GameSpite Year Two | Mega Man in Dr. Wily's Revenge

Capcom | Game Boy | 1991

The first portable system I ever owned was a Game Boy Color, which I picked up alongside a copy of the disappointing Tetris DX at the systemís Japanese launch. Its arrival was right around the time that the importing bug had bitten me hard, and I just couldnít bring myself to wait the two months or whatever for the U.S. debut of the system. Shortly after that, I picked up a Neo Geo Pocket Color and a WonderSwan and began pouring earnest devotion into handheld gaming. It marked a stark contrast to the years prior, where I had looked down my nose and sneered at the inadequacies of the format.

In fairness, portables didnít necessarily deserve a lot of love in those days. The Game Boy, Lynx, and Game Gear all represented three different avenues to bringing console-quality experiences along on those car rides and short waiting room sessions that seem so lengthy when youíre a kid. Yet all three suffered from grave inadequacies: Lynx and Game Gear demanded too precious a commitment in battery costs, plus the former lacked much in the way of recognizable software appeal. The Game Boy, on the other hand, was visually deficient (with its passive-matrix, four-tone screen) and woefully underpowered (running as it did on a Z80 processor, a chip almost 20 years old by the time the system debuted). As someone who tried to balance the best possible gaming experience with a limited budget, handhelds never really entered the equation for me -- even if I did find myself pining for all those Castlevania and Mario games Iíd never be able to play. The fact that the Game Boy Color and its second-gen portable competitors debuted shortly after I landed my first full-time job certainly didnít impede my interest.

I wasnít entirely without access to Game Boy software in the early days, though. I briefly owned a Super Game Boy -- basically, just long enough to complete Metroid II and Linkís Awakening -- and my brother was given a real Game Boy by a friendís very wealthy father. He allowed me to borrow it a few times, but his generosity quickly evaporated when I completed Super Mario Land in my first sitting, a task that had eluded him for months. And, finally, my grandparents bought a Game Boy and a handful of games so that their grandkids could have something fun to do whenever we visited... which, in those days, was at least once a week, if not more often.

As I spent some time at their home in the wake of my grandmotherís recent passing, I found myself looking for familiar touchstones with which to comfort myself. My grandparents no longer live in the home they owned 20 years ago, having moved around the city a couple of times to ultimately take up residence in a house close to the church they attended in days of better health. Still, while the house may be unfamiliar, the home isnít. My grandmotherís extensive teapot collection runs the perimeter of the living room and kitchen, spilling onto shelves and table tops where the converted cupboards above offer insufficient room; my grandfatherís collection of personalized celebrity autographs (including Walt Disney and the five-star commanders of World War II) hangs in the hallway, and a mid-sized bookcase holds the dozens -- hundreds? -- of biographies heís had signed by their subjects over the years. Even the bathrooms are comforting, my grandparentsí life-long commitment to certain brands of soap and other cleansers lending this new space the exact smell of comforting cleanliness and familiarity that I remember from the apartment they lived in four homes and 30 years ago.

My poison of choice, obviously, is video games. The Game Boy they bought for us kids is long gone, of course. Iím sure my youngest cousins took it home with them years ago. But as I sat in their new living room, watching my grandfather nap on his favorite recliner, I thought back to long-passed memories of sitting across from my dozing grandfather in a different living room, plugging away at their original Game Boy. In those days, most of my Game Boy time was spent with the copy of Mega Man in Dr. Wilyís Revenge theyíd picked up on my recommendation. I never did finish the game back then; in fact, I donít recall if I ever managed to beat a single stage.

While I couldnít play the cartridge they bought for me and my siblings and cousins so long ago, a digital copy of Dr. Wilyís Revenge was available to play right there on my 3DS -- purchased a few months ago on Virtual Console but as-yet untouched.

So, I snapped open my 3DSís clamshell and launched into Mega Manís first Game Boy outing. Nothing will ever allow me to turn back the hands of time to arrive at their home a day sooner to say a final farewell to my grandmother, who passed mere hours before I landed for a long-planned trip to visit her. Thereís no way for me to travel back and tell her how much she meant to me, how influential she was in my life. Nothing can bring her back. Of course. But at the very least, I thought, maybe I could find a little comfort in wrapping up a far more trivial sort of unfinished business, tangentially related to my memories of her, by finally playing through Dr. Wilyís Revenge. It was a pale, meaningless task beside the hours I spent with my frail grandfather that week, but it gave me something to do while I sat in a chair by his side as he slept the afternoon away or simply watched the family activity buzzing around with solemn, sometimes-comprehending eyes.

