Standing the Test of Time
Metal Man's stage is the epitome of what is good about the game: variety. The stage doesn't even begin with any enemies. Conveyer-belt floors and crashing spikes familiarize the user with the game play and how our little blue hero moves. Then he moves into those little corn-on-the-cob looking things that drill up from the floor and down from the ceiling (a good place to bulk up on health as we've learned). This stage also has the enemy that dances and walks atop a huge gear (called Gear Clowns, I believe) which comes crashing down to run you over. Then there are those stupid little metal blobs that pop up like a slinky at you (further proving that the most difficult obstacles generally cannot be shot to death).
Metal Man himself is quite the character. One thing the game designers did really well was make their bosses evil. They all are scowling at you while hurling everything they have to ensure your quick demise. In some games, the bosses just seems like something that has to be thrown in there to make the level feel complete. Because the Mega Man stages are designed with the boss's theme in mind (or vice versa) the boss truly is the climax of the stage. This is different than Contra or Super Mario Bros., for examples, because the point of both of their stages is to move onto the next stage.
Since they can be played in any order, Mega Man 2 packages each stage as a separate entity unto itself whose goal is for you to destroy the evil robot at the end. The implication of this is that no boss can be given a ranking based on the order they appear in the game. In most games the first bosses are the easiest and the last bosses the hardest. This type of order can only be given to the second area of the game when you enter Dr. Wily's castle. Until then, all the robot masters are basically equals based on the design of the game. Not too many platformers had avoided linearity before the Mega Man series. The way the game creators established a cohesive order by having Mega Man gain a power from each robot that would be strong against one or two specific other bosses (or their level). Now, Nintendo Power always got the order wrong, as far as I was concerned. They told you to begin with Air Man. Why would you do that when the Metal Blade from Metal Man was the most useful weapon in the game (especially useful for peksy flying things in Air Man's stage?) Fortunately, the Metal Blade is finally recognized as being the first thing you should get by most gamers.
The end of each stage makes the player feel accomplished. Not only has the robot master been blown to smithereens but you gain their power. The Mario series finally took a cue from this in Super Mario Bros. 3 and gave little presents at the end of each Land to reward the player. After all, you deserved it, didn't you? Also, before Rush (not the band but the dog) there were Items 1, 2, and 3. These added versatility to Mega Man's arsenal and revealing how you can get some of those hard to reach power-ups and one-ups.
The other stages are just as good and each pose unique challenges. Bubble Man's stage forces the you to control the pressure of your jump button while under water for fear of impaling yourself on the ceiling spikes. Air Man's stage has you take leaps of faith as your balance high above the clouds. Crash Man's tower has moving platform tracks, sometimes frustrating ladders, and that creepy background that gets darker as you get higher up. Wood Man has freaky running chickens, Rabbots shooting mechanical carrots, and that crazy swinging ape. Heat Man introduces the player to those ever annoying disappearing block puzzles while warming things up. Flash Man is a slick character and his stage is there to prove it while living up to his name (get it? cuz the floor is slippery and flashes!!! Man, I'm funny.) And then, of course Quick Man's stage shoots beams across the screen which will kill you if you touch them as you're freefalling from like 10 stories above the ground. No two stages feel the same, keeping the game play fresh every time through. In fact, you can sit down and beat only the eight robots and turn off the game feeling accomplished.
The 'second' part of the game is Dr. Wily's castle. It's designed in a more traditional manner: a linear move forward with ups and downs eventually leading to the final battle. Armed with eight new weapons and three new items you get to take on a host of baddies including a robot dragon, a weird block dude, the Gutsdozer, the eight robots again, and some freaky alien. The alien ending is quite advanced as far as story lines go. You show up at the end expecting to blow the ass of Dr. Wily and instead you find yourself in the middle of space with stars all around. An alien comes in and challenges you. After tearing him up with the Bubble Lead (finally it's worth something, right?) he falls to the ground only to reveal that it was Dr Wily in a costume and 'space' was actually just a hologram created by one of his machines in some dank room. Pretty intense for a simple game about blowing away robots. If you're not paying attention you might forget that the series even has a story. But once you've learned what it's all about a level of depth is added to the game play.
As far as late 80's NES games go, Mega Man 2 ranks among the best for graphics and sound. Enemies and stages are well detailed and vibrantly colored to give an effect most games weren't able to accomplish for many years. The audio also has surprising depth considering the limited audio channels of the NES and the beats and rhythms have stood the test of time.