The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 2 | King of swing

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Having reached the communications array for Area 1, you’ve opened the door to the base interior. In order to get there, though, you need to make your first true and proper swing; the outer base is divided by a large gap that can only be crossed by swinging across with this lamp as your grappling point. The game does a good job of communicating what you need to do here; the space between the two installations consists of nothing but pure blue sky punctuated by a single search lamp post topped with a lamp whose design incorporates a visual dimensionality that breaks the visual plane and appears tangible. It doesn’t take much to get the point: This is how you’re traversing the opening.

The second outer fortress has much the same design as the first: You need to climb it, but you can’t simply zip from one level to the next. You need to work your way back and forth, avoiding obstacles and enemies.

Speaking of enemies, you face two kinds of soldiers here: Standard roaming soldiers, and stationary gunners who protect themselves with cover. The foot soldiers are practically a non-factor; they wander about aimlessly and will occasionally drop down from one level to the next, but they stand and twitch momentarily before committing to a jump, as if they’re nervous about taking the leap. Every once in a while, they’ll fire a random bullet or two as well. But if you let them stand around long enough to take a shot at you, you’re doing it wrong. The enemy infantry will become more aggressive in later stages, but here they appear to have been deliberately toned down to keep things manageable for you.

The cover-shooters are a little trickier, as they pop up just long enough to fire three shots at you in rapid succession and immediately drop back down. You need to fire at them right as they stand and then immediately duck below their fire. Where the foot soldiers simply introduce you to the idea that there can be bad guys wandering around, the gunners introduce you to a more sincere threat. You can’t get past them unless you master the idea of timing your shots to hit a target before it moves, as well as the need to duck out of enemy attacks.

When defeated, the enemy soldiers here drop only a single type of collectible pick-up: Green-tipped bullets. You can collect them by walking over them or by grasping them with the bionic arm to pull them close, but either way they have no immediate effect. It’s not until you reach the second half of the stage that you’ll be able to collect enough to enjoy the benefits of gathering these drops: Once you pick up your fifth bullet, you’ll hear a chime and a small icon will appear at the top of the screen.

Again, the value of this turn of events may not be immediately apparent, but the icon represents a point of health. When Bionic Commando begins, it works just like the arcade game: One hit and you’re dead. But this being a console game, it’s meant to be something you can master rather than a quarter-gobbler. Knowing the play mechanics are tricky enough on their own, Capcom redesigned the NES game to include the ability to fill out Captain Spencer’s life bar. Bullets works as experience points, and the more you collect the longer your life meter will become. Any attack you suffer in the beginning of the game will instantly destroy you, but once you’ve gained  a life point, you can soak up an enemy attack. The more life points you add — and the cost to upgrade increases with each level, though not quite exponentially — the more durable you become.

Another tactic you can learn for effective play here is precision grappling. Several of the gunners sit on platforms with a bit of space behind them. You can snag onto the ceiling beneath the unoccupied space, pull yourself up, and shoot these otherwise dangerous foes unguarded. It’s a handy tactic to learn, and one that will become essential throughout the game.

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Area 1 turns out to be surprisingly large for an introductory area to a game built around a never-before-seen mechanic. The base interior actually occupies more total screen real estate than the outside, and its structure is considerably more intricate. (Better not to question why the interior of a narrow tower appears to be constructed within endless bedrock; Badd technology is spectacular.)

The entry area flanks you with two elevators that will carry you down a tall shaft, deeper into the earth. Remember that hacked dialogue that said to beware the elevator? Well, here’s the elevator. It turns out the one to the left is rigged to send you plummeting into a pit of spikes as soon as you step on it — though a quick-witted player can save their own bacon by snagging a wall as they drop. While this booby trap isn’t entirely fair, the game does set you closer to the safe elevator on the right, which can be controlled by pressing the up and down arrows. You’re more likely to step on the elevator immediately adjacent to the interior entrance, especially since it triggers your “move left to right” platforming instincts. If, however, you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do here, the rigged left elevator will drop from beneath you and clue you into the fact that you need to descend.

An alcove midway down the right elevator takes you to another communication room, where you unlock the door to the boss chamber. You could theoretically reach the boss before using the comm station, but it’s unlikely, since the stage design is fairly convoluted and the alcove is right next to the entry shaft.

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You’ll find a considerably elevated threat level inside the base. Foot soldiers endlessly parachute into base (through the bedrock, even); the cover-using soldiers now can alternate between rocket launchers and bombs, forcing you to stay on your toes. Several electrical barriers obstruct the paths through the base, forcing you to use your grappling arm to pull yourself up toward the ceiling and shoot the shield generators out before you can advance.

There are a few niceties to be found here. You’ll see a couple of green-and-white boxes parachute into the base. By this point you should associate that particular color scheme with good things thanks to the bullets you’ve been gathering and the white-and-green health point icons they help generate. In this case, the boxes contain a variety of power-ups — usually a POW symbol that causes an indestructible ball to orbit around Captain Spencer for about 10 seconds, taking out any enemy it hits and blocking deadly projectiles.

Speaking of bullets, the endlessly parachuting soldier drop them (unlike infinite troops supplies in most other areas of the game), so you can continue to farm health boosts. When you reach a new character level, your health is completely refilled to its new maximum, so gathering power-ups basically amounts to free healing. There’s definitely a point of diminishing returns with leveling up, as after about three or four health icons appear the cost of reaching the next boost becomes tediously high, but the thick swarms of foes actually work in your favor here due to the low danger they pose and the ample rewards they offer up in defeat.

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The boss door waits at the upper left of the base interior. Your route takes you down, then left, then up, then left. If you haven’t gotten a feel for Bionic Commando‘s move away from linear or one-directional scrolling, this should clear things up nicely.

The boss door poses the most difficult scenario in the entire stage, with a shield generator, a rocket soldier ducking behind cover, and the usual throng of parachuting soldiers. You need to take out the shield while avoiding the other hazards, which can be tricky; the guy with the bazooka will blast your feet while you dangle to take out the shield, so you have to alternate grappling to the ceiling with ducking. Unless he decides to chuck a bomb at you, which rolls past you and doesn’t inflict damage until it explodes — that offers a perfect break in his attack pattern for you to focus on the shield generator.

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Inside the door, the base commander — a burly, bearded guy — threatens you and begins summoning an endless array of infantry. Unlike the paratroopers in the previous area, these guys move quickly, fire fairly aggressively, and don’t drop bullets upon their defeat. It doesn’t take long to realize there’s no percentage in dealing with them; better to complete the objective as quickly as possible.

The commander, by the way, is completely harmless. He simply stands in place and waves his baton. However, he does have a special death animation: He slumps forward before vanishing.

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The objective here seems pretty clear: You need to destroy the base’s central reactor. In case you weren’t clear on this fact, the commander even taunts you for your intention to “destroy the main system.” There’s a nice big target to shoot at here, and no Mother Brain-like complexity to get in your way. Just stand and blast the thing until it explodes, dodging the occasional scrub-class foe. You don’t even need to make special use of your bionic arm or anything — the vulnerable point of the reactor is at gun level.

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Destroy the reactor and you’re treated to a mission report screen in which Captain Spencer reports back to his team to inform them of the bonus item collected for completing Area 1: Energy Recover Pills, which slot into your equipment grid and can be used to instantly restore your health in the heat of battle.

The first stage is down, and with its completion the player should have a solid grasp on Bionic Commando‘s fundamentals. The game gets trickier and more complex, but by and large it simply iterates on the challenges you’ve faced here.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 1 | OK, we’ll move

After some deep soul-searching (read: Half-hearted musing until moved by a fickle whim), I’ve decided to forge ahead with Bionic Commando. After the unevenness of The Goonies II, it’ll be nice to have a genuine masterpiece to look at.

That’s right, a masterpiece. I’m not saying Bionic Commando doesn’t have its shortcomings, but it’s a shockingly well thought-out game that elegantly incorporates a lot of the concepts The Goonies II fumbled with, all the while presenting itself with wholly unique play mechanics. Despite the complexity of the game for its time, it holds up quite nicely and does a great job of presenting its innate rules and mechanics. Hence, a masterpiece.

Bionic Commando does three rather innovative things for its time: It abandons traditional platform mechanics (by which I mean “mechanics that had been established about three years earlier by Super Mario Bros.“); abandons standard level-by-level advancement in favor of an area map containing the stages in a nonlinear arrangement, similar to what Super Mario Bros. 3 would do several months later; and integrates an RPG-like system of advancement in which tools and equipment play a key role in progress, with clues for their use provided through dialogue with non-player characters. That’s a pretty heady combination of features for a work of this vintage — and a lot of big ideas to communicate with the player. But Bionic Commando manages to pull it off for the most part, which is a significant factor in its classic status.

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The game begins with a quick conversation to set the plot into motion and introduce the radio dialogue mechanic — although you can occasionally have conversations in person, most of the chatter here plays out like Metal Gear codec conversations, either through radio-style dialogue or by interacting with the communication centers throughout the world. Once the radio patter concludes, the action begins.

However, instead of flinging you immediately into combat, you begin on the map screen, where you’re forced to choose your course of action: Descend or Transfer. In truth there’s only one possible act here — you begin over Area 0, which isn’t an active zone. Selecting Descend does nothing, so you’re forced to choose Transfer. Once you make this selection, the chopper in the lower left corner (the player avatar) moves up toward Area 1, its only possible destination. At the same time, you see enemy trucks kick into action, shuffling about the map while the chopper is active and coming to a rest when the helicopter does. It’s almost roguelike, in the most rudimentary sense of the term.

