Mega Man 2 ReviewJonathan Stark
In my first Mega Man review, I established a new standard for myself when it comes to judging the series. I surmised that the essence of Mega Man stems from its bosses. The rest of the game, from stage layout to how the weapons handle, is based so firmly around the concept of the Robot Masters that you can tell how good a Mega Man title is based on an assessment of them. These bosses, I argue, are unique in each title, and these groupings are what give each game its own individual, nostalgic itch that old school gamers still feel the need to occasionally scratch.
That brings us to Mega Man 2. When the first game was released, it was to a fair amount of acclaim but not financial success. With the second game, Capcom decided that they would allow the same team to make it, but with the stipulation that they had to do it on their own time. Capcom maintained that the bigger priorities were the upcoming Legendary Wings port for the NES and (get ready) Professional Baseball Murder Mystery. I can only imagine it was the first in a planned series of sports-related whodunits, that eventually would have included such titles as Professional Go Murder Mystery and Professional Golf Murder: Tiger in the Woods. It all worked out in the end, of course. Mega Man 2 went on to become Capcom's highest grossing title for years to come and Professional Baseball Murder Mystery went on to become a footnote on Wikipedia.
Mega Man 2 is often called the best of the original series. Its popularity has not diminished over the years-it is Mega Man 2 which is often cited as the basis for the design of the newest Mega Man titles developed for download play. Many fans call it the most satisfying of the 8-bit games, saying it features the best stages and Robot Masters, and claiming that it strikes a delicate balance between stages that present a fair challenge and level design that keeps things fun, hitting that classic Mega Man g-spot.
I am now going to say something that may gain me instant infamy amongst Mega Man fans: Mega Man 2 is my least favorite game of the original series. I do not say this lightly or because it is against the norm and therefore hip. I say this after having carefully played through all of the stages multiple times and realizing that the majority of Mega Man 2's challenge comes not from tight design, but from cheap tricks. I'll point these out as we go along.
First, let's talk about what Mega Man 2 does right. The controls are extremely smooth and remove the horrible drift of the last title. This is a huge improvement and was a nice raising of the bar for platformers in general at the time, even showing up Mario in the control department. Though I have died many times in Mega Man 2, I have never died due to control issues. The other thing that's great is the color palette. Gone are the dismal greys and puke greens of Mega Man. Every level is vibrant, each boss stands out, and every screen is easy on the eyes, even today. And the music, of course, is iconic, with Stage One of Wily's Castle having gained special recognition amongst fans as possibly the greatest theme of the NES era. The controls and outstanding presentation are what were specifically carried over into Mega Man 9 and 10 . They were things done undeniably right. I'm prepared to offer a lot of praise on those accounts.
I'm also prepared to talk about some of what went wrong.
Quick Man 3/5
Two words I have to put out here immediately: Force Beams. Don't know what I'm talking about? There's this segment in Quick Man's stage where you have to fall through several screens of platforms in a set pattern before force beams fly across the screen and kill you. Those two words might as well have been "instant death," because even if you know the pattern, it is incredibly difficult to get past this section. It almost seems based on luck. Land just a hair-breadth off target or move a second too late and you're done. Many people use the Time Stopper here instead of on Quick Man himself, just to give them a chance to win. Even then, you can still die easily. This section is definitely beatable and even a fun challenge once you know the pattern, but it contains dark hints of the future. It is a sign of the "one correct path" design that will end up plaguing the design sensibility of other stages and especially Wily's Castle. Ironically, Quick Man himself has no pattern and just bounces around his room like nuts chucking boomerangs until you out-shoot him. Why boomerangs? I don't know.
