Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
Today’s Q&A is part of our day-long celebration of Mega Man 2—in honor of its release 25 years ago, we’re paying tribute to the game and to everything Mega Man. So the question for this Q&A is simple:
What’s your favorite level from the Mega Man series?
The Mega Man games are unforgiving. They require precise timing and grueling concentration. Which is why when this question was posed, my thoughts immediately went to the Metal Man level from Mega Man 2—because it provides a small respite from the challenge. After a few playthroughs of the game, it’s clear that this level is the one you should complete first, before you’ve built up your powers. There are conveyor belts galore that speed you along and teach you to find your footing. Metallic enemies come at you from all sides, but they easily succumb to a few hits from your wimpy gun. Metal Man’s stage is essentially a tutorial, one that teaches you the controls and establishes the game’s frantic vibe without bashing you over the head with it. Defeating Metal Man nets you the ability to throw large saw blades at enemies, each with the power of, say, a large saw blade being thrown at someone. If you can navigate the tricky but relatively gentle traps of Metal Man’s abode and weave your way around the man himself to victory, you can accomplish anything.
Each Mega Man game required the developers at Capcom to come up with eight colorful “Robot Master” bosses, along with elaborate lairs tailored to each bad guy. After a sequel or five, it gets tough to come up with something fresh, and that fatigue shows in Mega Man 6, which features such retreads as Blizzard Man and Flame Man. But I’ve always been charmed by Yamato Man, whose lair combines stereotypical Japanese cultural images with Mega Man’s usual anime-style goofiness. The level opens with a pretty rendition of Mt. Fuji and a Japanese cityscape in the background, and the attention to detail here is about as good as it got on the NES. (Mega Man 6 was the last game released for the system.) Yamato Man is pretty badass himself—done up in traditional Japanese warrior garb, one of his attacks is to hurl a spear. That’s a classic look. But the highlight of the level has to be the bonkers mini-boss you encounter halfway through (provided you take the right route). It’s a robot samurai, complete with topknot, who hurls bombs at you from atop a frog. Oh, and the frog has a laser cannon in his mouth. Mega Man 6 may not be a high point of the series, but it’s not without its flair.
Anthony John Agnello
Dr. Wily’s a real son of a bitch, but the guy’s penchant for creating adorable things sure does soften his edge. What kind of evil mastermind builds his army out of googly-eyed rabbits and ambulatory hard hats? How bad would a future dominated by Dr. Wily really be? Pretty damn awful going by the opening level of Mega Man X, a dilapidated highway where the rogue bots of the future are so desperate to kill you that they’ll destroy the ground you’re both standing on to do it. The sweet synthesized metal, the subdued pastel hues of the Year 2XXX cityscape—all of it makes one thing clear about Mega Man’s future: It sucks, for the people who live there. For the people playing, it’s awesome. Especially the ending, where you fight what looks like a version of Boba Fett given a makeover by Prince, and Hair Metal Mega Man saves the day. Unlike the old Mega Man series, X peaked right out of the gate, but even duds like Mega Man X5 through X7 can’t dull the blazing bleakness of Central Highway.
I read somewhere once that a gentleman should always carry a lighter. Since then, I’ve been on the hunt for a Heat Man-style Zippo. I like the idea that any smoothness cred I get from flipping open the lighter and firing up a cigarette will be immediately nullified by the fact that I’m a grown man walking around with the likeness of a Mega Man 2 character in my pocket. The level itself has a number of things going for it, the most important part being the steady stream of MOLTEN LAVA! (Is it possible for lava to be un-molten? At that point, is it still even lava? It’s a mystery.) The other great thing is the blocks that phase in and out of existence. You use this uncertain footing to cross a lava pit, and if you time your jumps wrong, you’re charcoal. That’s cold.
The Robot Master stages really hit their thematic stride in Mega Man 2 and 3. The unrelenting verticality of Crash Man, the disorienting blackouts of Shadow Man, and the blistering furnace of Heat Man’s stages were all early series highlights. No area to me feels quite as alive and horrifyingly on-point as Snake Man’s stage from Mega Man 3. Presented as though you were walking along the tangled bodies of thousands of robot snakes and greeted frequently by their giant angry fire-spitting faces, this stage is simultaneously terrifying and awesome. It feels like, at any moment, the ground beneath your feet will just wrap you up and drag Mega Man down into a robot graveyard. The brief respite up in the clouds—a section that would be unnerving and daunting in many other games—is positively relaxing in comparison to the reptile pit below. That calm is gone too soon, though, as it’s back to snakeskin walls and a Robot Master who tosses tiny serpents around the room like squirming robot confetti. Gah, so wriggly!
The first trick to Mega Man 2 is deciding which level to visit first. These days, that choice is a lot easier: A five second web search can tell you all which bosses have which weaknesses. But when I was a kid and had two days to get the most out of the cartridge before I had to return it to the rental store (I didn’t own a Mega Man game until the Mega Man Collection came out for the GameCube), the possibilities froze me up. All of those cartoon bad guys looked inviting, but every level I’d go to would be harder than I expected. Mega Man 2 is great at looking simple but then throwing you off with timing that forces you to take a hit unless you land every jump perfectly. (And that blue bomber could never jump very high.) I’ll always have a fondness for the Air Man stage. I don’t know if it’s the best designed of the bunch, but it’s the level that pulled me in the quickest. All that sky makes every jump a little nerve-wracking, and those damn robot faces with the screws popping out of the side—there was a rhythm to them, sure, but the rhythm was never what I thought it was, and a quarter of the time, I’d land wrong and drop into oblivion. Yet it was just a little easier than the other levels. Mega Man 2 was the sort of game where I felt like I could never get good enough to beat it, that I’d always get up to Wily’s castle, and no further. But Air Man allowed me a way in, at least for a little while.