Friday, 30 May 2014

I Get Wild, Wild Enough (Mega Man 5)

(Hello again! It's time for Mega Man 5! This is not a guest post though. I took it upon myself to play through this game again last night, and I've hammered out words about it inspired by our guest posts. Well, since I have little else to say in this space... here I am.)

Let's see where we are here in the old mental landscape... I want to say it's 1995. It could well be 1996 for all I know, since these years are lost to time now. We'll go with 1995, because 1995 is for sure the year I borrowed Mega Man 2 from a friend and had an interesting time with that. But this is not about Mega Man 2. During that nebulous time when the NES was dead, and even the Super Nintendo was being eyed by the relentless blade of the Destructor, our school had this sort of... little used goods store deal going. For some reason. There were books and NES games, I know that for sure. This is where I got my copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but that's a story for another day. My long-winded point is that I bought some old Archie comics from this place. Because I was 10 and I liked Archie comics. I remember vividly an ad on the back of one. An ad for Mega Man 5. Through the future magic of the Internet, I'm staring at it right now... and with further powers, you can probably see it too!

Gravity. It's all about gravity. Gravity's Man looms over the box art, with his leader a red and white shadow in the distance. Lightning shoots out of his hands, but dear Mega is unconcerned. He's not even fucking looking at Gravity Man as he deflects the lightning. Jesus. Here, then, in the crushing wastes of the post-SNES days, does Mega Man attempt to survive the crushing gravity of life on a system that is rapidly collapsing. Though the game does what it can to spice things up by toying with gravity in places, it... falls flat. Mega Man 5 has long been my personal least favorite entry in the "classic" series... but it has been a long time since I played it. I've grown since then. Hard Game Beater. Beast in the shape of a man. A scholar of the joyful spark that makes an excellent platforming action game. Mega Man 5 does not outright lack that spark, but it has been diminished. I think I've pinpointed the problem. It comes back to empowerment.

Yeah. Empowerment. You kids remember what John was saying about Mega Man 2? How it creates sort of a narrative arc of Mega Man growing stronger, gaining weapons and items, and then having every lick of those powers tested as he delves into the hell of Wily's fortress? Yeah! Mega Man 5 kind of throws that out the window. In the first place, the Robot Master weapons are not all that good. I'm not asking for something incredibly imbalanced like the Metal Blades here, but a little utility goes a long way. There are interesting weapons, of course. Gyro Attack can be aimed up or down, and the Charge Kick turns the slide move that's been with us since Mega Man 3 into an offensive weapon. The others? They have fun utility, and I really did do my best to mess around with them. It's when you pair this with another part of the game that we see... issues.

The Mega Buster. Brett touched on it briefly in Mega Man 4, but the charge shot returns for 5. Jeremy Parish of the former 1UP dot com has mentioned his disdain for the Mega Buster. Googling has aided me on digging up his exact words, but while we're here. his criticism stems from how it alters the "empowerment". In the first three games, you had a dinky little pea shooter until you killed some bosses and got their powers. You earned utility, and a way of dealing more damage to specific foes and robot masters. With Mega Man 4, Parish claims, empowerment is thrown out the window because you start the game with a super-weapon; your charge shot. Now, I must confess, dear reader, that I've not properly gone through Mega Man 4 in a while. I played a top-notch ROM hack of it recently, but... that's not the same. I don't know for sure if Parish is correct about the Buster in Mega Man 4, but I can say this. His critique sure as hell applies to Mega Man 5.

What was it that I said in that ridiculous Mega Man poem? "A freedom of choice never seen before"? MM5 offers the illusion of choice. I have the data to prove it. I've done my homework. Take a gander at this. And this as well. The sheer force of numbers shows us the data of free choice present in the first two games. If I want to freshen things up and use the Hyper Bomb on Ice Man, it will be effective. Granted, it won't be as shockingly effective as his actual weakness... but it is still a viable option. More importantly, it's not a waste of time. This theory doesn't hold up so much when you get to Wily Fortresses, but by then you have a whole arsenal to play with. Now let's look at Mega Man 5's damage chart. Note how things now work. 3 damage with a charged buster shot. 4 damage with the boss's weakness (3 for Napalm Man). Everything else either does 1 damage or 0 damage. There's no leeway for experimentation. Sure, you CAN use Power Stone on Wave Man or something, but it's a platitude. There's no mild benefit to doing so when your Buster can do so much more... and you have that from the get-go! This upsets me far more than it should. It's a false freedom. You can use whatever you like on the boss... but unless it's the buster or his weakness, there's no point to doing it.

Still... this is not a terrible video game. In fact, it has a gravity of its own. Look to Mega Man 9; my favorite Mega Man game, incidentally. A portion of Splash Woman's level all but replicates a small portion of Wave Man's level involving a vertical ascent atop bubbles. Look to the fan games made in the wake of Mega Man's abandonment by Capcom; Mega Man Unlimited throws gravity trickery into at least two stages. Like it or not, this happened. This happened, and it's almost unfair to complain that it isn't as brilliant as its forebears. You've read what others said about them. They're brilliant, and Mega Man 5 at least has good level design. Hardly ever obnoxious or malicious. Everything is canon, including the crap. Mega Man 5 can rest on the shelf with the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who. Is it the best representation of its legacy? Hardly. Is it silly in places? Oh, yes. This is where we went after the Cold War fizzled. Mega Man was what Judi Dench called 007 in Goldeneye; a relic. Peko's blade was swinging downward. Cloister bells would ring inside his head.

But not yet. One last hurrah. One last robot tournament to prove that he was the best of the best. Mega Man 6 would have him face the mysterious Mr. X... and considering what came out in 1993 involving Mega Man and an X, it's almost fitting. Mega Man will clash against Peko herself, to stake out one final adventure as the Famicom era around him collapses and goes supernova. Trenzalore approaches, but first... the final fight.

