Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

Mega Man had never gone more than two years between games, but after Mega Man 8 — and the one-off experiment that was Mega Man & Bass — the series went a decade. Once an industry mascot right up there with Mario, Link, and Sonic, Mega Man just…stopped. The saddest part was that nobody really missed him.

The world kept turning, no darker or more slowly without him. The industry trudged forward just fine. Even its developer, Capcom, had moved onto other series that kept its fortunes strong. Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Dead Rising, Monster Hunter, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and lots of others were released at a steady clip and to positive reception. To paraphrase Clarence Oddbody, Mega Man had been given a great gift…a chance to see what the world would be like without him. And it turned out the world was just fine.

Mega Man was relegated to the chambers of memory. If you wanted to, you could dust off your old NES and rip through whatever game or games of his you remembered most fondly, but it was far more likely that your attention was now elsewhere. Every so often you’d talk with a friend about the games of your youth, and Mega Man would come up. You’d reminisce about him. You’d laugh about the good times and bad. But like all memories of those you’ll never see again, you’d tuck them away again and focus once more on the here and now.

Mega Man’s disappearance didn’t interfere with my life any. I had other things on my mind. I was finishing high school. Then I was in college. I was dating. I was working, often at multiple jobs. I was developing as a writer. I was moving out. I was learning what I wanted out of life, and I was trying to figure out how to get it. I was growing up, because I had to.

For a good long while I never had to worry about where my food or shelter would come from. Then, overnight, I did, and the amount of time I could devote to extravagances was sorely reduced. Had Mega Man continued on his yearly release schedule, there would have been 20-odd games I wouldn’t have had the time to play.

In short, his absence wasn’t felt. I was able to say that about a lot of figures from my childhood. I valued the time we spent together, but I was somewhere else now. I wished them well, but there was no time for looking back.

Until, of course, there was.

Around 2007, I was still working hard — I had to be — but I was no longer pennies away from bankruptcy. I built up a savings. I found a great place to live in a different state. I had an incredible job. I found a new circle of friends. Things were…okay. The stressors and worries that had defined me for my entire adult life…weren’t there anymore. At some point I stopped. I caught my breath. And I realized I was okay.

I had time again. I had the money and space to devote to the things that I wanted to pay attention to. I started revisiting the things I had loved unquestioningly as a child. Books, movies, music, TV shows. It was during this period that I launched my first website as well, giving me a place to write about those things and more. This goes back many years, but I don’t need to point out that this is still where I am today. This is what I do. I study. I report. I read too deeply into things.

One of my major purchases at the time was a Wii, which was a bit surprising, as I had been out of the video game loop for quite a while. But I was interested in it. Not for Wii Sports. Not for Super Mario Galaxy. Not for whatever Zelda game was guaranteed to come along.

No. What won me over was the Virtual Console.

It’s amazing how quaint the concept feels now, what with digital downloads and emulation becoming less the exception and more the rule, but I remember looking through a listing of classic games available for purchase on the Wii and feeling blown away. I could play Super Mario 64 again? Well, what am I waiting for?

I enjoyed the Wii, and I think it had some incredible games throughout its lifespan. But the crisper visuals didn’t win me over. The motion controls didn’t win me over. The chance to play Mario Kart online didn’t win me over. What won me over was the opportunity to go backward. To rediscover. To rebuild — albeit digitally and with strong limitations — the same library of games I had growing up. The ones I loved. The ones I didn’t love. The ones that were too hard for me. The ones rooted so deeply in my mind that I could replay them from memory, uncovering every secret again along the way.

People complained about the prices; I remember that very well. I thought and still think they were crazy. $5 for an NES game was a steal. $8 for a SNES game. These were games my parents couldn’t easily afford for me when I was little, and now they were priced lower than a meal at a fast food restaurant. Didn’t people realize what a great time to be alive this was?

I downloaded so many classic games, most of which held up just as well as I could have hoped. And since they were so cheap, I bought plenty of games I never got to play as a kid, discovering many gems along the way that had passed me by. I played Ufouria for the first time, and fell in love with somebody else’s childhood.

All of this is to say that the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game my way. What’s more, though, the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game the industry’s way. I wasn’t the only one rebuilding and reappraising the library of my childhood. Retro games were a hot commodity online and in stores. Services such as the Virtual Console allowed game companies to continue profiting from their back catalogues. And, most significantly, companies were releasing new titles that deliberately hearkened back to the roots of their respective series.

It was a bit of a fad for a while. Games such as New Super Mario Bros. (2005), Contra 4 (2007), Castelvania: The Adventure Rebirth (2009), Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010), Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010), Rayman Origins (2011), and others saw success and critical praise that proved that the kids who played those series hadn’t actually outgrown them…they rather fell away as the games drifted further from what they loved about them in the first place. The moment a popular franchise said, “We’re going back to basics,” ears pricked up.

Mega Man 9 rode that wave of revivals relatively early, meaning it felt both comfortable and fresh at the same time. Mega Man was back…and this time he wasn’t dragging along any clutter. Expectations were high, and Mega Man 9 managed to exceed every last one of them.

The game was and remains a masterpiece. And while I do enjoy nearly all of the games in the classic series, it was surprising and oddly fulfilling to suddenly have another Mega Man game that could be spoken of in the same breath as Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3.

The fact that this arrived so long after the last Mega Man release was astounding. Even more incredible was the fact that several entire spinoff series came and went in the gap since Mega Man 8.

No, seriously. There was Mega Man Legends (1997-2000), Mega Man Battle Network (2001-2005), Mega Man Zero (2002-2005), and Mega Man ZX (2006-2007). If you want, you can also consider Mega Man X (1993-2004), which was largely released during classic Mega Man’s silence and Mega Man Star Force (2006-2008), whose final game arrived just a few months after Mega Man 9.

It didn’t just seem unlikely that Mega Man would ever return to its stripped-down origins; it seemed impossible. And remember…that previous paragraph isn’t a list of games. It’s a list of entire series. Mega Man had splintered and fragmented so many times over that there just wasn’t a place for the little boy in blue pajamas we had once loved so much. The climate wasn’t the same. Gamers had different expectations now. As Tom Petty once put it, everything changed…and then changed again.

But Capcom brought Mega Man back. The original Mega Man. Without voice acting. Without convoluted mythology. Without extra fortresses and split groups of bosses and mid-point stages and gimmick levels. Without even a chargeable Mega Buster or the ability to slide. When many other series promised a return to their roots, they meant it in a general, spiritual sense. Mega Man meant it to the letter. If he couldn’t do it in the first game, he sure as hell wasn’t doing it here.

In truth, though, this game has less in common with the original Mega Man than it does with its celebrated sequel, Mega Man 2. The tighter physics, the richer sprites, the compositional philosophy behind the music, and the lack of a score system. This last, however, wasn’t so much missing as it was updated for modern sensibilities, but we’ll talk about that later. Mega Man 2 refined and defined the formula for the series, and Mega Man 9 ditched nearly everything that came afterward, and refused to roll the clock back any further.

Which is interesting, I think. Mega Man 9 feels to me like a proper sequel to Mega Man 2, and it’s a great one, finding a true swell of inspiration so many releases and years after most series would have lost steam for good.

It’s not unlikely that all of the credit for this belongs to Inti Creates, the developer who took on the seemingly impossible task of resuscitating a series that was both long dead and still revered. Mega Man 9, however it turned out, would have had to contend with unreasonable expectations across the board, and Inti Creates not only rose to the occasion…they arguably created the best game to bear the Mega Man name.

Of course, the company didn’t just swoop in out of nowhere. They’d worked closely with Capcom in the past, most notably by developing the entire Mega Man Zero series. For my money, Mega Man Zero is front to back the best Mega Man series. It’s certainly the most consistent in terms of quality, and it established Inti Creates as an important partner for Mega Man. The games were well received, each title successfully improved upon most of what came before, and it hearkened back to many of the best aspects of the Mega Man X and classic Mega Man series.

Capcom entrusted them with one of its coolest and most popular characters with the impossible task of relaunching Zero’s career after Capcom themselves sank it with the increasingly dire Mega Man X releases…and Inti Creates still hit a grand slam four times over. It’s really not surprising they were handed the keys to the classic Mega Man series later on.

Inti Creates’ true desires to work on classic Mega Man were probably most explicit in Mega Man ZX: Advent. That series was also great, and also belonged to Inti Creates. In Mega Man ZX: Advent, they included an unlockable mode that reimagined the game in the 8-bit style of the original Mega Man series.

It was a cute flourish far more than it was a statement of purpose, but it was also totally unnecessary. It required all new art and music. It required new AI and new physics. It was short, but it still placed the responsibility of building an entire framework from scratch on the plates of developers who already had another game to finish.

