Review: Third Editions’ new English translations

Note: Third Editions provided me with exactly one physical copy of each book in exchange for a review. No other compensation was offered, asked for, or delivered. The opinions you read here, as always, reflect my honest feelings as fully as the limitations of the English language will allow.

I’m a fan of Boss Fight Books. From the publication of their very first batch of titles, I’ve been following them closely, as excited about each new wave of announcements as I once was on Christmas morning. Sometimes they write about something I know well, and I look forward to the gift of experiencing a game through somebody else’s eyes. Other times it’s about a title I don’t know well at all, and I get to learn about the experience the game offers from afar, whether or not I end up particularly interested in playing it myself.

It’s a great series of books, and while there are a number of them that didn’t really resonate with me or work for me, I’m sure that those same titles are ones that hit other readers in genuinely profound ways. I don’t know how much agreement there is about which books are best and which are weakest, because they’re all so decidedly different. So unique. They’re like the people who write them; you’re going to immediately click with some, and you may never click with others.

I’m not complaining. I think that’s a selling point, especially if you dive in and grab a bunch of titles at once. The ones you end up enjoying the most could well be the ones you least suspected.

I mention Boss Fight Books for two reasons. Firstly, because the myriad different approaches demonstrated within that series – emotional, analytical, autobiographical, snarky, reverent – are appropriate for the still-young field of games scholarship. As a relatively new medium, and an interactive one, there is not yet an established, accepted method of writing about them seriously. Boss Fight Books represents the excitement at that new frontier, the giddy experimentation of holding up a game that may never have been given serious artistic consideration before, and creating, from nothing, the very discussion that will keep that game alive.

If I’m romanticizing that, so be it. I’m a romantic. I love art. I love discussing art, dissecting art, and sharing in somebody else’s passion. Boss Fight Books is a publisher that certainly does not lack for passion.

The other reason I mention them is that when Third Editions approached me for a review, Boss Fight Books was the very first point of comparison that crossed my mind.

On a very superficial level, I expected them to be quite similar. In fact, I wondered if this series could be theoretically absorbed into the other, and, if so, how well it would fit in.

I think that’s something Boss Fight Books should take as a compliment; they established a standard for games scholarship that anyone else who strolls into that area will have to live up to.

Third Editions does live up to it, but it also does so much differently that it almost doesn’t matter. The two series don’t – and shouldn’t – jostle for direct shelf space. Their intentions might seem similar, but their executions are very different. And they both work very well.

Full disclosure: I’ve pitched ideas to Boss Fight Books in the past, which is part of the reason I haven’t featured them directly on this site. I wouldn’t want there to appear to be any kind of conflict of interest should something work out between me and them in the future. I’d like to think my readers believe in my sense of integrity and that I wouldn’t ever dream of giving someone a good review in the hopes that I’ll get something out of it later, but mainly I wouldn’t want my words to seem retroactively hollow should one of my pitches actually pan out. (“Of course he likes them…they published his 750,000 word manifesto on Bubble Bobble.”)

Third Editions, though, is new to me. I don’t know any of the authors involved, I don’t know the publisher, and I know nothing of their plans for future books. In short, there’s nothing between them and me that anyone should even be able to misconstrue as a conflict, and I was free to approach the three books they sent me as a reader and a critic.

I’m glad I had that opportunity, because they were great.

The titles they sent me were Zelda: The History of a Legendary Saga, The Legend of Final Fantasy VII, and Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave. (Two other titles, covering Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid, are also currently available.)

In the case of Final Fantasy VII, the book is almost entirely about that individual game. The other two books, though, are about the series in general. This is in contrast to the Boss Fight Books releases, which almost exclusively focus on a single game each.

Each of these books is attributed to two authors. How closely the pairs worked together, I can’t personally say. But I will say that the books certainly read as cohesive works, and I didn’t notice any issues in terms of a shifting of authorial voice. They read well, they’re written clearly, and section breaks are meted out generously enough that no topic overstays its welcome.

That would be the whole of my general feedback if not for this fact:

These books are gorgeous.

As strong as the writing is – and we’ll discuss that momentarily – there’s no denying the books’ sheer physical appeal. These are some absolutely beautiful publications, and for fans of the covered games, I’d say they’d make for incredible gifts for that reason alone. These have value simply as collectibles, and I think it’s worth pointing that out. They’re lovely, and the photos I’ve taken do not do them justice.

Furthering their value as physical gift pieces, they’re all printed on impressively thick paper, which was a pleasant surprise. They each also have a color-coordinated ribbon for holding your place: gold for Zelda, white for Final Fantasy VII, and black for Dark Souls. I’m assuming this qualifies as a bonus, but I have to admit I’ve always found these ribbons difficult to use; I keep worrying that I’ll close the book on them wrong and crease them. That’s obviously just one of my many neuroses, but I’d be curious to hear if anyone out there has strong feelings about them either way.

Visually and physically, the books are great. It is, however, worth noting that they don’t contain any art assets. No illustrations, maps, or anything along those lines. That’s fitting for the approach the authors take, and their absence wasn’t felt to me as a reader, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s good to know in advance.

In my position –- reading all three books in fairly quick succession –- I will say that the font size for Final Fantasy VII took a moment to get used to. Zelda and Dark Souls use a large, easy-to-read font, but Final Fantasy VII uses one that’s noticeably smaller. I don’t think it’s anything that should be a deal breaker for somebody interested in that book alone, and I will emphasize that it’s not difficult to read, but it was rather jarring coming off of the easier fonts of the other two. As first I thought this was done so that the books could be kept of a relatively equal number of pages, but Zelda has 221 numbered pages, Dark Souls has 303, and Final Fantasy VII has 199, so I’d guess it could have afforded a larger font after all.

But, well, what of the actual content?

I have to admit, it’s a bit difficult to review that.

See, the approach of the Third Editions authors is largely clinical. It’s fact-based, with little in the way of personality or conversation. That’s not a problem at all, but it does make reviewing them difficult.

Typically, I’m used to novels. Fiction. Which allows me to discuss (and judge) things like style, pacing, creativity. Non-fiction is a lot different. I can judge a work of non-fiction on how much I learned and whether or not it kept me engaged, but beyond that, I’d struggle for much to say. And, of course, I’d prefer not to simply regurgitate the information the books provide. (That’s, y’know, what the books are for.)

This is also another area in which a comparison to Boss Fight Books might be helpful. Those books weave (to varying degrees) the information they provide into and within more personal narratives. Those do provide an element of creative expression, even while relaying relatively dry facts and histories.

So, hey, bear with me as I feel my way through this, and learn to review something in a way that’s pretty new to me.

I will say that the writing is solid. The chapters are clearly delineated, with very little overlap in subject matter, which means that you can either read them straight through (as I did), or hop around to the particular subjects that interest you. Reading straight through won’t bury you in redundant information, and hopping around won’t strand you without context. That’s nice.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three books are English translations from French originals. I can’t speak much to the actual translation process, but I can say that if I didn’t know they were originally written in another language, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. The English versions don’t come across as clunky or confusing at any point, and I’d guess their translator has done impressive work in that regard.

Ultimately, I think I can also vouch for the value of these books as informative texts. I personally know quite a lot about the Zelda series, a decent amount about Final Fantasy VII, and very little about the Dark Souls games. In each case, however, I learned a lot. This was especially surprising to me in the Zelda book, as I was more or less convinced I’d read everything I’d ever have to read about that series. It was a great surprise to me that there was still a lot for me to learn in terms of the design of those games, their development, and their larger inspirations.

For that reason alone, I’m confident in saying that these books go well beyond what you would find in the standard wikis and retrospectives you’re likely to read online. And that’s important, I feel, because with so much information available in so many formats at our fingertips, it may be difficult to justify spending money on what may turn out to be little more than a printed version of some small fragment of that information.

Third Editions does actually bring new (or at least uncommon) information to the table, though, and I certainly enjoyed the professional, clean approach taken with the material here far more than I enjoy the amateur writeups I usually find online. The quality of the writing and presentation here justifies the purchase price for fans of these games, and you’d be hard pressed to find better ways of learning about them.

In fact, these titles read almost like textbooks at times, and I mean that as a compliment. They successfully present themselves as definitive sources, and it’s easy to imagine them being used in the college lectures on video games that are certain to become more commonplace in the future. They serve as reference materials and study guides at once, providing relatively little in the way of interpretation but giving readers all of the tools they’ll need to interpret these games and series themselves. It lays the groundwork, in other words, for designers and gamers to reach the next level of understanding. As odd as it may sound in regards to books about video games, these are genuinely educational.

And, frankly, they’re pretty great. I was given these books in exchange for a review, but I’ve also placed an order for the Bioshock book, as I think that is a series that will lend itself very well to the Third Editions approach. I didn’t just read these and enjoy them…I read them and wanted more.

For fans of any of these games, especially fans who are interested in studying them, it’s hard to go wrong with Third Editions. They’re well-written, surprisingly informative, and deeply comprehensive. They look and feel great, and they’d make a great gift for gamers and scholars alike.

Whether or not the more clinical, detached approach will appeal to you is something I can’t answer. If the kind of video game chat you enjoy is held with good friends over a long night of drinking, then Boss Fight Books is probably a better fit for you. But if you’d prefer video games to get the exhaustive, thorough, scholarly treatment films and music have been getting for decades, give Third Editions a spin.

Personally, I enjoy them both for different reasons. But I look forward to seeing what Third Editions covers next. It will be interesting to see if it achieves the staying power Boss Fight Books has. I certainly wish them luck, and I hope they find the exposure they deserve.

You can view and purchase the books available from Third Editions right here.

Update: Prostrate

I was off to such a good start this year with regular posts! Oh well. Nothing lasts forever, least of all a consistent upload schedule at Noiseless Chatter.

I’m not dead, though that becomes a bit more appealing a prospect by the day! I’ve been struck with a particularly nasty flu, for the second time this season. (The first was right around Christmas.) It’s not pleasant. I have indeed been working on a couple of posts, one of which is the final installment of Fight, Megaman!, but I certainly don’t have anything in a publishable format quite yet.

That will change. I’m much better today than I was yesterday, and so on down the line. I’m just not totally recovered yet.

Do stick around. There’s lots of fun stuff to come, including this year’s Rule of Three, in which I’ll take extended looks at three related comedy films. So far I’ve covered two series of films that were very important to me growing up, and this time around will be no different in that regard. I look forward to writing them, sharing them, and reading your comments. Especially when it comes to the third film in the series, but…we’ll get there soon enough.

So, yes, I’ve been doing far more hallucinating than writing lately, but you ain’t rid of me yet.

A Hat in Time is a Beautiful Mess

I love A Hat in Time. And I hate it. It contains a large number of things I’d point to as absolutely perfect examples for other games to emulate, and an equal number that I never want to see done again. It does almost everything that isn’t important perfectly, and almost everything that is important poorly.

