The year 1987 marked the debut of Mega Man. The brainchild of Capcom members Akira Kitamura and Keiji Inafune, Mega Man was to be among the developer’s first original games for Nintendo’s highly popular Famicom console – known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) abroad. The game, made in a few months by a group consisting of six people, proved to be fairly popular. It sold well enough domestically to have been considered a sleeper hit, yet flopped in the West partially as a result of a hasty, borderline nonexistent marketing campaign. Despite its mixed reception, Mr. Kitamura wanted to make a sequel, seeing further potential in what they created. These aspirations came to a stop when he was overruled by producer Tokuro Fujiwara. In response, the director then went to Capcom’s Vice President to get permission to make the game. The executives permitted Mr. Kitamura and his team to work on a sequel under one condition: they had to work concurrently on other projects as well.
Shortly thereafter, the project supervisor invited Mr. Inafune back to the new project. The artist had been working on a separate game at the time, but agreed to help. According to him, the development team willingly worked twenty-hour days to see this project through. He and his fellow staff members would spend their own time on the project to improve the gameplay established in their original effort. His second year working at Capcom, in his own words, “opened up a whole new world of stress for [him]” as he became far more involved with the sequel’s production and even got to mentor a new employee. Despite this, he would later describe it as his best time with Capcom because they were working towards a common goal and made something they truly cared about.
A few months later, Mr. Kitamura’s team completed the project. In Japan, the end product was released in December of 1988 under the name Rockman 2: The Mystery of Dr. Wily. While the original game was, at best, a modest hit, the sequel proved to be an overwhelming success. Still deciding to give the Western market a chance, Capcom had the game localized and released in the United States in June of 1989 retitled and abridged to Mega Man 2. To their surprise, the game was a hit abroad as well. Its international success and critical acclaim allowed Mega Man to become Capcom’s flagship series overnight. Even to this day, Mega Man 2 is considered one of the greatest games ever made as well as the standard to which a sequel should strive to achieve. How exactly was a sequel to a game many considered middle-of-the-road able to give its title character a new lease on life?
Analyzing the Experience
In the year 200X, an evil genius named Dr. Wily attempted to conquer the world by reprogramming six industrial robots created by his rival, Dr. Light. What he could not have counted on was for one of Dr. Light’s first robots, Rock, to possess such a strong sense of justice. The small robot then became Mega Man – a fighter for justice and peace. Despite having not been programmed for combat, Mega Man successfully defeated all six of the rogue robots along with Dr. Wily himself. However, the mad scientist escaped after begging Mega Man for mercy.
It is now the following June, and Dr. Wily has reappeared. Using Dr. Light’s designs as a template, he has built eight combat robots of his own with one single goal: to eliminate Mega Man once and for all. Realizing his fight isn’t over, Mega Man sets out to stop Dr. Wily’s mad ambitions. First, he must deal with the eight powerful foes the doctor has created.
The original Mega Man broke gaming sensibilities by allowing players to play the six stages they were initially presented with in any order they wished. Many games that predate Mega Man granted players leeway in how they went about completing it, but rarely were players granted the ability to choose the order in which they completed stages in an otherwise linear affair. However, even if there were initially only six stages to deal with, the proposition of having to complete the entire game in a single sitting was a difficult one to accept. It wasn’t a long game, yet anything from a power surge to accidentally nudging the console would invalidate your progress instantly.
Mega Man 2 is considered a vastly superior game to its predecessor, and as soon as you press the “START” button on the title screen, you’ll learn of the first, and arguably most important, improvement it brings to the table. Instead of the game bringing you to the screen displaying the eight Robot Masters you fight, you are given the options “START” and “PASSWORD”. Yes, you no longer have to worry about any number of mishaps occurring to your playthrough. Upon defeating any of the Robot Masters, you will be given a password, which you can then use to pick up from where you last left off.
