Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge - Rock Hard, Man
Finding the true meaning of Mega Man's pint-sized adventure required not only gaming skill but emotional growth.

One of the notable takeaways from my Metroid II: Return of Samus piece was that I once bitterly held to a biased viewpoint on the subject of NES sequels appearing on Nintendo's flourishing Game Boy. I was, that is, steadfast in my opinion that a portable game was by nature a lesser creation and could never hope to be a "true" entry in a long-running series, the relationship limited to name only. I mean, I learned to adore that tiny-screened, monochrome-displaying gray brick for all of the wonderful "portable" experiences it enabled me to enjoy both on the road and from anywhere in my home, but I'd made up my mind that it was no place for a sequel to a standout NES game whose best qualities were its dense, vibrantly colored world and high-quality soundtrack. 

I had to look no further than the preview images for games like the Shadowgate-inspired Sword of Hope and the anemic-looking Double Dragon II for evidence that series with an established standard for aesthetic excellence just didn't translate well to the portable format. I dreaded the reality that this "sequel-hopping" could become an ongoing trend, and my darkest fears were met, as previously recounted, when Nintendo Power arrived bearing the horribly awful news that Samus Aran would be one of the first to take the plunge. To say I was angry about Nintendo's shift in emphasis would be an understatement.

In comparison, I was only mildly annoyed by the announcement of Mega Man's first Game Boy title, whose preview images revealed the game to be more graphically advanced than I expected but otherwise projected an air of compromise--so much so that not even the recycled Mega Man 3 artwork displayed in Nintendo Power Volume 27's preview was motivation enough for me to give it anything more than a cursory glance. I mostly ignored the game's existence, continuing to present the argument that Game Boy sequels weren't worth serious attention: "How could this colorless, cramped-looking game hope to live up to a name that has produced all-time classics like Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3, which were backed by console power and developer ambition far beyond what the Game Boy could muster?" I debated to no present opposition.

The more important takeaway from that Metroid II piece was that Samus' portable adventure came along and blossomed into one of my favorite games of all time, effectively disabling my shield of ignorance and completely changing my perception of the Game Boy, whose capable rendering of a large-scale Metroid world served as an impressive demonstration of its overachieving potential. What more, this newfound acceptance of the Game Boy as a console equivalent was a conveniently timed event, since it was the solution to my new crisis: We were only two months into 1991 and I'd already burned through all of my newest games! This was a period when I was becoming deeply enveloped in the medium--when games had become my new sustenance and I was in constant need of nourishment. If my problem was that the NES' current release-schedule was padded with junk, the solution was that I could now look into the Game Boy's library and begin enjoying all of those great games I previously dismissed.

That I was also still at the height of my Mega Man fandom created for the perfect set of circumstances for me to exuberantly commit to a largely blind purchase of Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge, whose content I was now excited to learn more about. And it would have been a painless transaction had there not been another "serious" problem developing: Since I'd recently blown all of my Christmas money on the likes of Mega Man 4 and some less-than-quality NES legacy titles, I found myself a little short on funds. But I didn't have time to worry about such things! My emotions were running high and I needed the game now! I only had, say, $20 on hand, but I got ahead of myself and begged my mother to drive me to Toys R Us the next day. 

When I finally settled down and started to realize that I wasn't actually going to be able to afford the game, I entered into panic mode. Desperate, I resorted to a tactic that had proven successful in the past: I hurried down to the basement while my brother was out and began digging through the couches for all of the loose change that assuredly had been dropped by his absent-minded (or perhaps inebriated) friends following one of their many Poker games. Somehow, amazingly, I came pretty close to accruing the needed amount (what was it with these guys? Either their pants were in serious need of stitching or my brother had plotted a genius get-rich-quick scheme that entailed hiding magnets beneath the couch cushions).

Still, I was a few dollars short with no practical means for earning money that quickly. Increasingly distressed, I made one of the poorest decisions in my young life. I knew that if all I needed was a trivial amount of cash, there was only one place I could find it: In my brother's room--in the not-so-well-hidden glass jar located in the cabinet above his Commodore 64. So when the coast was clear--my returning brother otherwise preoccupied with his basement-dwelling friends and my parents' company confined to the dining room--I sneaked upstairs, into his room, and plucked out a few bills, finally meeting my required total of a little over $40. I told myself that I wasn't "stealing" because, hey, I could always "put it back later"! I mean, it wasn't like my brother, who wouldn't notice that the sky was missing unless the moon fell on his head, would ever miss it, so what harm was there in taking it, really?