It’s a beautiful mess. It’s the worst game I’d recommend wholeheartedly. Everybody should play it, but it’s a shame they’ll feel so frustrated as a result.

I first learned about A Hat in Time years ago. I wasn’t actively looking for it and I didn’t actively follow it, so I can’t say for sure that I learned about it through the Kickstarter announcement. Likely enough it was after it had already been successfully funded. Either way, I remembered the distinctive look of the main character and little else. The next I heard of it was just a few months ago, when I learned it was about to be released for PS4.

The early reviews were positive, so it landed on my radar. Then more reviews came in. And more. And they were all positive as well. I intended to wait for a sale but, at some point, figured I might as well support an indie developer with a full-price purchase. After all, the game was evidently quite good. Why not contribute to its success?

I don’t regret my purchase, but I do feel conflicted in a way I’ve felt with almost no other game. Typically I either enjoy a game or I don’t. We can get more granular than that, of course, but I nearly always at least know which side of that dividing line the game ends up on. Here, though, I’m not as confident pinning it down.

It’s great. It truly is. It’s a wonderful, memorable, addictive, charming experience. It’s also, in many respects, a fundamentally bad game. So how do I rectify that?

Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just find some way to live with the fact that the game wasn’t what it could have been. But even then, I’m not sure that’s correct. It does fail to meet its own potential in some ways. In other ways, though, it exceeds them to such thrilling extents that I want to proclaim my conflicted love from the rooftops.

So what, exactly, the fuck, is going on here?

A Hat in Time is a retro-influenced collectathon throwback, which is basically to say it’s a 3D platformer decidedly in the vein of Super Mario 64. Modelling yourself so openly and directly after one of the most influential video games of all time seems like the kind of thing that can only make you look bad by comparison, but A Hat in Time actually pulls it off. This is its greatest achievement.

Super Mario 64 was a great game, and I’m using the past tense there on purpose. Through no fault of its own, the game has since aged. If you haven’t dusted it off since the Nintendo 64 era, do so. You’ll find a game that’s still a lot of fun and certainly retains its charm, but it’s also clunky. Its camera is stubborn. Many of its later levels lack focus, or ignore the philosophy of exploration that should be at the heart of the game. A handful of its puzzles are inscrutable. Creatures run off with important things (such as stars or your cap) and force you to wrestle with the camera and the environment simultaneously as you chase them down in irritation.

Again, though, this is through no fault of the game’s own. Super Mario 64 laid down the template for any 3D platformer worth its salt to follow, which is a profoundly impressive accomplishment. But the problem with going first is that you’re rarely the one that does it best. Every game to follow — Nintendo-made or not — had the luxury of studying Super Mario 64, of finding ways to improve it, of, basically, pushing the genre ahead from there.

Fast forward to today and play a few hours of Super Mario Odyssey. Hell, play 30 seconds of Super Mario Odyssey. Any complaint you may have about Super Mario 64 is addressed and made redundant by that successor, and certainly all of my complaints above are rectified as well. Super Mario 64 was very good at what it set out to do, but the games that came later were able to build on it and were better for that opportunity. The forefather of 3D platforming looks and feels a bit crustier with each passing year. Nothing makes that clearer than Super Mario Odyssey, the game’s own descendant.

A Hat in Time therefore has quite an opportunity to overshadow its inspiration. It couldn’t possibly hope to be as memorable or influential, but it can at least study Super Mario 64, pluck out the bits that don’t work, lean into the bits that do work, and build its own identity around the margins.

And, to its massive credit, that’s almost exactly what it does.

Let’s start with that identity, because it’s important, and it’s A Hat in Time‘s greatest asset.

Mario has a lot of passive personality (his groans of disappointment when he fails, his joyful whelps as he leaps around, the little dances he performs and poses he strikes when he completes a level), but not much character. This isn’t necessarily a problem — the global, consistent success of his games proves that — but it does mean it’s one easy area for A Hat in Time to run circles around him…and the game does.

The otherwise unnamed Hat Kid is bursting with infectious personality. She’s silly. She’s bratty. She’s a fun-loving scamp. We don’t hear her launch into monologues about her feelings, but she does make them known in other ways, such as the mocking faces she pulls at the residents of Mafia Town, the way she spins around in her captain’s chair when she sits down, or the way she keeps one eye shut for a while afterward if you accidentally slam her into a wall.

She feels real. You have complete control over what she does in terms of gameplay, but between and around your inputs, she asserts herself as an autonomous being. She exists. I might be able to imagine bumping into Mario in a shopping mall, but I’m not sure why he’d be there or what purchases he’d be carrying. I can, however, imagine those things about Hat Kid, along with her demeanor, the stores she’d want to visit and avoid, and the specific ways in which she’d torment the salespeople.

The story is so thin as to be essentially absent, but that works in the game’s favor. (And let’s not kid ourselves; Super Mario 64 didn’t have a story, either.) Hat Kid’s ship spills its precious cargo / fuel source — time pieces — and our heroine needs to track them down across several worlds. That would be that, except that the nefarious — and equally charming — Mustache Girl gets a sense of their true power, and seeks to horde them for herself.

It’s up to Hat Kid to find the time pieces, bop the bad guys, and guide her ship back home, all with the aid of a collection of hats that imbue her with special abilities. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Mario’s cap was the source of his powerups as well, right? Alright, probably not, but there is a difference. Nintendo didn’t want Mario’s caps to break the game, so it only allowed his powerups to function for a brief period of time. That would keep players from taking them into areas that weren’t designed for them. In A Hat in Time, though, Hat Kid can switch between them at will, and can use any of them she’s collected at any point in any area. This game provides the actual freedom that Super Mario 64 only suggested.

The sheer amount of personality in this game is staggering. Everything looks, feels, and sounds great. The background gags are always fun to find and are actually pretty funny. The dialogue got more than a few laughs out of me, from genuinely great jokes to cute jabs at genre conventions. And pretty much any time the profoundly expressive Hat Kid does anything, it’s worth a chuckle.

The graphics themselves aren’t anything impressive, but they pay appropriate homage to early polygonal games while still (clearly) improving on their visual quality. They also have a great deal of spirit and inventiveness behind them, even if they are simple when compared to games with larger budgets. Without question, though, the 2D art we see before each level is a consistent highlight, and is always gorgeous. They feel like promotional images from the Hat Kid cartoon we never had in our childhoods, but would have absolutely loved.

A Hat in Time is relentlessly adorable, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cuter game in my life.

In addition to its much stronger personality, A Hat in Time also improves upon the level and goal design of Super Mario 64.

As a child I collected all 120 of Super Mario 64‘s stars, but I needed a lot of external information in order to do so. Nintendo Power and other guides lit for me the paths that weren’t clearly enough indicated by the game. By contrast, I gathered all of A Hat in Time‘s time pieces without any kind of aid at all. Not all of them were easy to find; it’s just that the game did a far better job of providing the information I needed in order to find them. A Hat in Time scratches the same itch as Super Mario 64, but without the frustrations we’d have about that game in this era of more enlightened game design.

In fact, in regards to the way in which certain time pieces are hidden in the levels, A Hat in Time outdoes Super Mario Odyssey. In that game, vague visual clues are sometimes found scattered throughout the levels. The game wants you to take a screenshot and consult it later to find a hidden power moon, which is fine, but it isn’t any fun, especially as many of the clues require an extraordinary amount of lateral thinking to work out. The answer is there, but you’re often expected to pore over the clue as you would one in a puzzle book, which isn’t very much fun when you’re sitting motionless on the couch for minutes on end with a controller in your hands. A Hat in Time, by contrast, provides an optional photograph of where the hidden time piece is. No screenshotting or puzzling out is necessary. You just look at the photo and soak in as many of the background details as you can, so that when you explore the level you can narrow down and eventually zero in on its location. It’s actually fun, because it gets your character moving, exploring, and attempting. You know…the things we like to do in video games.

For these hidden time pieces, A Hat in Time also takes a page out of Super Mario Sunshine‘s book, right down to the simplified, geometric visual design of that game’s secret areas. In both games, these sequences are a notable highlight, but the ones in A Hat in Time largely feel better and are more fun to play. In Super Mario Sunshine, the main gimmick of those levels was that you lost FLUDD, Mario’s water-powered jetpack, and you had to get by with your standard moveset. This made sense, but it also says a lot that the best parts of Super Mario Sunshine involve the game’s main mechanic being stripped out completely. A Hat in Time takes nothing away. Anything you can do in the rest of the game, you can do in these levels as well. Super Mario Sunshine had to ignore itself in order to provide these challenges. A Hat in Time embraces itself.

More favorable comparisons come from the levels themselves. While A Hat in Time has only five main levels and 40 time pieces to find, it almost always feels more expertly crafted than Super Mario 64. And while I know that’s bound to be a controversial opinion, perform this simple thought exercise: summon up all of your positive memories of Super Mario 64. Every moment you truly loved. Okay? Now set them aside. Next, summon up every moment of frustration in Super Mario 64. Every time you died because you couldn’t see where you were going, or didn’t know what you were supposed to do, or because the controls were too responsive or not responsive enough. Now set those to the other side. That’s…a pretty big pile, isn’t it?

Super Mario 64 did a lot of things very well. That’s a fact. And if you only look at its best moments, it’s far superior to A Hat in Time. However, if you look at the many (many, many) things it did poorly, A Hat in Time is the clear winner. It has its low points as well, but they aren’t as low, and certainly aren’t as numerous.

A Hat in Time is more consistent, in short. Super Mario 64 begins a delight and ends a chore. A Hat in Time starts at a high level of quality and almost exclusively stays there. It’s a solid game, and while Super Mario 64 had more ideas, A Hat in Time arguably handles its smaller amount in better ways.

I won’t spoil the game’s final level, but the four others aren’t just various open worlds with different color schemes. Mafia Town, the opening level, is the most like Super Mario 64‘s early stages. It’s large, its terrain is varied, it’s fun and easy to explore, and it’s packed with things to find. It’s a sunny, silly intro that sets the tone for the entire adventure.

After that, we take an unexpected detour into a movie studio, with objectives taking the form of films starring Hat Kid. Then there’s a spooky forest with a devilish character that keeps fencing you into signing contracts relating to your eternal damnation. In each of these levels, you choose an objective, the path to which is highlighted with a decidedly Mario-like camera pan.

In the fourth level, Alpine Skyline, that disappears completely. Your objectives aren’t spelled out for you anymore. You instead have to use the explorational skills you’ve developed in the previous levels to “read” the area and figure out what you need to do. I’ve seen other people grumble about this online, but, to me, it worked wonders. It reveals the objectives of the previous levels to have been something like training wheels, and Alpine Skyline challenges you to ride alone. Personally, I loved it, even if it took me a bit longer than it should have to twig what was going on.