Mega Man 2 even has a leg up on contemporary games with password systems simply by virtue of how they’re presented. Whereas many games would feature long, drawn-out sequences of letters and numbers, Mega Man 2 greatly simplifies things with a 5 X 5 graph. In each of these units, a dot can be placed to form the password. It does arguably take a longer time to draw on paper, yet inputting it is much faster because you don’t have to scroll through the alphabet. The graph itself has an interesting bit of programming in how the positions of the dots indicate a given Robot Master’s state. This allowed the development team to account for every combination of Robot Master statuses without overcomplicating the password.
While the password system is an appreciated improvement, it wouldn’t count for much if it turned out the gameplay was lacking. Mega Man 2 clearly models itself after the original, having the same art style, basic goal, and gameplay. It is a platformer with run-and-gun elements that turns into an unconventional tournament fighter whenever the eponymous character reaches the end of a given stage.
On the surface, it would appear that Mega Man 2 is a standard sequel akin to the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2. However, when one begins playing the game, it becomes clear that the development team had much more creative energy this time around. While the original game had a good soundtrack, any given song from Mega Man 2 blows it out of the water. This era of gaming has been praised for its music, yet even in the face of such tough competition, the soundtrack of Mega Man 2 stands out. A soundtrack’s quality is usually independent from that of the gameplay. Talent does tend to attract talent, but one must remember the surprising abundance of mediocre or even outright bad games that still manage to have an excellent song here and there. Fortunately, in the case of Mega Man 2, the game plays every bit as well as it sounds.
Considering how similar it is in terms of both presentation and gameplay, one might ask what, exactly, allows Mega Man 2 to outshine its predecessor. There are many reasons for this. One of them, which is easy to miss given how subtle it is, would be the controls. The original Mega Man had serviceable controls, but the physics were slightly off. Even outside of Ice Man’s stage, the title character would slip around quite a lot. Other oddities flared up during inopportune moments such as when falling off a vanishing platform. For the sequel, the controls are much tighter, allowing players to navigate Mega Man across wide gaps and onto small platforms with a greater degree of precision. Even jumping between mobile platforms is easy enough once you’ve obtained a feel for Mega Man’s airborne maneuverability.
As you play through the game, you may find what appears to be a blue cylinder with the letter “E” imprinted upon it. This is what is known as an Energy Tank. Exactly as its name would imply, you can use this to restore Mega Man’s energy. All you need to do is open the weapons menu, and select the letter “E” to use one. Each tank completely restores his energy, and he can hold up to four at a given time.
Although restoration items were commonplace in role-playing games, it wasn’t often one saw them in an entirely action-oriented experience. On some level, this did make sense. After all, a platforming game is intended to be a test of one’s reflexes rather than their ability to manage supplies. Many such games didn’t even have an inventory system to speak of – much less a means by which the player could restore their health. Alternatively, platforming characters were fragile to the point of taking one or two hits, rendering such a service superfluous.
With this simple mechanic, there is a much greater degree of strategy involved when it comes to playing Mega Man 2 than its predecessor. A newcomer might think it best to use an Energy Tank to get through an especially difficult section of a level. However, it’s important to know that there are no restrictions as to when these tanks can be used. It is therefore better to memorize the layout of a given stage so you can use them where they really count: boss fights. In most cases, it’s usually better to intentionally lose a life if Mega Man is low on energy so he can restart the fight fully powered up than waste a tank needlessly getting past enemies that are greater in number, yet are far weaker than he is even banded together. They’re also common enough that you shouldn’t find yourself hording them, yet rare to the point where a savvy player would know better than to use them impulsively. One might think that allowing players to restore Mega Man’s health at any given time would break the game’s challenge, yet the developers clearly took extra steps to ensure it didn’t happen.
The great soundtrack, improved controls, and the Energy Tanks are nice additions as well, but what truly allows Mega Man 2 to outdo not only its predecessor, but also a majority of its contemporaries is its level design. While even Super Mario Bros. 3, itself one of the best games of its day, had multiple stages set in environments similar to each other, every single area in Mega Man 2 has a wholly unique design to it. This was accomplished by having the designs of every single one of the Robot Masters’ stages tie, in some way, to their themes. This was true of the original Mega Man as well, but the idea didn’t always manifest properly. Elec Man, Fire Man, Guts Man, and Ice Man all had stages whose designs could be seen as extensions of what kinds of attacks they would throw at Mega Man in their boss fights. However, the development team seemed to hit a stumbling block in the form of Cut Man and Bomb Man – both of whom had stages with rather generic designs. Occasionally, Mega Man would be accosted by a bladed enemy or one wielding explosives, but the stage design themselves didn’t reflect this.
