Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mega Man 2

A year or so had passed since Mega Man first graced the Nintendo Entertainment System, and its sales had been less than spectacular. The game wasn't even that bad, so perhaps it was just dumb luck preventing the title from really catching on. Regardless, Capcom hesitantly decided to go ahead and make a sequel to see if it would fare any better than the first. They knew they liked what they had on their hands, but if the public wasn't buying, what can you do? So if Mega Man 2 was successful, they could justify the series. If not, I suppose it was time to throw in the towel. Mega Man 2: This time, the fate of the franchise lies in your hands.

Choose your archetype.Regarding the game's internal plot, things are more or less the same as the first time around. Whereas the background of the first game was that Dr. Wily had stolen and reprogrammed the game's six robot bosses, the intro for Mega Man 2 states that after his defeat (when you inexplicably walked away from him, letting him go where he pleased) Dr. Wily created eight robots of his own in an effort to destroy Mega Man and conquer the world. Which is no surprise, really. We're talking about, as you might recall, the quite literal Albert Einstein of the engineering world, and he just happens to be a total jerk. This is why you don't let villains go free when you beat them. At the very least you throw them in jail. Even the "I'm not gonna kill anyone but I'll use a really gruff voice to make you think I might" Batman realizes this point. Why can't a robot whose sole purpose in existence is to protect humanity from this sort of thing?

The good news, if the stage select screen is any indication, is that Dr. Wily created the eight "Robot Masters" out of whatever he happened to have lying around. I guess he couldn't be troubled to get high quality parts, or maybe couldn't afford to really go all out with it. So he decided to take a floor fan and put some eyes on it. Some lumber and stick a microchip in the top. You know, whatever works.

Bunny bats.And for the rest of his robot army, the standards were even lower. Giant bats lie in wait for you in the forests, eager to fly off screen harmlessly when you least expect it. Scary, isn't it? Many of the standard robots from the first game make a return here. Particularly worth noting is the hard hat robot, which hides under its hat until you get near, and then reveals itself to shoot you. Then it retreats again. This thing would become synonymous with Mega Man games over time, and is one of the most memorable "standard" enemies in the game regardless of the fact that it's one of the most basic things you'll see. But hey, we remember Goombas and Koopa Troopas pretty well too, so I guess there's something to be said for the little guys.

In addition to the sharper graphics, one of the first things you notice as you play Mega Man 2 is that music is really quite good. The music in the first game was fine, but I also can't sit here and say that I actually remember any of the tunes or how they went. Mega Man 2, by contrast, has a few really great numbers, particularly on the first Dr. Wily stage. Which is a bit of a surprise (although perhaps it shouldn't be), because when we look for stellar video game music, we often tend toward games like RPGs that are trying to set up an "epic" kind of atmosphere. So bravo Mega Man 2 for saying, through your music, "I am what I am, and this song is gonna kick ass anyway."

Water torture.But what doesn't kick ass is a water level. The first Mega Man didn't have one (though it did have an ice stage, which is bad enough), so you might enter this game lulled into a false sense of security. Don't be fooled! Mega Man 2 will submerge you, assault you with robotic fish and...metroids...before finally pitting you against the stage's boss, also totally underwater. The only good news is the lack of a need to breathe, which I assume is a product of your being an android. Or "super robot" as the game calls you. I trusted you, Mega Man. I trusted you to be the one game character who didn't have to go underwater to prove himself. But you just had to sink down to that level, didn't you?

That all said, the stages do have nice, distinct feels to them. Air Man's level takes place, predictably, entirely in the sky on various platforms. You'll even have to ride on robotic clouds to get through part of it (which might be a little overboard in the story department. Why is Dr. Wily manufacturing robotic clouds?) There's a good deal of challenge and outright panic from lasers in a stage or two as well. When you enter a given screen, laser beams will begin to fire. These kill you on contact, so the goal is to pass the screen before the lasers block your ability to do so. You'll probably die quite a bit, and it's very hectic, but an interesting concept.

