Wot I Think: Mighty No. 9

The problem for most new studios is making anyone pay attention. Comcept, founded by ex-Capcom developer Keiji Inafune, has had no such issues – and the studio’s kickstarter for Mighty No. 9 [official site], a spiritual heir to the Mega Man series Inafune co-created and stewarded through its greatest years, blasted past expectations. Comcept raised just under $4 million to make this game in 2013 and, following several delays, have delivered what the fans wanted. Or so you might think.

Mighty No. 9 is impossible to separate from Mega Man and, as well as the design elements they share, it’s a game trying to recapture a moment in time. That time is the mid- to late- 1980s, when the Nintendo Entertainment System was the most popular videogame console on the planet, and Mega Man was one of its marquee titles.

The games in the original Mega Man series were great for reasons that don’t apply in 2016. They were an extra-tough challenge but – the important bit – the controls were beautifully-engineered, almost the whole game was open from the off, and the rock-papers-scissors nature of bosses let you work out new paths over time. The games are designed to be replayed, many times. Mega Man is of an age where, not only was everything much more basic, but there were a lot less games. As technology and the industry flowered, what was a great design in the 1980s eventually fossilised.

Mighty No. 9 was marketed on this specific nostalgia, bringing the Mega Man you know and love into the present day, and for good or ill is true to it. This isn’t a strict retro remake like Capcom’s own Mega Man 9 and 10, delightfully-made museum pieces, but the principles underlying it are those of an 80s platformer. Protagonist Beck is a barely-disguised 3D Mega Man model, he jumps and shoots in the same way, he can absorb defeated bosses to get powers, and making this all feel new depends on one ability – a glorified dash.

Amazingly, this dash is so well-integrated into the existing systems that it almost achieves the impossible. Beck’s dash, called AcXelrate in-game (spare us), is a traversal tool but the primary function is to absorb weakened enemies. Every enemy robot will change colour and appearance after taking enough damage, at which point dashing into or near them will absorb the sputtering remains and apply temporary buffs to Beck.

The idea is precision followed by speed, then acceleration over time, and when it works it’s beautiful. Most robots only need one or two shots anyway, but barrelling through your first couple starts applying buffs like damage and speed bonus to Beck. These degrade quickly unless you’re absorbing robots, but as the combo builds Beck is gaining power – so you’re looking to play aggressively and this is when the dash is most exhilarating. Beck is nothing but dashes at times like these, diving out of fire and absorbing one cluster of bots only to shoot the other way in a series of zips that leave robot heads spinning.

There’s a great balance between the dash being fundamentally easy to use while also capable of long combo chains that are much harder to pull off. It’s no accident that Mighty No. 9’s best moments are built around taking full advantage of the dash – long stretches of bad guys waiting to be swallowed at top speed, packed little warrens that see Beck zip back-and-forth, and the odd soaring platform challenge where, for the tiniest moment, it feels like flying. That the dash is a logical progression from Mega Man’s own boss-consuming powers is the cherry on the cake.

The dash also negates a core problem with ‘original’ Mega Man, which is that the moveset would now feel restrictive and slow, while allowing the fundamentals to remain. If only such ingenuity existed across Mighty No. 9’s remainder. By far the biggest problem is that, while Beck feels like a true heir to the Blue Bomber, the early stages in particular feel like the same old stuff.

It doesn’t help that the themes are often uninspired – although the stages can be played in any order the first four are an oil platform, water works, power plant, and a mine. Each is substantial and distinct in challenge, but it’s hard not to feel we’ve been here before. The second clutch expand the formula a little and, in building around Beck’s dash, feel fresher – a vertical radio tower climbed in stages, with winds altering Beck’s momentum, a long highway where you dash forwards across vehicles, and the looping Capitol Building where you pursue a robot assassin by following his ‘laser sight’ back-and-forth.

Each stage ends in a boss fight against one of the other Mighty No.’s, Beck’s former compatriots gone rogue, and these are purest Mega Man. Each seems impossible to beat at first, with crazy attacks you can see no way of dodging, before you learn to duck, weave, and get the hits in when you can. Bosses take a certain chunk of damage before changing colour – after which, if you don’t dash in to seal the deal, they’ll quickly regenerate that health – and at half health, in the classic style, they start unleashing their ultimate attacks.

Defeating each one allows Beck to use that boss’s weapon (the hideous term for this is ReXelection) and the results are mixed. Some boss weapons are more or less straight copies from old Mega Man games, but when it’s something like a sword that seems forgiveable (not least because the Brandish sword has a definite Strider vibe.) The real problem is that a few are extremely effective – the Mega-Xel mines and Dynatron weapons, acquired early in the game, absolutely melt through the toughest enemies – while others, like the Aviator rotor blades and Countershade rifle, are designed for ideal scenarios that rarely crop up.

But MN9 has bigger problems than the odd underwhelming weapons. First among them is the unwelcome inheritance of instant-death spikes on floors and walls, alongside many other environmental one-hit fatalities. The tiniest misjudgement or unfamiliarity around these things means instant death, and the frustration is because you have a positively archaic three lives and no continues per stage. It feels almost an affront, in an age where games save progress constantly, to be sent back to the start of the level to try again.