Having but a few months to work on this game clearly didn’t hinder the creative process, for the development team went much further with the idea in Mega Man 2. Nearly all of the Robot Masters that feature in this game reside in appropriately designed lairs. Bubble Man’s stage is set near a gigantic waterfall, forcing Mega Man traverse several underwater areas. It is here you are introduced to the new water physics. Unlike Mario, Mega Man cannot swim, instead sinking to the bottom whenever he enters water. This isn’t too much of a concern because he doesn’t need to breathe. The only thing you will need to concern yourself with is the fact that Mega Man can jump much higher underwater. An underwater jump lasts as long as you hold down the “A” button. Making things difficult is that deadly spikes often line the walls of these underwater portions, but they can be overcome with enough practice. In fact, I definitely prefer this over how the water physics were handled in the original Mega Man wherein they served no purpose other than to slow him down.
Heat Man’s stage is set in what appears to be a foundry with pits containing lava. After the halfway point, Mega Man must navigate what is perhaps the single most infamous gimmick the series produced: the disappearing blocks. These blocks appear and disappear periodically, and you must time your jumps correctly lest you inadvertently guide Mega Man right into a bottomless pit. The final set of disappearing blocks is so long and drawn out that many players find they can’t get past them. It would be much easier if the Magnet Beam existed in this installment, but such is not the case.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that while the Magnet Beam no longer exists, it has been replaced by something even better. Defeating Heat Man, Air Man, or Flash Man causes Dr. Light to outfit Mega Man with a new utility. These functions, called Items, function similarly to the Magnet Beam from the original game in that they are made for navigation rather than combat. Item-1 allows Mega Man to spawn floating platforms. Item-2 causes a jet-propelled platform to appear. Lastly, Item-3 allows him to throw a platform that attaches to a wall whereupon it crawls up and down. Item-1 and Item-3 are both used to reach places Mega Man couldn’t normally, but it is with Item-2 that players can traverse expansive pits. As with the standard Robot Masters’ weapons, one must be mindful of the Item’s energy gauge, but when fully charged, it can get Mega Man past any significant death pit in the game.
Most of the remaining stages, while not as dramatic, do not disappoint in terms of design. The heroic robot must brave the skies in order to reach Air Man. Bottomless pits are a common fixture in many platforming games, yet this one was probably among the first to induce a sense of vertigo in the player. Wood Man’s lair is sensibly in a dense forest crawling with robots that resemble animals. Flash Man’s stage is filled to the brim with lightbulbs that flash on and off. It ends up being the closest thing the game has to the standard ice stage due to its lack of friction. Having an overt mechanical theme, Metal Man’s stage takes many cues from classical clockwork motifs, featuring pendulums and conveyer belts, and the like. Crash Man could be considered the game’s only exception to its rule regarding design. Being Dr. Wily’s answer to Bomb Man, the stage also doesn’t have overt reference to explosives. Nonetheless, it is interestingly designed in that it involves climbing up a series of ladders as opposed to going right.
If the level design is the primary means by which this game excels, then the Robot Masters’ weapons are the icing on the cake. Mega Man amassed an impressive arsenal of weapons in the original game, but they were fairly standard weapons in that they brought to mind the four classical elements. This time, there was much more thought put into the weapons Mega Man could acquire. I say this because one of the Robot Masters’ weapons isn’t used to directly harm most enemies. Defeating Flash Man gives Mega Man the Time Stopper. True to its name, it freezes enemies and other hazards in place while Mega Man himself can slip by. There are two things to keep in mind when using it, however. You can neither deactivate it once you activate it nor fire a weapon as it is in use. Only when the energy gauge has been completely drained can you switch to another weapon.
