When I got my magical package of retro cartridges several weeks ago, my initial instinct was to play through them chronologically. Makes sense, right? Maybe so, but my console-savvy friends talked me out of it. Super Mario was okay to start with, they said, but Mega Man 2? Bad idea, they said with shudders and sighs. Don’t do that to yourself. Get used to the controls. Get through the other stuff first. And when the time comes, drink some herbal tea. Maybe meditate.
I plowed through the other games, all the while keeping an eye on the cartridge whose very name had caused my friends to suck air through their teeth and drop their voices into a serious register. The cartridge stared at me, growing ever more ominous. The words of my friends haunted me. What was I getting myself into?
The night that I started my playthrough, I psyched myself up. I did some push-ups, ran a few laps around the block, drank a quart of Gatorade — no, sorry, that’s all a lie. I ate some pistachio froyo and put on pajamas. But I was psyched, I tell you. Psyched. I wasn’t going to let myself be content with simply trying out a few levels to get the gist. Oh, no. If this game was as much of a proving ground as my friends had made it out to be, then I had to see it through to the end. This wasn’t just about getting a feel for the game. This was a matter of pride.
The game began, and I was introduced to eight deadly robots, all created by the nefarious Dr. Wily (which is my new favorite name for a villain) with the purpose of destroying yours truly, Mega Man. I could take the evil eight on in any order I wanted. Aaaand…that was all I knew. No tutorial, no quick run-down of the controls. I imagine that back in 1988, there had likely been a user manual. No such luck for me. I was incredibly comfortable in my aforementioned jammie pants, and my computer seemed very far away, so I figured I’d just wing it for as long as I could.
That lasted approximately ten minutes.
After bashing my face against the screen a few times (note: not really), I broke down and hopped on Google, just to find a brief starter guide. I didn’t want a walkthrough or any spoilers. I just wanted to know how best to proceed. Most folks recommended Metal Man as the first stop, so I followed in suit. The level began, and I found myself dropped unceremoniously onto a moving conveyor belt. This should have troubled me. I mean, that’s a pretty harsh way to start someone off.
But I was ready for it. You see, not three months ago, I had cut my teeth on the darling of indie platformers, VVVVVV.
In a recent game-related episode of PBS Arts: Off Book (which you should all watch), game designer Eric Zimmerman rather elegantly described games as a means for understanding and experimenting with complex systems. The system in VVVVVV was similar enough to the system in Mega Man 2 that I could grok it fairly quickly, rather like picking up Italian after becoming fluent in Spanish. Granted, one game has guns and the other has reversible gravity, but both made my brain work in a very comparable way. I took one look at those conveyor belts and I thought: I know this.
Now, that’s not to say that VVVVVV somehow ripped off Mega Man 2, or any other classic platformer, for that matter. I don’t even know if Mega Man 2 was a direct influence on VVVVVV (developer Terry Cavanagh has cited the Commodore 64 as his biggest influence, which came a few years prior to MM2). But that similarity was actually what made me geek out over this game so hard. As someone who is somewhat obsessively interested in the evolution of games, Mega Man 2 was a treasure. It was like showing an established sci-fi fan Alien for the first time. That movie’s a little bit dated now, sure, but you can see the tricks and tropes that have influenced every single sci-fi thriller that came after. Mega Man 2 struck me as a similar milestone. Thinking back on the platformers I have played in the last five years or so, there are definite shades of Mega Man 2 in a lot of them (and by default, shades of the games that Mega Man 2 itself drew inspiration from). It was a real delight playing a game like this, not necessarily for the gameplay experience itself, but for seeing how it fit into the genre’s creative evolution.
But just because a lot of the mechanics felt familiar, that didn’t make things any easier. This game is rough, and brilliantly so. The Quick Man stage, for instance, requires you to avoid one-hit-kill lasers by making you swerve as you fall through thin air. You must do this in what felt like fractions of seconds. However, the designers took things one step further. I had finally figured out how to time and angle a jump so that I would miss the lasers, but doing so made me fall directly onto an enemy’s head. The designers had known. They had known exactly what I would do next. The bastards.
Eight stages and a final boss may not seem like much content, especially when a stage only takes a few minutes to get through once you’ve mastered it. But given how hard this game is, the length is perfect. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get past Heat Man (seriously, screw those freaking vanishing blocks). If this game had any more content, it would be masochistic to play through it all. Though I’ve previously spoken in favor of having lots of content in a game, if you’re going to make a game this difficult, don’t overburden your players. Eight stages and a boss fight? That’s an easy number to grasp. Eight doesn’t seem like very much. Even after I’d been sitting there for hours, ready to put my foot through the TV, it still seemed like an attainable goal.
And indeed, it was an attainable goal. I beat the game that very night. I did it. I conquered Mega Man 2. I can now count myself amongst the ranks of dedicated button mashers who have slain Dr. Wily. It was a fitting end to my console journey. I return now to the comfort of my mouse and keyboard, feeling a little wiser, a little more seasoned. I am glad of the simpatico I have formed with the controller crowd. I may even pick up a more modern console one day. We’ll see.
But if I never have to play through the Heat Man stage again, it’ll be too soon.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.
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