Capcom’s Mega Man series may be its longest-running property, and one of its most well-loved by gamers (following, perhaps, the Street Fighter series). Debuting in the late 1980’s, the original Mega Man games did quite a bit to define the genre “platformer,” adding shooting and other special abilities to simple running and jumping. One hallmark of the series, especially in later editions, was its challenge level – quite steep. The game’s sci-fi influenced robot revolt storyline also won some adherents in comparison to more cartoonish adventures like Mario, or Capcom’s own Ghosts series (also renowned for difficulty).
Mega Man has appeared in several latter-day incarnations, typically with graphical improvements (some bringing the series tentatively into the world of 3D) and alternate lead characters. However, Capcom has apparently decided that the old-school, 2D, ultra low resolution original series needed a new entry. And interestingly enough, they have a market for it.
That’s right – though MM9 appears on the two most powerful game consoles currently available, the game is a pure throwback to the mid-80’s hardware that spawned it. You’ll find no smooth diagonal lines, nor a broad palette of colors. The sound could be straight off an 8-bit NES; the number of voices (meaning sound channels, not spoken voices; the technology back then didn’t easily permit such). possible is clearly limited, with sound effects cutting into the music. There’s even a Legacy Mode, with sprite flickering simulated based on the NES’ memory limitations. Talk about hardcore.
And speaking of hardcore, one thing that hasn’t changed at all about the Mega Man series – it’s hard. We gamers have gotten used to relatively forgiving mechanics in recent years, allowing players to make it through many (if not most) situations on the first or second try. Not so MM9 – the player is expected to learn enemy patterns and level design exactingly, with any deviation typically resulting in quick death. Most players will die several times just finding the way to beat each level. Further, though the levels are relatively short, there’s only one checkpoint in most, at the halfway mark. Obstacles and simple enemies abound, and many of those obstacles are instantly fatal to touch. Too, enemies are often placed to knock the player into deadly falls.
If this sounds intimidating, it’s meant to be, at least a little. The Mega Man series has always been about investing skill and dedication in each game to learn to beat it, and getting a sense of accomplishing something worth talking about when you succeed. Old-school MM fanatics will probably think this new edition is, if anything, easier than some of its predecessors. Believe me when I tell you, that’s not saying much. Like it or hate it, you’ve got to tip your hat to a developer willing to kill the player so repeatedly and with so little warning. Helping things along are infinite continues – the only benefit to beating the game with no continues, lives lost, damage taken etc. are accomplishments on the PS3 version (not trophies, they’re in-game only) and Achievements on the 360.
Mega Man’s abilities start out very simple; he can run, jump and shoot (only to the left or right). He can’t crouch, fire at angles, or do anything you’d expect a more modern character to do. Such limitations are among the reasons the game is challenging. You can, however, upgrade Mega Man’s abilities once you collect enough currency (in the form of screws) in the game’s 8 levels. Eventually you can carry refresh-packs for your weapon energy (more on this in a moment) and health. You also start with the capability to summon Rush, Mega Man’s faithful robot dog, to allow a limited super-jump ability. With these simple tools, you’ll initially set out to defeat eight Master Robots, or bosses. Choosing a boss sets you on a journey through that boss’ level, which is a challenge all by itself as earlier described. Once you actually reach the Master Robot, you’ll face them in a one-on-one battle. These are typically fairly tough challenges, with strict pattern-memorization required to come out on top. Defeating each Master will earn you a limited version of its special power. Each such upgrade can be potentially very useful in getting through the levels themselves, but there’s a second utility as well. All the Masters are specifically vulnerable to a particular power among the others – there’s never any hint as to what it may be, so the player must discover each. However, utilizing this “paper/rock/scissors” mechanic makes beating the bosses vastly easier, so it’s worth experimenting if you can fight your way through each level to try. Successfully completing all 8 stages and bosses gets you a shot at Dr. Wily himself, the series’ perennial villain, hidden in a castle at least as challenging as any pre-boss level.
For players who really like the game, MM9 offers two donwloadble content packs that do add some interesting tweaks. First, there’s the survival level, a long-running test of the player’s memorization ability against enemy patterns and level design. The level literally never ends, your goal is just to get as far as possible. If you do like the basic game, it’s actually surprisingly fun. There are also secondary challenges available in another DLC pack. One of the coolest add-on features, however, is the ability to play as longtime series villain Proto Man, who comes complete with his own music and several powers Mega Man can only obtain later in the campaign.
Mega Man 9’s appeal is simple and straightforward. For players old enough to remember the originals, it’s a return to the days of yore, with absolutely no graphical or audio updates – literally a slice of yesteryear. For new players, it’s a chance to see how some of us old gamer farts actually got halfway decent at games. These, too, are its challenges. MM9 isn’t about to appeal to anyone based on its cutting edge presentation – it’s all about perfectly simulating hardware which is totally archaic by today’s standards. It’s also not about to hold your hand; MM9 will test your concentration, memorization, and reflexes like few modern-day games. That sense of accomplishment is there to be felt though, if you don’t find the strict memorization tedious. For fans of the original series (and you’d be surprised, they’re definitely out there) this is absolutely a must-buy. Newcomers may want to sample a friend’s copy first, or play a demo. It’s a singular experience, but a great opportunity to take a look at early game design theory and the level of interaction available to players even with an extremely simple command vocabulary and interface. (For the record, Capcom’s completeness extends even to making that interface annoying in some cases, specifically the shop menu.)
MM9 is somewhat difficult to rate, being the anachronism it is in terms of presentation. There’s no denying it does what it does quite well; it’s just that “what it does” is to look and play like a game from, literally, twenty years ago. In terms of fun factor to be found, it’s actually got a lot to offer (especially with the DLC packs… but bear in mind, those do cost, if not a lot). Again, I have to recommend sampling the plate before you buy this dish, but you may be pleasantly surprised. Just remember to check your ego at the door.