To be blunt, there were levels in Super Mario 64 I hated playing, and still avoid whenever I can, even if I liked the concept. Lethal Lava Land, Hazy Maze Cave, Tick Tock Clock, Rainbow Ride…they just weren’t any fun. In A Hat in Time, I loved every area. Not equally, of course, but I never dreaded returning somewhere to fetch a time piece. In fact, I looked forward to it, and felt a little disappointed when I had entirely cleared an area, because that meant I had exhausted all of its surprises.

And, man, does A Hat in Time have surprises. I don’t want to spoil much here, but there are times that the game flows wonderfully into an escape sequence, a stealth sequences, a scavenger hunt, or even, once, a murder mystery, and it still feels right. It still feels correct. Super Mario 64 didn’t really have massive shakeup moments like that, or at least not many of them. And that’s fine; that game was a 3D platformer. But A Hat in Time shifts into and out of these memorable setpieces without ever feeling like it’s losing focus. They’re all equally valid elements of the game’s rich personality.

The music, as well, is some of the best I’ve heard in years. It does extremely clever and subtle things depending on where in a level you are, what you’re looking for, or what you’re up against, with the soundtrack shifting so naturally from one approach to another — or one set of instruments to another — that picking up on it is just one more pleasure to experience. There isn’t a weak track in the game, and some of them even have unlockable — just as good — remixes to collect.

If you’d like to believe A Hat in Time is a masterpiece, be my guest. Stop reading right now. I stand by everything I’ve said above, and, if you like, you can choose to leave with the idea that this game succeeds in providing an equivalent to Super Mario 64 for today’s generation.

You won’t be wrong. The game is beautiful.

But it’s also a mess.

The main issue and most consistent problem is the camera, which, to be blunt, is awful. When I look at the graphics, I have no problem with them being a marginal improvement on Super Mario 64 and yet miles behind current standards. When I say the same thing about the camera, though, I’m spotlighting a serious issue. Graphics don’t affect gameplay. The experience of actually playing the game doesn’t change in any notable way depending on how things look. Your enjoyment may be enhanced or diminished, but the gameplay itself isn’t affected.

In a 3D platformer, you can’t say that about a camera. When the camera fails to function, or functions poorly, it’s as much as problem as unreliable controls. The camera doesn’t just factor into the gameplay; it’s crucial to it. And so, yes, the camera in Super Mario 64 was pretty terrible, as we’ve discussed above. It zips between pre-determined notches, even if what you want to look at lies between two of those fixed positions. It cares about where Mario is, but not about where he’s trying to go, which is a problem whenever he needs to navigate small platforms and tricky jumps. It often behaves like an obstacle in itself, forcing you to manage it while you’re also trying to pull of complex maneuvers in treacherous areas. It’s bad.

A Hat in Time fixes much of this. The camera is easier to move. It’s much more versatile. It’s programmed to swing out and provide wider views during certain areas of the level, to give you a better sense of how to get where you’re going. This is all great, and it’s an improvement on Super Mario 64. However, this game’s camera introduces its own problems, and moderately outdoing the technology of a game that’s more than 20 years old isn’t much of an accomplishment.

Now, in full disclosure, I watched a video review that talked about how great A Hat in Time‘s camera is. The reviewer discussed all of the wonderful ways it avoids to problems people often have with cameras in 3D platformers, from foreground dithering to the smart way it changes perspective on its own. He gushed about it as though Jesus Christ himself had returned to redeem us from camera issues forever. So it’s possible that the PS4 version has camera problems that other versions don’t. To be honest, though, I think the solution is simpler: that reviewer was lying.

This isn’t a question of opinion, taste, or preference. This is a question of basic functionality. And while it’s certainly possible to 100% A Hat in Time, the camera keeps that from being a wholly fair experience, and often turns it into a frustrating one.

In many cases, the camera’s pre-programmed behavior worked against me. Yes, it’s nice that it’s smart enough to zoom out to show me all of the small platforms I’ll have to navigate, but what if I’d prefer not to see all of them and would rather focus on a single jump at a time? Too bad; many of the times the camera behaves autonomously, it also locks, preventing you from overriding it. Other times it poses a different problem; I might move the camera so that I can get a good view of where I am and where I want to go, and it works fine. But the moment I jump, the camera whizzes away to show me the leap from its preferred angle, throwing me off. It either doesn’t move, or doesn’t stay put.

This is especially problematic when combined with the fact that the game doesn’t do a great job of helping you gauge distance when you’re not moving. Many times I need to move the camera in order to get any sense of whether or not a jump can even be made…but I can’t. So I just have to leap and learn that a platform was either much closer or much further away than it seemed.

While that might sound like an exaggeration, I encountered both issues regularly. Many times the only path forward seemed to take me over a gap that looked far too wide to jump…but I could actually jump it easily, and the perspective was just throwing me off. Other times I fell to my death because I couldn’t actually reach something that looked to be only a short hop away. If I had more and better control of the camera, this never would have happened.

A Hat in Time does seem to realize it has a problem in this area, and it addresses it in a few ways. By placing collectible gems around the stage, it often leads your eye to the correct way forward. In fact, many times, the presence of gems was the only reason I thought I could clear a jump at all. It’s not an elegant solution, but it’s a fair one.

Also fair is Hat Kid’s shadow, which helps you see where you will land and gives you a sense of how you should maneuver in the air. The problem here is that the shadow disappears between floating platforms, making it almost useless as an aid to orientation. What’s more, the platforms are either small enough that seeing your shadow return doesn’t leave you with much reaction time, or so large that it doesn’t matter specifically where you land anyway. It’s a nice thought, but it only ever works when you don’t need it.

Then there’s Hat Kid’s double jump ability. Now, I’ll say here that I really enjoy Hat Kid’s moveset. When you’re flipping and somersaulting her through wide, expansive areas, it’s a lot of fun. Kudos to the game for that. But in the difficult platforming sections, the game seems to use the fact that you can double jump as an excuse for its own shoddy layouts.

In the same video review I referred to above, A Hat in Time‘s lead designer talked about the double jump as an opportunity for the player to correct his or her own mistakes. To paraphrase, the idea was that you could realize you misjudged a jump and then quickly jump again in the air to rescue yourself from your error. My response is the same as above: he’s lying.

See, that may be the move’s true origin, but it doesn’t reflect the way in which it’s actually used and required in the game. If that’s the purpose of the double jump, then it shouldn’t be necessary to use it to clear long gaps in the first place. If it’s there as a last-ditch salvage effort, it can’t be mandatory for certain jumps as well. But, of course, it is.

As a designer, you can either employ this mechanic as a bonus flourish, or as a necessary means of progression. A Hat in Time seems to think it can do both, but it really can’t. The reason for this is the difficulty in judging distance that we’ve already gone over. Because it’s hard (sometimes almost impossible) to tell how far away the next platform is, you don’t know if you’ll need to use that double jump or save it. In short, if the developer were telling the truth and every gap could be cleared with a single jump, the player would learn that and the double jump would serve the dedicated purpose of bailing you out of your mistakes. And if every gap needed a double jump to clear, the player would be able to learn that. Instead, some require a single jump, some require a double jump, and it’s not clear until you’re in the air (or falling out of it) which was which. It’s often a guessing game. Try to clear a gap with a single jump, and by the time you realize you need another one, you’ve already fallen too far for it to matter. Try to clear a different gap with two jumps and you’ll find you’ve overshot the platform and have no way of going back.

It isn’t fun, and it isn’t rewarding. Again, I want to make it clear that I explored every area and found every time piece in the game. It can be done. I’m not saying this because I’m so bad at A Hat in Time that I’ve decided to declare it impossible. Instead, I’m saying this because I gave the game more than enough time to teach me what to expect and how to respond to it, succeeding at each of its most devious challenges, and I still think it’s poorly designed in that regard.

Additionally, the camera doesn’t easily allow you to look up or down, which is a truly baffling decision in a game with so much vertical design. Typically a limitation like this would clue the player in to the fact that all or most of the action will be conducted horizontally, but vertical progression is frequently required in A Hat in Time…and you just have to deal with the fact that you’ll be doing it blindly. This is inexcusable. And, again, it’s not a matter of taste or preference. When the game asks you to ascend or descend a structure safely and you can’t actually look at where you’re meant to be going, that’s a failure of basic functionality.

There are also control issues. While Hat Kid seems to respond perfectly well to what I tell her to do, and that’s great, the game doesn’t always play by its own rules. Sometimes it will allow Hat Kid to grab a wall and climb up, and other times it won’t. Sometimes it will provide a prompt for Hat Kid to grab a hook or dive onto an enemy, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes invisible barriers, especially in the fourth level, prevent Hat Kid from making jumps she should easily be able to, and you end up falling to your death through no fault of your own.

These are fundamental problems. If it’s up to Hat Kid to find the time pieces and bop the bad guys, the game actually needs to let you do those things reliably. Fumbling around while you learn the controls is one thing, but fumbling around many hours later in the vague hope that the game will obey its own rules is something else entirely.

Again, A Hat in Time seems to be aware of its own problems, and rather than fix them, it provides a peace offering. Many areas are crawling with health restoration gems. After a long enemy gauntlet or an especially tricky platforming section, this makes sense. But more often they seem to be tossed around after very basic, simple challenges, which suggests to me that the game knows it is unreliable even in its easiest stretches.

Other areas require a number of crown coins to be collected before you can progress, and there are always more crown coins than necessary. At first I figured this was to provide an element of choice to the player, about which coins to collect and which not to. But by the time I got to a long sequence of crown coins on collapsing towers, which Hat Kid would sometimes climb and sometimes wouldn’t, I realized it was just because the game didn’t reliably function the way it should. It wasn’t a buffer for your sake, it was a buffer for its.

And that’s by no means everything. I’ve had enemy attacks land but deal no damage to me. I’ve fallen into bottomless pits without losing any life, and fallen into other bottomless pits that took away three units of life. (For the record, it’s supposed to take one.) I’ve had platforms I was standing on turn invisible. They were still there and I didn’t die, but the game must have thought they were off camera because it suddenly stopped rendering them, and wouldn’t start again until I changed perspective. I’ve had checkpoints fail to register. I’ve had to stop the game and scratch my head when A Hat in Time expected me to hop onto a series of tiny red balloons floating above a sea of red lava. Would it really have been so much to ask for the balloons to be literally any other color, so that I could actually see the damned things?

To be fair, A Hat in Time is an indie game. It had a small staff and a limited budget. I understand that there was only so much they could accomplish and only so much technical prowess they could possibly demonstrate. But while I can make those mental allowances in my mind, it doesn’t make the game’s problems any less frustrating. However much or little money was dumped into the game, I’m still the one dying my 10th time because I’m trying to go over here while the camera’s giving me a great view of the platform over there. I’m still repeatedly swinging my parasol against a bell that doesn’t ring until the fifth or sixth time I strike it. I’m still sliding down walls I was able to climb a moment ago.