Plenty, apparently, like the never-before-experienced variety of discomfort that swelled within me in the following hours. Suddenly, it felt as though a dark specter had invaded my consciousness and was now controlling my thoughts, the unidentifiable scourge endlessly bombarding my mind with unwanted images of the prior misdeed. Its constant prodding made it difficult for me to concentrate or even breathe normally. I couldn't overwhelm it with positive thoughts. Trying to block it out only boosted its resolve. It was stressful. It was emotionally crippling. It was guilt, and it continued to gnaw at my conscience. 

As the hours were falling off, the pressure was growing increasingly unbearable, and it soon became glaringly obvious that there was only one way I could stop it: I had to put the money back and admit to the fact that nothing in this world--not even Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge--was worth that kind of emotional toll. I've spoken many times in the past about how video games have taught me certain lessons, but that's always been in a relative sense (Mega Man 4 taught me to accept things for what they were in gaming, not life); this, however, was something very real. Those feelings of guilt were so ravaging that I knew I never wanted to experience anything like them ever again; for that reason, I've never taken anything from anyone since then and never again will. It's a rotten thing to do to someone, especially when your victim is someone who has gone out of his or her way to do so much for you.

To make a long story longer: I decided that the best solution was to make a deal with my mother; I promised that if she'd agree to cover for the few extra dollars, I'd pay her back just as soon as I got the money. So, in a far more preferable scenario, we went to Toys R Us the next day and picked up a copy of Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge.

It's probably because of how Mega Man games are structured--how the player can initially decide the order of progression and experimentally bounce around from stage to stage--that I have no true chronological memory of my early experiences with Wily's Revenge. But I do remember the immediate impressions in made on me, most of which were either negative or leaning in that direction. For one, I was bothered by the fact that I couldn't locate the words "Dr. Wily's Revenge" anywhere on the title screen, which seemed like an inexplicable omission. "It says it right there on the box," I observed, "so why is it not on the title screen?" 

I looked for an explanation in the manual, but nothing about the story synopsis suggested that Wily was behaving any differently than normal. Also, nothing I'd gleaned from the Robot Master-select screen or the procedural gameplay in following stressed to me that anything resembling a "revenge plot" was in effect. I wondered about the odd nature of this disconnect and if it was somehow indicative of the level of care and attention put into the rest of the game. (Naturally, the responsible party was Capcom's localization team, which added the subtitle as a means of advertising to customers that it wasn't a port of the original NES game, but I didn't know what "localization" was at the time.)

As I recalled, Wily's Revenge looked pretty damn good for a Game Boy game, its graphics easily decipherable and impressively detailed where the norm was small, pixelated characters and sparsely decorated backgrounds. But for as much as I appreciated the starkly authentic recreation of the classic Mega Man sprites, I wasn't a fan of how the design choice beget uncomfortably cramped level design, which was my biggest concern back when I saw those preview images. Most frustratingly, whenever I'd attempt to jump a gap as preceded by a narrow horizontal space, Mega Man would routinely bang his head on the ceiling structure above and plunge to his death; why, it was almost as if the designers were well aware of the high level of precision needed to escape from tight spaces and were intent to hit me with as many permutations of infuriatingly congested platform arrangements as possible.

"What kind of nasty trick is that?" I'd whine time and time again. "Isn't this game already tough enough without it?" Sure--other Mega Man games had similar close-quarter jumps, but they were never mandatory, nor did they ever have so much progress riding on their completion. 

In addition, I found Mega Man's movements to be sluggish and laggy, and I thought it was weird how his pellets were now uncharacteristically round and moved across the screen so very slowly compared to his NES rapid-fire. It felt as though Mega Man's portable world had an increased gravity to it, and I was concerned that the action would continue to remain largely grounded once I got past all of the Screw Bombers and those fuzzy, obnoxious saw-blade things.

I also didn't like that Mega Man's health meter was 2/3rds its usual length, which afforded me a much smaller margin of error. In a game where enemies inflicted heavy damage, having less energy demanded a more cautious approach to combat, diminishing the run-and-gun element, and still wasn't nearly enough to me through any of the stages!. It's true that the change also entailed that large energy pellets now replenished half of your health meter, but Wily's Revenge was so stingy that large health drops were as rare as Booker T victories on Jeopardy. "Why couldn't they have made the energy meter smaller and longer and simply moved the stock-total onto a subscreen?" I complained. "Is this their way of unnecessarily matching the health system to the cramped, 'portable' nature of the game?" An inordinate amount of my early time with Wily's Revenge was spent wondering why the developers made the decisions they did.

