Mega Man 2 DayTo The Bitter End

Mega Man 2

The Kid In The Hat

The legendary ending of Mega Man 2 peels away layers of artifice to reveal poignant truths.

By John Teti • May 9, 2013

It’s Mega Man 2 Day on The Gameological Society! In honor of its release in Japan 25 years ago, today we’re paying tribute to Mega Man 2—and all things Mega Man.

Your first move in Mega Man 2 is to put on a hat. The title screen of Capcom’s iconic NES action game depicts our hero standing atop of a futuristic skyscraper in blank-faced reverie. His curly locks twirl in the wind. The kid is at peace. Then you press “Start,” and Mega Man’s hair disappears under a blue plastic approximation of an early 20th-century football helmet. The boy is gone, replaced by a warrior. Time to fight.

It’s easy to forget this quiet prelude amid the ensuing flash. Even moreso than its predecessor, Mega Man 2 solidified the template for the series. You defeat eight robot bosses who are ensconced in compounds filled with evil bots and death traps. Then you enter the headquarters of Dr. Wily himself—a vast lair that places increasingly ludicrous demands on your reflexes. It doesn’t feel right to say that Mega Man 2 is violent, per se. Your default sidearm is a glorified pellet gun, and your foes’ best weapons include a compressed-air dispenser and a shower of falling leaves. But the game is certainly bombastic, and by the time you reach the inner keep of Wily’s techno-castle, the sensory overload is intense.

That excess is what makes the game’s climax so striking. After the first 99 percent of Mega Man 2 builds up tension and spectacle, the final moments quietly strip away the artifice, layer by layer.

Dr. Wily
Mega Man 2: Wily's ship

Once you re-defeat each of the game’s eight “Robot Master” bosses—these recapitulatory showdowns are another Mega Man staple—you face off against the evil genius responsible for all the mayhem. The fight takes place against a stark black background, a presentation that focuses your eye on the hovering dreadnought that fades into view. Wily’s airborne tank is festooned with tubes, panels, and wiring. There’s even a small propeller on the rear end, which hardly seems functional. It has to be a touch of nostalgic vanity on the doctor’s part.

Indeed, most of Wily’s ship is there for show. It’s a masterpiece of psychological warfare. Yet once the sense of shock and awe fades away, players inevitably notice that the ship isn’t terribly agile. It wobbles back and forth, burping out an orb of energy every once in a while. For anybody who has made it this far in such a difficult game, Wily doesn’t provide too much of a challenge.

But then the first facade falls away—literally, in this case. When you drain Wily’s ship of energy, the front piece shatters and the mad scientist powers up again. Now the machine wobbles faster and burps more often, and you’re caught in a battle of attrition. It’s practically impossible not to get roughed up in this fight. You just have to outlast the bastard. (Note: The flickering and occasional disappearance of Mega Man in the video above is an artifact of the NES emulator used to create the footage—that’s not part of the game.)

The “megaboss revealing his true form” is an extremely common trope in video games, and Mega Man helped to establish it. As narrative devices go, it doesn’t make much sense. Even the most overconfident and deranged villain would be foolhardy to save his most powerful weapons for the moment when his back is against the wall. But the underlying idea—that an evildoer’s true form is even more fearsome than you would have imagined—has an obvious potency, so I’m not here to quibble with it. Especially because Mega Man 2 plays with this trope so beautifully.

This whole sequence—Wily’s ship appears, you defeat it, Wily’s TRUE ship appears—is an echo of the original Mega Man, which ended with a similar battle. In the first game, Wily falls to the ground in defeat after you dismantle his precious airship. Mega Man 2 gives every indication that it intends to reprise that drama, until it doesn’t. Here, you beat Wily, and he zips away in a flying saucer. The ground crumbles beneath your feet, and you fall into blackness. The stage is struck. The show’s over.

The Cave

Mega Man 2 has a superb soundtrack, with some of the catchiest “chiptunes” ever composed for the NES’ modest audio circuitry. Yet the game’s most effective use of sound may be the silence that accompanies this final area. The lights come up on Mega Man, still falling into an impossibly deep pit. This cavern has a different look from the rest of the game, dirtier and more organic. It feels like we’re backstage, in the part of Wily’s castle that we weren’t meant to see.