And yet…

And yet.

I also loved the game. I came home from work every day this past week and dove right back in. It was a fun and cheerful way to unwind. The knowledge that I still had some more secrets or areas to uncover was compelling me to play it over and over again. The frustrations would always be just on the horizon, but…I kept coming back.

I have played literally thousands of games that are better designed than A Hat in Time, that work more reliably, that exhibit more polish. But the vast majority of those I eventually lost interest in. I never finished. I never truly cared about.

A Hat in Time is often profoundly sloppy…but I couldn’t stop playing it.

In fact, I sat down to write this article after finishing the game. I knew I had missed three time pieces, but that was okay. I certainly had enough to say, and I could pick them up some other time.

…but just a few sentences in, I wanted to go back and get them. And so I did. I sat down again with A Hat in Time after I had finished, just because I knew there was something else to do. And I wanted to do it.

I said above that A Hat in Time does almost everything that isn’t important perfectly, and almost everything that is important poorly. Nearly all of the stuff I gushed about is nice to have, and the stuff I complained about is crucial to have.

But maybe that’s the real lesson here…that the stuff we think is important really isn’t, and the stuff we often dismiss as flourishes — great soundtracks, adorable characters, charm to spare — is what actually keeps up coming back.

I’m never going to argue that a game shouldn’t focus on getting its camera system or basic controls right, but how often do I return to flavorless, soulless games that are technically proficient? And how often do I return to the fun, memorable, quirky ones in spite of everything they do wrong?

I think we all have our own answer there, and I don’t think that acknowledging A Hat in Time‘s flaws marginalizes its accomplishments. I do, however, hope we get a sequel that irons out the kinks. A Hat in Time already does so effortlessly what mountains of other games struggle to. Now, all I want is a sequel that also plays as well as they do.

A Hat in Time is wonderful. You should buy it. You should set time aside to lose yourself in it. You should give yourself over to Hat Kid and Mustache Girl and the series of unique, funny, unforgettable worlds they inhabit. But you should also know that the game’s plumbing is exposed, and you’ll trip over it often.

A Hat in Time is the best game that ever sucked.

Seven and thirty-seven

I promised a new year’s post looking back at 2017, and then never wrote it. What’s more, I didn’t even want to write it. Very little appealed to me less than looking back at the past year. I kept waiting to see if I’d be inspired to write it, and I never was. Which shouldn’t have surprised me at all; I’ve been lacking the inspiration to write about things I would like to cover. Forcing myself to write a new year’s post — even something as simple as “Let’s not do that shit again” — just wasn’t going to happen.

Besides, I knew I’d have to follow that up soon enough with the actual tradition that is my birthday post. I might as well put it off, and say anything I had to say later.

It’s later, now. Today is my birthday. I turn 37 as this very site enters its seventh year of existence.

And what is there to say? What do I want to say? What can I bring myself to say?

It was a hard year. I’d stop short of calling it terrible (in fact, it wasn’t terrible), but, much like the year before it, it certainly wasn’t easy.

Life has been trying, lately. Change is always hard, but I think it’s fair to say it’s far harder when that change isn’t your choice. I had two friends pass away. I had my car legally totaled by a freak hailstorm, and then had my replacement car targeted repeatedly by vandals. I was forced to move out of a place I loved and into a place I didn’t. I was accosted in a parking lot one night and then had to recount it again and again to authority figures who haven’t been able to find the guy. I ended up hurting the one person I’m willing to believe has ever truly loved me.

And…well, something else. Something I’d prefer not to go into now, even as I’m opening myself up. Suffice it to say, I went through something this past year that left me more or less convinced I would not be around much longer. Very likely not long enough to even write this post. Something I’ve told almost nobody, and certainly nobody who will ever read this site. I struggled alone, through something I really believed was going to kill me. I guess I got lucky. That much depends on how you look at it, but, either way, I’m here.

Oh, and evidently the world is in a political deathspin. That’s nice, too.

It’s difficult when so much of your headspace is dedicated to simply coping to find the inspiration — or, perhaps, the energy — to be productive. Through all of this, of course, I work a full-time job and freelance whenever possible.

I start thinking about things I’d like to do as chunks of time I won’t get back, and then I don’t do them. Sure, I could read for an hour, but then that’s an hour less of sleep, or one less freelance job I can take. I’d love to see that new movie, but after travel and conversation with whomever I go with, that’s three or four hours I can’t use to catch up on everything else that’s been slipping. I can write an article for this site, or I can actually watch / play / listen to / read whatever the heck I might want to write about.

And so, to be blunt, I’m aware I haven’t had the most productive year here. I won’t do the math, because there’s no way it would lead to any number I’d like to focus on, but I’m willing to believe I’ve had the least productive year here.

It’s not all about volume. I know that. We all have our ups and downs, but I wouldn’t say that the quality of my work — here or elsewhere — is any lower on the whole than it’s ever been.

I’m a really glass-half-full kinda guy, huh?

Alright, fine. I will say, in all honesty, that I’ve published some of my favorite things in the past year. Flipping through the archives I see posts that felt important to share. Posts that opened doors for me creatively and professionally. Posts that led me to people and artists I would not have encountered otherwise.

But I wish there was more of it. I have a number of things I wish I could have written. I have a number of series I wish I could have kept up. I have a number of things I’ve been asked to cover that I simply haven’t been able to, because I’ve been drained and dragging and empty.

That was 2017. A year I simultaneously wish I could do over and am glad I’ll never see again.

Now it’s 2018, and having a birthday just about a month into the year is actually very efficient for someone like me: I get to blast through all of my introspection in one good stretch. I’m glad, because I don’t think I’d survive doing it twice annually.

Shortly before the new year, a Facebook friend shared an image of a chart like the one you see above. The idea was that you’d fill in one square each day, color coded by mood, and when you were finished you’d have a bit of pixel art representing your year. I thought “pixel art” was a bit of a stretch — as you’re guaranteed to end up with a vague speckled mess as opposed to, say, an 8-bit apple — but I also thought it might be a nice idea. I mocked up my own version in Excel — along with mood options I felt were more suited to me specifically — and, so far, I’ve been keeping up with it.

And you’ll see it’s…really not that bad. So far, 2018 has been pretty great. It hasn’t been perfect, and I’ve had a couple of lousy days, but…things are okay.

I’m happier. My background tragedies have either been resolved or naturally receded. I’ve met a great new person. I have a wealth of new opportunities. I wake up in the morning to go to a job I love and, relatively speaking, I have energy on the weekends to do the things I enjoy.

“The year” is obviously just a construct. It’s helpful to file away history by the page, and this is how we’ve chosen to measure it. Beyond that it has very little significance. I know that. And yet, this time around, it really does feel as though a dividing line has been carved. I approached the end of one year an anxious tangle of despair, and started the next one feeling…normal.

Feeling almost human. Feeling like just a person who gets to live. One who, of course, has to deal with whatever hardships life chooses to lob his way but one who doesn’t find them unduly compounded to the point that they’re impossible to overcome.

But there’s a caveat.

Obviously a chart like that can’t show the complete story. Nearly every day I experience the entire colorful range of those emotions. Maybe I’ll get lucky and not feel too anxious. More likely, I won’t feel happy. But those things change by the hour, at least, and mapping emotions at that level would be unsustainable. So at the end of each day, I have to sort of average it out. And averaging a day out to “satisfied,” even if it’s accurate in a general sense, by no means tells or suggests the actual emotional cocktail that is any given day.

Even moreso, though, the chart doesn’t and can’t take into account the background hum of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that I experience constantly. A friend who saw my chart a few weeks ago congratulated me on having a great start to my new year. And, again, I have. But as we continued the conversation and I mentioned that in spite of those very good days I still feel like I have no hope for the future and very little desire to keep going, he said, “That doesn’t sound like a great start to me.”

And, well, it’s not. I’m never one to mince words anyway, so let me be clear: it sucks.

I don’t like the feelings I’ve been cursed with. I don’t like that that’s where my brain lives, only popping out temporarily for a peek at the sun before sinking into the mire again. I don’t like that that’s who I am. After a social event this year, another friend of mine asked me if I enjoyed myself. She was taken aback when I replied, “I have a complicated relationship with enjoying myself.”

I didn’t say it to be wry or even to dodge the question. That was my answer. It was honest. And it’s only when somebody else hears it and is baffled by it that you realize that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

A good day or a good social event isn’t about enjoying myself. It’s about distracting myself — maybe — from the desolate hum that is always, hour by hour, pulsing through my brain. It’s about not actively hating who I am or what I’m doing. It’s about not being so anxious or socially terrified that I shut down completely.

You need to grade these things on a curve. For me, that’s a good day.

And then I get anxious about actually enjoying myself. On those rare occasions that I do fine, tell jokes, make some new friends, or whatever else, I end up giving people the wrong impression. I’m open about my mental health issues here, on this blog, because it’s far easier to consider them and write about them and post them for people I’ve never met than it is to put myself on the spot in front of somebody I see regularly. But when I do open up to people, I often get responses such as, “That’s not true. I’ve seen you in social situations. You can do it.”

In a sense, they’re right. In a sense, they’re wrong. Sure, I can do it. And also, I can’t. It depends on what my brain lets me do. If I’m able to push through, I will. Why not? Who on Earth would rather have a bad time with others? Certainly not me. When I do struggle, fail, shut down, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s because I can’t — genuinely cannot — push through the barrier. My own mind will not let me enjoy myself.

I want to enjoy myself. Why wouldn’t I?

I want to have truly great days. Why wouldn’t I?

I want to be funny and charming and sweet to everybody, all the time. Why wouldn’t I?

Instead, those things happen with extraordinary rarity. Life is already hard. People are already assholes. Getting ahead is already difficult. On top of all of that, I have my own mind holding me back. I wrestle with it 24 hours a day, every day that I’m alive. A good day might mean that I won 51% of the matches. Honestly, a good day might just mean that I won 20% of them.

When I can’t push through, I can’t push through. There’s no decision I can make or amount of energy I can invest to change that. It’s a problem. And while medication and counseling have helped me a great deal in reducing the volume of the hum, it’s always there. Every moment of every day. And it always will be.

One of the most flattering things that happened this year is that I was contacted by the marketing arm of a counseling service I’ve actually used, and which I was certainly happy with. (Here, in this context, I’d prefer not to mention them by name.) They have a resource section managed by their therapists and wanted to know if they had permission to use excerpts from my blog, to help others who are dealing with the same kinds of issues.

They had no idea I was a former patient. When I told them, they were surprised. But they singled out a few posts I had written as being potentially helpful to others and…well…that’s pretty much the whole reason I open up in the first place.