Crash Man 2/5
The developers painted themselves in a corner with this guy's name. Like Guts Man, I don't know what this guy is supposed to represent. Does he crash into stuff? Why does he have drills for arms? He shoots what are apparently "crash bombs." What distinguishes a crash bomb from a regular bomb? Crash Man's stage is the one that most resembles the hodge-podge aesthetics of the first game, with little to distinguish it. There's pipes, conveyor belts, and a section where you inexplicably climb into space. This also introduces another frustrating aspect of Mega Man 2's stage layout: long simplicity. Long simplicity is best displayed in one section where you have to ride conveyer belts up to a ladder. There is no skill involved in this and no real risk, either. Fall off the belt and you land on solid ground. What will knock you off the belt? Nothing, really. The enemies that come after you are slow and easy to hit. You have to completely mess up in order to fall. The only thing this belt achieves is to drag out a stage for longer than it's worth and to provide an annoying buffer to progress if you happen to die on the harder sections after these periods of long simplicity.
Metal Man 5/5
I have no complaints with Metal Man or his stage. Indeed, this is an appropriately-themed stage that doesn't have any design flaws. One of the most memorable sections involves making your way through a constant barrage of drills that emerge from the floors and ceilings. They are endless, so this leaves you with two options: either destroy as many drills as you can and then inch your way forward before the next onslaught, or recklessly and quickly dodge your way through any opening they leave. Both options are fun and executable and this section is a predecessor to the strategic choices offered in later additions to the series. I'd also be remiss if I didn't give an honorable mention to the Metal Blades powerup. The Blades highlight the solid controls of the game, easily being thrown in any direction at a time in gaming when doing anything diagonal usually meant abounding frustration and occasional thumb blisters. They are also effective against FOUR Robot Masters: Wood Man, Bubble Man, Flash Man, and Metal Man himself. That's half of the Masters! No other weapon in the series has that range of effectiveness.
Heat Man 4/5
Heat Man, along with Quick Man, has the distinction of having the first truly cheap stage in Mega Man history. The disappearing blocks make their one and only appearance here and there is little chance, on first playthrough, that you will survive their segment without abounding luck. There is a section over deadly fire where the blocks appear in a pre-arranged but completely nonsensical pattern and until you've memorized the pattern you'll have no idea where to jump next. The staff seemed aware of this and provided an out: if you have "item 2" you can fly over this section without much effort. This is a fair throwback to the Magnet beam from Mega Man 1, which you could use to help bypass the difficult Guts Man stage and segments of the last levels of the game. Again, it's a precursor to dark horizons, as special item use will become frustratingly mandatory in Wily's Castle. As for Heat Man, I think everyone likes him because he's a walking Zippo lighter. The one thing that confuses me about him is that he was never made into an action figure alongside Cut Man and Bomb Man. Maybe Nintendo was afraid it would encourage drug use in children?
Wood Man 3/5
What I like about Wood Man is that they went all out on keeping him themed. Everything from his leaf shield ability to his forested level showcases what he's about and makes playing his stage a visual treat. The level borders a little bit on the long simplicity of Crash Man's stage, with a number of basically harmless or very easily passed segments. Good platforming has been eschewed here in exchange for gauntlets of enemies, but the theme carries it through nonetheless. Wood Man provides a solid ending boss to the gauntlet, even if you do have the Metal Blades. Unfortunately, the reward isn't great. Wood Man's shield power prevents you from moving without losing it and takes a surprising amount of power to activate. It's not often that enemies swarm you, so overall it's a power that doesn't see a lot of action, despite the idea being cool.
Air Man 5/5
Forget Guts Man, I would have made Air Man the Capcom poster boy. He's one of the more memorable of the Robot Masters due to his squat shape and propeller-stomach. His stage is one of three in the game that was built with platforming consistently in mind. There are plenty of pits, a few tricky jumps, and enemies you have to shoot mid-air or be knocked out of the sky by. Playing it definitely gives you that adrenaline rush that we associate with the best of Mega Man and I point to it as a compilation of everything that's right with Mega Man 2. Gone is the long simplicity, there's no cheap tricks or sections that require memorization over skill. The focus here is instead on keeping on your toes, and responding as fast as you can to changing situations and enemy patterns, usually paired with the threat of instant death from falling. It requires skill, but there isn't one right way of doing things that leaves you stuck if you don't figure it out.
