You laughed at its box art; now prepare to suffer its revenge.
Awash with nostalgia, I tore into the virtual package that awaited me, trudging through the process of adding the necessary Wii Points to my account. The few short moments spent deleting my Check Mii Out channel to make room for the game must have been eternity—good riddance to it. And as Mario hypnotically ran from left to right collecting coins, I was already panning through the levels I had played at E3 in my head. With the appearance of the title screen, it was once again Christmas morning twenty years ago.
Fanboy? Probably. I have been playing and beating Mega Man games since I was just six years old. Like many, I had begun to feel disenfranchised by the constant evolutions to the formula, which largely parallel the regression into overcomplicated design by much of the rest of the industry that it so often passes off as progress. 1987 for videogames was a time of simplistic style but compensatory substance—two dimensions, limited sprites, and infinite challenge. My friends, Mega Man 9 is so 1987.
Walking the Walk
Mega Man 9 is a unique achievement in that it severely handicaps itself by voluntarily restricting its resources to those that were available on the NES. It’s said that series creator Inafune would not allow anything that seemed impossible on the 8-bit NES hardware. Developers Inti Creates even went so far as to implement a so-called “Sprite Flickering” option (enabled by default) which recreates the all-too-familiar flickering sensation when too many sprites conjoin on a single scanline! Likewise, all of the cut scenes and animations are thoroughly 8-bit, proudly sporting 480i resolution and accompanied by equally dated (yet invariably excellent) music. They even took the time to limit the number of sound channels so that the effects cancel out the music (talk about the whole nine yards). It’s truly the closest thing to a new 20-year-old game that we’ve seen in, well, 20 years—and it’s well worth the experience, if even just for sake of a pace change.
The game opens with a cheesy non-plot that fits the Mega Man mold perfectly: robots have once again run rampant on the city, but this time, Dr. Wily swears it’s not his doing (honest)! In fact, they bear the marks of one Dr. Light—could it be that the ever-honorable Mega Man creator is actually responsible for the havoc? Wily extends an offer to develop his own robots to help clean up the mess—but he requires donations directly to his Swiss bank account to complete the project (heh).
But what everyone really cares about is the gameplay. Capcom knows that, but the point is that they choose to play the part regardless purely on account of accuracy—which is a philosophy that permeates the entire experience. It’s frequently humorous and entirely lighthearted, subtly poking fun at its origins with dialogue like “Mega Man […] Be careful out there! You haven’t done this in a while.” Nevermind that Chun-Li plays the part of the news reporter.
And the gameplay is as solid as ever. With horizontally-oriented Wii-mote in hand, I effortlessly reassumed my role as the blue bomber, jumping and shooting with accuracy reminiscent of that made possible by the old NES gamepad. The controls are tight and responsive, and Mega Man moves in precisely the same manner that he did in the original games. You still begin with the obligatory stage select screen, which serves as the launch pad for the nonlinear trek through the game’s first eight levels. And, as always, defeating a robot master boss at the end of every level lands you their unique weapon, which can be used to help you fight your way through the remaining levels and conquer whichever boss happens to be weak against that particular weapon.
Capcom has quite obviously gone back to the roots with Mega Man 9, but it’s also clear that a lot of deliberation went into deciding what to keep and what to omit. Essentially, the developers have transmuted the strongest elements of the series together to produce a comprehensive “best of” sort of experience. For instance, the sliding maneuver introduced in Mega Man 3 is gone, as is the charge beam from Mega Man 4—but you’ll find Rush Coil and Jet, as well as a shop where you can purchase several different helpful items. The menu screen is the refined version found in Mega Man 6, and so on. Some of the music is even taken directly from Mega Man 2 (don’t worry; it’s only a few insignificant tunes such as the password screen). It all feels just right—there’s nothing terribly gimmicky here, just rock-solid gameplay.