At which point you have to acknowledge that this is a design choice, made thanks to nostalgia for a specific kind of challenge. And indeed some long-dormant region of my brain seemed to briefly stir, enjoying how easy it was to breeze through a level’s early challenges again, remembering to get a missed powerup, or take another route. It did take me two or three goes to crack certain stages, and there was some frustration, but as a callback to a certain era it will echo with some players.

Not quite for me. Mighty No. 9 is at its best when moving beyond the Mega Man rules, and at its worst when it follows them too closely. The dash is the beating heart of this design, a brilliant mechanic, but all-too-often frustrated by the old cruft around it. If I never see another floor of instant death spikes, it will be too soon.

How hard can you be on Mighty No. 9, though, for being like Mega Man?

Since release Mighty No. 9 has received middling reviews and an unseemly level of vitriol on social media (the lowpoint being when the official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account – yes really – mocked the reception.) Some backers are loudly voicing their displeasure. You look at Mighty No. 9 and it’s hard to see where some of these perspectives are coming from.

Mighty No. 9 is the best Mega Man game I’ve played in years, but all of the problems it has come from that too. Whether the gaming scene of 2016 needs a modern Mega Man is a more ambiguous question, perhaps answered by the old adage: be careful what you wish for. Or in this case, what you back.

Mighty No. 9 is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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40 Comments

  1. MadMinstrel says:

    I’ve never played a single minute of Mega Man in my life, so I have nothing to say about the gameplay. But from a purely aesthetic point of view, this game looks ghastly.

    • Pich says:

      Apparently it was made in a very early version of UE3, probably so it could runn on 3DS.

      • GWOP says:

        Having shitty textures has very little to do with the engine.

      • fish99 says:

        It does look like a 3DS game actually.

      • MadMinstrel says:

        In this case it’s the art direction that’s at fault, not the engine. It’s as though an amateur took random generic scifi paneling textures and slapped them all over low poly geometry. I could probably duplicate the assets they used in the screenshots here in a couple evenings if I were inclined to inflict more bad art on the world. No idea how they managed to blow through their budget and only come up with this. It has no soul.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      Yeah the graphics are about on par with what you’d expect from a small indie dev working with Unity. Not an indie dev run by Mega Man’s creator that raised 4 million dollars. They didn’t even bother to animate the mouths of characters talking in cutscenes.

      • pepperfez says:

        Which could have been made into a stylistic choice, but they didn’t bother. They didn’t bother with any stylistic choices at all, come to that. Everything looks like placeholder art.

      • fish99 says:

        Neither did the Souls games.

    • solidsquid says:

      Part of the reason there’s been such a backlash is they showed a 1 week prototype of the game ages ago which actually looks *better* than the finished game

      • Razumen says:

        Still, even without that prototype to compare it to, the game looks flat and boring, like they rushed through getting everything done with no regards to polish-which they probably did.

  2. MrFinnishDude says:

    I Can’t Believe It’s Not Mega Man!

  3. HueyLewisFan says:

    If MN9 is the best MM game you’ve played in years, you should try Azure Striker Gunvolt – does everything that MN9 appears to attempt, but better. Same studio and everything, too. Not sure what changed between then and now, but Gunvolt is fantastic and so is the sequel

    • emertonom says:

      I didn’t really gel with Azure Striker Gunvolt, but 20XX is scratching a lot of the megaman itch for me. It’s not perfect–some of the roguelikelike mechanics are a little frustrating in a megaman game. But it is quite good, and it’s still being actively developed. The menu screen actually has a countdown to the next update, which is a lovely way to promise progress.

  4. AlexandreFiset says:

    I just don’t get the look and sound of this game, especially the decision to render it in 2.5D. Resources could have better been spent IMO.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Ashrand says:

    “Ah another MN9 kicking I’ll pass”
    By Rich Stanton
    “… Go on…”

    Very insightful. I wasn’t a backer but hoped they could do something interesting with the form, a shame that’s not the case.

  6. Janichsan says:

    Mighty No. 9 is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux.

    Contrary to what the Steam page claims, only the Windows version is currently available. Official word from their website:

    The Mac/Linux Steam builds of the game are also in final testing by Deep Silver. These two versions of the game should be ready within a few days as well. We will keep our backers updated as the situation evolves.

  7. darkhog says:

    Don’t worry, MM didn’t get good until MM2 either. First Megaman is playable, but is kinda average (even for NES standards), it was MM2 that really kickstarted the series ;).

    Essentially MNo.9 suffers from the same problem that first Megaman did – it’s average, but playable.

    • Premium User Badge

      lasikbear says:

      MegaMan didnt get good until the X series (which were very good)

      *runs*

  8. Cedori says:

    I don’t think it’s good idea to review MN9 outside of context it was released in. It’s not “just game” which came out, it was Kickstarter phenomenon, and big one. Whenever it’s flop or not, this stuff is simply needed in review of this particular game.
    Neither is good idea to “review” the game and skip half of the game entirely. Script? Voice acting? Graphics? What about DLC? What about Call level? Really, half of text is just talking about nostalgia.