It was a labor of love. They did it because they wanted to do it. They wanted to build a game in the style of the NES classics.

I don’t know who initially pitched the idea for Mega Man 9, but, whoever it was, Capcom would have been positively idiotic not to give the job to Inti Creates.

While there’s very little design overlap between the Mega Man Zero series and Mega Man classic, I do think the quadrilogy of games Inti Creates built around Zero illustrated their ability to handle this throwback sequel. Mega Man Zero is a series that often demands and always rewards precision. It’s a series that expects you to die, and frequently, until you figure out the best way through a given stretch of a level. It’s a series that requires you to observe, understand, anticipate, and react to boss patterns. It’s a series made easier or more difficult by the sequence in which you choose to accomplish tasks. All of that should sound very familiar to classic Mega Man fans.

Most importantly, though, the Zero series proved that Inti Creates could be trusted to do work that was both respectful and innovative with established characters and mechanics. It may have been the first time Zero saw his name in lights, but players had been controlling him since Mega Man X 3, getting more familiar with — and excited about — his moveset with each subsequent game* in that series.

In short, though Mega Man Zero was technically the first game in a new series, it was also a successor to something players knew very well. Inti Creates didn’t have the luxury of building player expectations from scratch; they already existed, and anything they did would have to use the core of the original experience as its foundation.

They proved they could do it, four times over. (Six, if you count the related biometals in the Mega Man ZX series.) Controlling Zero was, if anything, even more of a tactile delight than it had been in the Mega Man X games. He felt faster in his own series, looser, and yet no less responsive. In keeping with the narrative of Mega Man Zero, it was as though he were reawakened, shook the stiffness from his joints, and became who he was meant to be all along.

What’s more, he felt at home, as the games were now designed around his flowing mobility, his graceful swordplay, his evolving movesets. Whereas games in the X series were built around what X himself could or couldn’t do and Zero was just an elaborate cameo, the Mega Man Zero games were playgrounds built exclusively for Zero. They not only lived up to the expectations earlier games had inspired in us, but they made us feel like these were the games we’d been waiting for all along.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into the Zero series** but I do think it’s helpful background information, and it explains why, after a long and what seemed like a permanent silence from the Mega Man classic series, Mega Man 9 landed out of nowhere with immediate perfection.

Okay, I say “out of nowhere,” but that wouldn’t be entirely true. In fact, I remember a trickle of buildup, which was surprising for a WiiWare*** game. WiiWare was a digital distribution platform that allowed large and small developers to release their games digitally on the Wii. Not all of the games were winners — not by a longshot — but there were a few pretty great ones. Usually, though, they just…appeared. Games were released weekly and you’d wait for word of mouth to direct you to standouts like World of Goo, Bit.Trip: Beat, Retro City Rampage, and the Art Style series. Hype came largely after the fact, as there were rarely demos or trailers to get players excited.

Mega Man 9 was different, though. I felt it coming. Like stormclouds in the distance, it was on its way, and I knew it. I was still mainly using my Wii to play old games — and I liked it that way — but now my interest was piqued for a new release.

Word spread that Capcom was releasing another Mega Man game…one that looked like the ones we remembered. The screenshots made that clear. It really did look very familiar, like screenshots from a title developed in the very early 1990s that was only now discovered in the archives. Then more information came along. The soundtrack would be NES-style as well. (Only we now called this “chiptune.”) And, so surprising to me that it felt like a decision born of glorious madness, there’d even be an option to let the game experience slowdown and flicker when too many sprites were on the screen at once.

This alone was a great joke; somebody actually took the time to program false system limitations into the game. After the entire video game industry had been pushing consoles as far as they could go on a regular basis, trying to squeeze that much more performance out of rigid system specs, Mega Man 9 built in an option to make it play intermittently like crap.

Because that’s how you remember Mega Man. And Mega Man 9 wants to be everything you remember about Mega Man.

Just the option for flicker — just the idea of the option for flicker — caused a long-dormant memory to surge back.

I remembered playing my original Nintendo and experiencing slowdown in a game I loved. It was possibly a Mega Man game. It was probably a Mario game. But the point is, I remember the action slowing down, frustratingly. I remember pressing harder on the buttons as though that would speed up my character’s animation. I remember expecting that at some point a more powerful version of the Nintendo would arrive, which would have enough processing power to run these games properly. I never felt as though the games were coded poorly, though they often were. I always felt that the Nintendo just wasn’t strong enough to let them run correctly.

Now, finally, I had an NES-style game to look forward to on a system that would let it run properly.

And the game was choosing to run like garbage.

I admire the sheer gumption of that choice to this day. I still laugh. I still love it.

For the first time since I was a kid, I got to look at a batch of upcoming Robot Masters and wonder which ones would be easiest, which ones to save for last, which ones would give you the best weapons. No, scrolling through screenshots wasn’t much like poring over an issue of Nintendo Power, but a little bit of that same thrill came back. Enough of it came back. And the nostalgia was helped along by the the deliberately awful — and true to life — box art that Capcom whipped up. Another unnecessary gesture, as the game was only released digitally.

And so, while Mega Man 9 was technically of a piece with the other throwback-style games I listed above, it didn’t just want to recapture old magic…it wanted to transport you in time. It wanted to make you believe that this really was a game from the 8-bit era…just one, like Ufouria, you hadn’t gotten around to playing before. That “9” gave away its place in time, but very little else about the experience did.

The pixel art was beautiful, but it didn’t register as anything the NES wouldn’t have been theoretically capable of displaying. The soundtrack was the wall-to-wall best in the series, but it was also true to tunes we remembered and loved as children. The enemies, even the new ones, looked familiar. The weapons were better than we’d seen in any previous game, but they wouldn’t have felt out of place there. Instruments dropped out of the stage music to make way for sound effects — old and new — that were comfortable, natural, and familiar, right down to Mega Man sounding like a sneezing dog when he took damage again.

The stage layouts were all original**** while maintaining the design philosophy we passively internalized as children. You had a sense of when you’d experience the rise and fall of panic, you understood the precise degree by which the hazards would ratchet up in complexity, you encountered one enemy in a safe area and anticipated that that same enemy would be used differently later to threaten your life.

Words simply cannot express what a creative triumph Mega Man 9 really was. As if designed solely to prove that bigger is not always better, Mega Man retreated into simplicity and found the heart it had lost long ago. I fell in love with the game the moment I booted it up, and by now, hour for hour, it has to be one of my most-played games ever, right up there with Mega Man 2.

It was perfect, and I had no complaints.

I’m kidding, of course.

I had a complaint. It was hard as hell.

When I was using my Wii to replay the games of my youth, I, for whatever reason, hadn’t really bothered with Mega Man. I couldn’t possibly say why; I don’t think it was conscious. I think, more likely, I had just not gotten around to it yet. Mega Man 9 was the first time I’d played any Mega Man game in ages.

And I died.

A lot.

And frequently.

More than you could even imagine.

Every screen was difficult. No stage seemed notably easier or harder than any of the others. Usually in a Mega Man game you’ll hop from level to level until you find the one nut that’s easiest to crack. Typically the boss of that level is also a relative pushover, but even if he’s not you can at least reliably clear the stage and take pop after pop at the champ.

In Mega Man 9, though, nothing was easy. The enemies whittled my health down quickly. I’d limp from screen to screen, hoping to make it just a little further. (And rarely succeeding.) As if to mock me, the game would finally drop health or extra lives for me…into pits and onto beds of spikes. When I managed to figure out how to deal with an enemy or a particular configuration of enemies, some other obstacle would then serve as a brick wall against my progressing any further.

It was rough. It was cruel. It was relentless.

And yet…I kept playing.

Just like the Mega Man games of my youth.

The truest Mega Man 9 comes to the series isn’t in its optional flicker or its period-appropriate box art. It’s in the compulsive need it inspires in you to keep beating your head against that wall. I’ve played plenty of games that stand imposingly before me and knock me down every time I try to stand back up. Nearly all of those see me giving up at some point, and letting the game exist without me. Very rarely do I do what I did with Mega Man 9, and a number of its predecessors, which is surrender myself to it, let it kick my ass repeatedly, and finally learn to outwit it.

I came a long way with Mega Man 9. A game that seemed comically impossible gradually gave way to a rewarding adventure that just required vigilance. It wasn’t nearly as unfair as it had seemed at first. I remember struggling for days to take down any of the Robot Masters, only to finally force my way through the battle with Galaxy Man. But fast forward a few months and there I was, performing a live playthrough of the entire game for viewers on a stream. Not only could I now reliably beat it, but I could do so in one sitting, in front of an audience. I remember one commenter saying he had never seen anyone take down Dr. Wily as fast as I did.

The game I could barely play became one I was actually, legitimately good at.

Actually, no; strike that. The game made me good at it.

