Puzzled by the fact that Mega Man 9, a game that looks older than all three Jonas Brothers combined, was downloaded an estimated 60,000 times on its first day of release? Confused about why just about every videogame website on the internet is abuzz with all this Mega Man related excitement? Then you, my friend, need to bone up on your videogame history, specifically the chapter on 2D action/platforming.
It's not hyperbole to say that Mega Man 1, 2, and 3 are the videogame equivalents to the original Star Wars trilogy. The first Star Wars film did things with the medium that had never been done before, and Mega Man 1 did the same for videogames (Idle character animation, obtaining weapons from defeat bosses, etc). Mega Man 2, like The Empire Strikes Back, is considered by most to be the greatest in the series, as it refines what its prequel started, and adds an insane twist ending just to keep you guessing about the next chapter. Mega Man 3 is like The Return of the Jedi in that it's jam packed with more stuff than either of its predecessors, and while not as beloved as those predecessors, it's still considered an essential part of the trilogy.
The similarities don't end there. Just as the original three Star Wars films paved the way for countless spin offs, side stories, sequels, and prequels, the first three Mega Man games are responsible for their own nearly countless follow ups. For both Star Wars and Mega Man, the spin offs range in quality from crap to fantastic, but still, none have been able to recapture the magic that the first three entries had. The old school charm and charisma of the original cast and that indescribable, evocative element just can't be recreated by imitators. For the real stuff, you have to go back to the source.
What I'm trying to tell you is, Mega Man 9 coming into existence is like the debut of a new Star Wars movie featuring the entire cast and crew of the original trilogy. Imagine Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and the Yoda muppet reprising all their roles, all looking as good as they ever did, and doing exactly what made them famous in the first place. To do so would make long jaded, ex-Star Wars fans forget all about Caravan of Courage and the Droids cartoon. That's what Mega Man 9 means to do for the Mega Man series, to help us remember why we feel in love with the character 20 years ago, and forget about all the crap that happened between then and today.
Does Mega Man 9 pull it off? Hit the jump to find out.
Mega Man 9 (WiiWare [reviewed], PSN, XBLA)
First, lets get the "graphics talk" out of the way. Yes, the return to an 8-Bit aesthetic makes Mega Man 9 one of the most important videogames of 2008. It proves that as black-and-white is to film, as stop-motion is to animation, and as Casio keyboards are to electronic music, the use of antiquated technology is to videogames: it is a style choice worth respecting. And yes, the 8-bit look is also a shameless way to pander to the disposable incomes of post-college 20 and 30 somethings looking to purchase their way back into their carefree childhoods. But the real question is, do these graphics actually work to make the game better? The answer is a definitive yes.
To those that have already decided that they hate Mega Man 9 due to its clean, simple, icon driven art direction, let me ask you this -- Have you ever criticized an episode of Family Guy, South Park, or the Simpsons because the characters didn't look realistic enough? Have you ever said to someone about any of those programs "I don't care how funny it is, I wont watch it. It's not CGI." Hell no you haven't, and that's because once you start watching one of those shows, you get sucked into their visually undemanding world's so fast that you forget you're even watching animation. After you settle in to their unique takes on reality, you feel like your there, despite their lack of realism. If these shows all looked like Tripping the Rift, chances are you wouldn't feel the same way.
Visual details can be barriers that both exhaust the mind's ability to take in visual input, and create characters that are difficult to relate to. Just about everyone on the planet can look at Peter Griffin, Stan Marsh, Bart Simpson, and 8-Bit Mega Man and see a little bit of themselves, because just about everyone has two eyes, a nose and a mouth. It's when characters get more detailed than that when people start feeling alienated. Again, watch even the briefest clip of Tripping the Rift on youtube, and you'll see what I mean.
The science of iconography isn't the only reason why the 8-bit look was the right choice for Mega Man 9. The real strength in the game's visuals is in how little they demand from your mind. Flat, simple characters are just easier to look at, easier to place on screen, and easier for your head to absorb. Trust me, you'll be glad for the game's un-distracting look, as you'll need to use as much of your mind's energy as you can muster just to keep up with the constant level of danger you'll face on screen.
Mega Man 9 is nothing short of a blood bath. Despite the fact that a no stops run through of each level in the game lasts an average of five minutes, my first total play through of Mega Man 9 still took about seven hours. Keep in mind, that was seven hours without looking on Gamefaqs for how to deal with the game's many challenges, and with spending all my bolts on the costume item at the game's store (spoiler-it doesn't cause Mega Man to cross dress- end spoiler) instead of spending them on healing items like E tanks. Regardless of my bolt spending priorities, I've been playing Mega Man games for twenty years. I can beat Mega Man 2 in difficult without taking a hit. I don't completely suck at this sort of thing, and it still took me seven hours to win the game. That's longer than it took me to cruise through Lost Winds and Castle Crashers combined.
No, Mega Man 9 is not a game many will finish quickly or easily. In this game, you will die.
Sound bad? Well, it shouldn't. Like in Mega Man 2, dying in Mega Man 9 doesn't mean the end of fun, it means the fun is just getting started. Death in these games equals excitement, surprises, challenge, and drama; like a cute, 8-bit Saving Private Ryan staring a little blue robot. A well designed Mega Man game uses simple but original action/platforming puzzles, amazing music, and just the right learning curve to keep you coming back for more. Dying means having to start over, and starting over is the fun part. You know how when you buy a new CD, you need to listen to each song a few times before they really grow on you? That's how each level in Mega Man 9 is. They actually get more enjoyable the more you play them. The first time through any level will be a terrifying series of abrupt endings signaled by the signature Mega Man death sound. Keep playing those levels though, and that terror will slowly melt into joy. You'll start singing along with the music, smiling as you breeze through the parts that used to seem impossible, and then play through the level again the next day to see if you can do it just a little bit better.
