Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man X, 1993)

A quick note of clarification for anyone arriving from the future (which, I suppose, all of you are): I wrote my Mega Man retrospectives in sequence, and I’m now moving back in time to cover the Mega Man X games. You’re welcome to read them in whatever order you like, but this was written after my retrospective on Mega Man 11.

With that out of the way, let me say that the Mega Man X retrospectives are going to be quite different from the Mega Man ones, simply because I have a great deal of childhood memories associated with those games and I have next to none associated with these.

I grew up with those games. I remember them always being there as a comforting presence. They were too difficult for me to finish, but I always enjoyed getting as far as I could, scribbling down passwords, hoping that my 20th attempt to finish a stage the exact same way would, somehow, work this time. (I wasn’t much one for developing new strategies as a kid.)

Mega Man games were always among my favorites, but the Mega Man X games didn’t make much of an impression on me. In fact, I can share all of my childhood experience with them here, in a short section of this review alone.

I rented the first game, or perhaps a friend did. I do remember playing it, and I essentially just thought it was a Mega Man game on the SNES. My brain didn’t even attempt to process it beyond that. I was willing to believe that the X was a Roman numeral, signifying that this were the 10th Mega Man game, rather than that it was a spinoff or the start of a new series.

I’m sure I was baffled by the fact that the game dumped me into a level as soon as it started, rather than giving me a stage-selection screen. I’m sure I finished that intro stage and then tried each of the main levels at least once. I’m sure I struggled with the game and played it poorly. That’s about all I can say for sure. It was just another Mega Man game.

Of course, it wasn’t, but I thought it was. And I knew what Mega Man games were, so if Mega Man X didn’t grab me right off the bat, there was no reason to keep going. I knew the formula. I understood the concept. If I loved it, like I loved most of the others, great. If I didn’t, I’d never have to think about it again, and I’d miss nothing by moving along.

I was wrong. Much of what I’ll talk about here will focus on the fact that the game was recognizably Mega Man, but it differed in significant, exciting, and important ways. It was the rare spinoff that felt both true to its parent series and also worked as a unique deviation that was just as influential in itself. Young me, aged 13 or so, was a big dummy and dead wrong.

Mega Man X, 1993

…but you can’t blame me totally for being dead wrong. As much as Mega Man X is a solid and well-crafted experience of its own, it also leaves the door puzzlingly open for confusion.

If you go into the game knowing that it’s the start of an entirely new series, as it’s easy to do today, that’s no problem. In 1993, though, if you were just looking for something to play and saw the name Mega Man, you were probably going to be misled.

The cynic in me is happy enough to conclude that this was deliberate. A game called, say, Robot Fighter X with a character who looked completely unique might have sold very well. It also might have sold very poorly. There’s no way of knowing. But a game called Mega Man X with a character who looked very familiar was guaranteed to shift a good number of copies on the strength of familiarity alone. That may have been a calculated decision to make the game just look like another sequel, but that decision sure did work against anyone at the time understanding what the game was.

Let’s break down the similarities up front.

Mega Man X, 1993

The name of the game is Mega Man X. Okay, right, you know that already, but I’m making a point: The protagonist’s name is only X, but thanks to the game’s title and its English localization, we are basically calling the main character Mega Man.

The main character also physically resembles Mega Man; he’s a robot boy with similar boots, a similar helmet, and a blue color scheme. He looks different, sure, but everything looked different on a 16-bit system when you were used to 8-bit systems. This could have just been what Mega Man looked like now; we didn’t have a proper 16-bit Mega Man to compare this to. (The Wily Wars on the Genesis wouldn’t be released until the following year, and Mega Man 7 on the SNES wouldn’t be released until 1995.)

This character could be defined by the differences in his abilities, but, at the start of the game, you won’t notice any. His arm cannon fires what seem to be the same shots as Mega Man’s, at what seems to be the same rate. Hold down the button and you’ll charge up a shot, just like Mega Man. You can’t slide anymore, but that alone hardly suggests that this is a completely different character.

Mega Man X, 1993

The more you play the game, the more differences will become apparent. You’ll be able to upgrade your health, defenses, and charge shot. You’ll learn how to dash. You’ll figure out how to wall jump. But at first, here, seeing the game for the first time, controlling your character for the first time, working out in your mind what this game is for the first time, it just feels like Mega Man.

And though it is true that you’ll discover more differences between X and Mega Man as you play, you’ll also discover more similarities, balancing the scales a bit.

For instance, you’ll eventually get to the level-select screen, allowing you to choose from eight themed bosses in whatever order you like. When you pick a stage, you’ll see the boss appear on screen and taunt you with a threatening pose, with an SNES version of the same tune you heard when picking a stage in Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 4. (And Mega Man, I suppose, but Mega Man X includes the later refinements to that composition.)

You fight through the stage, of course, maybe having to battle a miniboss, then eventually defeat the pattern-heavy main boss at the end, who has his own dedicated health bar presented, like yours, in a decidedly Mega Man-like fashion. When you defeat him (because they’re all him, even if they’re no longer called Man), you get a version of his weapon to use for yourself. Equip the weapon and you change colors. That weapon is the weakness of one other boss, which will make defeating that boss easier.

So far, so similar, and it doesn’t stop there. Clear all eight main stages, and you’ll gain access to the fortress, a series of even more difficult stages that test your mastery, confront you with bigger, meaner bosses, and require you to fight the eight main bosses all over again. (This time, in a nod to the first Mega Man, you don’t choose the order; you refight them in a predetermined sequence as you progress.) Make it to the very end and you’ll fight the final boss in two distinct phases.

Are there more differences along the way? Absolutely. But when you lay it out like that, it’s hard to see how (or why) Mega Man X is part of a distinct series from Mega Man. It sounds far, far more like a sequel than it does a spinoff. If you only play it for a short period of time, that’s how it feels as well.

X looks and plays like Mega Man. Zero looks like and seems to serve a similar purpose to Proto Man. X’s handler Dr. Cain doesn’t make a physical appearance, but we assume that he’s the new Dr. Light. Big bad Sigma fills the same structural purpose as Dr. Wily. Instead of fighting Robot Masters, we are fighting Mavericks. As Jon Bon Jovi put it in his famous review of Mega Man X, “It’s all the same; only the names have changed.”

Mega Man X, 1993

Like I said, though, it feels that way if you play it for a short period of time. If you play it extensively, thoroughly, repeatedly, you understand what makes Mega Man X stand out: For the first time in the entire series, the protagonist has a character arc that unfolds not just narratively but mechanically. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Just to be clear up front, I am playing these games in the Mega Man X Legacy Collection for the simple reason of convenience when gathering screenshots. If something looks different from how you remember it on actual hardware, that’s why. (I have played all of these games on actual hardware, though.) Oh, and don’t judge me too harshly for the state of my health bar. It’s very difficult to play and take screenshots at the same time!

Also, as I dip my first tentative toe into the swirling mass of bullshit that is the Mega Man X series storyline, I’ll say that things are clear and effective enough up front. However, as the series progresses and the games descend into nonsense masquerading as lore and backstory, I’m going to lose my grip on whatever the living fuck is meant to be happening. Go easy on me when I get things wrong, because there’s very little that can be gotten right.

Anyway!

Mega Man X, 1993

The first thing we see when we load up the game — before actually entering the game — is an intro sequence from Dr. Cain’s point of view. We won’t meet him officially until the next game, but Dr. Cain operates some kind of computer interface to learn about a robot he discovered called X, sealed away in some kind of capsule by the robot’s creator, Dr. Light.

Dr. Cain also reads a warning (messagefromdrlight.docx) that explains that X was an experimental new kind of robot with “an innovative new feature — the ability to think, feel and make their own decisions.” Dr. Light wanted to confirm X’s reliability — dude had created a metric shit-ton of rampaging deathbots by that point so, yeah, good move — and sealed him into the capsule for 30 years of testing. According to Dr. Light’s signature on the document, this happened September 18, 20XX.

Dr. Light points out in the warning that he himself is unlikely to live that long, and so he implores whoever finds X to confirm his reliability before activating him, lest Dr. Light’s creation lead to another generation of rampaging deathbots.

Mega Man X, 1993

In 21XX, Dr. Cain discovers X and activates him, allowing Dr. Light’s creation to lead to another generation of rampaging deathbots.

This game’s English localization refers to the robot as Mega Man X, but he’s really just X, and that’s how I’ll refer to him in these reviews for the sake of distinguishing him from Mega Man. Anyway, from here, we need to step into inference and material gleaned from later games to understand what’s going on.

Dr. Cain — and presumably other scientists who benefit from the discovery of Dr. Light’s work — learn from X and create Reploids, which are basically new robots that replicate the technology and programming of X. By the time Mega Man X begins, Reploids are all over the place, and a number of them have turned from being helpful to hurtful, much as Mega Man’s initial set of villains were good robots who went bad.

Things are slightly different, though. Nobody took control of the robots here, as Dr. Wily did 100 years or so ago. Instead, they contracted a computer virus that turned them into Mavericks. These aren’t evil robots, in other words; these are sick robots.

Mega Man X, 1993

A Reploid named Sigma led a team of Maverick Hunters, who essentially tracked down and neutralized any Mavericks. He was good at his job, but ended up contracting the Maverick Virus himself. Now the most powerful Maverick Hunter is the most powerful Maverick, and X sets out to stop him.

Again, none of that is spelled out in Mega Man X, but we’re given enough information to largely understand who we are and why we’re fighting. Also, having to infer bits of the backstory is perfectly reasonable. Less reasonable is having to infer bits of what’s happening right now in this story, but so be it.

I like the idea that Sigma is a real threat due not only to his power, but due to the fact that he has formal leadership experience. Sigma going nuts and killing everyone is a problem, sure, but the fact that he learned how to lead squads of robots on the side of peace means that his new position leading squads of robots on the side of war poses a genuine crisis. Mankind no longer just has to deal with Mavericks as individual threats; they must deal with Mavericks as an organized force of destruction.

X is still choosing a boss from a list of eight and then heading out to kill it, but this backstory recontextualizes what’s happening; Mega Man took out a boss and then took out another boss several times over. X, by contrast, is gradually weakening a conquering army.

Mega Man X, 1993

All of that is good, but the intro raises a fascinating question: If the innovation X represents in the field of robotics is the ability to feel and make decisions, then could Mega Man have ever actually been a hero? Or was he just a machine, doing what he was told to do? If Mega Man had been built or purchased by Dr. Wily instead, would he have been just as quick to fight for that side of the conflict?

This isn’t hugely important — again, Mega Man X has incompatible continuity with itself, let alone with Mega Man proper — but I do find it interesting to think about. “Mega Man didn’t have the ability to make decisions” is also a truly mind-blowing retcon when the big gimmick of that entire series was the ability to choose which stages to tackle in which order, ensuring that two players of the games could have — and almost certainly would have — taken entirely different paths through them. (Also, Proto Man’s reluctance to return to and serve Dr. Light does sort of suggest that he would have been the first robot capable of making decisions but, hey, we’ll live.)

The “new” ability of robots to make decisions for themselves does have an extremely wonderful (though very small) effect in Mega Man X: Some of the enemies will pause for a moment to chuckle if they hit you with an attack. That’s completely unnecessary, but what a flourish on the part of this game’s designers. After all, it makes perfect sense that if robots can think for themselves, some large portion of them are going to become absolute dicks.

Mega Man X, 1993

The intro stage is a Mega Man first. It would become a staple of the Mega Man X series and appear in a few Mega Man games to follow, but in 1993 it was pretty unexpected to be dropped straight into the action, without getting a chance to scope out the bosses ahead of time and decide where you wanted to start. (It’s extra funny that X is the one who can make decisions yet is also the one who isn’t allowed to choose where to begin.)

It’s a good level in a few ways. The enemies are weak enough that you’re rarely in real danger, and they’re varied enough that you’ll have to quickly master firing at different heights, firing quickly, firing more powerful shots, and so on. There are also two minibosses who collapse the highway beneath them as they die, forcing you to learn how to use the wall jump.

The wall jump is a massive innovation for Mega Man X, and it’s something that never found its way back into the main series. (It would very much inform the Mega Man Zero series, but that’s a story for another day.) This is a simple mechanic — which I mean as a compliment — but it has huge implications in terms of how the game can be played.

Mega Man X, 1993

I don’t think Capcom realized just yet exactly how much it shakes up the gameplay. Most of the time, it seems like the developers expect you to simply wall jump for the sake of overcoming obstacles, as you’re taught to do here.

Jump toward a wall and X automatically clings to it, sliding down slowly. Jump while you’re sliding down and you’ll gain height. Repeat the process to scale a vertical wall. That opens up some level design possibilities — and Capcom takes advantage of that several times over — but it also opens up combat possibilities, which I don’t think pay true dividends from a design perspective until later games.

Basically, any time there’s a vertical wall, you’re no longer limited to how high you can jump; you can climb all the way to the ceiling whenever you like. Where does this matter most? Well, during boss fights, where you always (with the exception of Storm Eagle) have tall vertical walls to scale. Whereas Mega Man could hop over and slide under projectiles, he was still always at the mercy of any given Robot Master and its attacks. Mega Man would far more often have to react than act.

X, however, thanks to the wall jump, has infinitely more mobility than any of the bosses in this game, meaning that they are at his mercy. The only thing you have to do as a player is master X’s moveset and get comfortable with climbing. Once you do that, it’s the Mavericks who will be forced into reacting. Instead of needing to master the moves and patterns of eight main bosses, you only really need to master the movement of one protagonist. After all, unless they can fire a projectile that reaches the ceiling, you don’t have to worry at all about what they’re doing down there.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s neither good nor bad; it’s just a fact. Climb into the upper corner of a room and wall jump quickly enough to stay there and few Mavericks will even be able to hit you. They’re simply not equipped to handle that level of agility, and they’ll almost always have to rely on you fumbling the timing and falling back down to where they can reach you. If you don’t fumble that timing, however, you will always have the advantage. You can choose to drop down only when it’s safe, fire a few small shots or one charge shot, and then hop right back up where they can’t reach you.

Perhaps Capcom figured that few players would bother learning the movement mechanics well enough to turn them into such a significant advantage. Perhaps Capcom didn’t realize it was even possible. It’s hard to say, but the set of Mavericks in this game are absolutely hamstrung by your newfound ability to keep out of reach. I don’t see this as a problem — new players won’t master the mechanic that quickly or easily — but I’m certainly pleased to report that Mavericks in later games won’t be quite so exploitable by default.

Mega Man X, 1993

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At the end of the intro stage, you fight Vile, one of Sigma’s powerful lackeys. He uses Ride Armor — basically a bigger robot body into which you can climb, and which itself will become another series staple — and you are destined to lose the fight.

Vile is bigger, stronger, and more durable than you are, and it’s impossible to defeat him. Maybe you did well in the intro stage. Maybe you didn’t. Either way, Vile leaves you broken and defeated and Zero, an ally X is meeting for the first time, shows up to save your sorry ass.

You are guaranteed to realize the same thing from this scene that X does: You’ve got a long way to go, kid.

Mega Man X, 1993

Let’s step back.

