Saturday, May 2, 2015

Mega Man II - The Serviceable Road Companion
Mega Man's second portable outing might have been second-rate, but it performed dutifully in its designated role.

If you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you might have gotten the impression that I'm perhaps a little too easy to please when it comes to my video games. You could even accuse me of advocating for the enabling practice of being too kind to legitimately mediocre games. And while I wouldn't disagree with you that some of the games I've lovingly chronicled are certainly middling in quality, I would stop short of diagnosing my fondness for their kind as a symptom of undiscerning industry-boosting or misguided nostalgia; rather, I prefer to look at it as placing games in their proper context.

What I mean to suggest is that games don't have to be great or even particularly good to have individualized value. I compare them to movies, which for me have always filled specific roles and have been best appreciated in settings where their viewing makes the most sense. There were the summer blockbusters that I watched at the corner theater amidst dozes of others whose shared energy was the perfect augmentation to what was happening on the big screen. The action flicks that filled the TV screen during a family get-together on a Saturday night--Arnold and pals providing us a temporary escape from the adults' chattering. The satirical comedies like Airplane, Spaceballs and UHF whose job was to make my friends and I laugh in the hours following a tough day at school. The holiday-themed specials I watched traditionally every year for the purpose of getting into the spirit.

And then there were all of those merely fun, "watchable" movies that would never register much on a critic's scale but were a fine accessory to the quiet, relaxing Sunday afternoons when all I had were hours to fill. I'm talking about the unapologetically-'80s fare whose subjects include The Principal, Collision Course and The Golden Child, which were by no means high art but had a way of capturing the essence of the era and permeating the air of our sun-drenched den with nostalgic vibes.

That's where I slot Mega Man II for Game Boy, which I consider the perfect gaming equivalent to a "watchable" Sunday-afternoon broadcast.

I don't recall when, exactly, I purchased Mega Man II (I'm guessing sometime around its February '92 release, when I still had some Christmas money left over), but I remember the moment when I decided that I needed to own it. It happened as I was reading through Nintendo Power 34's feature coverage, whose illustrations revealed that the game's representative Mega Man 3 material would extend beyond simply capsule-contained Robot Masters (before then, I assumed Mega Man 3 would be shortchanged as Mega Man 2 previously was); this made for an appealing convergence of design elements from two games I was absolutely crazy about. Now, considering my earlier experiences with its predecessor--the cramped, ultra-difficult Dr. Wily's Revenge, which I still couldn't finish--I was rightfully leery of Capcom's ability to provide the Game Boy an NES-quality Mega Man adventure, but I was invested enough in Mega Man II's familiar subject-matter to where I was willing to give the company a second chance.

It started out promising: Waiting for me at the title screen was a spirited main theme that immediately captured my imagination. As I listened attentively, its rapid progression filled my mind with thoughts of relentless pursuit and the inevitability of victory; it was both inspiring and uplifting, its energy conveying to me that a realized Mega Man experience lay just beyond. It wasn't normal that I'd wait through the entirety of a title-screen theme--it being my propensity to instead impatiently extract only as much as I thought I needed to hear--but I couldn't help but surrender myself to the power of this theme, which I let play to completion an additional two or three times.

I was so under its influence that I couldn't even objectively gauge what was happening on the Robot Master-selection screen, whose music at the time struck me more as an intensified extension of the main theme than an early warning sign. For at least the first few play-throughs, I considered it an appropriately invigorating ditty and not the 10 seconds of screechy, inharmonious noise that would later serve as my catalyst to make a selection as quickly as possible in the hope of salvaging what was left of my auditory functions.

I chose to start on Air Man's stage, of course, sticking closely to my safe, predictable methodology from Mega Man 2. And as I trekked across the early portion of that familiar-looking stage and acclimated myself to the controls, it became clear to me that something wasn't right. The sound effects were squeaky and scratchy. Mega Man's bullet-spray was bereft of destructive impact and sounded more like the ineffective splashing of water. The egg-dropping Pipis moved much more deliberately, their attacks too easily thwarted. Larger enemies, like the Air Tikis whose scale was an essential part of their character, were hideously shrunken and operated strangely. And the graphics seemed somewhat sterile and washed-out, the visuals lacking for the sharpness and detail I remembered from the distinctly toned, solidly rendered Wily's Revenge.

