Too Mega, Man
It shouldn’t be too shocking — Mega Man 2 is a glowing success in almost every way. Critically lauded upon release and commonly seen as the highpoint of Capcom’s venerable series, Mega Man 2 remains the highest-selling game in its series and one of the pinnacles of the incomparable NES library. Developed as a passion project by the Rockman team while assigned to other games, the team had less than four months to work on their sequel to Mega Man. Somehow, despite the intensely crunched and deprioritized development, they improved and expanded upon nearly every facet of the original.
Mega Man 2’s narrative is a simple continuation of the first game. Thwarted at the end of Mega Man, Dr. Wily builds a set of eight robot masters to oppose Mega Man. While the plotline is bare-bones, the clearer and more polished manner in which it’s told lends it more emotional resonance than its predecessor. Upon starting the console, the player is greeted with an aerial shot of city lights with text providing the narrative backdrop. As the text ominously finishes bridging the gap between past and present, the camera pans skyward as the music builds momentum until it reaches Mega Man standing stoically atop a skyscraper, helmet in hand, wind blowing back his hair, overlooking the city below. It’s an unusually confident and cinematic start that sets the tone for the set pieces and challenging adventures to follow.
Grand moments like these punctuate Mega Man 2, nailing the tone of a grand tooth-and-nails odyssey by providing a sense of import, urgency, and personal detail. The superb music in Mega Man 2 synergizes with this art direction to convey grandiosity and develop a specific identity for each level. From the iconic Dr. Wily Castle I/II Theme to personal favorite Bubble Man Theme, the music in Mega Man 2 is a quintessential listen for any 8-bit audiophile. Yet the crux of the Mega Man experience is its gameplay, and this is where the depth of Mega Man 2’s genius fully reveals itself.
On paper, Mega Man 2’s gameplay seems like a minor upgrade of the original Mega Man. The most notable additions are probably E-tanks and a password save system, which both thoughtfully adjust the difficulty in the player’s favor. Other than that, and the erasure of the superfluous scoring system, Mega Man 2 initially seems to play just like the original. But like the difference between a first and a hundredth cooking attempt at an innovative dish, Mega Man 2 is better than Mega Man because it delivers on its premise with cohesion, confidence, and nuance despite containing the same ingredients.
While this statement might seem vague, consider this specific instance in the screenshot above. In this nuanced combat scenario, Mega Man is simultaneously battling a fish and shrimp while spikes dangle above him. While the shrimp move in a blooper-like fashion according to Mega Man’s placement, the fish remains in single spot with one glaring weak spot at the tip of its antenna. To navigate this situation, the player must jump to the precise height necessary to shoot the antenna tip while being mindful of the attacking shrimp. Meanwhile, the underwater physics increase jump sensitivity, so the player must also be careful not collide with the insta-kill spikes at the top of the screen. While Mega Man threw plenty of obstacles at the player, few were as carefully and cohesively constructed as this nearly-randomly selected scenario on Bubble Man’s stage. Unique and complex challenges like this moment percolate the entirety of Mega Man 2, mixing and matching enemy types, level design, and environmental effects to produce an incredibly diversified and maturely creative play experience.
This diversity is also present in Mega Man’s arsenal, replete with weapons so memorable that they would dominate Mega Man’s moveset in Super Smash Bros. nearly thirty years later. While the weapons in Mega Man were fun enough, the weapons in Mega Man 2 affect gameplay so dramatically that you can replay these levels with different loadouts and have significantly different experiences. Although most of the weapons are highlights, consider Flash Man’s Time Stopper, which halts all enemy and environmental movement. This one weapon alone is unique enough to be the basis for an entire game in 2017, but it’s an optional aside in 1988’s Mega Man 2, and that’s simply ludicrous. In this breadth and variance, Mega Man 2’s design values are tangible in almost every moment and mechanic, with subtleties indicative of not just the flash-in the-pan brilliance of the original, but a sustained intelligence interlaced with creative zeal.
