I recently wrote a two-part feature chronicling my Soul Level 1 playthrough of action-RPG Demon’s Souls (see it here and here). Needless to say, it was a tense, challenging and sometimes very difficult experience. “That was probably the toughest gaming experience I’ll have for a while,” I thought to myself afterwards.
Oh, past-Alex, you poor, naive fool…
Because not long after that, I played 2D platformers Mega Man 2 and 3. And while my Demon’s Souls Soul Level 1 playthrough was challenging, it never made me want to chew my own face off in frustration and rage the way these two Mega Man games did.
Over the past few months I’ve been making the effort to properly experience a few long-running and beloved videogame series for the first time, as seen in my “My First Castlevania” and “My First Legend of Zelda” articles. Next on my list was Capcom’s Mega Man series and after doing some research online, I learned that the second and third Mega Man games – both on NES and released in 1988 and 1990, respectively – were considered to be two of the best by a number of fans. And so I picked up both titles on the Wii U Virtual Console as I wasn’t sure if Mega Man 2 alone would provide me with enough material for a full article.
Warning: the following article contains explicit abuse of save-states.
Mega Man 2
Like many videogames of its time, Mega Man 2 doesn’t spend any more time than necessary getting the player into the action. Upon beginning the game, I received a few lines of exposition – the plot boils down to the evil Dr. Wily and his Robot Masters needing to be stopped and Dr. Light’s creation Mega Man being the one to do it – and was then presented with a choice of difficulty, “Normal” or “Difficult”. As I was aware of the reputation of the early Mega Man games as being very difficult, I chose “Normal”.
Then it was on to the stage-select screen, with each of the eight levels being represented by the particular Robot Master who acts as its boss, the roster consisting of Bubble Man, Air Man, Quick Man, Heat Man, Wood Man, Metal Man, Flash Man and Crash Man. Unsure if it was a good or bad place to start, I chose Bubble Man first.
Mega Man 2 is a simple game to pick up and play, the controls limited to moving left and right, jumping, shooting, and climbing up or down ladders. Your standard weapon has infinite ammo although you also possess a weapon energy gauge which depletes when using any of the special weapons you pick up as you defeat the Robot Masters, with each boss granting you a new weapon – and a different colour palette for Mega Man’s sprite when you use that weapon – upon defeat. Defeating a boss also presents you with a password for saving your current progress.
As well as the weapon energy gauge, Mega Man possesses a life gauge and both gauges can be topped up via collectable items found within the levels or dropped by defeated enemies, although the latter disappear very quickly. Other items include extra lives and energy tanks, four of which can be stored for future use, allowing you to refill your life gauge when you see fit.
Bubble Man’s level began with a waterfall backdrop before the action moved underwater, the enemies consisting of robot frogs, robot fish, robot jellyfish, etc. – as far as I can remember at the time of writing, every enemy in the game is a robot of some description, the game apparently taking place after Skynet has become self-aware. While underwater I was able to jump higher than usual but this was tempered by the fact that the ceilings in these sections were covered in one-hit-kill spikes, meaning I had to be cautious. This was a simple but effective piece of design that I liked.
Although Bubble Man’s stage turned out to be far from the hardest in the game, I still experienced a couple of deaths and was grateful to discover that the game used a checkpoint system, which at least meant that I didn’t have to restart the level from the beginning. The boss fight against Bubble Man took place inside a single screen-size room (as do all of the boss fights in the game) and by avoiding his leaping and bubble-firing weapon, I was able to beat him on my first attempt. I received his weapon, the Bubble-Lead, in return. One Robot Master down.
I chose Heat Man next as I remembered reading in the past that certain weapons were very effective on certain bosses in at least some Mega Man games, so I hoped that my Bubble-Lead’s harmful bubbles might give me an edge against Heat Man.
Heat Man’s level was one of bricks, concrete and fire, and I encountered some fiendishly tricky platforming sections, navigating lethal rivers of lava while dealing with disappearing platforms and flying enemies. Unlike in Bubble Man’s level, there was no clear theme connecting the enemies, instead consisting of random robot designs. Although I died once while fighting Heat Man, I then defeated him with the Bubble-Lead, which was just as effective as I’d hoped.
