Let the Retro Revolution Begin!
Mega Man 9
For over a decade, Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. was a constant presence for gamers. With the only exception being 1989, a new game in the series came out every year between 1987 and 1998, with most years featuring two or more games at least. And then, after Mega Man and Bass, there was nothing. No new games for eight years, and the only title was 2006's Mega Man Powered Up, a remake of the original game that, while somewhat interesting, wasn't really new content. For many gamers, the Blue Bomber had left our lives.
It's hard to say why, exactly, Capcom decided to take such a long hiatus on the classic series. Although sales may have been part of it, a potential likely cause was simply that the spin-offs, like Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, and Mega Man ZX, were supposed to be the future of the series. Perhaps its as simple as the company deciding to retire the original version so the successors could take over. Except the successors never really took up the mantle as well as they should; each had their own flair, but they weren't the original (and, in any cases, poor sales drove each of those spin-off series into the ground). While the classic Blue Bomber may have disappeared, the other versions were alive and well, picking up the slack, but eventually we needed the classic edition to return.
And, strangely, that's exactly what Capcom gave us with Mega Man 9, the literal "classic" version of the character, purposeful retro warts and all. Essentially picking up in the continuity right where Mega Man and Bass left off, Mega Man 9 burst forth to continue the series that so many had moved on from, but instead of continuing to push the evolution of the series forward, the game purposefully went back to the style of play of the first two titles in the series, Mega Man and Mega Man 2. Gone were the updated graphics and sound, the fancy slide mechanics and anything else the later games decided to throw in. This Mega Man can do two things, run and jump, and that's it.
Well, okay, and he can summon a dog. Rush, first given to the series in Mega Man 3, was included as well, brought forth in both his Coil and Jet forms (although it's the Rush Jet version from later in the series). But that's it. Anyone craving the classic games of yore, the style that, after Mega Man 2 (a game many consider the best in the series), disappeared into constant changes, evolutions, and adaptations, got the exact game they desired. And, the thing is, that the devolution of the series really did seem to help as Mega Man 9 was easily one of the freshest titles in the series to date.
I mean, lets not kid ourselves: after constant iterations in the series the classic formula has started to get pretty stale. I know I commented on many of the titles, like Mega Man 4, and Mega Man 6, and Mega Man 7, that there was only so much the series had left to do. After the first three games, the series was really just treading water, giving us the same material again and again with a different (and, admittedly, sometimes improved) coat of paint. Going through all these games back to back to back, I was struck by how many of them were so similar, so stuck in their ways. I craved something new from the Blue Bomber, I just didn't realize that new meant getting as old school as the series could.
Seriously, this game wouldn't feel out of place as a continuation of Mega Man 2. It looks and feels as retro as it can, a purposeful effort on the parts of the creators (including studio Inti Creates, who would go on to work with series lead, Keiji Inafune, on the supposed successor to the series, Mighty No. 9) to make the game of a piece with the classic games of old. That meant making all the graphics in the style of the 8-bit classics (with a few minor modern touches that blend in nicely), and it meant crafting a loving, 8-bit chip tune soundtrack to back the game. But, most of all, it meant that the game had to have the same feel of the classic NES editions in the series. It had to have that same feel to the controls, the same jump and shooting vibe without a step out of place. It had to be a recreation of what people loved, built on a modern engine that didn't look modern.
From the second you open the game the classic feel washes over you. The title screen looks right, the menu looks right, and once you select a Robot Master, you can greeted by that same, classic loading sequence with the proper jingle and everything. The game feels right, like a classic game in the series, and every second of it is designed to keep you in the retro vibe, start to finish.
It's a respectable achievement, to be sure, but it also means that many of the conveniences you might expect from the series are gone. Whether that's a knock against the game or not is up to your personal preference. Some people might be upset that the slide mechanic is gone, or that the Mega Buster can no longer charge. Rush is included, as is a shop for you to spend Bolts (or as the game calls them now, Screws), but so much of what was included in the later games in the series is gone. If you liked new additions like the Rush Bike, or the Mega Ball, or Bass, those aren't available here. It's just a Mega Man who runs and jumps (and sometimes summons a doggo) as he goes out to collect Robot Master weapons.
Personally, I didn't mind the fact that the series decided to pair so many of the features back. Honestly, there was a lot of bloat in the later games in the series, with some of the additions, like the Rush power suits (Mega Man 6) or the snowboarding and one-rails shooting sections (Mega Man 8) detracting from the classic game play of the series. They were interesting diversions but they didn't feel like Mega Man.
