Mega Man 9 & 10

I spent a few weekends playing the new Deus Ex and needed to take a break from something so involving.  I went back into Mega Man 10, and then 9, and decided I needed to share some thoughts on these two games.  There is something satisfying about a game you can pick up and play for an hour and not get sucked into.  I’ll write the Deus Ex review soon, I promise.

Mega Man 9

I was VERY excited when Capcom decided to go back to its roots on this one.  What will strike die-hard Mega Man fans the most is that the source material of this game is, not surprisingly, clearly Mega Man 2.  All features from Mega Man 3 and on (slide, buster, and special transformations) are removed with exception of a few Rush features.  It’s understandable why; the slide makes moving around too easy.  The buster charge gives you the best weapon in the game right off the bat and effectively moots the need to use the special weapons from the robot masters.

I suspect another reason Capcom sought to emulate Mega Man 2 is that this was the point where the quality of the game achieved a high; afterwards the franchise became derivative.  Sadly, another 15 years of stale sequels and poor knockoffs would basically kill this franchise in the early 2000’s.  Consequently, the menu music and background, and some sound effects are directly lifted from Mega Man 2.  Right on the Wikipedia page is language from the creators admitting that Mega Man 3 was rushed (no pun intended).  Mega Man 4 seemed to have a higher production value (some comic book style animation before the title screen was added back again).  Mega Man 5 would be more of the same though, and really should have been on SNES. Mega Man 6 was released on NES when the system was dying.  To boot, Mega Man 6 failed to innovate and looked like a poor photocopy of prior iterations.  A purchaser was stuck paying $50 for an NES game when, at the same time, the same company was making better games at the same price for SNES with better graphics and gameplay.  With the X series being so much fun, it was like Capcom wanted to exploit die-hard fans that were reluctant to embrace change.

I’ve always though Mega Man 7 and 8 were good, though.  Mega Man 7 injects a lot of fun back into the series by making the cartoony and anime aspect of the series more pronounced.  The enemy design is good, the bosses are pretty clever, and the importance of the special weapons was returned; enemies weak against a particular weapon show special animations and have their attack patterns disrupted and there can be used to discover secrets in the environment.  The game is fun, but doesn’t take itself seriously.  Mega Man 8 expanded on this theme with high quality animations, some voice sound effects, and some great FMV scenes.  Mega Man 8 also does not grow Mega Man into another character; he is still an exaggerated anime man-boy, something which an upgrade in graphics has a tendency to do.  It also introduced a story element that raised the stakes; injecting a larger battle between good and evil into the typical Wily vs. Light drama.  The problem with Mega Man 8 was that during the early PS1 era, the entire gaming community started to consider 2D games to be passe, so Capcom dismissed the idea of going further.  The transition to 3D would not be attempted until the 2000’s, where it was done with the X series with disastrous consequences (if you exclude Legends which is pretty good I’ll admit).  Only Mario seemed to make it into the 3D world without any serious issues.

So Mega Man 9 sought to go back in time and create an alternate reality where 8-bit sprites were still relevant and where gameplay only needed two action buttons and a D-pad.  The brilliance of the game launch is that it was deliberately retro, and consequently shed the derivative label put onto latter evolutions in the franchise.  Sprites are cool again, as the street-art community has been reminding us of for some time.  Capping this celebration are deliberately poorly constructed title screens with odd text breaks, low quality title screen animations, a goof-ball story, and campy box art.

Mega Man 9 brings back the difficulty of the early games and the attention to detail in programming.  Robot Masters now react to what you do and counter-attack like Crash Man or Metal Man.  It’s tough, but also predictable in the way old games used to be.  There is a level of mastery that can be found in this simple looking game that can be very rewarding.  If you liked the old games, this is $10 well spent.  Some of the enemies are recycled, but some are also refreshed.  They are the new flavors of old concepts sometimes.  Additional difficulty modes were DLC for some reason, which seemed like a stealth attempt to make a $10 game a $20 game.  Capcom missed a clear opportunity here to sell merchandise like the box art to fans.  This is a Mega Man game for the masses; the masses being those who hold the nostalgia of the 80’s dear to their hearts.  The well-constructed game mechanics and tightness of control are complimented by the diversity of the special weapons, which all have a unique purpose.

Mega Man 10

The existence of this game surprised me about as much as Mega Man 9.  If Mega Man 9 is proof that you can make a retro reboot of an 80’s 2D game, what exactly does Mega Man 10 prove?  The answer to the question is nothing.  Consequently, Mega Man 10 is a great addition for Mega Man fans only; it seeks only to confirm that Capcom’s best days are behind it and that, when in doubt, management still believes the solutions to its problems can best be found using the photocopier.

Mega Man 10 is a great NES game.  It has the same level of detail in the graphics and music as did Mega Man 9.  Gameplay is still there.  Difficulty is there.  The fun anime-style is still there.  The “endless attack” mode even resurrects level elements from past games (the sunset background is lifted from Tomahawk Man’s stage, right?).  Gone are some of the details that made 9 really good though; Robot Masters are no longer disrupted when they are hit with their special weapon weaknesses, and the level of reaction to what the player is doing seems reduced.  There are no more novel special weapon solutions, with the exception of limited use of Commando Bombs.  Endless attack mode brings back rehashes of prior Mega Man levels, complete with recolored map details of some classic levels.

I can remember playing Mega Man X4, and seeing the graphics and FMV animations and being impressed.  I can also clearly remember playing X5 for the first time.  Capcom advertised that they were using a “comic book” style method of showing the story portions of the game.  This essentially meant they went back in time to the 80’s and showed one stationary screen with some poorly translated scrolling text at the bottom. Capcom giveth, and Capcom taketh away.  Gone were the clean and sharp anime battle scenes from two years earlier.  Mega Man X6 would adopt the same half-assedness.  This didn’t seem like return to the roots, it seemed like a transparent attempt to advertise a budget cut as a an attempt at making something retro.  When I played Mega Man 10 for the first time, I had a flashback to these earlier disappointments.   Mega Man 10 isn’t quite as bad, it doesn’t really cut anything noticeable away from Mega Man 9, but it doesn’t add anything new either.  Let’s not forget that Strike Man is basically a ripoff of  Mr. Met.

But wait a minute; isn’t this exactly why old Mega Man games flopped?  More of the same.  Sure there are new play modes with Bass and Protoman, but these modes only serve to make the game easier.   What exactly is the value of a reboot of something so retro it was fresh?  The answer is unclear.  What is equally unclear is what Capcom should do to save it’s intellectual property from being devalued.  Mega Man 9 should have been complimented with a pledge from Capcom that they were going to put the utmost of quality.  Perhaps some sort of DLC PS3 version next with updated graphics, or at least some sort of tangible medium like a special edition.  These seem like natural boosts to me.  The upcoming Mega Man Universe hybrid game has already been cancelled.  The DIY aspects of the game, though, suggested to me that they were unsure of what to do with their own characters at this point.  Maybe the idea of that game was another anthology-amalgam, but that void was arguably met when the anniversary collection came out.

Perhaps fans have contributed to this conundrum, by refusing to demand new aspects of the gameplay for fear of changing it, and then complaining that the games are old-hat.  I’m not saying there is a need to get fancy graphics or add more layers to the gameplay here to reboot, I’m just saying this seems like an underutilization of the underlying equity in these characters.  If Nintendo can make both a new 3D Super Mario Galaxy, and almost simultaneously release the “New” Super Mario Bros. in 2D, I don’t see why Capcom can do both as well.  Right now, the someone has to realize the photocopier is eventually going to break down though…