Despite its unqualified successes, Mega Man 2 does have some kinks in its armor that are worth picking apart. While it might come across as boastful to call any Mega Man easy, I personally wish Mega Man 2 put up a bit more of a fight. Outside of some truly whiteknuckle sequences, such as the lasers on Quick Man’s stage, the game overcompensates for the original’s brutal difficulty by adding E-tanks, a password system, a Normal (i.e. Easy, for those less talented Western gamers) mode, and the overpowered metal blades. While I appreciate the addition of an easy mode, a third “Harder” mode could have added some replayability and made the game more engaging for seasoned veterans.
Further exacerbating my concerns with difficulty, the metal blades are somehow both game-making and game-breaking. On one hand, the metal blades allow the player to feel consistently empowered and their flexibility can fundamentally change the way the player tackles the game on a screen-by-screen basis since their ability to fire in eight directions instead of two affects how the player should optimally position himself. On the other hand, they are overpowered to the point of ridding the game of its nuanced combat scenarios because the player can simply succeed through brute force instead of adapting to the situation.
On top of being exceedingly effective in almost every combat scenario, metal blade ammunition depletes at a remarkably slow pace, meaning that most players will probably never have reason to switch to weapons unless expressly necessary (such as in the handful of boss battles where another weapons are optimal). While I personally enjoy the versatility of the metal blades, I often wish they were either less powerful or less abundant, as a minor nerf would encourage the player to experiment with other weapons more often and thereby possibly lead to a more thoughtful and diverse play experience. While other difficult NES games might have players conferring over particularly strenuous struggles, the metal blades are a sufficient answer to almost every scenario in Mega Man 2.
And that italicized “almost” leads to my final point of critique, which is that boss weaknesses are unfairly overemphasized in the back half of the game. This is particularly true of the Boobeam Trap boss in the fourth Wily stage and the final boss, Alien. In order to best Boobeam Trap, the player needs full Crash Bomber ammo as well as knowledge about where to fire each shot of the Crash Bomber. I would imagine most newcomers either won’t have full ammo upon entering the arena or waste ammo unnecessarily on the boss fight, either of which will result in them having to replay the level for another trial-and-error attempt. To account for this, I wish the arena design were less manipulative, the player’s Crash Bomber ammo replenished upon death, or that an E-tank be used to replenish an item’s ammo.
A similar problem plagues the game’s final encounter, Alien. As is the case with Boobeam Trap, Alien can only be damaged by one weapon (Bubble Man’s Bubble Lead), and the level must be restarted if the player does not have sufficient ammo. From a design standpoint, it’s less of a problem than Boobeam Trap because the level is short and the player can reach the boss quickly, but the problem is magnified because it exists at the very end of the game. Personally, I wish there was some narrative justification for this, as the idea of only water damaging an alien could have easily been incorporated into the storyline. Instead, the player needs to either happen to have the right weapon with enough ammo, or believe that the plot twists in M. Night Shyamalan films run so deep that the aliens in Signs are the same types of alien as the final boss of a video game fifteen years older than the film itself.
Ultimately, Mega Man 2 is Mega Man 2 — a high-water mark for the series, the NES library, and sequel-ism. It expands and expounds upon the original through its intricate gameplay and level design to make for a finely honed adventure sweeping in scope. While I might have some minor quibbles (and maybe, just maybe, I prefer Elec Man’s theme from Mega Man to any of the dazzling tracks here), Mega Man 2 set a bar for the action-platformer genre in 1988 that today’s retro games are still trying to reach. If Mega Man was a brilliant but undeveloped thought, Mega Man 2 is the diligently articulated and ruminated version of that thought, refined by learning from and reflecting upon the high highs and low lows of the original. Today, it not only feels playable, but remarkably contemporary, as if the past twenty years of revelations and refinements in video game design could hardly improve upon it. Whether or not it’s later bested by Mega Man 3 or Mega Man 9 or Mega Man X, it’s a testament to Mega Man 2’s brilliance that its formula could be iterated upon so many times and perhaps never feel as fully realized, iconic, or wholehearted as it does here.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Nintendo Entertainment System (reviewed), PlayStation, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, Mobile; Publisher: Capcom ; Developer: Capcom; Players: 1 ; Released: 1988
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Mega Man.