For Everlasting Peace

Mega Man 9 'box art'
Even “better” than the Mega Man box art: here he has an arm cannon and a gun!

Having now completed a play-through of Mega Man 9, I can safely say that it ranks right up there with Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

The level design in the Dr. Wily stages is very impressive, balancing the fine line between challenging and unfair. You’ll die plenty of times — I certainly did — but each time you’ll know it’s because you screwed up, not because something came out of left field and killed you. There’s plenty of ways to meet a quick death, but never without first giving you a chance to figure out a new type of obstacle in a relatively benign environment. The level design loves to play with your expectations, with lots of twists on mechanics you’ve seen (or think you’ve seen) before. By the time you reach the screen deep in Wily Stage 3 with three 1-ups in it, you’ll know to be on your guard, even if you don’t yet know why.

A fantastic instance of challenging the player’s expectations comes in one of the screens in Wily Stage 1. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve played the game, you know exactly the one I’m talking about. It took me a long time to figure out the trick needed to avoid certain death, and it’s sure to fool Mega Man veterans — heck, especially Mega Man veterans — the first time they encounter it. Whoever at Inti Creates who came up with it is a diabolical genius.

Plus, in retrospect, it’s amazing it’s taken this long for Mega Man to enter a boss’s chamber from the right side of the screen instead of the left.

The bosses in the Wily Stages are also excellent. They nicely avoid the cliche that Mega Man 4 and later fell into of a series of well-drawn but unremarkable screen-sized bosses with a single weak point. Each one here is unique, ranging from a sort of reverse tug-of-war using giant spiked balls, to a multi-screen behemoth, to a twist on a classic Mega Man boss that requires pattern memorization and/or getting into the zone to beat.

Also, Dr. Wily finally realized how effective the mandatory skull-themed robot he pilots during the final battle could be if he made the whole thing out of whatever alloy it is that deflects all of Mega Man’s weapons. And not to spoil the ending, but he even seems to have anticipated his inevitable defeat, beyond just having an escape plan.

Alas, though, the game isn’t perfect. Dr. Wily’s final form sadly follows the stale “disappearing and reappearing saucer” thing that started in Mega Man 4. I never cared much for that type of final battle, though at least the weapons available this time give you a few options for hitting the saucer when it’s well outside of jumping range. Also, even though Rush Jet works just fine underwater, I would’ve kind of liked to see the return of Rush Marine for that purpose, just because.

If I may boast for a second, I managed to get about 25% of the challenges completed on this first play-through quite by accident, including half the beat-a-robot-master-under-10-seconds ones and the one that involves never stopping in one stage (Galaxy Man’s stage for me, if you’re wondering). (I’ve also managed to beat Dr. Wily’s first two forms without taking damage, but there’s no prize for that.) I don’t know if I’ll ever pull off the harder ones like the never-miss-a-shot or never-take-damage ones, or even the tedious ones like beat-the-game-five-times-in-a-day, but I’ll definitely be playing through the game many more times.

Peeking at the downloadable content coming next month, there’ll be options for increasing the difficulty even more, and adding an option to play as Proto Man. Arguably these could’ve easily been part of the main game, but given that I would’ve gladly paid $20 for Mega Man 9 as-is instead of $10, I really can’t complain about shelling out another $8 for all the extras.

Inti Creates could’ve easily relied on exploiting old-school Mega Man nostalgia and produced a lump of 8-bit shovelware, but they took the effort to recreate the quality of those games, not just their appearance. If there is a Mega Man 10 in the offing, let’s hope they don’t start slacking off.