    • Premium User Badge

      liquidsoap89 says:

      Probably because that’s what the game is banking on… People’s nostalgia.

    • SomeDuder says:

      If that’s your way of saying that MN.9 was a cashgrab, then yes.

  9. Emeraude says:

    Interesting. Coming from the other end of the spectrum, I find that the dash mechanic is interesting but perfectly unsuited to the needs and wants of classic Megaman gameplay. Dragging the game down.

    As I was saying in previous post about the game, it’s like there’s two games fighting in there, clashing with each other.

    the frustration is because you have a positively archaic three lives and no continues per stage.

    Unfashionable is not archaic. You may prefer some design scheme that allows to wade through content faster, but a design focusing on the capacity of the player to clear a full stage under a limited number of attempts is just as valid or good as any other as long as the level and game design follows through.

    • Einsammler says:

      20XX, an Early Access game the steam summer sale sold to me, goes farther. Precisely one life.

      It also has MMX-style dash and walljump and that is my home, so I am super-biased in this matter.

    • Razumen says:

      Exactly, disregarding the other game’s faults, I feel that the dash should’ve been replaced with more interesting shooting mechanics. AFAIK there’s no charged shot (WTF?), and being only able to fire straight ahead just doesn’t cut it anymore.

      But I guess that’s what you get with a game designed by a guy who mostly did sprite work on the originals.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    I’m baffled by the negative response. It looks like a completely servicable skill-based platformer. Well designed, even. Graphically it’s basic, but did anyone back this for graphics?

    • Jalan says:

      The (early) look of it probably helped play a convincing part in backing it for some people. Though I am curious as to how big a percentage said people would make up in terms of total backers (for this or any other game, really).

    • FroshKiller says:

      Funnily enough, the concept art was a big reason I didn’t back it. It looked gorgeous, and I knew in my heart that there was no way the game would deliver on the art’s promise. That’s a good rule of thumb in general: the better the Kickstarter concept art, the worse the waste of a pledge.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      People who back a game usually at a higher than usual cost with kickstarting tiers often defend the game furiously as do people who buy certain smartphone brands about others at a higher price. They rationalize their behaviour and overrate their past decision-making. I find reviews usually way to positive (Amazon, Steam etc) also substract fake positive reviews.
      Now the backlash says it all for me.
      Second interesting number is the backing sum, did Molyneux have his hand in here? Where did the money go?

    • Emeraude says:

      I certainly think there’s a mob negative retro-feedback loop effect going on, but then the games *isn’t* really serviceable, that’s the thing.

      It’s not awful. But it hits a spot of mediocrity that makes it unsatisfying whichever lens you use to evaluate it: level design is not tight enough for classic Megaman fans, control aren’t satisfying enough for X fans, the new dash-absorb verb is not realized enough to satisfy the players that could like it…

      In the end, it’s not so much the game is bad as that there’s hardly anyone who find it worth defending, and lot of dissatisfied backers to which you can had an unhealthy dose of third party schadenfreude.

    • Razumen says:

      The history of this Kickstarter was just a huge joke, if you’d like to learn more about what backers had to put up with this game, I’d recommend watching the following: link to youtube.com

      After all that, more than 4 million dollars later, and a prototype that actually looks better than the final game, it’s not surprising that people are disappointed with what Infune finally crapped out onto them.

  11. Unsheep says:

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; media disliked the game even before any video footage was shown and …surprise, surprise they don’t like it now either.

  12. asthasr says:

    I don’t think the classic Mega Man games have aged poorly at all. The play control remains better than most modern games, except those that seem to have learned specifically from Mega Man, and the move set is fine (particularly after the addition of the slide in Mega Man 3, although I disliked the charge shot in Mega Man 4).

    The biggest problem with Mega Man is that Capcom milked it for everything it was worth, to the point where you were fighting bosses with asinine weapons and names. Tomahawk Man! Junk Man! Pharaoh Man.

    Then, when an opportunity arose, they milked it even more, producing Mega Man X games that were bargain bin worthy after the third installment. The trouble with those was exactly what made me roll my eyes when I saw people gushing over the kickstarter: they had no soul. They injected an incredibly bad plot, increasingly terrible art direction, and the worst voice acting ever made into an extruded video game product with no soul. Why expect Mighty No. 9 to be different?

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Reading this article I disagree.
    The old games weren’t good only for the sake of nostalgia or there being not enough games.
    The limited lives a level approach makes sense for games featuring small levels such as Mega-Man-inspired Shovel Knight.
    The later X-series might even appeal to younger more casual players today.
    Reading the steam reviews I get a clear picture about the developement and what went wrong. Basically the usual star dev + kickstarter + bombed with money -formula. (discussion might fill a thread alone)
    I can clearly see as a fan of both classic and X series I won’t like the game a bit and bet my money on 20XX or someone making a title similar to Shovel Knight (<-compare developement cost!).
    Also MM was about tight control and hit detection which MN9 does not seem to have which make instakill spikes and holes a challenge rather than a chore.