The annals of retro gaming are littered with tales of remarkable gaming prowess: Super Mario speed runs, unbroken strings of Street Fighter II double perfects… Only recently, the maximum possible score for Donkey Kong was officially achieved, immediately ruining it for other human beings and Billy Mitchell. But I was party to something equally awe-inspiring; something magical; something that shaped my future both as a gamer and, dare I say, as a human being.
So let me share with you now, if you will permit me, a tale of dedication, digital dexterity, determination, but above all: stupidity.
It’s 1989, or thereabouts, probably during a school holiday of some description. I’m 12-years old and on the phone. My jaw is on the floor as I have just heard something that has rocked my world and requires me to skip the meal of Alphabites and battered cod fingers lovingly oven-heated by my mum and immediately hop on my second-hand Grifter to make the 10 minute bike ride to my best friend’s house.
Despite being an unabashed computer games fan for as long as I can remember, coming from a financially modest background meant I didn’t actually own a console until I was in my teens. Up until then I sated my cravings by spending inordinate amounts of my time round slightly more affluent friends’ houses and playing on theirs.
One such pal – let’s call him ‘Wayne’, because that is actually his name – owned what would eventually become my first hardware purchase: the Nintendo Entertainment System. There were a couple of software favourites with which we would take turns demonstrating our skills or lack thereof: Skate or Die, Top Gun, Trojan… But one title dominated our time and our thoughts more than any other, and that was the mighty Mega Man.
One turn per life – them were the rules – and between us we became masterfully adept at guiding the wee blue munchkin around his colourful environs; no mean feat considering each level was infested by rogue robots with assorted weaponry and attack patterns, and our little avatar was armed with nothing more than his trusty Mega Blaster.
Yeah… about that. Any retro gamer worth their salt knows that one of the key gameplay mechanics of Mega Man was the ability to utilise the powers of defeated bosses, increasing the character’s armamentarium as you progressed through the game. It’s one of the key reasons you were able to choose the order in which you tackled the six main levels, so you could experiment with different weapons on the harder-to-defeat foes and bosses.
We didn’t know that...
I mean, it wasn’t my game – I’m not going to flick through the instruction booklet, am I? I’m just going to assume my mate knows exactly how to play it. And to be fair, the instruction booklet doesn’t explicitly spell out this important aspect of the gameplay anyway. Seriously, if you can track down the original instruction manual you’ll see: it passingly mentions that each time Mega Man defeats a foe he acquires new firepower, but this is buried in a paragraph somewhere and it certainly doesn’t tell you that pressing ‘select’ allows you to switch powers – all it tells you is how to move, jump and shoot…
But yeah, a more thorough examination of the accompanying literature might have at least tipped us off. But we didn’t.
The result? What is widely regarded as one of the most difficult platform games ever created was made infinitely more difficult because we tried to complete the whole damn thing with the laser equivalent of a BB-gun.
The hours we expended trying to master this beast could be counted in multiples of a hundred, such was the Korean-level of obsessive determination we invested in this task. We would complete Mega Man together – somehow, some day… It was just a matter of when.
Aside from being a challenging little platformer in and of itself, some of those end-of-level bosses were absolute mares to defeat using the game’s default weapon. I still have nightmares about Elec Man, his battle arena sitting atop an already tricky vertically scrolling level. His energy bar was chipped away in barely visible increments by our sterling efforts as he tore around the room chucking lighting bolts left, right and centre.
But the lil’ spark plug was a piffling warm-up compared to the terror of what I now know is called the ‘Yellow Devil’, but who back then we ironically referred to as ‘Rock Man’. His method of getting from one side of the room to the other by sending bits of his constituent mass hurtling past you one block at a time is infamously difficult to navigate, and despite the sequence of low and high jumps needed to avoid this patently inefficient method of translocation being burned into our brains, it was rarely performed error-free – especially when our pea shooter of a weapon ensured he got to do his little parlour trick at least 14 times per encounter. And because the game’s designers saw fit to have the position of his fleetingly appearing weak spot change each time, it would often be many more.