It helps to talk about it, sure…but only so much. Every so often I might type out an experience and give myself a new perspective on it by doing so, but, more likely, it’s just me, firing sentences off into the aether. If I can help anybody out there — anybody at all — by sharing the way I feel…if I can make them feel less alone…hell, if I can make them feel better just because they don’t have to deal with the kind of crap I do, or don’t have to deal with it as severely or as deeply…well, then, it’s worth it.

We all suffer what we suffer. We don’t get to choose our afflictions or our hangups or our neuroses. We all have issues, and, if I had to guess, I’d say a very small percentage of people indeed would have chosen their particular issues.

But that kind of universal dissatisfaction is exactly what gives us such great escapes as books and movies and music and video games in the first place. It’s why I immerse myself in those things. It’s why I (at times…) write about them. It’s why I discuss them. It’s why I connect with people who like the same kinds of escapes that I do.

I’ve known many people who find their escapes (whether or not they’d call them that) with travel. Or with partying. Or by shopping. And that’s all fine. Those are good things, as long as you don’t overdo them, or do them foolishly without regard for consequence. But those are never things that have really helped me. I’ve never gotten home from a party — no matter how fun — and said, “I really needed that.”

Conversely, I’ve said that or something very similar after a huge number of books.

Art is important. It’s art that has allowed me to understand who I am. It’s art that has allowed me to see myself through another lens, and gain valuable perspective about what’s important. It’s art that provides a consistent source of comfort, which is essential when your own mind provides you with a consistent source of discomfort. Art allows me a crucial and necessary balance.

I feel privileged and grateful that I have that. I feel even more privileged and grateful that I’ve been able to be part of meaningful projects that have helped people, provided them with entertainment, or at least just gave them something fun to enjoy during some downtime.

I’m lucky. I know that. I’m a writer who gets to make a living doing what he loves. I have friends who care about me. I’ve built the family I never had before. As trying as the past year has been, every day this year seems to remind me at least once that it’s worth sticking around.

Thirty-seven years of struggle takes its toll, though. And I’ll always have that nagging feeling of helplessness because each year makes it more clear that I’m going to have these same struggles forever. They won’t go away. They can’t. That isn’t an option.

The only option is to keep on going. To hope you don’t cause too much damage along the way. To hope you’ll have enough green stretches to catch your breath. To find people who understand — actually do understand — who will help you feel less alone.

I guess that’s what it’s like to live with that hum. You’re cursed always to feel alone, even when you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’re not.

And you’re not. Whoever you are, whatever you’re up against: you’re not.

It’s worth sticking around.

Even if it never quite actually feels that way.

Happy new year.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 9, 2008)

Mega Man had never gone more than two years between games, but after Mega Man 8 — and the one-off experiment that was Mega Man & Bass — the series went a decade. Once an industry mascot right up there with Mario, Link, and Sonic, Mega Man just…stopped. The saddest part was that nobody really missed him.

The world kept turning, no darker or more slowly without him. The industry trudged forward just fine. Even its developer, Capcom, had moved onto other series that kept its fortunes strong. Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Dead Rising, Monster Hunter, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and lots of others were released at a steady clip and to positive reception. To paraphrase Clarence Oddbody, Mega Man had been given a great gift…a chance to see what the world would be like without him. And it turned out the world was just fine.

Mega Man was relegated to the chambers of memory. If you wanted to, you could dust off your old NES and rip through whatever game or games of his you remembered most fondly, but it was far more likely that your attention was now elsewhere. Every so often you’d talk with a friend about the games of your youth, and Mega Man would come up. You’d reminisce about him. You’d laugh about the good times and bad. But like all memories of those you’ll never see again, you’d tuck them away again and focus once more on the here and now.

Mega Man’s disappearance didn’t interfere with my life any. I had other things on my mind. I was finishing high school. Then I was in college. I was dating. I was working, often at multiple jobs. I was developing as a writer. I was moving out. I was learning what I wanted out of life, and I was trying to figure out how to get it. I was growing up, because I had to.

For a good long while I never had to worry about where my food or shelter would come from. Then, overnight, I did, and the amount of time I could devote to extravagances was sorely reduced. Had Mega Man continued on his yearly release schedule, there would have been 20-odd games I wouldn’t have had the time to play.

In short, his absence wasn’t felt. I was able to say that about a lot of figures from my childhood. I valued the time we spent together, but I was somewhere else now. I wished them well, but there was no time for looking back.

Until, of course, there was.

Around 2007, I was still working hard — I had to be — but I was no longer pennies away from bankruptcy. I built up a savings. I found a great place to live in a different state. I had an incredible job. I found a new circle of friends. Things were…okay. The stressors and worries that had defined me for my entire adult life…weren’t there anymore. At some point I stopped. I caught my breath. And I realized I was okay.

I had time again. I had the money and space to devote to the things that I wanted to pay attention to. I started revisiting the things I had loved unquestioningly as a child. Books, movies, music, TV shows. It was during this period that I launched my first website as well, giving me a place to write about those things and more. This goes back many years, but I don’t need to point out that this is still where I am today. This is what I do. I study. I report. I read too deeply into things.

One of my major purchases at the time was a Wii, which was a bit surprising, as I had been out of the video game loop for quite a while. But I was interested in it. Not for Wii Sports. Not for Super Mario Galaxy. Not for whatever Zelda game was guaranteed to come along.

No. What won me over was the Virtual Console.

It’s amazing how quaint the concept feels now, what with digital downloads and emulation becoming less the exception and more the rule, but I remember looking through a listing of classic games available for purchase on the Wii and feeling blown away. I could play Super Mario 64 again? Well, what am I waiting for?

I enjoyed the Wii, and I think it had some incredible games throughout its lifespan. But the crisper visuals didn’t win me over. The motion controls didn’t win me over. The chance to play Mario Kart online didn’t win me over. What won me over was the opportunity to go backward. To rediscover. To rebuild — albeit digitally and with strong limitations — the same library of games I had growing up. The ones I loved. The ones I didn’t love. The ones that were too hard for me. The ones rooted so deeply in my mind that I could replay them from memory, uncovering every secret again along the way.

People complained about the prices; I remember that very well. I thought and still think they were crazy. $5 for an NES game was a steal. $8 for a SNES game. These were games my parents couldn’t easily afford for me when I was little, and now they were priced lower than a meal at a fast food restaurant. Didn’t people realize what a great time to be alive this was?

I downloaded so many classic games, most of which held up just as well as I could have hoped. And since they were so cheap, I bought plenty of games I never got to play as a kid, discovering many gems along the way that had passed me by. I played Ufouria for the first time, and fell in love with somebody else’s childhood.

All of this is to say that the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game my way. What’s more, though, the time was right to toss a new NES-style Mega Man game the industry’s way. I wasn’t the only one rebuilding and reappraising the library of my childhood. Retro games were a hot commodity online and in stores. Services such as the Virtual Console allowed game companies to continue profiting from their back catalogues. And, most significantly, companies were releasing new titles that deliberately hearkened back to the roots of their respective series.

It was a bit of a fad for a while. Games such as New Super Mario Bros. (2005), Contra 4 (2007), Castelvania: The Adventure Rebirth (2009), Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010), Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010), Rayman Origins (2011), and others saw success and critical praise that proved that the kids who played those series hadn’t actually outgrown them…they rather fell away as the games drifted further from what they loved about them in the first place. The moment a popular franchise said, “We’re going back to basics,” ears pricked up.

Mega Man 9 rode that wave of revivals relatively early, meaning it felt both comfortable and fresh at the same time. Mega Man was back…and this time he wasn’t dragging along any clutter. Expectations were high, and Mega Man 9 managed to exceed every last one of them.

The game was and remains a masterpiece. And while I do enjoy nearly all of the games in the classic series, it was surprising and oddly fulfilling to suddenly have another Mega Man game that could be spoken of in the same breath as Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3.

The fact that this arrived so long after the last Mega Man release was astounding. Even more incredible was the fact that several entire spinoff series came and went in the gap since Mega Man 8.

No, seriously. There was Mega Man Legends (1997-2000), Mega Man Battle Network (2001-2005), Mega Man Zero (2002-2005), and Mega Man ZX (2006-2007). If you want, you can also consider Mega Man X (1993-2004), which was largely released during classic Mega Man’s silence and Mega Man Star Force (2006-2008), whose final game arrived just a few months after Mega Man 9.

It didn’t just seem unlikely that Mega Man would ever return to its stripped-down origins; it seemed impossible. And remember…that previous paragraph isn’t a list of games. It’s a list of entire series. Mega Man had splintered and fragmented so many times over that there just wasn’t a place for the little boy in blue pajamas we had once loved so much. The climate wasn’t the same. Gamers had different expectations now. As Tom Petty once put it, everything changed…and then changed again.

But Capcom brought Mega Man back. The original Mega Man. Without voice acting. Without convoluted mythology. Without extra fortresses and split groups of bosses and mid-point stages and gimmick levels. Without even a chargeable Mega Buster or the ability to slide. When many other series promised a return to their roots, they meant it in a general, spiritual sense. Mega Man meant it to the letter. If he couldn’t do it in the first game, he sure as hell wasn’t doing it here.

In truth, though, this game has less in common with the original Mega Man than it does with its celebrated sequel, Mega Man 2. The tighter physics, the richer sprites, the compositional philosophy behind the music, and the lack of a score system. This last, however, wasn’t so much missing as it was updated for modern sensibilities, but we’ll talk about that later. Mega Man 2 refined and defined the formula for the series, and Mega Man 9 ditched nearly everything that came afterward, and refused to roll the clock back any further.

Which is interesting, I think. Mega Man 9 feels to me like a proper sequel to Mega Man 2, and it’s a great one, finding a true swell of inspiration so many releases and years after most series would have lost steam for good.

It’s not unlikely that all of the credit for this belongs to Inti Creates, the developer who took on the seemingly impossible task of resuscitating a series that was both long dead and still revered. Mega Man 9, however it turned out, would have had to contend with unreasonable expectations across the board, and Inti Creates not only rose to the occasion…they arguably created the best game to bear the Mega Man name.

Of course, the company didn’t just swoop in out of nowhere. They’d worked closely with Capcom in the past, most notably by developing the entire Mega Man Zero series. For my money, Mega Man Zero is front to back the best Mega Man series. It’s certainly the most consistent in terms of quality, and it established Inti Creates as an important partner for Mega Man. The games were well received, each title successfully improved upon most of what came before, and it hearkened back to many of the best aspects of the Mega Man X and classic Mega Man series.

Capcom entrusted them with one of its coolest and most popular characters with the impossible task of relaunching Zero’s career after Capcom themselves sank it with the increasingly dire Mega Man X releases…and Inti Creates still hit a grand slam four times over. It’s really not surprising they were handed the keys to the classic Mega Man series later on.