It trained me. It enabled me. It tore me down and dared me to try again, but each time I did I learned a little more about what not to do. And then a little more about what to do. And then a little more about what I could do better, or faster, or more impressively.

Mega Man 9 isn’t easy, but if you’re willing to spar with it, you’ll come out so much stronger for having done so. It has a sturdy, sometimes cold internal logic that you need to learn how to read. It plays by rules…just not your rules. And it leaves itself open just enough that you keep coming back…after you get the profanities out of your system and pick the controller back up.

I don’t mean to suggest that the game is entirely fair. Replaying it now — so long after I’ve come to grips with its quirks — there are still a number of moments that exist only to be troublesome.

There are the little grabber enemies that rush you into death spikes in Gravity Man’s stage and Wily’s fortress, which are almost uniformly impossible to predict your first time through. There are the draining water platforms in Splash Woman’s stage that require you to navigate them while they move at different speeds around death spikes. There’s the swing in Jewel Man’s stage above a bottomless pit and next to a wall lined with death spikes, requiring you to jump toward both and hit the gate rather than either of the two hazards.

You know, I’m noticing a pattern here…

Yes, one of the recurring criticism is that Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its use of death spikes. The entire time I’ve been replaying the Mega Man classic series, I was prepared to get to this entry and dispel the accusation. “Mega Man games were always full of death spikes,” I’d say. “This one just seems to have more because you played it more recently and haven’t spent as much time memorizing how to handle them.”

But, well, I’ve just recently replayed the previous eight games…and I can say with confidence that the critics are correct. Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its death spikes.

We’ve talked before about the health bar functioning as a kind of ticker that represents the number of mistakes you can make before the game shoots you back to a checkpoint. And I think it’s helpful to view it that way; Mega Man encourages perfection. If you like, you can take risks and hope for the best, but you can only do that a finite number of times before you lose too many of the bets you place.

Mega Man games don’t let you coast on luck, because you’ll never be lucky enough times in a row to finish the game. You can afford to tank your way through certain obstacles, but you’d better learn the rest, because you’ll never make it to the boss doors otherwise.

Mega Man 9‘s overuse of death spikes, though, betrays that mutual understanding. You don’t get to learn by making a mistake and moving on, crippled by your error. Your error far too often kills you, and you’re back to the checkpoint. Often you won’t even know what you were supposed to do differently. That’s a feeling that really sets in during the fortress levels, which have a bit more personality than they had in previous games, but are only marginally more fun than they ever were.

It’s a bit difficult to put myself back in the shoes of a new player. When I play through Tornado Man’s rainy sections, I know there are platforms behind the clouds to make platforming easier. When I’m launched skyward by Galaxy Man’s teleporters, I know the flying enemies will never hit me as long as I don’t panic. I know which way to veer during screen transitions to keep from clipping a spike with my foot and exploding unglamorously.

Back then, though…I remember experiencing a mix of emotions. At first — nearly always — I’d laugh. Some unforeseeable hazard swooped in and killed me. Ha ha.

It seemed almost knowing…a wink to the player. “Remember when games used to be this cruel?” And it was a good joke. The death was worth the chuckle.

For a while.

Because it would happen again and again throughout the course of a level. It would strip me of my lives, one after another. It would frustrate me so much that I’d get careless, and die even more than I was already fated to. The joke got old. An instant-kill hazard I have no way of knowing how to navigate appears three quarters of the way through the level, and I’m on my last life. I die, as I must, learning nothing about how to progress, and am booted back to the stage select.

Repeat. Over and over and over again. All I wanted to do was make it to the boss so I could see if I had the right weapon, and maybe get a sense of what to expect when I fought him (or her!) properly. But I’d make it to the boss so rarely, and when I did I’d have so little health remaining. I’d be killed by the first attack and kicked out of the stage knowing no more than I did when I started.

My girlfriend at the time watched me play. She watched me die. She heard me shout, “No!” more times in an hour than I’m sure she thought was reasonable. At one point, I asked her if she wanted to try. She declined. “I don’t know why anybody would play a game that punishes them like that.”

She…had a point.

Granted, I think she was at the other end of the spectrum. The games I knew she liked were Animal Crossing, and whichever Katamari game it was that asked you to collect one million roses. Not that I disliked those games, but watching her play those was such a foreign experience to me. She steered little avatars around environments that couldn’t hurt her, let alone kill her. Everything was sunny and welcoming. Reflexes and experience barely even entered into it.

I don’t mean to imply that those games are or were in any way beneath me — I now enjoy both series on their many merits — but when I sit down to play something, I rarely reach for a game that requires so little of me.

Instead, she watched me reach for a game that requires everything of me, and then spits in my face and tells me that I’ll never be good enough. Surely an ideal — and emotionally healthy — gaming experience lay on the spectrum somewhere between those two extremes.

But I kept at it. It punished me, she was right, but it never defeated me. First Gravity Man. Then Splash Woman. I think it was Tornado Man next, but I know for a fact that Plug Man was last. Piece by piece, I chipped away at that wall. And then I finally made it to the Wily fortress, which made me chuckle with its eyebrow waggling introduction and then promptly beat the living shit out of me over and over again.

And yet, I was still making progress. Even when I wasn’t doing anything but entering a stage and dying to the same enemy or obstacle over and over again. And that’s because of one great carryover from Mega Man 7: the shop.

Or, I suppose, more specifically the currency. Bolts were back, and you could trade them in for all kinds of helpful items, from familiar (and invaluable) ones like 1-ups and E-tanks to gracious additions like the one-off ability to negate death spikes. And that’s where the feeling of progress comes even when you’re not earning new weapons or scratching Robot Masters off your hit list.

I read a book recently about the development of the excellent Rogue Legacy. I won’t bother looking up the title, because the book wasn’t very good. But one of the game’s designers spoke for a while about how the leveling system in that game allowed players to feel like they were advancing, even if they kept failing in the same area each time. Their characters would get stronger, they could upgrade their equipment, they could discover new, permanent items in chests…basically the design of the game kept players from feeling like any given run was fruitless, even if they didn’t make it any further than they had previously.

Mega Man 9 offers something similar. You can keep dying, sure, and you will. But you’ll also be accumulating bolts as you do, and those carry over. Die enough and, yes, you’ll be frustrated, but you’ll also have a cache of cash that you can use to invest in items that will give you an edge. You can load up on lives and health restoratives to your heart’s content. In an apt metaphor for so much, failing really could make you stronger.

It was a smart design move, and a further reinforcement of the fact that the limited currency of Mega Man 8 was a bad idea. The shop needs to function as an ongoing reward, whereas Mega Man 8 turned it into an additional source of stress as you could never buy all the upgrades, meaning each purchase locked you permanently out of the chance to buy something else.

The shop did almost have one thing in common with Mega Man 8, though; while the stripped-down jump-and-shoot moveset of the original Mega Man was known long in advance to be the approach Mega Man 9 would take, there evidently were plans for the shop to sell permanent upgrades in the form of sliding and charging the Buster.

This I do think would have represented a nice middleground; those who struggled could buy the upgrades for an easier run through the game, and purists could ignore them. But I believe Inti Creates made the right decision by scrapping the idea. Nobody in their right mind would have avoided grinding for the bolts necessary to purchase those upgrades, and therefore the core Mega Man moveset would have been relegated to the opening stage or so, before players could afford to move on from it.

By removing the option altogether, Inti Creates forced everybody to familiarize themselves with the same limitations, and to engage the game without those additional offensive and evasive capabilities.

Mega Man 9 did offer somewhat of a concession there, however. It was the first game in the series to make DLC available, and one of those options was the ability to play as Proto Man for the first time ever.

This version of Proto Man could slide and charge his Buster, much like Mega Man could in Mega Man 4. But that wasn’t all; he also had a shield that deflected projectiles (so long as you were in the air and not firing).

All of which makes it sound as though Proto Man’s run of the game would be far easier…except that there were some artful tradeoffs.***** Proto Man didn’t have access to the shop, he took double damage, he had more significant knockback from enemy attacks, and he could only fire two Buster shots at a time, compared to Mega Man’s three. Then again, playing as Proto Man meant you got to hear his iconic whistle at the start of every stage, so maybe it was worth it.

Playing as Proto Man was a great bonus, but the mode removed all of the story sequences and felt more like a novelty…a more punishing sprite-swap than anything else. I have to admit that this is something Mega Man 10 did far better than this game.

There were other bits of DLC available as well, including harder difficulty settings, a fairly dull extra stage with another boss (something else Mega Man 10 did far better, as we’ll see), and my personal favorite: Endless Mode.

Endless Mode was almost as good as the game itself, and (living up to its name) was endlessly replayable. The mode would hand you all of the special weapons in the game and toss you into a randomized series of corridors. Every 30 or so screens you’d have to face a Robot Master.