Yet the cave is just another put-on, another facade, and Mega Man 2 hints at this reality with a poetic flourish of level design. You advance into a hallway dotted with puddles of acid that drip from the ceiling. More traps. As seen in the video above, they demand careful timing if you hope to make it out unscathed.

Or so the designers would have you think. In fact, the cave poses no challenge as long as you just keep moving (as seen in this video). Until now, the best policy has been caution. Think before you move. Wait for your moment. Here, you ought to surge headlong into the void. The acid drips are a mirage—they only become death traps if you perceive them as such. There’s a lesson here.

The Alien

The radio actor Ed Gardner once joked that if you scratch beneath the phony tinsel of Hollywood, you find the real tinsel. The Alien is the “real tinsel” of Mega Man 2. After you emerge from the cave, you burrow deeper into the bizarre truth of Dr. Wily’s existence. The backdrop falls away, dumping Mega Man into outer space. You’re somehow weightless, hurtling through the stars, yet still grounded to the bottom of the screen (the first hint that something is amiss). Wily jumps out of his flying saucer and morphs into a creepy green extraterrestrial with a glowing red rib cage. This, at long last, must be the madman’s really truly true form!

Capcom’s designers play another nasty trick here, as players discover that their weapons are useless against the Alien. This otherworldly specter invites you to use overwhelming force—the proverbial “nuking from orbit” is the only way to be sure, right? But the usual go-tos in Mega Man’s arsenal are no use here. Whether it’s the fireworks of the Crash Bomber or the razor-sharp barrage of the Metal Blade, your attacks don’t faze the alien. Only the puny Bubble Lead, which sputters out of Mega Man’s arm cannon like so much regurgitated baby food, does any damage. It’s probably the last weapon that many players would try. Your fancy guns are not what you thought they were.

Mega Man 2: Wily begs

Neither is the Alien. Deliver the final blow and the stars vanish, revealing that the whole Alien fight (and possibly more of your quest, and possibly all of it) took place in Dr. Wily’s holodeck. His true form isn’t more fearsome than you imagined after all—it’s much less. In the end, he’s an overzealous coward who hides behind his machines. Your victory isn’t just in defeating him, but in peeling away his artifice to expose and humiliate a small man.

The Walk Home

Mega Man 2’s epilogue has earned it a spot on countless “best game ending” lists, and you only have to watch it to see why. The composition and refinement of the animation are startlingly modern for a 1988 NES game. On the right side of the screen, we see Mega Man calmly walking, presumably toward the bucolic village depicted on the left. As Mega Man strolls along, the seasons come and go. He changes color to match the weather, observing a profound passage of time. (Mega Man’s color changes when he switches to a different weapon, so it’s moving to see the effect used here for aesthetic harmony rather than for combat.)

It strikes me that Mega Man walks. Whenever he finishes a level, Mega Man typically teleports back to home base to recover and to be outfitted with new weaponry. But when his quest is over, he walks. Perhaps his masters forget about him just that quickly—now that he’s done his duty and defeated Dr. Wily, they don’t see any reason to beam him home. (Defying quantum physics must make for one hell of an electricity bill, after all.)

I believe, though, that our hero chooses to walk. The fancy teleportation trick is something he uses when there’s a war to be won. Once the fighting is over, his overwhelming urge is to be human again, or as close as he can come. He doesn’t want to be Mega Man, the warrior, any longer than he needs to be. So he walks home on his own two legs, even if it takes the better part of a year. It’s ascetic, and it’s honest.

This interpretation is borne out by the closing shot of the epilogue: Mega Man’s helmet on top of a knoll, its wearer nowhere in sight. Bookending that first moment of the game, in which Mega Man straps on his helmet and set to work, this is one of the most powerful images of the NES era. It recasts Mega Man as a reluctant hero. By placing the helmet where we can see it and removing himself from the picture, Mega Man is peeling off one last bit of stagecraft.

The scene creates a poignant distance between the player and the hero. It gives Mega Man a soul of his own, apart from you. All that fighting and destruction were the product of a role we had the kid play, a role represented by the warrior’s helmet. In other words, Mega Man 2 was a show for your benefit, and now the kid wants his privacy. We had our fun together, he says, but you don’t get to know the real me—that final truth is mine alone. You can keep the hat.

