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Zero Two

When I got my Game Boy Advance SP many years ago as a wee tween I was very excited about some of the games I could play. Obviously, there was Pokémon Ruby because, c’mon, you gotta catch ‘em all. Then there were the new slew of Mega Man games, like the Battle Network series, an RPG where you bounced between Lan in the real world and Mega Man in the digital, fighting viruses and the such in an adorably nascent look at cyberwarfare. More importantly, however, there was the Mega Man Zero series, a sequel of sorts to the Mega Man X games set a hundred years after and starring an amnesiac Zero, the deuteragonist of the original X games.

Zero was very much the Han Solo to X’s Luke Skywalker in the X games, the cooler secondary character (and sometimes villain, so maybe less Han). He became a playable character in X4 and offered a different gamestyle; eschewing X’s buster for his Z-Saber, requiring an even more agile approach. Anyway, in light of that, a series with him as the lead was naturally exciting to my younger self. 

After ranting writing about the games a couple weeks ago, I decided to replay them because, c’mon, they’re great games. So I bought myself a headphones adapter for the very same Game Boy Advance SP as a couple paragraphs ago. Sidebar: why the headphones? The Mega Man games have an excellent soundtrack and the Zero series is arguably the best of the best. They were mainstays for essay writing in college and are still great writing music, so of course I want to be able to re-experience those tunes while playing on the subway. If I’m gonna replay these games, I’m gonna do it right. 

And man, are they fun, in ways I don’t think I really appreciated sixteen-odd years ago. In stark contrast to a certain more recent iteration, the controls of the Z games are razor-sharp, the level design punishing but fair. When I die, I know it’s because I mistimed a jump or misread an enemy’s attack. The games are hard: you don’t have a lot of health and some enemies dish out a good chunk of damage. Compounding it all is the games’ grading system: after every mission, you’re assigned a rank and score, with points negated for taking too much damage, using a continue, or failing a part of the mission — amongst others. Wanna use a cyber-elf to increase your health or make your saber stronger? Cool, but good luck getting an S-Rank with that. You don’t need to clear a mission with a high rank, but it creates a fun incentive to be better at the game.

So I finished the original Mega Man Zero last week and started on the sequel recently. It’s a marked improvement over the first, far more refined and sleek looking. The first’s aesthetic was very worn, everything from the start menu to the character portraits are much more crisp in Z2. Game systems have been tweaked and refined; the stage select looks more like a ‘normal’ Mega Man game’s and unlockable forms that change Zero’s stats are added to switch up gameplay a little. Furthermore, learnable skills are now rewards for clearing a stage with a rank of A or S.

Where sometimes a big change is a great part of a new iteration of a game or what-have-you is excellent, Z2 is one of those that builds on what came before. Sure, the sprites are mostly the same and the core gameplay is essentially identical, but the effort is put instead into refining what already works.

I’m really looking forward to replaying Z3. Beyond being one of my two favorite Mega Man games (X5 is the other), it’s where things really reach their peak. The EX Skills and Forms from Z2 are carried over and a few other customization options are thrown in alongside some real fun stages and boss battles. As much as I enjoy playing new games, there’s something real fun about booting up an old one where I still have the stages half-remembered and appreciating it all over again.

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Menu-Assisted Narrative

Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.

The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.

But that’s not the best part.

Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.

After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever. 

In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely. 

There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting. 

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character. 

But then comes the ending.

So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.

Or so you’d think.

As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.

Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.

 

Postscript:
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.

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Final Bosses

A mainstay staple of video games is the final boss. After a number of levels (or dungeons, chapters, what have you) you finally fight the Biggest Baddest Boss, the defeat of which leads to  winning the game and the ultimate resolution. It’s the climax of the game, both from a gameplay perspective and narrative one: everything has led to this.

It’s important that the Final Boss feels like a Final Boss, though. I love Uncharted 3, but one issue the game has is that it’s final boss, a showdown with Talbot, doesn’t quite land. Talbot hasn’t really been Nate’s nemesis, so the fight, though big, doesn’t really feel like That Big Moment. Comparatively, Rafe in Uncharted 4 spends much of the game as a foil for Nate, so fighting him is not just a culmination of the game, but also feels in many ways like Nate fighting his own inner demons.

The Mega Man games, though a series that varies wildly on narrative quality, is a stellar example of mythic storytelling. This extends to its grasp of the Final Boss. After beating the eight (or so) regular bosses and going through the multiple levels of Wiley’s fortress, Mega Man has to reface the eight (or so) prior bosses one after another before finally fighting Wiley. But because you, the player, have already beaten these guys, you know their patterns and their weaknesses and will have a much easier time beating them than long before. In the lead up to the final fight you can see how much you’ve grown; now that you can beat Heat Man easily you’re definitely ready to take on Wiley. Before facing that Final Boss it’s important to remember all that came before and how now, more than ever before, you’re ready for this culmination.