Once you reach Area 1, you’re given another prompt, and now you can choose Descend. But beyond Area 1 are trucks moving, an uncertain dynamic elements — they won’t come to Area 1 yet, though, so while you can move past Area 1 and skip it, a new player almost certainly won’t. It just feels more instinctive to tackle this stage ahead of you.

When you choose Descend, you run through a quick equipment select screen. For the moment, you only have two items, so there are no alternatives here, but this feature will become important later.

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You parachute into Area 1, and immediately anyone experienced with platform games grasps that Bionic Commando works a little differently than most. Where most platformers see you running from left to right and avoiding obstacles and enemies, that’s not how this stage unfolds. You start at the far left on a flat expanse of ground containing no hazards, only a few low-ceilinged platforms. Shortly after the beginning of the stage, you encounter a small barrel.

For any other platform action game protagonist, this would be a non-issue. You’d hop it and move along. But Captain Spencer here can’t jump; the B button fires his pistol, but the A button instead causes him to plant his feet and fling a bionic arm. By default, the arm rises at a 45-degree angle, but if you press forward it’ll fly straight ahead. Press up and it’ll sling out directly overhead.

The barrel here serves the same purpose as the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. World 1-1: It’s an obstacle that forces you to learn how to use the game’s basic mechanics. Instead of jumping over the barrel, you need to swing over it. Your bionic arm is actually marvelously versatile. It can pull you forward (fling the arm straight ahead at the barrel and you’ll pull yourself toward it… but not climb it). It will also allow you to grab onto a thin overhead platform and scramble up to mount it, which would normally be the easiest answer to this sort of obstacle. However, the ceiling directly above and to the left of this barrel is lined with more barrels, which create an obstruction that prevents you from climbing to the floor above.

So, your only recourse is to use the 45-degree angle function. Stand next to the barrel and press the A button by itself and you’ll grasp the ceiling on the other side of the obstacle. Once connected, you can tap the controller forward to swing past the barrel. You’ll continue swinging back and forth until you input another command; pressing forward, backward, or down will cause you to disconnect your grappling arm with momentum moving in that direction, while pressing A again will cause you retract your arm and dangle directly below the ceiling.

At this point, any action (besides swinging back to the left of the barrel) is correct. Your only goal here is to bypass the obstacle on the ground, and in doing so you learn to use the grappling mechanics. Unless you drop off the ledge to the far left into the water, there are no hazards or threats here to deal with yet. You can fumble around with the controls until it clicks. It’s all good.

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Having scrambled over the barrel, you’ll quickly discover the level design of Bionic Commando is quite unlike that of other platformers. Continue running to the right and you’ll come to a wide pit that can’t be crossed — Spencer can’t jump, and there are no grappling points within reach.

As it turns out, stages in Bionic Commando tend to be more vertical than horizontal. Thankfully by this point NES programmers had sorted out the secrets of multi-directional scrolling; Bionic Commando would never have worked with Metroid-style alternating scrolling. The grappling mechanics allow you to cover a large amount of space in a single action, moving both horizontally and vertically, and because you can easily climb to a higher level by simply tossing your arm upward and pressing up, the stage layouts take advantage of your range.

In order to reach the right side of the stage, you need to climb up two levels in order to reach a spot lamp that rises from the water between the two halves of the area. The lamp’s pole isn’t interactive, but you can grab onto the light fixture itself and swing.

The structure on the left side of the divide is arranged like a tower, leading you upward before you descend back down to reach the pole. As you climb, you’ll actually see a door at the pinnacle of the building before you notice the spot lamp, which means you’re more likely to investigate the door before advancing forward. After all, you’re already working your way upward — why not just keep going?

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And just as well, because you can’t actually enter the final portion of the stage until you enter the room at top of the first structure. It’s the first of the game’s communication rooms, where you tap into the enemy systems to relay messages back to your chopper crew — or, alternately, to spy on enemy communications. Each area’s system uses one of four different communicators; you can only carry one at a time, which you choose at the beginning of a stage. Carrying the wrong communicator will render you unable to activate the current stage’s computer system, which in many cases means you won’t be able to complete the level.

Here, for example, you need to broadcast to your chopper crew in order to open the door to the base interior. Since you only have the α Communicator and had been forced to select it at the start of the stage, there’s no possibility of you being improperly equipped for Area 1: α is the only one that works here. Once you chat with your chopper crew, the door on the right half of the stage opens.

You do have one other option here, though: Wire-tapping. Instead of speaking with your support staff, you can also listen in on enemy chatter, which will often clue you in to secrets of a stage, hints for navigating future areas, or even enigmatic plot developments. The downside to using Wire-tapping is that there’s a roughly one in three chance that the enemy will be alerted to your surveillance, and when you step away from the computer you’ll be accosted by a pair of large melee soldiers that flank you and rush at you as well as an endless stream of standard troopers who parachute into the comm room until you duck out again.

That won’t happen in Area 1, though. You can wire-tap with impunity and learn about the rigged elevator inside the enemy base (though some of the localization work here makes the clues so abstract you won’t understand the message until you’ve already triggered the trap in question).

It may be a complete coincidence that the communication screen looks almost exactly like the one from Metal Gear, which launched on MSX almost exactly a year before Bionic Commando on Famicom… but probably not.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 6 | Farewell, Astoria

Like so many video games, The Goonies II presents some strong ideas and solid moments… and it ends pretty terribly. The game sort of peters out, losing its momentum in the final stretch.

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Quite possibly the strangest portion of the game comes in this final zone, a completely unique tile and palette set that comprises all of nine screens worth of the game world. On the map, it’s the tiny little curlicue on the bottom-right of the Back map, and it exists only one one side of the world — there’s no Front-side equivalent here. This area has only a handful of doors to explore, and you can cruise through this portion of the adventure in a matter of minutes.

Given the tight memory constraints of NES carts of this era, the addition of such a small, unique zone seems almost wasteful. It’s over before you even can really appreciate it, and then you’re back to more attics and cellars — the same couple of tile sets arranged in different color sets, though similar enough colors to be fairly confusing.

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At this point any adherence to the movie is pretty much out the window. You could kind of see the Goonies film connection in things like skeletons and knights, given the dead pirates and museum curios in the movie, but fire-breathing dragons over open pits of magma that spew gouts of flame? You can see Konami pretty much laying down the template for a decade of sketchy licensed adaptations. “Well, we’re out of ideas that look like the actual flick, so, eh, what the hell.”

The hazards in this zone hit unbelievably hard; the dragons take something like a dozen hits to put down, while they shave an entire block off Mikey’s health with a mere touch. Those fireballs, which have a tendency to blast into you while you’re trapped on a lift, are nearly as dangerous.

Still, even if it’s horribly out of place and lopsidedly difficult, the fire zone has a certain charm to it. Visually, it’s quite appealing, with the bright green dragons popping out against the rich earth tones and deep neutrals of the caverns. And gosh darn it if those critters don’t look downright delighted to be frying Mikey’s face with searing gouts of superheated air.

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As it turns out, I was mistaken about being forced to reach the fire zone by traversing the bridge. As it happens, you can get there two different ways: Through the geyser caves, yes, but also by way of a Warp Zone in the Back portion of the opening stage, where the first Goonie was trapped. So there’s no need to risk life and limb and boomerang on the bridge; whatever time you might be able to shave off your run by going from the ice caves to the cavern across the bridge is negligible and certainly not worth the risk of losing your hard-fought boomerang, which you desperately need against the powerful creatures in the latter stages.

The far end of the magma caverns takes you to another Warp Zone that leads into the most advanced area of the Fratelli hideout. Although it looks similar to the attics above the Front portion of the hideout, the main difference comes in the enemies: The Knights here use short sabers and small round shields, and the skeletons are a weaker variant with hunched posture.

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Given the visual repetition here, much of the difficult in the quest for the final Goonie comes from the simple act of keeping track of where you’ve been already. It’s easy to get lost thanks to the reuse of assets, and while this one green-tinted version of the attic definitely stands out, the others (all in tan and orange) blend together. And it doesn’t get any easier once you descend into the cellars for this portion of the map, which appear in slightly different shades of orange.

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In any case, it’s worth searching until you find the last key item of the game: The optional but extremely useful Bulletproof Vest, which reduces damage to Mikey by 1/2. This greatly increases his survivability, which is important despite the mild penalty for continuing: The final two hostages to rescue are secured in areas where weak, easily defeated enemies are less common than more durable monsters, so grinding for Keys can be a hassle. Better not to wipe out and lose all your Keys in the first place.

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Surprisingly, there’s one last underwater section, though it’s small: A simple two-screen sequence where a Goonie is held captive. It feels like this portion of the game was designed to be annoying; the pipe here deposits you in an area where Mikey can’t help but bump his head on the ceiling and immediately rebound back into the pipe. It’s a small detail, but one that suggests the designers weren’t really paying much attention at this point in the game.

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With all six Goonies safe, Mikey can venture through the Warp Zone in the Front area of the initial hideout. Annoyingly, there’s no short route from the sixth Goonie to the beginning; you need to backtrack all the way through the confusing attics and dangerous fire caves. Alternately, you can sacrifice Mikey, jot down the password, and choose to continue the game. You’ll restart from the beginning, a few screens over from the Warp Zone leading to the final run. When accepting a game over is your most efficient path forward, you’ve probably done a lousy job of designing your game.