As much as I was disappointed that Guts Man and Bomb Man didn't make the cut, I could understand why they were absent: There would be no room for them to do anything! Guts Man's boulders would have to have been made tiny, lest they wouldn't fit within the actual boss chamber, and there would be too little space to avoid both the hyperactive Bomb Man and his bombs' splash damage, which would also have to be downgraded. Still, their non-participation was another in a long line of compromises and concessions that worked to make Wily's Revenge feel like a CliffsNotes version of a superior game. Furthermore, it was ridiculously challenging, lacking any perceived fun factor. And for as great as the game looked, it was perhaps too graphically ambitious for its own good, often throwing more objects onto the screen than the system could handle, the result of which was massive slowdown (particularly whenever Mega Man took damage, which made his knockback feel much more harrowing) and enemies that would temporarily disappear. 

It's not that I didn't appreciate Capcom's ambition. I did! But it was quite a few months before I could begin looking past the adverse consequences of the game's authenticity-aimed design choices and recognize it as a solidly crafted game in addition to one aesthetically appealing. Once I accepted that screen-flickering and slowdown were going to be unavoidable in top-level Game Boy games, I could give Wily's Revenge its due and credit it for how it came closer to resembling its NES siblings than any other series game on the system, which was a big deal to me. It was sharp, clean-looking, and had smooth, polished textures, and I thought the background work was fantastic even when minimalist (like the mountains in Ice Man's stage, of course). Sure--palette limitations made it appear as though Mega Man was sporting a five o'clock shadow, but that was one of a few tiny details (like the round pellets) that helped this self-described franken-game forge its own personality.

Though, the best part of the package, I felt even from the beginning, was the soundtrack, whose composer thankfully wasn't content to simply reuse the existing Mega Man tunes. No--whoever was behind the sound design here thought to instead recreate them from scratch, spicing them up with elaborate intros and a more sustained energy, each escalating note bleeding into the next where the original tunes' flow was often abbreviated and stodgy-sounding. My favorite theme by far belonged to Elec Man, whose wonderfully reconstructed theme was retrofitted with a rousing (electrifying?) intro, a more uplifting composition, and an unexplainably nostalgic element that had a way of capturing the spirit of that particular time and place in my gaming history. It was my opinion that this tune was one of the best in the series' history, and I still believe so now.

Wily's Revenge was a game whose value increased to me whenever I'd afford it the greater attention it deserved. Take the title screen, for instance: It featured a powerful tune that spoke to me with its engaging, appropriately invigorating composition, but that was a mental rendering based off of hearing only about 20 seconds of it. It wasn't until years later, when I was no longer as attention-deficit, that I listened to the theme in full and discovered that it continued on for another minute, evolving to tell the tale of an inspiring and reflective adventure.

Once I'd long gotten over all of those bad first impressions, my only true disappointment with Wily's Revenge was the handling of the Mega Man 2 Robot Masters, who sadly weren't supplied their own stages and were instead confined to capsules in the latter portion of the first Wily stage. I was nonetheless happy to see the return of four members of what I considered to be an iconic cast, their encore appearances never failing to supply me that sense of surreality. The true fun in the Robot Masters' return was finding out if their new weaknesses were in any way indicative of their originaly vulnerability ("Will the Ice Slasher work on Heat Man? Will the sharp, boomerang-like Cut Blade work as well on Bubble Man as the Metal Blade and Quick Boomerang?"). It was too bad that there was no legitimate way to find out how the weaknesses worked in reverse.

It was also unfortunate that there wasn't much I could do with their weapons, since they were acquired them so late in the game. The only useful weapon was Heat Man's Atomic Fire, whose fully charged blast could destroy certain barriers; if not for that capability, Heat Man's appearance would have been completely redundant (perhaps a non-fire-based Robot Master should been chosen). And damned if I could figure out what was going on with the flickery Bubble Man, who phased in and out of existence so rapidly that he could barely be said to exist. That's the price of runaway ambition, I guess. 

What I liked about the addition of the cool-looking "Mega Man Killer" Enker was that defeating him allowed you to obtain a wholly unique weapon not attached to a robot with "Man" in his name; getting a hold of it felt to me like the mischievous breaking of a long-held taboo. He was fun to battle because he could bend another of the series well-defined rules, using his energy-absorbing sword to change the trajectory of your shots to diagonal! It was a neat occurrence but otherwise fleeting amusement, since I only had a 50/50 shot of defeating Enker due to my inability to correctly guess as to whether he was going to jump or dash.