Mega Man 7 eventually took a few cues from Mega Man X. One of them was the intro stage, which in both games is a broken highway in a city under siege. Both Mega Man and X fight their way down the ruined road, looking very similar to each other, using a very similar weapon to each other, and at the end they each encounter the Big Bad’s highest-ranking crony, who attempts to put them in their place.

In Mega Man 7, though, you can win the fight. It’s Bass there, and if you fight carefully enough, you can overpower him. You certainly can lose to him, and easily, but you don’t have to lose to him. You can humiliate him just as much as he intended to humiliate you, sending him home to lick his wounds.

That makes sense. It’s a video game. Play well and win, play poorly and lose.

In Mega Man X, though, you can’t play well at this point. X is physically incapable of subduing Vile. This means something, and it further defines the contrast between that game’s protagonist and this game’s.

Mega Man X, 1993

Mega Man, basically, was not weak and therefore never felt weak. He was limited only by your own abilities as a player. If you didn’t know what you were doing, he’d die a lot. But if you were good at the game, he was able from the very start to handle anything that the stages, enemies, or bosses could throw at him. He was ready for the adventure. You may not have been, but he was.

X is different. X is not ready, and Mega Man X is the story of X becoming ready, fight by fight, stage by stage, upgrade by upgrade. X is sent into battle, but cannot win. He is doomed to failure, unless he grows, changes, and becomes more powerful.

When Dr. Wily underestimated Mega Man, it was at his own peril. It was because he had an inflated sense of self and refused to accept that he could be bested by a super fighting robot. When Sigma and his loyal troops underestimate X, though, you can’t blame them. X is basically an insect at this point. He might win a few skirmishes through sheer luck or resilience, but he is literally incapable of winning the war.

Dr. Wily felt secure, in other words, because he failed to view Mega Man for what he really was. Sigma feels secure because he views X exactly for what he is.

Mega Man X, 1993

There’s no real “better” way to design games, of course. I certainly have no problem with the fact that Mega Man never felt weak. However, because he never felt weak he also never felt strong. He operated from the start of each game to the end at the same baseline level of competence. There was no real growth. X feeling weak at the start, by contrast, means that he can feel like a powerhouse by the end, because Mega Man X built itself room for that transition to take place.

This gives each series a different identity. When playing a Mega Man game, you as a player would experience the growth and learn how to overcome challenges. When playing a Mega Man X game, that increase in competence belonged at least in part to the character instead. Both approaches are valid, and Capcom’s attempt at the new approach works brilliantly here.

How did they accomplish it? Well, if you look at X’s life bar in the screen shots from the intro stage, you’ll get some idea. It’s absolutely minuscule compared to Mega Man’s…but, hey maybe folks playing the game for the first time might not realize that. Whenever you square off against a boss, though, you’ll see just how much longer their life bar is by comparison. It will be made immediately clear to you just how outmatched you are, and how much harder you will have to work than they will. They can afford to make more mistakes than you can; you’re the weakling.

Mega Man X, 1993

That does a pretty good job of establishing you as being a relatively fragile character, but that’s just the start of the journey. The game is designed to take you gradually from that state to being a fully powered-up war machine.

It does this by squirreling away upgrades in each of its main stages. In Mega Man, of course, you would finish a stage and receive a new weapon, which was nice, but it never changed the fundamental way in which you interacted with stages or how durable or powerful you were. Sometimes you’d snag a utility or two along the way, but usually you didn’t, and even those just helped you avoid a platforming challenge or two.

Here you still get a weapon for defeating a Maverick, but the empowerment comes from exploring those Mavericks’ stages. You can find a heart tank in each of the levels, which extends your life bar just a little bit so that you can take more damage. You can find four subtanks, which allow you to replenish your health. (You fill these by picking up health when you don’t need it, and you can reuse the subtanks as many times as you like, both of which are very welcome changes to the one-use-only E-tanks of Mega Man.) You can find more of Dr. Light’s old capsules, each of which upgrades some aspect of X’s technology.

Mega Man X, 1993

Because you find those things by exploring rather than fighting, you are not only encouraged to engage with the main levels in a new way — and probably repeatedly — but you are able to increase your abilities at a steady pace, even if you aren’t able to defeat any of the bosses yet. If you’re really struggling, you can visit a stage, find whatever upgrades you can, die, and then try another, where you might find even more upgrades. You retain your items upon death, which means that you’re no longer stuck if you’re struggling to defeat a boss; you can still seek out other ways to give yourself an edge.

The feeling of gradual empowerment is sincere. It’s the main theme of the game, in fact, and it’s presented, explored, and felt through gameplay. Mega Man relied on raw skill alone, but Mega Man X offers a bunch of small ways to tip the odds in your favor as the protagonist grows into a more capable hero. X’s journey is one of significant and lasting growth.

There’s a bit of a strange imbalance here, though, when it comes to how these upgrades are distributed, and I can’t tell if it was deliberate or accidental.

I’ll explain. There are eight main stages and eight heart tanks, so each stage gets one heart tank. That’s expected and makes sense. Then there are four subtanks and four Dr. Light capsules, so you’d think that each stage would get one of those two things as well. That would also make it easier for folks to remember which stages they’ve “cleared” and which still have an upgrade or two left to discover.

Mega Man X, 1993

In practice, though, Flame Mammoth and Storm Eagle get one each of all three upgrades. Boomer Kuwanger and Launch Octopus — or Octopardo, as he liked to be called — only get a heart tank. There’s certainly no rule of game design that says that the distribution of upgrades must be even, but I’m not sure why a decision was made to keep it uneven, when that would only make it difficult for players to intuitively understand when they’ve found everything.

Also, Launch Octopus’ stage feels weirdly long and sprawling to contain only one upgrade; there are a whopping five minibosses here — some of them being optional — so for one upgrade alone to be hiding here, it feels oddly lopsided.

As long as we’re on the subject of upgrades, let’s talk about the Dr. Light capsules, because these introduce their own problems.

The most obvious one has to do with the narrative and, to be fair, is something that will only be a problem as the series progresses.

Right, so, Dr. Light wasn’t certain that X would be “reliable,” hence the three decades of testing. Dr. Light also wasn’t certain that he himself would live long enough to verify X’s reliability. We can therefore infer that these four capsules scattered around contain upgrades that Dr. Light would have given to X anyway, assuming X came through testing okay and didn’t have to be destroyed or something. These capsules, basically, were a way for Dr. Light to prepare upgrades for the robot, but not install them, in case something went terribly wrong and X turned out to be insane or murderous.

Mega Man X, 1993

Sure enough, when you find these capsules, a holographic recording of Dr. Light shows up to welcome you and install your upgrade. Dr. Light’s recording also indicates that he’d hoped X wouldn’t need to have his offensive capabilities upgraded at all; he wanted X to awaken in a world of peace rather than one of conflict. That’s all fair and fine.

As the series progresses, however, X keeps finding capsules. He has to, because each game needs a set of upgrades to keep the feeling of gradual empowerment alive. But the Dr. Light holograms stop delivering vague “I’m sorry I died so long before you were born but I hope this helps,” messages and start commenting on the present-day state of the world, referring to things that happened and characters who were created after he died. He is also aware in later games that the world is actively at war, and is no longer optimistic that X might be living in an era of peace.

So is the Dr. Light hologram some kind of A.I. that learns and develops new upgrades based on what X needs at any given time? Or is he, as Mega Man X suggests, just some old man who did his best to plan for the future? He can’t be both.

Again, that’s not the fault of this game, but it gets pretty silly later on, when Dr. Light goes from saying “I sure wish I could have lived long enough to meet you,” to “I know what you’re going through and I’ve got a gift for you.” Personally, I think Capcom at some point just forgot the guy was meant to be dead as opposed to hiding away in a bunker somewhere but, again, we’ll get to that later.

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, Dr. Light picked some weird places to hide his capsules. You find them here in a forest, a factory, an ice cave, and a military airfield. Nothing totally impossible to accept, but in the very next game he somehow installed one in a moving tank shaped like that stage’s boss…around 100 years before that boss was ever created. In Mega Man X4 he’ll have miraculously managed to install one in cyberspace as well. In Mega Man X5 he’ll have somehow managed to install one in a sunken Spanish galleon. BUT AGAIN THAT IS NOT THE FAULT OF MEGA MAN X SO I NEED TO CHILL OUT OKAY

Then there’s the question of whether these capsules are meant to serve as hidden rewards for thorough explorers, or natural and fundamental elements of X’s growth as a character and a fighter. Either is fine, but they’d require different executions, and I don’t think Capcom ever really made a decision.

More specifically, I think that they indeed intended for them to serve as important milestones of growth for X, but I’d argue that two of them are hidden too well for most people to find, one of them particularly so. Because of that, they can be too easily overlooked, and people will complete the game without realizing that they’d missed out on part of X’s personal journey of growth…which is the core theme of the game.

Mega Man X, 1993

You can reward players who seek hidden items, certainly, but eight heart tanks and four subtanks already do that. The Dr. Light capsule upgrades should be uniformly easier to find, even if they’re difficult to access. That’s in fact the approach that the later games often took; the capsule would be in plain sight, but you’d need to figure out how to reach it, and I think that that’s the right way to go about things.

In Chill Penguin’s stage, the capsule is impossible to miss; it is in a corridor through which you must pass on your way to the boss. You can’t go around it, either; you have to activate it and receive the upgrade, essentially ensuring that you will learn how this system works. It’s a freebie, and that’s fine.

In Sting Chameleon’s stage, you need to climb a wall that leads to a new area. That’s a fair thing to expect of players in a game in which they will have already learned that they can climb walls. Once you’ve done that, you’ll face a miniboss. The capsule isn’t visible until you win the fight, but players will intuitively understand that a hidden miniboss is guarding something, so there’s enough of a chain of logic here to lead players to the upgrade. Also fine.

Mega Man X, 1993

Storm Eagle’s capsule is debatable, but I’ll come down on the side of saying that it’s just slightly unfair. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you can notice that an ominous downward passage doesn’t lead to death, but to other platforms. That itself means that you can safely hop down there and snoop around. That much is fine, but accessing the capsule requires you to get past a series of upright canisters.

They look destructible, and they are, but they take a lot of hits before they explode. First-time players will probably see them, try to blow them up, and give up, assuming that they don’t have the right weapon to destroy them. If the canisters didn’t take so much damage before they explode, that would be fine. If the canisters displayed gradual damage, establishing that your shots were working, that would also be fine. Instead, I think the game is incorrectly teaching players to come back later…which is something they don’t have to do and may forget to do.

Then there’s Flame Mammoth’s capsule, which is unforgivable.

It relies on players noticing that a few grey blocks look different from the other grey blocks in the stage, and they’re placed overhead, which is not a direction the game ever teaches players to look, outside of vertical passages.

Mega Man X, 1993

If you do notice that the blocks are different, you may try to destroy them with a weapon, but no weapon has an effect, so you may well give up and move on without realizing that you missed anything.

If you somehow notice them and understand that you need to do something other than destroy them with a weapon, you’d still have to make the wild guess that you need to physically touch them. Try doing that, though, and you’ll find them very difficult to reach. It’s doable, but as first-time players are still getting used to the controls and movement quirks, they may not spend the time necessary to learn exactly how to dash and leap from the platform on the right in order to just barely reach the blocks. Most likely they’ll try a few times, conclude that it can’t be done, and move on…and that’s if they made it this far in their chain of reasoning to begin with.

Then, if they do manage to intuit all of that, they will also need the helmet upgrade from the capsule in Storm Eagle’s stage, otherwise they won’t be able to break the blocks. If they don’t have that, they may conclude again that — even though they’ve noticed and figured out how to reach the blocks — the blocks can’t be broken.

Then, if they figure all of that out and have the helmet upgrade, they’ll have to make sure they jump perfectly enough to break the blocks in such a way that they can keep wall jumping up into the vertical passage to find the capsule. If they only break a block or two, they won’t be able to reach the vertical passage again unless they exit the stage and return, respawning the blocks and giving themselves another chance.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s absolutely appalling design. For some kind of very valuable (and very optional) upgrade or goody, it’s perfectly fine to hide something in an area that will be easy to overlook or difficult to access. For something essential to the character’s central journey — as I have to imagine these were intended to be — that doesn’t work at all.

Another problem introduced by the capsules is something that we can’t really discuss until we go over what the upgrades are, so…let’s do that.

Storm Eagle’s capsule upgrades your helmet, allowing you to break blocks. This is almost never used outside of accessing Flame Mammoth’s capsule, and even worse is the fact that the demonstration of this ability is performed on blocks that look nothing like the blocks you’re meant to break in Flame Mammoth’s stage. The series would never quite figure out how to make helmet upgrades worth getting but, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Mega Man X, 1993

Flame Mammoth’s capsule upgrades your X-Buster, letting you charge your shots to even greater effect and charge your special weapons, giving each of them a secondary function.

Sting Chameleon’s capsule upgrades your body, significantly reducing the amount of damage you take. In conjunction with your ever-lengthening life bar, this upgrade is a huge help when it comes to surviving difficult stages and bosses. It’s definitely one of the least flashy upgrades — it doesn’t actually let you do anything new, so it’s hard to “feel” the difference — but it’s very welcome.

Then there’s Chill Penguin’s capsule, which upgrades your boots and gives you the dash ability. This is the only ability with its own dedicated button, and because the capsule is unmissable, the dash becomes an essential part of the experience of the game. All of that is fine, and the ability to dash is beyond handy; it feels closer to necessary.

Mega Man X, 1993

X is slow and serves as a large target. Sure, you can learn to outmaneuver any number of enemies and obstacles, but it would be so much easier if you could move quickly out of the way, wouldn’t it? Anyone coming to this series off the back of Mega Man — who had the slide as an option for immediate dodging — would have been used to having something like this. The dash feels so essential to the game that every sequel would include it from the start, seemingly acknowledging that it shouldn’t even be an upgrade; it should just be part of who X is and what he can do.

There’s a secret capsule in Armored Armadillo’s stage, which requires players to follow a completely unintuitive set of steps to access, but it’s also very clearly an optional Easter egg, as it gives X an ability from Capcom’s Street Fighter series. It’s a joke inclusion, basically. A handy one, sure, but not part of the intended experience.

Why does all of this matter? Because, of these upgrades, the most important and significant one is also the easiest one to find. It’s so easy to find that you can’t not find it. And once you do find it, you’ll visit Chill Penguin’s stage first on each subsequent playthrough, just so you’ll have the dash available for more of the game.

Mega Man X, 1993

The problem? That comes when you take into account Mega Man X‘s other great innovation: environmental changes to stages, based on which ones you’ve completed.

We’ll finish that thought, I promise; but first, let’s talk about why that’s a good idea on paper.

Mega Man had essentially one way to empower himself: Defeating bosses and copying their weapons. X is able to do that in addition to upgrading his parts, finding subtanks, extending his life bar, and completing stages, which changes the way other stages play out and makes them either more or less difficult depending upon the effect.

I like that a lot. That allows for more options when it comes to progressing in the game, as you have numerous ways of making a stage easier to complete, and those options don’t always rely on which weapon you are able to bring to a fight.