It was that simple, but it was extremely addictive, and it’s one of the highlights of the entire series to me. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it further than a screen or two. Just once (if memory serves) did I make it beyond 100 screens, and when I did I was sweating and tense.

Endless Mode was, essentially, the chance to play new Mega Man content whenever you wanted to. And while you could devote enough of your life to it that you catalogued and memorized all of its surprises, there was more than enough content there to keep most players happy for a very long time. (Mega Man 10‘s equivalent mode wasn’t nearly as good, however, and felt as though it contained significantly fewer modules.) It also made a scoring feature — not seen since the original Mega Man — feel meaningful. Nobody cared about beating their high score in that game…but getting further in Endless Mode than you ever had before? Now that felt good.

And, so, yes, that’s a lot of gushing. But we haven’t even started praising the single best set of weapons in Mega Man history.

As you’ll recall, I was very happy with Mega Man 7‘s loadout overall. In fact, I honestly couldn’t ask for anything more. And yet, Mega Man 9 gives us so much more.

In previous installments I’ve voiced my disappointment that the weapons felt as though they were designed in isolation from the stages. They were fun things for Mega Man to hurl around the screen, sure, but they didn’t feel tailored to the games themselves. They felt, at best, as though they’d been plugged in after the fact, and at worst as though they were just differently shaped projectiles for the sake of fulfilling a quota.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that with (at least) eight new weapons introduced in every game, the well had simply run dry. There was no real way to design a truly great arsenal of original weapons anymore. And I would have agreed. Mega Man 9 gleefully proves us wrong.

The weapons here are not only fun, but they’re useful. They’re versatile. They’re worth playing with, even when you don’t “need” them. And, most impressively of all, nearly all of them of them also function as utilities, meaning poor, overtaxed Rush can revert back to his basic Coil and Jet functions.

The simplest of the new weapons is probably the Plug Ball. It’s a cross between the Spark Shock and the Search Snake, but with an actual purpose. The Plug Ball drops directly to the ground and runs forward, around platforms, across the ceiling, and pretty much anywhere else it can get without crossing gaps. It’s powerful and fast, which in many games would earn it a spot among the best weapons. Here, it gets outdone by everything else, and that’s a great thing.

Next there’s the Jewel Satellite, which is even better than the Junk Shield, but feels more specifically like an upgraded version of the Leaf Shield or Star Crash. Four jewels orbit Mega Man and will take out weak enemies easily, only breaking if they hit an enemy powerful enough to withstand them. (This actually makes it superior to Jewel Man’s own version of the weapon, as his Jewel Shield chips away each time it’s struck by a Buster shot.) You can throw it when you’re done using it, but you can also move while it’s active, which makes it extremely handy in nearly all of the game’s long gauntlets.

The last of the “standard” weapons is the Magma Bazooka, an enhanced version of the Atomic Fire. It’s chargeable, like its forebear, but it launches three projectiles instead of just one, making it a decent spread weapon.

The rest of Mega Man 9‘s arsenal is truly great, though.

The Concrete Shot deals a decent amount of damage, but its main selling point is the fact that it creates temporary blocks to stand on. This is a huge asset when it comes to many of the game’s tricky platforming challenges; it’s not easy to aim the Concrete Shot precisely, but the odds are good you’ll get it close enough to create a foothold somewhere helpful. You can also use it to climb higher than you normally would, as well as block lasers late in the game and solidify the lava blasts in Magma Man’s stage and the fortress.

The Laser Trident is super fun, and a great example of doing the “differently shaped projectile” right. Not only is it powerful, but it’s ammo efficient. What’s more, it flashes and makes a really cool sound…and since this is a video game, flashing and making a cool sound is a legitimate selling point. Additionally, it pierces armor, and will sail straight through rows of enemies. What’s more, this is Mega Man 9‘s weapon for tearing down certain barricades, which makes it worth grabbing early so that you can reach items that are otherwise blocked off. It can also destroy the lava blasts you’ve hardened with the Concrete Shot. It gets a lot of use.

Then there’s the Tornado Blow, which is retooled Gravity Hold that wisely doubles as an assist to Mega Man’s jump height. Trigger it at the right time and you’ll get a lot of extra lift on your ascent, which is a pretty cool feature. It also adjusts some of the platform heights in the fortress. The Hornet Chaser is the game’s homing weapon, and the fact that it actually works makes it a very rare thing indeed. What’s more, the hornets will seek out and collect items for Mega Man, many of which can’t actually be obtained in any other way. Do you really want that large health that fell into the death spikes? Sure you do. Hornet, chase ‘er. (Aaaand just like that, I get the joke behind Splash Woman’s weakness.)

The best of the batch is the Black Hole Bomb. This one is powerful, steerable, and triggerable at will. You can feed it into almost any area of the screen, detonate it, and watch as enemies and projectiles are drawn into it and erased from existence. Do it above yourself and get ready to be showered by the falling health and ammo of your swallowed foes. The Black Hole Bomb consumes a lot of ammunition, but the sheer value of the item absolutely justifies the lack of efficiency, and it’s one of my favorite weapons in the entire series.

The special weapons prove that Inti Creates did its homework. They looked back at previous weapons, determined what made them fun to use, and ensured that they were woven into gameplay experience itself. For once, you didn’t just pull a weapon out because it would deal more damage to a certain enemy; you pulled a weapon out because it was the best answer to the puzzle posed by a given room.

Mega Man 9 is so slickly designed and perfectly presented that it retroactively makes the best things about the previous games in the series look like happy accidents rather than deliberate choices. Sure, the other Mega Man games were largely great, but never had they felt so deliberate. Here, every gear feels perfectly placed and finely tuned. It’s a deceptively complex machine that improves upon the stacks of blueprints that inspired it. It’s a game that must have been subject to endless playtesting, because as cruel as some of the sequences can be, especially to new players, everything feels right.

It seems as though Inti Creates took the same approach to the stages as they took to the weapons…replaying them all, parceling out moments that worked and moments that didn’t, and reverse engineering the entire Mega Man experience to find out what really mattered underneath all of the clutter.

And it worked. In addition to offering my favorite batch of weapons, Mega Man 9 may also offer my favorite batch of stages. Some of them are fairly basic Mega Man fare, but Splash Woman’s stage is one of the better and more varied water stages in the series. It has a variety of interesting enemies, each of which requires a unique approach. The octopus enemies have to be coaxed out of their pots, the mines force you into a brief and hectic dance, and the fish that torpedo you from the sides of the screen require you to be constantly ready on the trigger. The death spikes here aren’t even too bad, as the water physics are almost always present, giving you more maneuverability and allowing you think at a more reasonable pace.

Galaxy Man’s stage is probably my favorite, for sheer flair alone, with the teleporters being a fun little mechanic and the 8-bit futuristic aesthetic being exactly the sort of environment I would have fallen in love with as a kid. Hornet Man’s garden-themed stage is a nice, unexpected approach, and Magma Man’s stage does the impossible and makes a fire level more fun than frustrating to play.

For sheer variety, though, I think Tornado Man’s stage is the most impressive. It has spinning magnetic platforms which are used in multiple ways and can be handled in multiple ways, but it also leans into the weather theme more than we’ve ever seen the series do before. It opens with a clear, sunny stretch to help you get acquainted with the enemies and magnets, but then you’re working against the wind while stormclouds obscure hazards and platforms alike. Then you’re navigating a frozen area with slippery ice physics. And then you’re flying forward with the wind at your back, forcing you once again to come to terms with movement and momentum in a whole new way. It’s a really great stage, and an easy standout.

The Robot Master duels themselves are also a lot of fun and rewarding to figure out, with most of them requiring you to pay attention to more than just the boss and his (or her!) direct attacks.

Splash Woman asks you to watch for her Laser Trident from above and fish from the side. Jewel Man’s shield fragments fire back at you any time your shot connects with them. Tornado Man’s fight may actually be the best, as your location dictates where his Tornado Blow will appear. (Tornado Man’s design also hearkens back — and narratively forward — to the design of Harpuia, a recurring character from the Mega Man Zero series, which is some efficient continuity.)

I think the only duel I really don’t like is the one with Plug Man. It feels as though there’s just a bit too much to keep track of there, with multiple Plug Balls zooming around the screen and dropping from above, while Plug Man himself hops around unpredictably. Electricity-based Robot Masters tend to be among the most annoying, and this one doesn’t break the tradition. It’s the only fight I think is too busy, and the only one I still haven’t been able to complete Buster-only without taking damage.