Although not as dramatic as being able to stop enemies in their tracks, the other weapons have a little bit more to them than simply being elemental projectiles. Heat Man’s weapon, Atomic Fire, is notable for being the first chargeable weapon Mega Man can receive. By holding down the “B” button for a long enough time, the shot will inflict greater amounts of damage upon contact. You can use this knowledge to fell Wood Man in a single blow. Defeating Crash Man gives Mega Man the Crash Bomber. While the weapon is not terribly efficient in terms of energy consumption, it can be used to break open barriers often containing helpful items or shortcuts. Then, there’s also Wood Man’s Leaf Shield, which conjures a barrier around Mega Man made of damaging leaves.
However, that is all mere spectacle compared to Metal Man’s Metal Blade. Anyone who is familiar with them will tell you it is the single greatest weapon in the game. It’s not difficult to see why. Were you ever frustrated that Mega Man couldn’t shoot up or diagonally? This is where the frustration ends, for the Metal Blade can be fired in eight different directions. On top of that, they inflict significant amounts of damage against Bubble Man, Flash Man, and Wood Man. If that wasn’t enough, the weapon is incredibly efficient, taking four shots to drain a single tick of the energy gauge. If you’re feeling especially cheeky, you can reselect the weapon after firing three shots, which resets the counter, thus allowing four volleys once again.
By the sounds of things, it would appear that the Metal Blade completely trivializes the game’s difficulty. In practice, however, this is not true. Staying true to its predecessor, the best thing about this abstract interpretation of rock-paper-scissors is that you can’t take having the Robot Master’s weakness for granted. All of the Robot Masters are still markedly stronger than Mega Man, so attempting to win through sheer brute force without making even token attempts to dodge their attacks will result in his defeat every time. Their weaknesses can help a player who couldn’t normally defeat them win, but one still has to exercise caution. It especially wouldn’t do if you were to drain the weapon’s energy only to lose. In such a situation, you would likely have to repeat the stage.
If a player were to still proceed without caution, they would receive an especially rude awakening should they attempt to clear Quick Man’s stage. One might think Quick Man’s to be the stage to prominently feature conveyer belts to tie into his theme of speed, but it is expressed in a far more insidious manner. Quick Man’s stage has the opposite idea as Crash Man’s in that it involves Mega Man descending several screens as opposed to climbing a long series of ladders. While it is generally easier to move down than up, it is not so in this stage. Along the way down are several giant laser beams that instantly destroy Mega Man upon contact. There is no room for error when it comes to dodging them. If you hesitate even for a second, he is dead. It is for this reason that savvy players tend to go after Quick Man only if they have the Time Stopper to hand.
Although this isn’t a bad idea, they would then have to fight Quick Man without the Time Stopper. This would be disadvantageous to Mega Man because the Time Stopper happens to be Quick Man’s weakness. If the Time Stopper is fully charged, using it in Quick Man’s presence will drain half of his life meter. It can be used on other Robot Masters, but it doesn’t damage them, rendering such a gesture pointless. He also takes a fair bit of damage from the Crash Bomber and even Mega Man’s standard Mega Buster is surprisingly effective against him. Naturally, what makes him such a difficult boss is that actually hitting him is amazingly difficult. He leaps across the arena in such mesmerizingly fluid motions that he is incredibly difficult to predict. Coupled with the uneven surface of the arena, and you have yourself the single toughest Robot Master in the game.
The reason for Quick Man’s extreme difficulty is straightforward enough. Using Elec Man’s design as a base, Quick Man’s was programmed with a singular purpose: to kill Mega Man. Indeed, the development staff conceived his character to be Mega Man’s rival. This is subtly enforced when you look at the stage select screen. He is the only Robot Master who is grinning in his portrait. Furthermore, the boomerang adorning his head actually sticks outside of his box, further demonstrating his strong desire to fight Mega Man. In fact, if the developers specifically intended for him to be the toughest boss in the game, they ended up succeeding far better than they intended. Thanks to programming errors in his AI, his movements can become nigh-unpredictable. He clips into the wall, which causes his jumps to come to a dead stop, thus disrupting his attack patterns. Because there doesn’t exist a way to prevent it, you simply have to roll with the punches and hope your reflexes are up to the challenge.