Also, props to the inclusion of one last unique background tile set, though using it to depict yet another cabin/attic-type space seems a bit of a waste.

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The final run is actually fairly straightforward — if you head right every time you enter a new area and take the first door you encounter, you’ll reach Annie in short order. Finally, it comes down to this twisting screen full of mundane enemies you’ve been fighting throughout the game. None of the weird end-game monsters show up here — the lumbering golems or sword-wielding skeletons or bizarre ghost that warps in from all corners of the screen to center on Mikey’s current position. Nope, just some anticlimactic snakes and spiders.

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Which in turn leads to that last underwater door and a massive steel gate that only opens if you’ve saved all six Goonies.

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Inside is your inexplicable damsel-in-distress, Annie the Mermaid, who greets you enthusiastically. This whole thing is weird: Why a mermaid? Why did they base her name and appearance on Little Orphan Annie? Also, I didn’t think anything of it when I first played this game at age 13, but now that I’m much older I’m a little uncomfortable about the princess at the end of the proverbial castle being a nude underaged girl.

All in all, a fairly bizarre mix of the movie’s concepts with the developing tropes of video game design and storytelling.

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I have to imagine that for those who have never played The Goonies II, discovering and playing it for the first time today must feel an awful lot like the way I feel when I try and boot up a old Spectrum game whose praises I hear trumpeted on high. I can sense the underlying ambition and innovation that resonated with people several decades ago, but it’s so opaque and unfriendly I can’t lose myself in it the way its contemporary fans did.

I will say, though, that The Goonies II has one advantage over most Spectrum games: It’s not ludicrously difficult. The defanged penalties for dying and infinite continues might undermine its appeal for some, but this would be a considerably lesser game experience if you had to play it through in one sitting, or even on one credit. It’s every bit as unfair in places as something like Jet Set Willy, with powerful enemies placed for maximum cheap hits, but you can keep hammering away at it until you finish. Flawed, but well-meaning, and an important albeit halting step toward greater things.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 5 | Truffle shuffle

The biggest bottleneck to progress in The Goonies II really amounts to simply figuring out how things work — where to punch and hit in Adventure scenes, how to use the second page of tools like the diving gear. With those things sorted out, the game actually moves pretty quickly. You develop a routine of investigating rooms: For instance, punching the back wall, hammering the wall and ceiling and floor, examining the room with the Glasses, and finally checking the Transceiver for that scene’s hint. It’s a little pokey thanks to the interface — every action requires a slow text crawl of explanation — but compared to contemporary pixel-hunts, it’s really pretty innocuous. There are only three possible hotspots per room (hidden objects, to my knowledge, never appear on the side walls), so it moves along at a pretty decent rhythm once you sort out the limitations and possibilities.

The world of The Goonies II really isn’t that big, either. The Front/Back arrangement can make it a touch confusing in places, but the in-game map can be a big help in keeping things straight. Once you reach the first underwater sequence, the final pieces of the game fall into place and the remainder of the quest becomes a matter of finding the last few Goonies and sorting out where Annie is located. Actually, you get a glimpse of her prison in this area; like the slice of the Fratelli hideout you could peep at early in the game, there’s a screen at the very bottom of the underwater lake that exists entirely so you can see a mysterious door well out of reach, giving you something to work toward.

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The lake itself completely changes the mechanics of the game, though it shouldn’t be too hard to cope with if you’ve played Super Mario Bros.; Mikey swims just like Mario, by pumping the A button to create buoyancy that counteracts his natural tendency to sink downward. The difference here is that the map doesn’t stick to ratchet scrolling — you can move freely in either direction — and Mikey’s diving suit comes with a spear gun that fires in a straight line across the screen. This sounds all well and good, but trying to draw a bead on fast-moving fish while bobbing along demands good timing.

Annoyingly, pits still function like video game pits here, despite the fact that you move vertically between areas. You can only make those transitions by using pipes embedded in the floor or ceiling, though. If you let Mikey drift down below the bottom of the screen, he’ll die, even if there’s an explorable portion of the lake below where you drop off.

The only other weapon that works underwater besides the auto-equipped speargun is the bombs you can collect from fallen enemies. They drop straight down to land on the bed of the lake before exploding, and besides being very useful against foes like crabs they can also reveal hidden doors, like the one above.

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The underwater zone contains the final two key items players need in order to advance: The Ladder and the Jumping Shoes. The former comes into play during the Adventure scenes, allowing Mikey to climb to other levels through holes in the floor or ceiling. The latter you need to make an action jump back in the geyser caverns across the bridge. Yes, you have to face the skulls again before you can complete The Goonies II. No one ever said NES games were very nice.

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How droll.

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The Goonies II doesn’t really give you any guidance as to which tool you should put to use next. The Jumping Shoes actually come into play further from where you collect them than the Ladder….

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You may recall a hole in the ceiling in one of the first Adventure scenes in the game; well, now you can use it.

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As it turns out, there was a Warp Zone up there all along. If only the Fratellis had invested in some stairs or something. This Warp Zone leads to the hideout’s attic, which appears to have been based loosely on the attic upstairs at Mikey home in the movie, where his dad kept overflow exhibits from the museum where he worked. It’s full of the bat-winged skeletons from the caverns and a new ridiculously powerful enemy, knights.

In terms of platforming action, The Goonies II ceases to hold up quite so well here. With the arrival of the knights, you’re suddenly faced with multiple enemies that require nearly a dozen hits of any of Mikey’s weapons to defeat. (Well, Knights will actually go down with a single Molotov cocktail, but those are a limited resource and don’t drop from defeated enemies nearly as often as you might like.) The narrow passages of the attic, combined with the powerful and difficult to defeat enemies, can make it difficult to advance without dying frequently. Of course, there’s no permanent penalty for death in this game, but continuing reduces all your consumable to zero… which can be maddening when you’re trying to unlock a jail cell or safe in this area. You have to grind against those same powerful enemies until one of them drops another key.

Also new to the attic zone is the final Fratelli: Ma Fratelli herself, who throws deadly and accurate bouncing bombs at Mikey and takes four hits to stun. You may wonder why an hunched elderly woman has twice the endurance of her sons, but I’ll allow it: Anne Ramsey was a tough old lady.

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If you follow the path through the attic zone through to the end, you’ll eventually come to the isolated underwater area you spotted earlier. Yes, it’s the end of the game, where you’re greeted by an army of Moai heads. The door above your entry point contains nothing but a massive steel door… which at this point won’t open. You can advance to the end game early, but it turns out you can’t rescue Annie the Mermaid until you’ve saved all of your fellow Goonies. Alas.

There’s no benefit to trying to sequence break, either; the Adventure scenes you encounter in the latter half of the attic and beyond are completely useless. At this point, you’ve acquired all the weapons and items in the game. You don’t need additional key rings. And there aren’t even that many skirmishes in the final sequence, so there’s no real benefit to addition Bomb or Fire Boxes. So you encounter a lot of empty rooms and safes whose message consists of the most annoying platitude in the game: “It’s fun to play The Goonies II.” Which, ironically, creates a valid counterpoint to its own claim.

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No, in order to see the game through, you have to head back across the bridge of boomerang thieves for the true climax of the action scenes: The terrifying fire caverns. And you’ll almost certainly have to face them without a boomerang. It’s fun to play The Goonies II… maybe.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 4 | Rocky Road

“Sure, The Goonies II is an 8-bit game,” you say. “But I’m not convinced it really hates me.” Well, please allow me to show you the truth in all its grim fullness.

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Following the Keith Haring graffiti will lead you to another section of the orange caverns, which offer a one-way trip to the exterior of the Fratellis’ hideout — the only portion of the game in which you’re outdoors rather than underground in a cavern or in some sort of man-made structure. Don’t worry, The Goonies II doesn’t suddenly go all open world on us; this is more like the courtyard in Castlevania: A contained open-air section that lends a touch of scale to the proceedings.

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In this case, the open air surrounds the bridge that links the west half of the game to the eastern areas. It’s a rickety suspension bridge, as such things are wont to be, and the sense of vertigo the comes from the blue skies makes for a more stressful challenge than if this were one of the many similar platforming sequences within the hideout.

Not that it needs any help creating a sense of stress. The bridge is the single most evil area of the game — not hard in the traditional sense, but capable of inflicting a terrible setback on players that in many ways is much worse than simply dying. After all, The Goonies II barely penalizes you for dying. When you run out of lives, you can continue in the exact spot where you expired with no punishment save the loss of your consumable items (keys and bombs and the like). But the bridge, unless you play flawlessly, can rob you of an incredibly valuable item and force you to backtrack to recover it.

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The culprit? These inexplicable metal skulls, which fly swiftly toward Mikey and will continue to spawn every few seconds for as long as you’re on the bridge. The skulls are unique in the game as the only enemies that don’t injure Mikey; when they make contact with him, they hover for a moment before flying away.

So what’s the big deal? The problem is that they have voracious appetites, and the only menu selection in their diet is boomerangs. If a skull makes even passing contact with Mikey, they’ll devour his boomerang, removing the weapon entirely from his inventory. It’s not lost, exactly; you can go back to where you found it and retrieve it. The problem is that the boomerang resides in the ice caverns, which is a good five-minute jaunt from the bridge. Every time you lose your weapon, you need to trudge back — as good a justification for save states as I’ve ever heard.

Getting past the skulls unscathed is no easy task. They’re quick and resilient, requiring three hits before they go down. And no, you can’t hit them with the boomerang to stun them — they’ll destroy it in midair.