Though I did learn to enjoy playing it, the game's incredible difficulty kept me from returning to it more often. It was simply too hard--four or five pegs higher on the difficulty scale than even the first Mega Man, I felt, which was still considerably challenging to me--and not being able to actually finish it was a real downer. Hell--it was more than a year before I could capably clear the stages of Ice Man and Cut Man, whose falling-icicle and circling-cutter traps always carved me to pieces. And the difficulty in the Wily stages only jumped from there! The console games had rather short, manageable endgame stages, but these were super-long and packed with the game's greatest recurring dangers. I could reach the second Wily stage, set in his outer-space fortress (which was the start of a trend), but I'd only make it as far as the second disappearing-reappearing blocks segment, which was for so long the bane of my existence even if I understood what I needed to do to clear it.

Like the similarly slotted Castlevania: The Adventure, I returned to Wily's Revenge every few weeks or so with the intention of finishing it; though, it was only on a rare occasion, and with the greatest of efforts, that I could manage to endure long enough to actually reach Wily's death machine. The problem: I could not, for the life of me, figure out what its weakness was supposed to be; I'd attack the separate portions of his ship with every weapon in my inventory, including the Carry, and never register even a single bar of damage, resigning myself to a fate of being slowly dissected by the machine's darting claw. That became the running theme of my battles with Wily: Even if I could occasionally complete the necessary "perfect run" and make it to Wily with a sufficient amount of lives, I'd spend the next two minutes hopelessly trying to inflict damage on a machine that was apparently indestructible.

"Is that why it's called 'Wily's Revenge'?" I wondered. "Could it be that this game really is unbeatable, Capcom's portable game a testing ground for a new kind of storytelling in games?"

I might have been that Wily's Revenge truly was impossible, but I kept trying, anyway, returning to it with less frequency but with the same desire to take down Wily. It felt like more than half a decade had passed before I finally achieved my ultimate victory, but it reality it was closer to two (not long after Mega Man IV arrived for the system); I remember the moment because I'd decided to play the game in our quiet, sunlit living room on a summer afternoon--not my usual location, no, but a setting that always created for a great anticipatory atmosphere on a day when a quick gaming session was the perfect appetizer to a big night out with family and friends. It was a run that like all others was obviously heading toward failure when I said "Screw it!" and switched to Enker's weapon ("EN")--the seemingly useless "scroll weapon," with which I experimented one time before declaring that it had no relevant application--with the idea of rubbing it up against Wily's machine and going out in style.

What happened next was revelatory to me in the same way I imagine cavemen felt when they first discovered that fire could be used to roast food: Enker's "scroll" reflected one of the turrets' projectiles back toward the machine and inflicted damage! It finally happened! I couldn't believe it. Was it really that simple?! From there, finishing off Wily was merely procedural, the makings of a satisfying victory that served as my brand of revenge for the years of torment this game put me through. All I needed to see visual proof that I could do it, and once I did, I grew so confident in my ability that I could routinely duplicate this success; thus, Wily's Revenge became a regular part of my diet for the rest of time, mirroring what the NES original had done a few years earlier.

There were inklings of such in the previous years, but it became more and more apparent to me over time of how much Wily's Revenge reminded me of the original in both a tonal and aesthetic sense, and not just by way of its recycled design assets. As did the original, Wily's Revenge resembles its sequels but feels like a separate work--a classic game that might as well have come from an era long before, when our sensibilities were much different; it's to the Game Boy Mega Man series what its big brother was to the six NES entries, creating a sense of rawness and sincerity reminiscent of the time when games didn't feel like they were produced on an assembly line. I was just thrilled that I could get a second shot at that formative "first Mega Man experience," which I never thought I'd be able to relive.

Yeah--I'm still not a big fan of its cramped platforming or Mega Man's unfair, over-dramatic knockback or those two marathon Wily stages, but I enjoy the challenge it presents much more so than I did when I was 13. I can honestly say that Wily's Revenge is my favorite of the Game Boy titles even though it lacks the latter entries' polish and has the least amount of content. It might be the game's nostalgia-inducing influence talking, or maybe I'm just a glutton for its brand of punishment, but I think it deserves a hell of a lot more play among hardcore Mega Man fans. There'll never be anything like it again.

One of my lasting memories of Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge is the staff roll that seemed to drag on forever (much like this piece!). Really, though, I remember it more for its accompanying ending theme--a touching, wistful piece that said more to me than a series of images ever could. I didn't pay much attention to the actual content of the closing animation until recently, but I can see, now, that it depicts a lonely, yearning Mega Man gravitating toward the space fortress' left window, his facial expressions growing more cheerful as his home comes closer and closer into view. If we know anything about Mega Man, it's that home is really the only place he ever wanted to be--the only place where things made sense.

I understand how he feels. I hope one day I can get back there, too.

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