Item the Third.The weapons system is all snazzied up now as well. Now you get a screen telling you the name of each weapon when you acquire it, and showing Mega Man's suit change colors. Oooooooh. At three different points along the way, Dr. Light will interrupt you on this screen to tell you that an "item" has been completed. The only way to have any idea what these items are is to use them in the game, and figure it out from there, which is a little confusing initially. Each one is helpful though, as Item-1 creates a platform that rises when jumped upon, Item-2 creates a platform that moves forward laterally, and Item-3 creates a platform that crawls up the sides of walls. The game will force you use all of these at some point or other to progress, even if only to justify their existence in the game.

There are also now energy tanks to be found in the game, or E-tanks for short. These are found in often hard to reach places in the levels, and are collected for use at any time down the road. Opening the pause menu will show how many E-tanks you have, and using one will completely fill Mega Man's life bar. This is a great addition for difficult bosses and the like. Enemy special weapons also bear more use outside of boss battles. While the convention of having each weapon be extra effective against a specific boss remains, now some standard enemies can only be damaged by special weapons. There are more weapon-specific shortcuts through stages to be found as well. While you still don't really know what weapon will help in what way outside of trial and error, the fact that they have added worth is a bonus.

Trauma.But what would a Mega Man game be without gobs of spikes waiting to obliterate you with a single poke? Mega Man 2 turns up the spike content of the game, culminating with rooms like the one at right. Here you must wait for the little platform to go around its winding track to drop from your ladder safely. Then you must ride it around, jumping strategically at various points to avoid certain spiky death, all while avoiding the enemies that fly in at you from the sides of the screen (and they will continuously spawn if you kill them). This goes on for a few screens in a row, and it's quite traumatizing if you happen to have a paralyzing fear of stationary pointy objects. Personally, I now shudder any time I see a conical piece of metal, and I blame Mega Man for it.

With all this, you'd think the game's difficulty would be significantly higher than its predecessor, but you'll be pleasantly surprised. For one thing, in a move of typical Japanese gaming arrogance, Capcom made an easier difficulty level for the North American release of the game. Rather than call this mode "Easy," they called it "Normal" and made the original product "Difficult." Yet even on "Difficult" mode, the game isn't as hard as the first. Part of this is from the E-tank and added weapon functionality. Part of this is a tighter control that means Mega Man doesn't scoot as much when walking as he used to, which was a minor problem the first time around. But the main advantage was the password system. As the game still lacked a save function, players could now write down passwords that contained which stages they had completed (and therefore what equipment they had), as well as how many E-tanks they possessed, allowing them to pick up where they left off after any length of time. It was a great idea and helped buck the notion that "real games" had to be played start to finish all at once.

Global Guts.By the Dr. Wily stages at the end of the game, you've encountered a lot of enjoyable content. Which is why it's pretty satisfying to see the triumphant return of Gutsman from the first game, now in tank form. He also launches those hard hat bots at you, which is a great if silly way to lay on the attack. The only really confusing thing is his size. If Dr. Wily just grafted his upper half onto some tank treads, as it would appear, then how is he so big? Wasn't he just barely taller than Mega Man in the first place? Either way, he's one of a few memorable bosses at the end of the game, the others being a dragon and Dr. Wily himself.

And that fight is interesting, because after enduring the long battle with Wily's new big riding contraption, he leaps out all kung fu style, in slow motion even, with wind blowing his hair and labcoat. And then he transforms into a flying alien and starts shooting you. What in the world. It's a great twist, and even cooler when you defeat him and realize what's actually going on (I won't ruin what, but suffice it to say appearances can be deceiving). But infuriatingly, you let him go. Again. Artificial intelligence my butt.

Mega Man 2's improvements to the formula weren't drastic and didn't alter the feel of the game, but there is no doubt that they were all important and successful. The public must have noticed, because the game caught on like wildfire and suddenly Capcom felt justified in keeping the series alive. Mega Man 2 is not a perfect game, and possibly not even an excellent game, but it had to be good in order to survive, and it definitely is, and definitely is better than the first. Check it out if you haven't already.

Bottom Line: 15/20

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