The NES entered our household just as the second wave of titles for the machine, the second generation, began to appear. One development cycle under their belts, the programmers at Nintendo and at their third-party licensees (that’s right; they used to have those) had begun to figure out the real tricks of the trade that would result in the system’s golden age, an age that lasted from 1988 to 1990.
(Aside: 1990, of course, is the year the last great NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3, launched, and although games were published for the system until 1994 most gaming historians, I’d wager, would agree the book can be closed right there. You’d do better arguing me that the golden age began earlier; my defense is those early games created an industry but weren’t better designed than their sequels: Super Mario Bros. didn’t let you scroll back, The Legend of Zelda was a fantasy adventure that took place in a lifeless wasteland Nintendo has been trying for years now to fold into the series’ canon, Metroid’s greatest design appeal — its atmosphere of isolation and foreboding — made it into the game due to system limitations… etc., etc.
I digress. So while my parents didn’t want me to get a NES, once I had one they were as on-board with it as a limited budget household could be. In fact, my dad was quick to score me a gaming coup: when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2 not long after my brother gave me the best Christmas present ever, it became a Holy Grail of gaming, in-demand and sold out by the truckload. In one of those rare moments, though, when the stars align and the cosmos bring forth true justice, my dad happened to know a guy who knew a guy at work, and he scored me a copy of the game before any of my friends had it. It was one of those rare moments in life where I had something first, where I was cool. (Remember grade school in the 80’s and 90’s, when ownership of a Super Mario game could make you cool?)
I’ve spent more time playing Super Mario 2 than I have any other game in the Super Mario series. Yes, that vegetable throwing Doki Doki Panic facelift game, that one that made zero sense even for a Super Mario game, the one that, while largely ignored in future Super Mario canon, has been cherry-picked over the years of its ripest fruit (Bob-ombs, Shy-guys, Birdo, the different abilities of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad)… I’m as familiar with the ins and outs of Super Mario Bros. 2 as I am with any other game ever made, and even more than the original Super Mario Bros. it defined my sense of what made a platformer a platformer. While it is often regarded as the black sheep of the Mario family of games, it’s always been on my list of favorite NES games (very close to the top, actually) and if Nintendo ever made a true sequel to it, not an impossibility given the quirky throwback nature of the company, I’d be a very happy retro gamer.
My other big NES ownership item was another franchise classic sequel just as different from its predecessor as Mario 2 was from Mario 1, but time has not been anywhere near as kind to its reputation. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is as different from The Legend of Zelda as you could imagine, foregoing the top-down dungeon crawling of the original for a hybrid RPG/Action-Adventure mash-up with a top-down overworld that would throw you into side-scrolling battle if you collided with an enemy’s shadow. (Abuh?) Zelda 2 had experience points that you doled out as you leveled up to increase your magic, attack, and life meters, and you learned combat and defense spells as you did in almost every JRPG ever made and as you didn’t in just about every Zelda game before and since… and those three useless spells from Ocarina of Time don’t count. It was a departure from the series, yes, and is now perceived as the red-headed stepchild of Zelda, but I really think the un-Zelda play style is not the real reason for its dismissal by many gamers.
The real problem is that Zelda 2 is, by far, the hardest Zelda game ever made.
Look: the gameplay and overall game experience was as spot-on and polished as you’d ever expect from a Nintendo published title, particularly a core title like a Zelda game. The two-level side-scrolling sword fighting comes to mind, which was arguably more challenging, rewarding and even fun than the lock-and-wait Z-target combat popularized in the 3D Zelda games. Zelda 2 was, however, controller-throwing hard. (The quest through Death Mountain for the frakkata hammer comes to mind.) I finished Mario 2 numerous times as a child. I never finished Zelda 2 as a child. Nor, actually, as an adult, and I’ve tried, but even on the Virtual Console I haven’t been able to defeat the game’s final palace. To this day, Zelda 2 is the lone Zelda game I’ve really tried to beat that I haven’t been able to. And yet, my experience with the game is as formative as any gaming experience I’ve ever had on the NES. I imported many of the attributes given to Link exclusively in Zelda 2, particularly his combat spell system, into the daydream superhero version of Link I’d fantasize about being, running around and fighting alongside Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe.
But enough about that.
Carrying the antithesis of the reputation Mario 2 and Zelda 2 share, Mega Man 2 is widely recognized as the best Mega Man game of the 8-bit era, and perhaps even when you take into account all the Battle Network and X and Zero spin-off titles, as well. Inspired in level design and balanced within an inch of rock-paper-scissors-fire-leaf-missile-bubble-boomerang perfection, Mega Man 2 bested its predecessor and successors in just about every way: challenging without being frustrating, lengthy without being tedious, packed with various items and power-ups without being overwhelming.
Unlike Zelda 2 and Mario 2, Mega Man 2 was a title I did not own, but I did borrow it and take it along on a family vacation to visit our cousins in Maryland. Play outside? Pfft. My cousin Kenny and I played the crap out of Mega Man 2, and it was a legitimate cause for celebration when we figured out which of the Blue Bomber’s many weapons we needed to use to take out Dr. Wily’s android form, and if that last sentence made any sense to you, then congratulations! You’re as cool as I am.
Take that for what it’s worth.
Mega Man 2 set the bar for action platformers, a genre mastered during both the 8 and 16 bit eras by Capcom, the game publisher of Street Fighter 2 fame. Capcom’s platformers were funtime masterpieces in every way, but they exceeded all but Nintendo’s own published titles in one area: play control. The physics and precision of control in Capcom’s platformers ingrained in me what I, to this day, consider to be the most important element of any action game. ‘Cuz if you can’t control it, it ain’t fun, and if you CAN control it, then even insanely challenging games aren’t hyper frustrating because at least the playing field between you and the CPU is even.
So it should come as a surprise to nobody that the absolute best game of the 8-bit NES era was also a Capcom platformer: Ducktales. Hell yeah, it was. Ducktales. Woo-hoo.