luminous color schemes, aurally pleasing music, and projection of polish on every screen. From a kid's perspective: It looked great, had a rockin' soundtrack, and played like a dream; it had Super Mario's sense of control, the fast action of Contra, and the simple-but-brilliant weapon-stealing mechanic as inspired by Rock-Paper-Scissors. I was so enthralled with the game that my future visits to Dominick's house were somewhat fueled by the ulterior motive of getting another crack at Mega Man 2's robot masters and experiencing their unforgettable stages. I was in love with game, having never previously felt that way about a piece of digital entertainment. I was so taken by it, in fact, that I knew I had to have it.

Up until this point, I had rarely purchased a video game (and never a new release) with my own money and mostly resorted to asking my parents. I was unfortunately a little short on funds, having squandered my birthday money on lesser forms of entertainment (and plenty of other trivial things I'll discuss in the future). Since I had also used up all of my charity, I sensed, I decided that I needed to take the initiative and scrounge up some money any way I could. After about two additional months, I somehow managed to accrue more than $50 (most of it, really, a combination of couch-digging and whatever was left of the cash picked up during the previous holiday's Poker games).

I sheepishly asked my parents if they could take me to the Toys R Us near the Caesar's Bay mall, and they said yes, of course, since my mother was always looking for a reason to get near a mall, and my father was (and still is) the most passive, generous person you'd ever know. What excited me most during the drive toward Geoffrey's multicolored wonderland was that my parents unexpectedly offered to buy me the game themselves, as a very-early Christmas gift, with their suggestion being that I use my own money to do the same for someone else. 

So when we arrived at the store, me being the hyperactive fellow that I am, I speed-walked my way to the games section and quickly grabbed one of the only remaining Mega Man 2 tags in the slot. My hasty exit toward the cashier was halted only momentarily by my mother's shocking inquiry into whether or not I wanted, also, the original Mega Man, which she spotted right beside it (but that's another story).

With the game in my possession, we headed home, and I spent the next couple of days joyously re-assailing Air Man and friends and discovering their true weaknesses. I was soon breaching the perilous corridors of Dr. Wily's castle, whose challenging level design and grim, steely aesthetics created an air of intimidation and stressful culmination, as they were expected to do; the training wheels were off, and I was now tasked with exhibiting advanced platforming skills and mastery over my earned weapons--including Dr. Light's specially made vehicle-based items, which would be called upon at a higher rate for much-trickier platforming scenarios. Though many of the castle's obstacles were recycled from the robot-master stages, the uninviting atmosphere served to make them feel more menacing and agitate a heightened sense of nervousness. 

There were only two stage themes worth of augmentation, but both were equally brilliant, guiding me along with first a boost in spirit (as imbued by one the rockingest tunes in Mega Man history) and then a depressed ambiance that suggested greater caution. The tonal shift from energetic to subdued made for the perfect segue into the contrastingly cold silence of the final stage, which is not coincidentally was when things started feeling deathly serious.

I was very impressed with the castle's inventive bosses--particularly those that were large in size or scope. Capcom clearly wanted to wow me with both the build-up in addition to the big battles, which produced awe-inspiring scenes where I was chased by an angry, destructive robotic dragon that tore through the residual platforms before bombarding me with flames; surprisingly assaulted by a room, itself, as sections of its surfaces broke apart and combined into troublesome drones; and threatened by a massive, hardhat-spewing Guts-Dozer that slowly rolled its way in from the screen's right side, stalling just enough, it seemed, to allow me a few seconds of worried contemplation. The experiment was a success: Each diversely presented clash registered as one of the highlights of my early 8-bit gaming experiences. 

The only exception was that battle with the crash-bomb-weak security system, which for years I approached with a strategy as taught to me by Dominick: Take out all of the destructible walls, let the turrets kill me, then return with a fully replenished stock of Crash Bombs and take out the now-defenseless targets. I'd much later deduce the proper method for defeating the system--mainly that I had to use Dr. Light's special items to work around the better-left-undisturbed walls and destroy only the ones clearly obtrusive. I could see that the battle was more thoughtfully designed than I originally realized, but that didn't make it any more fun. A pox on whichever sadist thought that it was something that should be put in, like, a game.

Small hiccups aside, I was so thoroughly satisfied with every aspect of the game that I played through it many more times in the days and months ahead, Mega Man 2 truly being a case study in how short-but-impactful games have more value and replayability than most of today's $60 epics, which you play for about a week and never touch again.

As did certain games from my youth, Mega Man 2--like Super Mario Bros. 2, Contra and Double Dragon II: The Revenge--became a go-to game to which my friends and I returned month after month, year after year, further maximizing my return on what turned out to be be one of my first and greatest "investments" (mostly emotional, it turned out). We'd clear the game by using all types of alternate orders through the original eight robot-master stages, or we'd take turns clearing each stage, trying not to fail in front of the others and praying not to be the poor sap who got to do Heat Man's stage without Item-2. Whoever wasn't playing at the time was most likely slapping the couch's arm in rhythm to the game's exceptional music--usually to the drum beats of Wood Man's hot theme. Not coincidentally, Mega Man 2 was also the game that sparked my interest in video-game music, which I began recording by sidling my tape recorder up against the speaker-opening on my 20-inch Sony-brand television. Though, I don't know that making my Pee-Wee's Playhouse action figures dance to Bubble Man's theme really relates to this discussion, so I'll further explore this topic at a later date.