The best tactic for dealing with the skulls is to use your other ranged weapon, the slingshot. Slingshots drop very rarely from enemies, and you can also find one in a room in the hideout cellars near the beginning of the game. It’ll respawn every time you run out of slingshot ammo, or when you die (slingshots count as a consumable item). The slingshot allows you to take out the skulls from a distance with three quick shots. Even then it’s no easy task… though it can be made slightly easier if you find the hidden item immediately before the bridge: A pair of Hyper Shoes, which allow Mikey to run faster when equipped. The door that contains them is hidden, requiring the use of a bomb to reveal the entrance, but it makes the dash across the bridge far quicker, meaning you have to deal with fewer skulls (as they appear on a timer).

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Keeping the boomerang intact is of the essence beyond the bridge, too. The enemies here are largely similar to the ones in the previous caverns, but they move much more quickly. They don’t hit harder or soak up more damage, but the threat level is automatically much higher here.

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You also have to deal with new threats, like these… I don’t even know what they are. Skeletons, sure, but they have demonic bat-like wings. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were the skeletons of Dracula’s demon form from Castlevania. Whatever they are, they’re the worst. They’re powerful, take eight hits to destroy, and respawn on the same quick timer as weak enemies. To date, all other large, dangerous foes — scorpions, walruses, etc. — only respawn if you scroll too far away from where they appear. These guys just keep showing up. The saving grace is that they move pretty slowly, and strictly by making large leaps that allow you to run beneath them safely.

They’re pretty easy to take out from a distance with the boomerang, but god help you if all you have is a yo-yo Island Star.

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Another hazard here comes in the form of the geysers that appear along the ground and blast blobs of scalding water in all directions. You can dodge the water if you’re quick enough, but it’s not easy. Thankfully that’s easily remedied with a direct allusion to the original Goonies:

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A waterproof coat that grants you immunity from the geyser blasts. This coat is much easier to find than the one in the original game — it’s hidden in an Adventure Scene, but you quickly gain an intuition for when you should hunt for hidden objects in rooms. It’s nowhere near as arbitrary as the way the coat was hidden in midair in an innocuous spot in the first game. As a bonus, it also protects you from the waterfalls in the caverns on the west portion of the map.

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Also in this area you’ll find another Goonie, provided you have figured out how to access the Glasses from the Tool menu. However, this captive isn’t the most important discovery in this area by any means.

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No, that distinction belongs to the Diving Suit, which allows you to enter the game’s submerged areas. You may have seen a diving pool earlier; yes, The Goonies II adheres to classic metroidvanian principles, sending you far into dangerous territory in search of a tool to allow you to access an area in previously covered ground. In others words, it’s backtrackin’ time.

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Of course, this means you have to make your way back across the bridge, where Fratelli archers mark the least of your concerns. But let the skulls do as they may, I say. The way ahead takes you back to the very Adventure scene where you collected the boomerang to begin with — not a coincidence, I suspect. Konami knew this sequence was kind of a load of malarkey, and while they didn’t get rid of it altogether they did at least mitigate the pain by making sure you’d be certain to collect the boomerang again on your way to the next Goonie. Little by little, video game designers are learning to be merciful and considerate.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 3 | Did you really think I’d kill myself…?

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Well, alright. So you’ve rescued a Goonie. But that wasn’t a given by any means; The Goonies II nudges you in this direction, but it doesn’t strong arm you. There was another path you could have taken from here, and it goes rather far astray from Mouth or Chunk or whoever this kid’s supposed to be. In theory, this grumpy child could be the last Goonie you rescue. It’s a pretty open game, and with openness comes the potential for getting lost… though it should be said that going the other direction once you reach the cellar isn’t going the wrong way, exactly. It’s just not the most efficient use of your time.

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Should you wander over to this guy first instead of exploring the back side of the Fratelli restaurant, you’ll find yourself taking your first step into a much larger world. Sadly, you don’t inherit your father’s old lightsaber; dude’s a museum curator, after all. Instead, you move beyond the initial hideout and venture deep into a series of tropical caves.

The best way to explain the arrangement of the game map in The Goonies II is that it’s essentially stratified. There are multiple zones, but generally speaking these don’t sit side-by-side on the map. Instead, they sit one on top of the other, and a given zone usually stretches the width of a given chunk of the map. Basically these “chunks” each comprise about a quarter of the total map; both Front and Back maps are divided into an east and a west portion, and the only thing connecting east and west is a bridge that spans the middle on the Front map.

Occasionally you can move between two different zones by a ladder — for example, going from the restaurant to the cellar. And in all but a handful of cases, each zone exists (as palette swaps of a single graphical tile set) in the same approximate area on both Front and Back maps. You can pass between the Front and Back version of an area by passing through the Adventure scene that connects the two, but standard Adventure scenes only link up same type areas. To move between different area types — say, a cellar and a tropical cavern —you need to use a Warp Zone.

Again, it’s a slightly confusing world map arrangement, but The Goonies II does follow a certain consistent and orderly set of rules once you sort them out.

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Anyway, this is the aforementioned “cellar to tropical cavern” Warp Zone. Ta-dah!

This earthy cavern feels like a major callback to the original Goonies. Rocks! Vines! Waterfalls that injure Mikey unless he’s wearing a rain coat! You really start to see how visually distinct this game is from its predecessor here, though. The enemies are completely different than the creatures you fought in the hideout and cellars, including giant scorpions that hit hard and can take a beating. There’s no more One-Eyed Willy, but this is kind of worse.

As in the restaurant cellar, you can elect to take a couple of different paths here. One of them leads you to the bridge that connects the two halves of the maps, though that leads to a dead end thanks to an insurmountable jump. And in any case, the door just to the left of where you arrive in the caverns takes you to yet another Warp Zone, which leads you to…

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…some kind of bizarre ice cavern? Man. Astoria, Oregon has the weirdest geology. Though clearly this isn’t meant to be a natural formation given that it features polar bears and penguins and walruses and Eskimos, for some reason. These do not share a single habitat in nature!

The rapid transition from cellar to cavern to freezer feels too abrupt to be “right” — you’d think the game would give you a little more time in the waterfall area to get acclimated to the new environment — but in fact there’s a second trapped Goonie easily accessible here. Still, it’s a strange choice to make this the next immediate destination; your gaming instincts upon reaching the ice tell you to come back later. With falling stalactites and slippery footing, not to mention the rather aggressive native life, the ice cavern gives the impression of an advanced area. But it’s also quite small, one screen high and about three wide in total, and right away you’ll find one the lady Goonies to rescue.

There’s more to the freezer section than this, though. Like the other areas of the game, the ice caverns have a Front section and a Back section. Unusually, though, they’re not connected to one another directly. Instead, you need to pass between Front and Back in the waterfall caverns, then Warp to a corresponding section of ice caverns from there.

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The second (Back) ice area is larger than the other section was by a modest amount, and it’s packed with essentials. It’s connected to the caverns by a pitch-black Adventure scene, though, which may serve as a deterrent to passing between map sides. There have been a few black rooms already, and while you can walk through them and fumble around blindly, it ultimately amounts to a guessing game that’s not particularly enjoyable.

You need the cache of goods from the second frozen cavern, though. Inside a hidden safe you’ll find a pair of glasses, an essential tool. And in the same Adventure scene, you can grab a Boomerang, a (semi-) permanent weapon selection that lets you hit enemies the length of the screen in eight different angles. It’s basically a slower version of the Metal Blade from Mega Man 2, which is to say, invaluable.

Unfortunately, this is also the point at which the game’s flaws begin to show through.

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Konami’s designers still hadn’t quite gotten over their habits from the bad old days of hiding things in oblique ways. The Goonies II isn’t as bad as Simon’s Quest, but it still involves a lot of blind guesswork and trial-and-error. For instance, this door here is one of several in the game that only appears if you press up in an otherwise unremarkable area — a feature unfortunately carried over from the original Goonies. In itself it’s not a a totally unforgivable design choice (none of the hidden doors are utterly essential), but it introduces a maddening possibility space if you get stuck. Can’t find your way forward? Well, you reason, maybe the secret is hidden in a secret door, at which point you commence pressing up in front of every possible tile in the game.

The Goonies II breaks its own rules at times, too. In many of the Adventure scenes, you’ll meet NPCs who offer tips and help (the invisible door above, for example, is the home of Konamiman, who will refill your health for free). If you hit said NPCs, though, they’ll grow angry and refuse to talk to you. Except for the old lady living in the ice caverns — if you hit her five times, she’ll give you a candle to light the darkened Adventure scenes.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the Glasses (and another item you can find in this area, the Transceiver that allows you to gather hints from other characters remotely) demonstrate a strange quirk of the Adventure scene inventory system. Because of visual space limitations, Mikey’s inventory won’t fit into a single menu when you select “Tools.” There’s a second page that can be accessed by pressing the B button. The problem? At no point in the game or the manual does it tell you to press B to view that second page. Perhaps this is entirely an anecdotal complaint, but I found myself stuck for weeks in this game because I couldn’t figure out how to use the glasses I had collected. I didn’t think to press the B button because the manual literally says, “The B button is not used in Adventure scenes.” Even the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, which I bought specifically for help getting through this game, didn’t explain the rules. Ultimately, I figured it out by mashing buttons in frustration. Always a sign of top-caliber interface design.