At no point did I think to myself that I was playing a bad Mega Man game, but that first play-through felt less like a traditional Mega Man experience and more like my own personal quality-assurance test. I remembered not moments but my observances and all of the design choices I questioned. I wondered, for instance, why the minor enemies did so little damage. Why the Robot Masters' weaknesses were so unbalanced (Wood Man succumbed to three shots of the Metal Blade, yet taking out Crash Man required draining every peg of the Air Shooter's meter, with no guarantee that even that would be enough). Why the stages' camera view spilled into those pre-Robot Master transition tunnels. Why there were disappearing-reappearing blocks in places where you could easily jump up to the intended platform.

And why was the game was so damn easy? Every Mega Man game had its own Shadow Man or at least one fearsome platforming sequence (like the instant-death lasers in Quick Man's stage), but I couldn't recall a single instance where I felt threatened or lost more than one life trying to negotiate my way around a tough obstacle. At least Mega Man 2 had a "Difficult" mode!

I narrowed it down to two possibilities: It was either that the developers forgot what made the previous Mega Man games memorable or they simply miscalculated. I wanted to skew more toward the latter explanation, giving Capcom the benefit of the doubt, but there was too much evidence to instead suggest the former. I could argue that the toning down of the challenge-level was the company's sincere response to complaints about the considerable difficulty of Wily's Revenge--mirroring what it had done with Mega Man 2 a few years earlier--but none of my conjecturing could satisfactorily explain why the game's design was so haphazard. 

The designers tried to replicate the stage construction of the NES games but exhibited no understanding of why it originally worked so well. In lieu of faithful recreations of these iconic stages, there were instead condensed reproductions in which the same one or two sequences were repeated over and over again (be it extended stretches of hopping across Air Tikis or battling endless strings of gear-riding Pierrobots). There was no point to the moving-lift rooms in Crash Man's stage, their compressed real-estate allowing me to reach the topmost ladders with little effort. Top Man's stage had an underwater section filled with those reappearing-disappearing blocks, but I could easily bypass this entire sequence using Rush Marine, which was standard by that point (I guess the blocks were there in case I was feeling frisky and wanted to add an arbitrary challenge?). In fact, all of the underwater sequences were pointless, not a single one of them providing resistance of any kind.

Theirs was an attempt to duplicate the best parts of the NES game without taking into account the Game Boy's limited screen resolution. As a result, not much of it worked as intended: 1ups and Energy Tanks were strewn all about the stages' nooks and ledges but were never too far out of Mega Man's reach. They learned nothing from Mega Man 3 and left in a fully-controllable Rush Jet, negating every obstacle in the game's second half and rendering Rush Coil redundant. There was no time to effectively react to the blind spike drops. And projectiles fired from within cramped passageways were sometimes unavoidable.

The Mega Man Killer Quint was a joke and could hardly be called a boss; his only capability was to feebly hop there in place on his combination power drill-pogo stick (the "Sakugarne," which localization couldn't be bothered to translate). He might have caught me off guard during that very first encounter with an unexpected jump, but the only way I'd ever likely take damage from him a second time was to foolishly walk into the unthreatening debris being strewn about by his vehicle. "How is this even a boss?" I questioned, additionally noting that he wasn't even supplied his own energy meter. Everything about this battle with Quint was a microcosm for the design issues of Mega Man II. And, as I later learned, Quint wasn't even considered a real "Mega Man Killer"! He was instead "a Mega Man from the future reprogrammed to fight the Mega Man from the present." Since when was that a thing that could happen?

Most egregiously, there was absolutely no challenge to the three-phase Wily fight, which felt phoned in. It was three similarly functioning mechs that could be destroyed with nothing more than some effortless bullet-spray. I could just unconcernedly blast away at the machines' cockpits, without consideration for possible weaknesses, and compensate for any mistakes using the four Energy Tanks of which I'd surely still be in possession at the time. "And what the hell did they do to Wily?" I wondered as I stared into the cockpit of that first leaping mech. "Why is he suddenly scaled down into a an angry, squinty midget?"