The soundtrack does a lot of the work toward making the levels feel as great as they do, without a single weak track in the game. Jewel Man and Plug Man have probably my two least favorites, but they’re still great. Hornet Man’s is a bouncy, flighty tune that I always find myself enjoying more than I expect to. Concrete Man’s is a hard-edged homage to Wood Man’s theme, the first industrial forest level in the series. Tornado Man’s is a swirling, pulse-pounding masterpiece that fits perfectly with every weather condition his stage throws at you.

Splash Woman’s theme is beautiful, buoyant, and blue, and it ranks high on my list of all-time favorites. Magma Man’s is my favorite fire theme in the series, with a raging composition that evokes fiddles and brass intermittently and makes the entire area feel far more playful than it rightly should.

But Galaxy Man’s? Oh. Oh, Galaxy Man’s…

That song is a masterpiece. It’s the best track in a game full of standouts, and I’m sorry that the stage it underscores is the easiest, because that means I get to hear it that much less frequently. It’s almost too good, with it sometimes distracting me from the action on screen and causing me to make foolish mistakes. I love it, and there’s not a single track in Mega Man history that I’d rank higher.

I do have one complaint about the soundtrack, though: all of the stage themes sound like they could be Dr. Wily themes.

I don’t have the vocabulary to explain why, but if you think back to other strong themes from the previous games (Elec Man, Bubble Man, Snake Man, and so on), they feel tailored to their levels. You couldn’t play any of them underneath a Wily fortress stage, because it wouldn’t feel right. They were written for one particular area, and couldn’t survive in another.

In Mega Man 9, though, every stage’s theme sounds like a potential fortress theme. Thumping. Excitable. Drawing you forward. And while that’s by no means a bad thing, I find it a bit odd. It’s as though Mega Man 9 is full of fortress music as opposed to Robot Master music. Great compositions, but often they feel less tied to the identities of their levels.

That’s truly reaching for a complaint, though. And while I ladled out some disappointment above, if you can move past those rough edges — and many people were certainly able to — you have the best Mega Man game in ages. Possibly even the best ever.

I’ve gone back and forth — and even as I write this sentence I continue to go back and forth — about whether or not I prefer this to Mega Man 2. In my mind, Mega Man 2 is my easy favorite. But playing them again, reappraising them so close in time to each other, I’m not as sure.

Mega Man 2 has its ropey moments, as we’ve discussed. Mega Man 9 irons nearly all of them out. Sure, it introduces one or two of its own, but it also has better stages, on the whole. It has a better fortress. It has better weapons. It even, incredibly, has better music.

So I really don’t know. In a way, it doesn’t matter. I can pick either one today and change my mind tomorrow. And the mere fact that I can ask myself this question speaks volumes about just how successful Mega Man 9 really was about what it set out to do.

According to the old saying, you can never go home again. Mega Man 9 heard that and replied, “Like hell you can’t.” It provided a genuinely great — and remarkably true — retreat to a time when, for many players today, games actually meant something. When they were hard as hell and you’d stay up all night passing a controller back and forth just to make it one stage further. When you gathered around the TV to cheer and howl with dismay whenever something incredible happened on the screen.

I shouldn’t have been transported there. I was too old. I was too far along in my life. Video games didn’t mean the same thing to me that they meant then.

But Mega Man 9 took me by the hand and led me there anyway. It led many people there. And we found each other. Maybe this time it was online, sharing stories and tips and videos, beating the game during a live stream for others who had never seen the ending, comparing high scores in Endless Mode or showing off the achievement we’ve earned…including that incredibly rare and maniacal one that requires you to beat the game without taking any damage. Hell, my review of Mega Man 9 for a site I used to work for is what inspired Nintendo Life to reach out and hire me. The game singlehandedly turned me into a professional critic.

It was perfect, and part of me wishes the series ended forever, right here, on a note higher than any of us had any right to expect of it. What’s more, it would have left us with three trilogies, forming a perfect three-act structure. In the first three games, the young hero finds his footing. In the next three, he slowly loses his way and credibility, but not his drive. In the final three he struggles through a crisis of identity to find and redeem himself.

I know the phrase gets thrown around a lot, so forgive me for bumping the ball back into the air, but there really is no better way to put it: Mega Man 9 was what you thought you remembered of Mega Man, but it provided a better, more careful, more meticulous experience than Mega Man actually was. It was also self-aware to the point it had a number of genuinely good jokes sprinkled throughout, in particular the montage of Wily begging for his life.

Inti Creates was having fun. And why not? If gamers got to revisit and rediscover the games of their youth, developers had every right to enjoy the same opportunity.

So, okay. I’ve danced around the question enough. Was it better than Mega Man 2?

I don’t know.

And, again, it doesn’t matter.

But I think I’m going to give Mega Man 2 the edge. Not because Mega Man 9 isn’t, strictly speaking and removed from nostalgia, the superior experience. But rather because it means one thing to set the standard for the entire series, and something else to live up to it.

I’ll pay my respects to the pioneer, because his successors wouldn’t be here without him.

Best Robot Master: Splash Woman
Best Stage: Tornado Man
Best Weapon: Black Hole Bomb
Best Theme: Galaxy Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

* The games themselves fluctuated wildly in terms of quality, but I think it’s safe to say that playing as Zero remained a fairly consistent highlight.

** Would there be any interest in a Mega Man Zero retrospective done in this style? With only four games it would be fairly easy, but I also have no clue who would or wouldn’t want to read it.

*** It was also released on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, making this the first Mega Man game to be multiplatform on release, but I played the WiiWare version, so that’s my point of reference. I’m unaware of any meaningful difference between the three releases, but please let me know if you can report any.

**** The main exception is the stretch of Splash Woman’s stage that borrows the bubble ride from Wave Man, but there are also some fun recreations of previous game levels parceled out in Endless Mode.

***** There’s also the fact that Proto Man’s Buster is lower to the ground, but I couldn’t decide if I should list that as a positive or negative attribute. I’d say there are an equal number of ticks in both columns, so I’d consider it a wash.

My recent piece on Jen Trynin — on her music, on her book, on her — was a bit long and meandering. I know that. But I also know that it could have been much longer and far more meandering.

That’s a credit to her. Sometimes I’ll read, play, watch, or listen to some work of art and think about a post I could write, focusing on something that I found interesting or important. Nearly always, it’s one something. In that post, though, there were dozens of somethings, and even more I never get around to discussing.

I wondered a couple of days ago if maybe I shouldn’t have scrapped that entire post and wrote a different one about the nature of fame, using her book as a jumping-off point. That would be have been far more focused.

But, hey, wouldn’t you know it? Everybody’s a shithead, and I ended up with a more timely reason to write a post about that after all.

Trynin’s book, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, did a great job of telling a number of stories at the same time, all of them, ultimately, about her. In my previous post I talked about the time she caught her own video being riffed on Beavis and Butt-Head, and how nervous she was that they’d say something negative about her.

Not about her video, or about her music, or a particular lyric…but about her personally. I made one point in that post about how human that revealed her to be, but I can make another one here: she wasn’t cut out to be famous.

Let’s step back and think about that, because I mean it in no way as an insult.

While unkind words can hurt, if you put yourself in the public eye, you need to be able to handle them. Trynin, it seems, was not prepared. And it’s worth pointing out that nowhere in the book does anybody truly say anything mean to her or about her. She’s braced against a criticism (or perhaps an attack) that never comes. In fairness there is one less-than-glowing review she gets in Spin magazine, but even that negative piece contains words of praise. I’m sure you can guess which words she clings to.

Again, she’s human. Bad words feel bad to her. She’s already buckling beneath their weight before they arrive. She’s preemptively upset by them.

I can understand that. Of course I get negative comments here and there, and have to read some negative thing somebody’s said about a project I worked on, and it hurts. I think I do a decent job of not letting things get to me, but I certainly slip up in that regard more than I wish I did. You put your heart into something, or at the very least your time and effort, and you know not everybody will love it. You know that. You’re fine with that. Why wouldn’t you be? But you also sort of wish that the folks who don’t love it will…be nice? Keep criticism constructive? Move on with their lives without making you question your worth?

I avoid receiving widespread criticism because, quite simply, I don’t have a massive audience. The more eyes on you, the more negativity you’ll find. (The more positivity as well, but…you can guess which words I’d cling to.) If I were bigger, I’d have to face that more directly, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it well anymore. Based on what I read in her book, I’m fairly confident that Trynin, had she made it bigger, wouldn’t have been able to handle it well, either.

You need to turn it off. You need to reach inside and flip whatever switch exists that causes you to care about what others think of you. I think that’s fair to say. You can’t care.

But I wonder if what people really do is turn off their humanity.

What I loved about the Trynin I met in Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be was her humanity. It’s what caused me to become invested in (as opposed to, say, entertained by) her story. It’s what allowed it to resonate. It’s what made it matter to me.