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Oh well. You don’t need to understand how to use the Glasses to complete everything that’s possible in this area. Once you’ve combed the caverns and ice platforms, there’s nothing left to do but follow the Keith Haring graffiti to the daunting next area.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 2 | Pincers of peril

Before we delve any further into the design of The Goonies II, it’s important to take a step back and talk about one of the most curious fundamental concepts behind the game: The idea of front and back. When you pause the action, you’re taken to a Zelda-esque menu screen.

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Say, this is a pretty cool addition for a 1987-vintage action game. Even Metroid didn’t have one of these, as much as an auto-map would have come in handy. Actually, “auto-map” isn’t the right term here; the map doesn’t fill out as you explore but rather gives you a rough idea of the shape of the Fratellis’ lair from the beginning. Each grid of the map corresponds, roughly, to one screen’s height and about a screen and a half’s width, so it’s a fairly accurate representation of how much territory you have to explore.

You also get a sense of the inventory you’ll be collecting throughout the adventure, which breaks into two active selection categories (weapons and shoes) and one passive ability boosting group (implements). The lattermost of these are the sort of things that appeared hidden throughout the original Goonies, like the helmet to resist falling objects and the raincoat to protect you from steam geysers, as well as some new gear. This is also where you’ll keep count of your adventure scene tools like the hammer and keyring you found in the first area.

All told, your inventory screen will eventually look like this:

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So you get a pretty solid sense of the total scope of the adventure right from the outset. But hey, wait. That second map is different than in the first screen…

Depending on where you are in the game world, you’ll see one of two different map layouts: One labeled Front and the other, obviously, denoted as Back. This is actually something carried over from The Goonies for Famicom, though here it’s presented as much more of a concrete mechanic than in the first game. Before, you’d duck into a door (often shaped like a skull’s mouth) and come out some other place in a level; here, your movements line up between two sides of a map. Note that “Front” and “Back” are not reversed from one another — if you move to the left edge of the Front map before switching to the other area, you’ll be at the leftmost side of the Back map as well. Basically, you’re viewing both maps from the same relative direction, and one literally sits in front of the other. It’s a little weird, but even if the real-world logistics of it don’t quite make sense it makes practical navigation a lot easier.

The Front and Back maps of the hideout actually line up quite consistently, once you figure out how they correspond (the restaurant has an attic that rises one screen higher on the Front side, so the top left row on the Back map is one row lower than the top left row on the Front map). The one wrinkle that complicates things comes from the Warp Zones that lead you to entirely different points of the other map, but generally those connect self-contained areas that line up with a similar region in the same vicinity on the reverse map.

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Anyway, all of this is good to know, because as soon as you climb down the ladder leading from the opening restaurant area, you immediately find yourself at an intersection leading in several possible directions. You can climb down another ladder, move left, or go right. As with Metroid, The Goonies II kind of banks on your platformer instincts to take you right immediately. This leads you to a total dead end, though on the other side of the wall you can see an extension of this cellar area just out of reach. You won’t actually be able to traverse that area until the very end of the game, but from the very beginning it’s there, tantalizing you, provoking you to wonder what’s over there and how you can reach it.

Should you choose to go down, you’ll see more of that out-of-reach endgame territory as you travel to a door that takes you to a Warp Zone. That’s not really what the developers intended for you to do here, but they allow it; The Goonies II is pretty well completely open to you to explore from the outset. You can only get so far until you collect the critical Implements you need to navigate the Adventure scene pathways, but unlike Metroid, there is no real sense of linearity at work here. The Goonies II works more like Castlevania II, allowing you to become completely lost before working out the solutions and secrets at hand. Thankfully, the secrets aren’t nearly as opaque here as in Simon’s Quest. The people who give you hints are even kind of helpful! Unless you punch them.

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While you’re free to pass through the Warp Zone, you’ll ultimately find dead ends (no doubt after considerable frustration). If you move left at the cellar intersection instead, however, you’ll come to another door — and this one, unlike those in the initial restaurant area, don’t lead to dead ends. Instead, the door passes through from the Front map to the Back. You’ll come out in a cellar similar to that on the Front side, though with an earthier color scheme, and see a ladder leading immediately upward.

The door between cellars doesn’t simply serve as a thoroughfare, though. As you move from one side to the other, you’ll find a Magic Locator Device simply laying there in the open. As the locked-up hint in the restaurant explained, you find your lost Goonie pals with the Magic Locator Devices you find — and sure enough, if you check the map once you enter the Back cellar, you’ll see a blue dot two rows above the red dot that indicates Mikey’s current position. There are seven devices and six Goonies plus the game’s damsel in distress, the inexplicable Annie the Mermaid, so each one you collect will lead you to a different companion in need of help.

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Up the stairs you’ll find another hideout like the one where you began the game (though, again, palette-swapped). At the right end you’ll again see more of the game you can’t immediately access; the path leads you to the uppermost level of this building, but it ends with no way down to the other half of this building. The good news is that at the dead end you’ll find a door where the first of the Goonies is locked away. Liberate your friend with a key and you’ll receive both an admonition (said captive has the temerity to complain about how late you are arriving to save his life) and an extra block of health, boosting your maximum energy from two blocks to three. Nice!

So, in the journey leading to the first captive, The Goonies II gives you enough freedom to become temporarily lost, but it also makes the path to this initial objective impossible to miss once you move in the proper direction. We’ll look at some of problems in The Goonies II soon enough, but the game actually does quite a nice job of providing some guidance to get your started without railroading you toward that first goal. It may take you a little while to get here if you don’t pass through to the Back cellar before exploring what lies beyond the Warp Zone, but eventually you’ll have to make it back to this point. All in all, some pretty smart game design.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 1 | Never say die

Hi, everyone. So, I lied. The next game up under the Anatomy lens isn’t Super Mario Bros. 2… because what I have in mind for that is going to take some more prep work. Instead, let’s finish up the second half of that Anatomy of Goonies series I started this spring, eh? I mean, I changed my Twitter avatar in honor of Annie the Mermaid and never bothered writing about the game she’s in. And, honestly, I’d kind of like for my public persona to no longer be presented as a prepubescent mermaid.

But first, a recap. The Goonies, as you may recall, transformed the Richard Donner film into a six-stage platformer with an interesting element of exploration. It also relied heavily on trial-and-error with unspoken rules to uncover hidden secrets that were effectively required for progression. In short, The Goonies went down in history as a thoughtful platformer with some solid mechanics and respectable designed ultimately undermined by the bad habits of its era.

For The Goonies II, Konami used a larger cartridge ROM and applied their growing NES expertise to produce something considerably more balanced. The Goonies II has issues, as we’ll see, but it was kind of insanely ambitious for its time. To put it into context: It launched in Japan a mere eight months after Metroid made its debut, and six months after Konami came into its own as a third party with Castlevania. It debuted nearly a year before Mega Man, and a mere two months after Zelda II (which enjoyed the perks of being on Famicom Disk System, whose advantages over the base NES hardware were still relevant at the time).

Yes, The Goonies II has issues, but it broke new ground on the NES.

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Like The Goonies, this adventure sets you on your way in the ramshackle abandoned restaurant the Fratelli gang uses as its hideout. Yet right away we see two significant differences over the first game: One, the platforms divide the screen into two levels rather than three, and the overall level design appears considerably less convoluted and dense. The Goonies II removes the element of time as a game factor, and as such its layouts can afford to sprawl and play out in a more relaxed fashion.

Secondly, when Mikey attacks, he’s no longer using stubby little judo kicks. Instead, he wields a… hmm, Yo-Yo® is trademarked. Let’s call it an “Island Star.” Yeah.

So Mikey’s attacks have more range, and the environment feels less claustrophobic. These provide a tangible reflection of the change in game design philosophy behind this sequel. But in case these design cues don’t make the change in this adventure’s nature immediately obvious…

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…you’ll quickly figure things out when you reach a door on the upper level a mere three screens into the restaurant area.

Unlike the doors in The Goonies, this doesn’t simply take you to another portion of the level. Instead, you enter an adventure-game-inspired first-person maze in which you control Mikey indirectly through menu selections.

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Weird, right? But also very much a zeitgeist kind of thing for a Japanese Famicom developer to do in 1987, when PC-derived adventure and role-playing games were all the rage over there. Konami saw the success other studios had enjoyed with the likes of The Portopia Serial Murder Case and Famicom Tantei Club and wanted to take a bite of that. But they also wanted to jump on the free-exploration platform action trend. So they combined the two genres into one.

It’s a strange and sometimes awkward pairing, but it does work at times. Here in the first door, you’ll find nothing more than a dead end and an essential tool for the rest of the game, the Hammer. It’s worth noting here that Konami’s designers could have given you the Hammer from outset, as they did with the, uh, Island Star. However, they took a cue from Metroid, making the collection of this item a key to advancement that, at the same time, offers guidance on how players go about advancing.

This room, most likely the first you’ll enter in the game, contains nothing but the hammer. So you can deduce that the “adventure scenes” (as the game calls the first-person sequences) involve collecting items. How you use the Hammer isn’t evident here — there’s no use for the Hammer in this screen — but at least you know you need to look for tools now.

Once you back out of this adventure scene, you’ll return to the platforming portions, where you’ll quickly find a second door. Here, the game expands on the complexity of its design mechanics. The next item you find is a Keyring, which gives Mikey the ability to carry up to two keys at a time (these will now appear as random drops from defeated enemies). The Keyring appears next to a wooden double door leading to a second room, relaying your ability to navigate through adventure scenes; in the second room you’ll find a safe, which you are very obviously meant to unlock with one of your newly acquired keys.

