Platform gaming in its finest, most pure form!
The Nintendo Entertainment System was where the platform genre reigned back in the late 80's and early 90's. The grey, 8-bit beast saved console gaming with Nintendo's own pack-in smash hit Super Mario Bros., probably the most recognisable game in existence.
Many companies tried to make their own platform gaming hits on the NES in an attempt to mimic the quality of Nintendo's game. Some were successful, many were not. One of the games in the first category was Capcom's Mega Man, a challenging action-platformer praised by gamers for its tight controls, pretty graphics, great music and challenging level design. It's most clever and distinguishing feature, though, was its rock-paper-scissors system, wherein each weapon you got from a defeated boss robot was strong against one of his companions in another level.
While a great game, the commercial success of the game was fairly moderate. Capcom didn't think it was successful enough to warrant a sequel. The game's creator, Keiji Inafune, however, still saw potential in the series, and begged that the company would allow him to produce a sequel. His wish was granted under the condition that he and his team would develop the game solely in their spare time, keeping the focus on more urgent projects.
Inafune agreed, and boy, was it a great decision. The result was Mega Man 2, released in 1988, a year after the first game. It was a game that improved upon its predecessor in many ways and quickly turned into the smash hit Capcom had been looking for a year before.
The story is simple: Dr. Wily, the evil scientist Mega Man defeated in the first game, has escaped prison to resume his plans for world domination. Mega Man goes after him. In order to stop Mega Man, Dr. Wily has built eight more Robot Masters, similar to the ones Mega Man fought in the original.
The game is mostly similar to the first game. Like in that game, Mega Man needs to traverse a series of levels at the end of which he must defeat the Robot Master. An important addition in this game was the fact that there are eight of these as opposed to the six in the original game. Ever since this game, eight Robot Masters has been the standard for the series.
The eight bosses include: Air Man, Wood Man, Quick Man, Flash Man, Bubble Man, Crash Man, Metal Man and Heat Man. Like in the first title, you can select which level to start with and beat all of them in whichever order you like. Each boss, however, has a weakness to at least one of the weapons you receive after beating one of his buddies, forcing you to figure out which item works best on which bosses. As a result, playing the levels in a certain specific order makes the bosses much easier to defeat than with Mega Man's basic arm cannon. The weapons range from a boomerang to a saw blade and from a bubble gun to bombs. This rock-paper-scissors system is something you don't see often in the platform genre. Figuring out this order is one of the most fun elements in any Mega Man game.
This element also comes back during your trips throughout the levels themselves. Each level has its own tricky parts but figuring out how to avoid certain difficulties using specific weapons is half of the fun and it adds up to the game's replay value. Each world reflects the theme of the boss that resides in it. From Bubble Man's stage, which is largely underwater, to the fiery bowels of Heat Man's stage and from Metal Man's steel factory to Wood Man's jungle, each stage has its own distinctive theme, traps and enemies. There is lots of variation and each level is unique and designed with care. They are designed in a way that is challenging but not unfair or overly frustrating.
An major addition is that you can collect certain items that allow you to create helpful platforms. While something slightly similar was available in the first game, this is the game that really worked it out as a game-changing feature. There are three to collect: a flying surfing board, inflatable platforms that stick to walls and platforms flying upwards. Later games would implement these kind of features in the form of the robot dog Rush, but this is the game wherein it first made its big mark on the series. Another addition that originates in this game are the collectible energy tanks, making the game more manageable because they allow you to replenish Mega Man's health.
Controls are tight and responsive, which is something you badly need in this game. While not as tough as the first game, Mega Man 2 is by no means an easy game when you first boot it up. It really feels like a platformer in its purest form. Mega Man can't jump as far or as high as Mario, but he has a trusty arm cannon and shooting is a much more important part of the game than in Nintendo's franchise. Quick reflexes and quick decisions are pivotal to survive, especially when you defeat the eight bosses and infiltrate Dr. Wily's challenging fortress, which is split up into several levels. Thankfully, this game also introduces a password system to the series, allowing you to continue where you left off.
Graphically, Mega Man 2 looks similar to the first game. That was a very pretty game for its time, however. While Mega Man's sprites and animations where reused, they are so well-designed you don't mind. Heck, his original design would be used in many sequels after it, spanning various systems. It is still to be found in Mega Man sequels in recent years, such as Mega Man 10, which is a testimony to how defining the graphical style in these early titles truly was. In an age when many games had empty backgrounds, Mega Man 2 impressed with detailed and animated background textures. The game has vibrant colours, detailed character designs and fluid animations.
Sound is just as impressive. As far as 8-bit music goes, there are few games that sound better than this one. The theme that plays in Dr. Wily stage 1 and 2 is a fan favourite. Mega Man 2 has one of the most impressive, if not THE most impressive 8-bit soundtrack.
Certain items make some hard parts ridiculously easy. In Heat Man's stage, for example, there is a very difficult part wherein you need to navigate across disappearing platforms over a huge chasm. Anyone who's ever played a Mega Man game will recognize these sequences as some of the most challenging parts of the game. When you whip out Mega Man's surfboard, however, you can completely skip this whole sequence.
This also makes the rock-paper-scissors mechanic in this game unbalanced. Once you defeat Metal Man and receive his weapon, the Metal Blade, the whole game is a lot easier. The Metal Blade is incredibly powerful against half of the bosses, including Metal Man himself. It can shoot in eight directions and doesn't deplete as quickly as other items. Some bosses are weak to multiple weapons, while others have just one weakness. This makes the order in which to beat the levels really vague and not as clear as in the other Mega Man games.
Another weapon-related issue comes in the form of the Crash Bomber. This weapon is powerful against two of the later bosses but it depletes so quickly, it most likely forces you to lose all your lives and then choose continue. This replenishes your Crash Bombs but forces you to replay the entire level as well. And naturally, these later levels are anything but easy.
The western release has an easy mode for beginners, but the difference is barely noticeable most of the time. There are a few enemies and bosses that take a few extra hits, but that's about it. It feels like it was rushed into the game at the last moment, right before the western release.
The Bottom Line
Out of the enormous library of NES platformers, choosing the good ones can be difficult. With Mega Man 2, however, you can't go wrong. It is not the hardest game in the series but that makes it a good point to start and it certainly is not an easy game either. Many still consider this game the series' peak. While some say that Mega Man 3 is better, Mega Man 2 is certainly one of the most defining of the Blue Bomber's adventures, and a game that no platform gaming fan should be without.