Comfort Food Games: Mega Man 2

Comfort Food Games: Mega Man 2

Jeremy contemplates the intricate web of great game design and complex personal experiences that keeps him coming back to this NES classic.

Who knows why or how people fall in love? Love can be a tricky thing to break down, whether it's love for a person, a pet, a movie, a good book, a kind of food. Sometimes, we simply love what we love, and with no rational cause.

Other times, though, there's little mystery involved. I mean, I can tell you exactly how and why I came to love Mega Man 2. The chain of events that led to it becoming one of my favorite games — no, one of my favorite pieces of media — no, wait, one my favorite things to do, period — leaves no ambiguity, no uncertainty. The game and all the experiences that surrounded my discovery of it connected to all the right neurons, stimulated all the right chemicals. It was love at first sight, in fact.

Thank god it wasn't Fester's Quest that caught my attention.

That first sighting came in the form of a pair of tiny screenshots in an early issue of Nintendo Power. I can still recall stumbling across it as I sat in my parents' car in the parking lot of the local ballpark. My brother played little league baseball, and my family cheered him on, while I pored over every detail of those images. I suppose I was a little lonely there in my self-imposed exile, but I couldn't imagine an alternative at the time. I had given up on sports by then, both playing and following them; my brief flirtation with league baseball had coincided with my amblyopia therapy. Ever tried playing baseball with one eye covered? Batting? Disastrous. Sports, I decided, simply weren't for a short, half-blind person like myself. I found my refuge in art, in reading and writing, and in video games.

Hey, I know that guy.

Those initial Mega Man 2 screen snaps spoke to me — they combined my affection for both games and art. Such unprecedented detail in the graphics! Such depth, such excellent line work! I had no idea that Nintendo Power was cheating, showing off the coolest-looking bosses in the game, but it wouldn't have mattered. I'd never played a video game with such extraordinary graphical quality... and this was coming to NES, not some arcade machine or impossibly pricy Amiga! I was sold.

I was so sold, in fact, that I hunted down the game's predecessor. Nintendo Power, the one magazine subscription I could afford and thus my personal video game bible, never covered the original Mega Man in any detail. The omission happened entirely because the game slightly predated the magazine, but its absence (along with the infamously terrible cover art) led me to assume it simply wasn't any good. Those Mega Man 2 screens inspired me to take a chance, though. How could the game that inspired something this cool-looking not be at least somewhat amazing? Eventually, I tracked down a copy — the last one for sale in the entire city, so far as I could tell — and rushed home to try it out.

It was great, as it turned out. Solid, challenging, well-designed, with a unique visual style all its own. And as I played it for the first time, my mother brought in the mail. She handed me an unexpected letter, a missive from a female schoolmate I'd never met in person and who was about to move to California — yet who in the summer months to come would become a long-time friend, a writing partner, and a perpetual awkward teenage crush all at once. That's a lot of adolescent complications to have irrevocably associated with something so slight as a video game. No wonder the thought of Mega Man NES games makes me sigh nostalgically; there's undoubtedly some sort of cross-wired confusion going on there.

Less-humble-than-anticipated roots.

Even without the impact of teenage hormones, the original Mega Man got me completely enthused for the sequel on quality alone. Mega Man 2 was still a few months out, unfortunately. So I played through the first game over and over, honing my skills; and when I wasn't playing, I was probably breaking down the big Nintendo Power cover story from the next issue, picture by picture. Or else volunteering to mow every lawn I possibly could for five bucks a pop. I can't imagine cheerfully offering to undergo so much heavy labor in the sweltering Texas summer sun these days, but back then I didn't mind. Every grueling session behind the push mower brought me a few dollars closer to owning Mega Man 2.

When it arrived at last, the game didn't disappoint. I tore through it in the space of a weekend. When I reached the true final stage, a silent run through an eerie underground tunnel punctuated only by the sound of dripping acid, I was on edge. My brother and a visiting friend of his, neither one much in the way of video game enthusiasts, watched eagerly as I tried to figure out the secret weakness for Dr. Wily's "true form." Eventually, I earned the big finale... and the next day, I played the game again from the start. And again. And again. I've played it so many times over the years that I can jump in, completely cold, and blast through the infamous Quick Man laser gauntlet on my first go from muscle memory alone.

Evidence for the "pics or it didn't happen" generation.

Mega Man 2 was just that kind of game — it's incredibly memorable, and not just because of the memories I personally associate with it. Nearly every inch of the game is designed to perfection (nearly; let's not talk about those vanishing blocks and the next-to-last boss). Its versatile weapon options and open-ended level selection system make for an almost endlessly replayable action game that can be as different each time as you like. For a game revolving around a little robot jumping and shooting a lot, Mega Man 2 certainly manages to possess plenty of depth.

Every stage in Mega Man 2 offered a different feel from the last, be it the vertiginous heights of Air Man's level or the oppressive underground fires of Heat Man's level. Unique play mechanics sprouted up everywhere, whether as trivial details (such as Bubble Man's plummeting, unstable platforms) or as challenges that defined an entire stage (e.g. those Quick Man lasers). How will you tackle the game this time? Whose level to defeat first? Will you rely on the overpowered Metal Blades or try and use underappreciated tools like the Quick Boomerang? Will you play on normal mode or attempt Hard mode like the creators intended?

As a game that remains extremely playable even by today's standards, Mega Man 2 was understandably an absolute revelation back in the days when the world was still figuring out how video games should even work. The medium has undergone extensive standardization over the past decade, to the point where something like Crackdown — all of seven years old — feels weird to play because it doesn't use the widely established control scheme of current action games. In the late '80s, everyone was still figuring things out... which meant lots of terrible games, but also inspired surprises like Mega Man 2. Brilliant works out of the blue that helped advance the medium.

Admittedly, sometimes love is complicated.

Between its excellence and the complicated snarl of personal memories it evokes, Mega Man 2 may actually be my ultimate comfort food game. Well, until my wandering obsession refocuses on something else. For the moment, though? Mega Man 2 might actually be the greatest game ever made. I can say this with the absolute confidence of utter subjectivity.

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