In a comment on that post, ace commenter FelixSH said he’s invested in the stuff I write here for the same reason: “I feel connected. You open yourself up, and I feel like there is someone who feels similar to me. The melancholy that I find in your posts (especially ones like this) touch me and feel relevant.”

I appreciate that, of course, and I also believe it. I’m sure I still have my humanity. I’m sure because I can probably name a handful of positive things people have said about my writing, but I could repeat for hours all of the negative things I’ve heard that I’ve carried with me. If I could switch off my humanity, it wouldn’t hurt as much. But…well…humanity has its value, too.

Right now, every few days, another high-profile actor, director, or personality is accused of some appalling sexual coercion and behavior. I doubt very much that such behavior is anything like a recent phenomenon. Speaking up is recent. Publicity is recent. Fan backlash is recent. But this kind of behavior has surely been going on as long as we’ve had celebrities of any kind.

It’s also, however, been easy to overlook for far too long. I’m glad that those who engage in predatory behavior are now being held accountable for their actions. This is great news, in itself. But it also brings with it so many smaller jolts of bad news. Or maybe I should say disappointment.

Most recently (as I write this), Aziz Ansari has been accused of hideous and unwelcome sexual advances. Another day, another celebrity, right?

But Ansari feels like a kind of blow to me. Not only because I liked the guy — he was a consistent highlight of anything he was in — but because he didn’t seem like a creep at all. In fact, he presented himself quite directly as being the opposite of those who were abusing their power, manipulating sexual partners, and shirking responsibility for their actions. He spoke out against it. And yet, on a date with a woman he found attractive, he ignored clear signals, and respected her refusals just long enough to lull her into complacency and press her again.

The account linked above is a difficult read. It’s upsetting. The photos and text messages (from a number the blogger verified belongs to Ansari) make it all too clear that this actually happened, and we’re left with one less person we can allow ourselves to respect.

(Ansari has since responded to the accusations with a non-apology that I’d argue says very little.)

The thing is, though…I don’t know if Ansari is an innately scummy human being. Let me be clear that if this event unfolded as described, his behavior is truly scummy. But was he always that way? Did he start out that way?

Or at some point, did he switch off his humanity?

You need to turn it off if you’re going to survive stardom of any kind. We hear about tormented artists not only because torment has the potential to fuel such great art but because artists themselves are human. Humans, by and large, don’t cope well with being judged constantly by strangers. They often turn to self-destructive behaviors or, in some cases, take active steps to tank their own careers. Fame and humanity may not be universally incompatible, but they certainly don’t play well together.

And once you turn it off…if you seal yourself off from your humanity…it probably gets a bit harder to see that person telling you “no” as a person. It probably gets a bit harder to accept that somebody doesn’t want to sleep with you. It probably makes you feel that you can do as you please, because without the guilt, without the regret, without the contrition that comes packaged with humanity, you don’t have as much incentive to behave. If you don’t have to live with the fallout, you care less about triggering the explosion.

It all makes sense in my mind. In order to succeed in the public eye, you need to insulate yourself against criticism. You can’t bristle against every little slight. You need to let the vast majority of potential conflicts pass by without your involvement. So you turn off this part of you that feels, that cares, that listens. And, in doing so, you make it emotionally easier for yourself to commit atrocities you never would have otherwise.

Of course, the fact that it all makes sense in my mind doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.

I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws, but if I am it’s because I don’t want to believe that anybody is inherently awful. I want to believe that there’s a reason they behaved abhorrently. I’m not looking to excuse them and even less am I looking to excuse anything they’ve done (or been said to have done, as the case may be). Maybe there are just bad people. But do there have to be so many?

I want to justify it. Identify a cause. I suppose it’s possible that people who behave in hideous sexual fashions are themselves drawn to stardom, but I think that would be one hell of a leap, being as we hear about pretty awful sex crimes regularly from people who have absolutely no public standing whatsoever, and we know that there’s no “standard” celebrity profile. Stars come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and exhibit the entire spectrum of personality traits.

I don’t know. I’d be interested to know what people think. I don’t want to conclude that any man in a position of power defaults to the tactics of sexual assault. In fact, I know they don’t. That alone isn’t it. That alone isn’t enough. So what is it?

At a number of points in my life, I’ve held positions of power. As a teacher, as a tutor, as a manager, an an editor. I think it would be idiotic to claim that everything I did in those positions was perfect and I am to be studied and emulated, of course, but I can say that I’ve never used that power to manipulate or coerce anybody. What’s more: I never wanted to. I never reached a point at which I needed to make a decision about whether or not to…push.

My mind doesn’t operate that way, and I think that’s why this is so bizarre, fascinating, and frustrating to me. I want to know what people are thinking when they behave like that. I have never looked at a woman I found attractive and wondered whether or not I should force her beyond her zone of comfort. I don’t even understand what that would feel like to consider, let alone pursue.

I feel as though I’d have to have turned off my humanity. I feel as though I’d have to be somebody else entirely.

But, hey. I’m a shithead, too.

Because while I stand by what I’ve just said…there was a time. There was behavior on my part I truly regret. There was a situation into which I placed a young lady that appalls me to remember.

I was in my early 20s. She was younger, but not by much. A year or so. Even a first name would be too obvious to anyone who knows her, so for the sake of privacy, I’ll call her D. (I truly doubt she’s reading this, but if she is and would like to reveal her own name for any reason, and/or share her side of the story, she is more than welcome to do so in the comments below.)

We worked at the same store. I met her and we hit it off immediately. We were very similar. She read and wrote, I read and wrote. We talked books a lot. We talked music. I liked her. I wanted to date her.

She had a boyfriend at the time, and of course that was fine. We talked a lot. We hung out a few times. At one point she wanted me to help her improve her writing, so we worked on a few things together. She sent me what she wrote, asking for feedback. I’m sure I was polite in my feedback, but I also did genuinely want to help. I was flattered she came to me at all, so I wanted to make sure she got something out of our working together.

At one point, she split up with her boyfriend. I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking this was my chance. I didn’t think twice. Why would I? I liked D. We got along. At various points, even while she was with him, I got the sense that she liked me as well.

We were talking online one night. I got flirty. Excessively so. I’m not self-censoring here; it’s been over a decade and I don’t remember specifically what I said so much as I remember the intention, which was clear. Blunt. I didn’t ask her on a date. I said and suggested things that were more directly sexual.

I don’t remember what she said that night, but I remember the conversation we had the next day. I’d made her feel cheap. She was surprised I would say things like that to her. She made it very clear that she didn’t see our relationship that way, and it was clear to me that I had damaged our friendship, and that I had breeched some kind of unspoken trust.

She and I remain friends today. We live a thousand-odd miles apart, so it’s not as though we see each other often, but we stay in sporadic touch. I don’t think she’s still mad at me. She made her feelings known, and I apologized without question. I was in the wrong. I had made her feel uncomfortable, and I had said things that were unwelcome. While I don’t remember the specifics of what I said or what she said in return, it’s safe to say she was not reciprocating in a way that should have encouraged me. I brought things to a point that upset her.

I upset her.

That was my fault.

I felt bad immediately. Not now, at this point in the future, when I see other people’s misbehavior being exposed…but then. Right then. Because that’s who I am. At the time, that night, I didn’t feel as though I were doing anything but pursuing someone to whom I was attracted. That was the spirit of my remarks. But I hurt D. I made her feel as though I were only her friend because I wanted more. I probably made her second guess every bit of feedback I’d given her on her writing.

That’s my fault. Nothing I said was inherently wrong, but it wasn’t welcome. Words are words, but they were out of place. I upset her. I still — here and now — feel terrible about it.

Which is why I can’t understand those who refuse to listen to the word “no.” Or to many other words that clearly mean “no.” Or to the body language and cues that make it clear the answer is “no.” I don’t get it. What’s missing? How do they live with themselves?

I’m haunted by the fact that I jeopardized a friendship by misjudging a situation and saying things I should not have said. I was obviously listening to my own feelings, and wasn’t listening anywhere near well enough to hers. Somehow I got it in my head that she liked me. I’m not saying she led me on — in fact, I’ll say the opposite: she did not lead me on — but I let myself believe it and that was that. I moved forward as though what I believed she wanted was what she wanted. And I upset her. And I’m sorry.

I don’t know how it’s possible to force yourself on somebody — anybody — and look at yourself in the mirror ever again. I couldn’t possibly do it. Not that I’d want to, but I can’t even imagine doing it without severing myself from my own humanity.

That’s the only way it makes sense to me.

The revelation about Ansari is particularly notable to me, because it’s the first time one of these accusations has targeted someone I’d say I really liked. (Unless we count the David Letterman non-scandal from a few years ago, but I think that’s in a very different ballpark, both in terms of its nature and how it was handled.)