For defeating Heat Man, I received the Atomic Fire. I also received a message from Dr. Light – or it might have been Santa Claus, they look very similar – telling me I now possessed “Item-1”, which allowed me to create my own temporary platforms. As the game progressed I would receive two more temporary-platform items, each one’s platforms moving in a different way, making them applicable to different situations.
Up next was Metal Man, whose level included giant cogs, conveyor belts and spiked metal weights falling from the ceiling. Here I experienced some pretty severe sprite-flicker, a graphical flaw apparent in a number of NES games, and often some accompanying slowdown. Although the Metal Man boss fight added a wrinkle in the form of a floor-covering conveyor belt, I defeated him via a combination of my Atomic Fire and standard weapon, and received his Metal-Blade in return.
I assumed that Wood Man – whose level of earth, trees and grass was a nice change from the metallic / futuristic visuals present in many of the other levels – would be weak to my Atomic Fire or Metal-Blade and it turned out to be the latter, his defeat granting me the Leaf Shield. Personally I wasn’t totally convinced of the protective ability of leaves but there you go.
The many ladders and moving platforms of Crash Man’s stage were made more difficult by floating enemies but eventually I ascended above the clouds and seemingly into space to fight the boss. Crash Man turned out to be my toughest boss fight yet – Metal-Blade was useless, Bubble-Lead worked okay but not great – but eventually I got used to his move-pattern and defeated him, which rewarded me with the Crash Bomber.
While Quick Man’s stage was visually generic, it did feature one particularly nice touch: at certain points, everything apart from Mega Man himself would go absolutely dark until you reached the next enemy, which carried a fire and would therefore light up the scenery again. Until you defeat it, that is – then it’s lights-out again until the next fire-carrying enemy. I thought this was a cool idea and it would have been nice to see more moments like this throughout the game.
Quick Man’s defeat gave me the Quick-Boomerang, and handily, my following victory over Air Man – his stage consisted of a jaunt amongst the clouds, meaning lots of lethal falling opportunities – came as a result of that weapon (and perhaps the glare of the bright pink suit that accompanies it). Air Man’s defeat granted me the Air Shooter.
The last Robot Master standing was Flash Man, who waited at the end of a twisting level of slippery surfaces, although my Atomic Fire worked well enough against him that he wasn’t standing for long. I received the Time-Stopper in return.
With all of the Robot Masters now beaten, a brief cut-scene showed Dr. Wily appearing in a flying saucer, wiggling his eyebrows at me in a worryingly suggestive manner and then flying off again. The game then placed me at his fortress, which is made up of five separate areas which must be conquered in a linear order.
This final section of the game began outside the fortress, in a mountainous location featuring fences and concrete outposts, but I was soon infiltrating the fortress itself, the first four stages consisting of a platforming section followed by a boss fight (although one of these bosses was more of a hostile puzzle room than an actual fight).
The final of the five areas of the fortress turned out to be a room containing eight teleporters, each connected to a particular Robot Master fight which I had already endured to reach this point. So right near the end of the game, I had to defeat all eight Robot Masters a second time. I found this to be a time-consuming and frustrating chore, especially given that my life gauge didn’t totally refill between boss fights.
Eventually I defeated the Robot Masters – again – and then a teleporter took me to a showdown with Dr. Wily, who fought me from within a flying ship in a two-stage boss fight. After defeating him, a secret area appeared and here was where I experienced the actual final boss of the game – apparently, “Dr. Wily” had been an alien in disguise all along. I tried all of my weapons against the hostile alien until I finally discovered that its only apparent weakness was… bubbles. Okay.
But then, after I defeated the alien, there was one more twist: the “alien” was actually a hologram created by the real Dr. Wily, who had been controlling it from behind the scenes. Dr. Wily surrendered and then a brief ending showed a pleasant pastoral scene and a triumphant Mega Man strolling along. Roll credits.
So that was Mega Man 2. The only reason I haven’t stressed the difficulty of the game more often in what I’ve just written is simply because if I made a note of every time I faced a platforming section or boss which seemed cheap or extremely difficult, this would be a much longer and more repetitive article.
I can certainly see why Mega Man 2 impressed NES players at the time and why many of those players might possess fond memories of it today, but with no nostalgia of my own coming into play, I found the game to be unfair and frustrating too often for it to be a particularly enjoyable experience – the only reason I was able to complete it was because of the Virtual Console’s save-state capability. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys challenging games and who started playing videogames in the 1980s, when countless other games besides the Mega Man series offered unfair difficulty and cheap deaths.