Inti Creates’ true desires to work on classic Mega Man were probably most explicit in Mega Man ZX: Advent. That series was also great, and also belonged to Inti Creates. In Mega Man ZX: Advent, they included an unlockable mode that reimagined the game in the 8-bit style of the original Mega Man series.

It was a cute flourish far more than it was a statement of purpose, but it was also totally unnecessary. It required all new art and music. It required new AI and new physics. It was short, but it still placed the responsibility of building an entire framework from scratch on the plates of developers who already had another game to finish.

It was a labor of love. They did it because they wanted to do it. They wanted to build a game in the style of the NES classics.

I don’t know who initially pitched the idea for Mega Man 9, but, whoever it was, Capcom would have been positively idiotic not to give the job to Inti Creates.

While there’s very little design overlap between the Mega Man Zero series and Mega Man classic, I do think the quadrilogy of games Inti Creates built around Zero illustrated their ability to handle this throwback sequel. Mega Man Zero is a series that often demands and always rewards precision. It’s a series that expects you to die, and frequently, until you figure out the best way through a given stretch of a level. It’s a series that requires you to observe, understand, anticipate, and react to boss patterns. It’s a series made easier or more difficult by the sequence in which you choose to accomplish tasks. All of that should sound very familiar to classic Mega Man fans.

Most importantly, though, the Zero series proved that Inti Creates could be trusted to do work that was both respectful and innovative with established characters and mechanics. It may have been the first time Zero saw his name in lights, but players had been controlling him since Mega Man X 3, getting more familiar with — and excited about — his moveset with each subsequent game* in that series.

In short, though Mega Man Zero was technically the first game in a new series, it was also a successor to something players knew very well. Inti Creates didn’t have the luxury of building player expectations from scratch; they already existed, and anything they did would have to use the core of the original experience as its foundation.

They proved they could do it, four times over. (Six, if you count the related biometals in the Mega Man ZX series.) Controlling Zero was, if anything, even more of a tactile delight than it had been in the Mega Man X games. He felt faster in his own series, looser, and yet no less responsive. In keeping with the narrative of Mega Man Zero, it was as though he were reawakened, shook the stiffness from his joints, and became who he was meant to be all along.

What’s more, he felt at home, as the games were now designed around his flowing mobility, his graceful swordplay, his evolving movesets. Whereas games in the X series were built around what X himself could or couldn’t do and Zero was just an elaborate cameo, the Mega Man Zero games were playgrounds built exclusively for Zero. They not only lived up to the expectations earlier games had inspired in us, but they made us feel like these were the games we’d been waiting for all along.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into the Zero series** but I do think it’s helpful background information, and it explains why, after a long and what seemed like a permanent silence from the Mega Man classic series, Mega Man 9 landed out of nowhere with immediate perfection.

Okay, I say “out of nowhere,” but that wouldn’t be entirely true. In fact, I remember a trickle of buildup, which was surprising for a WiiWare*** game. WiiWare was a digital distribution platform that allowed large and small developers to release their games digitally on the Wii. Not all of the games were winners — not by a longshot — but there were a few pretty great ones. Usually, though, they just…appeared. Games were released weekly and you’d wait for word of mouth to direct you to standouts like World of Goo, Bit.Trip: Beat, Retro City Rampage, and the Art Style series. Hype came largely after the fact, as there were rarely demos or trailers to get players excited.

Mega Man 9 was different, though. I felt it coming. Like stormclouds in the distance, it was on its way, and I knew it. I was still mainly using my Wii to play old games — and I liked it that way — but now my interest was piqued for a new release.

Word spread that Capcom was releasing another Mega Man game…one that looked like the ones we remembered. The screenshots made that clear. It really did look very familiar, like screenshots from a title developed in the very early 1990s that was only now discovered in the archives. Then more information came along. The soundtrack would be NES-style as well. (Only we now called this “chiptune.”) And, so surprising to me that it felt like a decision born of glorious madness, there’d even be an option to let the game experience slowdown and flicker when too many sprites were on the screen at once.

This alone was a great joke; somebody actually took the time to program false system limitations into the game. After the entire video game industry had been pushing consoles as far as they could go on a regular basis, trying to squeeze that much more performance out of rigid system specs, Mega Man 9 built in an option to make it play intermittently like crap.

Because that’s how you remember Mega Man. And Mega Man 9 wants to be everything you remember about Mega Man.

Just the option for flicker — just the idea of the option for flicker — caused a long-dormant memory to surge back.

I remembered playing my original Nintendo and experiencing slowdown in a game I loved. It was possibly a Mega Man game. It was probably a Mario game. But the point is, I remember the action slowing down, frustratingly. I remember pressing harder on the buttons as though that would speed up my character’s animation. I remember expecting that at some point a more powerful version of the Nintendo would arrive, which would have enough processing power to run these games properly. I never felt as though the games were coded poorly, though they often were. I always felt that the Nintendo just wasn’t strong enough to let them run correctly.

Now, finally, I had an NES-style game to look forward to on a system that would let it run properly.

And the game was choosing to run like garbage.

I admire the sheer gumption of that choice to this day. I still laugh. I still love it.

For the first time since I was a kid, I got to look at a batch of upcoming Robot Masters and wonder which ones would be easiest, which ones to save for last, which ones would give you the best weapons. No, scrolling through screenshots wasn’t much like poring over an issue of Nintendo Power, but a little bit of that same thrill came back. Enough of it came back. And the nostalgia was helped along by the the deliberately awful — and true to life — box art that Capcom whipped up. Another unnecessary gesture, as the game was only released digitally.

And so, while Mega Man 9 was technically of a piece with the other throwback-style games I listed above, it didn’t just want to recapture old magic…it wanted to transport you in time. It wanted to make you believe that this really was a game from the 8-bit era…just one, like Ufouria, you hadn’t gotten around to playing before. That “9” gave away its place in time, but very little else about the experience did.

The pixel art was beautiful, but it didn’t register as anything the NES wouldn’t have been theoretically capable of displaying. The soundtrack was the wall-to-wall best in the series, but it was also true to tunes we remembered and loved as children. The enemies, even the new ones, looked familiar. The weapons were better than we’d seen in any previous game, but they wouldn’t have felt out of place there. Instruments dropped out of the stage music to make way for sound effects — old and new — that were comfortable, natural, and familiar, right down to Mega Man sounding like a sneezing dog when he took damage again.

The stage layouts were all original**** while maintaining the design philosophy we passively internalized as children. You had a sense of when you’d experience the rise and fall of panic, you understood the precise degree by which the hazards would ratchet up in complexity, you encountered one enemy in a safe area and anticipated that that same enemy would be used differently later to threaten your life.

Words simply cannot express what a creative triumph Mega Man 9 really was. As if designed solely to prove that bigger is not always better, Mega Man retreated into simplicity and found the heart it had lost long ago. I fell in love with the game the moment I booted it up, and by now, hour for hour, it has to be one of my most-played games ever, right up there with Mega Man 2.

It was perfect, and I had no complaints.

I’m kidding, of course.

I had a complaint. It was hard as hell.

When I was using my Wii to replay the games of my youth, I, for whatever reason, hadn’t really bothered with Mega Man. I couldn’t possibly say why; I don’t think it was conscious. I think, more likely, I had just not gotten around to it yet. Mega Man 9 was the first time I’d played any Mega Man game in ages.

And I died.

A lot.

And frequently.

More than you could even imagine.

Every screen was difficult. No stage seemed notably easier or harder than any of the others. Usually in a Mega Man game you’ll hop from level to level until you find the one nut that’s easiest to crack. Typically the boss of that level is also a relative pushover, but even if he’s not you can at least reliably clear the stage and take pop after pop at the champ.

In Mega Man 9, though, nothing was easy. The enemies whittled my health down quickly. I’d limp from screen to screen, hoping to make it just a little further. (And rarely succeeding.) As if to mock me, the game would finally drop health or extra lives for me…into pits and onto beds of spikes. When I managed to figure out how to deal with an enemy or a particular configuration of enemies, some other obstacle would then serve as a brick wall against my progressing any further.

It was rough. It was cruel. It was relentless.

And yet…I kept playing.

Just like the Mega Man games of my youth.

The truest Mega Man 9 comes to the series isn’t in its optional flicker or its period-appropriate box art. It’s in the compulsive need it inspires in you to keep beating your head against that wall. I’ve played plenty of games that stand imposingly before me and knock me down every time I try to stand back up. Nearly all of those see me giving up at some point, and letting the game exist without me. Very rarely do I do what I did with Mega Man 9, and a number of its predecessors, which is surrender myself to it, let it kick my ass repeatedly, and finally learn to outwit it.

I came a long way with Mega Man 9. A game that seemed comically impossible gradually gave way to a rewarding adventure that just required vigilance. It wasn’t nearly as unfair as it had seemed at first. I remember struggling for days to take down any of the Robot Masters, only to finally force my way through the battle with Galaxy Man. But fast forward a few months and there I was, performing a live playthrough of the entire game for viewers on a stream. Not only could I now reliably beat it, but I could do so in one sitting, in front of an audience. I remember one commenter saying he had never seen anyone take down Dr. Wily as fast as I did.

The game I could barely play became one I was actually, legitimately good at.

Actually, no; strike that. The game made me good at it.

It trained me. It enabled me. It tore me down and dared me to try again, but each time I did I learned a little more about what not to do. And then a little more about what to do. And then a little more about what I could do better, or faster, or more impressively.

Mega Man 9 isn’t easy, but if you’re willing to spar with it, you’ll come out so much stronger for having done so. It has a sturdy, sometimes cold internal logic that you need to learn how to read. It plays by rules…just not your rules. And it leaves itself open just enough that you keep coming back…after you get the profanities out of your system and pick the controller back up.

I don’t mean to suggest that the game is entirely fair. Replaying it now — so long after I’ve come to grips with its quirks — there are still a number of moments that exist only to be troublesome.

There are the little grabber enemies that rush you into death spikes in Gravity Man’s stage and Wily’s fortress, which are almost uniformly impossible to predict your first time through. There are the draining water platforms in Splash Woman’s stage that require you to navigate them while they move at different speeds around death spikes. There’s the swing in Jewel Man’s stage above a bottomless pit and next to a wall lined with death spikes, requiring you to jump toward both and hit the gate rather than either of the two hazards.

You know, I’m noticing a pattern here…

Yes, one of the recurring criticism is that Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its use of death spikes. The entire time I’ve been replaying the Mega Man classic series, I was prepared to get to this entry and dispel the accusation. “Mega Man games were always full of death spikes,” I’d say. “This one just seems to have more because you played it more recently and haven’t spent as much time memorizing how to handle them.”

But, well, I’ve just recently replayed the previous eight games…and I can say with confidence that the critics are correct. Mega Man 9 is a bit too liberal with its death spikes.

