Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mega Man - The Undervalued Classic
A lesson in never judging a senior citizen by its donkey-riding pose.

My story with the original Mega Man is one of ignorance, naivety and ultimately illumination. Let's flash back to September of 1989, when my parents brought me to Toys R Us to pick up Mega Man 2 as an early Christmas gift: I quickly walked to the games section with only one clear focus as my parents trailed closely behind. As I hurried down the aisle looking for the desired Mega Man 2 box art with availability tag, my father broke off from the private parade and headed outside toward the payphones to make his usual calls (he was and still is always on the phone). My mother caught up just in time to watch me claim one of the last remaining tags and just wanted to be sure that I had grabbed the correct item.

"Yeah--it's Mega Man 2," I said, showing her the name on the tag and pointing toward the box art in question as confirmation.

"Oh," she replied as she turned to look toward the image of our alleged visor-wearing, pistol-shooting hero. Her eyes suddenly drifted left, where she saw a similarly branded title; it was the original Mega Man, whose existence at no point ever entered into my consciousness. She suddenly asked the most shocking question: "Do you want that one, too?"

Now seriously--when does that ever happen? When do you drag your parents to the store to buy you cheaply made, exorbitantly priced plastic goods only to have them suggest that you obtain more of it? I wasn't going to say no--free is free, after all, and I wasn't a fool--but I didn't really have any designs on playing this old game that featured some freakily posed, geriatric-looking dude on its box cover. I mean, who would want to play some obsolete "part 1" when the sequel was already available? "The sequel is automatically better simply because the first game is so old by now," I thought. "It might as well not even exist." It was just simple logic.

So when I got home, I brushed Mega Man aside in favor of its sequel, which had come to dominate my thoughts. I was eventually going to give Mega Man a look, chiefly because someone was kind enough to buy it for me and otherwise for curiosity's sake, but I wasn't really eager to get started. The allure of Mega Man 2 was just too powerful, and I spent the next four or five days spellbound by it. I had such a blast playing Mega Man 2 that it rocketed its way to the top of my favorite-games list and left me wanting more. "More," in this case, meant the probability of repeated playthroughs of Mega Man 2 and dreams of a Mega Man 3. "But since it was laying around," I thought, "I might as well toss the original game into the NES and see what it's about."

First I consulted its manual, which spoke of the "powerful leaders" of "Monsteropolis." "Huh?" The other manual didn't mention anything about such a place. "And who's Dr. 'Wright'?" Its presentation didn't really differ from that of Mega Man 2's (whose manual reused its life- and weapon-energy images, which were no longer indicative), but its story explanation and enemy descriptions manufactured a certain vibe that worked to set it apart and color my image of the game. I didn't have the words to describe this sense, but I was somehow feeling a bit more interested. Everything else was familiar enough, and the Magnet Beam struck me as a fun addition, so I was ready to go.

I switched on the NES and things got off to an inauspicious start. There was no opening sequence, unlike how its sequel welcomed me with an awesome intro scene that started the game on a powerful note, and instead just a plain title screen. "What a rip." I was then taken directly to the character-select screen, the image of which only reinforced my disappointment that there were only six robot masters rather than its follow-up's eight, which seemed standard (maybe I'd hoped the box cover's back and manual were lying). Though, I at least liked that the stage avatars were the actual boss sprites rather than mugshots, which was another key differentiator.

I elected to first tackle Guts Man, as if something told me that his stage was a good place to start. I immediately found the music catchy--I dug how it was more serious in tone if only lacking a bit of Mega Man 2's depth of instrument--and I was happy to see the familiar Hard Hats (or "Mets," as named in the manual) even though they were this time comparatively immobile. Then everything went wrong as I jumped up to the precipice overlooking a long chasm and a series of rail systems whose horizontally moving lifts suddenly went limp at drop-points whose number increased for each successively lower rail; they didn't at all look or sound inviting, nor did they agree with the stage's theme music and the continued functioning of my aural senses. I could not, for the life of me, get down the timing of the lifts' drop-points, and I fell into the chasm countless times before giving up and returning to the character-select screen.