I’m sure there are people out there who would scoff at the above and are able to complete Mega Man 2 in four minutes with one hand tied behind their back, their eyes closed and their genitals on fire, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend countless hours mastering a game that I’m not even enjoying.
I did like the music, though.
Mega Man 3
Mega Man 3 is very similar to its predecessor, the third game following the same fundamental pattern and featuring no noticeable technical advancements, although there are all-new levels to traverse and all-new Robot Masters to defeat. There are also a few new features in the form of boxes containing random items; a slide move for Mega Man; and the introduction of Mega Man’s robotic canine friend Rush, who can be summoned and used as a springboard to jump higher than normal.
As for the game’s plot: Dr. Wily. Robot Masters. Kick the shit out of them. Got it? Good.
Mega Man 3’s stage-select screen presented me with eight new Robot Masters: Spark Man, Snake Man, Needle Man, Hard Man, Top Man, Gemini Man, Magnet Man, Shadow Man and the gender-confused Woman Man. (Okay, so that last one’s not real).
Not seeing any overt connections between any of the Robot Masters, I chose Top Man first simply because he looked like an idiot. His level was visually interesting, the scenery being a mixture of foliage, metal and glass, although the overall effect of the visuals was hampered by some truly terrible slowdown and sprite-flicker, worse than anything I’d come across in Mega Man 2. Speaking of the second game, I noticed that some enemies from it were reused here – this would be the case in other levels as well. Beating Top Man and his spinning-tops of doom granted me the Top Spin weapon.
Magnet Man’s stage had an interesting feature in the form of floating enemies who would pull Mega Man into the air when they passed over him, so this had to be taken into account when traversing platforms. This was a nice idea although it was only used briefly. This stage also contained a surprise mini-boss who announced himself with some whistling but whose simple movement pattern made him relatively easy to defeat. It took me several attempts to defeat Magnet Man but eventually I did so and received the Magnet Missile.
Needle Man’s level was unremarkable, although when I defeated him after another difficult battle I received not only his weapon, the Needle Cannon, but also a new skill for Rush, who I very rarely needed to summon. This skill, Rush Jet, allowed the robot dog to be used as a horizontally-moving platform.
Next I chose Snake Man, whose level was immediately frustrating with its incredibly annoying leaping enemies and laser-spitting snake heads, although the second half of the level was slightly more manageable than the first. Thankfully, Snake Man himself was a pushover against the Needle Cannon (“Snake?! SNAAAAAKE!”), and my reward was the Search Snake.
Although I’d already noticed it in Mega Man 2, by now it was really hitting home to me just how much luck came into play in terms of item drops from enemies, as the drops you receive can frequently make the difference between life and death. Sometimes I got lucky and received a health drop when I desperately needed it whereas at other times all I received was weapon energy that I didn’t need. It sucked that I was at the mercy of the item-drop gods in a game that was already relentlessly trying to kill me in cheap ways.
Spark Man’s stage featured electricity-themed obstacles and enemies, not to mention some severe instances of slowdown. When it came to Spark Man himself, the Needle Cannon again turned out to be an effective weapon and I received the Spark Shock upon his defeat.
While in Shadow Man’s level I had to contend with walking grenade-robots; objects that darkened the scenery, making combat and platforming temporarily much tougher; and a second fight against the whistling mini-boss. I tried all of my weapons against Shadow Man, leaving Top Spin until last, although this turned out to be my most effective weapon. Because everyone knows that shadows can be dispelled by spinning tops, of course. Shadow Man’s defeat granted me the Shadow Blade and a new power for Rush: Rush Marine, which transforms Rush into a submersible which Mega Man can pilot through underwater areas.
The opening section of Gemini Man’s level was another incredibly frustrating experience, although visually the stage was interesting, going from a sort of ice or crystal exterior (I’m assuming the former but with the graphics, it’s hard to tell) into an organic subterranean section. Also, the whistling mini-boss made another appearance, although he actually helped me to progress this time rather than attacking me. Gemini Man’s power allowed him to split himself into two and attack simultaneously but I beat him with my Search Snake (that’s not a euphemism), rewarding me with the Gemini Laser.