And guess what! The Final Boss principle applies to stories as much as they do to games. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, the Final Boss in Empire Strikes Back is Darth Vader, whom Luke must face to complete his arc in that story. That one plays out not too much unlike how it would in a video game: it’s a hero against a villain, the hero hoping his training pays off. But it doesn’t have to be a conflict like that. Hot Rod has a Final Boss, and it’s not Rod finally kicking his step-father’s ass. It’s him attempting that massive jump over the busses: it’s his moment, it’s what the movie has led to, it’s what allows him to self-actualize.

Of course, Final Bosses aren’t always so obviously so; just about any good story should have one. Eighth Grade doesn’t have much in the way of villains for Kayla to fight, but there still is a Final Boss. In a nice touch, Kayla’s Final Boss turns out to not be another girl or even the guy that tried to take advantage of her: it’s herself, from the past. When Kayla opens a time capsule she’d left herself a couple years ago she’s forced to reckon with who she thought she’d be by now. Despite not seeming like a particularly big moment it’s a profound one for Kayla that leads to a quiet resolution with her father and a renewed lease on life. It’s the opponent that Kayla must overcome to succeed. We know it’s her Final Boss because we’ve spent the past hour-plus with her, and we know how much this means to her.

It’s when a Final Boss isn’t particularly clear that a story’s pacing begins to feel wonky. Alita: Battle Angel is a really fun movie that I really enjoyed, but couldn’t help but feel let down by the ending because it turns out I hadn’t realized Alita was fighting the movie’s final boss when she was; something that’s complicated by us not really knowing what it is Alita wants. Luke Skywalker and Mega Man want to defeat Darth Vader and Dr. Wiley, so we know who their bosses are. Rod Kimble wants to be a stuntman, and so accomplishing that is his Final Boss. Kayla struggles with being comfortable as herself, and so she is her own Final Boss.

For Alita it’s not clear if the big motorball game is the titular character’s Final Boss, or if it’s the giant cyborg who’s been plaguing her throughout. Or the guy pulling the cyborg’s strings. Or the guy pulling that guy’s strings. If Alita is a story about identity (and it certainly feels like one) shouldn’t her Final Boss involve her declaring who she is? That the movie’s Final Boss happened without me realizing (and honestly, I’m still not sure who or what it was) leads to a feeling of hanging threads with the story. ‘cuz man, I wanted to see Alita and the Final Boss square off!

Final Bosses and climaxes are similar enough ideas, but I think I like the term Final Boss because it’s clear that that encounter is with the ultimate obstacle. It’s what the hero has to overcome to ‘win,’ to self-actualize. It can be a big fight or a personal reflection, but most importantly, we gotta know what it is when it happens.

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The Mythics of Mega Man

I cut my teeth on the Mega Man series of video games. Legendary for their difficulty, mastery of the games comes from getting a handle on their mechanics and memorizing stage layouts and the patterns of boss fights. They’re tough, and oh I love them so. Getting through each stage is such a magnificent moment of catharsis; and the good entries in the series are so well designed that victory isn’t because of a lucky break but from actually skill.

They’re also fantastic examples of some elements of the Hero’s Journey.

All stories follow specific beats; there will be a moment when the hero is chosen, the hero will be tested, the hero will face a (maybe metaphorical) death. They’re vague moments, but appear in everything from adventure stories to a romcom. Call it structure, call it motifs, these elements are a part of stories.

And, like I said, video games. The structure of Mega Man, at its most basic, is the same throughout all entries in the Classic series. The hero, Mega Man, shows up in a place, fights eight Robot Masters, then lays siege to Wiley’s Castle which inevitably includes a rematch with all those prior Robot Masters before fighting Wiley himself. The X series is essentially the same, just swap Mega Man out with X or Zero, Robot Masters with Mavericks, and Dr. Wiley with Sigma. The actual ‘stories’ depend on the game, from the very barebones of Mega Man 2 to the much more grandiose Mega Man X5, but that structure remains essentially the same.

Two of the games’ trademarks are being able to tackle the stages/bosses in any order and getting a bosses’ ability upon defeating them, which in turn is the weakness of another boss. The weapon you get from defeating Magma Dragoon in Mega Man X4 does a chunk of damage to Frost Walrus. It’s like rock-paper-scissors, but with spiffy robot weapons.

A vital part of the Hero’s Journey, as emphasized by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, is the Threshold Guardian. The idea is that every time a hero moves forward into a new space, there is someone guarding the way. To meet Old Ben, Luke Skywalker must first confront the Tusken Raiders. Lara Jean has to talk to Lucas about the letter she wrote him. In many situations, the hero will assimilate attributes of the encounter into themselves. The run in with the Tusken Raiders brings Luke closer to Ben. Talking with Lucas gives Lara Jean a new ally in her quest to restore some normalcy to the chaos that her life has become.

