Mega Man II
Mega Man II is just so sweet and cuddly. It's definitely the black sheep, the soft-spoken middle child in a family of hard-nosed, difficult brothers and sisters. If you played Dr. Wily's Revenge, proceeded to fill a sheet of paper with the expletives you uttered during gameplay, and didn't find this activity particularly enjoyable, Mega Man II is your game.
The meat of the experience is very similar to the NES games. Even though the level designs are different, all the enemies and most of the traps are very recognizably lifted from the source material. Even the "shapes" of the levels from area-to-area very closely mimic the NES originals. From a pure gameplay perspective, Mega Man II feels more like the NES series than any of the others in the portable line. There are no pit-jumping, spike-navigating extravaganzas to be found, and the slowdown that would infest later Game Boy outings is largely absent. We even get eight full Robot Master stages this time out, although only four are selectable at a time.
If the devil lies in the details, our subject remains a curious devil despite the basic similarities. Dr. Wily's Revenge featured subtly improved arrangements from the first NES Mega Man -- in contrast, Mega Man II's musical score is entirely original. Why Capcom decided not to reuse some of the NES's finest music for this game has confounded scientists for decades.
On the other hand, the new score is extremely memorable, upbeat, and high-quality, with intricate counterpoint and harmony, even touching on a subtle melancholy due to consistent use of minor-key motifs. There are even clever nods to the existing canon, namely Clash Man's [sic] bassline being very similar to Air Man's bassline on the NES. Tragically, most of these songs are played back in screechy high-register saws and square waves that border on intolerable. No small birds were castrated in the making of the other portable Mega Man games, but here we get the feeling that Messaien had been watching too much Friday the 13th.
Speaking of small, Mega Man II is also the only portable 8-bit Mega Man that squashed down most of the original enemy sprites. For the time, this squashing was probably frowned upon, since Dr, Wily's Revenge contained impressive pixel-perfect renditions of Wily's minions. In hindsight, the fact that Mega Man is nearly 1/4 as tall as the Game Boy screen (again, that same dedication to pixel-perfect accuracy) made some shrinkage in the other gameplay elements much appreciated.
In another victory for gameplay fairness versus irritation, Mega Man II's jumping is floaty, less of a parabolic arc and more of a wide sawtooth. Even more significantly, when Mega Man is hit by enemy fire, the recoil is only 1/3 of the other portable games, and doesn't knock you off whatever ladder you might be grasping for dear life. This reduces cheap deaths by approximately 3000 percent, although if you ever do fall short on reserves, rest assured that 1-ups seem to drop from enemies like candy.
Although forensic DNA analysis of a Game Boy cartridge is impossible, I wager that Mega Man II was developed by a different internal team than the other Game Boy games. Still, when you add up the little cases of artistic license (fresh new music, Wily's more cartoonish castle designs and warped-clock final stage) and the defining gameplay features (the friendly physics, and a fruity pogo-stick boss and weapon), the result is a uniquely whimsical and fun spin on the standard Mega Man template. It makes a pleasing ninety-minute romp for veterans, and a good starting point for first-time Mega Man players.
This isn't to say that the other portable Mega Man games aren't more satisfying in the long run. It's simply painful to dislike a game that has made obvious efforts towards being a purely fun experience. Mega Man II is so kind and good-natured that you can forgive it for omitting the pure elation that comes from beating its tougher siblings.
It's just a shame that the nice guy always finishes last.