So I reflect. And I wonder. Is Ansari just a shithead by nature? Or did he let himself become one? Did he sacrifice his humanity, or am I giving him too much credit by assuming he had any to begin with? How many things would have to change within me before I could possibly behave the same way?

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. But I sure do have questions.

For the record, as much as the Ansari situation bothers me, I refuse to to truly lose hope in mankind until we start hearing stories about one of these:
– Wes Anderson
– Will Arnett
– Michael Palin

Please be good boys.

The Compleat Jen Trynin

January 8th, 2018 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | music | personal | television - (1 Comments)

The mid-90s were a strange time for me, culture-wise. It was the first time — and probably still the only time — that I really followed “current” music. Prior to that and for the most part since, I’d kind of hop around, exploring genres, artists, and time periods as the mood dictates. Very rarely does an album come out that I feel the need to buy or listen to immediately. I’ll eventually get to it, or I won’t. Who cares? There’s so much music out there…why prioritize something just because it’s new?

From around 1993 – 1995, though, I cared. I followed. I watched MTV constantly, which feels like an embarrassing admission, but it’s worth remembering that during that time, the channel was of genuine cultural importance. That’s not say it didn’t air or perpetuate complete garbage (such as anti-vaccination game show Singled Out), but it is to say that it also did things that mattered. From the inventive animated showcase Liquid Television to the brilliant sketch comedy of The State to the slacker-generation icons we found in Beavis and Butt-Head (which itself gave eventual rise to the misfit icons of Daria). MTV was an urgent and important cultural force.

I say all of this to provide a bit of context. I had the bands and artists that I loved specifically, such as Green Day, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, and a few others. Those were the ones whose videos I’d want to catch, whose songs would periodically keep me interested however many others came and went without making an impact. But I also just kind of absorbed other songs in the background. Ones by artists that, for whatever reason, didn’t strike me with the same immediacy. They were often fun, cute, catchy. Sometimes they were none of those things, and you’d still end up retaining them. That’s one of the amusing quirks of popular music, after all; even things we don’t like can lodge themselves permanently in our brains.

Every so often, now, as I go about my day, my brain will feed me some snatch of a long-forgotten song. A melody, or a lyric. Maybe with a particular memory tied to it, but usually not. And because I spent so much time experiencing the songs that flit by on MTV or KROQ or the mixtapes my friends passed around, it can be difficult to identify the song I’m half remembering. I have to employ some detective work. I’ll hum it for people, as best I can. I’ll describe the kind of song it is. I’ll hope against hope that whatever fleeting pop song I’ve somehow internalized will be the same one that a peer has.

A few months ago, this happened. I remembered a chorus, but little else. And while the chorus is probably the most fruitful thing to remember, Google didn’t help, because the chorus was “I’m feeling good.” Lots of songs feature that line and title, or some very minor variation, and so there were too many results, none of which were correct. That was it. I couldn’t find the song that was haunting me.

My brain tosses me a few other bones. I start to remember more about it. I remember riding around in the summer time, in the car of an older friend, asking him to turn up the song because I liked it so much. I remember catching it playing in a restaurant or a store, and being cheered up immediately. I remember singing along to it. And the rest of the chorus comes back. “I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. For now.”

And now I find it, under a name I never would have remembered. The song is not named after its chorus; it’s called “Better Than Nothing,” and the artist is Jen Trynin.

I watch the video a bunch of times. Memories come back. It was one of my feel-good songs from that era. Cynical, but upbeat. Catchy, but honest. The mid-90s come back to me in the video’s editing, in Trynin’s clothing and hairstyle, in the song itself. It’s very much of its era, but…it holds up. It’s good. I’ve been listening to it off and on ever since. While you could certainly make a list of 90s pop songs that are better, I’d argue that that list would be relatively short.

“Better Than Nothing” is great. It constituted the only four minutes I’d ever heard from Jen Trynin, but that’s fine.

The phrase “one-hit wonder” has a bit of a negative connotation in popular music, and that’s something I’ve never totally understood. Having a hit is a good thing. Having one hit puts you, mathematically, leagues above almost every other band or artist that has ever existed. The overwhelming majority of musicians never have a hit. To have one is a triumph. It should be celebrated.

Instead, “one-hit wonder” always feels like a snarky way of referring to a musician that didn’t have staying power. Maybe it’s odd to me because I don’t think there are similar sentiments toward other kinds of artists. I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone look at a great painting and dismiss the painter because he or she didn’t also paint five other popular works? Does anyone care if a director makes just one beloved film? In literature I know for a fact that it doesn’t cause readers to look down their noses. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22 and many other massively important works all came from one-hit wonders. Who cares?

Music, though, seems different in that regard, and I’m not sure why.

So I looked Trynin up and, sure enough, “Better Than Nothing” was her commercial peak. She had two albums, some other singles, and that was largely that.


But I found that she also had a book. Her first album, Cockamamie, featured “Better Than Nothing” and was released in 1995. In 2006, she released Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, a memoir chronicling her brief experience with music stardom. What’s more, the book got rave reviews. I started skimming them as I found more and more, because I was increasingly sold on the book and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself.

Reviewers talked about how funny it was. How charming. How insightful. What a great writer Trynin was. What a great story she had to tell.

And…man, that sure sounded like fun. A great book by someone who wrote a song I loved (and now love again) telling a story I never knew existed? Sign me up.

I bought it, but could only find a used copy. After all, it was published over a decade ago. As a collector that disappointed me (shelfwear, dog ears, sticker residue, the horror) but…well, I still didn’t know if I would like the book, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

It arrived. I read it soon afterward. I liked the book.

Hell, I loved the book. It’s no secret that I read often, but it’s relatively rare for me to read something continuously. I’ll usually read for a bit, take a break, and come back to it. As much as I love books, it’s not common that one will dig itself so deeply into me that I can’t put it down.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be did that. I expected to read a few pages and get a sense of its content and style, and ended up reading a third of it in one go. Over the course of the next day or so, I finished it. The reviews raised my expectations to an impossible level, and the book exceeded them. It was every bit as good as the reviews said.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book grabbed me the way it did. Sure, it’s about someone I remember. It’s about a topic that interests me. It’s well written. But those things describe so many other books that I never necessarily feel compelled to keep reading, or sometimes even finish.

I think the difference is that Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is so relentlessly human. I don’t know anything about Trynin other than what I’ve read here, and surely there’s always some degree of finessing when it comes to presenting yourself to the world, but I never got the feeling that she was presenting herself as anything other than what (and who) she actually is. Account for some simplifications for the sake of readability, some omissions for the sake of focus, and some inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory and I’m confident that the book shows us the real Trynin.

And the real Trynin is so identifiably, tragically, wonderfully human. I bought the book expecting a good story about one woman’s experience with the music industry, but I ended up reading about a person. A person who isn’t perfect. A person who makes bad decisions, and not always for the right reason. A person who doesn’t know what she wants. But a person who, at heart, is good, who works hard, who cares about people long after she should cut them out of her life. She’s flawed in the ways that we’re all flawed, but she has talent, drive, empathy…I was invested in her the way I’d be invested in a really great character. I wanted to see what happened to her. I wanted to see where she ended up. And the journey is humorously and engagingly complicated by the fact that she’s not even sure she wants to be famous to begin with.

The main thread of the story kicks off when Trynin decides that after years of trying to make her mark on the Boston music scene, she’ll make one last push (and financial investment) toward stardom. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t, the universe has made her place very clear.

…but she makes it. It’s a surprise to her, her peers, her boyfriend, her family. Her album debut Cockamamie, released through her own invented label, gains traction. There’s buzz. There’s murmuring. Seemingly overnight, there’s a bidding war involving everyone from indie publishers to major labels.

Jen Trynin is going to be a star.

Listening to Cockamamie now, I can understand the fuss. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever heard, but there’s a strong sense of self-confidence throughout, suggesting that the album doesn’t represent everything Trynin has to say. In short, it’s an assurance of potential. It’s easy to listen to and wonder what she can do next, with proper support…and that’s just the baseline feeling you get overall. Focus on the perfectly refined standouts like “Better Than Nothing, “One Year Down,” “Snow,” and “Do it Alone” and…well, why not make her a star?

The parallel thread of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, however, focuses on the kind of star they want to make her. Specifically, her marketing representation is insistent on positioning her as a “woman in rock,” as opposed to a rocker in general.

It feels understandably disparaging to her, and it’s something of a backhanded compliment to be sure. So Trynin bristles against it. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why they’d want to market her that way: it worked. I remember very well a number of “women in rock” that were sold (to varying degrees of success) with that very label. The time period was rife with them. Heather Nova, Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow, Mazzy Star, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and countless others. Not the least of which is the musician whose rise kicks off quietly in the background of Trynin’s tale: Alanis Morissette.