That's not my tale to tell, though.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Dr. Cossack, Tear Down This Wall! (Mega Man 4)

(It seems that the good Dr. Sandifer's Mega Man 3 writeup was a hit. Glad that lots of you enjoyed it! Truly a high water mark for the NES, that game... and now we come to the decline. It's no secret that the latter three NES Mega Man games aren't as well-regarded. Really, with Mega Man 4 we're spoiled for choice here. A game about defeating a Russian scientist released in 1991? The same year that the Cold War ended? Or... did it happen in 1993? Today's post comes to us from a Mr. Brett Smalley. He does Let's Plays! Like I used to! Anyway, today Brett is going to take a less esoteric and more objective look at Mega Man 4 here, and give us folk who live in the colonies a look at what time, relative dimensions, and staggered release dates do to a game where a Japanese robot blows up Communism. Enjoy!)

Allow me to set the scene. The year is 1993. The date is January 21st. In the Official UK Chart Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is seven weeks into an impressive ten week uninterrupted run at Number One. Other acts in the Top 10 this week include Take That, Faith No More, Michael Jackson and a bunch of people you’ve probably never heard of. At the UK Box Office, military courtroom drama A Few Good Men continues to reign supreme for the third consecutive week, although it is destined to be overtaken by a Laurence Fishburne thriller called Deep Cover which, again, I’m guessing few people will have heard of. In the world of sport, Manchester United are well on their way to winning the inaugural FA Premier League, while over in Formula One British motor racing legend Nigel Mansell has shockingly been dropped from Team Williams despite winning the World Championship for them the previous year. He subsequently announces his retirement from the sport and moves to the United States to compete in (and later win) the IndyCar World Series. Perhaps most important, however (because this is a video game blog after all), January 21st 1993 marks the release of Mega Man 4 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Now before you all bring up the painfully obvious elephant in the room, allow me to do it myself. I am well aware that the game actually came out in January 1992, however, that was only in North America. I happen to live in Europe, more specifically England (as has been well documented here on the internet). During the 1990s England always received commodities from across the pond nearly a full year after they were first released in America, and video games were no exception, so while over there the NES was little more than 18 months away from being placed into deserving retirement while its more powerful offspring the Super Nintendo blew the collective minds of gamers the world over, over here in Britland the new console had been out for less than a full year and so its antiquated forebear was still selling pretty well. For the sake of adding some of my own personal experience and flair into the mix I will be concerning myself solely with the English release dates. Now that we have that pesky pachyderm dealt with and herded back into the proverbial zoo where it belongs, we can proceed.

Being the fourth instalment of the franchise (as its title implies), Mega Man 4 is not big on originality, but in fairness it doesn’t really need to be. The game’s premise is similar to the previous two: an evil scientist has unleashed 8 evil robots into the world to cause all manner of untold mayhem and we manoeuvre the plucky cybernetic hero Mega Man through several enemy-packed levels interceded with some tricky platforming elements to navigate. The only difference here is the nature of our adversary: while in the past the part of the mad scientist was played by Dr. Albert Wilberforce Wily III Esq. PhD, here the role instead is filled by a Russian newcomer to the series named Dr. Mikhail Sergeyevich Cossack (and yes, that is officially his full name, I didn’t make that up). Had this game been released five years earlier I’d have had the perfect excuse to make a Soviet Russia joke, but thankfully it wasn’t, so I won’t.

Before we can foil the Red Menace (Damn you me from the previous paragraph, what did I just say?) we should take a moment to familiarise ourselves with our octet of antagonists, for as Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach once wrote, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is that of the unknown. In no particular order then, we have Toad Man, whose only form of defence seems to be gyrating in a ridiculous fashion. Bright Man, who has the misfortune to have a light bulb stuck to the top of his head and is therefore the subjects of many jibes from his fellow Robot Masters but is nonetheless dangerous due to his ability to stop time for everyone but himself. Pharaoh Man, a construct from another age who has delusions of being a god, a fallacy we shall soon lay to rest. Ring Man, a robotic assassin who possesses speed and agility and throws his patented Ring Boomerangs with deadly accuracy. Dust Man, who looks like a humanoid vacuum cleaner but is anything but rubbish when it comes to combat. Skull Man, a cunning rogue clad only in metal and bone who hides behind the safety of a shield. Dive Man, who strongly resembles a submarine and can fire homing missiles. And last (but by no means least) Drill Man, a road-working implement given life and determined to dig you an early grave… and then put you in it. Every member of this rogue’s gallery is a worthy opponent (with the exception of Toad Man, who really isn’t) and all will require a combination of guile, bravery and tactical thinking to overcome. Upon being vanquished each of your foes will award you with a copy of their weapon for you to use. Much like before the order in which you face off with the Evil Eight is entirely up to you, but clever use of strategy in picking your order of poisons will prove fortuitous in the later battles. The locations in which you hunt down and put a stop to these miscreants are varied, ranging from a dimly lit factory to a close approximation of ancient Egypt to beneath the waves to a castle somehow suspended on the sky itself.

The gameplay is similar to the Blue Bomber’s previous outings, but there are one or two very notable additions. Chief amongst these is the new ability to charge up the Mega Buster. Yes people, it took a while but finally we can smite some of our more powerful enemies in one hit without resorting to weapons acquired from defeated bosses. The bone you just threw in our general direction is much appreciated Capcom (unless it originally emanated from Skull Man’s stage, in which case there’s a good chance it may kill us). There are also two other new items which are hidden well deep inside two of the game’s levels, or at least, they would be if this was 1993 & Sir Tim Berners Lee hadn’t gotten around to giving the internet to the world yet, but it isn’t, it’s 2014 and so just about everyone knows the location of these two tools. The Wire Adapter acts like a glorified grappling hook and can be found in Dive Man’s stage, precariously placed at the bottom of a long vertical underwater shaft littered with spikes that seems like certain doom but is actually relatively safe, while the Balloon Adapter is cunning stashed away in Pharaoh Man’s desert behind a seemingly impossible jump and creates inflatable platform that enable Mega Man to reach new heights. The collection of these items is not actually required to beat the game but will certainly make that task easier.

As the Beatles famously sung about back in 1967, we get by with a little help from our friends, and Mega Man is no exception. To this end we can call upon the help of several allies to assist in our quest. Rush the robotic dog makes a return from Mega Man 3 and can once again be used to make the tougher sections of the game a little easier to traverse as well as to reach power-ups and other items which would otherwise be inaccessible. Mega Man’s creator Dr. Light is back to impart on us more sage words of wisdom and inform us on how to operate the weapons and items we acquire throughout the journey despite it being blatantly obvious to anyone with half a brain cell. There is also a new character called Eddie. Eddie is a walking item holder/suitcase/general dogsbody who can be encountered during some stages and will dispense his wares whenever we meet up with him. And then there’s Mega Man’s sister Roll, who appears in this game for all of five seconds and is therefore not worthy of further consideration.

