Monday, August 15, 2011

Mega Man 2

Quite possibly the greatest example of an NES game produced outside of Nintendo's own R&D labs (a few other 3rd party games spring to mind as well, but this one holds a special place in my heart). Mega Man 2 featured eight stages which can be played in any order, each of which altered the way you could play each subsequent stage you'd select. These were followed by a more traditionally linear set of five stages, one after the other in a set order, which topped almost anything in the first eight stages in terms of challenge, and required certain power-ups in some places, which meant that every shot made with these had to be rationed over multiple stages. Every stage in the game was a themed excursion through a manga-style cartoon robot world running around and jumping and shooting at things and making them blow up. You were, in a very real sense, doing what you'd only be watching on a Saturday morning cartoon - and on any day of the week. For a NES game of its time, the graphics and sound were pretty darn impressive.

Every stage in Mega Man 2 was, like every Mega Man game, hard, even on the watered-down "normal" difficulty that was put in for us lesser-skilled Americans. (considering the tendency of many early NES games to be ridiculously unforgiving and difficult in general, probably not a bad move) Maybe they're not so hard now to some folks, if only because we've played through them zillions of times. Or we knew about some optimal path through the game which essentially made it a relatively easy but just as enjoyable linear set of stages to be progressed through one after the other. Or we had the relevant issues of Nintendo Power at our disposal. Or we were able to consult with the oracles at the Nintendo Game Counselor hotline without getting into too much trouble when the next phone bill arrived in the mail. Or we had friends who had already beaten the game and weren't too much of a dick about it.

At any rate, the high concept of this game is simply genius, as evidenced by its subsequent rehashing-to-death by Capcom in Mega Mans 3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and 10. And also a few outside attempts at clones/variations, such as 8 Eyes. One aspect to this design is that you really could play through the game in any order, because the stages could all, at least with some skill, be played through as the first stage, without any extra power-ups. Getting the power-ups makes them all easier in different ways, and this is in turn makes the game more enjoyable.

And those last few stages in Dr. Wily's castle? They address a common flaw I find in many sandbox-style games where the player gets progressively too powerful over time and just starts rolling over everything by the end - which can be fun for a while, but can also really detract from the game's replayability on the whole. While there is a sense of "yeah, take that you bastards" in these games, in subsequent play-throughs it just becomes less of a challenge - you've more or less beaten the game at that point and are just mopping up, so to speak. Every trip through Dr. Wily's castle is equally challenging because the game is set up that way. It knows that by that point you've got everything and so it "goes Castlevania" on you a bit and falls back on a more linear level structure and also breaks out the harder level elements that couldn't be included in the earlier stages, which each have to be beatable without any power-ups.

Even now, over 20 years later, it's still an enjoyable game to pop in, play a level or two, and then just leave the level select screen on in the background and go do something else. It's a game that can be played in 5-10 minute spurts, much like a casual game. It really is a core game at heart, though, and has been known to result in hour+ marathons of playing the game through beginning to end. It is one of those rare labors of love combined balanced with a very professional treatment; and that, I'd say, was a key factor in its longevity and legacy.

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