The moment I provide actual examples, however, we’ll learn the problem.

Mega Man X, 1993

Flame Mammoth’s stage is…well…fiery. It’s full of molten lava, making the stage difficult to traverse, rendering one of the upgrades impossible to reach and making the floor in a few rooms deadly. Sounds pretty dangerous, no? Well, it is, but one of the environmental changes in Mega Man X is that if you complete Chill Penguin’s stage, Flame Mammoth’s stage ices over.

Why? No idea, but it does. Now the floor won’t kill you, you can easily grab the heart tank, the stage overall becomes much less treacherous, and so on. The issue is now apparent; since you’ll want the dash, you’ll beat Chill Penguin first. Once you do that, you’ll never even see the “proper” version of Flame Mammoth’s stage; you’ll only ever play through the less-challenging version.

Of course, you could decide to not fight Chill Penguin until later. Or you could visit Chill Penguin’s stage, grab the upgrade, then kill yourself enough times that you can exit the stage and try another one. At that point, though, you as a player are trying to find ways around Capcom’s own flawed design. You’re trying to fix the game for them, and for no real purpose. Their own design works against players experiencing the game in full.

The house of cards doesn’t stop falling there.

Mega Man X, 1993

Storm Eagle’s stage will likely be one that players do soon after Chill Penguin, as his wind attacks push you backward. They don’t hurt you, but they can easily blow you into a pit. Once you get the dash, you’ll intuitively understand that you can use it to keep him from blowing you into the abyss, and you’ll be right. Now his attacks aren’t dangerous at all and you’ll defeat him easily.

Do that, and his aircraft crashes into Spark Mandrill’s stage (I think; again, the game isn’t clear about why finishing one stage affects another), turning off the power. This removes a number of electrical traps from the stage and robs the miniboss of its most powerful attack. Once again, just by progressing logically through the stages, you’ve robbed this entire level of its danger.

Granted, the lack of power means that a few rooms are darker than they otherwise would be, but it’s never difficult to see where you’re going. I believe that the intention was to change the specific kind of difficulty you’d face in the stage; instead of dodging powerful traps and attacks, you’d have to learn to advance through darkened areas. Nice idea. In practice, however, the latter isn’t even slightly challenging, as you can still see the platforms just fine.

Mega Man X, 1993

The only other environmental change that I noticed is that defeating Launch Octopus floods one of the lower areas of Sting Chameleon’s stage. I’m sure that that makes perfect sense to somebody, somewhere, but I’m at a loss to explain it.

That’s it, and it’s easy to see how Capcom could have fixed this. They could have made more stages alter each other in this way, so that even though a few stages get easier, others would become more challenging, balancing things out. Or they could have had some of the effects work differently. For instance, what if defeating Chill Penguin meant that Flame Mammoth’s stage got much more difficult instead of easier? Then there might be an actual reason to delay getting the boots upgrade. Or, of course, you could just put the boots in a completely different stage that didn’t affect how others played out.

Really, they could have done anything to improve this, so it’s a huge disappointment that they basically scrapped the concept of environmental interactions after this game. I know there’s at least one in Mega Man X3, but it doesn’t really come back into any kind of actual focus until Mega Man X6, where I’m sure it works wonderfully and will make everybody happy.

It’s disappointing that Capcom hit upon such an interesting idea with these different versions of the same stages, and then abandoned it without refining it. I’m not going to complain too much — I like a lot of things about the way in which the series evolved from here — but that is a very disappointing missed opportunity.

Then again, maybe that’s for the best. With Mega Man, Capcom only had to dream up eight new bosses and weapons for each game, in terms of anything that would really affect the gameplay. In this series, each game would require eight new bosses, eight new weapons, at least four new capsule upgrades for X, and — based on what we saw here — new ways for the levels to interact. That was probably too tall an order for every sequel, and they sacrificed the right thing.

I’m just disappointed that the concept was only really used here, and also happened to be executed so poorly that we never got to experience its full potential.

Mega Man X, 1993

As far as the stages themselves go, they’re pretty decent. I wouldn’t rank many of them as standouts, but I also wouldn’t say that any of them are bad, or even close to it. By this point, Capcom had spent five games learning how to design a great Mega Man stage on the NES, and though Mega Man X has a different enough approach, it’s not so different that Capcom is left starting from scratch. The lessons learned there serve them well here.

For whatever reason, I end up comparing it in my mind to the way the first stretch of Simpsons episodes can be really rough with glimmers of greatness, but when Futurama started, it was hitting greatness from the start. They were very different shows, but the team learned enough from working on one that they could benefit from those lessons when starting the other. Mega Man X is definitely a Futurama situation in that regard, as it starts off on firmer ground than the previous series did, and that’s a win for us as much as it is for Capcom.

In fact, years ago, after I taught myself to complete each Mega Man stage without taking damage, I tried my hand at Mega Man X. To my surprise, it wasn’t only doable; I found it comparatively easy. Was that because I was great? Well, no; it was because there weren’t as many design quirks that I needed to work around and account for. Capcom had level design nearly down to a science at this point; I’d rarely get caught unaware as long as I paid attention. Mega Man X isn’t easy, but it’s certainly fair, and that made a big difference.

Mega Man X, 1993

The only stage that took me more than three or four attempts was Launch Octopus’, and that was mainly due to the Maverick himself, whose attacks need to be handled with good reflexes. Even then, it didn’t take me very long to complete the stage without getting hit; it just took slightly longer. I’m sure the later games would have been harder, but I don’t think I attempted those. Perhaps one day.

The Maverick fights don’t do much that’s unfamiliar to Mega Man veterans. Flame Mammoth and Spark Mandrill are much larger than any standard bosses on the NES, which doesn’t make them more difficult but it’s nice to see Capcom embracing what they could do with the new hardware.

Flame Mammoth’s fight also takes place in a wider boss room than usual, and Storm Eagle’s fight doesn’t take place in a room at all, but rather on top of an airship. Fights like that stand out in ways that I really enjoy, as it demonstrates a willingness to experiment. Does a longer boss room really matter for Flame Mammoth? Nope, but you never know until you try, and I love that Capcom did more than just give us animal-themed bosses this time and call it a day.

Mega Man X, 1993

They were trying to tweak everything to some degree. The movement. The weapons. The exploration. The bosses. Everything got some kind of attention that, strictly speaking, wasn’t necessary. Not all of it worked perfectly, of course, but this was a new series. It was the beginning rather than the end. Mega Man X wasn’t flawless, but it was loaded with potential, and that’s what mattered. (And it was also pretty darned great, to be honest.)

All of this does an excellent job of giving Mega Man X a very different personality to the main Mega Man games. Superficially, they have a lot in common. (Too much, I’d argue.) Fundamentally, though, the experience is completely different and feels unique. So much so that anyone who attempts to play this like a Mega Man game — without learning how to take advantage of what makes X different — will find themselves failing, stopped dead multiple times, and frustrated at just about every junction. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Mega Man X takes the Mega Man foundation and builds something completely different on top of it. It’s familiar enough that we will already understand much of what we need to know, but the learning of new details, wrinkles, quirks, and abilities starts quick, and it continues throughout the entire game. It’s impressively designed.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, yeah, of course, I’m still me.

Mega Man X, 1993

The Sigma stages sadly follow in the tradition of the Wily stages as being…pretty crap. If I remember correctly, some of the later ones are much better, but the ones in this game are just long and difficult without much real personality. Particularly annoying are the vertical climbs — sometimes without a safe place to land — while durable enemies shower you with attacks.

There are easy ways through this — charging up either the Rolling Shield or the Chameleon Sting will render you invulnerable — but I don’t like that there’s not a fairer way to get through these sequences. You can either take a lot of time picking off enemies and making slow progress, or you can use a weapon that makes you invincible and barrel through it without any thought at all. I tend to feel more engaged when I can proceed in some way between those two extremes, but that’s not a huge deal.

At one early point in the Sigma stages, you square off against Vile again. This should be a great time to feel how much you’ve grown. You’d get to go from getting your butt kicked in the intro stage to holding your own in a fight against him, and that would be great. Instead, for whatever reason, the game still requires Zero to show up and save you. You do get to fight and defeat Vile, but not without Zero sacrificing himself to weaken Vile first, which dulls the feeling of personal growth somewhat.

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, Zero is a great character, as we’ll see, but he doesn’t do all that much in Mega Man X. He makes the theme of the game explicit in the intro stage, telling you that you need to get stronger if you’re going to defeat Sigma, and then he shows up here to help you on your way. That’s about it.

None of that is a problem, but considering how important the relationship between X and Zero becomes to the series — and to Zero’s own series — it’s a little strange to see him make only brief appearances here. That’s another “problem” that only exists in retrospect, I admit, but it’s worth bringing up.

Interestingly, if you didn’t pick up the X-Buster upgrade from Flame Mammoth’s stage, Zero gives you his own buster at this point. It behaves exactly like the powered-up X-Buster, but this is the first example of the narrative playing out differently depending upon decisions you make throughout the game. That will become a major aspect of this series — not always in a good way — so it’s worth spotlighting here, as one singular, early instance of Capcom testing out the idea.

…which leads to another bit of retroactive strangeness, as Zero’s main weapon would soon be established as the Z-Saber, which isn’t even seen in this game.

Mega Man X, 1993

Hmm…what else? Well, the bosses are a bit too easily demolished by their weaknesses. You can choose to not use their weaknesses, of course, but it would be nice if their weaknesses just made them easier rather than turned them into outright pushovers. Launch Octopus at least holds his own against his weakness, so that’s something.

In a similar vein, there’s an interesting aspect of the Boomerang Cutter. If you use it against Flame Mammoth or Launch Octopus — neither of whom are weak to it — you can shear off bits of their bodies, preventing them from using certain attacks. That is an interesting idea, and it’s similar to the way in which the Thunder Bolt in Mega Man 7 has special interactions with Spring Man and Turbo Man.

Like the special interactions in that game, though, this feels like the developers got partway into implementing a larger idea and gave up. It’s strange that only one weapon triggers boss responses along those lines, and it only happens with two bosses. (The Electric Spark causes Armored Armadillo’s armor to fall off, rending him more vulnerable to other attacks, but that weapon is his weakness so I don’t think it’s worth counting. Nice touch, though.)

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, there are a pair of sound effects associated with the subtanks. When you add health to a subtank, you hear a quick series of sounds that brings to mind a stack or a pile of something getting slightly larger. When you completely fill that subtank, you instead hear a nice, twinkly sound that suggests a feeling of completion. In the later games, if memory serves, those sounds are reversed, running counter to the mental associations each sound conjures so easily. Again, that’s not the fault of this game, but if I don’t mention it here, I’ll forget to mention it later, so you have to live with it.

The music is also not quite what I would have hoped for. Most of it is pretty forgettable, and while I appreciate Capcom’s attempts to take things in a more atmospheric direction, I just don’t think it works. I do think it works better in the later games, but the compositions here tend to just…be there. I realize that I am in the minority on that but, hey, I’ve got to be honest.

I do really like the Storm Eagle track, which is indeed perfect for a 16-bit hero smashing his way through an airforce base and then taking to the sky. Spark Mandrill’s is also nice and energetic, if not especially memorable. My favorite, though, by far, is Armored Armadillo’s frantic, energetic, barrelling tune that perfectly fits the underground chaos of his stage.

That’s also the only ground-based stage I think I’ve truly loved in any of these games. It’s far too quick and easy — you ride on little carts through most of it and just fire your weapon so you don’t collide with enemies — but it’s fun, and it’s a nice breather. Also, again, great music, meaning that I save it for last every time, as my little reward for being good.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s about it as far as complaints go, and those are really all varying shades of “minor.” Mega Man X was and remains a profoundly confident step in a new direction, and though I could pick it apart for whatever flaws I think it has, it’s far easier to celebrate just how good it is.

It looks great. It feels great. It’s full of great ideas, many of which are executed well and even more of which will be executed well in its sequels. It’s a remarkable achievement, and though I didn’t truly give the game the attention it was due until I was an adult, that’s entirely down to me and the fact that I didn’t engage with it long enough as a child to realize how much it had to offer.

Mega Man X, 1993

In a very large way, that was my loss.

In another way, it meant that I could discover as an adult, for the first time, a whole set of brilliant retro games that I’d never gotten to properly experience before. That’s a kind of magic in itself.

…okay. Maybe not a whole set.

Best Maverick: Launch Octopus
Best Japanese Maverick Name: Burnin’ Noumander
Best Stage: Storm Eagle
Best Weapon: Boomerang Cutter
Best Theme: Armored Armadillo
Overall Ranking: X (Once again, this will make sense later.)

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 11, 2018)

I’ve always been in love with Mega Man, and in the time following Mega Man 10, my love was at its highest. That game was good. Its predecessor was great. I replayed the series. I learned how to finish each level without taking damage (up to Mega Man 8, at least; I didn’t have an easy way to emulate the games from that point forward, and restarting them on actual hardware each time I took damage was far too time consuming). I started exploring the spinoffs and subseries that I’d never gotten around to.

I’ll mention now that this was when I had my first proper exposure to Mega Man X. I’d rented that game at some point near release, and while I didn’t hate it I also didn’t stick with it. I’m not sure if I even bothered with Mega Man X2 or Mega Man X3, and I certainly didn’t play the others. After Mega Man 10, however, finally, with my love of the Blue Bomber as great as it had ever been, I gave that entire series a shot.

If you’re interested, maybe I’ll do a similar set of writeups about those games. For now, I’ll just say that I enjoyed them a great deal. Not as much as the main series, but Mega Man X and many of its sequels represented an admirable and fascinating evolution of the formula.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then I played through the Mega Man Zero games, which I fucking loved and which are now my favorite series under the Mega Man banner as a whole. I played many of the RPGs, which were fine. I played through Mega Man ZX and its sequel, which were flawed but quite good. I played Mega Man Legends and its sequels, for a bit at least, but never quite found myself enjoying them.

That’s okay. All of that is okay. I’m sure there are those who dislike Mega Man Zero but love Mega Man Legends. I’m sure there are those who only enjoy the RPGs. I’m sure there are those who swear by the Mega Man X games but feel that the main series is archaic and needlessly difficult.

All of these are valid opinions. My only point is that I was willing and able after Mega Man 10 to track down everything I had missed, replay everything I already loved, and immerse myself in the franchise in a way I never had before. It was at this point that Mega Man — however you’d like to define Mega Man — cemented itself as my favorite series. I didn’t love all of it, and some of it I didn’t even enjoy, but I experienced as much of it as I could. I loved it even through its flaws, its idiocy, its worst impulses.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

For most series, I simply love the games that I love, and I ignore or spend much less time with the games that I don’t love. That’s…well, that’s just healthy. For Mega Man, though, I’d find myself replaying even the games that I disliked. Sometimes my opinion would improve (a bit), but most of the time I’d only find my dissatisfaction reinforced. And then I’d come back again and again and again anyway.

I loved these games, even the ones that I hated.

And so when Mega Man 11 came out in 2018, I was excited. I’d had years of dedicated Mega Man experience behind me, and I would finally get a new installment to dig into and fall in love with. And, hey, even if I didn’t like it, I’d be guaranteed another set of Robot Masters to perfect, another set of theme tunes to add to my iPod, another game to simply play through from front to back whenever I felt blue.