I discovered years later that all three forms were weak to Sakugarne, but using it made the battle unnecessarily messy, since I was sure to take heavy contact damage in response. There was no need for it; the Mega Buster could more than suffice. 

A few anticlimactic Mega Buster shots later and it was just over--the resolution to our conflict a quick ending sequence where Mega Man shoots down Wily's ship and sends it hurtling toward Earth, the resulting explosion taking the form of a giant skull whose projection could be witnessed even from space. We don't see Mega Man making his way home or reacting to these events; instead, it cuts right to the credits sequence, its style and form ripped directly from Wily's Revenge (Mega Man standing there, looking off into space). 

These were my observations, and they rendered a poor residual image of Mega Man II, which unfortunately couldn't live up to the ambitious adventure game I'd imagined as I listened to that amazing title-screen theme. But Lord help me, I actually liked Mega Man II. For one, I thought the soundtrack was terrific, its stage themes high on energy and a real driving force. Mega Man II featured a completely unique soundtrack, not a single tune borrowed from a previous game, and I appreciated the composer's effort to use music to differentiate it from its NES counterparts. I mean, who said the Game Boy titles had to recycle every element from their NES siblings? It was nice that Wily's Revenge featured wonderfully recomposed Mega Man music, but one game doesn't necessarily make a trend.

Mega Man II's music was purely its own--an untamble beast--and where the game truly stood out when compared to its Game Boy brethren. Yeah--it was scratchy and screechy, sometimes going a bit overboard with its drumbeats and high-pitched to the point where it could numb your senses after about the third loop, but it was the true high point for a game that was otherwise average in all other categories.

Also, I credit Mega Man II for how it successfully evolved and patented the enduring Game Boy Mega Man formula: The second set of Robot Masters wouldn't be fodder for single rooms in Wily's capsule room, it said; no--they'd have their own stages, each treated with equal importance.

I wasn't too keen on the actual level design in Wily's space fortress (outside of that three-screen zigzagging sequence that recalled images of my prized Wrecking Crew creations), but I thought it was a clever touch to adorn its background with Salvador DalĂ­-style-style artwork and specifically twisted clocks reminiscent of the painting "The Persistence of Memory." It also helped that this final stage had the much-needed embellishment of the reused title-screen theme, which was welcome accompaniment and provided the last leg of the journey a true sense of finality where the level design and the low difficulty couldn't.

It wasn't by any means a spectacular Mega Man game, but it had value to me because it fit perfectly into my lifestyle. I was always traveling with my parents, confined to the back of father's Cadillac for two or three hours at a time, and Mega Man II, though a middling series entry, was entertaining enough to rate as a great "road game." Much like Tetris, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, it played an important role in keeping my mind occupied during any of those painfully long car trips to New Jersey or Long Island. That's all I could have asked for from a backseat companion.

It wasn't until the Internet age that I became aware of Mega Man II's true nature--the reason why it was so aesthetically unbalanced and was plagued with so many poor design choices. It turns out that the game's development was outsourced to a company different from the one that created Wily's Revenge. According to series co-creator Keiji Inafune, the company had very little knowledge of the series and no sense of why the games were so beloved.

And while Keiji's correct--they absolutely didn't--I bear no ill will for any of the players involved. I regret that we missed out on what could have been a potentially amazing portable Mega Man game--a masterfully refined follow-up to the memorable Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge--but I'm not angry at Mega Man II for missing the mark. I can't be; I remember it too fondly for how it kept me company when miles of road lay ahead and all I had was time.

The Blue Bomber's serviceable Game Boy adventure played well its role of providing me bite-sized entertainment and good vibes when I needed them most. That's where it fit in.

1 comment:

  1. Mega Man II was the only of the five Game Boy Mega Man titles that I ever owned. I agree with your thought: "games don't have to be great or even particularly good to have individualized value." The game was a fun distraction - I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy the simpler stuff in the early NES library like ExciteBike or Ninja-Kun. You can appreciate what the programmers did and did not do.

    I always wanted the last MM game for Game Boy - the one with the planet-based robot masters. I had the issue of NP that profiled the game and I always thought it looked cool. It's a bit rare and expensive to own a copy nowadays, though.