Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Deconstructing Mega Man 2

After an attempt to dismantle the widely held belief that Mega Man 2 (or 3) is the greatest Mega Man game ever, followed by an examination of seemingly erratic public opinion on the greater Mega Man series, I've come to the conclusion that MM2 (or 3) gets all the attention because most Mega Man fans in the reviewing community don't actually like Mega Man at all.

Let me borrow an example from my other favorite fandom: Star Trek. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who hates Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It's funny, it's character-driven, and best of all for non-Trek fans, it's got almost nothing to do with space. If Star Trek IV isn't the best movie in the entire series, then it's darn close. Yet, if you absolutely cannot stand any incarnation of Star Trek but happen to enjoy Star Trek IV, does that make you a Trek fan?

No. It means you like Star Trek IV.

See where I'm headed with this?

If you're an honest-to-goodness Mega Man fan, I would expect you to enjoy solidly challenging platforming, sharp visuals, quality music, serious replayability, memorable character designs, and a wide variety of useful and fun weapons. These general characteristics define what it is to be a Mega Man game. You can't judge an entire series based on the criteria of a single installment--either you judge a single installment based on the entire series, or you follow the progression of a series and faithfully adapt to it, or you quit bringing the series down by maintaining you're a fan.

Do you know what it says about a series when the "fans" spend 20 years berating every new installment for not being the same nostalgia-inducing experience they grew up with? It says that 20 years of trying out new ideas, refining old ideas, perfecting the gameplay, and gradually building an overarching storyline is a waste of time. It says that we only continue to buy your disappointing games so that we can someday get the sequel we deserve.

I don't have a problem with anyone liking Mega Man 2. I don't even have a problem with anyone disliking the entire rest of the series. I have a problem with one game defining the entire series because nearly all the reviewers played it at the same point in their lives.

While the original Mega Man is generally considered a classic and was a contemporary of other acknowledged classics that kids grew up with such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, it seems that nobody played the original Mega Man before playing Mega Man 2. Yet, somehow, the game managed to sell enough copies to justify a sequel, and something about the timing and the marketing made Mega Man 2 most people's first exposure to the series. Not only was the game a brilliant example of a sequel done right, but for people who had never heard of Mega Man, its gameplay was amazingly revolutionary.

As a follow-up to MM2, and especially as an alternate first exposure to the series, MM3 seemed pretty brilliant and revolutionary as well. Revisiting four of the stages and squaring off against the entire boss lineup of MM2 must have made the game feel so much bigger than it really was, and I suspect that most little kids have always wanted a robotic dog. The weapons weren't just fireballs and bullets; you could throw your whole body at an enemy or pelt them with snakes! If you skipped MM1 and grew up with MM2-3--and it appears that most people did--then one of the defining characteristics of Mega Man would absolutely have to be "novelty."

Notice how "novelty" wasn't on my list of characteristics all those paragraphs ago?

The warm and fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, combined with the false expectation of groundbreaking innovation in every sequel, makes for a significant group of gamers who are fans of a completely different series than the one they think they're playing. Compounding the matter is that MM4-6 were overshadowed by the jaw-dropping games of the brand-new Super Nintendo, MM7 was released in the wake of (the admittedly groundbreaking and innovative) Mega Man X, and MM8 appeared on platforms that the core Mega Man audience was not as likely to own, in a time when all the previous games were becoming harder to find in stores.

It's no wonder MM2-3 got all the attention--if it weren't for the Mega Man Anniversary Collection in the mid-2000s, an entire decade of the series might have been lost to all but the most dedicated fans. Which brings us to my final analysis of that poll:

Everybody started somewhere, and though most people started with the early NES games, not everyone did. The kids who grew up on the late NES games got to experience the same core gameplay as the earlier games, but with all the novelty that a first exposure to Mega Man could offer, and all the technology of a system that was now beginning to show its full potential. The folks who joined the party later on have probably seen enough of the series to know what to expect in a Mega Man game, or at the very least, they don't have a nostalgia bias persisting from their childhood.

Does this mean that the later NES games are better than MM1, 2, and 3? Not at all. If you're a teacher, the best student in your class is not necessarily your favorite student. (Not that teachers would ever play favorites.) This is a distinction that too few reviewers make, I feel. The Best Mega Man Game Ever should exemplify the defining characteristics of the entire series without pulling anything too inherently game-ruining. Given that "novelty" isn't a very valid characteristic here, it's safe to say that most games are similar enough that any one of them could be "Best" material, depending on which characteristics hold the most sway for you.

However, there's no arguing with plain ol' fun.

If you're a genuine Mega Man fan who's given the series a fair chance, looked at things objectively, and still just wants to play Mega Man 2 and 3, that's alright by me. Heck, you can even say they're the best. If you can celebrate the triumphs, acknowledge the flaws, and explain the game's superiority with reasons that at least partially transcend personal preference, then you've earned my respect as a reviewer. It's not which game you like; it's why.

For 20 years, we've been listening to the which without seriously listening to the why. It ultimately doesn't matter to me what we hear...so long as it comes from the fans who actually like Mega Man.

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