High Scores: Dr. Wily Stage 1

Mega Man 2 is a sonnet. Its fourteen stages are fourteen lines, nicely organized into an initial group of eight (its octave) and a final group of six (its sestet). The first stage of Dr. Wily’s Castle is the game’s volta. It marks the pivotal moment between the eight Robot Master stages, the order of which the player chooses, and the six Dr. Wily stages, which Capcom sequenced by order of difficulty, ratcheting up from the castle gates to the villainous doctor’s underground lab. This final stage is the only one in the game with no music at all—just the forbidding bloops of acid dripping from the claustrophobically low ceiling. But at the beginning of the sestet, in the volta, awaits the best music in the game and, many argue, the best song ever composed for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

I’m talking, of course, about “Dr. Wily Stage 1,” a high-energy anthem with a ho-hum title. It may be more appropriate to think of the song as untitled and the stage name a placeholder, much as the first lines of untitled poems are bracketed and used as titles. [Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day]: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. The practice of assigning a creative title to a song in a video game was something of an oddity in 1988, the infancy of VG musical composition. Perhaps composer Takashi Tateishi thought no one would ever listen to “Dr. Wily Stage 1” outside the game, let alone write an essay about it.

Yet here we are. Why? Wherein lies the magic of this song? Is it how “catchy” it is, per the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation’s wiki? That seems woefully insufficient. Jingles are catchy; this song rocks. It had to.

More to the point, Tateishi had to. His boss, Akira Kitamura, nixed all but one of his first drafts because they “sounded too cute,” Tateishi remarked in an interview with Brave Wave music. “I was asked to make ‘cooler’ music.” As many fans of the franchise know, Mega Man is Rockman in Japan; his girlfriend, Roll. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been central to the games’ aesthetic. Musically, this translates to a 150- or 180-bpm (beats per minute) tempo, liberal syncopation, variously minor keys, and a whole lot of attitude. “Wily Stage 1” has all this in spades. Check out the excellent 8-bit Music Theory channel on YouTube, which dedicated an entire video to the composition of the MM2 soundtrack.

But even this channel’s extensive structural analysis fails, in my mind, to explain why “Wily Stage 1” rocks as hard as it does. Its musical structure matters, but so does its place in the game’s narrative structure, as well as in the history of the Mega Man franchise. And that’s where the volta comes in.

In a sonnet, the volta signals a turn in the poem’s argument. In Sonnet 18, for example, Shakespeare gives us a classic volta in the ninth line, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade”; the poem shifts from enumerating summer’s flaws to immortalizing the beloved’s virtues.  It is an infusion of energy, a lift, a charge. It takes the poem from the octave’s simple premise (“Summer’s got nothin’ on you, babe”) to the sestet’s more difficult, even problematic territory (“You’re almost as beautiful as my poems”).

MM2, like Mega Man games in general, also starts with a simple premise: you’ve got eight levels, each with its own boss, each boss with a special weapon you steal once you kill him/her (shoutout to Splash Woman). The stolen weapon will be the weakness of one or more remaining bosses. It’s basically a souped-up game of rock-paper-scissors. While these weapons will help you through the octave by giving you access to energy capsules and extra lives, it’s never necessary to beat one level in order to beat another.

Only once all eight of the Robot Masters have been dispatched do you have access to the sestet and Tateishi’s chef d’oeuvre. Great as the earlier stages’ songs are, Wily Stage 1’s song is so excellent as to feel like a reward. At the same time, it warns the player you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. YouTube viewer Kenny Powers puts it succinctly in a comment on the first video linked above: “When you heard this song you knew shit was about to get real.”

And it did. The Wily levels were hard then and are hard now. Knowing the players would have every weapon and item at their disposal, the developers designed the Wily levels to require every trick in the book. I remember being four or five, not even in kindergarten but already hooked, and failing for hours to clear Wily Stage 1’s antepenultimate room:

Mega Man climbs to the top of the ladder in the bottom-right corner of the screen and must reach the bottom of another ladder in the top-left corner. Between the two ladders lies nothing but a vast stretch of dark teal sky. I knew I needed to use the floating platforms I acquired from Heat Man in the octave, but I didn’t know I needed to place the first platform in the air while still climbing the first ladder. Nothing in the octave prepared me for this. I tried and tried to place the platforms far enough apart to bridge the horizontal distance without hitting the ceiling, but inevitably I fell through the bottom of the screen into the previous room. Eventually, I ran out of platforms, forcing me to backtrack, kill brawny enemies, and hope for an energy drop.

And that wasn’t even the worst of my troubles. Once I did bridge the gap and climb the second ladder, what awaited me but the level’s boss: a gigantic robot dragon I had to kill while standing on one of three tiny blocks suspended over the abyss. If the dragon’s hitbox touches Mega Man, it kills him instantly. If the dragon’s fire touches him, the knockback pushes him into the pit. Once he’s out of lives, the level starts from the beginning. I learned all this the hard way.

Most video games increase in difficulty as the levels progress. What makes MM2 special is the suddenness of this increase, the shock of its turn, as jarring as the siren that pierces your eardrums when you finally select your way into Wily’s Castle. Perhaps Tateishi reserved his best song for this stage because he knew how much time the player would spend in it. The song has a feeling of urgency, of determination. It’s the song I play when I’m on the last sweaty leg of a run, when I’m psyching myself up to teach a class, or when I want to feel like the hero of my own little quotidian adventure. It is comfortingly hardcore.

As poet Phyllis Levin puts it, “for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul.” The soul of MM2 sits in “Wily Stage 1,” and so does the soul of the franchise. As sonnets often do, Mega Man games come in a sequence. What I feel when listening to this song is this sequence realizing its potential. MM2 is such a dramatic improvement over its predecessor that every installment since has marched to its drumbeat. MM2 is the volta that turned Mega Man from a side project to a mascot and a series that, 33 years later, keeps me coming back.