I sat practically hanging off the couch, my neck craned as if some invisible object blocked my view of the TV, with thumbs digging into the controller like it was a rabid squirrel I had to forcibly pacify through its eye sockets. Both Galaxy Man and I were down to our last slivers of health, but he still bounced around the room like a hyperactive, overweight 12-year-old in an inflatable playground. Finally, I sensed my window of opportunity. I lifted off the couch, leaned even closer to the screen and said a silent prayer for victory.
And then it was over.
The modulated, high-pitched ringing was both distant and deafening. With a mixture of horror and disbelief, I watched my body disintegrate into a dozen throbbing circles that rippled outward from the center of the screen. Within these circles were my broken dreams, my deepest insecurities, my most irrational fears. Galaxy Man didn’t just destroy me; he showed me how inadequate I was. And I hated him for it.
I hated his frisbee-shaped head and Mickey Mouse hands. I hated his black hole-spewing abdomen. I hated his non-susceptability to gravity and his inexplicable vulnerability to concrete. But most of all, I hated him for wasting my time.
So I did what any cool-headed, sensible, productive member of society would do: I cussed out my television. It was enough to give me a moment’s pause. Here I was, alone in my apartment, not communicating my frustration to spectators but merely venting a deeply illogical yet all-consuming rage at an inanimate object.
This is Mega Man 9.
Four more hours of failure punctuated by brief moments of triumph have only reinforced the above experience. Simply put, Mega Man 9 is the hardest game I have played in years. I can safely say that after killing eight bosses and making my way through two of Wily’s stages, I have tasted subtle, complex variations of failure that I had heretofore only imagined. Mega Man 9 has made me a connoisseur of failure.
But every mistake is an opportunity for learning, and every agonizing death in Mega Man 9 brought me closer to a profound truth: Videogames have messed with my head.
The seed of self-awareness was planted when I caught myself in another involuntary cursing fit after dying in the same spot three times in a row. I tried to picture how the scene would appear to a neutral third party; here I was, willfully (and repeatedly) submitting myself to an experience that was, by all outward appearances, deliberately painful.
But when I finally managed to reach a checkpoint or kill a boss, my success glittered like a diamond in a coal mine. Game theorists like Nicole Lazarro and Raph Koster have deemed this sensation “fiero,” an Italian word describing the feeling of victory against near-insurmountable odds. It’s a potent combination of pride and relief that only manifests when a game is insanely hard.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, fiero is the only reason that Mega Man 9 works as a game. There are few surprises to be gleaned from interacting with the environment – Capcom intentionally employed technology and game design concepts that have existed since the late ’80s. Super Mario Galaxy it ain’t.
That’s partly why I was immediately drawn in by the experience. In the last two decades, games have been getting easier and more forgiving in an effort to broaden their audience. Mega Man is more than simple fan service; the developers are harkening back to a simpler time, when games didn’t have to be all things to all people.
But my longing for bygone days quickly gave way to shock and mild concern. When I first played Mega Man 2, I was, by my calculations, around 7 or 8 years old. I barely had the patience or dexterity to tie my own shoes, let alone spend hours jumping on spikes and falling into bottomless pits just to beat a game. Yet I probably completed Mega Man 2 a half dozen times, despite the handicap of not owning an NES.
Fiero is a powerful feeling. It’s enough to make a grown adult weather the slings and arrows of outrageous minibosses for a brief sip. Yet as a fledgling gamer, I was practically swimming in the stuff. Fiero was the currency of the NES; most games had little to offer other than the satisfaction of beating them to a pulp. And just as Sesame Street taught me the alphabet and why it’s nice to share, games taught me that real fun is the satisfaction of a job well done – even if that job is tedious, unfair and borderline infuriating.
Could I have inadvertently stumbled into the root cause of my videogame OCD? Had I finally discovered why I replayed games on the highest difficulty even after they’d become stale and predictable, or why I printed walkthroughs with instructions for unearthing every hidden item just so I could attain a 100 percent completion? Is this what all those hours in my friends’ basements, wrangling with an NES controller while their parents begged us to go outside, added up to?
I realized at that moment that I didn’t hate Galaxy Man. He had no beef with me – he was just doing his job. And watching his absurd, frisbee-shaped form slowly fade into the “game over” screen wasn’t a waste of time. I was being programmed, just as he had been.He wasn’t my enemy; he was just a proxy, a stand-in for my own overriding need for arbitrary achievement.
When I finally killed him, I didn’t feel fulfilled or relieved. He was an innocent bystander, caught in the crossfire between morbid sentimentality and futile regret. Galaxy Man died in vain.
Magma Man, on the other hand, got what was coming to him. Bastard.
Jordan Deam believes that Dr. Wily’s uncanny resemblance to Sigmund Freud is no coincidence.