Similar to the original Mega Man, defeating all of the Robot Masters allows the title character to assault Dr. Wily’s lair. However, this time, you actually get to see what it looks like from the outside. It is a large, skull-shaped castle in the middle of nowhere. As a nice touch, the stages within the castle are all represented on the screen displaying the castle as dots. This is highly similar to the world maps in Super Mario Bros. 3, though you don’t have an opportunity to select any of these stages yourself. Instead, the shape of the lines connecting the dots foreshadows what kind of route you can expect to take in a given stage.
Starting off with one of the greatest songs gaming history had known by 1988, stages taking place in Wily’s castle represent a significant spike in difficulty from the eight preceding it. Best of all, the first stage manages to stick the landing in the best way possible. You guide Mega Man down a dark corridor when all of a sudden, the screen begins to scroll by itself. As he advances down the hallway, a green flash appears on the left side of the screen. When it settles, a robotic dragon appears. The sheer size of this boss left a lasting impression upon audiences back in 1988. The idea of making such a large, detailed sprite without running into memory issues or lagging the game to unplayable speeds was borderline unfathomable, making this quite the technical achievement.
The battle itself is an excellent mixture of the two genres that forms the backbone of the gameplay. Before you can even retaliate against the dragon, Mega Man must reach the end of the hallway. If he’s too slow, the dragon is capable of felling him should the two collide. The arena then turns out to be a near-featureless void consisting of three platforms – each a single tile in size. From here, you must dodge the dragon’s projectiles while negotiating the platforms. Although this sounds incredibly difficult, it is surprisingly forgiving. This is because Mega Man isn’t knocked back several feet by an enemy projectile. As long as he is reasonably close to the left side of a platform, he won’t fall off. Better yet, due to the dragon’s susceptibility to Quick Man’s Quick Boomerangs, it’s easy to simply stand upon the top platform and hit it from there. Even if the dragon is deceptively easy to defeat, its grand entrance suggests to players that things are just getting started.
Admittedly, the rest of the castle is a little hit-or-miss in terms of quality. While the challenges do successfully build upon the great level design present in the rest of the game, the castle stages are littered with portions that are more annoying than challenging. In order to get this far, Mega Man will have defeated Bubble Man. Defeating him gives Mega Man the Bubble Lead. Conforming to its nomenclature, this weapon shoots a bubble that crawls across the ground, thereby leading Mega Man. While it can defeat Heat Man handily, what you will really use it for is to seek out the false floors in the third Wily stage. False floors are simply platforms with no collision detection, so if Mega Man walks across it, he falls – usually into a spike pit. It’s unknown why so many developers decided to implement this gimmick in their games. Unless stated within the game itself, players wouldn’t have any reason to believe they exist, making it a cheap way to take away a life or two. Granted, the fact that there exists a spike pit above what appears to be solid ground might be a hint, but it’s still irritating.
In fact, while I do give the team a lot of credit for coming up with creative weapons, there is no getting around that a few of them won’t see much use outside of boss fights. The Crash Bomber is more useful for destroying weak walls than it is for combat. You will later find out that using it is mandatory for taking out one of the bosses within Dr. Wily’s castle. In fact, said boss cannot be harmed by anything other than the Crash Bomber. A similar situation occurs at the very end of the game when you’re facing off against the final boss. The weakness of the final boss is the unwieldly Bubble Lead. Because the boss has a tendency to float in the air, the only way to land a hit is to get right next to it, running the risk of colliding every time you fire. In both cases, if you run out of the respective weapon’s energy, you cannot win the battle at all.
