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.