Sadly, Mega Man 9 isn't always this fun, especially if you are closely familiar with the past games. One major problem with the game is Spash Woman's stage. Though it contains one awesome set of floating block puzzles, the ability to turn Mega Man completely black if he's hit by a ball of ink, and a fantastic boss encounter, on the whole the level feels tacked on. First off, the music is pretty boring. You should know that Mega Man 9 has four different composers, and most of their work is excellent. Tornado Man's stage, Galaxy Man's stage, and all four different Wily stage tunes are some of the best in Mega Man history. They must not have been written by the same composer of Splash Woman's stage theme, because in comparison, it sounds like utter crap.
In a way the music is fitting, as Splash Woman's stage design is crap as well. It lacks the same vibrancy and unpredictability contained in each of the game's other levels. Instead of a beautifully mapped obstacle course of wonder, you get a few instant death mines, a few random enemies, that cool block puzzle I was talking about, and *SHOCK* a floating bubble platforming bit that is nearly identical to the one found in Wave Man's stage back in Mega Man 5. Check out this video at the 00:23 mark, and this one 01:06 and see for yourself.
Due to this bizarre design decision, Splash Woman's stage will have long time MM fans asking themselves, if just for a second, why they just payed $10 to play Mega Man 9 and instead got the substandard Mega Man 5. This kind of self plagiarism is inexcusable, as it only works to short change the player of a new experience. It's one thing to be influenced by your predecessors, but to rip them off beat for beat? That's wrong.
There are a few other ways that Mega Man 9 crosses the line from lovingly paying tribute to its elders and just plain stealing from them. While a lot of the game's bosses have incredible new designs (Galaxy Man and Splash Woman in particular), a few of them look a little too much like past Mega Man bosses to call it "just being consistent". Concrete Man is basically just Guts Man on a diet, and Magma Man is just Needle Man with his head on fire. These bosses fight in a way totally unique to themselves, so in the long run it's easy to let them off the hook for looking like someone else. However, first impressions count for a lot, and upon first glance, a lot of Mega Man 9's bosses look more like wanna-be's than they should.
The final dose of un-originality comes at one of the worst possible times, during the final battle against Dr Wily. For sake of non-disclosure I won't be sharing the details with you, but let's just say that Mega Man 9 last boss doesn't offer any of the style, substance, or character of that of Mega Man 2's climax in the basement. Mega Man 9's final fight isn't a substantially different experience than the Wily battles found in Mega Man 4, 5, 6, 7,or 8. Playing it safe in this way is a real missed opportunity on the developers part to go out with something memorable. As it stands, I'm willing to bet that ten years from now, Mega Man 9's Wily battle will be the part of the game people remember the least.
But enough nit picking. All those complaints I just voiced will only be noticeable to people like myself who have Mega Man 1 through 8 completely memorized. And even if you are like me, there are several areas where Mega Man 9 actually innovates to the point of surpassing every other game in the series. The first is the new-style store. This is the first store in the Mega Man series that doesn't offer such a plethora of power ups that the game's balance gets completely ruined. The really good items in the shop are really expensive, and none of them are as game breaking as the gigantic laser upgrades found in previous game's shops. Plus, you can buy a book that gives Mega Man the ability to take his helmet off and rock it all messy-style. It may sound like a small thing, but it's completely unheard of in the 8-Bit platforming world to provide such options. You'll rarely catch Mario with his hat off, and by comparison, that's just part of what makes Mega Man 9 something special.
The second big stand out is the game's story. It's told with both in-game graphics and manga-esque cut scenes. Though it's a simple and unsophisticated tale, Mega Man 9's story reveals more about a different side of Dr. Wily than we've really seen before, as well as his place in the "I Robot meets Astro Boy" world that he helped create. I was actually amazed at a few of the story's twists, especially when it's revealed exactly why the game's bosses went "bad". For that one brief moment, I related more with the game's bosses than I did with Mega Man, a pretty amazing feat considering the simplicity of the narrative tools at use here.
The last thing that Mega Man 9 adds that has never been in a MM game before is internet connectivity. Downloadable content is on the way, and from these descriptions, it all looks affordable and fun. The game also has online leader boards and achievements, two things that are generally taken for granted by 360 gamers, but are a big deal for the WiiWare crowd. The rumor from Capcom is that beating all the game's achievements may actually unlock something new in the game. That mystery alone will be enough to motivate many to play Mega Man 9 for tens, maybe hundred of hours necessary to "achieve 'em all".
Mega Man 9 is a fantastic game. The music is incredible, seven out of eight of its stages are amongst the best the series has ever seen, it has butt kicking extra features, a great story, and it's only ten bucks. It's damn tempting to just give the game a 10 and be done with it, because I do truly love Mega Man 9, more than I have loved any game in the series since Mega Man 2. Sadly, that doesn't change the fact that Mega Man 9 isn't perfect. Splash Woman's stage, and those other rare, uninspired mentioned above, all detract enough from the title to keep it from making it to the very top. Now if the team at Inti Creates can up their output just a notch higher in terms of consistent originality and creativity, I believe that Mega Man 10 could become the single greatest Mega Man game of all time.
Until then, we have Mega Man 9 to keep us happy, and that 'aint bad.
Score- 9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)