We also get some truly creative gameplay ideas—rotating moving lifts on Tornado Man’s level that send Mega Man flying off either upward or downward depending on when you press jump; a hectic sequence where Mega Man floats upward at a constant speed, surrounded by spikes and enemies, only able to control himself by firing in the opposite direction to influence his momentum—ideas which prove that there are still inventive two-dimensional platforming mechanics out there to be discovered. In fact, from start to finish in Mega Man 9, new concepts and threats abound. Even the weapons earned from the robot masters are more useful than in the older games. In a day and age where flashy three-dimensional presentation is more often a prerequisite for success than a design choice, it’s refreshing to find a game once in a while that is able to captivate solely based on its substance.
The Art of Controller Throwing
Speaking of substance, who knows what form of profane revilement may rain from your tongue while you attempt to conquer the beast that is Mega Man 9. This game isn’t just challenging—it’s downright vicious. Without a doubt, it is the most difficult of all the original numbered Mega Man titles (yes, including the first one). Even the eight levels to which the robot masters call home are beset with a sadistic placement of spikes and bottomless pits. It doesn’t take an astute player to recognize the planning that went into positioning enemies in just the right spot so that a hit from them knocks you right back into a deadly hole. And even if you manage to pass the first eight levels (which together are probably harder than any of the Wily Castle levels in the previous games), Mega Man 9’s Wily Castle is sure to make you sweat. Never before in the series do I recall such a razor-thin separation between success and instant death; this game serves up more nerve-wracking jumps than the subprime lending market does foreclosures.
And it’s fantastic. The sense of gratification after beating a boss or completing a level that formerly seemed impossible could only be described as blissful. It’s something that, in its relative scarcity, we longtime gamers crave—simplistic mechanics tested to an outrageously challenging degree. There’s no hand-holding to be found in Mega Man 9, and very little counterpoise to cater to less-seasoned gamers. Even the items in the shop are primarily single-use, and while the life-restoring E-tanks are honestly a little more readily-available than they probably should be (a mere 30 bolts buys you one), the number of instant-kill threats in the game does a pretty good job of offsetting that benefit. The net result is a game that is going to take a great deal of skill and hand-eye coordination to complete no matter what your level of experience; this is not for the reflexively-challenged.
And while I was able to complete the game the first day (much to the dismay of my uninterested wife), there’s plenty more to do when you’re finished. For starters, try taking on one of the 50 Xbox 360 Achievement-like Challenges that routinely include demands such as “Clear the game by using the least amount of weapon energy possible” or “Clear the game without getting damaged.” Or, if that’s too easy—right—then why not settle down with one of the twelve Time Attack challenges? Here, you choose a stage from the regular game and then use all of your weapons and skills to reach the end of it as quickly as possible. The best times are published on the leaderboards for all to see (and if you look really hard, you might just find my name scattered throughout the top ten on occasion).
There’s also going to be bonus downloadable content, much of which has already been revealed. That content will be available for purchase next month, and it includes an all-new Time Attack level, a new Endless Attack mode (which is a neverending level), two more selectable difficulties, and finally, the ability to play through the game as Proto Man (who is slightly different). Charging for the new difficulties seems a little excessive (even if they’re only a dollar apiece), but the rest of this stuff sounds awesome.
By the looks of their most recent downloadable releases, Capcom sure seems to be in touch with their core audience. Everything about Mega Man 9 evokes the kind of nostalgia that is well known for diluting rationality and skewing normally-objective opinions. Aesthetically, as you’ve seen, the game has stepped right out of the 1980s. Musically it’s among the best in the series (though Mega Man 2, 3, 4 still have it beat, however marginally). And it’s great to see the series reexamined and purged of some of the extraneous gimmicks that have piled up over the years of rapid-fire sequels.
But what if you aren’t already a Mega Man fan? While each person’s tastes are different, the real question here is how much you appreciate a challenge. If you weren’t alive for the NES era and you haven’t spent a lot of time with old games, the presentational aspect may be lost on you. But for anyone who values substance over style and can handle a respectable dose of trial-and-error, Mega Man 9 will deliver. Aside from Capcom’s other most recent fantastic downloadable title, Bionic Commando Rearmed, this is one of the best ten dollar values around. Just be prepared to practice your controller-chucking technique.