In Mega Man? The hero gets an ability from the boss which is then useful against another boss. In other words, Mega Man’s fight against a Robot Master makes him stronger and more able to take on the next challenge. It’s a learning curve too for you, the player; just because you’ve a boss’ weakness doesn’t mean the fight will be a walk in the park. But by the time the big rematch happens in Wiley/Sigma’s castle, going through all eight fights again will be a comparative breeze because not only is Mega Man stronger, but you’ve overcome a series of challenges to get to this point, enough challenges that fighting these guys again isn’t all that hard anymore. You’ve figured out their weaknesses and have mastered the techniques needed to dodge their attacks. And now you’re ready for the Final Boss, who you will inevitably lose to several times before finally, finally, emerging victorious.

The narrative of the game would hardly work near as well without those bosses. Going straight to the final castle and all the dangers that lurk within would not just be ridiculously difficult, but would also be too much too soon. As a player, you relish that feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting better and being able to take on harder challenge. Story-wise, even if the story is as barebones as some of the Mega Man games, there’s that need for a rising action (as Freytag paced is out. Beginning slow makes the final climax all the more exciting.

The Mega Man games are, in my opinion, definitely worthy of being among the canon of video games. They’re exemplary platformers, but also present a particularly fun twist to their gameplay via a probably-subconscious application of mythic structure. If you care for that, anyway; I won’t judge you for just really enjoying the games.

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Of Men Mighty and Mega

Mega Man was the video game I cut my teeth on. Well, more accurately, Mega Man X4. It was a tough game that I worked my way through as a kid. Didn’t beat it until at least three years after I got it, but still picked up Mega Man X5 and Mega Man X6 (and Mega Man 8) in the meantime to fight the new bosses, master the new levels, and get my ass kicked time and time again. I got better, beat them, got into the harder Mega Man Z games (look, the naming conventions are weird but make sense). Every couple years I revisit them, particularly Z3 and X5, my undisputed favorites.

All this to say, I know my Mega Man.

So what makes a Mega Man game? Theme-wise, it’s good robots fighting a bunch of bad robots, usually eight, then fitting a bigger boss. Mechanic-wise, it’s a lotta jumping and shooting mixed in with being able to get a defeated boss’ weapon which is another boss’ weakness. There’ve been some variations here and there (the X games added dashing and wall kicking), but for the most part, things are quite similar.

For the sake of convenience, I’m excluding the Battle Network and Legends games from this, since those are an RPG and Action-Adventure respectively, and are different genres from the others which are very much pure Action Games.

Point is, there’s a particular sort of gameplay when it comes to Mega Man.

But, I’d argue, that a big part of Mega Man’s game design goes beyond that. What makes (well, made) the Mega Man games so distinctive was how well they did what they did. The mechanic at it’s core: running, jumping, and shooting, was perfect. The controls were as tight as they got, and the levels just right for them. Mega Man’s jump was also precise, you always knew right where you were jumping. Dashing as X or Zero was equally so, and the moment you took your finger off the button, they stopped moving.

This meant that no matter how crazy the stage design got (and good grief some stages are maddening), you were always in control of your character. Bottomless pits and spike traps were (usually) more challenges of dexterity than outright attempts to kill you. The stages were fair, with most new obstacles being obviously such. This meant that when you died (and you will), it was more often than not because of a mistake on your part, one that you can see. The games were about slowly learning stages and bosses, and then executing everything flawlessly.

And, most importantly, they were fun as hell. And Capcom no longer makes them.

But a few years ago Keiji Inafune, someone who worked on the original Mega Man games, was Kickstarting a new game that looked an awful lot like Mega Man: Mighty No. 9. The game’s a platformer, you run, you jump, you shoot, you beat bosses and take their abilities. Heck, the game was number nine, a clear reference that both the original and X series ended at number 8 (besides the retro revival for the originals).

Mighty No. 9 was released a couple years ago, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this week upon it being free for PlayStation+ Subscribers.

And it is not a good game.

Lackluster visuals and presentation aside, it’s just… not really fun. It’s not the difficulty, rather it feels like the game cheats. Jumping onto a moving vehicle feels like a crapshoot, and avoiding attacks is luck more than anything. Sure, it’s fun to figure out a boss’s weakness and lay into it, but it’s missing that special something.

Namely, the precision that made Mega Man such a great series. Platforming feels wonky, the ‘AcXelearte’ dash is as likely to get you killed as out of trouble, and there’s no wall kick that made the X and Z games so interesting but instead a ledge grab that feels finicky at best. The gameplay loop just doesn’t work.

Part of what made the Mega Man games such fun was reaching that point of flow, where you kinda mesh with the controller into a sorta zen as you try and finish a stage and beat a boss. Instead here I am, a lifelong gamer, fumbling with the controller in Mighty No.9 ‘cuz Beck won’t grab on to a frickin’ ledge. Look, its boss fights are fun, I’ll give it that, but it just doesn’t feel like Mega Man — which it’s quite clearly intended to. Maybe were it not so clearly meant to be such it wouldn’t feel this bad a game.

Actually, it probably would. It’s clunky, and really makes me miss Mega Man.

So I’ll probably end up replaying X5 or Z3 next. Just gotta beat this game next because I will not be daunted by poor game design!

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