Morisette leaned into that kind of marketing, and saw incredible success as a result. Trynin fights it, pulls away, rejects it…and finds her career crippled.

I’ll step in here to make clear that Trynin doesn’t assign blame. There are a few specific moments during which she admits she herself made the wrong decision (“Better Than Nothing” should have been called “I’m Feeling Good,” as its title makes it difficult for DJs and fans to know what the hell it is), but she never points her finger at anybody else, or at any circumstance, or at any quirk of poor timing, and say, “That’s it. That’s the reason I’m not famous.” She just tells her story. It’s up to you, if you’d like to find a villain. Trynin’s motive clearly isn’t to make anybody feel bad…it’s to share a personal story that, briefly, became a public one.

The “women in rock” thing resonated with me, I think, because it feels so cosmically cruel. Trynin does the right thing, artistically speaking, by not letting herself be defined primarily by her gender. But in addition to struggling against her own representation in this regard, she also overcorrects for the perceived issue: she refuses to let women open for her on tour, so that there’s no chance her concerts can be seen as a kind of “chick night.”

This kicks off its own scandal, which Trynin then tries to manage herself, arguably digging the hole deeper. One interviewer wonders why she sees something like this as a problem. She responds by asking if he’d be okay with a “Jew night.” The spirit of this response is something we all understand and would probably agree with, but it’s also obvious why it doesn’t go over so well. Trynin doesn’t say this because she’s anti-Semitic. (In fact, it’s probably worth noting that she’s Jewish.) She says it because she’s a human being, trying to articulate something she has trouble putting into words, and stumbling into things she shouldn’t say.

Much of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be plays as a sort of cringe comedy, during which you hope against hope that Trynin will manage to stop herself from babbling a sentence too much, such as when she makes a misjudged joke about shooting heroin to one of her representatives, who suddenly becomes genuinely concerned for her.

As a result of her misguided attempt to convince the industry to focus on her music rather than her gender, her concerts end up protested. Interview questions shift from being about the bidding war, her sudden rise, and whether she prefers Jen or Jennifer, to what her problem is with other female rockers. One DJ, on air, openly tries to instigate a feud between her and Morissette. (Trynin defuses this masterfully, which registered to me as a significant triumph after the many David Brent-ian interactions that preceded it.)

But the heart of the story is just who Trynin is. There are major, identifiable touchpoints in her career, but it always comes back to our author, our narrator, our protagonist, our tragic hero. There’s a scene in which she and her band catch an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head while on the road…and find the duo mocking their music video for “Happier.”

Trynin is overcome with fear that they’ll make fun of her. Call her ugly. Say some kind of deeply cruel thing about her that she’ll have to carry with her and be internally haunted by forever. She’s relieved when they don’t (they seem to focus more on the silliness of the extreme closeups in the video), but that says so much about who she is, and about where she was in her life.

Worrying when you find out (however you find out) that these two doofuses got their hands on your music video is understandable. If they say you “suck” instead of “rock,” that could absolutely have an effect on your career and on public sentiment. But she isn’t watching the episode as the rock star she temporarily is…she’s watching it as a human being who doesn’t want to hear people say mean things about her.

A single. A video on MTV. A spotlight on one of that generation’s most popular shows. These are breaks many people would have killed for. But she’s human. She’s talented, and she’s good at what she does…but she’s a person. With a heart, and with feelings she can’t let go of. It’s the most personal and moving sequence involving Beavis and Butt-Head I’ve ever read.

The book is full of these great, unexpectedly heartbreaking moments. She insists on buying an expensive dinner for everybody in her entourage out of some unplaceable sense of guilt, including her wealthy lawyer who intended to pay for everyone himself. She fights for her band to reap the financial rewards of her contract, despite the fact that this band didn’t play a single note on her album and only formed out of touring necessity. She’s confronted by other musicians who either never made it or made it briefly and failed, each of whom assure her that she’s going to come tumbling down…and you want to hug her, tell her she can do it, tell her that they’re just cynical, jealous assholes…but we already know they’re right. We already know how the book ends. They are cynical, jealous assholes, but they aren’t wrong.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is such a good read, and it surprised me with just how…wholesome it was. The sex and drugs and chicanery you might expect from a story about a rapid ascent to rock stardom rear their heads only as small, adorable equivalents. Trynin kisses a man who isn’t her boyfriend, unthinkingly takes NyQuil before a radio appearance, and keeps the television low in her hotel room so that nobody will know she’s in.

It’s so…human.

What’s more, I never got the sense from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be that anyone in the music industry was out to screw her. Everybody we meet seems to have her ultimate best interests in mind. They treat her well. They try to help her. Even as it becomes clear that she’s not going to be the wondergirl they hoped she would, they remain helpful and accommodating and friendly.

Toward the end of the book, Trynin puts together Gun Shy Trigger Happy, her followup to Cockamamie.

It makes good on every ounce of potential anyone saw in her to begin with. I’ve listened to this album too many times to count now, and I’m convinced it’s a minor masterpiece. I like a lot of things about Cockamamie, and I think a number of the songs — “Better Than Nothing” chief among them — are fantastic.

But Gun Shy Trigger Happy is superior in every way. It’s smarter. It’s better. It’s stronger. It’s more varied. It’s more mature. It’s more impressive. It’s really, truly great on its own merits.

It also sinks without a trace. Trynin’s rock and roll fairy tale, as she calls it, is over. Her record company renames one song and releases it as a single. There’s no music video. There’s not even any art on the copy that gets sent to radio stations. The album gets very positive reviews but the record company goes through the promotional motions, and no further. The album that should matter is treated like it doesn’t. Reading about this, I felt disappointed on her behalf.

There’s a truly sad moment toward the end of the book when she and her band play an abbreviated set as part of a long bill of acts. The set goes great. The crowd loves her. They cry out for another song, and Trynin starts to give them one. But her microphone is cut. The lights are cut. Her time on stage is over. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter what would have come next. It’s finished.

Some fragment of memory, a half-forgotten song, sent me on this little journey. There was a song I used to like. A song that used to help me. A song that made me feel happy.

It was nice to find it again. But I had no idea what happened behind it. Why would I have? I had no idea what else was on the album. Why would I have? I had no idea about Jen Trynin or her gift as an author or her incredible, overlooked followup. Why would I have?

Now I know. And I’m glad I do. Because there’s a story there. A person there. A moral there, whatever we’d like to take from it. (Trynin leaves us more than enough room to take whatever we please.)

And, selfish reader that I have always been, I found what is probably my favorite (and certainly the most gripping) work of non-fiction. That’s a happy enough ending for me.

But because I liked the book so much, I actually started to feel bad that I was only able to buy it used. That meant that the author didn’t see a penny from me. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me much. But Trynin had taken me on a journey, one I really enjoyed. One that led me to music I never would have listened to otherwise. One that…mattered to me.

I reached out to her. I let her know how much I enjoyed the book. I let her know that I ended up with a used copy, and if there were some way to support her (such as by purchasing an autographed copy; I told you I’m selfish) as a way of saying thanks, I’d love to do that.

She wrote me back. I won’t share her message here, but I will say that the image I’d built of Trynin — from her music and primarily from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be — was accurate. She didn’t have to write me back at all. The fact that she did meant a lot. The fact that she was every bit the sweet, understanding, deeply human person I expected her to be meant so much more.

She thanked me for my message. She told me not to worry about paying for an autograph; she’d send me a new autographed copy just for the hell of it. Evidently, the book didn’t sell as well as anyone expected it to, despite the wealth of hype and positive reviews.

History repeats. However much talent she demonstrates, in whatever sphere, however positively the critics respond…well, there’s always next time.

It was a thematically appropriate fate for the book, but a sad one as well. It really did deserve better. It still does. So does her music. But…I don’t know. I guess we all have our place in the universe. I used to think I’d be a famous author one day. Of course, I might still be, but, more likely, I’ve found my place.

I have a job writing, and it’s a job I love. I work with people I love. I come home and I have a platform. An audience. I have a place to say anything I’d like to say.

That’s not what success used to look like to me. Whatever image I had in mind, it was probably a lot like Trynin’s. And you get closer for a while. Closer, and closer, and closer. And then no closer. You’ve found your place. Your audience may not be as big as you thought it would be, or as others expected it to be, but you have one. And that’s more than most people can say. It’s…y’know. Better than nothing.

Trynin also added me to her mailing list, and I’ll be notified whenever she’s playing with CUJO, her current band. Hopefully she’ll come out this way. I’d really like to see her live. Maybe I’ll get the chance to say hello, and maybe I won’t. But how often do you get the chance to see a great author rock out?

No moral here. No ultimate point. Just a little journey spanning decades that reminds me there’s always more to that four-minute song you love. I don’t know how many of those stories are worth knowing, but I’m glad I got the chance to hear hers.

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