We’ve talked before about the health bar functioning as a kind of ticker that represents the number of mistakes you can make before the game shoots you back to a checkpoint. And I think it’s helpful to view it that way; Mega Man encourages perfection. If you like, you can take risks and hope for the best, but you can only do that a finite number of times before you lose too many of the bets you place.

Mega Man games don’t let you coast on luck, because you’ll never be lucky enough times in a row to finish the game. You can afford to tank your way through certain obstacles, but you’d better learn the rest, because you’ll never make it to the boss doors otherwise.

Mega Man 9‘s overuse of death spikes, though, betrays that mutual understanding. You don’t get to learn by making a mistake and moving on, crippled by your error. Your error far too often kills you, and you’re back to the checkpoint. Often you won’t even know what you were supposed to do differently. That’s a feeling that really sets in during the fortress levels, which have a bit more personality than they had in previous games, but are only marginally more fun than they ever were.

It’s a bit difficult to put myself back in the shoes of a new player. When I play through Tornado Man’s rainy sections, I know there are platforms behind the clouds to make platforming easier. When I’m launched skyward by Galaxy Man’s teleporters, I know the flying enemies will never hit me as long as I don’t panic. I know which way to veer during screen transitions to keep from clipping a spike with my foot and exploding unglamorously.

Back then, though…I remember experiencing a mix of emotions. At first — nearly always — I’d laugh. Some unforeseeable hazard swooped in and killed me. Ha ha.

It seemed almost knowing…a wink to the player. “Remember when games used to be this cruel?” And it was a good joke. The death was worth the chuckle.

For a while.

Because it would happen again and again throughout the course of a level. It would strip me of my lives, one after another. It would frustrate me so much that I’d get careless, and die even more than I was already fated to. The joke got old. An instant-kill hazard I have no way of knowing how to navigate appears three quarters of the way through the level, and I’m on my last life. I die, as I must, learning nothing about how to progress, and am booted back to the stage select.

Repeat. Over and over and over again. All I wanted to do was make it to the boss so I could see if I had the right weapon, and maybe get a sense of what to expect when I fought him (or her!) properly. But I’d make it to the boss so rarely, and when I did I’d have so little health remaining. I’d be killed by the first attack and kicked out of the stage knowing no more than I did when I started.

My girlfriend at the time watched me play. She watched me die. She heard me shout, “No!” more times in an hour than I’m sure she thought was reasonable. At one point, I asked her if she wanted to try. She declined. “I don’t know why anybody would play a game that punishes them like that.”

She…had a point.

Granted, I think she was at the other end of the spectrum. The games I knew she liked were Animal Crossing, and whichever Katamari game it was that asked you to collect one million roses. Not that I disliked those games, but watching her play those was such a foreign experience to me. She steered little avatars around environments that couldn’t hurt her, let alone kill her. Everything was sunny and welcoming. Reflexes and experience barely even entered into it.

I don’t mean to imply that those games are or were in any way beneath me — I now enjoy both series on their many merits — but when I sit down to play something, I rarely reach for a game that requires so little of me.

Instead, she watched me reach for a game that requires everything of me, and then spits in my face and tells me that I’ll never be good enough. Surely an ideal — and emotionally healthy — gaming experience lay on the spectrum somewhere between those two extremes.

But I kept at it. It punished me, she was right, but it never defeated me. First Gravity Man. Then Splash Woman. I think it was Tornado Man next, but I know for a fact that Plug Man was last. Piece by piece, I chipped away at that wall. And then I finally made it to the Wily fortress, which made me chuckle with its eyebrow waggling introduction and then promptly beat the living shit out of me over and over again.

And yet, I was still making progress. Even when I wasn’t doing anything but entering a stage and dying to the same enemy or obstacle over and over again. And that’s because of one great carryover from Mega Man 7: the shop.

Or, I suppose, more specifically the currency. Bolts were back, and you could trade them in for all kinds of helpful items, from familiar (and invaluable) ones like 1-ups and E-tanks to gracious additions like the one-off ability to negate death spikes. And that’s where the feeling of progress comes even when you’re not earning new weapons or scratching Robot Masters off your hit list.

I read a book recently about the development of the excellent Rogue Legacy. I won’t bother looking up the title, because the book wasn’t very good. But one of the game’s designers spoke for a while about how the leveling system in that game allowed players to feel like they were advancing, even if they kept failing in the same area each time. Their characters would get stronger, they could upgrade their equipment, they could discover new, permanent items in chests…basically the design of the game kept players from feeling like any given run was fruitless, even if they didn’t make it any further than they had previously.

Mega Man 9 offers something similar. You can keep dying, sure, and you will. But you’ll also be accumulating bolts as you do, and those carry over. Die enough and, yes, you’ll be frustrated, but you’ll also have a cache of cash that you can use to invest in items that will give you an edge. You can load up on lives and health restoratives to your heart’s content. In an apt metaphor for so much, failing really could make you stronger.

It was a smart design move, and a further reinforcement of the fact that the limited currency of Mega Man 8 was a bad idea. The shop needs to function as an ongoing reward, whereas Mega Man 8 turned it into an additional source of stress as you could never buy all the upgrades, meaning each purchase locked you permanently out of the chance to buy something else.

The shop did almost have one thing in common with Mega Man 8, though; while the stripped-down jump-and-shoot moveset of the original Mega Man was known long in advance to be the approach Mega Man 9 would take, there evidently were plans for the shop to sell permanent upgrades in the form of sliding and charging the Buster.

This I do think would have represented a nice middleground; those who struggled could buy the upgrades for an easier run through the game, and purists could ignore them. But I believe Inti Creates made the right decision by scrapping the idea. Nobody in their right mind would have avoided grinding for the bolts necessary to purchase those upgrades, and therefore the core Mega Man moveset would have been relegated to the opening stage or so, before players could afford to move on from it.

By removing the option altogether, Inti Creates forced everybody to familiarize themselves with the same limitations, and to engage the game without those additional offensive and evasive capabilities.

Mega Man 9 did offer somewhat of a concession there, however. It was the first game in the series to make DLC available, and one of those options was the ability to play as Proto Man for the first time ever.

This version of Proto Man could slide and charge his Buster, much like Mega Man could in Mega Man 4. But that wasn’t all; he also had a shield that deflected projectiles (so long as you were in the air and not firing).

All of which makes it sound as though Proto Man’s run of the game would be far easier…except that there were some artful tradeoffs.***** Proto Man didn’t have access to the shop, he took double damage, he had more significant knockback from enemy attacks, and he could only fire two Buster shots at a time, compared to Mega Man’s three. Then again, playing as Proto Man meant you got to hear his iconic whistle at the start of every stage, so maybe it was worth it.

Playing as Proto Man was a great bonus, but the mode removed all of the story sequences and felt more like a novelty…a more punishing sprite-swap than anything else. I have to admit that this is something Mega Man 10 did far better than this game.

There were other bits of DLC available as well, including harder difficulty settings, a fairly dull extra stage with another boss (something else Mega Man 10 did far better, as we’ll see), and my personal favorite: Endless Mode.

Endless Mode was almost as good as the game itself, and (living up to its name) was endlessly replayable. The mode would hand you all of the special weapons in the game and toss you into a randomized series of corridors. Every 30 or so screens you’d have to face a Robot Master.

It was that simple, but it was extremely addictive, and it’s one of the highlights of the entire series to me. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it further than a screen or two. Just once (if memory serves) did I make it beyond 100 screens, and when I did I was sweating and tense.

Endless Mode was, essentially, the chance to play new Mega Man content whenever you wanted to. And while you could devote enough of your life to it that you catalogued and memorized all of its surprises, there was more than enough content there to keep most players happy for a very long time. (Mega Man 10‘s equivalent mode wasn’t nearly as good, however, and felt as though it contained significantly fewer modules.) It also made a scoring feature — not seen since the original Mega Man — feel meaningful. Nobody cared about beating their high score in that game…but getting further in Endless Mode than you ever had before? Now that felt good.

And, so, yes, that’s a lot of gushing. But we haven’t even started praising the single best set of weapons in Mega Man history.

As you’ll recall, I was very happy with Mega Man 7‘s loadout overall. In fact, I honestly couldn’t ask for anything more. And yet, Mega Man 9 gives us so much more.

In previous installments I’ve voiced my disappointment that the weapons felt as though they were designed in isolation from the stages. They were fun things for Mega Man to hurl around the screen, sure, but they didn’t feel tailored to the games themselves. They felt, at best, as though they’d been plugged in after the fact, and at worst as though they were just differently shaped projectiles for the sake of fulfilling a quota.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that with (at least) eight new weapons introduced in every game, the well had simply run dry. There was no real way to design a truly great arsenal of original weapons anymore. And I would have agreed. Mega Man 9 gleefully proves us wrong.

The weapons here are not only fun, but they’re useful. They’re versatile. They’re worth playing with, even when you don’t “need” them. And, most impressively of all, nearly all of them of them also function as utilities, meaning poor, overtaxed Rush can revert back to his basic Coil and Jet functions.

The simplest of the new weapons is probably the Plug Ball. It’s a cross between the Spark Shock and the Search Snake, but with an actual purpose. The Plug Ball drops directly to the ground and runs forward, around platforms, across the ceiling, and pretty much anywhere else it can get without crossing gaps. It’s powerful and fast, which in many games would earn it a spot among the best weapons. Here, it gets outdone by everything else, and that’s a great thing.

Next there’s the Jewel Satellite, which is even better than the Junk Shield, but feels more specifically like an upgraded version of the Leaf Shield or Star Crash. Four jewels orbit Mega Man and will take out weak enemies easily, only breaking if they hit an enemy powerful enough to withstand them. (This actually makes it superior to Jewel Man’s own version of the weapon, as his Jewel Shield chips away each time it’s struck by a Buster shot.) You can throw it when you’re done using it, but you can also move while it’s active, which makes it extremely handy in nearly all of the game’s long gauntlets.

The last of the “standard” weapons is the Magma Bazooka, an enhanced version of the Atomic Fire. It’s chargeable, like its forebear, but it launches three projectiles instead of just one, making it a decent spread weapon.

The rest of Mega Man 9‘s arsenal is truly great, though.

The Concrete Shot deals a decent amount of damage, but its main selling point is the fact that it creates temporary blocks to stand on. This is a huge asset when it comes to many of the game’s tricky platforming challenges; it’s not easy to aim the Concrete Shot precisely, but the odds are good you’ll get it close enough to create a foothold somewhere helpful. You can also use it to climb higher than you normally would, as well as block lasers late in the game and solidify the lava blasts in Magma Man’s stage and the fortress.

The Laser Trident is super fun, and a great example of doing the “differently shaped projectile” right. Not only is it powerful, but it’s ammo efficient. What’s more, it flashes and makes a really cool sound…and since this is a video game, flashing and making a cool sound is a legitimate selling point. Additionally, it pierces armor, and will sail straight through rows of enemies. What’s more, this is Mega Man 9‘s weapon for tearing down certain barricades, which makes it worth grabbing early so that you can reach items that are otherwise blocked off. It can also destroy the lava blasts you’ve hardened with the Concrete Shot. It gets a lot of use.

Then there’s the Tornado Blow, which is retooled Gravity Hold that wisely doubles as an assist to Mega Man’s jump height. Trigger it at the right time and you’ll get a lot of extra lift on your ascent, which is a pretty cool feature. It also adjusts some of the platform heights in the fortress. The Hornet Chaser is the game’s homing weapon, and the fact that it actually works makes it a very rare thing indeed. What’s more, the hornets will seek out and collect items for Mega Man, many of which can’t actually be obtained in any other way. Do you really want that large health that fell into the death spikes? Sure you do. Hornet, chase ‘er. (Aaaand just like that, I get the joke behind Splash Woman’s weakness.)

The best of the batch is the Black Hole Bomb. This one is powerful, steerable, and triggerable at will. You can feed it into almost any area of the screen, detonate it, and watch as enemies and projectiles are drawn into it and erased from existence. Do it above yourself and get ready to be showered by the falling health and ammo of your swallowed foes. The Black Hole Bomb consumes a lot of ammunition, but the sheer value of the item absolutely justifies the lack of efficiency, and it’s one of my favorite weapons in the entire series.

The special weapons prove that Inti Creates did its homework. They looked back at previous weapons, determined what made them fun to use, and ensured that they were woven into gameplay experience itself. For once, you didn’t just pull a weapon out because it would deal more damage to a certain enemy; you pulled a weapon out because it was the best answer to the puzzle posed by a given room.

Mega Man 9 is so slickly designed and perfectly presented that it retroactively makes the best things about the previous games in the series look like happy accidents rather than deliberate choices. Sure, the other Mega Man games were largely great, but never had they felt so deliberate. Here, every gear feels perfectly placed and finely tuned. It’s a deceptively complex machine that improves upon the stacks of blueprints that inspired it. It’s a game that must have been subject to endless playtesting, because as cruel as some of the sequences can be, especially to new players, everything feels right.

It seems as though Inti Creates took the same approach to the stages as they took to the weapons…replaying them all, parceling out moments that worked and moments that didn’t, and reverse engineering the entire Mega Man experience to find out what really mattered underneath all of the clutter.

And it worked. In addition to offering my favorite batch of weapons, Mega Man 9 may also offer my favorite batch of stages. Some of them are fairly basic Mega Man fare, but Splash Woman’s stage is one of the better and more varied water stages in the series. It has a variety of interesting enemies, each of which requires a unique approach. The octopus enemies have to be coaxed out of their pots, the mines force you into a brief and hectic dance, and the fish that torpedo you from the sides of the screen require you to be constantly ready on the trigger. The death spikes here aren’t even too bad, as the water physics are almost always present, giving you more maneuverability and allowing you think at a more reasonable pace.

Galaxy Man’s stage is probably my favorite, for sheer flair alone, with the teleporters being a fun little mechanic and the 8-bit futuristic aesthetic being exactly the sort of environment I would have fallen in love with as a kid. Hornet Man’s garden-themed stage is a nice, unexpected approach, and Magma Man’s stage does the impossible and makes a fire level more fun than frustrating to play.

For sheer variety, though, I think Tornado Man’s stage is the most impressive. It has spinning magnetic platforms which are used in multiple ways and can be handled in multiple ways, but it also leans into the weather theme more than we’ve ever seen the series do before. It opens with a clear, sunny stretch to help you get acquainted with the enemies and magnets, but then you’re working against the wind while stormclouds obscure hazards and platforms alike. Then you’re navigating a frozen area with slippery ice physics. And then you’re flying forward with the wind at your back, forcing you once again to come to terms with movement and momentum in a whole new way. It’s a really great stage, and an easy standout.

The Robot Master duels themselves are also a lot of fun and rewarding to figure out, with most of them requiring you to pay attention to more than just the boss and his (or her!) direct attacks.

Splash Woman asks you to watch for her Laser Trident from above and fish from the side. Jewel Man’s shield fragments fire back at you any time your shot connects with them. Tornado Man’s fight may actually be the best, as your location dictates where his Tornado Blow will appear. (Tornado Man’s design also hearkens back — and narratively forward — to the design of Harpuia, a recurring character from the Mega Man Zero series, which is some efficient continuity.)

I think the only duel I really don’t like is the one with Plug Man. It feels as though there’s just a bit too much to keep track of there, with multiple Plug Balls zooming around the screen and dropping from above, while Plug Man himself hops around unpredictably. Electricity-based Robot Masters tend to be among the most annoying, and this one doesn’t break the tradition. It’s the only fight I think is too busy, and the only one I still haven’t been able to complete Buster-only without taking damage.

The soundtrack does a lot of the work toward making the levels feel as great as they do, without a single weak track in the game. Jewel Man and Plug Man have probably my two least favorites, but they’re still great. Hornet Man’s is a bouncy, flighty tune that I always find myself enjoying more than I expect to. Concrete Man’s is a hard-edged homage to Wood Man’s theme, the first industrial forest level in the series. Tornado Man’s is a swirling, pulse-pounding masterpiece that fits perfectly with every weather condition his stage throws at you.

Splash Woman’s theme is beautiful, buoyant, and blue, and it ranks high on my list of all-time favorites. Magma Man’s is my favorite fire theme in the series, with a raging composition that evokes fiddles and brass intermittently and makes the entire area feel far more playful than it rightly should.

But Galaxy Man’s? Oh. Oh, Galaxy Man’s…

That song is a masterpiece. It’s the best track in a game full of standouts, and I’m sorry that the stage it underscores is the easiest, because that means I get to hear it that much less frequently. It’s almost too good, with it sometimes distracting me from the action on screen and causing me to make foolish mistakes. I love it, and there’s not a single track in Mega Man history that I’d rank higher.

I do have one complaint about the soundtrack, though: all of the stage themes sound like they could be Dr. Wily themes.

I don’t have the vocabulary to explain why, but if you think back to other strong themes from the previous games (Elec Man, Bubble Man, Snake Man, and so on), they feel tailored to their levels. You couldn’t play any of them underneath a Wily fortress stage, because it wouldn’t feel right. They were written for one particular area, and couldn’t survive in another.

In Mega Man 9, though, every stage’s theme sounds like a potential fortress theme. Thumping. Excitable. Drawing you forward. And while that’s by no means a bad thing, I find it a bit odd. It’s as though Mega Man 9 is full of fortress music as opposed to Robot Master music. Great compositions, but often they feel less tied to the identities of their levels.

That’s truly reaching for a complaint, though. And while I ladled out some disappointment above, if you can move past those rough edges — and many people were certainly able to — you have the best Mega Man game in ages. Possibly even the best ever.

I’ve gone back and forth — and even as I write this sentence I continue to go back and forth — about whether or not I prefer this to Mega Man 2. In my mind, Mega Man 2 is my easy favorite. But playing them again, reappraising them so close in time to each other, I’m not as sure.

Mega Man 2 has its ropey moments, as we’ve discussed. Mega Man 9 irons nearly all of them out. Sure, it introduces one or two of its own, but it also has better stages, on the whole. It has a better fortress. It has better weapons. It even, incredibly, has better music.

So I really don’t know. In a way, it doesn’t matter. I can pick either one today and change my mind tomorrow. And the mere fact that I can ask myself this question speaks volumes about just how successful Mega Man 9 really was about what it set out to do.

According to the old saying, you can never go home again. Mega Man 9 heard that and replied, “Like hell you can’t.” It provided a genuinely great — and remarkably true — retreat to a time when, for many players today, games actually meant something. When they were hard as hell and you’d stay up all night passing a controller back and forth just to make it one stage further. When you gathered around the TV to cheer and howl with dismay whenever something incredible happened on the screen.

I shouldn’t have been transported there. I was too old. I was too far along in my life. Video games didn’t mean the same thing to me that they meant then.

But Mega Man 9 took me by the hand and led me there anyway. It led many people there. And we found each other. Maybe this time it was online, sharing stories and tips and videos, beating the game during a live stream for others who had never seen the ending, comparing high scores in Endless Mode or showing off the achievement we’ve earned…including that incredibly rare and maniacal one that requires you to beat the game without taking any damage. Hell, my review of Mega Man 9 for a site I used to work for is what inspired Nintendo Life to reach out and hire me. The game singlehandedly turned me into a professional critic.

It was perfect, and part of me wishes the series ended forever, right here, on a note higher than any of us had any right to expect of it. What’s more, it would have left us with three trilogies, forming a perfect three-act structure. In the first three games, the young hero finds his footing. In the next three, he slowly loses his way and credibility, but not his drive. In the final three he struggles through a crisis of identity to find and redeem himself.

I know the phrase gets thrown around a lot, so forgive me for bumping the ball back into the air, but there really is no better way to put it: Mega Man 9 was what you thought you remembered of Mega Man, but it provided a better, more careful, more meticulous experience than Mega Man actually was. It was also self-aware to the point it had a number of genuinely good jokes sprinkled throughout, in particular the montage of Wily begging for his life.

Inti Creates was having fun. And why not? If gamers got to revisit and rediscover the games of their youth, developers had every right to enjoy the same opportunity.

So, okay. I’ve danced around the question enough. Was it better than Mega Man 2?

I don’t know.

And, again, it doesn’t matter.

But I think I’m going to give Mega Man 2 the edge. Not because Mega Man 9 isn’t, strictly speaking and removed from nostalgia, the superior experience. But rather because it means one thing to set the standard for the entire series, and something else to live up to it.

I’ll pay my respects to the pioneer, because his successors wouldn’t be here without him.

Best Robot Master: Splash Woman
Best Stage: Tornado Man
Best Weapon: Black Hole Bomb
Best Theme: Galaxy Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

—–
* The games themselves fluctuated wildly in terms of quality, but I think it’s safe to say that playing as Zero remained a fairly consistent highlight.

** Would there be any interest in a Mega Man Zero retrospective done in this style? With only four games it would be fairly easy, but I also have no clue who would or wouldn’t want to read it.

*** It was also released on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, making this the first Mega Man game to be multiplatform on release, but I played the WiiWare version, so that’s my point of reference. I’m unaware of any meaningful difference between the three releases, but please let me know if you can report any.

**** The main exception is the stretch of Splash Woman’s stage that borrows the bubble ride from Wave Man, but there are also some fun recreations of previous game levels parceled out in Endless Mode.

***** There’s also the fact that Proto Man’s Buster is lower to the ground, but I couldn’t decide if I should list that as a positive or negative attribute. I’d say there are an equal number of ticks in both columns, so I’d consider it a wash.

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