Mega Man 9: The Revival of Ambition
Based on: Throwing out two decades of needless crap to get at the long-forgotten goodness of the past
Mega Man 9 is the sort of game that exists as a giant, inviting canvas upon which people are free to paint their personal pet theories and obsessions. Its iconoclastically backward approach to design is at once atavistic and cutting-edge, a combination that provides an inviting hook for just about any talking point you feel like hanging on it. But what it demonstrates most of all, I think, is that with the passing of enough time, you can get away with just about anything.
The irony of MM9's generally warm reception within the gaming community is difficult to miss. Here is a game artfully crafted to resemble an 8-bit platformer. Not just any 8-bit platformer, either; after all, that rather generic term spans a tremendous gamut ranging from Pitfall! to Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. No, MM9 apes a very specific slice of 8-bit design: namely, Mega Man 2. Though it employs only a moderate amount of sprite recycling (most of which is primarily seen in recurring characters and a handful of familiar enemies), the game is a determined effort to create the ultimate 1988-vintage run-and-gun, twenty years after the fact. It eschews a great many of the later technical innovations of its own series -- much ado has been made about Mega Man's lack of sliding and charged shots, but there are more subtle absences as well. Backgrounds are much less detailed than they were in, say, Mega Man 6, Rush has been downgraded to his Mega Man 3 forms, and the overall sense of animation is on par with NES games running on the MMC3 chip. For sticklers, Capcom even offers authentic NES-style sprite flicker and slowdown. And fans are eating it up. Yet had it been released in 1993, immediately after MM6, it would have been shat upon from a great height by the press and ridiculed into obsolescence. But the year is 2008, and MM9 stands out as one of the most remarkable titles in the year's expansive and impressive "new games" release roster.
And rightfully so. Were MM9 simply a gimmick, a cheap ploy to engage the nostalgia of an aging fanbase, it would deserve the same treatment that would have greeted it 15 years ago. Thankfully, MM9 is anything but a gimmick. Admittedly, my own high-minded reasoning behind its retro look was a bit optimistic; MM9 doesn't look primitive for the sake of purity or whatever, but rather as an act of sheer pragmatism. Capcom knows that recent Mega Man games have been unmitigated disasters, a fact clearly reflected in the franchise's dwindling sales figures -- even the insanely popular Battle Network games hit DS with a wet thud, barely making a blip in Japan or abroad. How to make the series relevant again? By abandoning all pretense of advancement and simply going with what they know.
There's also the money factor, which is to say that games cost a lot to make these days. Series creator Keiji Inafune has been quite clear on this point, and is very tired of being asked about Mega Man Legends 3. You goons didn't buy the second one, so how is he supposed to justify making a third? But in classic Mega Man there's hope, and precedent: by stripping it down to its bare minimum, Capcom was able to get away with creating something perfectly functional despite employing a skeleton staff. It also freed them from dealing with the hassles of retail and the cold reality that hardly anyone wants to buy a Mega Man game for full price these days.
But even if the motives behind MM9's style were anything but noble, it hardly matters. The resulting game is just as good as if it had been made by the most dedicated fans...better, actually, since it was made by experienced professionals. In deconstructing the franchise, Capcom -- well, IntiCreates, really -- has created the purest distillation of the concept of "Mega Man" imaginable. It controls perfectly, it plays wonderfully, it's hard as hell...and all in a good way.
In truth, MM9 succeeds on several levels. On one hand, it's a tightly-designed action platformer, a perfect recreation of the series' NES format. It picks up right where MM6 it left off, throwing aside the failures and folly of the seventh and eighth installments. The mechanics are crisp and precise rather than mushy and vague, the level designs are intricate rather than simple left-to-right jaunts, and you get to jump right in to any one of the eight Robot Master levels from the start -- the annoying four-and-four grouping system has been thrown right out. And no stupid DragonBall Z-inspired anime clips. It plays like a Mega Man game should, not like a tarted-up impersonation of the series.
Even so, this is no rote sequel, no tepid Mega Man 5. (Sorry, MM5 fans. It really is tepid.) That's why it deserves the plaudits it wouldn't have received 15 years ago: because 15 years ago, a Mega Man game wouldn't have been this good. Yes, its visuals and controls are regressive even within the NES franchise, but justifiably so. MM9's appearance and mechanics are a clear indication of the developer's intent, which was to create a game as good as Mega Man 2. This too is an exercise in pragmatism, of course, as the creators' ambition to capitalize on the world's affection for MM2 (as seen on 2chan, NicoNico and pretty much everywhere else on the Internet) has been placed on naked display for all to see. There's not even a hint of shame or pretense about it: MM2 is the most beloved game in the entire series, so they wanted to create a game just like it.
