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Mega Man II (Game Boy) artwork

Mega Man II (Game Boy) review


"How a poor contract developer managed to make a poor game."

While we like to think otherwise, games are often a product first and any artistry is accidental, with lots of people providing assets, resources, and their own idea of how the game should work. While popular attribution usually goes to the publisher or property owner, that company rarely made the game on their own. Any number of components could have been contracted out, from a few sprites and a sound library to the entire game. This is true just as much today as it was in the late 80s and early 90s, when the boom of the Famicom in Japan spawned many contract developers.

Despite working on dozens of games in the 80s and 90s, contract developer Minakuchi Engineeringís work is largely uncredited. Itís difficult to know the full extent of their work, but we do know they were the primary developer on Mega Man X3, Mega Man: The Wily Wars, and most of the Rockman World series.

Rockman World II is the only game in that sub-series not developed by Minakuchi. There was less than 6 months between the release of Rockman World and itís sequel, which is likely the reason a different developer, Japan System House, took the contract. At the time of its release, Rockman World II was one of the few games developed by Japan System House released outside Japan, although a notable exception is Ninja Gaiden on the Game Gear a month earlier.

Ninja Gaiden on Game Gear is not the Ninja Gaiden players knew on NES and Famicom. It was Ninja Gaiden in name only, not style. The jump in particular feels egregiously floaty, like itís being played underwater, and the game altogether lacks the rapid action that makes the series proper so fun to play. It is as though Japan System House either was not given access to enough information on how to make the physics work, were not given enough time, did not care, or a combination of all three. After all, they were contract workers--their brand is their own as developers, and the consistency of the Ninja Gaiden name is not their concern.

Mega Man II (Game Boy) image
Only Capcom and Nintendoís names appear, despite not doing much work on this title, and there are no end credits. This isnít atypical of the era.

Rockman World II shares a lot in common with Ninja Gaiden on Game Gear--slow, floaty, and inconsistent with everything that came before and after it. When set next to the other four Rockman World games, it feels like a half-baked fan game, wrongly put together, and lacking competency in its crafting.

The speed feels perhaps the most amateurish. Mega Manís movements, his projectiles, enemies, and every other object in this world is too slow. There appears to be two speeds for objects; fast (the speed of Mega Manís projectiles) and slow (half that speed). As far as I can tell, every object in the game obeys these speed limits, which is different from other Mega Man games that have a lot of variations in object velocity. It creates an overall blandness that is hard to shake. Compared to its immediate predecessor and successors (both developed by Minakuchi), Rockman World II is painfully slow.

Thereís actually a lot of speed issues in this game. A more subtle one is what happens when the player gets a health capsule. In every other Mega Man game, all action halts while their energy is restored, giving the player a chance to see what their new health will be, a brief respite to get their bearings on the screen (important if the player is near death), and a bit of satisfaction of being re-empowered. Rockman World II doesnít stop the game at these moments and just continues as normal. Itís a small thing, but it contributes to the overwhelming feeling of wrongness.

Another minor detail is the boss rooms. In every other Mega Man game, the door to the boss room stops the screen from scrolling. This is used to fantastic effect in the Mega Man X series, where the boss rooms are the only screen transitions in levels, but even in the classic series, it signaled a shift in the playerís focus and helped to build tension. In Rockman World II, the screen scrolls past the boss door so that you can see into the little waiting room. Itís a weird quirk that feels more like a bug or an oversight than intent and no other game in the series does this. Itís one of those things you donít really think about or notice until a game gets it wrong.

Mega Man II (Game Boy) imageMega Man II (Game Boy) image
Even Mega Man is sad to see the scrolling broken in front of boss doors (left). Waiting and waiting for the slow horns to move (right)

Donít think this is just a case of minor issues compiling to annoy the player; thereís lotís of major problems here too. Boring levels, sparse enemies, and music that vomits wretched awfulness will plague the player from the title screen to the end.

The music feels wrong because it is wrong. There are two main issues. First, the code that converts notes to frequency has the incorrect pitch for more than a quarter of the notes, causing them to be played off-key. The second is that some of the sounds are played an entire octave above what qualifies as music in other Gameboy games. The first time I tried Rockman World II was through an emulator and the music was so terrifying that I thought it was a system issue. It wasnít until I owned the physical game and could hear it for myself that I understood the true extent of this travesty.

These blatant problems with the music programming that shouldnít have made it through QA. One explanation is that the issue with the frequency conversions couldnít be figured out by the sound programmer, so they shifted everything up an octave to try and hide the issue.

Regardless of why the music is the way it is, itís a shame because the compositions are actually great (once fixed). Along with Rockman World V (which is a wholly original game), Rockman World II has a completely original soundtrack. The main theme from the title screen weaves its way through several tracks, including the final boss, in a way that is skillful and more typical of character motifs in an RPG. These are highly underrated compositions marred by poor programming.

The music issues are really emblematic of the gameís overall design: sloppy. For example, the story, which I wouldnít recommend paying attention to in most Mega Man games, involves Dr Wily using a ďTime SkimmerĒ (a time machine?) to travel to the future, corrupt Mega Man, and then send him back in time to fight himself. That opens some opportunities for interesting bosses or levels, but instead we get ďhey, there are clocks in the background--because get it, time travel?Ē And Quint--Mega Manís evil counterpart--turns out to be easier than Toad Man. He also looks like a poorly drawn Mega Man sprite with Quick Manís head taped on top.

Mega Man II (Game Boy) imageMega Man II (Game Boy) image
The gameís only original boss (left) and a very deep take on time travel (right)

The rest of the bosses are reused from Mega Man 2 and 3, and they do not deviate much from their source material, though most actually have less moves than their original counterpart and (like everything else in the game) they are all slower. The first four bosses are presented on a level select screen; the second half is presented like the Wily capsules usually seen during the end game, but with full levels behind them. An odd choice that was never used again in the series.

Mega Man II (Game Boy) imageMega Man II (Game Boy) image
Some familiar faces (left) and an example of glate rocalization (right)

While I want to be an apologist for Rockman World II, itís difficult because the game isnít good. Unless development took less than a month (which, given the end product, wouldnít actually surprise me), Capcom would not have seen the Game Gear version of Ninja Gaiden before awarding Japan System House the contract for this game. Itís not a surprise that this is really the highwater mark for that company; Capcom went back to Minakuchi Engineering for the remaining games in the World series. Japan System House had a few more contracts with Sega, including Phantasy Star Adventure and the Game Gear version of Ristar, and those arenít very good either. The lukewarm reception of these games probably tarnished the companyís reputation among publishers. While it rebranded as Biox in the late 90s, like most contract developers that rose out of this boom era, they faded soon after into non-existence.

Rockman World II isnít a very good game, but itís interesting to play, pick apart, and see what went wrong. Reviews in the early 90s were middling, giving the game more respect than it deserved simply for being a portable experience. With a big series like Mega Man, itís easy to think of some of its games as rehashed or lazy, but it takes a lot of skill to make this tried and true formula actually work. Japan System House didnít have those skills and in the early 90s solid QA and testing was secondary to just making a product.

Donít worry though. The story of Rockman World II is continued in the worst game in the series.


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Featured community review by dagoss (June 12, 2021)

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