The more I’ve played through Mega Man 2 with a fresh, critical eye — rather than breezing through it as I have for the past 25 years — I’ve increasingly come to realize my criticism of the developers dropping Bubble Man’s stage in the “default” level select position is moot. This is an advanced platformer at every turn! There is really no such thing in this game as a stage without some sort of high-level mechanic that adds an extra layer of complexity to the basic run-and-gun style of the original Mega Man. I guess the closest thing would be Wood Man’s level, which not coincidentally several people have mentioned in the comments as being their choice of beginning stages.
But consider: Bubble Man has water and falling platforms. Heat Man has intricate disappearing block patterns. Flash Man has a slippery floor. Crash Man is mostly about climbing. Metal Man has conveyer belts. And then there’s Quick Man.
Quick Man, and those evil, evil lasers.
Yes, the main gimmick in this stage is possibly the most memorably nasty stage mechanic in the entirety of the Mega Man franchise: Security lasers. As you drop through several screens of Quick Man’s level, powerful beams emerge quickly from the walls. If you touch them, Mega Man will die instantly. They do not disappear once they’ve begun transmitting. You need to outrace them, or it’s back to the start for you.
Now, if you’ve acquired the Time Stopper from Flash Man’s stage, you can freeze the beams for just about long enough to pass through them all. But there are two sets of beams, so you need to gather energy drops to refill Time Stopper in between… and then again before facing Quick Man, because Time Stopper is his weakness. The enemies in this stage aren’t terribly conducive to grinding for pick-ups, though. And most of the level consists of free fall — it’s an extremely vertical layout, clogged with those lasers.
Even if you’re equipped with the boss’ weakness here, this design poses a difficult question. Do you burn through your weapon energy to survive the laser gauntlet, or do you save it up and hope you can make it to the end and destroy the boss? It’s not a design flaw, in my opinion; it’s a choice. Which obstacle do you feel more comfortable challenging?
In its defense, Quick Man’s stage offers a fair amount of mercy. There are no less than three 1UPs here, one on the very first screen. In other words, you can keep slamming your head against the initial laser gauntlet until you pass and never run out of lives… provided, of course, you have one of Dr. Light’s Items in order to reach that initial 1UP. That right there is your first clue that maybe this isn’t the best stage to start out with; if you can’t collect the first 1UP, maybe you should find an alternate stage to challenge. You’re given ample opportunity to learn with no real loss no matter how many times you die (at least until you run out of Item energy).
Once you do clear the first set of lasers, another 1UP awaits you, along with a large weapon power-up capsule that you can apply toward replenishing Time Stopper juice if you used it. Additionally, this set of power-ups includes a completely new feature for Mega Man 2, the E-Tank.
An E-Tank works as a collectible energy refill. You grab it and rather than restoring your energy right away, the E-Tank sits in your inventory until you use it. Once used, the tank will replenish the entirety of Mega Man’s health — a major boon. They’re hard to come by (appearing in only about half the game’s stages), and your can only carry four at a time, so knowing when to use them and where to collect them proves to be of utmost strategic value. It doesn’t do you any good against the lasers in this stage, since those are instant-kill hazards, but it can be a real boon against Quick Man himself. And if you die in the second half of the stage without using the E-Tank, it’ll be there again to collect once you continue. You can stock up, gaining new powers in death. Like Dark Souls! (Note: Not actually like Dark Souls.)
Once you complete the first laser gauntlet, you encounter yet another unique mechanic: Darkness. These mechanical fire pots don’t simply stand and chuck little balls of flame (which you may remember seeing in Fire Man’s stage in the first game) at you; they also illuminate the corridor between the level’s two laser gauntlets. When you destroy a Hot Head, you also destroy the only thing lighting the level, plunging the stage into darkness. Since you’re advancing over uneven ground, the lack of illumination forces you to stumble your way ahead, leaping repeatedly to clear obstructions you can’t see.
As in Air Man’s stage, the game plays fair when you’re robbed of your ability to see your footing; the dark sections are extremely low-threat in nature. The only enemies you encounter are other Hot Heads, so every time you face an active threat you also have the benefit of torchlight to guide your way. This sequence seems more dangerous than it actually is — and it also shows how the first few Mega Man games build on their predecessors, as there’s a similar sequence in Shadow Man’s stage of Mega Man 3 in which the darkness is accompanied by moving threats.
Beyond the connecting corridor, you face the stage’s second laser sequence. While the first one was fairly manageable once you came to understand the threat the beams pose, this one requires deft precision and, yes, a bit of memorization. You can definitely clear it without using the Time Stopper — I’ve done it — but it’s a task that requires some effort. Alternately, if you freeze time, the freeze effect won’t quite get you to the end of the gauntlet… but there’s a large energy pick-up midway through that will help you make the final push. And a third 1UP!
The final leg beyond the lasers confronts you with two Sniper Joes riding huge, bipedal mechs. These things are incredibly intimidating — a sort of redux of the Big Eyes from Mega Man, though used less frequently. (They also appear in both Flash Man’s stage, which offers a subtle hint toward those boss’ place in the chain of weapon weaknesses.) Unlike Big Eyes, they’re a double threat: Even after you’ve destroyed the mech, the Sniper Joe drops to the ground and fights you like the ones in the original game, minus the random leaps.
There’s actually an easy way to destroy the mechs, though. The Quick Boomerang will take them out in a few rapid shots. Oh, but wait. You don’t get the Quick Boomerang until you’ve beaten this stage, and unlike in the first game you can’t return to a completed stage, and one of the only other two of the first eight levels to feature Joe mechs is Flash Man, whose stage you reaaaally want to finish before coming here. The irony!
Not only can these enemies take a beating, they also are extremely poor choices for farming weapon energy drops. If you went ahead and used the Time Stopper while dropping through the lasers, you’re probably not going to have any energy to use it against Quick Man. Your weapon energy still doesn’t recharge if you die in Mega Man 2, only if you continue. Which puts you back at the start of the laser gauntlet. Tough luck, man.
Quick Man is the most directly aggressive of the game’s bosses. He’s kind of a combination of Cut Man and Elec Man from the first game, but much faster. He charges back and forth across the room, and the uneven terrain of his chamber causes him to jump somewhat unpredictably. While his melee collisions are enough to put a serious hurt on Mega Man, he backs up the impact hazard by tossing trios of boomerangs that fly out in a spread pattern before pausing and changing direction, centering in on Mega Man’s location. Both the Robot Master and his weapons are difficult to evade.
Your saving grace here is the Time Stopper, provided you have any juice left for it. Quick Man is the only Robot Master to be affected by the time freeze, which brings him to a dead halt and drains his energy — one block of health for every two points of energy that tick from the Time Stopper. That means a full Time Stopper charge can deplete half his health, putting you on much more even footing.
Even if you don’t have a Time Stopper charge, though, the E-Tank near the start of the stage can effectively provide the same effect as a full Time Stopper. It doubles Mega Man’s health rather than halving Quick Man’s, but the net result is essential the same. And with Quick Man defeated, perhaps the most stressful and difficult of the game’s levels is complete. Whew.