The first gaming related article I ever wrote was a Bomb Man boss guide in 1998 for a fan site I created with a friend. That evolved into tips for every boss in the series, and slowly but surely, my collection of Mega Man games grew. Despite that ceaseless passion, Mega Man didn’t grow with me. Capcom took several big risks throughout the little guy’s 30-year history: some paid off, some didn’t, and a few contributed to killing off the franchise temporarily.
You know how that all turned out. Now it’s time to finally look to the future for the first time in years: an easy prospect with Mega Man 11 on the horizon.
Mega Man 11 (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Release: October 2, 2018
We begin with a familiar scene: a bitter rivalry between the proud Dr. Light and the petulant Wily.
It’s reboot territory folks, as we explore a bit of revisionist history in which Wily wakes up one day (in skull pajamas no less), years after being disgraced by his former colleague and realizes: hey, one of my old inventions totally rocks and I’m evil now. That’ll do it. It’s all necessary housekeeping, leaving all of the “evil energy,” stuff in the dust, as well as the influence of series staples like Proto Man and Bass. This is a laser-focused Mega Man vs. Wily tale: a foundation on which to build in the future with no need for convoluted past conventions. If this level of restraint is what leads to a revival, let’s do it.
So it turns out that Dr. Wily’s big break, the Double Gear system, is really central to both the plot and the core mechanics of Mega Man 11. In essence Mega Man now has two super abilities that are unlocked at the start, linked together with a limited meter. One gear powers up his shots, and another slows time (or rather, allows Mega Man to “move faster, making everyone appear slower). If you get really low on health you can use a final stand type move to trigger both. Simple, right?
On paper it is, sure. But Capcom managed to squeeze every ounce of originality with two abilities that have extensively existed for decades, working them into the fabric of each stage. It also doubles as built-in difficulty adjuster. If you dislike the idea of using extra powers and want to play 11 like an old school retro platformer, you can just ignore Double Gear and the game is totally beatable without them. I’m already excited for “No Gear” speedruns.
You can also alter your play style with equipment. Mega Man’s trusty handyman sidekick Auto is back, as are the various upgrades from later series entries that are up for purchase with bolts (in-game currency). Again it’s all optional and a way to make the game easier or harder as you see fit. If you hate it you can ignore it and if you don’t: eventually you’ll start feeling powerful enough to get you over those humps — of which there will be many.
I think a lot of hardcore fans are going to be pleasantry surprised at how often normal mode (one of four difficulty settings) will kick their ass. Every locale has at least one hurdle to cross, whether it’s a one-hit-kill obstacle course of spikes or a really tricky jump next to an insta-death pit. None of these challenges feel cheap: they’re all puzzles to solve with the occasional option of arriving at multiple conclusions.
Levels are well-oiled machines that are full of character that reflect a particular boss. Blast Man is a narcissist so his level is full of self-iconography, and Bounce Man manages to strike a cute balance without getting creepy (sorry, Clown Man). The devil is in the details, as visual cues on enemies like a bright red bulb for Gabyoalls help clearly indicate what’s going on to help cut down on those aforementioned cheap deaths, a common franchise complaint for decades.
Oh, and bosses talk! One of the best features from Mega Man 8 and the X series returns, along with well-tempered boss balance. All eight main events are formidable in their own right without getting too frustrating, and have some form of an ultimate move that they use before death that ensures that you remember them. I also dig the light homages to Mega Man 1 (Elec Man and Fuse Man, Ice Man and Tundra Man, Torch Man and Fire Man, and so on). It’s noticeable without being cloyingly nostalgic.
There’s a good degree of variety in their weapon rewards too (in case you haven’t played a Mega Man game before, one of the basic tenets is that you steal a boss’s powers after defeating them). You have the token (acid) shield, along with some decidedly X-tinted abilities like an air dash. Two forms of item swapping (rolling an analog stick or using two triggers) make it easier to change strategies without having to resort to a pause menu — another X innovation that made its way into the series proper eventually.
Just don’t expect a whole lot of surprises. There’s eight normal stages and four Wily levels in the main campaign, and two of the latter levels are truncated. Without giving too much away, it does lose a little steam toward the end. There’s no elaborate double Wily Fortress: just four zones, one of which is a boss gauntlet and the last is a nominal area ending in a three-phase Wily fight. No twists, no turns, or big cameos: just 12 levels.
And that’s fine! Given that most of them are in tip-top shape, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to play over and over. Capcom also went a little bananas with the extras, which is far from a problem when the core is sound all on its own. All nine modes are variations of challenges, tasking players with making less jumps, shooting well and avoiding bad balloons, and a boss gauntlet: things of that nature. Dr. Light’s Trial, unlocked after a clear, is the highlight. It’s a 30-zone survival mode (a Devil’s Palace/Dark Realm sort of joint, right up Capcom’s alley). Having smashed up the leaderboards in Mega Man 9 I’m eager to get back at it with the basic time attack mode even if many of the challenge modes don’t excite me.
How much Mega Man 11 is expected to reinvent the wheel is by nature subjective. Despite its reserved approach, it undeniably slots in very nicely with the classic series while bringing our old friend into a new era. The big finish could have been a little more mega, but it succeeds in pulling off the gargantuan task of getting people to care about Mega Man again.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]