So I tried Cut Man's stage and had better luck. The largely stationary Octopus Batteries and Beaks were easier to manage, and I was able to reach Cut Man's lair with the frightening Big Eye my only real roadblock. I got destroyed before I could even identify Cut Man's pattern, my handful of efforts hampered by the questionably placed bricks beneath the chamber's entrance, so it was back to the character-select screen I went. I then visited Elec Man's stage and couldn't even get to the top of the first screen thanks to the presence of the seemingly indestructible Spines; I had to necessarily learn to execute pixel-perfect jumps on platform edges to make even limited progress. Even that wasn't enough, as I met the same fate: I made it to Elec Man and was destroyed in two or three hits before I could even process what was going on.

I couldn't proceed--if I wasn't being knocked into spike pits or overwhelmed by the Medusa Head-like Killer Bullets, I was falling through Foot Holders or sliding off platform edges after collecting weapon energy that fell from above (which froze my controls, reacting as if replenishing my health meter even though it was already full). I arrived again on the title screen, defeated. "Why is this so difficult?" I angrily pondered. "No minor enemy in Mega Man 2 absorbed as many shots as that Big Eye thing, nor could the bosses kill me in three hits!" Mega Man 2's contrastingly undemanding "Normal" mode, it seemed, had given me a false ideal of what the series-creators' had intended for a default challenge-level.

I was frustrated with the game but still intrigued, as there was something mysteriously attractive about this "Mega Man" despite its insane challenge and annoying glitches. It just had this unexplainable "aura" or whatever descriptor evaded me. So I continued my struggle until making my first breakthrough with the defeat of Bomb Man, whose pattern was easy to figure. Once in possession of his weapon, the Hyper Bomb, I started putting the game's rock-paper-scissor mechanic to work; I finally cleared the opening section of Guts Man's stage and soon eliminated the boulder-tossing brute with some carefully placed bombs. 

The rest of the previously insurmountable robot masters fell one by one, and I managed to breach Dr. Wily's castle (sadly devoid of map-charting stage intro, I originally thought). My surge would end here, my attempted infiltration of the doctor's madhouse crashing into a thick brick wall; three Big Eyes faced in succession, another treacherous Foot Holder sequence (this time sandwiched between a spike-lined floor and ceiling), and the unfathomable, super-difficult Yellow Devil were too much for me. It seemed my Mega Man experience was over.

I didn't want to give up on it, though, so I brought the game over to my friend Dominick's house to see if we could finish it together. As luck with have it, Dominick and his family had rented Mega Man a few times from ABC Video, a rental place that for years occupied the corner of his block before the appropriately named Blockbuster Video set up shop near Nathan's and put everyone out of business. He'd also come to attain knowledge of something he called "the Select Trick," which he learned, I think, from one of his brother's Nintendo Power-subscribing friends; it was an unintended glitch that allowed the player to rapidly use the secondary pause function (mapped to the Select button) to freeze fired weapons as they pass through enemies and record multiple hits. He also showed me how you could freeze Big Eyes (and all other enemies) using Ice Man's Ice Slasher. 

Mainly, though, it was the Select Trick--combined with my realization that you could use the Magnet Beam to bypass long, arduous platforming sequences--that allowed me to confidently confront and defeat not only the Yellow Devil (which we called "the Rock Monster") but all other obstacles between me and Dr. Wily. I cheaply cut down the diabolical doctor and watched as he begged for mercy, just like he did at the end of Mega Man 2. The game's memorable ending, particularly its familiar, goosebump-inducing credits theme, was the perfect reward for my first-time completion and put a nice little cap on a very satisfying victory.

How could I ever have dismissed or neglected this game? Given a fair chance, it slowly revealed itself to be decidedly alluring but accomplished as much in a completely different way than did Mega Man 2. Putting the exact feeling into words has always proven to be difficult, so I'll only say that it was compelling enough to where it became another game on the list of those I always found time to run through, usually by myself but sometimes with friends. I remember specific instances of the fun times we had with it: I'd use some Magnet Beam trickery to over and over again collect that 1up on Bomb Man's stage. We'd discuss Dr. Wily's affinity for Guts Man due to the deeply ingrained memory of all those gold reproductions we'd seen embedded in the walls on the final stage. We'd give names to the Wily stages and bosses, like the third stage we'd call "the bowling alley board" with its "Bubble Man predecessor" boss (which we probably got from Nintendo Power).

