Yesterday, the Fine Brothers' REACT channel released a new video pitting unaware teens against a game that near and dear to many classic gamers: Mega Man. That's right, teenagers who don't even play games against a challenging title from yesteryear. If you want to see how they fared, the video is below.
Suffice it to say, they didn't do very well. The Fine Brothers unleashed them on Bomb Man's stage - I would've started with Cut Man - with 3 lives and no guidance. Of the teenagers shown in the video, only (the stealth 30-year old) Jasser makes it to the end of the level, but he dies before he even gets the boss down to half health. Yes, the videos are edited to play up the ignorance of the teenagers, but for the purposes of this article, I'm taking what's shown at face value.
If you went by online discourse, you'd think the Fine Brothers found the dumbest teenagers ever. From their lack of knowledge about old platforming game tropes to their inability to reach Bomb Man. There are statements lamenting the state of gaming today, the lack of motivation in children, and the relative excellence of online commenters when they played Mega Man for the first time. There's a sense of arrogant superiority in many of the statements. I'm here to tackle a few of them.
How Did They Not Know about X?
Like almost anything else you can learn, gaming has a certain language to it. There are ideas inherent to how we build and play games that only make sense if you've learned the formal rules to each game world. Mario jumps on Koopas, which only really makes sense in Mario; other titles require you to avoid enemies completely. In this case, Mega Man is supposed to avoid and shoot enemies; some of the teenagers figure this out rather quickly, while others fall back on Mario platforming tropes. "Can I jump on them like in Mario?" Jeannie even asks.
There's a section where Josh finds out for the first time that when power-ups scroll off the screen, they're gone. If the others even twigged to this concept, it's not shown; maybe they did, but it's entirely possible he's the only one that noticed. Jasser loses a life because he didn't know he needed to hold Up to grab on a ladder. Jeannie is perplexed that spikes are a one-hit kill, but there are a number of platformers where they're not (Sonic the Hedgehog's spikes are less punitive). Even simple things like the physical design of the NES controller are foreign to these kids: watch how some of their fingers curl to reach shoulder buttons and triggers that aren't there.
A similar thing happened when Super Metroid hit the Wii U Virtual Console. Beyond of the infamous "Y can't Metroid crawl?" question (that guy eventually beat the game), many players were stuck because they lacked the tools and expectations to deal with certain obstacles. Knowing that brown doors are completely inactive is a learned trait. Something as simple as taking a leap of faith is hard because other games have taught you bottomless pits are instant death.
These are all things most of us take for granted, because we grew up playing these titles. Concepts like wall jumping, double jumps, and charge shots, are familiar to us. We're more apt to sit down with a title and see what gameplay tropes form the backbone of a game's world. Imagine not having that knowledge to draw on? It's why I use the language metaphor; if you don't understand Russian vocabulary or sentence structure, of course you're going to be lost reading a Russian book, even if it's meant for children.
These kids lack the vocabulary to engage with something like Mega Man early on. Despite that, they take damage, die, learn, and improve. They get farther and repeated attempts see them getting deeper into the level. (Jeannie gets pretty far without even knowing she can attack.) That's how the game works. Many of us just forget that we had to learn at one point.
Mega Man 1 Wasn't That Hard When I First Played It
Yeah, it was. Maybe you were one of the special kids who beat every boss with only the Mega Buster without losing any lives, but I wasn't and neither were most of my peers. The first Mega Man is one of the classic "Nintendo Hard" games (It's not Mega Man and Bass or Megaman Zero 2, but you get the idea). Not only was it the introduction to this specific style of play, but it lacked the superior level design of its sequels.
Seriously, watch that video. Count how many obstacles are meant to damage you with absolutely no telegraph or hint. Josh loses a life because he kills an enemy that explodes and he happened to be too close. There was really no way to prevent the loss of that life. Mega Man is meant to be a game where you die and learn from your death. These teenagers are playing the game as its meant to be played.
Remember, Mega Man 1 is borderline evil at times. Guts Man and Ice Man's stages are still some of the hardest platforming experiences around. For a neophyte, things come at you from every direction and it only takes some knockback to find yourself falling into spikes or a bottomless pit. There's no charging, no sliding, and no Energy Tanks to ease the difficulty and the infamous Yellow Devil is waiting for you.
The boss weaknesses make little sense. Using Ice Slasher on Fire Man makes sense, but why would you think to use Thunder Beam on Ice Man or Rolling Cutter on Elec Man? Beyond that, Mega Man makes no effort to teach you anything or even hint at possible solutions. It's like a point-and-click adventure game in platforming form; things work because they were built that way, you just have to keep dying until you figure out the solution.
Games Today Are Too Easy, Kids Rely on Hand-Holding and Tutorials
This is the one I'm willing to relent a bit on, but there are reasons. Games today are easier. Many of these Nintendo titles had designs informed by the arcade games of the day, which were meant to eat all your precious quarters. Designing a game that most of your player bases couldn't beat was the norm, and many of these older Nintendo games have been proven to be painfully hard. Hell, there's even one study that proves older Nintendo games are NP-hard, meaning they're even computationally difficult.
"For these games, we consider the decision problem of reachability: given a stage or dungeon, is it possible to reach the goal point t from the start point s?" asks that study. "If it is hard to decide even this question, then it is certainly hard to find an optimal path."
These early Nintendo games were also made by developers who designed the titles with only one audience in mind: themselves.
"Video games from that era are abnormally hard," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata admitted in a guest appearance on Japanese show Game Center CX. "Back in the NES generation, for example, let's say everyone debugs a game after it's finished. Everyone involved in the production would spend all night playing it, and because they made games, they became good at them. So these expert gamers make the games, saying 'This is too easy.'"
I daresay many of us did not actually beat all the games were played as kids. We certainly got deep into the game due to repeated playthroughs of early levels, but finishing it? That's was a surprise, the culmination of hours of effort and the help of the Nintendo Power.
That changed during the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis era when the concept of a home console was more mainstream and normalized. Games became more accessible, something I understand that many players feel is akin to hand-holding. Game mechanics were more likely to allow players to fail and learn without the harsh penalties older titles meted out. The jump in level design from Mega Man to Mega Man X is nothing short of astounding, with the introduction level going out of its way to teach you about game mechanics. We've moved from hit points in many cases to regenerating health; from games that only give you three lives to titles with frequent checkpoints.
The thing is, those older games still exist for the hardcore. Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and Spelunky stand as titles with harsh penalties and high difficulty. No hands are held, no quarter is given. If that's your thing, those games still exist for you. Yes, there's a middle ground between challenge and accessibility that we may have passed - the late PlayStation 1, early PlayStation 2 era, I'd say - but not every game today is a complete cakewalk.
This Is a Positive Thing
What many missed in calling these teenagers stupid is the fact that they enjoyed their experience with Mega Man. They had three lives and only one reached the boss, but they were learning. They were getting better. Given enough time to learn the ins-and-outs of the game, I'm sure they would've been fine. That's what playing games in the NES era was for us. Suffering our way to success.
If you think these kids are hopeless, here's a challenge: find an NES game you didn't play back in the day. Go play it. See how easy it is to learn its systems, or how well you do in the first 10-15 minutes of play. Or revisit one of those old classics that you haven't played in decades. Even drawing on the knowledge you already have as a gamer, I think what you'll find will surprise you.