Returning to the action, once the eight Robot Masters have been destroyed the door to Dr. Cossack’s lair is opened. The rabid Russian’s toughest lines of defence lie in wait inside. Spiked platforms that leave you only a handful of seconds to disembark before they attempt to skewer you. A maze of ladders and spinning tops. Ice physics (ugh). The seventh circle of hell that is auto-scrolling sections in platform games. And to cap things off, three mammoth mechanical monstrosities hell-bent on finishing you. But even they cannot deny us, and before long we find ourselves face-to-cockpit with Cossack himself. He attempts to pluck us from the ground as if we were the star prize in some demented Claw Game, but we are far too agile for him. The battle is long and arduous, but finally Cossack falls. Victory is ours…

…until it is cruelly snatched away from us in the form of the mysterious Proto Man and a little Russian girl called Kalinka who totally isn’t a palette swap of Roll. They inform us that Cossack is not the real enemy, that he was merely being manipulated by another, much-more sinister individual who we know only too well: Dr. Wily. We have truly been tricked. The dastardly Wily escapes to his newly-built Skull Castle but we are in hot pursuit, determined to exact revenge for his treachery. Inside we find retreads of challenges we have already overcome once before, as well as echoes of our past. There are new dangers present too: a Giant Metool arrives to block our path but he is quickly dispatched, followed by a nondescript fire-spewing machine that receives the same treatment. The insane doctor’s final means of delaying the inevitable is to rebuild his Robot Master and send them forth to engage us in a series of rematches, but at this point our expanded arsenal of weaponry proves too much for them to handle. Presently we are transported directly to the heart of the lion’s den, where Dr Wily emerges in his latest contraption, one which matches the exterior of the domain we find ourselves trapped within. After sustaining severe damage the front of his machine falls off but he’s still standing, still trying to kill us with hot balls of plasma. Now his protection seems impregnable, capable of resisting any and all forms of assault, but look a little closer. There’s a weak spot on the front. Strike that enough times and down he goes in flames for a second time.

Yet we have underestimated the persistence of our Moriarty. He uses what remains of his infernal machine to elude our grasp one more time and make his hasty retreat. We do not have far to follow: he has fled only as far as a small room with a windy metallic passage to lead up to it. This final showdown is long overdue, but Moriarty has one final trick up his sleeve. The room is nothing but darkness. We can barely see ourselves in it, let alone the Wily Capsule, and is such it is extremely difficult to hit him. Worse still, all our previous battles have taken its toll, and supplies of weapon energy are running dangerously low. Slowly but surely he whittles down our energy, forces us to use up Energy Tank after Energy Tank until none remain. We can see him for only a second at a time, mocking us, laughing at our inadequacies. He knows that his ultimate victory is at hand, that there’s nothing we can do to stop him…

…But Wily has forgotten one important thing in his arrogance; we still have one last tool at our fingertips, the light harvested from the carcass of the false god. Pharaoh Man may have been artificial but his light is just real enough to cut through this darkness and strike down our enemy for the last time. Before long he has no direction to travel but straight down to earth. He has no course of action left but to beg for forgiveness at our feet. Wily has fallen. We have won. The end credits can roll…

And that’s Mega Man 4 is an elaborate, overly dramatic nutshell. Is it more of the same? Honestly, yes. But as the old saying goes, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Mega Man 3 remains one of my favourite video games of all time. How could I not have similar levels of affection for its successor?

Our journey has come to an end. There are still two titles to cover. Alas, I cannot be your conductor for the last two legs of this odyssey. I must hand that mantle over to two others. Who these individuals are, I cannot say. All I can do is to wish them good luck…

…They’re going to need it…

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Execution Of All Things (Mega Man 3)

(Wow. What a hell of a post we've got here. Today's guest post is by none other than Phil Sandifer himself, the very creator of the Nintendo Project that we've dug out of the dust and restarted thanks to... who knows? Boredom? Valya's grace? Some other purpose? Either way, this is a treat. If you have somehow made it to this blog without knowing who Phil Sandifer is, well... you can check his old Nintendo Project posts on the sidebar there. Or his current blog posts about Doctor Who and The Last War In Albion. Hell, speaking of Albion, he's got a Kickstarter going for that. Check it out. It's a hell of a thing... but for now, let's let the man himself talk about one of my top three Mega Man games; Mega Man 3.) 

FreezingInferno’s idiosyncratic decision to try to bring me out of semi-retirement would have been doomed to failure had he not gone straight for the magic words: Mega Man. Indeed, I’m not sure there’s a more fitting entry for me to make my cameo appearance on than Mega Man 3, notable as the first NES game to rely upon nostalgia.

It is worth offering a capsule history of the Mega Man series up until this point, just to provide some fleeting historical context. In 1987, Capcom released Mega Man. It flopped. But improbably, the team that designed it was sufficiently dedicated to the task that they opted to work on a sequel, often on their own time. This game, Mega Man 2, was released in the US in 1989. Unlike Mega Man, it was a massive hit.

You can tell it was a massive hit because it was on the cover of the seventh issue of Nintendo Power, a magazine that, in this era, was essentially the sole arbiter of, if not taste, at least what Nintendo culture was going to be. The seventh issue boasts of a sixteen page feature on the game, featuring detailed maps with Nintendo Power’s typically useless hints (my personal choice is the helpful note that you should avoid hitting the horns on the giant faces in Air Man’s stage, if only because it means I know those monsters are called Air Tikis). But the point stands - Mega Man 2 was a big, iconic game that mattered.

And so it was no surprise that Capcom rushed a sequel out in 1990. This time Nintendo Power gave it twenty pages, providing walkthroughs not only of the eight Robot Masters but the four Doc Robot stages and a solid bevy of hints on what to do in Wily’s Castle. This is, of course, slightly perverse, in that the extended coverage ended up spoiling one of the game’s most notable moments.