I got none of those things. I bought it. I played it. I promptly forgot about it. I played it again at some point and forgot about it even more quickly. I’ve tried several times to work up enough enthusiasm to write about it for this series, and I couldn’t do it. Even now, four years later, I’m struggling.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

It’s not that Mega Man 11 is terrible. Mega Man X7 is terrible, and I’m positively dying to replay that just so I can tell you, at great length, how terrible it is.

The problem is that Mega Man 11 is worse than terrible; it’s uninteresting.

There are aspects of Mega Man 11 that I feel are very good. There are aspects of Mega Man 11 that I feel are very bad. However, the overall product — the ultimate experience of playing it — just leaves me feeling…nothing. The game has high points and low points, but even its highs and lows feel so generic that my brain can’t retain them. They just slide into and out of my consciousness without making an impact, man.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of which makes it difficult for me to want to discuss Mega Man 11 for this series. I’d like to cover it — that’s the whole point of Fight, Megaman! — but I don’t feel right telling everyone to gather ’round for another discussion just so I can launch into several hundred variations of, “It’s kinda bland and it kinda sucks.”

Maybe it’s worth taking a different angle, then; why doesn’t Mega Man 11 leave an impression? Why are so few fans of the series talking about it? Why did it disappear so quickly from everybody’s minds?

We will explore those things. And we will explore them by asking two more questions. What is Mega Man 11? And what is Mega Man?

Let me first take a look at a pair of other releases from 2018, each of which similarly attempted to tap into nostalgia for very specific older games.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

I recall a review of Timespinner (which I think is similarly bland, though I’m certainly in the minority on that). The reviewer said that the game was so inspired by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that it even borrowed what the reviewer thought was a strange quirk: In both games, attacking stops you in place, but if you hop before attacking, you’ll be able to keep moving.

The reviewer was baffled that anybody would think to adopt that design choice in their homage. I disagree completely; nobody is obligated to implement that feature into their Symphony of the Night-inspired game, but it is a mechanic that people remember from Symphony of the Night. (The reviewer clearly remembered it, too, otherwise he couldn’t have mentioned it.) If you’re hoping to tap into players’ mental and emotional associations with that game, it’s not a puzzling choice at all.

I also recall a review of the Secret of Mana remake, which disappointed many people right off the bat by featuring bland and lifeless visuals that replaced the lush, gorgeous spritework of the SNES original. It was a video review. The reviewer was doing her best to give the game the benefit of the doubt. She wasn’t enjoying it, but she was trying to engage with it on its own merits.

She found a cannon, Secret of Mana‘s fast-travel system. On the SNES, this sequence was memorable and entertaining. Your party would climb into the cannon and get blasted into the air, the world would spin around beneath you, and then the camera would zoom in as you landed at your destination. Like everybody else who played the original, she was curious about how the remake would handle it. It turns out that it didn’t handle it; the entire sequence was omitted, and the game cut right from the cannon to her party arriving wherever they were going.

Her face fell. YouTubers exaggerate for effect constantly. Her disappointment, though, was clearly genuine.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

These are two things that, in truth, are extremely minor aspects of their respective games. In one, it’s an inessential movement mechanic. In the other, it’s a non-interactive cutscene. Neither is likely to be cited as part of either game’s larger identity, and yet one new release feels far closer to its inspiration thanks to a decision to include it, while the other feels so much farther away thanks to a decision not to.

I am attempting here to illustrate the fact that these seemingly small decisions — what to include, what not to include — amount to more than it probably seems like they should. Timespinner feels more like Symphony of the Night than it otherwise would, specifically because it stops you in place while attacking. The Secret of Mana remake excises an unnecessary animation from its fast-travel sequence, and instantly feels miles removed from its source material.

Every game developer is allowed to make whatever decisions they’d like to make, but the differences in how a finished game feels are often far larger than the seeming size of the decision. As Tristram Shandy would have it, “Never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.”

One tiny word, a line of code, a dead stop while swinging a weapon, a few seconds of air travel…small particles all, and yet they inform what we perceive as a game’s identity.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Let’s step into a different series, another one that is close to my heart: Fallout. Specifically, we’ll look at Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.

Bethesda took over the series beginning with 2008’s Fallout 3. Personally, I love that game; it’s one of my favorites full stop. Bethesda’s detractors, however, tend to claim something along the lines of, “It’s good, but it’s not Fallout.”

In a way, this makes a lot of immediate sense. The game is displayed in 3D rather than the top-down isometric perspective of Fallout and Fallout 2. It offers real-time combat as opposed to mandatory turn-based encounters. It requires players to traverse a large region instead of navigating quickly through empty areas from a map screen. The visual style is completely different. The game is primarily built and presented as a first-person shooter. It takes place in a different geographical region.

The list of superficial — and immediately noticeable — changes is a long one. Fallout 3 is indeed very different from its predecessors. It’s understandable that somebody who played Fallout and Fallout 2 would look at Fallout 3 and have the immediate reaction that it didn’t feel right.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

But then 2010 came along, and we got New Vegas, which is now widely considered to be the best game in the series, even though it retained every single one of Fallout 3‘s deviations from the established formula. How is it possible that Fallout 3 is good but not Fallout, while the equally different New Vegas is the best Fallout?

Well, it’s easily possible; it’s just that the difference between what people perceive as “Fallout” and “not Fallout” goes beyond the superficial. They may not realize that — they may conclude, initially, that the shift in genre or perspective were the problem — but anyone who sees Fallout 3 as a failure for the series and Fallout: New Vegas as a success will have to accept the fact that the problem is something deeper and less easily articulated.

I won’t get too far into those games here — we’re going to talk about Mega Man 11 at some point, I promise — but it’s an instructive example. Ask someone why they feel New Vegas is the better game, and they will likely answer with something vague, such as “it has better writing” or “the quests are designed better.” People are of course allowed to believe those things, but they’re things that can’t really be measured outside of our own personal, internal scales. They’re also thoroughly debatable.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

“Better writing” sounds clear enough, but it’s not that simple. In my opinion, for instance, New Vegas too often spirals into extended bloviation. Does the writing contain more interesting ideas than Fallout 3‘s writing? You bet. Is it also overlong, repetitive, and tiresome? Once again, you bet. Fallout 3 says less, but it says what it says more efficiently. New Vegas was in dire need of an editor. Is writing better when it achieves less, or when it overreaches?

Quest design can be considered in a similar way. Does New Vegas offer more quests and more ways to complete those quests? Without question. But is it also buggier to the point that quests break more often, fail to trigger, or close you out of certain solutions through no fault of your own? Without question. So what’s better? More options that often bug out, or fewer options that are more reliable? How could one even answer these questions?

I find the debate interesting. One of the most common reasons I see for people preferring New Vegas is that “the story is better.” I’ve asked a followup question about this a few times: What is it that you find interesting about the conflict over Hoover Dam? I’ve never gotten a direct answer. That is the story of New Vegas, but it’s not what people think of as the story of New Vegas because, in execution, it just feels like set dressing. New Vegas tells its central story so poorly that it doesn’t even feel like the central story. Many times, those who praise the story are trying to praise something else, but fail and fall back on the language that they actually have. Because they are unable to articulate how they really feel, they end up praising something else that they at least think they understand.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of which is to say that everybody can “feel” when a game (or movie, or television episode, or novel) fits it series, and they can just as easily “feel” when it doesn’t. We will always have different opinions about which of those games or movies or episodes or novels are the outliers, but we all recognize them when we see them. There’s something that just doesn’t feel quite right. Sometimes we can articulate it. Sometimes we can’t. Other times we articulate the wrong thing just for the sake of articulating something.

We are allowed to get it wrong. We are allowed to misunderstand our own response to things. But it’s worth figuring out what it is that we’re attempting to say. It’s instructive to at least try to unravel our own thoughts. Maybe we get nowhere, but we might understand ourselves better in the process.

So, hey, great. But what makes a Mega Man game a Mega Man game?

On the surface, there’s an easy answer: You are offered a selection of levels and can go wherever you want. You fight difficult enemies in punishing environments. You square off against a boss and take its power, which prepares you better for whichever stage you select next.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

And yet, that’s not right, because I’ve just described around 50 indie games that do the exact same thing. (I’ve not been the only one exploring my love of Mega Man in the time since 2010.) Indie games and fan games aren’t Mega Man games, even if they do all of the things I just listed. Therefore, whatever makes a Mega Man game a Mega Man game has to amount to more than an overall approach, just as Fallout wasn’t only defined by its perspective or combat mechanics.

Okay then. Do Mega Man games need to be 8-bit? Of course not; Mega Man 7 feels like Mega Man. Do they need chiptuned disco beats? No; the piano-heavy alternate soundtrack for Mega Man 11 is one of this game’s few true highlights. Do they need eight main stages? Well, the first game had six, so probably not.

We can make a list of all of the things that we think add up to create a Mega Man game, and we’ll find an exception to every one them. Each game adds and removes features to the point that all we’re really left with is…Mega Man himself, and clearly that’s not the answer; would a game of checkers with a Mega Man avatar become a Mega Man game?

What is a Mega Man game then? I don’t have an answer. And yet, I do have an answer that I know isn’t a valid one: In a Mega Man game, you freeze in the air when you hop through the boss gates.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Now, of course, that’s utter shash. There’s more to a Mega Man game than that. And yet, with it missing in Mega Man 11, I found myself fixating on its absence. And, once I did that, I started to notice all of the other ways in which the game felt off.

The lack of freezing in the air through the boss gate transitions is this game’s missing cannon blastoffs. It’s this game’s lack of coming to a dead stop while attacking. It’s this game’s “bad writing.” It’s the thing we focus on because we have so much to say, but can only understand one small piece of it. It’s emblematic of our overall disappointment, and it’s what we talk about not because it’s the best way of making our point, but because it’s the only thing we understand well enough to confidently explain.

Jumping into the boss gates and hovering there as you float into the next room is a part of what makes Mega Man games feel like Mega Man games. Ditto the ability to fire your Mega Buster just before you touch the door, resulting in an even cooler sprite. It hangs there on your screen as a reward for hitting those two buttons in the correct order with the correct timing, allowing you to confront the boss with genuine retro flair.

Doing this isn’t difficult, to be clear. It’s less a challenge than it is a simple, satisfying flourish with which to end a long, arduous trek through the stage-long gauntlet.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

You’ve made it. You’ve succeeded. The big duel is about to start, and you get to assert yourself with a victory pose. It’s the equivalent of a wrestler’s big entrance. You conquered this level, and now you’re going to boot its boss right out of it.

It’s not necessary. Nothing is necessary. But it makes Mega Man feel like Mega Man.

And so when Mega Man 11 decided to just drop you to the ground after its boss gate opened…well…that’s okay, right? It’s minor. It doesn’t really make a difference. Even the bad Mega Man games do the fun boss gate thing, don’t they? It’s not a seal of quality or anything. Who even cares?

I care. Because at the end of every stage I was wired to leap into that boss gate and draw my Mega Buster, and at the end of every stage I fell right to the ground and then walked through it as though what was happening was not important at all.

Boss gate after boss gate rejected my flourish. The rejection adds up. (I’m a writer, so I know this.) As it does, I’m forced to wonder what it is, exactly, that Mega Man 11 is doing. It doesn’t have to do everything that the previous games did (no Mega Man game does everything that the previous games did), but what is it doing instead?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The cynic in me immediately wishes to argue that it’s doing very little, but it does have a handful of major innovations that are worth discussing.

There’s the focus on story, most obviously. A few previous games — most notably Mega Man 8 — had an interest in crafting an actual narrative, but all of them boil down to Dr. Wily going mad again and Mega Man having to off his minions, one by one, before storming his base and stopping him. Mega Man 11 goes a little bit farther this time around, though, giving us significant series backstory in the process.

We see Dr. Light and Dr. Wily in their university days, arguing with each other about the future of robotics. Dr. Light wants to research independent thought and allow robots to make decisions for themselves. Dr. Wily wants to…well…basically arm them to the teeth and make them go crazy. For some reason, the other researchers side with Dr. Light, and Dr. Wily’s research is cast aside in disgrace.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

In the present, Dr. Wily wakes from this nightmare / flashback — wearing skull pajamas, in one of the game’s few moments of cute creativity — and remembers the Double Gear System he was working on.

What is the Double Gear System? That…doesn’t really matter or make sense. Basically, it allows robots to either temporarily beef up their offense or increase their speed as they see fit. Wily hotwires eight Robot Masters, installs the Double Gear System in them (I think…more on that in a moment), and…nothing changes, really.

The Double Gear System does have an impact on gameplay, but not a major one. Mega Man is outfitted with it, so that he’ll be able to square off against Wily’s powered-up goons.

Dr. Light tells Mega Man at the beginning that he’ll be crushed like a bug if he doesn’t use the Double Gear System himself, but in reality the Double-Gear-powered-up Robot Masters are no more difficult or complex than Mega Man bosses usually are. Sure, as Mega Man, I can now use these new functions myself, but I never need to use them, so it feels pretty silly to frame them as being essential to my success.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Robot Masters, I think, are ostensibly meant to have access to both functions of the Double Gear System, but in practice they each only use one. Reduce their health enough, and Blast Man, Block Man, Impact Man, and Torch Man will activate the Power Gear, while Acid Man, Bounce Man, Fuse Man, and Tundra Man will activate the Speed Gear. No matter which of these they use, it just amounts to a new attack or two for each boss. (There’s a notable exception, but we’ll get to that.)

That’s nothing special, to be clear. Bosses — in this series and certainly elsewhere — get new attacks all the time. The Double Gear System is presented as a huge complication for the narrative and the gameplay, working hard to justify something that hasn’t needed to be justified for decades. They aren’t more dangerous attacks, either; they’re just different attacks.

Mega Man gets to use both the Power Gear and the Speed Gear, and I like that in theory. Giving Mega Man and his enemies the same big new ability could have led to something interesting. It could have changed, in some way, the entire feel of Mega Man 11 and helped it to stand out as an individual game rather than just the latest entry in a long-running series. In practice, it again changes nothing and Mega Man 11 fails to stand out at all.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Speed Gear is by far the more useful of the two. When you turn it on, everything slows down. This allows you to make tricky jumps onto and off of falling platforms, for instance, without having to rely on impossibly quick reflexes. It could also allow you to weave your way comfortably through a hail of bullets, or slow down an approaching death trap to give you more time to think. It’s a solution to a problem that the series never really had to begin with, but it’s at least something interesting to play around with, and the game invents a few decent sequences that justify its inclusion. We’ll get to those.

The Power Gear, though, is fucking worthless. And I mean that literally. It has no value whatsoever to the game or to players.

The Power Gear is meant to power up your projectiles. That’s fine; having some kind of option for turning our weak basic shots into more powerful blasts is a nice concept. And it was indeed nice that we were finally allowed to do that…back in Mega Man 4.