That's what I really like about Mega Man 9: it feels like a proper, classic entry in the series. It doesn't have the bloat that came in with the later games, the distractions to pad out the game play. The focus here is simply on the level design and getting Mega Man from point A to point Boss. Each level is crafted to present a cohesive and unique experience. Each level in the game feels new and different, presenting very few challenges that we've seen before. Sure, the fire beams in Magma Man's stage feel like references to both Flash Man's insta-kill beams and Fire Man's fire bars, but they look different and present their own challenge. And, yes, Splash Woman's stage reuses the bubble section from Wave Man's stage, but it's place differently and given its own extra challenges so you don't feel complacent at all during the sequence. The game wants you to know that it remembers the other games in the series even as it moves on to new and interesting puzzles.
It's part of what works so well: the game knows how to blend in individual moments from previous games into the new levels without making them feel like recycling. And then, right after it shows you something you might have seen before, it adds eight other things that are new and different. Nothing ever feels like a rehash, nothing ever feels stale. This is a game that loves the classic entries as much as we do but, at the same time, it knows it has to be a new beast, so while it lulls you in with little nods to the classic series, it then forges new ground.
No where is that clearer than with the Robot Masters themselves. Each of them are new and unique monsters. Their fights present challenges specific to this game and none of them are obvious knock-offs of previous battles. There's care put in to making each fight feel new and different, from Splash Woman's verticality to Galaxy Man's floaty battle. It also extends to their weapons, a batch of utilities that prove to be some of the best in the series. Although not all of them are winners (Tornado Hold is pretty awful, honestly), most of them are useful both in combat and as utility weapons in some capacity. Concrete Shot, for example, as so many applications you start to wonder how you ever made it through a Mega Man game without it before.
Plus, it's so satisfying when you find the right weapon for the right Robot Master and realize that the creators had specific ideas about how the weaknesses should work. Hornet Man will regularly shoot out three hornets to home in on you, but once you realize that Magma Bazooka shoots a spread of three you realize the weapon was specifically designed not just to be Hornet's weakness simply because each boss has to have a weakness, but it was created specifically to counter Hornet's own abilities. The same goes for Splash Woman where those hornets then chase her vertically to places you normally can't go. Tornado Man is weak to the Plug Ball, a weapon that moves around the stage, and when you recognize that it can be shot to chase up walls and nail him as he's floating above you, you find the utility of the weapon. There are so many moments like this in the game that make you see the loving care of every fight, every level, every moment.
Plus, really, taking things back to the retro vibes of the original games also fixes one of the major issues I had with the later games: it makes the graphics clean and crisp again. I struggle to care about the later games in the series because the graphics in them are so muddy, so glossy yet faded that all detail is lost. I hate the look of the SNES and especial PlayStation games because they don't have that crisp, clean feel of the best NES titles. This game is so clean, so sharp and stylish, you realize that the other games might have "better" graphics but they don't look anywhere near as good. And the cleaner graphics aid the game play., making everything feel better.
And then you find yourself tapping your foot along to the tunes. There are so many great tracks in this game, songs that feel like they're referencing older songs in the series while still being their own perfect beasts. I love this soundtrack so much and I wouldn't single out any track as being better or worse (okay, maybe I like Splash Woman's theme more than any other). This is a killer, retro soundtrack that evokes the perfect vibe for the game.
If you can't tell, I love this game. I hold it up near the top of the canon, right up there with Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. It's so good, so right, that it answers the question everyone was asking without even realizing they were asking it: how do you make Mega Man better? Apparently, you do it by stripping everything away and taking him right back to his NES roots. When I started this article I did it by trying to decide by Mega Man left us, vanishing for 10 years barely a peep, and I think I know why. The real answer is that he had to take time away so he could come back with a vengeance. This is one of the best games in the series, hands down, and that's because the series that had iterated itself to death, with 23 games over ten years, had become stale. Ten years away and the Blue Bomber felt as fresh and new as ever. Thank you, Capcom.
Let's Take a Look at the Artillery:
Mega Man's Robot Master Weapons (Best to Worst):
- Splash Woman's Laser Trident (L. Trident): This fast-shooting weapon blasts off from Mega Man at high speeds, going straight the hero. It's strong and powerful and great against a ton of enemies. Plus, it has a huge amount of ammo. And considering that Splash Woman is one of the easier bosses to kill in the game, this is an easy pickup that can carry you through most of the game. The best all-out weapon in Mega Man 9.
- Concrete Man's Concrete Shot (C. Shot): This is easily the most useful weapon in the game even if, at first blush, it doesn't seem all that great. The concrete shot is a lobbed weapon with a short range that seems pretty useless until you actually starting firing it. Once you take it up against enemies, though, you'll find that it actually freezes and holds enemies in place, kind of like an ice shot. Even better, it can freeze environmental hazards, like the magma beams, and create concrete bloc platforms for use in scaling. There is so much utility in this weapon that you tend to ignore its pretty cruddy range.