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35 Responses to “The Kid In The Hat”

  1. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    Don’t be silly, John. Mega Man games never end, they just sequel away…

  2. “Mega Man 2” was probably the first action/platformer that I ever beat without using some sort of cheat (normal mode, of course). 

  3. ProfessorFarnsworth says:

    This was an incredible article about a great classic of a game.  I remember playing this game and enjoying it immensely.

    • Girard says:

      This really was some top-drawer writing, reappraising the (seeming) cliches of the game’s ending and lending them some interpretive heft in a way that feels organic and not over-reaching. It made the MM2 ending poignant in a way I had never looked at it before (and I’ve looked at it a heck of a lot over the years…).

    • Gama Xul says:

       I just read this comment and heard Professor Farnsworth’s voice in my head as I read it. Everything you say makes me smile. Excellent avatar professor!

  4. tinwhistle1 says:

    I agree that the ending in Mega Man 2 was great in forcing the player to question when you got to the “real” end boss, but as much as I enjoyed it here, the false ending trope lost much of its power as the series progressed. Mega Man 3? Of course there is another skull level after the first. Mega Man 4? I was shocked, shocked, that Dr. Cossak wasn’t the real villan. Mega Man 5? Proto Man? Really? Etc.  I get that originality was never a halmark of the Mega Man series, but as good as the levels and bosses were designed, it wasn’t until Mega Man X that the series felt fresh (and that lasted maybe until the first fight with Sigma… maybe). I guess it is too much to hope for but it really was Mega Man 2 where this felt like a game with just a bit of pathos and hinting there could be a great story of a robot built for war longing for peace. It is just a shame we have been left with blowing up Pharoah Man instead. 

    • Girard says:

      I kind of enjoyed how in MegaMan 6 they self-consciously lampshaded that trope by having the “mysterious new boss” have an obviously lazy pseudonym (“Mr. X”), and look just like Dr. Wily in sunglasses with a fake goatee glued on his face.

      I’d say MM3 kept the surprise by, rather than appending more endings and over-extending things (there’s just the one Skull Castle), they inserted surprise challenges. Like, you beat all the bosses and assume you’re headed for Wily’s castle, when suddenly, BOOM, there’s Break Man and four Doc Robots to deal with. In MM4, the bloom was starting to come off of the rose, but they hadn’t yet done the “It’s actually been Wily all along!” switcheroo yet, so you could be convinced that Dr. Cossack was actually a new (if not terribly original) nemesis. By MM5 and 6, though the jog was thoroughly up, and consequently I don’t think anyone was surprised when they started doing the same stuff with Sigma.

      Interestingly, if memory serves, the Zero games actually haven’t fallen into that trap. The final-final bosses for each of those games were fairly distinct and related to that game’s story (I think…).

      • PugsMalone says:

        Actually, the Mega Man 3 manual said that part of the backstory was that Dr. Wily had been pretending to work with Dr. Light. That’s why there aren’t any “Dr. W” signs before the Robot Master rooms in that game.

        • Girard says:

           Oh, yeah, and the final boss was Gamma “The Peace Robot” that they had collaborated on.

           Though I thought the manual gave away that Wily had taken the robot in the backstory, it’s been ages since I’ve actually read that thing.

    • NakedSnake says:

       I remember how, even as a boy of 9 years old, I thought it was ridiculous and stupid that Mega Man had to fight Dr. Wily over and over again in increasingly formulaic ways. When Mega Man 4 was announced, I was excited that they were finally introducing a new villain and perhaps shaking things up a bit. When it turned out to be Dr. Wily all along, the overwhelming feeling I had was of being cheated. The designers were, I concluded, literally out of ideas, and were just rehashing the same formula over and over. Strong condemnation from a 9 year old.

  5. CrabNaga says:

    This is a pretty timely post for me, considering I just discovered and played through the amazing romhack Megaman 4 Minus Infinity recently. Wily actually tries the same alien trick at the end of Minus Infinity, and Megaman just sighs and shoots the holographic projector. Although of course Wily has yet another trick up his sleeve…

    But yeah, I would suggest playing Minus Infinity to any Megaman fan out there. It does so much stuff with the Megaman formula that Capcom never did and it’s awesome for it.