Perhaps, I thought, this could be a small symbol of personal growth for me. Maybe I would experience an epiphany. Maybe Iíd grow a little.

It wasnít, and I didnít. All I realized is that sometimes tasks are left incomplete because theyíre not worth doing. Mega Man in Dr. Wilyís Revenge is, quite frankly, awful.

I recalled never making much progress in the game back in the day and regarding it with a sort of dismissive disdain. For years, Iíve assumed this was because I was some sort of young snob who didnít appreciate the marvels of portable gaming. In fact, my disregard for Mega Manís first Game Boy adventure stemmed from the fact that it wasnít very good.

In fairness to my self-criticism, back then I probably extrapolated the failings of Dr. Wilyís Revenge to represent the shortcomings of portable gaming in general. And while itís certainly true that the problems weighing down this particular title are endemic to handheld games (as much here in 2012 as in 1990), the cross Mega Man bears is hardly representative of every Game Boy title -- or even every NES-to-Game-Boy conversion. Capcomís own Bionic Commando, for example, handily side-stepped most of Mega Man failings.

Mega Man in Dr. Wilyís Revengeís greatest shortcoming is simply a matter of overreach. Itís a conversion of an NES game that aspires to bring a console-quality experience to the Game Boyís paltry hardware. Truly the noblest of goals, but in reaching for the stars Capcomís developers (or whatever outsourced studio ghosted the game for them) forgot to take into consideration their grounding. Dr. Wilyís Revenge is based largely on the first Mega Man, with a quartet of Mega Man 2 bosses putting in an appearance at the end of the first fortress stage for a boss rush outside the context of their levels. It is, however, a vastly more difficult game than even the infamously wicked NES classic on which itís based, but not for admirable reasons. Itís hard, often downright unfair, not challenging, and much of this brutal difficulty is simply a side effect of its ill-considered design.

You can see the Game Boy straining to keep up with the action from the very start in a very literal sense; Dr. Wilyís Revenge runs at a fraction of the speed of the NES games. Itís a healthy fraction -- say, 9/10 -- but the fraction thatís been lost makes its mark. Mega Man moves sluggishly, though to the gameís credit the same is true for all on-screen objects: Enemies, projectiles, hazards, and Mega Man alike plod with agonizing lethargy across their tiny monochrome universe. It never feels quite right, and requires a conscious effort by a seasoned player to relearn timing for obstacles that behave as expected, but a fraction of a second off.

The gameís draggy pacing exists in spite of the fact that the Game Boy renders less than half the pixels as the NES; the systemís Z-80 processor simply isnít up to the task of producing those big, personality-packed sprites at the same speed as the NESís 6502. The gameís programmers made a brave attempt, but it backfired. Not only did it make the game feel like every object is moving through a thick syrup, the huge spritesóperfect monochrome representations of the NES source material though they may beófeel crowded and oversized at the Game Boyís tiny resolution. Combat in Mega Man games is about keeping a safe distance between the hero and the bad guys and taking them out strategicallyfrom afar. The Game Boy screen closes half of the gap by its low-resolution nature, effectively doubling Mega Manís peril at all times.

This might have been acceptable if the behavior of enemies and the design of hazards had been adjusted to account for the change in resolution, but unfortunately the rules by which Dr. Wilyís Revenge operates are practically identical to those of the NES games. Enemies respawn as soon as their default position is scrolled off-screen and back on again... but since the edge of the screen is half as far away, this hampers Mega Manís mobility, forcing players to hold their ground when they need to retreat strategically lest they find themselves suddenly surrounded. Thereís very little breathing room to face off against major threats, yet enemy power and durability remains the same as it was on NES.