Inside the safe, the game provides material guidance in the form of a text hint: FIND THE GOONIES WITH THE MAGIC LOCATOR DEVICE. So now you know (1) how to go about fulfilling the game’s main objective of tracking down the captive Goonies — it’s no longer as simple as finding one in each stage — and what, precisely the Magic Locator Devices you’ll begin collecting before long are for.

This second room also contains one more element: A hole in the ceiling. You don’t have the means to interact with the hole above, but the message is clear. You’ll need to come back later to complete your tasks in this adventure scene.

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Some things remain consistent, at least. Before you reach the end of the first screen of the Fratelli hideout, one of the brothers comes along and starts shooting at you. As ever, you can stun (though not entirely remove from play) the Fratellis. The only way forward is down; you advance by climbing the ladder to the next area, not by passing through a one-way gate. There are no points of no return in The Goonies II, as you’ll soon discover.

The Anatomy of Mega Man 2 – XVI – Xenophobia

Whatever crimes of redundant visual representations the interior of Wily’s castle may have committed, you can levy no such complaints against this final chamber, in which you face off one last time against the game’s bosses. I mean, check this out.

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Those screens! In case you ever doubted Mega Man’s anime influence, here are some straight-up Macross computer aesthetics for you to enjoy. I almost expect to see a fusillade of Crash Bombers flying along windy paths or something.

This, of course, is the end game: A showdown with rebuilt versions of Wily’s eight Robot Masters. Mega Man 2 handles this boss rush very differently than the first game did, establishing a fairly permanent standard for the franchise. Rather than spread out the bosses across multiple levels and put the rush at the end of a fairly tricky stage, you fight all eight bosses at once (or rather, one at a time, in rapid succession) in a stage designed specifically to contain the fights.

The basic premise of the rematches remains the same — you warp into a room housing a single boss, defeat it, then exit again to take on the next — but it’s much friendlier this time. The warp chambers are no longer consecutive, so instead of jumping immediately to the next battle you return here to the hub. Even better, each defeated boss drops a large health capsule, so it’s no longer quite such a matter of endurance as in the original. If you die in the process, any bosses you’ve defeated — denoted by the absence of blinking lights on that Robot Master’s telepod — remained destroyed until you hit continue. And, if you’ve made it this far while toting E-Tanks, you’ll still have those going for you until you continue, too. On the other hand, without continuing you also  won’t be able to refill your weapons, meaning you won’t be able to use any Crash Bombers here. Not after that Boobeam fight.

And finally, each boss redux battle happens in a plain ol’ empty chamber. No conveyor belt in Metal Man’s room, no uneven flooring in Quick Man and Flash Man’s level. The one exception is that Bubble Man’s room is still flooded, but even then you no longer have to worry about mines lining the ceiling. Unlike in Mega Man, where the lack of Super Arm-compatible boxes in the reduxes could work against you, here the even flooring works more or less universally in your favor. You can stand and pour fire into Flash Man and Quick Man without having to fuss over their unpredictable responses to the varied terrain, and Metal Man… well, now that you have your complete arsenal in hand, you can destroy him in a hilarious two shots of his own weapon. (Or one shot, if you’re playing easy mode.)

There’s a bit of potluck to the enemy order here; the teleporters don’t use the same layout they did in the stage select screen. Heat Man occupies the upper-left corner, not Bubble Man, and there seems to be no correlation between the stage select arrangement and the order of these warp pads. But given how incredibly powerful you’ve become by this point, the fights are enough of a cake walk that it shouldn’t matter; until you learn the layout, you’ll always be on your toes just a bit.

Once the eight Robot Masters are once again reduced to a burst of pulsating circles, a final pad appears.

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This, of course, takes you directly to Dr. Wily’s latest personal war machine. This time it’s less like some bizarre upright human torso and more like, I dunno. Slave-1. Wily Machine 2 feels like a deliberate inversion of the previous game’s final machine; its first phase fires beams of energy that travel downward and then curve upward in a parabolic motion, a mirror image of the first machine’s bullets that followed a decaying upward path before plunging down, off-screen.

The second phase, once you take down the outer armor and expose Wily’s inner capsule, is much trickier. It fires beams of energy that travel in a tightly arcing sine wave and can be very difficult to evade. It becomes a battle of attrition, most likely, and if you die against either form of the machine you’re sent back to the first phase on your next attempt.

Wily Machine 2 has two weaknesses, and they seem specifically tailored as a sort of “screw you” from the developers. Atomic Fire, fully charged, will destroy the outer armor in two shots. And both phases are weak to Crash Bomber, with the second form susceptible to taking multiple hits from the sustained explosion. The problem, of course, is that you only really get one chance with these weapons; since the teleportation chamber doesn’t offer you any energy refills when you respawn and the Atomic Fire can only discharge two full-force blasts without needing a refill, the pressure is on not to screw up the second round. And of course you almost certainly have zero Crash Bombers after the Boobeam trap, so the only way to breeze through the battle is to accept a game over and the subsequent energy refill.

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But when you do at last destroy Wily Machine 2, the game… isn’t over?

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Instead, the floor explodes beneath Mega Man and he plunges into an entirely new stage.

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In contrast to the rest of the game, there’s an eerie feel to this sequence. No music plays in the background, and you run through a tunnel bored through pure rock. There are no signs of technology here; no man-made structures, no robots, only silence punctuated by the rhythmic dripping of some sort of caustic fluid.

Finally, you reach a darkened room that appears to be a portal to an alternate dimension, or something. The surreality of this post-Wily sequence reaches its peak as you step into outer space and Wily flies into the room via flying saucer, leaps into the air, and levitates in place as he morphs into his true form…

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…an alien!?

The instant he transforms, Wily immediately presses the attack, swooping around the room and firing at Mega Man with single powerful projectiles targeting his location. This fight can only be survived if you keep on the move, avoiding the alien’s flight path and leaping its bullets. You also need to experiment with your weapons, because everything you throw at the alien seems to bounce right off. The only power capable of putting a dent in the alien’s life bar is, almost certainly by design, the last one you’d think to use here: The Bubble Lead.

After all, the alien constantly flies above you, and while the Bubble Lead follows a small upward arc its upward movement is extremely small and ends at about arm’s length before plummeting to the ground. So this introduces an element of risk and space management to an already tense fight; not only do you have to dodge the creature and its deadly fire, you have to do so while daredeviling your way up close to it to fire a Bubble Lead as it reaches one of the low points of its figure-8 movement.

Once you shake off the shock of discovering the truth of Wily’s extraterrestrial origins, the battle turns into an exercise in learning the alien’s pattern and sorting out exactly how you can damage it. Thankfully it follows a consistent pattern of movements and attacks — that Wily, always stuck in the same old patterns and habits — so eventually it just comes down to developing a rhythm and sticking to it long enough to whittle down the alien’s health meter. Naturally, its attacks hit you much harder than yours hit it. On the other hand, you’ll always continue at the beginning of the acid run, so you don’t have to weather the Robot Master/Wily Machine gauntlet again.

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And, once the alien is defeated, you discover that you’ve actually been in a sort of planetarium with a projector in the ceiling, and that the “alien” was just a holographic device Wily was directing from a control panel in the corner. Evidently he fully expected all his Robot Masters and his war machines to be defeated and created this weird ruse as a last-ditch measure. Evil geniuses, man. Who even knows.

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Cornered, he surrenders, and the game ends for reals as the planetarium projector closes up. Love the way it reflects (refracts?) the pattern on the walls.

And Mega Man goes for a walk, cycling through his powers as he marches forward.

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I love the fascinating ambiguity of this sequence. It lacks the sort of triumphant fanfare you’d expect in a game ending, a melancholy tune playing as Mega Man cycles through his powers and the seasons change to reflect his current color scheme. Finally, he reverts to his usual form, and the scene returns to fair weather as well.

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He warps out, and the scene expands to reveal that he’s left his helmet behind.

At the time, I took this to represent the end of the series — Mega Man realized he didn’t belong in this world or something and vanished forever. Of course, dozens upon dozens of sequels followed, so I suppose the point was that he realized his newly acquired skills made him too powerful, too dangerous, and this sequence is meant to explain why he always abandons the powers he copies before each new adventure.

It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it’s a marvelously unique conclusion to a brilliant game, one that improved on its predecessor in every way imaginable and set a new standard for NES software design.

The end.

Next in Anatomy of Games: Super Mario Bros. 2! Ah, but which one…?

The Anatomy of Mega Man 2 – XV – Passive threats

Several people have complained in the comments of this series (and elsewhere) about the repetitive nature of the Wily stages in Mega Man 2. Specifically, the fact that the levels are constructed of the same bulkhead panel tile, repeated over and over again in different color schemes.

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Interestingly, I never hear those criticisms voiced for the original Mega Man, even though that was the case there as well.

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I think we can attribute this to a couple of factors. One, The first Mega Man just isn’t as visually interesting as its sequel — a smaller, more limited game. Some shortcuts seem inevitable in an older game like that, really. Also, the one different Wily stage came in the middle (stage three) in the first game instead of at the beginning (Mega Man 2‘s Wily 1, the fortress exterior, with its multiple mixed surfaces). Secondly, though, despite the smaller ROM size of the older game, the Wily stages do more to mix up the look of the scenery. Mega Man 2‘s final three levels consist of nothing but walls and walls of these same background tiles, with no other machinery or imagery to break things up. The effect does pair nicely with the background music to create a kind of suffocating atmosphere… but a little variety never hurt anyone.

