Rockman Paper Scissors

Given that one of the core mechanics of the Mega Man series is the rock-paper-scissors style system of how each robot master is vulnerable to another robot master’s weapon, and given that the original game had robot masters that attacked by throwing rocks (Guts Man) and scissors (Cut Man) (and yes, rock beats scissors), it’s surprising that there still has never been a paper-themed robot master.

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.

Mega Man 9!

Mega Man 9 is shaping up to be precisely as awesome as I had hoped. If you wish to remain unspoiled in regards to this awesomeness, you best stop reading right now.

First off, they’ve nailed the old-school Mega Man look and feel and sound. One could imagine an alternate universe where this game came out after Mega Man 2. Except for being able to save your game instead of scribbling down grid passwords. And the challenges ranging from easy (kill a robot master using only the Mega Buster… yeah, that’s how you have to kill the first one) to nigh-impossible (beat the game without taking damage!). And the online leaderboard for speed-running the game. And the hooks for downloadable content. But hey, the menus for all those things are downright 8-bit.

The plot is, well, nobody plays a Mega Man game for the plot, and Mega Man 9 delivers what you’d expect, with the right amount of ridiculousness in the no-seriously-Dr.-Wily-isn’t-the-villain-this-time-honest!-ness. Eight of Dr. Light’s robots are running amok, and Dr. Wily insists that he’s finally reformed right before Dr. Light turned evil (and if you donate money to Dr. Wily’s Swiss bank account, you can fund development of something to stop Dr. Light’s robots!). Apparently everyone swallows this, and it’s up to Mega Man to blast some sense into the robot masters after Dr. Light’s arrest. (Why the police apparently have no qualms about Mega Man, clearly Dr. Light’s deadliest creation ever given his undefeated record against dozens of Dr. Wily’s robots, running free while all this is going on, has not yet been addressed.)

The level design has been pretty good, putting new and interesting spins on the classic elements. Anyone who’s ever played a Mega Man game knows that eventually they’ll come across two things: disappearing blocks over spikes and/or pits, and multi-screen drops through spike-lined corridors. I’ve played two levels so far, each fairly arbitrarily chosen, and I’ve already seen both.

Plug Man’s stage has several disappearing block sections, and manages to find new tricks with them that previous games never tried. I wonder how many players will fall to their doom when a block suddenly appears in front of the platform they were trying to jump to. Nice. (In fairness, you could very much see that coming if you bothered to watch the pattern before you started jumping around.)

Splash Woman’s stage has the spike drops. Early on, you land on a platform in the middle of the screen. The left drop has no spikes, the right one does. You get to choose which one to jump down. Choose wisely, and you can get a 1-up. Later on, you have to go up a series of spike-lined rooms, relying on platforms that slide across the screen to reach the next ladder. In a way, it’s like a block puzzle mixed with a spike drop, in reverse. I haven’t gotten past the third screen without wimping out and using Rush Coil to avoid the pair of spikes deviously placed in the dead center of the room, but I’m sure it can be done.

So far, even when there’s clearly inspiration from a previous game, there’s something new in the implementation here that keeps it from being the series of retreads that Mega Man 7 wound up as. Again in Splash Woman’s stage, the part where you have to ride bubbles to the top of the screen is straight out of Wave Man’s stage in Mega Man 5, but this time (a) it’s underwater, so you can jump really well, and (b) enemies shoot out at you from the sides of the screen.

The attention to detail is pretty nifty, too. Get hit by an octopus’s ink blob in Splash Woman’s stage, and Mega Man stays covered in ink until you switch to a different weapon. You can also buy a “book of hairstyles” from the item shop on the stage select screen to take off your helmet… until you die. There’s also a “book of costumes”, which I haven’t tried yet, but from its icon I’m assuming it dresses Mega Man up as Roll. (For the record, there are also items available which are actually useful, if you’re in to that sort of thing.)

The robot masters themselves haven’t disappointed so far. Plug Man’s shots travel along the floor, up the wall behind you, onto the ceiling, and then drop down right above you head, so you have to keep your eye both on what Plug Man is doing and the shots you’ve already dodged once. Splash Woman swims to the top of the screen while fish move across the screen, and then she drops tridents on you. The Mega Buster is much more effective against hear than Plug Man’s weapon.

Another great nostalgic thing: Splash Woman and I managed to kill each other simultaneously, just like the first time I won-for-all-intents-and-purposes-even-though-the-game-didn’t-count-it against Cut Man way back in the original Mega Man. And just like then, Mega Man 9 counted it as a death rather than a victory. On my final life. Game over.

Count yourself sort-of-lucky, Splash Woman, for your days are numbered. Specifically, numbered 1, since tomorrow night it’s go time.

EPIC ADDENDUM

Since I’ve had this running through my head ever since I put last night’s post together, I figured you should have the opportunity to suffer/enjoy it similarly:

(It’s also available in the original Japanese with Engrish subtitles, if you’re in to that sort of thing.)

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EPIC WANT

Speaking of things that are either going to be awesome or completely suck: Mega Man 9 is coming out on WiiWare later this year. And it’s going back to its 8-bit roots:

Mega Man 9 screenshot

If Keiji Inafune is indeed trying to channel the greatness of Mega Man 2, which everyone knows is one of the greatest video games of all time, Mega Man 9 could indeed rescue the series from the mediocrity and repetitiveness it slid into after Mega Man 3.

(Side note: in retrospect, the ability to charge normal shots introduced in Mega Man 4 threw off the game mechanics by making the weapons you get from beating robot masters much less useful. Since charged shots works pretty well against almost everything, there’s little reason to switch weapons unless you need to exploit some gimmicky trajectory they have to get through an area. Mega Man X made it work, but the original series never did.)

(Another side note: I know nobody plays a Mega Man game for the plot, but Capcom wasn’t even trying with Mega Man 6. Not only was it the fourth game in a row with a less-than-credible “no, Dr. Wily isn’t the villain this time, really!!!” premise, but “Mr. X” was clearly just Dr. Wily with a fake beard.)

Anyway, announcements like this are going to finally make me get around to buying a Wii one of these days.

On the other hand, if Mega Man 9 turns out to somehow be three worse than Mega Man 6 was, I’d be willing to play whatever the hell this is (especially the part starting around 5:26):

(Fun fact: if you ever find yourself wondering “is that a …” while watching the above, I assure you, the answer is “yes”.)

(Fun fact: if I put any more parentheses in this post, it might be mistaken for Lisp.)