This becomes especially obvious when you encounter the giant Big Eye enemies that lurk at the end of each stage. Unlike on NES, where Mega Man had plenty of room to avoid, run beneath, or gun down these huge foes, on Game Boy youíll more often than not be forced to soak up a hit due to their random behavior within confined spaces. In Fire Manís stage, the Big Eye occupies a sort of pit that has clearance for it to make two jumps. If neither of these jumps turns out to be one of its random high leaps that Mega Man can safely run beneath, bam: Youíve lost a third of your health, and thereís nothing you can do about it. Despite the increased peril Big Eyes represent, though, the developers didnít make them a little easier to gun down; on the contrary, theyíre actually harder, requiring just as many hits as before but vulnerable only at certain moments -- and, therefore, almost completely impossible to destroy.

Likewise, the bosses are insanely hard now, at least at the beginning. Even if you manage to survive the cramped gauntlet of a given level, the chances that youíll be able to take down the boss with your standard buster gun are incredibly slim. No boss takes more than a sliver of damage from Mega Manís attacks, yet they deal about a sixth of his health with both their weapons and collisions... and both are almost impossible to avoid given the smaller size of their lairs. In the time it takes for a bossí invincibility flashing to cease following a successful hit, itís almost inevitably made its way across to the room to get right up in Mega Manís face and smash into him with a body check. The only saving grace is that certain of their powers have been toned down from the NES; Elec Manís beam only fires forward, and Fire Manís blast doesnít create a lingering flame beneath Mega Manís feet.

Of course, theyíre only difficult until you manage to beat one. Once that task is accomplished, the next three bosses become almost insultingly easy, going down in as few as three hits from the weapon to which theyíre vulnerable. Of course, things get nasty again once you reach the end of the first Wily fortress stage: Youíre pitted against those four bosses from Mega Man 2, and none of the weapons you collected from the previous stages work on them.

These bosses are even more difficult than the first four; hell, Quick Manís strategy consists of running directly at you and lurking on top of your sprite so that you take another hit as soon as your recovery frames end. (Did I mention that Dr. Wilyís Revenge makes use of the original gameís collision penalties, causing you to reel, frozen and unable to move, almost an entire tile backward, frequently sending you plummeting to your death and rendering you largely helpless during your brief mercy invincibility period?) On the off chance you manage to best these guysóno easy task, since they take less damage from the weapons to which theyíre vulnerable than their older brothersóyouíre forced to fight one more robot, Enker the Mega Man Killer. In a rare show of kindness, Enker is probably the easiest boss in the game, with a simple and easy-to-exploit pattern of behavior. The task of actually reaching him, however, is utterly infuriating.

Thankfully, the 3DS Virtual Console provides built-in save states. I didnít have the patience to beat the game fairly years ago, and I certainly donít these days.

To its credit, Mega Man in Dr. Wilyís Revenge isnít the worst game in the series, but thatís only because Mega Manís outsourced lows are so very low. Itís functionally competent, if not especially good, which is far more than I can say for the likes of the WonderSwan games. Nevertheless, itís a perfect example of why I looked down on the Game Boy for so long. The platformís software tended to polarize in two directions: Primitive-looking and simple, or struggling for console-quality play and visuals but suffering from the platformís limits as a result. The systemís later Mega Man titles improved over this one, so we can chalk it up as a learning experience. Taken on its own, though, itís kind of infuriatingly terrible, offering barely half as much content as its console counterparts and making up for its brevity with unfair level designs and enemy placement. Itís the essence of cheap ďclassicĒ game design, attempting to emulate something akin to play value and shelf life by stretching a small amount of content incredibly thin.

Having completed the game after all these years, I donít feel any better, or any better about myself, or any closer to the grandmother who once bought the game for my sake. I confess, I was motivated to tackle it in large part because I hoped I would experience some sort of epiphany or come away with a meaningful personal lesson that would give life to a profound article that tied the gameís place in my life as ďunfinished businessĒ with my regrets for not having been able to spend time with Grandma before she passed away.

I didnít. All Iíve taken away from Dr. Wilyís Revenge is a sense of annoyance with this relic of the clumsy old days of handhelds and a reminder that a game this lousy ultimately isnít worth the trouble. Certainly it has no business being used as a memorial for my dearly departed grandmother. Her role in my life, the love I feel for her, and the good times we had are far more meaningful than this forgettable, cynically made piece of software.

Thereís no metaphor here, only disappointment and an aching hole in my heart -- two sentiments completely unrelated to one another.

By Jeremy Parish? | June 10, 2012