I honestly didn't plan on responding to this month's Community Assignment until just a couple of days ago. You're all more than aware of my love for the Mega Man series, so my harping yet again about robots and jumping through boss doors and villains who may or may not actually be evil seemed like it would be rather redundant. Besides, Mega Man 2 is such a popular game -- I assumed that at least a couple of folks would want to write about it.
But here we are, the last day of September, and not a single Mega Man-themed musing. I ought to be happy that no one went for the low-hanging fruit, yet the lack of even a single post of either the "Mega" or "Man" variety has left me feeling anxious. How can I sleep at night knowing that words about things haven't been written?
So now you're going to sit there while I prattle on like a five-year-old who has just figured out that people will pay attention to him as long as he keeps making sounds with his mouth.
This isn't the first time I've offered my thoughts on which Mega Man games reign supreme. Five years back, I gave a list of reasons why Mega Man 6 is objectively the best in the Classic series. In celebration of the franchise's 25th anniversary, I explained why Mega Man X is objectively the best in the overall franchise. You've probably gathered that neither of those are Mega Man 2. Am I having trouble keeping my story straight?
Yes, Mega Man 6 and X are indeed fine videogames, and I enjoy them dearly. But neither have affected me as much as Mega Man 2, which had as much an impact on my childhood as would an inspiring high school teacher or a whirlwind summertime romance. It was the start of a relationship that would become an unending source of joy, comfort, and reassurance well into my adult years.
I did play the original first, by the way. This was back when I was living in Japan, where my dad played baseball for Yokohama (that's another good story, by the way!). I was hanging over at a friend's place, and he introduced me to the Family Computer. He showed off a few games, like Contra -- the Contra series would eventually become one of my top game franchises as well -- but Mega Man (or Rockman, as it were) was the one that really captured my imagination.
I mean, what little boy doesn't like robots? And these weren't just robots; they were, like, superhero robots! And their world was just so colorful and bright, and they had these cute little faces that even in 8-bit pixel form were unfathomably expressive. I sometimes let Rock stand motionless for an extended period, taking pleasure in his simple blinking animation. He felt alive, truly alive.
I enjoyed being able to tackle any boss in any order I wanted. If I couldn't get past one part, I'd just try somewhere else -- a good thing, too, because I never could get past the stupid flippers in Guts Man's level. Speaking of which, "Guts Man"? That's a bizarre name, preschool-age me wondered.
When I finally received a Family Computer on my fourth birthday, my parents bundled it with Rockman 2 rather than 1. I never did get my own copy of Rockman until just recently, and once we left Japan, I never had an opportunity to play it again until I was in eighth grade. Had it been packed with my Famicom instead of the sequel, it very well could have been the game I now fondly recall as my favorite of all time.
No, it was Rockman 2 rockin' my cartridge slot. Everything I remembered loving about the first was amplified tenfold here -- the freedom to choose the stage order, the bizarre environments, the super cool bosses with their awesome weapons that I could use on other bosses. I especially loved the grid-based password system, jotting down passwords on loose paper or even concocting mnemonics in order to memorize certain dot patterns.
By the way, want to know a secret that very few people are aware of? Here, check this out:
That's the Japanese Rockman 2 box. Cool, right? Stomps all over the European and American covers! What you probably don't know is that there is secret artwork on the inside flaps, and the only way to see it is to open the box from both ends.
On one side, you've got Baby Rock with a pacifier and rattle:
On the other side, you've got Teen Rock wearing a bomber jacket and jeans:
Rock is supposed to be a robot, yes? And robots aren't supposed to age, yes? Obviously, these were just fun pieces drawn up by character designer Keiji Inafune, but I wasn't aware of any of that at such an impressionable young age.
To me, this cemented the idea that Rock was a living person. And not only that, he was just a kid like me! While other game heroes were big, burly men or oddball cartoon characters, this Rock "Boy" was a sprightly youth living every boy's dream of being a crime fighter. He probably went to school and had friends he wanted to protect. Maybe he could be my friend!