See, after beating the eight Robot Masters in Mega Man 3, the player is forced to replay four of their stages. The stages exist this time in a ruined form - platforms have been blasted out of existence, it’s pitch black where it used to be day, and in every case the place has largely gone to the dogs, which is to say, become a lot harder. But what’s really notable are the bosses - eight identical junkheap looking robots (two for each level) who, when you encounter them, are inhabited by the spectral presences of the Robot Masters from Mega Man 2.

It is perhaps excessively self-evident to point out that Mega Man 3 is not the first sequel on the NES - indeed, Super Mario Bros and Castlevania both beat it to the threequel, and a bevy of other games reached prequel before it. But none of these games with the arguable exception of Castlevania (which reused some stage design) traded on nostalgia in quite this way. When Nintendo themselves made a sequel, at least in the US, the tendency was towards radical reinvention of game design. The Adventure of Link and Super Mario Bros 2 are shocking in their lack of resemblance to the originals, and much as Super Mario Bros 3 returns to normal form, it also cares more about its innovations than about recreating the feel of the first game. And, of course, plenty of sequels copy the best bits of the original and try to recreate them in a slightly different form.

But Mega Man 3 is different - the game builds steadily to the big reveal of the previous game’s robot masters, treating the recreation of the past as a big reward earned by playing through the present. It’s fundamentally backwards looking in a way that the NES had never quite been. And, of course, it’s one of the classic moments of the era. Anyone who liked the Mega Man series remembers when the Mega Man 2 robots drop in.

And yet in so many ways it also spells the beginning of the end. Certainly for the Mega Man series, which would never be this good again. It’s telling that Mega Man 3 has the first outright moment of inexcusably bad design in the series - a lengthy section requiring the Rush Jet that, should the player fail at, they’ll be unable to reattempt without a game over because the recharge items left scattered around will all be used up and the Jet won’t have enough power to get across the level. It’s also telling that this is the last time that the Robot Masters can actually be usefully approached in multiple orders - come Mega Man 4 the stage select will become a trick to slow the game down while you figure out the one usable path. (Notably, there isn’t even a true circuit of the Robot Masters in this game, but two: Top Man - Shadow Man - Spark Man - Magnet Man - Hard Man forms one self-contained loop, while Snake Man - Needle Man - Gemini Man forms another.)

But the real end is visible, as ever, in Nintendo Power, which, alongside the twenty pages of Mega Man coverage includes a full page tease of the Super Nintendo, recently announced in Japan. The Super Nintendo would steadily grow to be a larger and larger part of the magazine until, eight issues after the Mega Man 3 cover story, Super Mario World finally got its cover story and we entered a period in which the entire NES became an object of nostalgia.

And so Mega Man 3 ends up being a strange game - the beginning of the end, and yet a desirable sort of end - one that suggests that, in its own way, we wanted the NES era to fade into lost memory even as it was happening.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Air Man Isn't Even All That Hard (Mega Man 2)

(Hello again! Today we are talking about Mega Man 2, a game whose gravity is massive. Quite possibly the most revered action platformer on NES, and even if you don't agree with that you have to admit that it's way up on the list. It's far too much for even my esoteric madness to handle, so I'm proud to introduce the first guest post of The Nintendo Project, Resumed! My pal and intrepid game designer, John Thyer, is here to tell you why Mega Man 2 is brilliant. Most of you already "know" that, but much like Phil Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum, we are here to ignore what we "know" in favor of talking about when a revolution has taken place. I'll defer to John now, but not before popping you a link to the games he's made. They're pretty neat. And now, friends and constant readers... Mega Man 2.)

So. Let’s talk about title screens.

NES games, by and large, did not have great title screens. For a long time they all followed the “text on a black background with no music” template set up by the earliest games on the console, like Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. Even once they moved beyond that template, very few did anything interesting. Most of the exceptions were from Nintendo games -- Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 3 -- but even these didn’t do anything more than set the mood. Very few added to the story of their game in a truly meaningful way.

Mega Man 2 is the exception. It stands toe-to-toe with the the best title screens of the 16-bit era, when heavy-hitters like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Earthbound entered the scene.

You can give it a watch over here. Let’s look at a few interesting details:

1) The first detail that sticks out is the music: the song playing is the same as the ending music to Mega Man 1. This is a cute touch, and it’s a clever way to provide a bit of connective tissue between the two stories.

2) Later Mega Man games would come to use expository intro text as a crutch, but 2’s manages to summarize the entire setup of the game in only three sentences. Not only that, but it’s the only expository text in the entire game!

3) The pan up the side of the building it still damn cool.

4) Listen to how the music develops during the pan upwards. The transition to the big, heroic Mega Man theme at the top is seamless.

5) When the player presses the start button, Mega Man puts on his helmet and teleports away, signalling the start the game. (This will be important later.)

That’s a staggering amount of clever ideas to fit into such a small amount of time. Keep in mind that Mega Man 1 doesn’t have any sort of intro, and neither does 3 for that matter. The intros from 4 onward are all overlong and boring, and I’m pretty sure most players skip past them on replays. Speaking to my own experience, I let 2’s play out every single time.
So, that’s the first forty-five seconds. What about the rest of the game?

Well, one of the most striking things about playing Mega Man 2 in 2014 is how messy it is. It has dozens of little design problems and unfair moments of a sort that aren’t really present in the later Mega Man games. 

The most egregious offender is the Boobeam Trap in the fourth level of Wily’s Fortress (or as its more commonly known, that goddamned Crash Bomb boss). It’s easily the most poorly thought out enemy in any of the NES games; failing the puzzle means choosing between farming energy for ten minutes or killing yourself over and over until you run out of lives. Getting stuck in that situation completely sucks the momentum out of the game, and many players give up rather than deal with it any longer.

Other quibbles! Wily’s forms have only one attack each. Mega Man’s controls are still just loose enough to occasionally throw you off of a key jump. Air Man has attacks that are actually impossible to dodge. There’s only one boss theme in the whole game. And then there’s the debatable matter of the disappearing and reappearing blocks in Heat Man’s stage and the lasers in Quick Man’s level -- whether or not those parts are fun, they’re almost definitely at least a little unfair.