That game had the elegant, natural idea to let the player hold down B for a short period to build up some extra power. Release the button and Mega Man would fire a larger, more damaging shot. It worked well. Holding the button down to increase power made intuitive sense. The delay before firing meant that it couldn’t be abused. The necessity of charging it first meant that you had to aim your shot carefully, lest you miss your target and waste your shot. All of that worked great.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Power Gear is that, but as a toggle. It offers nothing that a charge shot doesn’t offer, but you can abuse it and you no longer have to think about aiming, because you can fire as much as you like, which also removes the risk/reward balance of the charge shot. That’s fine if firing blindly is what you prefer, but the default Mega Buster already allows you to do that. The Power Gear still doesn’t make anything easier, in that case; it just makes enemies require fewer shots. It doesn’t change the way you play the game or accomplish your goals at all.

The truly strange thing is that the charge shot was missing from Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, meaning that Capcom made the conscious choice to bring it back for Mega Man 11, and then also gave us a new mechanic that did the same thing. If the charge shot were still missing, the Power Gear would make sense; it would be understandable as a replacement for a mechanic that we lost several games ago. Instead, it’s a less-elegant, less-intuitive, less-interesting way to achieve the same thing we can already do. What’s the point? Mega Man 11 decided to fix what had never been broken…while still leaving the previous, better fix in place. It’s baffling.

In a way, the Gears are representative of the best and worst impulses behind Robot Master weapons in general. The Speed Gear is like a good Robot Master weapon, because it changes the way in which you interact with the world, enemies, and obstacles around you. The Power Gear is like a bad Robot Master weapon, because it just changes the shape and damage of your projectiles.

Even then, the Gears fall down, because Robot Master weapons are earned. If you want one, you have to fight for it and take it. The Gears, by contrast, are given to you at the outset of Mega Man 11. They’re part of your default moveset, which implies some degree of significance.

In reality, though, you’ll try the Speed Gear and say, correctly, “I’ll rarely need this.” Then you’ll try the Power Gear and say, correctly, “I can already do this.” It’s disappointing when Robot Master weapons are rarely useful, but for core mechanics of the game to be rarely useful, that’s more than disappointing. That’s downright bad design.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Speaking of Robot Master weapons, it’s worth pointing out that holding the fire button does not charge those up, while the Power Gear does. That’s a fair distinction, but it’s worth remembering that the Mega Man X series had demonstrated eight-ish times over by this point that holding the fire button to charge its special weapons worked and felt just fine. There’s no benefit to implementing a clumsier system than what fans were already used to using.

And forgive me for harping on about this, but the Power Gear is rendered even more worthless by the fact that the charge shot can be used any time at all, while the Gears draw energy from a dedicated meter. You can only use the Gears briefly; keep them active too long and they overload, causing you to be unable to use them again until they cool down. That’s fine, but they overload so quickly that you end up having to manage their on-off switch more than you’re actually firing or platforming.

Using the Gears is a nuisance because you can’t just flip one on and do what you want to do; you have to flip one on, do some portion of what you want to do, flip it back off, wait for it to cool down, flip it back on, do more of what you want to do, flip it back off, and repeat until you’re done. It’s annoying, more trouble than it’s worth, and in the time it takes you to manage the Gears designed to help you, you could simply learn how to accomplish whatever you’re trying to do without using them at all.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Again, for an optional utility or Robot Master weapon, that’s fine, if disappointing. For a core mechanic framed as the defining new aspect of Mega Man 11, it’s just evidence that Capcom never figured out why either of these things should matter. The increased focus on narrative makes sense now; without the story reminding us many times over of how important the Double Gear System is, we’d never arrive at that conclusion ourselves.

Mega Man 11 does introduce little pickups that enemies can drop, which will immediately cool your gears down, but those are dropped randomly, just like health and weapon energy, meaning that you can’t rely on getting one when you need it, further discouraging anything but the most conservative use of the Gears. And if you aren’t actively using a Gear that very moment, snagging one won’t help with anything, because the cooldown happens automatically.

The pickups mean nothing unless you’re actively using the Gears, but you can’t count on them dropping often enough to justify actively using the Gears. How did nobody identify this as a problem?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Fortunately, the Double Gear System isn’t the only innovation that Mega Man 11 brings to the formula. It’s the most significant and disappointing one, but there are a few more.

For starters, you have dedicated buttons for the Rush Coil and Rush Jet. I like that. Those aren’t weapons, really, so having to select and “fire” them as you did in previous games never felt exactly right. Allowing them to be summoned with one press of a single button while you are doing whatever else you need to do is a great way of keeping things moving. That’s an extremely small step forward, but it’s still welcome.

Then there’s the fact that the charge shot now forces enemies to drop their shields, letting you attack them openly. This is…okay. Part of me likes the idea, but the rest of me realizes that this just removes the care and timing necessary in previous games to defeat shielded enemies. In those games, you’d have to avoid their attacks and bide your time until they became vulnerable, then sneak in a hit or two and repeat the process. It was…y’know…a game.

Now, you just have to knock their shield away with a charge shot and fire a couple more quick pellets. That’s it. No timing, no thought, no brainpower. And since the charge shot will necessarily be your first shot — you need to power those up, remember; you can’t just fire one off whenever you feel like it — that means that your very first shot will always create an opening for more. At that point, why bother giving us shielded enemies at all?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Another innovation is that Mega Man gets different helmets and accoutrements while using special weapons. It’s a cosmetic tweak only. It’s fine, but I think changing his suit’s color was a perfectly reasonable way of letting players see at a glance what weapon was equipped. I don’t think having a bunch of accessories hot-glued to him makes things any clearer.

Also, speaking of special weapons, I love the idea of making the weapons demonstrations interactive. That gives us an opportunity to play with our new toy without having to worry about ammunition or damage.

However, those screens also contain instructions and button commands, which makes the whole thing feel cluttered and confused. The game inundates players with text that explains everything, while giving them at the exact same time the chance to experiment and figure it out for themselves. Either approach can work, but doing both at the same time makes it feel like nobody cared enough to make a decision.

If you’re tired of listening to me complain, I’ll say something nice: I think Mega Man 11 implemented some kind of tweak that makes it less likely for you to fall off the edge of a platform when you get knocked back. Sometimes you do fall, but the game seems to be a bit more forgiving and give you a little more grace than previous games did. That’s a positive change. Look at me being positive.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of this probably sounds like I dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s different, but it’s not that. Every Mega Man game is different to some extent, in its own way. Every Mega Man game does something unique. Every Mega Man game experiments.

Sometimes those experiments work. Often, they don’t. No matter what, I try to engage with them on their own merits, and I do my best to appreciate each game for what it is rather than what I would like it to be. Sometimes, of course, I come away still not liking the game. Other times I’ll feel that the game is flawed but gets enough right that I appreciate its effort.

No matter what, however much or little a single game tries to shake up the formula, I want to treat it fairly. I replay these games many times. I give them every opportunity to either win me over or to charm me. So, ultimately, no, I don’t dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s different. I dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s pretty bad.

In fact, let me prove that I’m willing to accept things that are different. And I’ll do it by complaining some more!

Mega Man 11 (2018)

See, the soundtrack to this game is awful. Not just disappointing by Mega Man standards — which would be easy, because the soundtracks in this series are some of the best in all of gaming — but actively lousy. Every single song sounds like…nothing. It’s just endless, dreary electronic swirling. It’s the aural equivalent of caulk.

It honestly sounds as though somebody told the composer, “Mega Man has electronic music,” and she took that as literally as possible and no further. The music is flat, droning, and thoroughly devoid of personality. That’s something I could never say about even my least favorite soundtracks in other Mega Man games. (Well, we’ll see; I may take that back if I ever cover Mega Man X.)

But here’s the thing: As a pre-order incentive for the game (and, I believe, free DLC now, so grab it if you can), there was an alternate soundtrack. It’s called The Wily Numbers for reasons I can’t fathom, but the compositions are performed by live instruments and musicians instead of whatever flatulent robots were enlisted for the main game’s soundtrack.

…and it’s great. It sounds nothing like a Mega Man soundtrack, at all. It’s piano heavy. It feels organic and lively in a very human way as opposed to funky or danceable, which is how the soundtracks usually feel. It sounds like a bunch of musicians in a studio jamming along to one basic concept or another and it’s great. What’s more, it feels great while playing. It shouldn’t. If you’d asked me if a jazzy piano soundtrack were the right approach for Mega Man, I’d have said no…but this proves me wrong. It’s excellent. It fits. It’s different…and I love it.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Still, that only puzzles me more. These songs have melodies that work in service of their stages, and they’re all present in the main soundtrack, but they’re buried beneath groaning digital nonsense. The Wily Numbers songs let those melodies breathe and flourish. The same melodies are there in the originals, but are either impossible to hear or difficult to focus on. Either the performance or the production renders them inert.

The Wily Numbers brings them back to life. The icy dance of Tundra Man. The murky bubbling of Acid Man. The campfire march of Torch Man. All of it is excellent, and all of it is based on compositions in the main soundtrack that feel so empty and dry. This means that the composer — Marika Suzuki — did indeed compose songs that work well with every stage…but the execution of the main soundtrack is, for some reason, just fucking dismal.

I don’t know if that’s her fault. I’m willing to guess that it’s not, now that I’ve actually heard how these compositions can sound, but somebody somewhere went out of their way to package the game with the worst possible interpretation of every last one of them.

As such, I can’t even play Mega Man 11 with the standard soundtrack. It’s nearly unlistenable. With the Wily Numbers versions, though, I not only get some truly excellent music, but I get a glimpse of an exciting new direction that soundtracks for future Mega Man games could take. Seriously, even if you have no interest in this game, I’d recommend listening to all eight of the Wily Numbers tracks. They’re gorgeous.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Now that I’ve namedropped some of the Robot Masters, I guess we might as well look at the stages. They run the gamut, to be fair. There’s good stuff in there. The problem is that most of it is as bland as a Mega Man stage can possibly be.

The absolute blandest stage is probably Block Man’s, which is so non-descript that the level elements all feel like placeholders. Being as he’s called Block Man, I suppose the fact that his stage is just full of…blocks is fine, but there feels like there’s no love here. It feels at best like a concept nobody bothered to execute, and there’s no real gimmick unless you count the fact that blocks fall from the ceiling sometimes. I’m not suggesting that every stage needs a gimmick — gimmicks in these games can be pretty awful — but it needs something, and it instead has nothing.

Weirdly, this is the stage that was used as a demo for the game. I remember playing it and wondering why they chose something so completely unmemorable as the demo, ultimately concluding that they must have wanted to save the more surprising levels for the game itself. Fair enough, but I was wrong. Block Man’s stage is exactly as surprising as Mega Man 11 is on the whole: not even a little.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

You do some light platforming. You shoot some enemies. You move to the next room and do it again. Sure, that’s technically Mega Man, I guess, but doesn’t this stuff usually feel…fun?

Of course, I now know why they chose Block Man’s stage: They wanted to trick us. Block Man’s boss fight is the one time that the Double Gear System seems like it might make an actual difference to the way the game is played. Other Robot Masters just activate their Gear and either move more quickly or hit harder. Block Man, by contrast, transforms.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Block Man is the only boss in the entire game to get another phase that consists of more than a new attack or two. He starts as one boss, becomes a second boss, and then reverts back to his original form with new behavior. It’s interesting. I won’t say that it’s good, but somebody invested some care into here the idea.

The other bosses, though? Nothing. Capcom gave us Block Man in the demo so that we’d be tricked into thinking that this was how Robot Master fights in Mega Man 11 would go. They gave us an outlier so that we’d assume it was the baseline and pull out our credit cards. Joke’s on you, Capcom; I buy whatever crap you make anyway!

Fuse Man’s stage is nearly as bland. There are a few platforming sequences that require some degree of timing, but really it’s about as basic as an electricity-themed stage can get. You usually get a good view of what the hazards involve so very little of it seems unfair, but none of it feels creative. Except for the miniboss, I guess. I don’t know what miniboss I would have expected here, but a Rasta-man dynamo wasn’t it. Technically that makes it creative, I think?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Speaking of minibosses, every stage has at least one, and I never realized what a pace breaker that can be until Mega Man 11 drilled it into me. They’re rarely difficult, but they certainly get tedious fast. Other games use them sparingly, which is both a good idea in general and helps the stages in which they do appear to stand out a bit. In this game, they’re everywhere, making them feel less special and more like a chore.

It doesn’t help that few of them feel…right. Bounce Man’s stage has an inflatable frog piloted by a little robot who reinflates it each time you puncture it. That’s cute. Tundra Man’s stage, though, just has a woolly mammoth skeleton on a plate. Who gives a shit? Block Man has a stack of discs, just to ensure that everything about his stage is the least interesting thing imaginable. Impact Man has a guy in a shovel mech. Acid Man has some kind of toilet scrubber. Torch Man has a screaming chicken. How many of these sound like the creations of people who loved what they were doing?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The best of the minibosses, without question, is the one in Blast Man’s stage, which involves hopping around two roller coaster carts loaded with explosive enemies.

You need to avoid the vehicles and shoot the enemies so that they collide with with the coasters and deal damage. It’s actually pretty great, requiring forethought and solid reflexes. I like that one a lot, and it makes me realize how much more I’d enjoy the game if we got fewer minibosses, so that each of them could each have had more attention paid to their design. I’d rather have three or four good ones than eight basic ones that just require me to hop over bullets and shoot them until they keel over.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Next is probably Impact Man’s stage, which isn’t much better but at least tries some new things. At various points in the stage, Impact Man’s limbs will fly around and make it difficult for you to navigate certain rooms without taking damage. It sucks, but it’s also kind of interesting, I suppose. I mean, I hate it, but it’s something.

In the grand tradition of ground-based Robot Masters, Impact Man’s stage is a bore. No pun intended. Unless you liked it; in that case, I intended it.

Then there’s Bounce Man’s stage, which is at least colorful, marking a massive leap forward. It’s still not great, though, and something about the whole thing felt unintuitive to me. For instance, it took me ages to figure out how to ascend the long vertical passages lined with bounce balls. Am I moron? Probably, but I was a frustrated moron until I figured out that I just need to leap into them and hold down the jump button. That’s it.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Should I have figured that out more quickly? Maybe, but I’m still not sure what there was to figure out. Holding jump on a row of horizontal balls bounces me higher vertically, which makes sense. I could therefore intuit that holding jump on a row of vertical balls would bounce me farther horizontally…but, no, it actually moves me vertically again.

How was I supposed to guess that? What’s the logic behind that working? And now that I have figured that out, am I supposed to enjoy it? Does holding the jump button for a few seconds while the game does all the work count as gameplay?

I’m still not sure how the slap-hand boxes work. If you shoot a hand, it flops over. If you’re standing on the platform after a few seconds, the hand returns to its upright position and slaps you off. That’s fine, but sometimes it slaps me across large gaps, which seems to be intended, and other times it slaps me right into the same gaps, and I can’t figure out why the outcomes are so different when I approach the situation the same way.

At the very least, the main soundtrack here sounds like it’s trying to be playful. It’s still not great, but it’s a nice break from the cascading electronic wheeze that we hear through the other stages. (Seriously, listen to the Wily Numbers versions instead. It’s actual music, and you’ll be surprised how rich it sounds in comparison.)

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Tundra Man’s stage is a bit better, I suppose. It’s still largely dull, though, and it ends with an annoying series of jumps through narrow passages during a wind storm, which is not a great way to conclude things. Also, the stage keeps giving us tight corridors during enemy encounters which, yes, does make them difficult, but also doesn’t quite qualify as creative design.

On the bright side, the Wily Numbers version of this stage’s theme is fucking fantastic. (Have I mentioned how much I enjoy the Wily Numbers songs?) I always save this level until last for that reason alone; it’s a very high note to end on.

The Tundra Man fight itself is the best in the game. He’s a memorable Robot Master with a strong personality, unlike…whoever most of the others are meant to be. Tundra Man is an ice dancer, announcing his moves as he goes and encouraging us to dance along. Sure, he’ll kill us and do so with pleasure, but he wants us to participate. Learn his moves, react in kind, and the fight gets easier, sure, but it also gets immensely satisfying. He reminds me, in a way, of Sword Man from Mega Man 8. That fight played like a duel, and this one plays like a duet. It’s lovely stuff, and it really does elevate the entire level.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Moving into the better levels overall, we have Acid Man’s stage, which isn’t great but it has a lot going for it. I like that this game’s water stage isn’t full of water, but rather a substance that is far more dangerous. The acid doesn’t actually damage us during the submerged sections, but just knowing that it is acid keeps us on our toes and prepares us for how dangerous things are.

Sadly, there’s a huge reliance on death spikes in conjunction with tricky (and varying) water physics, as well as narrow, moving platforms that will carry us right into the spikes if we aren’t careful. As such, I tend to remember this level as being one that drains my lives a bit too quickly to feel fun.

It’s doable, and it’s not unfair, but it’s also not fun enough to justify the irritation, especially when you just barely clip a death spike near the end of the stage and get rocketed all the way back to the checkpoint, forced to navigate mazes of instant death traps all over again.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Torch Man’s stage is, in some ways, my favorite. It has an absolutely wonderful campout aesthetic, which is a unique idea well executed. That comes with all of the expected superficial visuals, sure, but it also means that the stage takes place at night, requiring you to keep a source of light around — usually in the form of an enemy — in order to see where you’re going.

There’s a lot of creativity on display here. The lantern owls, the kettle critters, the sentient camp stoves you can turn off briefly to use as platforms…it’s good stuff, almost throughout.

Almost.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then we have the forest fire segments, which are great ideas, but not enjoyable in the slightest. These sections give the Speed Gear a chance to shine, as you’re chased by a wall of fire that kills you on contact, but the window to react is far too narrow. You’re forced through tight passages and required to hop quickly between small platforms, usually while besieged by bullet-sponge enemies that hem you in, and it’s simply not fun.

It is bad enough when one of Acid Man’s spikes sends you back to a checkpoint, but that usually comes down to carelessness that was reasonably within your control. Here, the fact that you didn’t flawlessly execute a pixel-perfect hop through a winding corridor at the end of an overlong chase sequence just makes the stage feel unnecessarily arduous.

Add to this the fact that Torch Man himself moves quickly and — for the first few attempts, at least — unpredictably, and you’ll end up having to replay the stage many times. Plodding through these long forest fire sequences, hoping they don’t rob you of your lives before you even get to try fighting the boss again, seems sometimes like you’re being punished by the developers rather than tested by them.

It’s doable, certainly. I can do it. But I can do everything that Mega Man games have asked me to do. I don’t think that that inherently means that everything they ask us to do is equally fair.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then, finally, we get to the lone stage that I’d truly call good: Blast Man’s.

This stage is just wonderful. Like Torch Man’s, it has a fantastic concept, here being an explosion-based attraction at an amusement park. This could have been (and should have been, in all honesty) explored further. There should have been more in the way of silly advertisements and attractions and whimsy, instead of the standard crates-and-girders layout we get here, but it’s something.

The concept is executed just well enough that I can still appreciate it, in spite of the fact that I wish it went far beyond this. Exploring a deadly carnival attraction is wonderful, as is the fact that the little explosive robots in this level aren’t just enemies; you can use them to solve basic puzzles and even defeat larger enemies. It’s kind of adorable and often a lot of fun.

The best part is that it takes the forest fire segments from Torch Man and does them right. Many times in Blast Man’s stage, you’ll have to navigate a series of exploding platforms. Here, however, they are shorter, and you can usually see most of what you’re up against before you trigger the explosions. There’s little on-the-fly guesswork; you have a chance to see what you’ll need to do before you need to do it. That doesn’t make anything easy, but it makes it far more sporting, which itself ties into the amusement park nature of the entire stage.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Basically, Blast Man does the same thing, but more often, better, and in shorter bursts. It’s as close to perfect as this game ever gets, it leaves the rest of the stages in the dust, and it ends with one of the best boss fights as well, second only to Tundra Man. Whoever designed this stage deserves a round of applause; this is definitely the pick of the litter.

Speaking of litter, the Wily stages in this game are absolute garbage.

There is nothing creative or interesting about them at all, and there are only two. Okay, technically there are four, but one is just a small room before the Robot Master refights, and the other is a small room before the Dr. Wily fight. That’s it. The game can’t wait to get this over with, as though the developers couldn’t even feign enthusiasm anymore.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Wily stages are typically weaker than the main stages in any Mega Man game. I get that. But no other game in the entire series has ever thrown up its hands so quickly and clearly. The others at least tried. They attempted to leave us with some kind of spectacle, or insane difficulty, or some weird, memorable gimmick.

Here, we get nothing.

The first Wily stage has some gears we have to jump on. Some fall apart. You fight the Yellow Devil’s third cousin at the end. That’s it.

The second Wily stage has a big robot that chases you through some rooms. You fight a face in an egg at the end. That’s it.

That’s the entire Wily fortress. It’s a complete waste. Wily stages may often fail, but this one doesn’t even try. It’s an absolute joke and it feels insulting to come this far and be rewarded with the developers saying, “We didn’t bother making the rest of this game.”

Mega Man 11 (2018)

I can’t even talk much about the Robot Master weapons, because none of them are very good. Block Dropper drops blocks. Blazing Torch launches a fireball. Scramble Thunder sends out an electric spark that crawls across the floor, because we didn’t already have enough special weapons that did exactly that already.

A couple of them are fine, but probably accidentally. Acid Barrier is extremely handy, as you get a shield and a powerful projectile at once. Pile Driver is a great idea — it’s effectively an air dash with high collision damage — but there’s rarely a reason to use it. It makes mincemeat out of the second Wily stage, though, if you ever want to leave that behind as quickly as possible. That’s it. There’s no room for discussion, because the game feels almost calculated to not give us anything to discuss.

So that’s what Mega Man 11 is. A few glimmers of greatness, a whole lot of blandness, and an entire ending sequence it can’t even pretend to care about. That, I suppose, answers that question.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

But what about the other question? What makes Mega Man Mega Man? What’s missing here that prevents it from feeling like a Mega Man game? Or maybe the better way to ask the same question is this: What’s preventing me from feeling the same way about it as I do the other Mega Man games?

Well, let’s go back to jumping through the boss gates.

See, I didn’t just bring that up, make a point, and move on, like a sane human being. I figured I’d go back to the previous games — each of them — and make sure that my memory weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted to be sure that the boss gates worked that way in all of those games. I wanted to play one level from each and confirm that it was indeed Mega Man 11 that changed things.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

And so I did just that. I booted up each of the previous games I covered, and I fought my way through the stages of Cut Man, Metal Man, Magnet Man, Dive Man, Wave Man, Tomahawk Man, Junk Man, Tengu Man, Concrete Man, and Nitro Man. For good measure, I also booted up Mega Man & Bass and did the Cold Man stage. I managed to defeat Magnet Man and Dive Man without taking damage. (On the flip side, Tomahawk Man and Nitro Man kicked my butt.)

I confirmed that, in each case, the boss gates worked the way I remembered them working. I’d jump into them, press fire, and be rewarded with a nice little celebratory sprite hovering through the screen transition, just the way I liked it.

And playing through those stages showed me what the difference really is between Mega Man 11 and those games. The boss gates, sure…but also the process of making it to those gates. The fights that await us on the other side. The final stages we unlock after surviving all of those encounters. The new weapons that we earn and get to play with.

Replaying those stages helped me see just how little personality Mega Man 11 has.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The previous games, primitive as most of them are, are positively bursting with personality. Everything has love behind it. I may not always reciprocate that love, but I feel it. I see it. I know it’s there. There’s evidence of it on every screen. People made those games because they cared about what they were doing, and they wanted to give us the best Mega Man experience possible.

The results were often messy, but they were more often thrilling, satisfying, exciting, and unforgettable. Even the failures were interesting.

In Mega Man 11, though, I don’t feel that. Any given stage from the previous games has more personality than the entirety of Mega Man 11. Everything here feels — and looks, and sounds — so flat. Everything fulfills the barest, most superficial minimum we’d expect from a Mega Man game, and then goes no further. It’s always true to the letter of the law and never true to the spirit.

So we get a new set of Robot Masters. We get themed stages and weapons. We get electronic music. We get enemies with big, goofy eyeballs. We get to beat up Dr. Wily again. And when we’ve done all of that, the game ends and we get to go home.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The difference is that we never wanted to go home before. We wanted to enjoy our time in these games. We wanted to savor it. We wanted to replay them over and over again, finding new ways to navigate tricky rooms and new paths through the games with different sets of weapons and utilities. We wanted to immerse ourselves in these little worlds, dangerous though they were, because there was so much love inside of them that we were willing to overlook everything they did wrong.

Mega Man 11 closes the door after us and turns off the lights, because once we’ve finished playing it, there’s no real reason to stick around. It doesn’t seem to want us sticking around anyway. It fulfills its duty of being a Mega Man game and no more. Ironically, that makes it feel like it’s not a Mega Man game, because we’re not used to Mega Man games feeling so…artificial.

When the personality does come through, it speaks volumes. The Tundra Man fight has personality. The Torch Man stage concept has personality. Blast Man’s level design and miniboss have personality. And the Wily Numbers soundtrack, of course, has personality. The real reason those songs work so well is that you can hear the human beings behind the compositions. You know people are there making the music, having fun, caring about what they do. That makes a difference.

In the rest of Mega Man 11, there’s no sense of people behind any of it. There’s no feeling of love, of personality, of warmth, of care. It’s not a world. It’s just a picture painted on a wall.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

That’s what makes Mega Man Mega Man: personality. It bled through in small ways in the past, such as by letting you posture confidently while moving through the boss gates, and those small ways added up. They defined the Mega Man experience beyond the Robot Masters and special weapons and weaknesses and stage themes and everything else that seems like it should matter but really doesn’t.

Mega Man 11 has everything that doesn’t matter, and nothing that does.

That’s the difference.

This is a Mega Man game, certainly. We can’t rightly argue that it’s not. But it’s the absolute least anyone could have expected from one, feeling more than ever like it came from a sense of obligation rather than invention.

There will be a Mega Man 12 at some point. I just hope Capcom actually wants to make it.

Best Robot Master: Tundra Man
Best Stage: Blast Man
Best Weapon: Acid Barrier
Best Theme: Bounce Man (unless you allow the Wily Numbers tracks, in which case it’s Tundra Man)
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 11 > 8

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 10, 2010)

In the years between when I stopped playing Mega Man games and his miraculous resurrection in Mega Man 9, there were plenty of games I enjoyed. Games I loved, in fact. Resident Evil, Metroid Prime, Pikmin…even the game that remains my all-time favorite, Majora’s Mask.

I still enjoyed games. The medium evolved and in many ways no longer felt like the one I grew up with, but if I sat down looking for a good time, there were more than enough games that would give it to me.

Then Mega Man 9 came along, and it didn’t just give me another good time. It reminded me of what games used to be like.

I don’t just mean that it reminded me what they used to look and sound like, though it certainly did those things. I mean that it reminded me of what games used to feel like. Of what gaming itself used to feel like.

As games through the generations grew larger, deeper, more complex, they almost uniformly lost the feeling of addictive simplicity that attracted me in the first place.

One of my earliest gaming memories is playing Outlaw on the Atari 2600 with my uncle Glenn. It was a two-player game that saw each of us controlling a cowboy, firing blocky projectiles at each other. I’d guess there was a single-player mode as well, but I’m not sure I ever actually touched that. Whenever a shot connected, the struck cowboy would fall onto his rear end, which always made the two of us laugh.

The game couldn’t have been less complex. Or, well, I suppose it could have, as every so often a stagecoach would drift through the center of the screen, absorbing shots. (And – what seemed a revelation at the time – sustaining visible damage if it did so.) Ultimately, though, it was a game perfectly suited to the one-button philosophy of Atari. The learning curve was practically non-existent. You could play the game with your younger brother and have just as much fun as you would with your uncle. It took no time to explain, and no time to learn. The game existed, and you innately understood everything there was to understand the moment you saw the game in action.

Fast forward a few generations, and that was almost never the case any longer. This, I believe, is why I fell away from gaming in my college years. With so little time to devote to anything other than school and work, it ended up being a rare occasion that I could sit down and puzzle out the complex controls and mechanics of any recent game. In a few cases, I took that time. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I didn’t.

I remember playing games with my friends in college, because it was still a great way to unwind. When we did so, however, it tended to be something from an older system. We’d grab some beers and see how far we could make it in Bubble Bobble. We’d load up Kirby’s Adventure because we knew we could plow through it in one long sitting, and what better way to kick off a weekend? We’d shout and howl through session after session of the first two Mario Kart games, feeling immediately as addicted as we were when they were new. And, speaking of addiction, I remember a friend in the journalism program who came very close to flunking a semester’s worth of classes because she couldn’t tear herself away from Dr. Mario.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one yearning for simplicity in my games, though I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate that feeling.

With Mega Man 9, I had exactly that simplicity in a brand-new game. I loved it. And, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just play a new game and move along when I finished it or got bored of it…I played a new game over and over and over again. I finished it and started it over from scratch. I pushed myself to learn it more thoroughly and to get better at it. Defeating Dr. Wily wasn’t enough; I wanted to master the game. That was a desire I hadn’t felt since I was a child. Possibly since I’d played an earlier Mega Man game.

I didn’t speak about Mega Man 9‘s achievement system much in my last writeup, but I have to admit that it helped inspire me to dip back in as often as I did. Collecting 999 screws could have encouraged me to stand around and farm respawning enemies, but it really just provided a reason to dive back into a particular save file and enjoy the trip through Mega Man 9 all over again. Beating the game multiple times to unlock certain achievements gave me that much more of a push toward mastery. And completing the game quickly, or without dying…well, those things seemed tough, but I was certainly getting faster and dying less with each attempt, so maybe I could actually accomplish them.

Only one achievement seemed truly impossible, and it’s the one that cracked open the entire series for me once again, to enjoy as if they were brand new games I’d come to love in all new ways.

It was the Mr. Perfect achievement. That’s the one that requires you to complete Mega Man 9 – still one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played – without taking any damage whatsoever.

In a sense, this seemed doable. You were able to save after each level, so all you’d need to do is reload your save whenever you took damage, and you’d largely retain your progress. But that, of course, still required you to beat every level without taking damage. And what happened when you got to the Wily stages? Hell, what about the boss rematches toward the end, followed by each of Wily’s forms in immediate succession? You had to do all of that in a single stretch without taking damage even once?

How on Earth was that possible?

Way back in my review of the first Mega Man, I talked about how we’d gather around a friend who was good at some particular game, and watch him first-hand, demonstrating his skills for all of us to see. There were plenty of rumors about impossible things in video games, and rarely could we actively disprove them. But when it came to stuff we could prove, we did. Everything we knew, we knew from direct, personal experience.

By the time of Mega Man 9, I didn’t have a community like that anymore. I had friends that played games, but few that played them often enough to get truly good or to discover interesting things on their own. Certainly nobody would call me up and say, “Hey, I can beat Mega Man 9 without taking damage. Want to see?”

So I turned to the modern equivalent of those play sessions: YouTube. I wanted to see somebody, somewhere, unlocking that Mr. Perfect achievement that I still didn’t believe was possible. And not only did I find that; I found videos of people playing through every Mega Man game, stage by stage, without taking damage once.

My childhood reeled with disbelief. It was hard enough just to finish those games…now I’m learning that it was actually possible to pound them out without ever getting hit?

And so I watched those videos. I studied them. They were fascinating. Little Mega Man could do almost nothing other than jump and shoot, but that was enough to get him through literally any level unscathed. My mind was blown. And, sure enough, I wanted to dig back through the old Mega Man games to try it for myself.

I succeeded. Level by level, I learned to beat every Robot Master stage without taking damage. I did this – and uploaded my own results to YouTube – for most of the games in the series: Mega Man through Mega Man 7, with a detour through Mega Man V for the Game Boy, which had unique stages and bosses. I would have done Mega Man 8 and Mega Man 9 as well, but I didn’t have the equipment necessary to record my playthroughs.

Mega Man 9 didn’t just give me a new game to love; it gave me a reason to rediscover my love of the games that preceded it. And all it had to do was suggest to me that it was possible to play them in a way I never, ever would have thought to try.

In short, Mega Man 9‘s legacy was, to me, more than that of a great game. It reminded me of why the series was important, why I’d spent so many hours with those games as a kid, why they sparked my imagination and determination in equal measure.

What’s more, it wasn’t just a tease. It didn’t remind us all of how great those simple, NES-era games once were…it left us with the promise of another sequel. By the time I lifted my head from those old games I’d nearly forgotten, a new one was already on the horizon. Mega Man 10 was coming. Mega Man 9 wasn’t just a late-game sequel; it was a series relaunch.

I was thrilled.

And then it released. At which point…I was disappointed.

But let’s come back to that.

I sat down to re-play Mega Man 10 as I did with every other game for this review series: as an official release. No emulators, no save states, no cheats. If I had easy access to the original hardware and physical copies, I would certainly have used those. Instead I played the more recent digital releases.

Mega Man through Mega Man 7 were played on either my 3DS or WiiU, and Mega Man 8 through Mega Man 10 were played on my PS4. I didn’t prepare for these games in any way, working from memory to make it through and letting the games themselves teach me again whatever I’d forgotten. I didn’t make any special efforts to play the games in a certain way – no speedruns or no-damage runs or anything like that – except that I did pick up all optional items. (Barring Mega Man 8, which, as discussed, does not allow for 100% completion.)

In a word, I played them now with much the mindset I would have had as a child. It was a game, I was going to fumble my way through it, and I was going to play as intended.

Then came Mega Man 10, and I remembered something.

After Mega Man 9 had shown me – directly and indirectly – how versatile the series had always been, I set a goal for myself with Mega Man 10, one I never actually saw through. The goal was to do a no-Buster run of the entire game.

The Mega Buster, stretching all the way back to Mega Man’s first adventure, is the default weapon in each of the games. It does not consume any weapon energy, and it allows for a fairly-generous total of three projectiles on the screen at once. It’s fast, it’s easy to use, and its shots travel as far as the screen will allow. In short, it’s a pretty great weapon, with many of the Robot Master weapons in later games paling in comparison.

In Mega Man 10, though, there was a unique opportunity to never use it. This was due to a set of downloadable extra stages that rewarded you with weapons you could carry over to the main game. Start a game with those in your inventory and, theoretically, you’ll never actually have to use the Buster.

I hadn’t heard anybody else talk about playing the game that way, and there was no achievement for doing so, so there was a decent chance it wouldn’t work. I’d be going into uncharted territory. I’d be giving myself a handicap by stripping away the easiest weapon to use and burdening myself with ammo concerns that no other player would have.

It sounded fun!

But I never did it. I don’t know why. Revisiting the game for this series, though, I figured I’d finally change that. I’d do my no-Buster run of Mega Man 10.

Why? Well, I might as well say this here and now: while you are going to hear me say a huge amount of good things about Mega Man 10…I don’t actually like it very much. A no-Buster run, I’d hoped, would provide me with a new avenue to experience the game, and possibly enjoy it much more.

The biggest obstacle Mega Man 10 has to face is that it has very little in the way of new ideas. Mega Man 9 did nearly everything Mega Man 10 does, and it did all of it better. Mega Man 10, therefore, is in the position where being very good makes it feel like a disappointment. Worse, Mega Man 10 only sometimes rises to the level of “very good.”

The story this time around is that a computer virus (amusingly referred to in identifiably human terms as Roboenza) is infecting robots on a massive scale, causing them to do exactly what they’ve done for nine previous games and seemingly infinite amounts of ports and spinoffs.

I’m being wry, but I’m not complaining. Mega Man has never given us a truly compelling reason to go out and shoot robots; all it ever needed to do was make it fun to go out and shoot robots. I am fine with that. Also nice is the thematic tie to the Mega Man X series, which sees its own versions of Robot Masters driven to madness and violence by the Maverick virus. There’s no evidence that Roboenza becomes or is related to that later virus, but it’s a nice, quiet parallel between series.

Dr. Wily is, of course, still the villain. (Sorry for what can only be considered a spoiler if this is your first Mega Man game.) This time, though, it makes a reasonable amount of sense that the good guys would choose to work with him. Wily is brilliant. He understands robotics probably better than even Dr. Light does. Yes, he’s tricked them more times than you’ve had hot dinners, but Roboenza represents a legitimate crisis. They can either choose to work with Wily on the chance that he’ll actually help them develop a cure, or they can sit back and watch civilization as they know it crumble.

So they work with him and he turns out to be the bad guy. Fine. What isn’t fine is the ending sequence, during which all is resolved through a line of text and a still image of some medicine Dr. Wily left behind.

It might seem odd to speak about the ending so early in this review, but I think it’s one of the clearest illustrations of the gap in quality between Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10.

In Mega Man 9, the game ended with a glorious meta joke about how many times our hero has forgiven a contrite Dr. Wily, followed by an extremely good bit of credits music and a slideshow of what each of that game’s Robot Masters (and heroes) is getting up to now that peace has returned. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s positively bursting with charm and creativity.

Mega Man 10 gives you white text on a black screen and a static image with no characters in it.

I’ll leave the comparing and contrasting to you.

The fact is that Mega Man 10 simply doesn’t seem to have had the same level of creative energy invested in it. In a way, this makes sense. Mega Man 9 had to be a glorious return. It couldn’t just be another Mega Man game way too late for anyone to care…it had to be great. Incredibly, it actually was.

Mega Man 10 does get to be just another sequel, but it seems like returning developer IntiCreates was all too eager to use that as an excuse to do less than their best. The game, understandably, suffers for it. What’s worse, Mega Man 10 ends up illustrating all too clearly what originally killed the series, by being a less interesting sequel that doesn’t give fans much of a reason to come back. The law of diminishing returns reasserted itself immediately.

But I do believe that Mega Man 10 does a lot of things very well.

For starters, there are the Robot Masters themselves. Well, maybe not them particularly, but the way their stages are themed.

Mega Man 9’s stages had some fairly basic themes. Fire, water, space, garden…it was fine, but you wouldn’t really point to that aspect of the game as a bastion of creativity.

Here, though, the stages feel distinct. You wouldn’t be able to confuse them with stages from previous games, on the whole. Sheep Man’s stage is in cyberspace. Nitro Man’s is a futuristic highway. Strike Man’s is the locker room, storage area, and field of a gigantic stadium.

They also play like recognizable Mega Man stages, which I mean as a compliment. Their gimmicks aren’t too distracting or complex – something that crippled Mega Man 8 – and are instead just a welcome, inventive dash of variety. Specific design choices from screen to screen aside, these stages feel at home in the series, and I admire them for that, considering how unique they are.

Even the stage themes we’ve seen before feel a bit different here. Magma Man just sat in a stage full of fire, but Solar Man’s stage feels like a trip through a smelting plant. Splash Woman occupied a basic water stage, but Pump Man’s stage takes us through the entire process of wastewater treatment. Commando Man’s desert looks a lot like Pharaoh Man’s, but its blinding sandstorms make it feel and play completely differently…not to mention the fact that it’s war-themed as opposed to Egyptian themed.

The remaining stages are a bit less impressive. Blade Man’s castle doesn’t feel all that much different from Knight Man’s, but it’s still a rare enough theme that it’s welcome. Chill Man’s stage is easily the weakest in terms of inventiveness, as it begins as the standard ice stage we’ve seen many times already, and doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go from there.

Sadly, the designs of the Robot Masters themselves are a bit lacking. The only truly interesting one is Nitro Man, who looks and jets around his room like a motorcycle. I’ll admit that I also have a soft spot for Commando Man, as it’s nice to see an explosion-based Robot Master who also qualifies as a bruiser, but that’s really it in terms of boss design.

Strike Man is Blizzard Man with stitching. Sheep Man is a sheep. Blade Man is a blade made out of blades and when he blades he blades blades at you. Hooray.

Fortunately, the Robot Masters are, as ever, more than just bosses. They also represent weapons and music, and the game shines far more in those areas.

The music, on the whole, is pretty great. Mega Man 10 also suffers here in comparison to Mega Man 9, but only in comparison. On its own merits, Mega Man 10 has an incredible soundtrack with some excellent standouts.

My favorite tune is probably Nitro Man’s, with its driving electric rhythm that feels perfectly matched to the theme and feel of his stage. Divorced from its context it’s still fantastic, but hopping onto and off of speeding robot trucks while his pulsing music underscores the action is absolutely perfect.

A close runner up for me is Commando Man’s tune, which sounds vaguely Arabic, conjures up the feel of oppressive desert heat, and keeps you engaged even when all you’re doing is waiting patiently for a sandstorm (Desert Storm?) to die down. Then there’s the absolutely pounding rampage of Solar Man’s song, which is so good it borders on being distracting.

Strike Man’s track may actually be the most interesting and the biggest surprise, as it feels appropriately sporty and contains a genuine stadium rave up, complete with the sounds of an 8-bit crowd clapping and stomping in the bleachers. It’s a damned fine treat, and it really helps that stage to stand out as the highlight it certainly is.

The rest of the Robot Master tunes are fairly forgettable, though certainly not bad. (Aside from Chill Man’s, of course, because everything about Chill Man is pants.) The Dr. Wily stages have some of the best music they’ve ever had, with some experimentally atmospheric ones bookending the experience, first in a short section outside of his fortress and then again when you finally track him down into outer space.

It’s a good soundtrack, and its quality is more or less matched by this batch of weapons. It’s again outdone by Mega Man 9, but this game at least learned a valuable lesson from that one. In Mega Man 9, the weapons could also be thought of as utilities. That seemed to be their overarching theme; you could both pelt your enemies with them and use them to navigate stages more easily. Mega Man 10 similarly ascribes a theme to its weapons: splash damage.

Here, for the first significant time ever, you shouldn’t just pelt your enemies with your weapons. You should think about how the weapons work, and use them wisely to inflict greater damage.

The most obvious example of this is probably the Thunder Wool. Like any other weapon, you can hit enemies with it. It will deal damage and disappear. However, the wiser thing to do is miss enemies with it, and have the lightning it discharges hit them instead. That will both deal far more damage and linger on the screen, potentially hitting multiple enemies, or hitting the same enemy multiple times.

This means that you can’t – or at least shouldn’t – fire mindlessly at things. You have to think about where your projectile will go and where your enemy will be, but you also have to think about how the splash damage will work, as that’s the only way you’ll get true mileage out of the weapons.

This largely carries through the entire set. You can hit enemies with the controllable Commando Bomb, but it’s better to miss them, because the blast it sets off is far more powerful than a direct hit would be. The Solar Blaze will split, potentially mowing down enemies on both sides of the screen. The Chill Spike can either hit an enemy and freeze it, or create a dangerous patch on the ground that will injure or destroy an enemy that walks over it.

Perhaps most interesting is the Rebound Striker, which can be fired in six directions and which becomes more powerful each time it bounces off of a surface. This means that you can either strike an enemy directly for a decent amount of damage, or deliberately miss them so that it bounces around the room like a billiard ball and hits them later with a much harder strike. It’s not the easiest weapon to use effectively, but once you get a sense of how to understand a room’s geometry, it can be downright devastating. It’s Mega Man 8’s Mega Ball done exactly right.

Even the seemingly “simple” weapons have nuances worth understanding. The Wheel Cutter can be spat forward as you’d expect, but you can also hold down the fire button to keep it spinning at the end of your arm like a sawblade. Additionally, you can use this exact functionality to rocket you up vertical surfaces. I won’t pretend there’s much call to do so, but like Mega Man 4’s Wire Adapter, the fact that it’s fun to use is reason enough to play with it.

Then there’s the Water Shield, which is a fairly basic shield weapon, but with components that can be destroyed if they suffer damage. When you fire it, the remaining components spiral away from you either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending upon which side of the screen you’re facing. Again, not a very useful feature, but at least one you’ll need to put thought into to use effectively.

The Triple Blade is…well…three blades. They’ll fire upward if you’re standing on the ground and downward if you’re in the air, which is one thing to consider, but their power is also determined by your distance from the target. If you’re far away, only one blade can conceivably hit the enemy. Close in, though, and you can hit them with all three at once, dealing three times the damage.

Mega Man 9 will always have my favorite batch of weapons, but Mega Man 10’s may well be the most interesting, and I’m impressed at how much thought must have gone into their design and the ways in which they could be employed.

But there’s a problem, and you may have picked up on it even if you haven’t played the game: don’t these weapons sound kinda difficult to use?

The appeal of the weapons earlier in the series was not just that they were fun to use, but that they were easy to use. Cumbersome weapons like the Atomic Fire, Top Spin, and Charge Kick tend, on the whole, to sit quietly in players’ inventories for the duration of the game. If they’re unwieldly, why wield them? If something else is quicker and easier to use, why wrestle with the stubborn ones?

I wouldn’t call any of Mega Man 10’s weapons stubborn. And they’re certainly better weapons than the examples I provided in the previous paragraph. But they’re also not easy to use well. And if it comes down to trying to launch a cloud precisely above an enemy’s head in the hopes that they’ll still be there in a few moments when it actually discharges lightning…well, why not just use the Buster?

That’s not entirely Mega Man 10’s fault. That’s a problem that arises strictly because of what series this is, and the fact that Mega Man always has his trusty arm cannon by default. Which is easy to use. And fast. And predictable. And which consumes no ammo.

When your option is to either mash the fire button a few times to kill an enemy or open your inventory, select the Rebound Striker, figure out the precise angle to toss it so that it bounces correctly off of the floors, walls, and ceilings, wasting ammo and time whenever you get it wrong…well, most players are going to stick with the Buster. That doesn’t make the special weapons worse, but it does make them far less likely to be used and appreciated.

Which is also part of why I wanted to do a no-Buster run. I like the special weapons in this game, but, well, I have to admit that I solved most of Mega Man’s problems with some quick blasts from the weapon he was born holding. Maybe stripping myself of that solution would lead to more interesting gameplay.

As I mentioned, a no-Buster run is only possible here due to some DLC stages. These pay homage to and borrow heavily from the Game Boy games, three of which featured bosses called the Mega Man Killers. The first Game Boy game introduced us to Enker, and defeating him gave us the Mirror Buster, which serves as a shield that reflects projectiles back at the enemies that fired them. The third Game Boy game featured Punk, who gave us the Screw Crusher, a projectile that arcs high in the air before falling back down, tracing a path something like an upside-down U. The fourth Game Boy game brought us Ballade, who had the Ballade Cracker, a slow explosive that could be fired in six directions.

The DLC stages in Mega Man 10 are reimagined versions of stages from the Killers’ respective Game Boy games, with remixed versions of the old music to boot. In those games, beating the Mega Man Killers would indeed give you their weapons, but by that point you were so far along that you wouldn’t have much more than a stage left to play with them. In Mega Man 10, beating the DLC stages gives you those weapons any time you start a new game, meaning you can finally enjoy them like you would any Robot Master weapon.

Choosing a replacement for the Buster was actually pretty easy. The Ballade Cracker is powerful, but it uses a lot of weapon energy, meaning you don’t get many shots and I’d have to rely on enemies dropping a lot of ammo. The Mirror Buster counts on enemies to fire at you first, which not all of them do, and it requires them to remain on Mega Man’s horizontal plane to be hit when the projectile bounces back at them. It’s fun to use, and a great idea, but not something that works in every context.

That left the Screw Crusher, and I was fine with that. It’s fast, it doesn’t seem to be any less powerful than the Buster, and it makes very efficient use of weapon energy. The only real downside is its awkward arc, but all that did was help me choose my first stage that much more easily: Sheep Man, who spends much of his time in the air above Mega Man’s head. That sharp upward arc would actually be a benefit.

And it was. The stage had enough enemies above me that the Screw Crusher worked very well. Even the lightbulb miniboss was easier to hit now that I didn’t have to jump as high to get to him. Sheep Man himself took a while to fight, but it wasn’t any more difficult outside of staying focused for a longer period of time. Each time he turned into a set of clouds, I just shredded through them and brought him crashing back down. It worked out well, and then I had another weapon: the Thunder Wool.

As soon as I got it, I realized this wouldn’t actually make things much easier for me. The Thunder Wool is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

Even so, I took on Pump Man next. He’s weak to the Thunder Wool, so that boss fight wouldn’t be any different. The stage was fine. Again, there were enough enemies above that I got my mileage out of the Screw Crusher, and in other cases I could just walk right up to them and mash away. Hitting the little slug Mets that spew slippery slime at you wasn’t easy, but the Ballade Cracker, with some careful timing, took them out easily.

And that was it. Pump Man’s fight was the same as it ever was, only running out of Thunder Wool meant I pelted him with Screw Crushers instead of Buster shots.

Then it was on to Solar Man, who was weak to the Water Shield. Of course, the Water Shield is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

I think you see where this is going. The boss fights were exactly the same as they were in a standard run, and for the most part so were the stages.

I swapped one weapon out for another, and that was it. I didn’t have to change my tactics or behavior, and if I wanted to rely on another Robot Master weapon, I really couldn’t; they weren’t versatile or efficient enough. I’d use them situationally, as I always had. By the time I got the Triple Blade – which conceivably could have served as an alternate Buster – I was already used to how the Screw Crusher handled, so I stuck with that. I can count on one hand the number of moments that changed significantly from a standard run, and usually those were made easier.

I tried adding another restriction, not allowing myself to use either E-tanks (to restore my health) or W-tanks (to restore my weapon energy). But that didn’t really make it any harder, as I’d racked up enough extra lives that dying was never much of a setback. I did have to continue once, before the final Wily fight. That was it.

Mega Man 10 had originally disappointed me, and my attempt at spicing things up disappointed me again.

Playing through the game again, though, did remind me how difficult it is to articulate just what I don’t like about it. So much of it is good. Some of it is great. Hell, it has the Weapons Archive, which digitally resurrects Robot Masters from Mega Man through Mega Man 9, and which is clearly the greatest fortress boss in the series’ history.

But when I play it, I don’t feel engaged. I go through the motions. Even now that I actively tried not to go through the motions, I ended up going through the motions.

Mega Man 10 feels like a game on autopilot. It’s chock full of solid ideas, but it doesn’t push any of them far enough.

Playing through it this time – my first time in a few years – I realized that even the highlights I remembered weren’t all that great. Commando Man’s sandstorms, now that I know how to deal with them, don’t require me to do anything but hold down a single button. Nitro Man’s traffic segments occupy just a few screens, and they don’t ask anything more from you than a handful of decently timed hops. The reverse-gravity Wily stage does absolutely nothing with its gimmick; literally anything you could think to do with an upside-down stage would be better than what we actually get here.

It feels half baked. It’s a great concept that doesn’t quite go anywhere. And that’s Mega Man 10 in a nutshell. There’s so much I love about it, but so little that lives up to its potential.

Mega Man 9 was nearly perfect because IntiCreates clearly took the time it needed to make it perfect. Mega Man 10 is another story. It feels like the team came up with good ideas, but didn’t take the time to truly refine them. It was enough for them to create an upside-down stage; they didn’t see the need to figure out what might be done with that. It was enough for them to come up with interesting weapons; they didn’t see the need to give players a reason to use them. It was enough for them to come up with a fun story; they didn’t see the need to actually show us that story’s own ending.

It seemed like a lesser shadow of what immediately preceded it, mixed with the lack of care and inspiration that plagued the weakest games in the series.

It was still good, it just wasn’t great. And that represents a big step down when Mega Man 9’s entire thesis was that the series could still be great.

There are reasons enough to tool around with it. The soundtrack. The interesting approach to weapon design. The returning endless mode, which isn’t quite as good as Mega Man 9’s but is still a nice time waster. The difficulty selection, which doesn’t just alter damage dealt and taken – as it did in Mega Man 2 – but actually changes enemy types, boss attacks, and certain obstacles. The ability to play as both Proto Man and Bass.

But there aren’t enough reasons to come back to it frequently. When I played Mega Man 9, I fell in love the same way I did way back when I played Mega Man 2. I wanted to get better at it. I wanted to experiment with it. I wanted to master it.

With Mega Man 10, I just want to like it. And for everything that I do enjoy – again, I enjoy a lot of it – there are two or three things I don’t. Or which feel undercooked. Or which I don’t think were entirely thought through.

And then…that was it. Rumors circulated about a Mega Man 11 for a while, and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t at least considered by IntiCreates. Rumors also circulated about a Mega Man X9 in the style of the SNES games. That might have been wishful thinking, but I’d still wager IntiCreates batted the idea around to some degree.

Then, in October 2010, seven months after Mega Man 10’s release, Keiji Inafune left Capcom. Inafune is often considered the father of Mega Man, and though the character was designed before he joined the development team for the first game, Inafune had a strong hand and important role in guiding the series from there. He did not create it, but he doubtlessly helped define it, and for nearly all of the Blue Bomber’s life, Inafune was at the helm.

His departure from Capcom did not seem at all to have been on good terms, and that seemed to suggest the death of the series. Inafune no longer had the rights to create Mega Man games. Capcom could certainly have continued making them without him, but they wasted little time in proving that they didn’t intend to.

The year after Mega Man 10 was released, Capcom cancelled the two high-profile Mega Man games they had in the pipeline: Mega Man Legends 3, and Mega Man Universe, which was a game creation tool that seemed like it would be very similar to the approach later taken by Super Mario Maker.

And that wasn’t all. An odd, little-discussed game called Mega Man Online was officially cancelled in 2013, though rumors of its death began circulating long before that. Eventually we even learned that Capcom had also cancelled a first-person shooter set in the Mega Man X timeline called Maverick Hunter. It was cancelled the same year Inafune left the company, and by all accounts he was the one who got development on that project started in the first place.

Capcom, perhaps out of spite, was killing everything with the Mega Man name on it. Their only true release was Street Fighter x Mega Man, and that was just a free download of a fan game that Capcom released through official channels. It was extraordinarily poor.

That was it. Mega Man made a truly welcome addition to the Super Smash Bros. roster in 2014, but a fighting game – however good it is – will never scratch the side-scrolling, platforming, robot-smashing itch the series was known for.

Time passed. Capcom, Inafune, and IntiCreates all moved on to different projects. Some of them drew clear inspiration from Mega Man, and most of them did not. Capcom released a few dolls, eyeglasses, and tissue boxes over the years to periodically cash in on the recognition of a brand they had no interest in resuscitating a second time.

We lost Mega Man all over again. The long-abandoned fans that had finally seen their favorite series reborn with a great game followed by a good one were robbed of it once more. Mega Man came back just long enough for his departure to sting. Now fans had two more games they could reflect on with longing, but that was small comfort. Mega Man was rebuilt just to be lost to whatever bitterness existed between his lead designer and the company that once treated him so well.

Dr. Wily, finally, stopped coming back.

That’s where the series ended.

And that’s where I expected Fight, Megaman! to end as well. Maybe it still will.

But, shockingly, between my review of Mega Man 8 and now, Capcom announced an Inafune-less Mega Man 11. As of this writing, they’ve released nothing but a brief trailer. Eight years after Mega Man seemed to shut down for good, we get the promise of another game. Another chance. Another revival.

Perhaps for real this time.

We don’t know much about it. We know it won’t be in the 8-bit NES style. We know it will have a different lead designer. We know we want it.

And so I’d love to leave you with some kind of closure. With some kind of ultimate conclusion. With some grand reflection on a series that – when I started this series – I was convinced was gone for good.

But I can’t.

Because there’s something on the horizon.

For Mega Man fans, that’s all it takes to get our hearts racing. To get our imaginations spinning out of control. To get us excited.

I don’t know if the game will be very good. Statistically speaking, it won’t. I don’t know if I’ll like the things the game will clearly do differently. Statistically speaking, I won’t. I don’t know if it can make anywhere near the same impact Mega Man’s previous resurrection made. Frankly speaking, it can’t.

But Mega Man fans have something to look forward to. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time. And as Inafune proved with Mighty No. 9 – his own off-brand Mega Man successor – in 2016, he might not have been the true creative genius in the room after all.

Maybe Capcom still has the magic.

Maybe Mega Man 11 will evolve the series in a direction that actually works.

Maybe I’ll spend 7,000 words in a year or so gushing about everything it does exactly, perfectly, incredibly right.

All I know for sure is that I’ll play it on day one, and I’ll do so as I’ve done with every single previous Mega Man release: like an excited child, just glad to see his old friend again.

Best Robot Master: Commando Man
Best Stage: Nitro Man
Best Weapon: Triple Blade
Best Theme: Nitro Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

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.

October News! Updates! Features!

Happy October! I know, it’s weird, I didn’t expect to live this long, either.

October is one of the months I look forward to most on Noiseless Chatter, and I really hope you do, too. We’ve got a lot coming up, and so I wanted to take a moment to let you know how the coming weeks will unfold.

– Trilogy of Terror: Oh yes. Trilogy of Terror is one of my favorite features to write, and though we’re only into its third year of existence, the feedback and traffic I get from it tells me you enjoy it, too. Each year I write longform essays about three related horror films in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I’ve got some truly memorable ones for you this time around, along with a theme I very much hope you’ll find as fascinating as I do. I have the first two posts drafted already, and just need to take screenshots to finish them off. I’m thrilled to get to share these with you. What films will they be? You’ll have to tune in and find out. The first installment goes live on Oct. 17, the second on Oct. 24, and the third on Oct. 31. I hope you’ll join me.

Red Dwarf: Red Dwarf is coming back again! Since I’ve reviewed the previous two series on this blog, I figure I might as well do this one, too. I’m not exactly sure when it starts — evidently the online premiere dates still aren’t determined? — but I’ll be here, reviewin’ and stuff. Series X was pretty awful with moments of greatness and series XI was pretty great with moments of awfulness, so I have genuinely no idea what to expect from series XII. Maybe the vending machines will have sex.

– Fight, Megaman!: Another of my favorite features is Fight, Megaman!, but that has a rapidly expiring shelflife. I’ve already covered eight of the 10 games I’m going to look at, and I actually just have the final review left to write. We’re almost to the end of the journey…except that I’ve decided to do something a bit more than I’d originally planned. After Fight, Megaman! is complete, I’m going to flesh out my analyses even further, correct a few things, elaborate on a few other things…and publish it as a book. The book will even feature many games I am not covering here, such as Mega Man & Bass, the Game Boy titles, and various spinoffs. I’ll keep you posted as this progresses, but I hope this is something that satisfies everyone. If you don’t want to buy anything, you still get the entire feature, as promised, here for free. If you do want to buy a book, you get some nice bonuses for your money, and hopefully some cool artwork. Stay tuned.

– Fight, Megaman X!: And, hey, speaking of spinoffs…a number of you have asked if I’ll cover the Mega Man X series next. The answer has to be no; I’m not as familiar with or in love with that series as I am with the classic style games. But we will be covering them here after all! Friend of the website Samurai Karasu will pick up when Fight, Megaman! leaves off. I’m very much looking forward to reading those along with you.

– 5th Annual Xmas Bash!: We’re talking about all my favorite Noiseless Chatter things today. The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is coming soon. I’ll post details as soon as I have them, but you can expect another five hours of forgotten Xmas specials, holiday commercials, bizarre Christmas music videos, the best live chat on the internet, and so much more. I’ve made a lot of progress putting the stream together already, and after I finish Trilogy of Terror, work will start on that in earnest. If you’ve joined us before, I hope you can make it out again. And if you haven’t…really, come on now. It’s a live stream of vintage Xmas dreck, commentated in real time by people much funnier than me. (Such as you!) Be there!

– Choose Your Own Advent: Last year I debuted a Choose Your Own Advent feature, in which I published an essay about a different novel every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 24. I have an idea for bringing the feature back this year…but it will really come down to how much time I have. My fingers are crossed, but obviously my priority will be the Xmas Bash! Therefore, if this is a feature you really want to see again…speak now!

Anyway, that’s just a taste of what to expect, and an excuse for me to gush a bit early about Trilogy of Terror. It’s going to be great, and I’m excited to hear your thoughts on what I’ve chosen to exhume this year.

I’ll see you soon!