  6. Girard says:

    Congratulations, guys, on commemorating a MegaMan anniversary better than bloody Capcom ever has!

    (I suppose that’s not strictly true, on the 10th anniversary we got an okay PSX game and an artbook, which was at least something…)

    • Effigy_Power says:

      I think companies have a very conflicted relationship with their own franchises. On the one hand you want to celebrate a milestone that has put you on the map and continues to be enjoyed, but on the other hand you need to keep a certain emotional detachment in order to continuously milk, pervert and rehash the same crap you’ve been pushing for years.
      The rift between artistic integrity and the desire to make a living off your craft is as divisive and confusing as ever…
      …and also is totally off the point. Hmm… not sure how I got to that point just now.

      • Girard says:

        I honestly wouldn’t mind if they milked MegaMan a little more (I have a WHOLE slashfic folder about “milking and perverting” MegaMan, by the by…), because at least they would be doing SOMETHING with the property. Even in the later NES games, when they were pretty much treading water, those games were GOOOOOOD.

        Capcom neither milked nor honored MegaMan with this past 25th anniversary (or to use TVDW’s terms from his Community reviews, they neither “flattered” nor “challenged” fans). They just kind of ignored it, and then “released” a kind of lame fan game that someone was working on when people asked them what their plans were.

      • NakedSnake says:

         I feel like this tension runs through gaming in general. Great games are made when a group of artistic individuals are clicking on all cylinders (please excuse my mixed metaphor). But what is a Great Game? A lot of factors go into it, but fundamentally a Great Game is something fun. It’s not the same evaluation system that we use for other art forms. Creativity is still king, but it is in service of lighthearted and commercial ends.

  7. Effigy_Power says:

    It’s funny how different the emotional reactions to something like the above-mentioned ending can be.
    For someone who can claim Megaman 2 as one of their introductory gaming experiences and who has a deep emotional link to the game and its character, the passage of seasons and Megaman’s colorful outfits, it poses a pivotal and even “moving” moment in gaming.
    For someone like myself, who never really had any connection to Nintendo (I feel similarly ambivalent to all things Zelda or Mario), it’s doodly music with barely changing bitmap backgrounds and an increasingly gaudy pixel dude.
    Both viewpoints are inherently valid, since they are based on emotional attachment and subjective opinion, and not at all mutually exclusive. They do however pose an interesting point about how much of gaming relies on us making a connection to what we are playing. Games, in this sense, are more than mere entertainment or even “time-wasters”, but valid parts of our emotional whole just like our first kiss or that time we got into trouble with the law or, perhaps more poignant, the quintessential American ideal attached to ones first car.
    People build entire identities around that old Mustang they drove for a few years or the crappy Neon that brought a certain amount of freedom. Gaming doesn’t appear to lag behind that at all. The games we grow up with play a huge part in the people we later become, certainly to the same extend other activities do.
    The discussion whether or not games are art is likely never going to be answered once and for all. But the claim that games are culturally significant and deeply involved in building our own character can hardly be disputed.

    • Tyler Mills says:

      “The discussion whether or not games are art is likely never going to be answered once and for all. But the claim that games are culturally significant and deeply involved in building our own character can hardly be disputed.”
      Very, very well said. That pretty much sums up my take on the “are video games art?” debate. I too feel like video games play a significant part in the development as me as person as well, as nerdy and odd as that sounds. I know I am not alone in this however, and I feel like one of the best places you can notice this trend is in indie games like FEZ and Cave Story, games that were made by people who themselves felt like their own being was strongly impacted by classic video games. They are like the grandchildren of classic games. In these titles the themes, tropes, and icons of classic games take on an almost mythic quality. The Tetrominos in FEZ are portrayed as symbols of mystery, significance, and almost seem to have a spiritual relevance. They are no longer just a set piece from a puzzle game, they are a icon of civilization, a metaphor for life.