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That being said, for all the Wily stages’ visual monotony, each one incorporates its own unique mechanics. We’ve seen hints of Metal Man’s stage, Bubble Man’s, Flash Man’s, and more. For the final leg of the journey, we thankfully don’t have to deal with Quick Man redux. Instead, it’s more a reprise of Crash Man’s level, with some mechanics that have appeared nowhere else in the game.

Despite its dense, claustrophobic feel, Wily 4 revisits the ascent element of Crash Man’s stage. You’re navigating a series of ladders here, with strategically placed Metools eager to knock you back down to the previous screen. Those jerks. What makes this area different, however, is the presence of….

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…false, holographic floors. Certain panels of floor simply don’t exist, despite the visuals telling you otherwise. Nasty.

But not unfair. The spike trap here isn’t the first you’ll see of the fall-through flooring. The initial ascent with the bulkheads populated by Metools ease you into this new mechanic in a relatively safe environment. You can’t reach this spike pit without first traversing a series of holographic bulkheads, and the game actively entices you to learn more about them by strategically placing a 1UP in a corner that can only be reached by correctly navigating these takeout pits. The worst that can happen here is to fall and hit a Metool — no big deal. So by the time you get to the spikes, you’ve just spent a few minutes plummeting in unexpected places and riding Item-3 past surprise pitfalls. You should expect a trick here.

The solution to this bit of environmental nastiness is right in your arsenal: The Bubble Lead, which clings to the ground and tenacious keeps on clinging even when the ground takes a downward dip, has the ability to roll along safe ground and drop where the pits appear. You still can’t see the pits, but you can deduce their location by watching the behavior of the Bubble Lead.

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And when you do reach pits, you can either jump over them or, when the ceiling is too low for you to clear that much horizontal space without bumping your head and taking a fall, using Item-3 to stick to the inner lip of one of the pits and create a makeshift platform for you. Alternately, you could ride Item-1 from below the pit. Mega Man 2 revels in its wealth of strategic options.

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Once you make your way to the top of the pitfall zone, you double back down again for another Crash Man reprise. This time, it’s the on-rails platforms from his stage surrounded by endless swarms of Tellies. In their first appearance, the challenge of these platforms came from the fact that you had to ride them upward to reach ladders at the top of the screen; here, you’re advancing downward. No sweat, right? Gravity’s working in your favor. Alas, it’s not that simple.

For four solid screens, you’re riding the platforms over floors consisting of nothing but spikes. There is very little safe ground here, and many of the rails are surrounded by narrow walls that create far too small a space for Mega Man to ride through. While you can still employ the tactic of riding about while the Leaf Shield protects you, this sequence doesn’t offer any slam dunks like in Crash Man’s stage. You’re forced repeatedly to jump to small stable outcroppings as you wait for the platform to trundle its way through the narrow gaps, and of course every time you jump you’re forced to send the Leaf Shield flying, wasting some of its ammo. There’s a distinct possibility of running out of ammo here, which means you’ll be zipping around the room at high speeds and approaching Tellies from oblique angles, increasingly the likelihood of being knocked into spikes. And no one wants that.

The final stretch of the stage consists of two Returning Sniper Joes on foot and two in mechs. It’s a pretty annoying final gauntlet, since those enemy types tend to be woefully parsimonious with weapon power-up drops… and god knows you’ll probably need them for the boss ahead.

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I suppose every Mega Man has to have at least one boss you utterly and completely hate, and the Boobeams here are Mega Man 2‘s universally loathed showdown. It’s an interesting battle, because it was designed explicitly to screw you over.

The wall-mounted cannons here are a mostly passive threat. They sit on the wall, doing nothing, and every 10 seconds or so they change up and all fire an energy bullet simultaneously that zeroes in on Mega Man’s current position. It’s difficult to dodge the converging shots initially, since they move quickly and from almost every angle. Once you start picking off the cannons, however, you can more easily dodge the shots with a well-timed jump.

The problem is that the only way to destroy the cannons is to hit them with a Crash Bomber. Fully energized, you have seven shots with the Crash Bomber, and there are five cannons. Easy, right? Hold on, there, bucko. Two of the cannons are housed behind destructible walls that, again, can only be destroyed with Crash Bombers. Five plus two is seven, which means you need to pull this encounter off without a wasted shot. Well, you can be clever and put a well-placed Crash Bomber on the tile shown here, which will destroy a turret and a key wall in a single shot, but it’s tricky and not intuitive.

Also not intuitive is the fact that you need to conserve your ammo for the essential targets. Your first instinct in entering this room is almost certainly to blow out the destructible wall immediately to the right of the starting area… but once you open fire on the turret in the bottom right corner, you’ll discover it can only be destroyed with the ammo you just wasted. Rather than blow out the wall to the right, the proper approach is to use Item-1 to ride up to the platform above… which isn’t exactly intuitive, either, since taking that ride is likely to leave you vulnerable in the center of the room where the energy beams converge. This encounter appears to be consciously designed to screw over a first-time player by putting them into a situation where they almost invariably won’t be able to finish the fight.

This wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that when you die and start again, you’ll be completely drained of Crash Bomber ammo and will have only the churlish Sniper Joe gauntlet with which to recharge your reserves — a scenario almost guaranteed to cost you a ton of health or other weapon reserves in a slow, grindy attempt to top off your Crash Bomber ammo.

The one saving grace of this battle is that walls destroyed with Crash Bomber don’t regenerate until you run out of lives and hit Continue, so as long as you have some Mega Mans in reserve you won’t have to clear out any of the barriers you’ve taken down. One possible strategy here is to blast out all the walls in the room, die, grind for ammo, and quickly take out the Boobeams. But that’s a graceless tactic, and the fact that Mega Man 2 railroads you into it makes this final fortress boss a black mark in an otherwise beautifully designed game.

The Anatomy of Mega Man 2 – XIV – So much larger than life

The background music changes for the third leg of Dr. Wily’s castle, from the majestic theme of the previous two stages to a more muted loop that constantly builds to a crescendo, rising in pitch and intensity, but never quite breaks. Instead, it drops right as it seems like it’s reaching a climax and begins the loop anew. It help builds the tension and anxiety of this stage… which, honestly, doesn’t need much help.

Wily’s third stage represents a turning point in level design. There’s no more hand-holding, no easy way through. At this point, the game has officially become mean and nasty.

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Case in point: You begin the level by immediately dropping into a shaft with some power-ups… but if you want them, you have to burn through a bunch of precious Crash Bombers. You can refill on the next screen (if you land in the right spot and don’t plunge down to the bottom instead), but this represents a hefty outlay of energy for a weapon that, if you’ve played the game before, you know you should conserve with all desperation. If you don’t know what lay ahead, well, you could very easily screw yourself over right here.

This area is light on enemies, and this initial drop features only a single one: One of those snails from Bubble Man’s stage. That should give you a clue for what’s next…

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Water! But not refreshing clean natural water as you saw at Bubble Man’s waterfall. No, this is a gunky green reservoir that reeks of stagnation (quite possibly literally, assuming Dr. Light built olfactory sensors into Mega Man). Sewage? Runoff? Some kind of lubricant reservoir for all of Wily’s machines? In any case, the hideous color scheme makes you feel almost as unwelcome in this area as the mine lining nearly every visible surface of the underwater area. And to say nothing of that giant fish.

Said fish appears in duplicate here, a nasty surprise to waylay you as you leap across the two deadly pits in this area. The designers were nice enough to add a transition from flat greenish background to murky black at the bottom of the pits to denote quite clearly that you shouldn’t try dropping into these pits — a sensibly consideration, given the way water changes the physics and rules of Mega Man’s control scheme — but there’s no hint at the horror lurking below the dark until you take a running jump to clear the watery expanses. Once you step off the surrounding ledge, this massive thing darts upward and tries to take a massive bite of Mega Man. Should it hit Mega Man, it can easily stall his momentum and send him dropping into the pit from which the fish leapt.

The Big Fish may be the strangest enemies in the game. There are only two of them, and they don’t quite fit the overall design aesthetic of Mega Man 2. They present an oddly flat appearance, lacking the highlights and shading that even tiny Wily robots possess — and they definitely lack the cartoonish grandeur of the game’s bigger robot foes. In a way, though, that works to their benefit. It helps convey the alien sensation of this leg of the stage; you weren’t meant to be here, in this foul sewer where only Wily’s incomplete and imperfect creations dwell.

Ostensibly, the Big Fish are invincible — everything simply bounces off their skin. Right? Well, almost; everything bounces off their skin except Quick Boomerangs and Crash Bombers. Hilariously, the weakest weapon in the game will utterly destroy a Big Fish in a single shot, causing it to vanish with a tiny little explosion like you’d expect from one of the minor robots you face in other stages. Apparently this vulnerability was removed for the Mega Man 2 portion of The Wily Wars, which only goes to convey the idea that this is a sort of oubliette for Wily’s rejects and that you’re infiltrating the castle through an unintended route. One imagines Wily watching this sequence on his security monitors and fuming because Mega Man totally bypassed all the cool, colorful, fun defenses designed for the main route. Sorry, Wily.  Like Robert Plant, Mega Man likes to be a back-door man.

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Once you make your way past the Big Fish, the remainder of the stage consists almost entirely of passive threats: Namely, narrow passages lined by a seemingly endless array of mines. This here is the original 1001 Spikes, my friends.

