Mega Man 9 is really hard.
It is important to stress this at the outset of this review. Don't labour under any misapprehensions, and make no mistake, Mega Man 9 will punish you in the same way that many 8-bit titles did back in the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and for many, this will be a great thing. The game arrives via digital distribution on WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PSN Store, and is the first title in the original Mega Man series to be released since Mega Man 8 in 1996. Adopting a retro aesthetic is a bold move for Capcom in an age of bump-mapping and dynamic lighting, and employing decades-old design principles is even bolder; so does Mega Man 9 qualify as a worthy title in its own right, or will it be remembered as a sad relic of a bygone era?
Since most are familiar with Mega Man or his world, or any of the dozen variants or spin-offs of his character which have surfaced since his debut, the premise of Mega Man 9 is going to be instantly familiar; the maniacal Dr. Wily has seemingly set loose eight powerful Robot Masters upon the populace, and causes the altruistic Dr. Light to take the blame. Mega Man then takes it upon himself to put the rogue robots out of commission and put a stop to Wily's schemes.
To do so, Mega Man and the player must traverse a series of eight stages, each with a Robot Master at its end. Players can choose to tackle these villains in any order, although there is a definite 'correct' path players can take to make progress through the game more manageable. Galaxy Man, Hornet Man, Jewel Man, Magma Man, Tornado Man, Concrete Man, Plug Man and Splash Woman each present their own peculiar difficulties, and each is very well-designed. To reach each boss, Mega Man will jump, swing, and blast his way across the stages using his standard issue Mega Buster or any of the weapons he has won through vanquishing the Robot Masters. Upon completion of all the bosses, the player must conquer the evil Dr. Wily's fortress - an epic slog which will test every skill and weapon acquired up until that point. This is Mega Man in a nutshell.
There are two aspects of Mega Man 9 which will immediately capture a player's attention. The first of these is the title's obvious 8-bit stylings. Mega Man himself is a quaint little sprite, and his various foes are comprised of a few well-placed pixels and three frames of animation. Backgrounds are sparse and clean, and the game's entire visual presentation has clearly been designed with a loving adherence to the graphical limitations of the NES. Sprite flickering, slowdown, and other technical hitches have been included in loving tribute to a time when graphics were incidental to tight-as-a-drum game mechanics and precise controls. To criticise Mega Man 9 for looking blocky and plain is akin to disparaging something like Rez for its wireframe visuals - in other words, is to entirely miss the point. The game's eight core stages look as good as they must in order to carry the gameplay. There is no clutter, nor a pixel wasted, and no mistaking the position of your enemies. Mega Man 9 triumphantly achieves what it sets out do in terms of its presentation, with the only limit being the player's willingness to embrace its deliberate artistic choices.
The game's soundscape conforms to a similar philosophy - if you're imagining simple, catchy, midi tunes on the soundtrack, you'd be on the money, and sound effects are as crisp and blunt as most NES games. Expect to become acquainted with the very distinctive sound which accompanies Mega Man's untimely demise - for it will haunt most player's dreams soon enough.
This raises the title's second most-notable attribute which will quickly become apparent and has already been alluded to at the beginning of this review; namely, the game's intense difficulty level. Players will die, and die often during the course of Mega Man 9, often only a few screens into a stage. Enemies cause the Blue Bomber signifcant damage, and the poor chap can't take three steps without encountering razor-sharp spikes or bottomless abysses which will relegate him to the beginning of the level. The aforementioned bosses, the Master Robots, ratchet the difficulty up to even steeper heights, and it is not uncommon to fall to them a half-dozen times before developing a strategy, learning their patterns, and discovering which other boss weapon each is weak to. This uncompromising harshness makes Mega Man 9 a title which will elicit differing reactions. Those well-versed in 8-bit viciousness will squeal gleefully at the prospect of a stiff challenge in the modern age of recharging health bars and auto-saves, but neophytes will likely want to hurl their controllers through windows after failing to clear a single stage after two hours of play. The difficulty level of Mega Man 9 is something worth praising and criticising in equally-valid measure. Yes, the title can be rigid and cruel with it's disappearing block puzzles and instant death-traps, but on the flipside, stages are seldom longer than five to ten minutes in duration and the enemy routines and placement is wholly consistent so that through enough repetition, even weaker players will learn to conquer the game's dizzying obstacles. So while most will fail at first, the game's eagerness to deny them satisfaction and really make them work towards their achievements serves only to enhance the sense of reward at finally succeeding.
The game attempts to alleviate its oppressive difficulty by offering the player a plethora of items to purchase at a mid-mission shop; extra lives, energy tanks for topping up health, and even spike-resistant boots all aid in turning the tide in favour of the player and ensure that those with less skill can advance through the game with enough grit and determination.
Mega Man 9 is not a long title, clocking in at around four or five hours for a single playthrough, depending on player skill. Subsequent play-throughs will prove to be even faster, with optional challenges even daring players to conquer the game in less than an hour. However this is a game built for replayability - there are already some extremely daunting timed runs for each stage posted on the game's online leaderboards, and the competition is only going to get fiercer from hereon in. Options for downloadable content, including extra playable characters and game modes, suggest that Mega Man 9 is something which everyone who falls into its groove will keep on coming back to.
Mega Man 9, then, is startlingly familiar and refreshingly distinctive. It's defiant and unwelcoming, yet eminently playable and almost devilishly addictive. In short, its like a lot of classic 8-bit games of yesteryear, titles from which many a gamer's passions blossomed and grew. For those gamers, Mega Man 9 is essential. For newcomers, there's no better title to serve as a gateway into the world of classic gaming, provided they are up to the challenge. Buy Mega Man 9, and show your support for such exciting experiments. Mega Man 9 may appear antiquated, but it's as vital and pure as any game you're likely to play this year.