To be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as the Magnet Beam situation from the original Mega Man because the player is guaranteed to have the required weapons by the time the title character assaults Dr. Wily’s castle. They wouldn’t have to revisit an earlier stage in order to pick up an item they need to win, for example. Not only that, but expending all of the lives will completely restore his weapons’ energy upon choosing “CONTINUE”. The only real consequence is being forced to start the stage over from the beginning because the game doesn’t even have points to score. Regardless, having to face two tricky bosses with the energy-inefficient Crash Bomber and the otherwise useless Bubble Lead does put a slight damper on what is otherwise a solid endgame.
Indeed, one of the many reasons why Mega Man 2 is such a standout effort is because of its endgame. This was an era in which many developers clearly put more effort into earlier stages than later ones. Considering how fiendishly difficult many games from the 1980s were, such a philosophy makes sense. After all, why put effort into designing a great tenth or eleventh stage when most players can’t get past the first three? When playing their game, Mr. Kitamura and his team clearly expected players to get through the entire experience.
My favorite aspect of the stages in Dr. Wily’s castle appears in fifth section. Just to get this far, you will have defeated eight Robot Masters. The difficulty of the stages varied, but you would need great timing and reflexes in order to prove victorious. This stage then ups the ante by forcing players to rematch all eight of them in a row. This development clearly drew inspiration from the first game and how the second and fourth stages pit Mega Man against the six Robot Masters. The main difference is that you can choose the order in which you rematch the eight Robot Masters in Mega Man 2, but the effect is the same. Unlike when you first encountered them, this time, you will bear all of their weaknesses. Suddenly, the bosses that likely gave you difficulties can be defeated in a matter of seconds. Although Mega Man 2 is fairly short, this was an excellent way to demonstrate how much experience he, and by extension, the player, accumulated over the course of the game. And even if the final obstacle Dr. Wily has to throw at you is something of a pain to deal with, seeing the battle through to the end is immensely satisfying.
Drawing a Conclusion
The 1980s is, in practice, a decade I find I respect more than actively enjoy. I can respect the creators for thinking outside of the box, but it, by its very nature, happened to be an era in which what does and doesn’t make for an ideal experience wasn’t clear. You would get all of these genuinely forward-looking, experimental titles, yet many of them were weighed down by a litany of bad design choices. It wasn’t particularly fun being given an adventure game that allowed you to explore freely only to also have the capacity to render it unwinnable, for example. It also didn’t make for a great experience to be handed a platformer with unpolished controls and questionable hit detection only to be implicitly told to soldier on through. Because of this, I feel many of these games are only heralded as classics because they hail from a time in which the sole alternative was to play nothing at all.
With that context, and given the Mega Man series’ reputation for its high difficulty, it would be easy to assume such a description applies to Mega Man 2 as well. If anybody ever came down to such a conclusion, I can assure them that it’s incorrect. While the game does have a few issues, it is remarkably more sophisticated than a majority of its contemporaries. Platforming titles such as Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden were admirable efforts for their time, yet a significant portion of their challenge stemmed from erratic enemy placement along with the limited means by which you could defend yourself from them. This is not so with Mega Man 2; while there will be a few developments that can catch a newcomer off-guard, there is a real sense of fair play to its challenge. As long as your reflexes are good, they should carry you through a majority of the experience. If not, then you will eventually develop the required muscle memory required to clear the stages anyway. If nothing else, the fact that you’re given such a wide array of weapons ensures even the most difficult situations can be dealt with; all it takes is a little ingenuity.
Comparing still screencaps of Mega Man 2 to those of its direct predecessor may also lead the uninitiated to believe is it nothing more than a token sequel. It does lift numerous art assets from the original while retaining the same basic gameplay, yet playing Mega Man 2 directly afterwards reveals that it is remarkably more sophisticated. Mr. Kitamura and his team saw a lot of untapped potential in the original Mega Man and, in a mere four months, created something to fully realize it. The result, while identifiably a product of the late 1980s, still manages to be remarkably ahead of its time in many areas. Because of this, Mega Man 2 is easily a game I could recommend to anyone. Veterans will love its pure focus on gameplay, and its challenge, though real, isn’t at all hostile to newcomers. Not many games from the 1980s can claim to have stood the test of time, but Mega Man 2 is doubtlessly one of them.
Final Score: 8/10