Unfair or not, Quick Man’s level is still one of my favorites. The stage is a careful, rehearsed race against instant-death lasers that demands absolute perfection on behalf of the player. What I love is how this contrasts with the messy, chaotic boss fight against Quick Man, which isn’t so much about memorization as it is about reflex and instinct. Interestingly, in both cases the player has an “out”: Flash Stopper can make either the stage or the boss trivial. But it can’t be used on both, so the player has to decide which one is more threatening.

This is an example of how the robot master stages take a simple idea (in Quick Man’s case, speed) and prod at it from a number of different angles. It also showcases how the levels play off each other in neat ways, like how Flash Stopper totally changes the dynamic of the level. Some of the levels are more traditional and straightforward, while others focus on neat gimmicks. Some are brilliant and incisive like Metal Man and Wood Man, and some are only successful in spite of themselves, like Flash Man’s poorly conceived maze and Crash Man’s slightly-obnoxious vertical climb.

The levels manage to accomplish two totally disparate goals. 1) They each have their own unique and memorable identity. Later Mega Man games often had stages that just sort of blended together, and as a result the games were way less interesting. 2) They come together to create a singular emotional journey. While it’s impressive that each stage succeeds on its own merits, what’s more impressive is that they form a own cohesive narrative arc.

Let me explain. Every stage ends the same way: Mega Man triumphs over the robot master and collects a powerful new weapon, and occasionally a special item from Doctor Light.This ritual is repeated eight different times, and each time it’s clear that Mega Man is growing stronger and stronger, until finally he has defeated all eight of Wily’s Robot Masters.

There’s this idea in game design that the most important thing a game can do is make the player feel powerful. This is where the whole methodology of power-ups and experience points comes from. Start the player off with a fairly weak ability set, and then as the game progresses reward them with stronger and stronger abilities. This creates the sense that the player character is going on an actual journey, with actual trials and growth.

This is a nice concept, but it’s really only half of the equation. The player can’t just keep gaining new abilities. They also must have those abilities tested.

The Robot Master stages are ultimately about empowering Mega Man; Wily’s Fortress is about testing him. It’s a final exam on all of the abilities the player has learned throughout the game. Sometimes its obvious, like walls and pits that require understanding Dr. Light’s Items. Other times its more subtle, like the false floors in Wily 3 that can be identified with knowledge of one of Bubble Lead’s more obscure characteristics. It can even be cruel, like the Boobeam Trap demanding perfect weapon energy management while pummeling your energy meter with nigh-undodgeable attacks.

The Wily Levels are also the first stages that force the use of Dr. Light’s Items. It raises the stakes in a meaningful way; instead of playing through obstacle courses clearly designed with eventual victory in mind, parts of these levels can only be circumvented if the player uses an outside force. This contrast with the Robot Master stages creates the sense that in order to progress, the player has to break the game.

The boss fights also raise the stakes in a dramatic way. While all of the previous bosses are humanoid, roughly Mega Man’s size, and take place on solid ground, the first boss of the fortress is a gigantic fire-breathing robot dragon that’s fought on several precariously placed blocks, and they progress in increasingly strange directions from there. It’s also important to note the excision of the transition screen between the stage and the boss fight, so not only is the first appearance of the dragon also an effective jump-scare, it also further differentiates the Wily levels from the preceding Robot Master stages.

Most important of all is the music. Wily 1 is probably the most famous Mega Man song ever, and for good reason. It’s the most musically elaborate piece in the whole game. Listen to the way it establishes the core melody and then holds onto it for most of the song, often playing it in the background with one square channel while the other bounces around doing something else entirely. It’s a masterful little diddy, and there’s a reason it still gets a lot of attention.

Try contrasting that with the second tune. There’s a reason it doesn’t get nearly the same amount of love: it’s just plain unpleasant. It’s repetitive, dreary, and unbearably suspenseful. Try listening all the way through and feel the way it builds and builds and builds before finally slipping back to the starting key. It’s the chiptune equivalent of the heartbeat in Space Invaders, a song purely designed to compliment the game and raise the intensity of the experience. So while it isn’t the sort of melody you’d listen to in your car, it might be the single most effective song in the whole series.

The two songs together give the Wily Levels a subtle aesthetic arc. The player starts out empowered and ready to take on Wily, then descends deeper and deeper into the center of the fortress. It’s a little similar to the descent-into-Hell vibe established in the early Metroid games, but the linear structure actually makes it more focused and dramatic.

All of this is leading up to the immaculate climax. After the mandatory rematch against the robot masters, Mega Man comes face to face with Dr. Wily himself. The battle is nearly identical to the final battle of the first game (except with strangely less interesting attack patterns), so veteran players will expect this to be the final battle of the game. Not only that, but the map of Wily’s Fortress clearly marks this as the last stage. When Wily escapes after the defeat of his machine and the floor falls out from under Mega Man, it’s a genuinely well-executed twist.

The final stage begins with a lengthy falling sequence, and unlike in previous levels, there aren’t any spikes or other obstacles to distract the player. There’s no music whatsoever; the only sound comes from the deadly acid globules dripping from the ceiling (a set-piece borrowed in Daisuke Amaya’s Cave Story). The acid isn’t difficult to dodge, so the stage isn’t much of a challenge to move through. It’s purely in place to build suspense.

Then comes the final boss. Dr. Wily’s saucer descends, and he leaps out and starts hovering in the air (this is significant because Dr. Wily has never done battle directly with Mega Man before), and then reveals his true form: an alien! It comes out of absolutely nowhere, and it’s exactly the sort of insipid “twist” many game designers of the era would pull out of their butts for a last boss.

But then Mega Man defeats Alien Wily (with Bubble Lead of all things, leading to a tradition of last bosses best defeated with the most inconvenient weapon possible), the screen flashes, and the truth is revealed. It was all a trick, a hologram projector put into place by Dr. Wily as a last resort. If this isn’t immediately clear, the screen lingers on the projector as it moves around in the same figure-8 pattern as the boss. Dr. Wily is in the corner, desperately fiddling with the controls even though it’s clear the jig is up. Finally he gives in, falls to the ground, and begs for mercy.