      • Effigy_Power says:

        Sounds good, although I think we have to be very careful when we ascribe Indie-games as a whole more cultural significance than AAA titles. It’s a slippery slope that often enough leads to judging games counter their production value or ascribes their ascetic design some sort of inner purity.
        Art, whether games belong into this category or not, is full of things that have been able to claim fame and appreciation for their simplicity, sometimes to almost ridiculous levels. Yves Klein’s never-ending barrage of blue canvases was given cultural significance for its perceived purity, whereas complex graffiti is regarded as amusing street performance at its best.
        You don’t say this with your point, so don’t think I am criticizing you, but we are currently in a situation, especially in special interest gaming communities like GS, where maybe we’re a little quick to elevate games like FEZ and its makers as somehow more in tune with what we would like gaming to be and discard the makers of -shudder- Call of Duty or World of Warcraft as market-driven hacks. The same schism has gone through the art-world for as long as people have thrown mud at a wall, so the fact that this exists here might be the best indicator we have for the case.
        I have several friends who will on pain of death only watch Indie-movies, because they firmly believe that they encapsule the essence of the medium where the big studios have failed. I think that’s a iffy position that is hard to defend in the long run.
        I don’t know how I got to this point, I am a bit scatterbrained today. ^_^

        • Tyler Mills says:

          That’s a good point, and I agree with it. I wasn’t trying to argue that indie games are more or less art than AAA , I was using those two games, particularly their creators, as examples of people who were obviously influenced very heavily by video games in their own lives, to the point it significantly effect their character, which in turn influenced their own work. I aslo do not believe this phenomenon is exclusive to indie games, but I as a whole there are more indie games that exhibit this particular trait.

  8.  It’s odd to think about the whole ‘hidden true form’ boss fights might have originated with MM2 – I feel like I’ve been dealing with this concept since the beginning of time itself.

    That being said: “As narrative devices go, it doesn’t make much sense. Even the most
    overconfident and deranged villain would be foolhardy to save his most
    powerful weapons for the moment when his back is against the wall.” I’m not sure I agree. Keeping a facade going is good for PR, espionage, keeping silent about corruption, secrets, and/or alien invasions, etc. Wiley’s back not really to the wall, is it? He tried weapon set 1, and it didn’t work, so he tried weapon set 2 (which is the Max Power way of weapon sets, apparently).

    • Girard says:

      The trope came earlier, in other media at least. MegaMan is a sentai hero to an extent (that’s not a “football” helmet, it’s a sentai helmet), and those shows had the tradition of escalating fights in the same silly way.

      Little people fighting little monster => “magic wand, make my monster GROW!” => little people get in big robot => monster gets upper hand with secret weapon => giant robot wins day with ITS secret weapon.

      Megaman might be the first instance of that escalation in video games though.

      And while we’re speaking of weird origins of Japanese cultural tropes, the first sentai character/series to use the “time to get in my giant robot!” trope was, of all things, Spider-Man.

  9. duwease says:

    The first time I ever beat Mega Man 2, the game went to the animation directly after the alien transformation, where the holodeck light is spinning and there’s stars everywhere, with Wily at the controls.  And it just kept looping that animation, endlessly.  My grade-school self just assumed that was the ending, where everything turned out to be a surprise party thrown for Mega Man, with a cool disco ball and Wily spinning some tunes on his turntables.

    In my defense:

    1. Look at the video, you can *totally* see that!
    2. Japanese games of the era had weirder endings than that, it could happen.

    • NakedSnake says:

      Legit. Personally, I expected nothing from video game endings in the NES era. The vast majority made no sense, anyhow. Most of all, I just wanted the ending to last long enough for me to sit back and bask in the glory of my achievement of beating the game. In this way, all Mega Man endings were great, since they had a whole 10 minute sequence where they would blast music and introduce you to all of the robots you had destroyed along the way.

      • Girard says:

        Coming over from the Atari, I had terribly low expectations for game endings. Like, the first time I watched a friend beat Super Mario level 1-1, and the fireworks shot out of the top of the castle, I thought he had beaten the game.

  10. NakedSnake says:

     Great job on drawing out some of the themes/motifs from this game, John. The helmet piece is particularly interesting. I always had a sense that there was more going on under the surface MM2, but I had never really taken a step back to look at it before.

    I would say that Mega Man 3 also tries to build on the “reluctant warrior” theme, particularly with its opening tune. The song starts out beautifully; both wistful and sad. It sets a tone of tragedy for the game. Suddenly, though, the music changes and transforms into a beat heavy action tune. The relentless drumming running through it evokes a fast-paced martial tune. Overall, the track creates the thematic impression that the warrior must turn away from introspection and feeling and prepare for battle.

