As part of our celebration of the Mega Man series hitting its 25th anniversary, we are featuring a look back at many of the games of the Classic series. For this entry, I’ll be looking Mega Man 2, arguably the game that in many ways, set the course for the Classic series and beyond. To understand why Mega Man 2 was pivotal to the series is to understand where Capcom and Keiji Inafune were in the late 1980s. At that time, Capcom was simply one among many Japanese video game companies that had not yet truly made a name for itself. Sure, some of its games were already notable and popular (most notably, 1941 and the original Street Fighter), but by and large Capcom was still not quite established as a software powerhouse.
This was a position that many other now-household name companies were in, to include SquareSoft and Konami. Newly-hired artist Keiji Inafune was also at a crossroads, as the original Mega Man had only done okay but was not an exceptionally popular title. In this context, Capcom had given Inafune and his coworkers permission to develop Mega Man 2 as an after-hours project. What emerged was a far more polished upgrade to the original Mega Man, but it also foreshadowed the developmental issues that would come to define the Mega Man series as a whole.
As any long-time fan can tell you, it was Mega Man 2 that established the formula of eight Robot Masters, introduced E-Tanks, broadened the number of items in Mega Man’s arsenal, introduced the teleporter room, introduced a number of conventions in terms of special weapons, and in general was a far more polished product than its predecessor. All these aspects made Mega Man 2 a smashing success, the series a household name, and catapulted Keiji Inafune to one of Capcom’s most valuable developers. In short, it was this game that set the course for the series-eschewing revolution in favor of evolution, and in its success, tying the series to a number of conventions it has been unable to shake.
In terms of level design, the developers played around with a far larger set of ideas. Bubble Man’s level introduced water physics and waterfalls, Quick Man’s level featured beams of death, Heat Man’s level took disappearing blocks and made it the thing of nightmares, Air Man’s level used bottomless pits and airborne enemies to provide new challenges, and more. Where the game starts to falter a bit is when it hits the Skull Castle levels. While Mega Man 2 continued the idea of mixing and matching elements from Robot Masters’ levels in these areas, there are a few elements in these final levels that seem a bit harsh or not well thought-out.
Foreshadowing latter design problems, Mega Man 2 can only force the use of its three different items once the player gets to Skull Castle, as forcing such utilization in the first eight levels would have been impossible due to the game's nonlinear nature. In the first Skull Castle level, the game forces the use of Item-3 to climb several walls and Item-1 to reach That One Ladder. In the second level, the game forces the use of Item-2 to move across a long pit of spikes. And then... not much.
Sure, inexperienced players will use Item-2 to clear That One Lava Pit in Heat Man's level, but it's not absolutely required to advance. The Items are fun and could have been used in a lot more places both to advance through the Skull Castle levels and to get extra power-ups in some of the Robot Master levels, but they seem to be an afterthought in designing nearly all the levels. In that context, it seems very strange that they were included at all, and their forced use in those first two Skull Castle levels seems stranger still.
Skull Castle levels 3 and 4 are also sort of strange as they introduce new concepts very late in the game. The third level introduces a brand new enemy, the Big Fish, that jumps out of pits and can knock a player into the pit without warning. The fourth level features false floors and ceilings, and while it thankfully does not kill the player right off the bat with the first false floor, it is odd that the designers did not include this element earlier in any of the preceding eleven levels. The Boobeam Trap boss is also more than a little obnoxious, as it requires a perfect use of the Crash Bombs with no way of refilling weapon energy. While this was the age of “Nintendo Hard,” it does not make such design decisions any less puzzling.
Unlike the original Mega Man, the final two levels of Mega Man 2 are increasingly sparse and less hectic. The original game ended with a marathon challenge that throws everything at the player, creating arguably the toughest level in the game as the finale. Mega Man 2 ends with a short, empty level leading to the final boss. This would set a precedent for the Classic series (at least on consoles) for seven years until Mega Man 7.
Mega Man 2 introduced a number of innovations in terms of what special weapons could do, including a full-screen attack (Time Stopper), a defensive weapon (Leaf Shield), a chargeable weapon (Atomic Fire), a barrier-busting weapon (Crash Bombs), a ground-hugging weapon (Bubble Lead), and a multi-directional weapon (the famously overpowered Metal Blade). In terms of utility and capability, the arsenal in this game is leaps and bounds what was available in the original Mega Man, while later on these innovations would become staples subject to the occasional evolution.
Mega Man 2 is an achievement and an obvious labor of love that is not seen often enough these days. But in its success in improving upon the original Mega Man, it set a precedent with how much innovation would be typically applied with each subsequent game in the Classic series. True revolutions would be saved for the new series of Mega Man games that would come in the following two decades.
While not his intention, it can be argued that Keiji Inafune (with many other real innovators) planted the seeds of the current malaise in Japanese gaming as early as 1988, when he and his colleagues chose to perfect their ideas of platforming rather than continue to jump from project to project. The gaming world is far better for the decision they made to develop this game on their off-time, but his current statements are in many ways the voice of an innovator, disappointed that his successors confused his pursuit of improvement with what is necessary to push the gaming industry forward.
Screenshot Credits: VGMuseum
James is TMMN's Features Contributor and world traveler. He is currently in a faraway land, but he occasionally sends messages in a bottle. If you require more of his love, he left behind a sentient Tumblr account that updates all on its own.
The views expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Mega Man Network.