And they have! MM2 was very famously created by Inafune and a small team of determined designers in their free time because they believed in what they were doing, and that passion came through in the dizzying perfection of the game. It's hard not to sense a similar sense of dedication in MM9. Everything that has gone wrong with the series since it peaked two decades ago has been cast aside, creating a work that looks dated but in fact is simply a back-to-basics reboot. Every level is perfectly honed, a test of skill and reflex and grasping the hows and whys of the franchise. Every minute of gameplay is challenging, but for all the right reasons: every enemy has been placed to force players to react. Nothing is random. Unavoidable deaths are almost non-existent save for a few surprises designed to catch players off-guard -- but once you make those mistakes, you play more cautiously next time. And no death feels like a serious setback, since any level takes just a few minutes to complete if you know what you're doing. The truly tricky parts are placed either directly before or after a checkpoint. Some difficult games feel like they were designed to frustrate or humiliate games; MM9 feels like it's on your side, that it really just wants you to be a better player, so please try harder.
The Internet has expressed considerable alarm over MM9's reversion to 1988-level art and action, lamenting the simplified graphics and the loss of handy skills and tools. But these have their purpose. Mega Man's limited tool set makes it harder to cheese your way past tough physical challenges or boss-caliber enemies. Plus, the game compensates by offering the best collection of power-ups seen since, yes, MM2. Every single one of the Robot Master weapons you earn in the course of the game has tremendous value throughout the game, and not just for beating the one boss who's vulnerable to that weapon. Fast-moving enemies who take multiple shots to wipe out can be blown away with Tornado Man's gun; Galaxy Man's cannon is amazing against clusters of tiny foes. Many weapons have dual functions, like Concrete Man's brick-maker or Hornet Man's bees. Even the inevitable rotating shield is awesome, combining everything good about that normally boring category into a single device.
In short, it's a game that feels designed rather than merely assembled. That's a rare sensation with this series, whose installments tend feel mass-produced. More importantly, it's welcome reaffirmation that yeah, Mega Man really did used to be something pretty special, once upon a time.
Where MM9 succeeds most is in its intangible (and very nearly invisible) contemporary sensibility. That make seem an unlikely description for a game so steeped in '80s design and technology, but it's this patina of archaism that makes the subtle notes of mature, modern design so effective. Rather than merely aping classic Mega Man and regurgitating what has come before, IntiCreates has brilliantly used the older games as a starting point from which they can spin off devastatingly clever variations. Like a jazz virtuoso, the designers treat rehashed elements like the bubble ride in Splash Woman's stage as establishing chords upon which they can layer variants and riffs, sometimes improvising in unexpected directions, sometimes clinging to the familiar to better accentuate the new.
It's probably worth noting that IntiCreates is comprised of people who cut their teeth with the early Mega Man X games -- that is to say, the good ones. They've picked up a lot of tricks in the ensuing years, and by reapplying their mature perspective to an 8-bit framework they're able to take MM9 to places no NES game ever went. The rotating lifts in Tornado Man's stage might seem like a simple variant on the drop lifts in Guts Man's stage (MM1), but then you find yourself spinning in a minefield over an open pit and your skills are suddenly put to the test in ways you've never imagined. Likewise, the level designs seem to delight in lulling you into a false sense of security: oh, there's a power-up that I need. Oh, there's a trap a few tiles before it that in hindsight I really should have seen coming. Oh, I guess I should try again. It's here that the game strikes a perfect tightrope balance between "cakewalk" and "impossible," achieving a state I can only describe as admirable bastardry.
In short, Mega Man 9 is the best Mega Man game ever. No, really. IntiCreates set out to recapture the greatness of Mega Man 2 and in the process exceeded it. True, MM9 lacks the breathtaking originality of its 20-year-old predecessor, but it offers maturity, sophistication and refinement instead. It took two decades of failure and occasional good intentions before Capcom could pull it together, but we finally have a sequel worthy of Mega Man 2. Don't let the retro visuals distract you from the game's substance -- they're simply the means to an end. The underpinnings would be exceptional no matter what the veneer looked like.
It may look like a refugee from 1988, but Mega Man 9 is a product of its time: a game that only could have happened in 2008. Of course, I wouldn't complain if it happened again in, say, 2010...but only if Capcom puts some effort into it.