Bubble Man 3/5
Bubble Man's stage has outlived its Master, in terms of infamy. He's a guy in a scuba suit who cannot move except by jumping and he fires deadly bubbles at you. His stage, on the other hand, is the first truly aquatic stage and it goes all out in playing with the setting, throwing fish and shrimp enemies at you and messing ith the gravity-most memorably by forcing Mega Man through long rows of deadly spikes which require precise jumping. It's the perfect challenge for a game that controls as well as Mega Man 2 and a great showcase of how much more creative you can get when your game controls smoothly.
Flash Man 2/5
Mega Man 2 had some of the oddest named Robot Masters. What the heck is a Flash Man and what the heck should we build his stage around? Flash Man's stage is not much better than Crash Man's, in that it is completely forgettable. Its layout is more interesting since it's set up like a maze-but it's a maze without a point or a wrong turn. Very few enemies inhabit the maze so it doesn't really matter which path you take, unless you're looking to snag an easy energy tank. I'd even say it's a good place to stock up on an energy tanks, but you can't revisit stages in Mega Man 2 so, nope-it's just a pointless maze. Flash Man does have a rather unique power: he can freeze time. It's a power you gain when you defeat him but it ends up being useful only in very specific areas of the game, since it can't be turned off once activated, nor can you fire any weapon while using it. So basically a "once per level" kind of weapon that can actually get you stuck taking damage in certain areas where enemies block the path forward.
Wily's Castle 0/5
It's telling that most reviews of Mega Man 2 focus on praising the eight Robot stages and make no mention of the final run through the castle. Mix together long simplicity with enemy gauntlets and "the one right path" and you get the cheapest, nastiest form of generated challenge; a challenge that comes strictly from unfair design and not from testing your actual dexterity or gaming abilities. On top of this, Wily's stage introduces a new element to the platforming genre: grinding for power refills. And it's not even feasible grinding. The enemies you have to grind against are some of the toughest in the game, often taking many hits and fine dodging skills to destroy, only to leave nothing behind. But grind with them you will, or be doomed to failure.
I'm not just saying this to be overly cautious. It's not just a good idea to have full power at all times in Wily's Castle, it's often necessary. The developers went overboard with their new "item powers," that create things like moving platforms, making it mandatory that you use them during several segments. And then there's the Stage Four boss, one of the worst bosses in video game history. This boss, which is comprised of 6 glowing half-spheres, can only be damaged by one weapon: the Crash Bomb. Most of the spheres are hidden behind walls, which can also only be damaged by the Crash Bombs. Unfortunately, you don't have enough Crash Bombs in one power bar to take out everything in the room.
The gimmick here was to make players have to figure out the right order of using your Bombs. If you do it right, you can just take out the boss with your last shot. Unfortunately, the right answer is so convoluted and requires such precise use of one of the item powers that many gamers, when we reached this room as kids, didn't know how to proceed. So we figured out an alternative. If you use the Crash Bomb to blow the walls and then die, the walls stay destroyed. Dying lets you grab a couple of power refills at the beginning of the stage; then you have to march through a long section that (despite the presence of spikes) is incredibly hard to die during; before you can finally return to the room to beat the boss. Sounds doable, unless you were like me on my playthrough. I innocently grabbed those refills when I started the stage, and then naively used the Crash Bomb on the gauntlet of difficult enemies guarding the boss room (none of whom dropped any power ups). So when I restarted, those power ups were gone and I was fresh out of Crash Bomb ammo and out of luck. I'd accumulated nine lives by this point. I had to kill myself nine times to try again with full Crash Bombs. And when you die, you also lose all of your accumulated energy tanks. This loss would soon come back to haunt me.