If it isn’t the cleverest bit of visual storytelling I’ve ever seen in an 8-bit video game, it’s only because of the next segment. After defeating Dr. Wily, the screen shifts to an image of Mega Man as he walks in front of a black background. On the side is an image of a valley and a little town. The seasons pass, as indicated by the differing color schemes and precipitation. Finally, Mega Man stops and looks towards the town. The black background disappears and the whole village is visible. Mega Man is gone, his helmet lying on the ground in his place, pulled off and tossed to the ground as he runs towards his home.

Beautiful. There’s a couple of metaphors here, and the passing of the seasons is the most obvious. The ending shows that a lot of time has passed, and Mega Man has undergone a long journey. He’s fought through all of Wily’s forces, and all that time he’s been away from his home. John Teti notes that it’s intriguing that Mega Man walks, whereas in the rest of the game he teleports away after finishing a level. Combined with the melancholy music, the slow walk home shows that Mega Man isn’t just the player’s nameless avatar of destruction. It characterizes him in a really genuine way.

The second is a little more complex. Way back at the start of the game, we see Mega Man standing on top of a building, his hair loose and blowing in the wind. The second we press start, his helmet materializes, and Mega Man teleports off to battle. Only at the very end of the game, after we defeat Dr. Wily and lose control of Mega Man, does he finally take off the helmet.

Do you get it? We are the helmet! We take control of Mega Man when he goes into battle, but the ending lets us know that there’s a being that exists outside of stage select screens and energy meters. We don’t see this side of Mega Man, but it’s there, just outside the screen. In a small way, the ending takes this little blue Astro Boy-knockoff and turns him into a rounded character.

Mega Man 2 is not profound, not in the literary sense. The only NES game I can think of that can make that claim is the original Mother (though I’m happy to hear about any I might have missed). But that doesn’t change the fact that this this sixty-second ending is a lovely, layered scene, and the game would be unquestionably poorer for its absence.

It’s followed by credits, overlaid by a perfect reprise of the title music. Combined with the completed metaphor of the helmet, the music brings Mega Man 2 full circle. Thank you for playing. Presented by Capcom.

Mega Man 2 is a special game for a whole lot of people, and that’s because it goes out of its way to do more than put a bunch of robots on the screen for you to blow up. It is, bar-none, the most exciting, dramatic, and just plain fun story on the NES. It has tension, pacing, twists, silence, and symbols. It has an exciting climax and a meaningful resolution. And while later Mega Man games are vastly more refined mechanical experiences, none of them nail these concepts nearly as well.

Mega Man 2 knows that in order to create a game that really lasts in people’s hearts, you can’t just duct-tape a bunch of levels together and be done with it. You have to pay attention to all of the little details, like the mood created by the music in a specific area or the pacing before a climactic battle. You need to have a beginning that prepares the player to undergo a journey, and an ending that brings emotional closure. You have to tell a story.

It’s an exceptional video game. It was exceptional when it came out in 1988, and it’s exceptional now, twenty-six years later. It will likely be exceptional for many years to come.

And that’s because it pays attention to things like title screens.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure (Mega Man)

Hello! Boy, it's been... almost two months since we've been here, huh? I apologize. I've been wanting to get back to this for a while, but I think I needed some time off from writing in general. I still need to properly plug away at the old book, but I feel confident that I can do it. In the meantime... here's the kickoff to our big Mega Man fiesta on the Nintendo Project Resumed! If all goes as planned, this will be the only post actually written by yours truly. It is also one of the most mental things I've ever done. You'll see once your eyes dart down below. Please enjoy this esoteric nonsense about one of my favorite games in the Mega Man series. Is it unpolished and raw? Absolutely. I don't care. It has a charm. It has a charm and I adore it unabashedly, but this is hardly a review blog, now is it? Enjoy.

The Ballad Of The Blue Bomber
By FreezingInferno

So once again, we play our game of chance,
A wall of words built under Valya's dance.
The planet which now occupies our gaze?
Its gravity continues to amaze.

Now let your mind flow backwards to the past,
To years long gone; how does time flow so fast?
Our words, a time machine that always strives
To illustrate new things when we arrive.

The winter chill of '87, brave
A time now twenty-six years in the grave
Brought roaring from the white shores of Japan
A game that Capcom thus dubbed "Mega Man".

That's right, Japan, that nonexistant place
A foreign land thus blessed by Valya's grace.
The Nightmare's insecurities kept bay,
His kingdom here? The land of "kusoge".

Examine, then, the cover of the game,
And witness Capcom's steps to great acclaim
A happy bot, clad in blue and cyan
His shiny logo naming him Rockman.

Of course, this is from that great shadow land,
The place of nonexistance named Japan
Upon our shores, the box? A different beast
A sense assaulter unlike the Far East.

This box art that you now must gaze upon,
with some old fucker ripped straight out of Tron.
He's decked in blue and yellow, with a gun,
And past the neon palm trees he shall run.

Who is this blathering neon-clad yoke?
Just what the fuck is this, some kind of joke?
In later years, the masses would agree
NOSTALGIA's going to mine that man, you'll see.

For now, be unconcerned with the front cart.
It's what's inside that is a work of art.
Our toaster accepts what we put inside.
Hit power, and get ready for a ride.

No level 1 behind the title screen,
Instead is something never before seen
A stage select of levels for your choice?
A bold decision from a genius voice!

We've got a robot with a scissor head,
Then flames, and sparks? These beasts fill me with dread.
A mohawk man? A parka-wearing stooge?
What's a Guts Man? Just how am I to choose?

The six robots that you must now select,
an Ouroboros in a circle set
A freedom of choice never seen before!
To victory! Or pain forevermore!

Now here is where our histories collide.
I know the optimal path I must stride.
We'll start with Bombman's demolition hell
For he is the first dread beast I must fell.

We teleport into a deadly place,
Where metal orbs loom over our small face
The bubbly chiptune that makes us a fan?
Composed by non-existant Yuukichan.

As we begin, control we must review
Sweet Valya's petal breath remindeth you
We run, we jump with A, and then press B
To fire pellet shots, no more than three

The realm of Bombman that we have thus picked
Is filled with deadly creatures that are dicks.
Exploding shrapnel bombs from deep below,
And turrets that can shoot through walls, oh no!

Cruise missiles with a scary, angry face
Are flying at us from, like, every place!
And Sniper Joe is here, with his shield raised
His expert defense skills just must be praised.