The final remaining Robot Master was Hard Man, whose level saw me entering a mountain and traversing the tunnels within while avoiding traps and fighting robot bees, robot monkeys and other enemies, including the whistling mini-boss again. Hard Man’s defeat granted me the Hard Knuckle.
With all of the Robot Masters beaten, I figured it was time for Dr. Wily’s fortress, but instead I was confronted with a surprise: four new stages (reusing graphics from four of the previous eight stages), each involving two boss fights against the spirits of two Robot Masters from Mega Man 2. That’s right, after beating the eight Mega Man 3 Robot Masters, I then had to beat the eight Mega Man 2 Robot Masters and the platforming sections that preceded them. From a value-for-money point-of-view, I admire Capcom’s inclusion of this extra content, but personally as someone who by now had already lost any enthusiasm for the game, this piling on of eight more boss fights just made me groan.
But I grit my teeth and pressed on – because that’s what heroes do, dammit – and eventually all of the resurrected Mega Man 2 bosses had been defeated. That was when the whistling mini-boss – his name now listed as “Break Man” – appeared and we fought again. Hooray, another boss fight. After Break Man’s defeat, a brief cut-scene showed Dr. Wily wiggling his eyebrows at me again as he did in Mega Man 2 and then it was finally time to take on his fortress.
Although its levels were new, Dr. Wily’s new fortress played out in the same manner as in the previous game, the fortress being made up of several levels which must be completed in a linear order. The boss fight in one of these levels was a particularly time-consuming and grating experience as it involved a golem-like being who kept assembling and disassembling itself. But although this dragged-out fight annoyed me, I hadn’t seen anything yet…
Because at the end of the fourth fortress section, I came to a room with eight teleporters. Fearing the worst, I entered one of the teleporters and my fears were confirmed: each teleporter led to a repeat fight with one of the eight Mega Man 3 Robot Masters. So in summation: first I had to defeat the eight new Robot Masters. Then I had to defeat all eight Robot Masters from Mega Man 2. Then I had to defeat the several bosses of Dr. Wily’s fortress. Then I had to defeat the eight Mega Man 3 Robot Masters for a second time. I found this absolutely ridiculous and even at such a late stage in the game, I was sorely tempted to stop playing there and then due to this utterly obnoxious design decision.
But eventually I decided to continue and I beat the eight Robot Masters. Again. Then it was on to the showdown with Dr. Wily, in which he was piloting a giant, mechanical, crab-type vehicle. But oh look, “Dr. Wily” turns out to be a robot decoy, so guess what? Yep, it’s time for another boss fight! Happy-happy joy-joy!
Despite having lost the will to live by this point, I used the Top Spin weapon to beat Dr. Wily and the giant robot he was controlling. Dr. Wily surrendered before he and Mega Man were both crushed by falling blocks, although the life of the latter was saved by Break Man, who Dr. Light went on to call “Proto Man” before a connection between the mini-boss and Mega Man was revealed. I didn’t care anymore. Roll credits on Mega Man 3. Thank God.
As you may have guessed by now, I didn’t have much fun with my first Mega Man experience. While I can understand why players might have enjoyed Mega Man 2 and 3 at the time, I found the positive elements of these games to be overwhelmed by their difficulty, especially in the case of Mega Man 3, which was the worst of the two in this regard. There were a number of occasions where I encountered what felt to me like transparent and obnoxious attempts by the developers to just make the game hard – not challenging, not entertaining, not enjoyable, just difficult for the sake of it.
The games do have their good points: nice character design, some interesting boss fights, a decent amount of content, some imaginative design choices, and great music. If you’re a fan of 2D platformers and don’t mind the difficulty then I’d recommend them. But for me, Mega Man 2 and 3 were cheap and frustrating far too often to get much enjoyment from them.
Anyway, now that’s over, maybe I’ll try something a little more relaxing. Like a Soul Level 1, no-death playthrough of Dark Souls II. With my eyes closed. And my hands tied behind my back. And my genitals on fire. While being eaten by a bear. (You get the idea).
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work covers videogames, comic books and prose. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while two graphic novels he has written will see release in 2015 from Markosia Enterprises. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include interactive novel Eternal Forest and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To witness more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy