Mega Man and Super Mario: An Argument for Imperfection

Mega Man games are tough-as-nails, 2D action platformers developed by Capcom in which players run, jump, and shoot their way through gauntlets of highly capable enemies before facing a brutally difficult boss fight; Nintendo’s Super Mario games are whimsical, exploratory platforming games centered on the finely-tuned momentum physics of Mario and his jump — they deliver challenge on occasion, but almost always as simply another vehicle for the player to greater explore Mario’s capabilities. Mega Man is unforgiving, and to play one of the games’ levels is to suffer at the hand of enemies stronger than you, question your ability to even complete the level, and possibly snap a controller over your knee; Super Mario is intrinsically rewarding, and as players jump from platform to platform, bouncing on the heads of helpless foes along the way, the levels present themselves as playgrounds, lovingly-crafted expressly for the player’s enjoyment. Mega Man dares you to beat it, and Super Mario is simply too fun to leave incomplete. These games, apart from their commitment to 2D levels and variable jump heights, could not be more different, a fact demonstrated best in their decidedly dissonant design philosophies. And yet, I love them both, for it is because of these differences in design that both game series have carved out unique and important niches for themselves in the greater video game world.

Super Mario games are what I grew up with and, consequently, from what I developed most of my ideas on platforming design. The first game that I ever completed was New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS. My parents had recently bought the handheld console for me as a birthday present, and my Dad, a former NES fanatic, insisted that I play a Mario game. So he bought one, and I played one… and loved it. Since those days of haphazardly lining up goomba stomps during bumpy car rides or sprinting up my driveway to show my neighbors that Mario could shoot fire balls, I have gone back and played all of Mario’s 2D outings. And while as a six year old I wasn’t quite intellectually equipped to consider the underlying design of Super Mario’s levels, my high school aged, Super Mario Bros. 3 playing self was. And it was through playing Mario’s games that I began to understand the art of level creation.

In my playing of the games and watching of numerous videos discussing their levels, I had developed what I thought were immutable principles of platformer design. Playing these levels, which are expertly made to facilitate full exploration of Mario’s capabilities and reward mastery over Mario’s momentum, I noticed patterns. I noticed that enemies were not often challenges in and of themselves — they were dangerous ways to make each of my jumps more deliberate and thus more rewarding. Or, sometimes, they introduced risk-reward situations in which I could perfectly time a bounce off of an enemy’s head and reach new heights. I noticed that obstacles always had a fairness to them — that I could, with enough practice, always avoid being damaged by them in a clean and stylish manner. I noticed that the games prioritized unadulterated entertainment — that everything in the game seemed to exist for the sake of being overcome in a fun way. For in Super Mario, every set of obstacles, enemies, or level elements has a satisfying solution or way to exploit it for one’s own benefit, and all of these solutions and tricks make for a cohesive whole that allows the player to feel truly powerful, like the only real obstacle is his or her own skill. Not knowledge, not power-ups, but pure, intuitive skill. And that’s what I believed made for good game design.

Back then, I wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t have the full story. Raised on the supportive and benevolent design of Super Mario, the first Mega Man game I played, Mega Man 2, came at me like a punch in the gut; for if SMB3’s levels are playgrounds, MM2’s are the school bullies. Choosing from the nonlinear level select screen, through which players have a choice of eight levels and their accompanying “Robot Masters,” which are the levels’ bosses, I found levels with enemies far stronger than me. I found bosses whose attacks I had no way of avoiding and whose amount of health points far exceeded my own. In my hands, Mega Man died countless times from the fast moving, arcing projectiles of his enemies as I tried to maneuver his relatively limited, momentum-less jump in a way that would allow his straight-shooting, somewhat weak arm-cannon shots to find their target. Often, they didn’t, but the enemies’ sure did. I became frustrated — why was I so much weaker than the enemies? Why were some attacks simply unavoidable? Why did I have to take so much damage to make a dent in the bosses? I wasn’t only frustrated: I was confused, too. Confused as to what made these games so popular. Confused why people all my life had sung their praises. Confused how a game with design I felt was objectively bad had so many rabid fans. Most egregious of all, though, was that in the game, I felt powerless. My opinion finally began to turn around when I realized that was the point.

Mega Man, the player’s character, has one gimmick that sets him apart from other classic platforming heroes: when he defeats a Robot Master, he gains one of their powers for his own use. In the context of the game, this ability means that after every level, the player has a new weapon at their disposal. And, as I took too long to discover, the entire game’s design revolves around the acquisition and use of these weapons. Despite being incredibly angry and disappointed at the game and at its perceived design-flaws, I resolved to finish Mega Man 2, no matter what. In doing so, I found what makes the series so special.

Looking for any way to progress, I tried each and every level, reached its boss, then evaluated whether or not I could defeat it with Mega Man’s base weapon. Eventually, through a sickening amount of trial and error, I beat Wood Man, unlocking the “Leaf Shield” power-up. This weapon sends out leaves that orbit Mega Man, destroying any enemy that tries to touch him. Given that I had tried all of the other levels, I thought about where this weapon could be useful, then a spark — Crash Man’s stage! That stage includes a sequence during which Mega Man must climb an enormous ladder while small bird enemies swarm him. This section, I thought, was horribly designed. It left absolutely no way for me to climb up without taking damage from the hordes of birds; that is, until I had the leaf shield. I brought the shield to the level, and it worked exactly as I expected — making it past the birds was a cinch with my shield destroying them on contact. Crash Man’s fight, now that I could make it to him with most of my health intact, was far less of a challenge. I beat him, received his weapon, and went through the same cycle with the rest of the levels, considering how each power-up could help me to avoid challenges that I once found insurmountable.

As I continued playing, Mega Man’s abilities snowballed until I had all of them but one: Heat Man’s. His was one stage I had never even reached the end of; a section of disappearing blocks at the end seemed basically impossible to me. Albeit dreading the final section, I blasted through the rest of his stage with ease — I had almost all of Mega Man’s powers, after all. I reached the sequence of disappearing blocks and groaned, dreading the many “Game Overs” I foresaw. Then, I remembered: item 2! Having beaten Air Man’s stage, I had unlocked “Item 2,” a gadget that can carry Mega Man across any large gaps — even large gaps littered with blocks. I plopped down the flying platform and watched Mega Man streak across the lava pit that I was all too familiar with. Reaching the end of the room, I dropped down to the next, defeated one more enemy, and entered Heat Man’s boss chamber. I shuffled through my accumulated weapons and picked out “Bubble Lead” — the water would douse his fire, I thought. I was right, and I took down Heat Man with ease. What once seemed impossible — unfair, even — was now behind me, and I entered the final “Wily” stages with confidence, both in my abilities and Mega Man’s.

At the beginning of Mega Man 2, I hated the game. I hated my powerlessness, I hated the seemingly unfair design, and I hated the frustration I was feeling. But all of these elements, as I slowly learned to avoid hits from the powerful enemies, to mitigate damage from the hectic boss fights, and to use the Robot Masters’ abilities to curb the effects of whatever “bad” design I felt that I found, are exactly what made conquering Mega Man 2 so singularly rewarding. The game does little to assist the player in finding its solutions, but it’s because of this practice that finally completing the game is a victory all to one’s own. Mega Man 2 may allow the players to find power-ups, but the burden of finding their best use is left to struggle with. So, too, is that of uncovering the underlying behavior-manipulation needed to defeat the enemies and bosses, or of how to best avoid the levels’ many obstacles. The game teaches little, but in doing so, leaves much for the player to learn on their own, and that’s the game’s most unique achievement. Because while Super Mario’s genius lies in its intuitiveness — in the fact that once Mario’s capabilities are understood, the player can feasibly tear through the rest of the levels, hopping over and onto enemies and bosses as they please — Mega Man’s is in its messiness — in how it leaves the player, with very little assistance, to sort through and ultimately master the brutal, unforgiving, and at times unfair challenges it has laid out. It lies in how once one does master the game, despite all the frustration and the questionable design choices suffered, they feel a variety of triumph — of a victory earned in spite of the game, of outsmarting the game’s design and discovering its tricks, unassisted by supportive design — that is truly one of a kind.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is beautiful. The levels are perfectly designed, the physics finely tuned, and the obstacles and consequent solutions unmistakably clean. Like a Beethoven song, any one part of SMB3 can be studied and is almost assuredly perfect. Mega Man is different. Enemies can feel janky, the level structure lends itself perfectly to frustration, and some elements are objectively unfair. But, like a sloppy, improvisational rock song from a jam band like Phish, while in isolation not all of it is perfect — some of it legitimately bad — the way that the entire game comes together, in part because of the messiness, is truly unique and worth withstanding the imperfections. Mega Man 2 may not be the triumph of masterful design that SMB3 is, but if it were, it just wouldn’t be the same.

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