A shutter door awaits eventually
We enter with a sort of nervous glee
We go down and await with bated breath
The Bombman fight, our duel to the death.

His leaps and jumps are bounds above our own,
His bomb's blast radius a deadly cone.
With steeled resolve we fire back, the brave
This Bombman shall not send us to our grave!

At long last, we deploy the final hit
And Bombman's clearly had enough of it
His essence dissipates across the room
We grab a thing, and hear the victory tune.

Now on to Gutsman, bulkier in frame
We enter uneven rocky terrain
A shielded Metool's all that guards the start
But what comes next sends fear into one's heart.

A hellish pulsing noise rings through our ears
A green platform? It now confirms our fears.
We ride across, and don't notice the gap
The platform dips, and then we fall. Oh, crap!

An infamous hard part, unlike before
Poor Mega Man will meet his Trenzalore.
As Peko the Destructor reaps his soul,
We try again, for we must reach the goal!

Eventually, a pattern will be learned
With perfect jumps, survival can be earned
And Peko's endless reapings now must bide
For we have made it to the other side!

Once there, we don't find much else to impede
Our travels through this level will succeed
A stamping monster tries to make us paste,
But we get by with clever smarts and haste!

Now Gutsman is a foe that we must beat,
But blasting this iron tank is no mean feat
We may have higher speed and much more pep,
But Gutsman shakes the ground with every step

Huge boulders rain down from the sky above,
And Gutsman lifts them with a power glove
He hurls the things directly at our head
We've got to win, or else we will be dead!

Old Mega, he's got one more special skill.
He gains the weapon from a boss's kill.
Now Bombman's essence fills us like a well.
Hey, Gutsman! Time to send you back to hell!

Three blasts is all that poor Gutsman can take
His battered frame now quivers with the shakes.
The explosion rings out, and now we're free!
Now take his glove and go to robot three.

Next, Cutman; see how his head scissors snap
We venture down into his deadly trap
A garish color palette awaits you
A mix of greens and browns and sky of blue.

By now you're getting quite good at this thing.
Your control mastery makes Valya sing
Through floating Suzy's relentless attack
You press onward and never once look back.

Before we know it, we've hit Cutman's lair.
The shearing robot bellows WHO GOES THERE?
He leaps and jumps and throws his headgear blade
By now, you're good, you skillfully evade!

To counter him, you slip on Gutsman's glove
Those two-ton blocks, now lighter than a dove
You hurl the chunks straight into Cutman's face
With two, he's done, and totally erased.

Elecman's stage is number four, let's see
This stage tune reminds me of "Faithfully".
A vertical climb up to dizzying heights
But first, these spiny bastards in our sights.

Too low to hit with simple pellet blasts,
They only freeze, and that just doesn't last.
With Cutman's blades, we cut them down to size.
Continue upward, climbing to the prize!

Up ladders goes our Mega Man's ascent,
Of course, the game won't easily be bent.
Electric robots, coming from above
Their voltage blasts are not a kiss of love.

Eventually, these robots are outdone.
Now at the top, we get to have some fun.
A platform that is much too high to reach
But then we hear a piercing 8-bit screech

An obstacle of infamy is due,
These Schrodinger blocks, here yet not here too.
With 8-bit bloops, they vanish into haze
Their sequence creating a platform maze.

With observation and keen intellect,
the pattern and your neurons intersect.
The skillful jumps lead higher to the top,
Where Elecman's high voltage sparks and pops.

Something of import lies along the way,
It's nestled in a corner far away
With Gutsman's glove we break apart the seams,
and collect this important Magnet Beam.

As current pours out from the very walls,
One must climb carefully, lest should they fall.
Eventually the summit's peak is reached,
Elecman's lair, a sanctuary breached.

With Cutman's shears, the battle will be quick.
Three slices and Elecman's spark is nicked.
Though do beware of that Elec Beam, too.
Three hits of that's enough to destroy you.

A quick fight done, you two evenly matched.
With Elec down, his Beam you now will catch.
Four masters down, well isn't that just nice?
Now travel to a land of snow and ice.

The winter chill is like a sudden death,
As icy winds blow savage frigid breath.
The frozen palm trees offering no shade
Your every step, a slippery escapade.

Through savage cold, you press onward to win
Even through ice-cold water you must swim
Now downward through this freezing winter crap
To once again find a familiar trap.

The Schrodinger blocks, blocking our ascent
Their pattern in our brain must leave a dent.
With Magnet Beam one can just skip this part,
How quickly upward does Mega Man dart.

And now the very platforms have a face,
They shoot regardless of height, sex or race
Atop these angry platforms we must ride,
But there's a catch before you start to glide.

The laws of physics sure can be a bitch,
and these platforms possess a deadly glitch.
The shots from them can send you falling through
You plummet down to Peko, oh so screwed.

But with the Magnet Beam, you need not fear!
You need not ride the platforms with the leer!
Just make a bridge and say no to that crap,
And walk across, avoiding Peko's gap!

And soon enough, we face the eskimo
His icy blasts will fill the air, oh no!
With Elec Beam's big blast, he's down in three.
Guess ice is weak to electricity.

The final robot master of the set,
A blazing hell quite unlike any yet.
Through Fireman's boiling hot magma cave,
We strive to put him in his robot grave.

The flames are licking at our very heels,
But Mega Man's a robot without feels.
With five great master weapons in his bod,
He is, himself, a tiny Valyan god.

Through the fire and flames, we carry on
Until the level behind us is gone.
Now Fireman is standing straight ahead,
With our Ice Slasher, we shall make him dead.

Relentless blasts of blazing flame meet ice,
A freezing inferno, isn't that nice?
Do not stop firing 'till the battle's won
And in one shot, the six robots are done.

You've done it! You've won the entire set!
However, the quest isn't over yet!
The creator emerges from his cage
His eyebrows furrowed in a madman's rage.

Now Dr. Wily is challenging you
To find his fortress and come pay your dues.
His capsule makes a piercing shrillish screech
His dread lair's just moments from being breached.

The stamping fools are guarding the outside
But Iceman's slasher will freeze them mid-stride
With hefty use of Gutsman's power glove
You bust on through and start to climb above.