- Hornet Man's Hornet Chaser (H. Chaser): Another super useful weapon, with one minor caveat. Hornet Chaser is basically a homing missile, one where you can shoot out up to three hornets and they'll zoom in towards enemies and pickups on screen. The latter part is the issue, though, as if you have both enemies and drops on screen, the hornets will often get confused and go after the drops, ignoring the enemies they need to kill. Still, even with this issue, this weapon is super great and very useful at times.
- Magma Man's Magma Bazooka (M. Bazooka): This weapon shoots out three projectiles in a V, making it useful for clearing out enemies in front of, and floating towards, our hero. It can also be charged up (a la Heat Man's weapon), to do greater damage. Good for handling packs, but lacking in utility to make it even better.
- Galaxy Man's Black Hole Bomb (B. Bomb): A fairly useful weapon that, again, doesn't seem at that great when you first get it. The Black Hole Bomb isn't exactly a screen-clearing item, having a middling area of effect. But what the bomb does is pull in any nearby enemies, and their shots, dealing great damage to anything it captures. Good from crowd control, but it is limited in its scope and effect.
- Jewel Man's Jewel Satellite (J. Satellite): A pretty standard shield-type weapon. When used, four jewels come out and rotate around Mega Man. The weapon itself doesn't due huge amounts of damage, but the jewels themselves are pretty sturdy, standing up to many low-level enemies without breaking. It can also reflect enemy shots (including Plug Man's own weapon), making it useful for navigating stages.
- Plug Man's Plug Ball (P. Ball): A Bubble Lead-style weapon, one that shoots out little sparky balls when fired. Better than Bubble Lead since it'll move quickly and travel up walls and over ceilings, but still not the most useful weapon, all things considered.
- Tornado Man's Tornado Blow (T. Blow): A screen-clearing weapon that, like most weapons on this type, is limited in use. Tornado Blow will deal damage across the screen, shooting many lesser enemies (and some platforms) upwards in the process. Problem is, you barely get any ammo for this weapon; not even enough to kill the boss weak to it! And it's utility, being able to raise select platforms, is better served by Rush Jet or Rush Coil, depending on the circumstances. This is perhaps the least useful screen-clearing weapon in the series.
Mega Utility Upgrades (Best to Worst):
- Rush Jet: Rush Jet hasn't been the best since Mega Man 3, basically losing it broken utility for something much tamer. As in many games, the Jet here travels in a linear direction once you jump on him, with limited up-down mobility as you venture forth. It's useful, but I still long for the Rush Jet of old.
- Rush Coil: The standard Rush Coil as first introduced in Mega Man 3. When called, Rush allows you to jump on his back, thus springing you upwards quickly. It's a nice utility, the tried-and-true version of the doggo.
Dr. Light's Shop Upgrades (Best to Worst):
- Energy Balancer: Still one of the best upgrade items ever. As in previous games, if you have this item any excess weapon energy you pick up will be distributed to your other, unequipped weapons. I appreciate that they kept this upgrade in the game despite taking us back to the retro style of the first two games in the series. Thanks, Capcom!
- Damage Guard: A consumable, one-time-use item that cuts the damage you take in a single stage by half. Probably the most useful of the single-use items, but I would have preferred some permanent armor instead for the cost (100 screws) the game charges.
- Beat: The days of Beat being super useful are no more, sadly. Beat is just here to save you if you can't platform -- if you have this one-time-use consumable item in your inventory, Beat will swoop in and save you when you fall in a pit. Useful, but once you're good at the game less-than-necessary.
- Shock Guard: This is kind of like Beat, but for spikes. If you have this one-time-use consumable in your inventory, when you touch spikes you'll survive instead of taking instant-kill damage. Nice, but again, once you learn the levels it's not that necessary.
- Eddie: As you probably expect, this is an item you can use to call forth Eddie (Flip-Top, as some of us know him from older games) so he can give you a random item. Can only be used once (it's a consumable item), and really, considering the random nature of it, this isn't that great an item. "Oh, thanks, Ed, for giving me more weapon energy when I'm desperate for health. Good job, doofus!"
- Roll Costume: This one is just silly. Roll runs the shop in the game and, if you buy this item, Roll will change her outfit. It has absolutely no bearing on the game so, unless you're a big fan of Roll dress-up, there's no reason to get this.
- Book of Hairstyles Wanna see Mega Man without his helmet on? Well, now you can with this book. This item, sadly, only lasts one life so if you want to see Mega sporting some locks throughout the game you better play well. Additionally, without his helmet Mega takes more damage so play safe.