While I can begin by writing about who I am, why I’ve started this blog and what I hope to achieve through its existence (you can check out the About section for all of that relevant information), I think it would be better to raise the curtain on the small excursion we’re about to take by describing Bubble Man’s stage from Mega Man II (1988). I hope that you can get an idea of what Bliterations is or will attempt to be through my personal recounting of the level. And if not, then I hope that maybe you’ll give me a second chance down the line, as sincere introductions can be very difficult to convey in our culture of ever-increasing cynicism.
First, some background: Mega Man II, Keiji Inafune’s pet project at Capcom that would go on to be hailed as the best game in the Mega Man series (if not one of the best 8-bit video games period) was the first Mega Man game that I played, and one of the first Nintendo Entertainment System games that I ever owned, as 1988 was the year that I received a Nintendo for my birthday (I had just turned six). Mega Man games, on the whole, can be brutally difficult, but serve as the perfect example of “treadmill” gameplay done successfully—try, fail, and fail again, but eventually, through sheer muscle memory grinding and good old fashioned practice, you reach a plateau of accomplishment and begin to relish each and every robot boss window that darkens on the level select screen with their defeat, one by one. The robust weapon upgrading system plays a huge part in alleviating the early frustrations and encouraging your progression, giving you more and more tools to experiment with as you get farther and farther into the game, culminating in the eventual multi-stage symphony of weapon switching that is Dr. Wiley’s fortress, a veritable kaleidoscope of costume changes and select screen manipulation that one executes with instinctual precision after so many hours of having to maneuver around its somewhat clunky interface from the second section onward.
The individual levels are more or less the same in their construction and objectives, but Bubble Man’s level seemed different for me as a kid than, say, Crash Man or Metal Man. Everything about the level design was a pleasure to play through—and I really do mean that. While most of the other stages seem to revel in their own cartoonish futurism, cold and mechanical (as is the case with Air Man, cluttering the sky with artificial clouds stuck in some kind of materialization and movement loop, proving that not even the skies are safe from technology), Bubble Man seems to retain a warm, organic aesthetic that’s lacking in the others—even Wood Man, where nature and flora make up practically the entire layout…I mean, you traverse through a tree, for goodness’ sake.
No, there’s something about Bubble Man that’s special, that feels more alive and exciting. For one, water is EVERYWHERE, shimmering with animation and even turning otherwise gray scrap metal into a mildly relaxing emerald obstacle course. The enemies also have a kind of life to them that imitates fauna: Robotic frogs birth smaller frogs that rest before their jumps (I remember positioning myself between their gaps and just watching them act like frogs), mechanized shrimp slowly sink between propulsions, and crabs clack their claws as they bounce towards you.
So from the moment you touch down in front of a waterfall, you’re instantly drawn into this location. Not a factory, or a plant, or scaffolding, but a PLACE that’s pleasing to look at. Aurally, the Bubble Man track is one of my favorites in all of game music. An instantly up-beat, exotic and inviting soundtrack seems to subliminally encourage you to keep going, as it has a driving rhythm and repetition that promote forward movement, in the way that any good tempo-driven music leaves you with the desire to do anything but sit still. The loop that connects end to beginning is virtually seamless, since the track ends with one of those hypnotic arpeggios that can keep going and going, until your expectations become so great that there is no other way the song can conclude except by starting all over again with the same kind of unmitigated resolve.
There’s a natural and forward driving design that underlies Bubble Man’s stage as well. Mega Man begins at a high elevation, on a platform by a waterfall, but eventually must travel downward, beneath the surface of the water and amongst the robot enemies that lurk there (always just out of sight before springing themselves on you in full force, as Mega Man games tend to do). You can’t help but feel that your ultimate goal is to get out of that blue vastness and back onto dry land. The physics in this section help promote this—by having a reduced sense of gravity, you’re able to jump twice as high, and you must handle those walls and ceilings of spiked orbs just a tad more carefully. And while Mega Man never technically reaches the same elevation that he began at, the moment you leap out of water and are on dry platforms amidst glistening waterfalls again, dodging falling clacky crabs, there’s a sense of relief, a feeling that, yes, you made it, water is still flowing and you must press on. No need to worry about rust.
It’s an incredibly optimistic section of Mega Man II, a break from the normal dystopian foundry firefights that make up the rest of the game. And I guess that through this overly romantic description of a level in a video game, I’m giving you, Dear Reader, an introduction to what these kinds of games can be: a form of entertainment that invites both artistry for the creator and meaningful reflection for the player. While our discussions on this site may become theoretical, overly analytical, even a tad elitist, that’s not due to any forced act of didactic snobbery on my part. It’s just that, when you love a creative expression so much, you can’t help but try to reciprocate that expression as eloquent and thoughtfully as you possibly can.
This is what Bubble Man means to me.
Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on January 22nd, 2009 :: Posts :: Tags : Introduction, Mega Man, Music, NES