Once you drop into the depths beyond the Big Fish, you’re forced to navigate the trickiest jump in the entire game: A plunge into a shaft four screens high with no platforms, no stops, just a continuous fall through a twisting tube whose every surface will destroy Mega Man on contact. You have one chance to get it right…

And yet, this jump is neither unreasonable nor unfair. The mouth of the passage at the top is rimmed by mines, so you know exactly what you’re getting into and will instinctively aim for the center of the shaft as you leap, to keep you as far away from the instant-kill hazards as possible. Once you drop to the next screen, the tunnel bends to the left in such a way that you’ll hit the mines if you drop into the center of the shaft; you have just a split-second to steer Mega Man to the safety at the left side. You need great reflexes here, not to mention a light touch to prevent oversteering.

The saving grace, however, is in one of the game’s fundamental mechanics — when you make a vertical transition between two screens, the game freezes momentarily and slides slowly from one screen to the next, similar to the screen transitions in The Legend of Zelda. In this case, that two seconds of inactivity gives you a preview of sorts of the hazards that lay below as you slide to the next screen. You’re meant to use the brief pause as an opportunity to scout the passage and plan your next move, then execute that plan the instant you resume control. The designers use what appears to be a technical limitation of the Mega Man 2 game engine to create a tricky, nerve-wracking challenge — a brilliant bit of game design.

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Eventually, you’ll land on a platform, at which point the remainder of the mine gauntlet is a breeze. There’s an amusing final touch, though: These two mines at the very bottom left of the shaft. Just in case you got cocky or sloppy when you ran left to drop into the final descent from the platform above and pushed all the way left. But, if you can avoid those, you’re done with the water and can leap to dry land at the top of the lower airlock. A trio of Shotmen await you here, though after completing such a tense drop you can cheerfully laugh at them for representing such a trivial threat.

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Finally, the boss, a rather familiar-looking fellow on quite a grand scale. Yes, it’s Guts Man from the original Mega Man, but somewhat larger than you’re likely to remember him. Apparently Dr. Wily abandoned the scheme to mass manufacture Guts Man (hinted at in the background graphics of the final Wily stage in Mega Man) and decided instead to go for scale rather than numbers. Guts Man has been redesigned into a massive battle tank.

Though maybe not a very good one. That cylinder on the back side of the tank reads “LP gas,” so basically it’s full of highly volatile liquid propane. Since this is a 2D platformer, of course, Mega Man can’t simply run around behind Guts Dozer to fire a Crash Bomber at the gas tank. Look at those spikes on the shoulders! Instant death, right there. No, instead you have to take on Guts Dozer from the front.

Naturally, the construct is only vulnerable in its face, and it’s invulnerable to your weapons that have the ability to fire upward (Metal Blade and Air Shooter). In fact, just to be nasty, one of the few weapons that works against Guts Dozer is the Bubble Lead, which is easily the single most disadvantageous weapon you could possibly use here. In any case, you have to climb up to attack, even as Guts Dozer disgorges an endless stream of hopping Metools from its chest — they move forward rapidly in small, bounding arcs.

While the Metools present the main challenge here, they also hint at the solution to this battle. When Guts Dozer releases one, it hops along the top edge of the tank’s lower platform: Your clue that it is, in fact, a platform in the design sense of the word as well. You can safely stand on the front edge of the tank to use as your staging ground for jumping and shooting Guts Dozer’s massive face. This does make you somewhat vulnerable to the Metools, but the tank has a tell for that attack. It raises its left (well, its right, your left) fist to create a path for the Metools. This is its only attack — it doesn’t attempt to punch or crush you, just rolls back and forth while spitting out little hardhat dudes — so once you figure out the secret and the timing, it’s a pretty easy fight. In fact, it goes really fast once you realize its weakness is Quick Boomerang and that, unlike Robot Masters, Guts Dozer doesn’t enjoy any post-damage invincibility. You can pump him full of projectiles and win this fight in a remarkably short amount of time.

So ultimately, Guts Dozer is pretty underwhelming. But he sure looks cool.

The Anatomy of Mega Man 2 – XIII – The descent

If the Dr. Wily stages exist to recompile elements of the Robot Master stages into more devious configurations, Mega Man 2‘s second Wily sequence consists primarily of Flash Man and Metal Man’s levels. Taste them again, for the first time, and all that.

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Aesthetically, the interior of Wily’s fortress has a much more austere, utilitarian look than the outside did. Where the run-up to the fortress involved an interesting transition between wasteland and man-made construct, now that you’re inside it’s far bleaker and more oppressive. Wily evidently blew his decorating budget on the big skull out front, because all you’ll find within is dull grey metal paneling and massive industrial fans — all in a gloomy greenish color scheme.

The initial leg of this stage sends you slowly stair-stepping downward — a theme for the remainder of the game. You made your climb up the fortress wall in the previous stage, but here you’re constantly descending further into his lair, further away from things like reinforcements, an escape route, the earth’s surface, sunlight, etc. etc. The majestic theme music from the previous stage continues playing here, so the game hasn’t totally given itself over to total misery just yet… but it’s getting there.

As you drop down the stairs, those propeller-headed robots (Fly Boys) from Crash Man and Heat Man’s stages drop onto you from three different hatches in the ceiling. As before, they continue to drop infinitely, which makes them somewhat convenient if you need to farm weapon energy but otherwise a nuisance.

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In this case, what makes them troubling is the fact that you need to cruise past a massive expanse of spikes immediately after passing the Fly Boy hatches. Item-2 is absolutely mandatory here — the spikes extend so far that your flight burns through very nearly the entirety of Item-2′s energy, so there’s no way Item-1 can get you to the other side — but of course switching over to Item-2 leaves you momentarily defenseless from the Fly Boy that drops from the rightmost hatch, which remains on-screen as you reach the lip of the floor adjacent to the spikes. The transitional moment where you switch from whatever weapon you’re using against the Fly Boys to Item-2 can be touchy, because dropping the tool and leaping onto it to launch forward takes a couple of seconds. Poorly timed, these seconds can leave you open to being struck by a Fly Boy, potentially fouling your flight and wasting precious energy.

At the end of the Item-2 trip, you need to make a split-second jump onto a ladder as you pass beneath it. Or rather, you need to make a split-second decision as to which ladder you’re going to jump up to. The first ladder appears far enough from the second that you may not realize there even is another route — and in any case, the second ladder doesn’t come down as far as the first, so reaching it requires greater precision and better timing if you decide to go for it.

As in Flash Man’s stage, though, beyond this split decision you’ll find a divided path heading down, and the easier to select of the two routes is by far the more dangerous of the two. The first ladder forces you to burn through three precious Crash Bomber shots and face off against two Shotmen (those rotating cannon guys who fire the arcing shots) with no pick-ups to collect for your trouble. The second ladder, however, rewards you amply with two E-Tanks, two 1UPs, and a ton of weapon energy capsules. It also puts you on better footing against the Shotmen. And to top it all off, it deposits you over a tiny row of spikes that you can easily avoid as you fall, whereas the other path drops you atop a wide patch of spikes with only a tiny safe foothold to aim for.

In other words, don’t take the first ladder.

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Once you drop down into the second half of the stage, it becomes less Flash Man and more Metal Man. You’re immediately confronted with a hallway full of Moles, drilling through the ceiling and floor to pass from one to the other. This is a much more narrow space than the Mole sequence in Metal Man’s level, and you don’t have the benefit of a conveyor belt to allow you to glide through the Moles without any real effort. Because the gap here between floor and ceiling is so narrow, you have a much smaller window of time in which to shoot the Moles if you hope to farm power-ups from them. This isn’t a challenging sequence, per se, but it proves to be slow going and makes reaping the benefits of the swarming bad guys into a bit of a task.

Once you clear the Moles, it’s up a narrow shaft (using either Item-1 or, ideally, Item-3) to a series of those plunging crusher things that also appeared in Metal Man’s stage. While you don’t have to navigate them while contending with a moving floor as you did there, the plungers appear in more difficult configurations, leaving very little space between them; it’s difficult to get past them without taking some damage.

There’s a large health capsule in the chamber directly before the boss… but to reach it, you have to land on the lip of a narrow platform next to a bunch of spikes and use Item-1 to climb to the capsule. Yes, we’re at the point of the game where you have to work for the slightest advantage.

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The boss of this stage establishes a sort of pattern in Wily stages: Big, elaborate bosses alternating with smaller, almost environmental challenges. In this case, you face off against Picopico-kun, which is basically a living room. Different sections of the room you’re standing in separate from the wall, ceiling, or floor; they converge; and, once united, they home in on Mega Man’s position. While they initially seem quite easy to fight off, given how slowly they move, the more you pick off the faster the remainder move.

There’s an element of unfairness to this battle for a first-timer; the boss gives no indication of which portion of the walls or floor will be activating next. If you happen to be standing on a chunk of the floor when that tile kicks into motion, you’ll take an unavoidable, untelegraphed hit. Making this doubly irritating is the fact that most of the Picopico-kuns embedded in the floor come to life only toward the end of the battle, when they move more rapidly and you’re already quite likely hurting. It’s pretty tough not to take a few hits here until you can memorize the patterns — not exactly standout game design.

While Metal Blade isn’t the most powerful weapon against this boss, it’s by far the most effective tool here since so many of the Picopico-kuns join up above you and make a beeline toward your position. The Metal Blade lets you pour fire into them, and for once you don’t have to feel like you’re getting an unfair advantage. The game kind of plays cheaply here; why shouldn’t you?