And so a connection was made between me and the helmeted hero on the other side of the screen. I would commit his exploits to paper with my trusty Coupy Pencils, then I would pick the controller back up and try my hand at Dr. Wily's fortress for the umpteenth time.
Unlike other games that seemed so exciting back when you were a child, only to lose nearly all of their luster when reexamined as an adult, Mega Man 2 has stood the test of time for anybody who ever gave the Blue Bomber a sporting chance. And 25 years after my first encounter, I continue to find reasons to love this timeless classic.
The domains of the Robot Masters are just so... ambiguous, even by NES standards. Everyone understands that the limited hardware of the time resulted in very vague approximations of what people and places were intended to look like, thus it was up to players to "fill in the blanks" and bring the world to life. Even so, it was clear in many games what most objects were supposed to represent -- a car, a dog, a forest, a desolate city street.
Mega Man 2, however, took that ambiguousness to unprecedented heights. Consider Heat Man's stage -- no, really, consider it! What is it? The brick pattern and round wall portals suggest a sewer of sorts, but what sewer is filled with magma rather than water? Or what about Quick Man's tower? The floors and backgrounds are a curious assembly of grooves and panels that scream "generic sci-fi studio set."
And my personal favorite: Flash Man's stage. I guess it's supposed to be some sort of crystal cavern, right? But let's fast-forward to Mega Man 5 and that game's Crystal Man, who also resides in a crystal cavern. Compare the levels side by side:
Crystal Man's cave has the more cohesive theme -- this is a facility to mine precious jewels. It's very rich in detail, which is great for showcasing the team's familiarity with the NES hardware after so many years. But Flash Man's "cave," as basic as it is, has more of a "fun house" quality. It certainly doesn't look like a place that could exist in the real world.
This isn't a bad thing! Whereas other NES games show the chinks in their armor with failed facsimiles of the real, Mega Man 2 is a playground for the dreamer. Its world is an abstraction, so rather than lose its luster as the decades tick by, it retains its attractiveness because it's whatever you imagine it to be. It's the reason Mega Man 2 can remain so visually appealing even though its sequels objectively improved in the art department.
On the topic of improvements, Mega Man 2 is not a perfect game by any stretch. It's flawed, and extremely so. As the story goes, Mega Man 2 was a passion project -- the first game didn't sell well by Capcom's expectations, but the higher-ups allowed the team to go forward with a sequel only if they worked on it in their spare time. The finished project is clearly the result of a rushed development cycle, sporting many troublesome design choices that wouldn't fly if the game were made today.
The mile-long disappearing block marathon in Heat Man's stage? At least you could acquire a jet board from Air Man in order to bypass it. The Boobeam Trap in the fourth Wily stage? Unless you know exactly where to plant the Crash Bombers, beating this boss will almost always require you to die once in order to refill your weapons meter before replaying the battle.
But those are what made the game so great! The team knew they had one final chance to demonstrate that there was real value in this property, so they packed as many ideas and concepts as they could. Some may call it rough around the edges; I call it raw, pure, honest. And history has shown that those risks paid off in spades -- Mega Man 2's flaws are remembered not as game-killers but as unique quirks.
I could continue to list the areas where Mega Man 2 succeeded as a game, but the truth is that it's more than a game to me. I'm happy that there is a consensus of high quality, but that's true of many games. On a personal level, Mega Man 2 is incomparable.
When Capcom dropped the ax on Mega Man Legends 3, it stirred such profound emotions that I had to convey them in a heartfelt farewell letter. Since that post, I've come to realize that Rock is like the friend who moved out of state but still drops by to visit now and then. At least I can replay any of his past adventures and never be bored. And whenever we get together, I can recall the key events in my life, both happy and sad, which always seem to be tightly intertwined with a particular playthrough or game release or action figure sighting at an anime shop in San Francisco.
And I have Mega Man 2 to thank for that.