In time, I'd committed Mega Man 2 to muscle memory and created so many permanent mental images that there isn't enough space to list them all. Among the images with which I instantly associate the game are the cast of minor enemies, most of which are tailored to each stage; those gear-riding clowns, the bulky (and somewhat-glitchy) Fan Fiends, the giant shrimp-spewing Lantern Fish, the incomparable flame-arcing Hot Dogs, and other creative, impressively drawn metallic minions stick out in my mind as highly defining components of a thoughtfully designed machine--this before the games started to blend together. Only a select few of them were identified in the manual or game magazines, so we gave some of them our own names; the robotic jellyfish was a "Metal Metroid," for instance, and the large robot-eating fish from Wily Stage 3 was "Ginetta" (I'll explain this in the future). The giant Sniper Joe-controlled mech, or "Stilted Joe," was one of the last great "big men" of the Mega Man world even if it wasn't half as terrifying as the previous Big Eye.

Reflecting upon it presently, I break Mega Man 2 down into moments: Learning how to coax the two latter Air Tikis to appear at just the right moment to clear space between their slowly protruding horns and the flow of their endlessly produced Gremlins while wondering if the flashing energy pellets embedded in their heads could actually replenish health. Making onlookers feel tense by hopping from one unoccupied Lightning Lord platform to the next while it was still obscured by clouds. Trying to outrace my Item-2 using the conveyor belts of Metal Man's stage, particularly to reach that second Energy Tank before the jet could dematerialize. Almost having a breakdown trying to get down the timing for dodging the second round of lasers on Quick Man's stage (since I'd rather save the Flash Stopper for Quick Man, himself). Using Item-2 and the icy property of Flash Man's stage to find new and interesting ways to pose for the transition through boss doors. 

I remember that time Dominick informed me that I could pick off Sniper Joes while hanging out on the upper rungs of ladders, under their range of fire. Finding out if that the rumor was true--that Metal Man's blade could kill him in one shot. Realizing that I could hug the right wall during the drop on the final stage and completely eliminate the acid-dropping threat. And creating theories as to what we thought the game's symbolic ending was trying to tell us. All of these moments and many more like them are invaluable drops in a pool of rich memories.

The infiltration of Dr. Wily's Skull Castle always felt like a momentous event. From the standout map-tracing jingle to the stage themes and level structure, part of my emotional attachment to the game derives from these fine-tuned creations. The designers really made me feel like I was trespassing upon territory that was dangerous and off-limits; the castle felt like an organic creation, with a central cooling system and reactor, a sewage-disposal unit, and a basement whose roughly carved caverns served as a convenient bunker. I would always feel tense when trekking through Skull Castle, whose music and every pixel of scenery created an unexplainably memorable vibe as evocatively ingrained in my mind, more simply interpreted as the last time a Wily castle felt special.

Mega Man 2 was, I felt, a true masterpiece and an all-around perfect package whose allure I couldn't quite explain at the time, nor do I have the words for it even to this day. There are games that are like that--they achieve excellence in every measurable category, but it's still difficult to express why they resonate so strongly and endure even through several eras of technological advancement. Simply calling them "classic" doesn't seem to fit the bill. It was apparent even in my early days of ownership: By simply gauging what was playing out on my screen (like the presentation, which includes the iconic opening storyline sequence with the city backdrop and the slow scroll up the building's top), it was easy to perceive that Mega Man 2 was indeed, as its creators have expressed, a passion project, an ambitious refinement that addressed its predecessor's shortcomings and elevated its proposed formulas to the next level. True--its answer to complaints about the original's brutal challenge-level (a criticism I say is overblown) is the appallingly insulting, default "Normal Mode," which is just an easy mode in disguise for us lowly, underskilled North American players, but the game's content was so satisfying--so realized--that we never even noticed.

Mega Man 2 is a game I revisit fairly regularly, usually when I'm on what's commonly known as the Mega Man binge, when you get the itch to play one Mega Man game and wind up playing through all of them in succession. There's an equal number of times when I don't even need a thematic motive--I'll give it a run simply because I desire what it proffers: a succinct, satisfying video-game experience. The key lately to its replayability, for me, is the "Difficult Mode," which I never bothered to test drive back in the day (at least not for more than a couple of stages). The bump in challenge brings its difficulty up to around the original Mega Man's level and makes a world of difference, if a now-hairier battle with Air Man doesn't prove as much. It's the mode I always choose to play, now, since it was the creator's original vision. Mega Man games, after all, have always been about beating your brains out and making you come back stronger if you hope to overcome odds that previously seemed insurmountable. It's how we learn to grow, and Mega Man certainly did that for me in a gaming sense.

I can sum it all up by saying that Mega Man 2 is one of my favorite video games of all time. In addition to being a can't-miss classic--an all-time great--it's one the main reasons I became such a big a console enthusiast in the first place; it may not have started me directly on the path to constantly trying new things, but it helped open my eyes to the kinds of experiences I might be missing if I continued to remain willfully ignorant. Future entries in my "Memory Bank" probably wouldn't exist without it, as the 2600 and C64, though now beloved artifacts of my youth, could never have been so inspiring on their own. Admittedly, Mega Man 2 has fluctuated about my "Top 3 Original Series Mega Mans" games list over the years (I initially liked Mega Man 3 more until its flaws became increasingly apparent and harder to ignore, and I actually enjoy playing the original Mega Man more), but tops is tops, and there's no higher tier.

However you rank it, Mega Man 2 is simply one of the best.

1 comment:

  1. Even though I love all 6 of the originals, there's good reason why the designers of 9 and 10 fell back on 2 for the bulk of their inspiration. It is pretty much perfect, with that damn trap boss being the lone fly in the ointment.

    I also had this one as a kid and it was the only MM game in which I could consistently clear most of the robot master stages (on "normal" difficulty, of course), with Quick Man's stage being the only one that I could never clear. Indeed it wasn't until I was in college that I was able to finally beat MM2 all the way through. Such was the case with many of the NES games I grew up playing.