When has any other boss in Mega Man history been immune to all but one kind of weapon? And why were there no recharges in sight or easy enemies to grind against? That's not everything, either. The boss shoots at Mega Man so quickly that the only legitimate way to dodge the shots is to rapidly pause and unpause the game, which causes Mega Man to flicker for just a half-second of invincibility. Capcom apparently agreed that this glitch is a necessary element to the fight because, while they took pains to remove a similar glitch from rereleases of Mega Man 1, they left this one in for future versions of Mega Man 2.
The real pain, though, is that this is the last stage in which you can grab any sort of power up. Once you've beaten this boss, you're zoomed off to Stage Five, where you have to not only beat every Robot Master again, but then fight two forms of Dr. Wily before you get to another check point. Worse, Dr. Wily has specifically been designed to almost always require at least one energy tank to defeat.
It's clear what the developers wanted gamers to do. They wanted them to gather all of the energy tanks throughout the various Wily Stages and then make it all the way to Wily and defeat him on three lives; something a gamer will never do on their first time through the game. Can you imagine the pain of a child who, after spending nearly two hours struggling their way to Wily, slowly figuring out the castle stages and counting each victory as a great success against the odds, realizes he has to reset the game and start over if he's going to have a chance at winning? That's not rewarding design. That's contentious design. That's design that has it out for you and any future gamers that may spring from your loins.
Mega Man 2 deserves all of the praise that it receives for controlling well and for amazing presentation. What I think goes overlooked in this praise is that it makes a lot of the same mistakes that caused people to shy away from its predecessor in latter years. There are still a handful of random and unspecific Robot Masters that lead, consequently, to a few levels based around random and unspecific themes. And I would claim that the powerups have actually have taken a step backwards. The first Mega Man had the Guts Fist, the number one most useless weapon in the series, but every other weapon was viable and you cycled through them frequently in Wily's Castle. In Mega Man 2, it feels as though Capcom started out with some clever ideas for powers and then couldn't get the balance right and dumbed a lot of them down, leaving you the Metal Blades as your Swiss Army Knife. Otherwise, you get a wood shield that doesn't let you move, a fire shot that's useless unless you charge it, a time stopper that you can't deactivate or shoot while it's turned on, and boomerangs that go pretty much wherever the heck they want to.
Furthermore, Mega Man 2 compounds these issues with unfair design. Note that I don't say challenging design. I don't mind challenge, but most of the levels and bosses lack it. The majority are actually quite simple, straightforward, and overly easy. Even the hardest stages in Dr. Wily's Castle are easy to progress through, if you have the right powers. And therein lies the problem. These stages require the use of powers, which they give you little or no chance to refill from within the level. Dr. Wily's second form takes this to a further extreme, with a shot pattern that's so erratic that most players simply slug it out with him, using energy tanks to stay ahead. But if you don't have those energy tanks, there's nothing to do except reset the game.
It goes beyond the "one sitting" issue of the first Mega Man, because it sets you up for failure. If you can progress in the first Mega Man, if you can persevere, the game rewards you. It lets you fills up your health and items in each stage, giving you all the tools you need to win. Mega Man 2 pulls the rug out from under you when you're in the final stages of the game.
One answer to these issues that was suggested to me was to play on the easy mode, included with the American release. Yes, playing on the easier difficulty does dumb down all of the bosses and enemies, removing the need to search out energy tanks or at least making it much easier to hold onto them. But it doesn't remove the insulting design. You are still encouraged to use a glitch to beat the sphere boss. You are still forced to die to reset your weapons if you run out of power at that same boss. You are still required to slug it out with Wily, rather than fight him with skill-it just takes less hits to do so.
What it comes down to is this: I like a game that is challenging. What I don't like is having to do something in a very specific way, not being told I have to do it that way, and having to completely start over when I try to experiment to figure out what the right way is. Mega Man 2 may carry a lot of nostalgia, and it improved on many of its predecessor's faults, but to hold it up as the pinnacle of Mega Man design is to insult the further improvements made by later games.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.