  11. Xtracurlyfries says:

    I grew up in the UK and somehow missed the Nintendo world, insteading cutting my video game teeth on the Atari ST and Amiga computers. As such, my equivalent to Mega Man was the Turrican games, which I clearly think of as fondly as folks here think of the Mega Man games.  I completed each of those games more times than I cared to count.

    One interesting thing about the above description struck me, which is that the acid drop level in MM sounds very similar to a level in the original Turrican. Does anyone know which one came first?  That level really haunted me as a kid playing it, because after 3 worlds of wonderful bright landscapes and chiptunes suddenly you’re in a dank, dark place with no music. I seriously thought my computer had broken the first time I got there because there was no music, just the drips of acid coming from the ceiling. It’s also a brutally hard place, full of skulls, mouths and pointy platforms that’ll kill you if you don’t land on them just right.  As an 11-year old that place was my bane for quite a while until I figured out how to pick up a bunch of extra lives earlier in the game.

    Here’s a longplay video (not by me). The aforementioned level starts at around 50:00

    • Destroy Him My Robots says:

      Development on Turrican started in 1989, so Mega Man 2 was a bit earlier. But I’d guess the acid in Turrican is just the result of the Alien influence (which it inherited from Metroid and, to a lesser degree, Contra).

    • Effigy_Power says:

      I definitely would consider Turrican as a much more influential game for myself, having grown up with an Amiga and a C64 rather than consoles. Turrican 2 was, if I remember right, the second game I ever played from start to finish, the first being Maniac Mansion.

      • Destroy Him My Robots says:

        That’s great. I think the much easier 3 was the only Turrican I beat. 2’s 1-1 is brilliant, classic side-scroller level design with hidden paths and secrets everywhere (and I tried to reach the ledge behind that one 1-Up way too often). How great is that part where you can’t proceed because of the wind? (It’s at around 2:30, but you may want to watch the whole thing because memories.)

        There’s a disappointing story you’ll hate to hear, though: Originally, the main character was much skinnier (see the top right screenshot here). The British publisher complained that it looked too “girly”, so the spirte had to be beefed up. Because who would ever want to play a Metroid-inspired game where you’re maybe a woman, right? Admittedly, I do like the bigger sprite better (and interestingly, it’s much closer to Psycho-Nics Oscar‘s, the other big inspiration behind Turrican).

        While I’m at it, check out how Duke Nukem shamelessly ripped graphics from Turrican. Also, did you know that Trenz got the name from an Italian surname, Turricano, which he found in a phone book? TURRICAN TRIVIA IS SUPER FASCINATING.

        Apparently Factor-5 is considering a reboot, but what else is new?

  12. Gama Xul says:

    That’s an awful lot of speculation going into why things happened as they did in an 80’s NES video game. But your explanation is pretty solid. Mega Man 2 had a proud position at the top of my list of favorite games, and I mastered it in it’s time.

    The Mega Man series taught me about finding weaknesses and the difficulty of the games of the time trained me in the importance of precision. I try to carry that precision to all things today as a tradesman. A great deal of things require good memory and excellent coordination. Games like the Mega Man series and a select few other titles of the time, built up my problem-solving skills.

    Games today rarely compare to the difficulties of games on the older architectures. You can put all the high graphics, sounds and interfaces you can think of on a game but if the social concepts of the plot don’t challenge and force the Gamer to figure them out, it’s just pretty garbage.

    For instance, games with “quest tracking” are simply pushing you through the hoops by allowing you to follow the blip on a mini-map telling you everywhere you need to go. Thus negating reasons to even read most of the quests. It’s like, they’re conditioning people to “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD” instead of having them figure it out. But I suppose, that is the training we all get these days so we can grow up to be good little servants of the state. Seriously.

    Tropes (such a trendy word atm) are everywhere though. The damsel in distress is constant, then and now. The weak helpless girl-object stereotype, and the courageous player character to the rescue; add a story and plot dilemmas. Instant game idea.

    Recently we’ve seen more games designing outside the stereotypes. Good. But new games are still too darn easy and target the lobotomized GMO MSG HFCS Fluoridated retards.

    -Gama Xul

  13. tm1075 says:

    Are the creators of this game still around?  Can we just ask them?