Rock Man, The Blue Bomber, Super Fighting Robot ... Mega Man has gone through the ringer when it comes to nicknames — and rightfully so, as he has had a rather extensive career stretching back all the way to the original Nintendo. Capcom loves a franchise, and were it not for Ryu and Ken, Mega Man might be its favorite child. Having starred in several game series, Mega Man hit a bump just like Sonic did in the late 1990s, as the transition to 3-D seemed difficult for the young android. The only way the series seemed to persevere is by holding him in the 2-D realm. After a few hits and many misses, Mega Man is put into the most comfortable environment he knows — the one that blasted him into stardom — and directly returns to his roots with Mega Man 9, the latest installment in the original Mega Man series.
Although it’s been more than 10 years without an official addition to the original Mega Man games, Mega Man 9 ditches the anime cutscenes and Japanese-influenced stylized art for pure unadulterated 8-bit bliss and game design that made Mega Man 2 a fan favorite. Everything from the old-school sprites that represent the enemies, the fine-tuned jumping placed in every stage, and even the music (with Ippo Yamada returning to create a brand new soundtrack) having an old school vibe, Capcom went out of its way to give fans of the series what most publishers fear — a game with no new features.
That isn’t to say that the lack of innovation denotes no creativity. The very essence of heralding back to the heydays of Mega Man is a bold step in trying to deliver a new experience the way everyone remembers. Most game companies (with Capcom as a large example here) try to mix up the formula, tool around with the core game design, and generally try to leave behind the dated versions for the hipper examples of gaming. The fact that the idea for this was so strong they had the series creator Inafune come back to personally handle the crafting of an old-school gem in a modern world is emphasis enough that they had a new idea, and it was an old one.
The classic formula is all intact: You start in Willy’s version of the Brady Bunch as you get to decide between the eight robot masters Mega Man has to defeat to get a shot at Willy’s fortress and ultimately take down the mad scientist. The choice is still up for grabs on whom you visit first, with certain stages self-contained and others lending themselves better depending on which robot master powers you have acquired. In a time before Pokemon, the elemental rock, paper, scissors battle existed with the ever-present idea that one boss power could give you an overwhelming edge against another, making a smooth transition from power walking to ass kicking in the blink of a select button.
The good thing about using an existing template of success is that it’s ... well ... successful. The main reason guys like Mario and Mega Man were in such control in the retroverse is the structurally sound creation of their environments. From jumping to enemy lay out and anything in between, you always knew they would never get out hand because of such competent controls. Mega Man 9 meshes perfectly with the rest of the series as having pixel-perfect handling, which is what separated the 8-bit giants with their lesser brethren. That one tiny pixel, that one pixel to rule them all ... that’s what Mega Man really represents — the one pixel that would separate you from a perfect jump and cheap death associated with bad hit box detection. The game plays as smooth as you could ever want an 8-bit game to perform, less you destroy the nostalgia.
The enemy weapons this time around will continue to let you relive all of Mega Man’s glory. The mega buster is as go-to as ever and is only a gateway to the even cooler toys available. From guns like the Laser Trident and The Jewel Satellite shield to the Hornet Chaser (or BioShock Mega Man) to the completely kick-ass Black Hole Bomb, any of the bosses will be sure to test your merit and reward you nicely with any of the aforementioned weapons in which to better enjoy their home bases. Mega Man’s trusty sidekick Rush also returns to lend a paw as the R.Coil reminds us why stairs are a thing of the past, and The R.Jet let you pass by the level in style.
The stages do a good job of preparing you for the bosses as well. They mix aquatic environments, where Mega Man is given greater jumping abilities and buoyancy, with Tornado Man’s stage ( a personal favorite), where weather directly affects your platforming abilities by speeding up, and with slowing down Mega Man’s jumps to add a level of trickery to reaching the head honcho himself. Other special nods go to Willy’s fortress for a couple malevolent zero-gravity rooms and to Galaxy Man for some real teleporting pod mid-air action — complete with flying enemies for your choice of instant death or irreversible force in one’s own suicide. The game never runs out of ways to challenge you with unique scenarios both new and old, and it mixes some interesting level design from days past to a few bold moves. All make Mega Man even more of a bouncing trapeze artist than he already was when it came to running the obstacle courses that are each level.
There are a few exceptions made with Mega Man 9, as it not only presents a Save Feature (a lack of one would have been a deal-breaker for most), leader boards for inspiring speed runners and a Roll Store. Mega Man’s sister opens up shop to help her big brother (cruel for her to charge Mega Man when he’s trying to prevent world domination) and sells useful items in between the levels: the portable recharge station Eddie, Half Damage helper, energy tanks or just some good old-fashioned extra lives.
The game will run most people a decent amount of time with all the trial and error involved, though Mega Man 9 only offers 12 stages to keep within the confides of traditional Mega Man fare. The last levels with Willy will surely push any rational person to the brink of insanity while they try to push through traps and bosses Willy has set up, ending with a romp against all eight bosses at once. The game goes the extra mile to keep everything largely intact and seamlessly blends enemies from the past and throws in a few new designs to keep anyone interested on their toes.
When all is said and done, the very nature of Mega Man will be praised and attacked in about the same measures. The double-edged sword Mega Man 9 presents will please fans for the same reason it might piss off new gamers, casual gamers or anyone who hates 8-bit style. Everything seems as if it came out 20 years ago & dash; everything. There’s not really a new bone in Mega Man’s body (technically, there aren’t any). Music will sound like an operatic masterpiece to some and a grating bloody mess for others. Graphics will fill long-time gamers with joy while ultimately angering anyone who wants something better. The game stands as a perfect example of tasteful conflict in balance: Increase and or change one aspect, and one of the scales will lean in someone else’s favor.
The overall problem with Mega Man 9 will be viewed as its difficulty. The developers have done little to make this any easier than previous games. The Save Feature alone breaks old-school standards and is absolutely generous in helping anyone to the end, but most will find the platforming segments, boss battles and last stretch unbearable. Yeah ... pretty much the whole game. With upgrades, auto saves, respawns and extra shields as the norm for games nowadays, someone not patient enough to wade through the endless screens of enemy after enemy might be in a bit of trouble. The old saying that one man’s trash is another mans treasure should be the first line in the Mega Man 9 manual. Some will find the challenge horrendous, and others will find it to their complete chagrin — truly a testament to a tasteful conflict in balance.
At the end of the day, I’ve had fewer great experiences this year in gaming, and with the titles out now, that’s a tall claim. Mega Man 9 does everything I wanted a NES game to do to survive in this day and age, and that was to just be itself. If more developers just had the balls to do what should be done without acting on whim to include everyone or second guessing style or grace, I doubt we would have so many genres and titles tripping over themselves. Mega Man 9 stands as a foundation of the road to the very systems we play on today, and that respect should never be forgotten. Your enjoyment of Mega Man 9 will exist somewhere between the boundaries of whether you believe some ideas are timeless or how much you believe in appreciating what games do today instead of what they did then. The only people wrong when it comes to thoughts on Mega Man 9 are those who won’t try it.
Afterthoughts: I’m a bit relived that Mega Man’s universe is starting to catch up to ours in terms of social ethic (though way ahead in a technological stand point). Mega Man 9 includes the first present female master robot, Splash Woman. With women getting the right to vote some 70 years ago and being present in the workplace even before that, I’m giving a women-power fist pump to Willy for finally including a lady in the mix for Mega Man to completely belittle and destroy. It creates equal opportunity for complete obliteration. When will we finally be lucky enough to see Black Man as a Mega Man boss? Only time will tell.