At this stage, some smart arse with an intimate knowledge of the original game will be calling “shenanigans”. You see, quite early on in Dr Wily’s final level – long before the inefficient teleporter makes his appearance – the path is blocked by a formation of, er, blocks, which can only be removed using the power earned from defeating Guts Man. So this whole article must be a sham, no? The desperate, poorly remembered ramblings of a man seeking praise and affirmation from the online community?
Oh, would that it were so simple…
It certainly stumped us, that’s for sure. The blocks looked different from the rest of the environment; they definitely seemed to be ‘special’ in some way. But for the life of us we couldn’t work out how to shift them or navigate around them. Until Wayne hit upon the novel idea of running backwards and forwards to scroll the screen back and forth just at the point where the blocks would appear at the edge. If you did this… well it varied, but let’s say somewhere between 30 and 500 times, then eventually the blocks would inexplicably vanish, allowing unobstructed passage.
Guy, it’s Wayne. You know Mega Man? Well, I’ve just worked out that you can use the weapons of the bosses you beat…
Now any seasoned gamer or an older gamer or – let’s not be coy – a slightly less stupid gamer would have immediately recognised that this twitchy glitch was not what the designers had in mind to overcome this particular obstacle. And, deep down, we kind of knew it too, but HOW ELSE WERE WE SUPPOSED TO GET PAST? Kids these days with their ‘internet’ and their ‘on-screen prompts’… They don’t know they’re born…
So how far did we get in the game whilst unknowingly handicapping ourselves? I would love to say we completed the bastard, but the very final boss – Dr Wily himself – proved a robot master too far. Not because he was the toughest opponent – compared with Elec Man and the Yellow Devil, he was eminently beatable. It was more the fact that to reach him – in classic retro gaming style – you had to defeat all six bosses again. IN A ROW. Achieving this feat – which we very occasionally did – would always leave us starved of spare lives and, alas, we never got enough time with our arch nemesis to learn his attack patterns and prevail.
Not until that phone call. Not until the aforementioned rocking of my world.
“Guy, it’s Wayne. You know Mega Man? Well, I’ve just worked out that you can use the weapons of the bosses you beat…”
Needless to say, the skipped dinner was worth it. Such was our prowess at playing the game when needlessly stymied, we were suddenly breezing through the levels like videogame savants, delighting ourselves with each enemy weakness we exploited, giddy with exploration as we finally gained access to the platform-generating abilities of the Magnet Beam, and staring at the screen incredulously as the toughest enemies suddenly became vulnerable to our expanded arsenal.
When we first launched the Rolling Cutter towards Elec Man and saw his energy bar collapse by a third we fell about in hysterics, all the late nights spent trying to chip away at his defences still fresh in our memories.
Surging through the final levels, like Neo bending The Matrix to his will, Dr Wily’s screen-filling final appearance no longer felt like the insurmountable obstacle standing between us and videogame glory; it was a fly to be swatted aside after the briefest of experimentation. As his machine crumbled and he begged for mercy in front of us, we allowed ourselves a long sigh of relief. We had finally done it – and with some style. As we watched our hero run home during the credits sequence, the sun setting behind him, we sat in blissful silence to contemplate what we had accomplished.
Wayne, I salute you. For while you weren’t responsible for instilling a love of videogames into my soul, our ignorance-fuelled exploits with the Blue Bomber ensured that no videogame challenge I subsequently faced would ever deter me from completion. From Cobra Triangle right through to Dark Souls, no title I have purchased since has been able to dissuade me from the belief that the fight to the end credits was achievable.
It’s an approach you’d be potty not to apply to real life too: anything’s possible with a bit of hard work and determination to succeed. And sometimes – just sometimes – struggling through life the hard way, or enduring a particularly rough patch, makes it all the easier and sweeter when things finally go your way.
Oh, and perhaps more importantly… Always read the bloody instructions.
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