We'd take the word of my lying Strategies for Nintendo Games Consumer Guide (which I'll look at in the future) and try desperately to gain access into the openings of those blade-tossing contraptions on Cut Man's stage, which were inferred to be shortcuts. And even later, as the Mega Man X games took hold of the series' torch, I'd play through Mega Man and stop at, say, Bomb Man's stage, stare at the backdrop with its spherically shaped housing complexes, and wonder, "Do those still exist in the future? Where are those buildings, specifically, and are they still standing as X fights Sigma and his pals?"

Still, even though Mega Man had become one of my most-played games, something was bothering me: I had never really beaten it. Maybe it's because I never had to resort to using exploits in order to beat its growing number of sequels, but suddenly I wasn't content with what I felt were tainted victories; so I one day decided, sometime in the late-90s, to play it straight and try to finish Mega Man without using the Select Trick. In truth, the Yellow Devil was the only real obstruction in that mission, and the challenge of making it to him in good health and beating him cleanly was still considerable; but I stuck to my new principle, even though repeatedly having to continue from the stage's start was infuriating, and learned its pattern and the jumps required to clear the speedily incoming body parts. Finally beating the Yellow Devil for the first time, fairly, was one of my most cathartic gaming moments, a greater feeling than even finishing the rest of the game. The robot master gauntlet on the final stage was nightmarish, but I eventually found a way to dredge through it and retain a fair amount of energy (thanks largely to the healing power of the unpronounceable Yashichi, which I would normally ignore out of distrust for my navigation skills with narrowly positioned rail systems). From that point on, I never again used the Select Trick, nor would my thumbs ever veer toward that Select button.

In the present day, I'm quite the Mega Man master, able to clear the game without a single death and with only the occasional hiccup (the robot master gauntlet is still always a trouble spot thanks to Fire Man). I admit that I always feel a tinge of nervousness as I approach the Yellow Devil, but I can usually obliterate it without taking a hit. Well, sometimes, at least. Maybe it says something about a game when you have to put in 25 years of work to become that good, but I still say that the criticisms aimed at its challenge-level are a bit overblown. The Magnet Beam is a cure-all for rough platforming sequences, and the Select Trick, while kind of cheating, is always there for novices who just want to get the full experience. You just have to put in some effort to digest its unique, experimental mechanics, learning its eccentricities, and slowly improve upon whatever skills you procure.

I return to it several times a year, whenever I have some free time and get an itch for some robot-blasting action. While it's not the most polished of the original-series games, it's spent the last ten years slowly crawling, dare I say, to the top of my list, eclipsing both Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3, which it used to trail as a distant third. To say as much might sound sacrilegious to longtime fans, but it has to be true. Why else would I play it so much? I may have stated in the past that Mega Man 2 "elevated its proposed formulas to the next level," but that doesn't necessarily mean that I like it more; it simply means that Mega Man 2 was more accessible and easier to grasp, which doesn't automatically suggest "better."

Mega Man is a true classic and a damn good game. I've expressed that it's difficult to accurately explain its allure and why it stands out amongst its five siblings (a phenomenon I plan to explore in a future written piece), but you'll know what it is once you experience it. 

As I look back on my younger self, I do so with a sense of disappointment that I was judgmental and had to be coaxed or dragged into trying new (or "old," in this case) things, but I stand here in 2014 with what I think is a fair bit of wisdom for the new generation of gamers: Before you go to a message board to express your interest in a legacy series and inquire about which game you should "start with," ignore your instinct for wanting to follow the crowd and always start with "part 1."

1 comment:

  1. Your comment about the lying guidebook makes me think of just how _much_ misinformation was floating around out there in those days. Hell, even the game's instruction manual was flat-out wrong, claiming that "up" makes Megaman jump and "down" makes him crouch. You'd think they'd have someone proofreading that.