Mega Man 2
Based on: Some divinely inspired standard of golden perfection. Like Aristotle, or something along those lines, man. I dunno.
Mega Man ZX has quickly turned into one of this year's most pleasant surprises. I had expected another unbalanced rehash of Mega Man Zero, but Capcom and Inti Creates had to go and throw me a curveball by making ZX far more ambitious and polished than its predecessors. Jerks. Now I have no choice but to love it.
It's still not my favorite Mega Man game, though. Because no force in this universe commands the unrelenting power of nostalgia.
Seriously, it would probably take a centrifuge to spin my brain and sort out exactly where the genuine goodness of Mega Man 2 ends and my rose-tinted affection begins. Then again, I've never been terribly reluctant to reconsider my opinion of things I used to enjoy, and MM2 is still crazy good fun even in 2006. So clearly, it is (as we say in the old country) seriously boss.
Mega Man was a pretty solid game, but the sequel was everything the original wanted to be. Plus, at the time it was released, it was kind of jaw-dropping, visually speaking. And it was the first non-Castlevania game to have music that earned its memorability through quality rather than a grating calliope sensation. Perfect play control, amazing graphics, brilliant music -- that's pretty much the ground level of a good game. MM2 went beyond merely good, though; it was the first truly great post-Mario platformer. You can keep your Alex Kidds and your Wonder Boys and Bonks; beside MM2, they were as rank amateurs.
So what was the secret Iron Chef ingredient that made MM2 so good? My vote is creative inspiration. MM honcho Keiji Inafune (so the story goes) was so passionate about creating MM2 that he talked Capcom's executives into letting his team develop it in tandem with some crappy baseball murder mystery game they had been assigned to. It's reasonable to assume that the long hours and determination that went into the game's development under such circumstances were an indication of genuine enthusiasm, and pretty much the opposite under which the likes of Mega Man X6 have been spawned.
From the moment it booted, MM2 was clearly a cut above the usual NES dreck -- and definitely geared toward fans of the first game.
The title screen featured a long vertical crawl up the side of a skyscraper as a distant cityscape receded and the closing theme to the original MM played. But as the introductory tune reached its climax and paused, it broke into a fast-paced techno beat rather than the cheerful ditty that fans knew from the previous game. With a press of the Start button, Mega Man donned his helmet and teleported into action.
That is how you start a game right. Cut scenes? Pfft.
The stage select screen was quite a bit more impressive than the simple sprites on a flat blue field of the original game -- plus it perfectly encapsulated the slightly weird experience ahead. Here was a driving background tune (capped by a dramatic fanfare when you chose your opponent), so clearly there was intense action ahead. But, uh, the characters had big round eyes, like Garfield extras or something. Were we supposed to take this seriously?
The answer: yes, but not too seriously.
Because let's be honest: MM2 is an incredibly goofy game. It's about a robot boy who wears his underwear wrong-side out and who dresses in the girliest spring wardrobe colors. And what could possibly have made Dr. Wily think it was a good idea to conquer the world with death machines that looked like enormous pop-eyed fish or fire-breathing dogs or cute little attack chicks that were launched via robo-egg? Nothing, that's what. But we were willing to forgive and forget, since Wily's ridiculous mechanical army pushed the NES to generate unparalleled graphical detail. Oh, right -- plus it was pretty fun.
(Incidentally, those little shrimp robots make a long-awaited comeback in ZX. Curse you, Capcom, for relentlessly attacking my weak points.)
As long as you weren't some sort of sissy-boy who selected "Normal" difficulty (which didn't even exist in the Japanese version -- "Difficult" was the "Normal" over there, so hide your head in shame if you play on anything less), MM2 was a pretty challenging game. Not insanely hard like most NES games that had come before it, mind you, but that was part of its charm as well. MM2 required skill and reflexes and effective use of power-ups -- but the cheap hits and "gotcha" level designs gamers had grown accustomed to were gone.
In fact, MM2 is one of the few games that come to mind with nearly perfect level design from start to finish. Every stage is thoughtfully crafted with unique hazards, enemies placed to be tricky but not unfair, and just enough breaks in the action to give you a chance to pause and catch your breath.
And while a few of the stages have some infuriating moments -- specifically the instant-death lasers in Quick Man's stage and the yawning chasm of disappearing blocks in Heat Man's level -- they're not actually the frustrating exercises in rote memorization that they appear to be, seeing as they can be thwarted with the proper tools. Of course, MM2's eight stages are designed to be completed in any order, but part of the challenge was learning the easiest sequence in which to challenge the bosses. Conversely, part of what makes it so replayable is working outside that sequence and testing your skills without relying on sub-weapons.
The weapons deserve special mention, since MM2 was the last game in the series in which they were actually worth a crap outside of exploiting boss weaknesses. Each of the eight robot masters carried a shockingly useful weapon that Mega Man could add to his arsenal; while the Metal Blade and Quick Boomerang were rather more "shockingly useful" than the others, each and every weapon had its place, even Air Man's dopey weapon. A tradition that would come to a shameful end with the advent of the Top Spin in MM3.
So great were the weapons in MM2 that they caused Mega Man to realize the whole "great power/great responsibility" dichotomy that all underwear-clad heroes must accept. In the end, the very seasons themselves changed according to his current power-ups, which led to one of the most surprisingly wistful 8-bit finales ever as Mega Man disappeared for the good of the world.
(This is where you make a snarky comment about how the world would have been better if the series had disappeared there as well.)
Once the initial eight stages were conquered, Wily's Castle opened up and offered four additional completely great levels to challenge. This was the real payoff -- the giant Mecha Dragon and Guts Tank that Nintendo Power had used to seduce hapless nerds such as myself lay in wait here. The Mecha Dragon in particular was tough to beat -- not so much because it was truly challenging (the limited footing wasn't so bad if you spammed Quick Boomerangs) but because HOLY CRAP BEST GRAPHICS EVAR. Like a careless rubbernecker, gawking at the Dragon's amazing visual design led to unfortunate accidents.
Ultimately, though, the best part of the game wasn't the visual flash but the increasing tension as you descended further into Wily's lair. The levels became slower, grimmer. Deadly spikes lined the walls, giant fish leapt from the depths, and the music grew less urgent but more intense. And once the eight robot masters were defeated again...silence.
Most games these days seem to go for overkill, but MM2 created one of the tensest stages ever seen in a game with almost nothing. The final run-up to Dr. Wily was a narrow, rocky corridor in which the silence was broken only by droplets of acid dripping from the ceiling. At every moment, you expected to be attacked, ambused, dropped into a pit. So when you finally reached Dr. Wily (and his preposterous fake-out), it was almost a relief.
I'm probably letting nostalgia win the war here, but the fact is that MM2 is one of those rare games that holds up years later -- the bold, colorful graphical style doesn't feel painfully dated, the simplicity of the action is offset by the variety of things you can do within the game, and the overall design and experience embody everything good about classic NES gaming with almost none of the bad.
In short, it's completely great. And to hell with anyone who doesn't agree. Hell, I say.
Originally posted in Retronauts