Past deadly spikes and angry missiles, too
The glitchy platforms reappearing, ooh.
With Magnet Beam we get on by once more
A final obstacle to now explore.

A vertical shaft I can't climb? What's up?
Now use your Magnet Beam, you silly pup.
And if you skipped the thing by sheer unluck?
There's no advance, my darling. You're just fucked.

An unfortunate bit of game design
A rare blemish that seems rather benign
Just disregard it now, and don't look back
We now enter a room of starkish black.

The music changes to a frantic beat
A yellow orb comes screaming from the left
And more are coming; this beast has some heft!

With skillful leaps and bounds, Mega evades
This creature's got big yellow orbs in spades!
Eventually the beast begins to form
And what we see is light years from the norm.

A giant yellow devil in our way
A garish golem made of sentient clay
It opens one bright red cycloptean eye,
And fires a single shot from the sky.

With that job done, the beast does separate
Its sentient blobs each larger than a crate.
A realization, as we jump and turn.
This shit is just a pattern to be learned!

One two, three four, five six seven and eight
The number of blocks that hold the most weight.
They zip towards us, lower to the ground
A jump evades, and keeps us safe and sound.

With the last jump, we get the Elec Beam.
This devil's not the dread beast that he seemed!
The eye appears, and now it fires back
We dodge and launch our own counterattack!

As lightning hits the eyeball with a pop,
Time itself seems to grind down to a stop
The current crackles as it hits the eye
What in the world is happening? Oh my!

Time starts again for just a single bit,
The eyeball taking yet another hit
Then all is frozen once again in place
Is this some portion of dear Valya's grace?

With time itself a flickering light switch,
It's curtains for that dread son of a bitch.
It dissipates, and time restarts anew.
The fuck was that? On to... Wily Stage 2?

We find ourselves on platforms way up high,
With swooping things that seem to fill the sky
With careful plotting to our jumps, we go
And run into what was a fallen foe.

Now Cut Man's back, his scissors block our path
There's no Guts blocks to counter Cutty's wrath.
It's one on one, a simple buster duel.
We've come this far; that Cut Man's such a fool.

With Cut Man well and truly cut to size,
It's more platforms and jumping for the wise.
With deft dodging of turreted assaults,
We once again find progress at a halt.

Elec Man's voltage crackles in our face.
There is no fear. This foe must be erased.
With cutting shears, three hits is all takes.
We're getting good at fighting, aren't we, mates?

So down and down through Wily 2 we go.
We're confident we can take any foe
Then realization hits us like a bus
The boss of Wily level 2 is... us.

It's Mega vs Mega in a clash
Our powers turned against us in a flash!
Now, Wily's clever plot I must applaud
But let's be real. We're taking out this fraud.

The battlefield becomes a scorching haze
Our Fire Storms create a firey blaze
The other Mega can't avoid the heat,
And within moments this fake fraud is beat.

We're on stage 3 now, way deeper inside
The heart of things, where Wily does reside.
And further yet we must make our descent
Against foes that will never unrelent.

A torrent rushes out from our rear flank
Of water foul, and grimy, slimy, dank
No turning back now, Mega. Time to move.
A third foe waits to kill you in its grooves.

A bubble bot that floats around the room
And its approach shall spell impending doom.
Our trigger finger, fastest in the east
But look out now, the bubble's speed's increased!

The key lies in those hefty little blocks
But impatience's just a quality for cocks.
Blast out a few bubbles before you heft
And easily, these bubbles will relent.

The final stage, and god this place is grim.
It's Wily's inner sanctum, grey and dim.
We run and jump and ride a Gutsman trap
And teleport away with but a snap.

The gauntlet of revenge has now arrived.
Four robot masters in a row? We'll die!
Now face them down with everything you've learned.
And show them how your competence was earned.

Bombman's bombs are set alight with flame.
Fireman's snuffed out with ice. What shame.
Iceman blows with 50,000 volts.
And Hyper Bomb turns Gutsman into bolts.

You've faced four bosses in a row to live.
For Wily, an ass kicking's what you'll give.
A mythic force that shall never relent.
Now go tell Wily how he can get bent.

His hover tank fades in onto the screen.
A dread beast unlike any ever seen.
But now you've surpassed all those other duds.
And Peko the Destructor cries for blood.

Fulfill your role as her new avatar.
Incinerate this machine from afar.
The front explodes, a burnt and charred rust heap.
And Wily utters but one muffled "eep".

He shan't give up, and fires power blasts.
They swivel and fly incredibly fast.
We're not afraid, we've got our cutting shears.
Once and for all, let's slice away our fears.

With sparking wires and shattered metal plates
Old wily's one hit from defeat. How great.
His lofty dreams of his global conquest
Are crumbled now, because we were the best.

He flies out of the wrecked ship, on his knees
And begs for mercy. GOD NO, MEGA, PLEASE!
Though Peko begs us to cut off his head,
We're not her slave. He'll go to jail instead.

And so, with Wily safely behind bars.
Old Mega runs home while beneath the stars
Not Mega anymore, but plain old Rock.
He's homeward bound, and ready to make dock.

Roll welcomes him, and here is Doctor Light
Congratulations on a job done right.
This ends the tale of Mega Man, part one
But Valya's whispers tell us we're not done.

The future glimmers on the water's edge.
Dear Wily will come back for his revenge.
Though Peko will assist us five times more,
One day she'll reap our soul to Trenzalore.

A paragon of platforming design,
A quest oft called the greatest of all time.
Then next will be quite the tough egg to crack
A rather nostalgic fond look-see back.

And then we'll hit the year of '91
The Dance Apocalyptic will be done
The Soviet's last attack on our shores
A victory will be achieved, what for?

Stagnation and creativity will slide.
And Mega will be faced with a decline
Until, about a year before the end
His final adventure with all us friends.

Then Peko reaps and Mega is no more
Unless you count the "X" that came before
An evolution with a braver, modern face
But in our confines, a forbidden place.

This is what Valya sings of Mega Man
A triumph great, with millions of loyal fans
And then in Valya's twilight he will fall
But even so, he'll smile and have a ball.

Though Mega's future is thoroughly spied,
The legend he has born will never die.
His legacy will never, ever cease.
Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace!