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Although the immediate future of Mega Man will one day be revealed (well probably, right?), the question of what the next Mega Man game should be will perpetually linger. This question will always rely on context: long-running series are shaped by their past just as much as the present market landscape. Each prior game helps shape what the next game could be. That’s why today, I’m taking a look at the two Mega Man games that I believe demonstrate this idea the most clearly: Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 11. Both games spawned from the context they were created in, and despite their base similarities, they arrived at almost opposite results by every other metric. By comparing the different paths they took, we can glean what makes Mega Man special as a platformer and what is important to carry into the future.
I love both games I’m discussing today. This is less of a no-holds-barred deathmatch and more of a respectful Gentle Man’s (distinct from gentlemen) duel that highlights how the games differ and the strengths of each. My apologies to anyone expecting blood and circuits here.
With that said, let’s talk about context a bit more. The common question that arises with any new game in a long running series is “how can we differentiate this one from the rest?” Mega Man has answered this concern with dramatic changes in the form of subseries that move in to different genres, as well as with more incremental solutions found in the more traditional platformers. Even if the changes are small, however, when made over a long period of time, they eventually add up. That buildup creates a lot of historical context, which guided both of today’s subjects towards their respective destinations.
A Revived Ambition!!
When Mega Man 9 released in 2008, Mega Man was in its most convoluted state. RPGs like Battle Network and Star Force carried the bulk of the Mega Man brand for the prior seven years. Developer Inti Creates pushed the limits of Mega Man’s mechanics and level design with their handheld games, to the point that they were beginning to abandon the typical Mega Man platformer structure altogether. Capcom itself experimented with the X series by taking it into 3D with mixed results. No matter which direction you looked in, Mega Man had morphed into a much more complicated beast.
More importantly, the game industry itself was changing. Video games were simultaneously becoming much bigger money makers while also becoming much more expensive to create. Mega Man historically occupied a comfortable niche of being low-cost to develop while returning reasonable profit, but the market was quickly losing interest in that model.
Mega Man was in danger from both an identity standpoint and a financial one, so it made sense to do some soul-searching, or as close to that as you can do with a robot. Robot souls aren’t confirmed to exist until around Mega Man Xtreme 2, so I’m not counting that in the context of mainline Mega Man!
It made even more sense to go back to the origins of the series with a game that looked and felt like the originals – the Wii had successfully demonstrated both the appeal of simplicity as well as a venue for it through its Virtual Console and WiiWare programs, which inspired the return to Mega Man’s retro roots. Well, it makes sense now, knowing in retrospect that it worked out. Retro revivals weren’t the commonplace thing they are today back then. This was the age of old franchises reinventing themselves or otherwise being dragged kicking and screaming into modern video game conventions. The idea of going backwards, not only in technology but also mechanically, was risky. Mega Man 9 gambled on the strengths of its core appeal, the same appeal that had initially kicked off Mega Man as a series nearly 20 years beforehand, to carry it in an age where the common attitude was that the industry had “moved on” from certain kinds of games.
Mega Man 9 succeeded because it executed on that appeal so well. It is Mega Man in its purest form; it removes not only the complexity of prior subseries, it resets the original Mega Man himself back to basics, stripping him of staples like the slide and charge shot. While this may annoy some long-time fans, I believe that at least in this game, it was the right call.
To be clear, the slide and charge shot are not inherently bad inclusions. They add several strategic considerations to the stages and bosses. Plus they are just fun to use! If you are taking a minimalist point of view however, they are not core to what makes Mega Man fun. The fact that they took several games to be implemented is proof enough of that. They can potentially enhance the experience, they are also just superfluous to it as well. More importantly, they also risk detracting from the experience when misused.
Mega Man games rely on a sense of pacing in their design. There isn’t an exact pace intended for you to proceed through a Mega Man stage – you can’t expect absolutely every player to proceed in the exact same way or with the exact same speed – but the pace can be controlled to an extent. Through the level design and enemies, the developers can force you to slow down or suggest how you proceed. It’s not something you may actively think about, it’s just something the games inherently convey when playing them.
As you improve and replay the game, you develop a sense of the “flow” through levels by figuring out where you can push the boundaries of the design: a clever jump or well-timed shot allows you to maintain your momentum and perfect your run through the levels in one clean “dance.” This process epitomizes the true depth of Mega Man.
The slide and charge shot complicate learning the “flow” by expanding the player’s ability to alter the pacing. If you break them down to their core functions, both the slide and charge shot speed the game up – the slide through faster movement and the charge shot by allowing you to defeating enemies more quickly with its sheer power and larger hitbox. If the game is designed around these changes, then that isn’t a big deal. What happens often, however, is that the inclusion of these mechanics changes how the game feels to play.
If they aren’t properly balanced around, these mechanics encourage sloppier play from the player by allowing them to rush ahead without precision. In turn, they also encourage the developers to design levels where it’s okay to do that. Since the player engages less with the game, they never discover a full “dance” that makes the levels fun to traverse. Your approach becomes generic since you don’t have to experiment much to get through. This change is particularly noticeable in Mega Man 5 and 6, whose challenges are largely overridden by how powerful the charge shot and slide are in those games. That doesn’t make those games bad per se, but the homogenization of their game design is a noticeable consequence of including these mechanics.
Mega Man 9 re-emphasizes the importance of learning the “flow” of a level by taking away those extra tools. In this way, it connects both the game design and the players more directly to the roots of Mega Man. This connection is further emphasized by the in-game achievement system, which hints at the idea of “flow” by awarding you for things like completing a level without stopping, without shooting, without killing enemies, or without missing a shot. Trying out these different approaches will teach you the limits of what is and isn’t necessary to complete a stage, allowing for a better understanding of the game as a whole.
While the fundamentals of Mega Man 9 harken back to Mega Man’s origins, the game does not completely ignore what the series would later become. Despite Mega Man 9’s reputation as a brutal platformer, it includes a shop feature that gives you the opportunity to grind for lives and E-tanks if you need the extra help to complete the game. This single “modern” concession makes sense, because Mega Man 9 sporadically indulges in playfully antagonistic level design reminiscent of the feeling a new player might get from the older titles.
A common piece of game design wisdom that floats around in the ether is that a game needs to be fair to be enjoyable. I disagree. Or rather, I would say that there are degrees of fairness to consider here. A completely impossible game that exclusively beats you down would not be fun. I would, however, put forth the idea that it’s acceptable, and in fact even desirable, for a game to be unfair to some extent.
If my paragraphs about the “flow” of Mega Man didn’t come across as the insane ramblings of someone who should really put the controller down, then you already know what I’m getting at: a big part of the fun of Mega Man comes from learning the game. Mistakes should be both expected and welcome. There’s nothing to learn if you can complete everything in a stage without incident on your first try. Getting knocked to your doom by an enemy that unexpectedly jumped out at you from a pit, while unlikely to be avoided the first time, teaches you to be cautious of similar situations in the future and ensures that you will have to engage with the game more deeply to survive.
Mega Man 9 throws little jabs like these out occasionally, and I say it’s all in good fun. Occasionally dying does not majorly impede the game when the stages are as short as they are and the learning process is the point of the game. Remembering and overcoming these tricks on a subsequent playthrough provides a unique satisfaction that would only be possible through such a design method. Anyone truly annoyed by these incidents has plenty of purchasable items to help mitigate them, which is an overall fair compromise.
Another way Mega Man 9 draws from its extended legacy is in its tone. The first two Mega Man games have a fairly distinct feeling from the rest of the series, which I believe boils down to the presence of the original creator of Mega Man, Akira Kitamura, on those projects. They conveyed a lot about the sadness and emotional weight of the game while literally saying very little.
As the series grew, the games started saying more while conveying a lot less. Frankly, the later NES games in particular get downright goofy. Elaborate scenes portraying Mega Man’s somber struggle fall to the wayside in favor of increasingly convoluted fake-out plots where Dr. Wily pretends to not be the villain for most of the game for reasons I cannot hope to comprehend. He’s just too smart and his disguises are just too impenetrable. Maybe he’s just showing off.
On its face, Mega Man 9 follows in these more tongue-in-cheek footsteps. The game concocts yet another convoluted plot where Wily attempts to divert immediate suspicion, although amusingly this time he’s transparently pinning his crimes on Dr. Light. It’s fun but lacks substance on its own. Thankfully, Mega Man 9 also addresses its more tragic roots by revealing that the motivation of the Robot Masters for joining up with Dr. Wily: they had served their purpose, passed their expiration date, and were meant to be decommissioned.
This twist subtly addresses the core dilemma of Mega Man as a character – he also has a purpose to complete, and theoretically, he too will one day need to be decommissioned when his battles are over. The only thing that keeps Mega Man “alive” is having to fight more battles. By having him face off against robots who have already reached the end of their purpose, he’s essentially fighting reflections of his inevitable future. It’s surprisingly sad, which adds a hint of the spirit of the character as originally envisioned.
Mega Man 9 revived the spirit of the classic games as well as the spirit of Mega Man in general. In an era where each new release was straying further and further away from the core appeal of Mega Man and into their own directions, 9 re-centered the series on its core principles. It reminded people of what originally made Mega Man great at a crucial point in its history.
Gearing Up for a New Fate!!!
Time passed and Mega Man 11 was released under substantially different circumstances. Game-wise, not much happened after Mega Man 9 other than its direct follow-up in Mega Man 10, which further married the series roots with the advancements of the present. Afterwards, the effects of the industry transition that had begun taking shape in the years prior fully took hold. Keiji Inafune, the then-head of production of Capcom, a core staff member for the original titles, and perhaps the series’ strongest advocate, left Capcom in 2011 and took any prospects of an immediate future for Mega Man with him. With no one at the company actively pushing for more Mega Man and Capcom’s priorities shifting to bigger business prospects, the series went on unofficial hiatus.
The Capcom of 2018, and really the Capcom of the current day, thinks much longer term than the Capcom of 2008 or long before that. A new Mega Man game would release under an essentially clean slate, it could be anything. All it really had to be was a path towards a brighter and more profitable future for the series. The only contexts to consider, then, would be Mega Man’s legacy as a whole as well as Capcom’s business ambitions. They had to figure out what a “modern” Mega Man looks like, and more importantly (to them, anyway), how that modern game can push the series to greater heights.
Arguably, a truly “modern” Mega Man would not be a 2D platformer at all. They are popular, but these kinds of games, and specifically Mega Man’s niche within that genre, aren’t multi-million sellers. Capcom has decades of sales data pointing towards that conclusion.
Much like the train of thought that led to Mega Man 9, the people at Capcom decided to test the waters of a Mega Man revival by going back to basics and figuring out who Mega Man is or should be, except this time they did it much more literally. Mega Man Legacy Collection released to strong enough sales numbers to show the suits internally at Capcom that fans wanted a new game. Although unstated directly, these sales also showed that 2D platforming is an important anchoring point for grounding Mega Man’s identity. Based on this sales data, it made sense for the next new Mega Man game to continue his 2D platforming legacy and serve as a new anchoring point for the next phase of the series.
When the genre of the game does not fit “modern” standards, the next question becomes how much can be changed to satiate a modern audience. It’s a delicate balance – if you change too much then it will no longer feel like Mega Man to long-time fans. Mega Man lived and continues to live largely based on the passion of fans. Careful consideration of fan expectations and a wider audience resulted in Mega Man 11.
If Mega Man 9 distills the spirit of Mega Man into its purest form with only minor concessions to new players, Mega Man 11 acts as a sturdy bridge between the old and new. It revamps the aesthetics of the game into a modern 3D technology, yet retains the spirit of its 2D stylings. It captures the core appeal of Mega Man as a game while reintroducing some of the complexity. Mega Man 11 successfully follows a careful, yet ambitious blueprint to redefine Mega Man.
Mega Man 11’s aesthetic sensibilities subtly push the boundaries of Mega Man in new directions. Mega Man’s NES-era look maintains a timeless quality because it emphasizes simple visual clarity; the characters, stages, and level elements are always vibrant and clearly laid out. In a way, the pixel art captures a simple appeal similar to its inspirations like Astro Boy did for manga. Mega Man 11 follows suit with clean visuals that clearly portrays the hazards and obstacles Mega Man needs to overcome.
Where 11’s visuals differ are in the details – the look is almost deceptively simple, as it is in many ways the most detailed the series has ever been. The backgrounds are filled with small bits of art that flesh out each boss’s personality while the characters themselves look and move in ways that evoke the 2D art they are based on. 11’s art design is like if the 2D art itself came alive, which gives it a fresh, yet familiar touch to the series.
The soundtrack may be Mega Man 11’s most controversial change, although I believe it is one rooted in good intentions. Mega Man’s classic songs sound inherently robotic and artificial due to the nature of the hardware they were composed with. They mix beeps and boops into catchy melodies, which actually enhances the feel of the soundtrack when it delves into more emotional and moody ballads. These songs remain iconic because they portray the beating heart beneath Mega Man’s metal exterior so well.
Although Mega Man 11’s soundtrack could have taken a retro approach, it would make for an awkward match with the new visuals. Instead, the composer of Mega Man 11 focused on electronic synths, a modern solution for matching the feel of a robotic hero. The tunes of 11 maintain catchy melodies, but the synthesized arrangements are less overt in their intentions, which gives the music a different feel. It works in some cases, but it does lack the variety of instrumentation that prior games could convey despite their limitations. At the very least, it’s an interesting direction for the series, which I can appreciate for at least one game.
Another factor that may have contributed to the more subdued soundtrack is the new approach to level design. Stages last much longer now, which would provide more opportunity for more in-your-face music to grate. The change to the levels may seem innocuous on its own, but it is part of a grander scheme that impacts how Mega Man 11 feels to play compared to its predecessors.
Mega Man 11 demonstrates what a Mega Man game can be when it is balanced for peak optimization of its mechanics and ideas. Earlier, I whined about slides and charge shots because they can bulldoze over the core Mega Man experience when not well accounted for in the level design. Mega Man 11 not only accounts for the reimplementation of these mechanics, it expects you to use them skillfully. We’re several years out from its release now, so I’m pretty confident in saying that Mega Man 11 is the most challenging mainline game on a moment-to-moment basis. Even when you’re not outright dying, mistakes happen easily and the damage accumulates quickly. Whenever I replay 11, I can never get too comfortable and autopilot sections I’ve done a million times before because so much of the game relies on the heightened importance of execution.
The design of the stages retain a similar sense of “flow” from past titles, however tapping into it requires a lot more out of a player than a typical Mega Man game. While it avoids the general “unfairness” of Mega Man 9’s design, in some ways that has only made the game more brutal. Mega Man 9’s attempts to troll the player can typically be easily avoided once you know the trick ahead of time. Many of Mega Man 11’s challenges remain difficult to execute on even if you know the solution. Due to the longer stage length and spaced-out checkpoints, your mistakes hit much harder, making for a surprisingly merciless take on Mega Man compared to what you may expect from a modern release.
Of course, the challenge is mitigated somewhat by Mega Man 11’s single biggest shake-up to the formula: the Double Gear system. This mechanic marks what may be the most ingenious inclusion since the original Mega Man game, and I don’t say that lightly. I think just about everyone saw this idea and thought something along the lines of “oh, an easy mode to help newcomers.” That’s the case to an extent, it just isn’t the full story.
Double Gear shines because it raises both the skill floor and the skill ceiling. Tapping into the Power or Speed gears are not free “win” buttons; their use has to be timed properly or else you risk overheating Mega Man, which can put you into an even worse spot than the one you originally tried to escape from. The gears can save you or help you bypass obstacles, which is great for newcomers, but veterans can take these uses to even greater heights by developing faster and more efficient ways to complete the game. Perhaps best of all, using the gears is actually completely optional for completing the game.
Seeing the gear system for the first time, my biggest worry going into Mega Man 11 was that they were going to fundamentally simplify the game or somehow take over how it is designed. That’s not the case. They are only as important as you want them to be. If anything, their inclusion provides the leeway to keep the challenge intact and perhaps even make a more difficult game for players who were never intending to use the ability. The balance of the mechanic turned out to be shockingly fine-tuned, creating an idea that makes Mega Man more approachable while also pushing it into exciting new territory.
Perhaps the only area where Mega Man 11 is unwilling to push forward is with its story and themes. You might expect a Mega Man game to really expand on this aspect – I mean I personally wouldn’t because it’s a Mega Man game, but what I would expect is that for what little story happens to be there, it would be presented better than prior games. I like the idea of delving into Dr. Light and Dr. Wily’s past relationship and revealing the inciting incident that set Dr. Wily on the path to villainy. This concept taps into a personal aspect of the characters we haven’t seen before and wistfully asks the player to imagine how things could have turned out just a bit differently and prevent all of the tragedy.
In execution, it’s a little underwhelming. The storytelling here culminates with some still art and characters standing around talking at each other. It lacks impact, which in turn makes the entire reveal feel inconsequential. Not really a Top 10 Mega Man moment, in my opinion. Mr. X revealing himself to be Dr. Wily, on the other hand…
Mega Man 11 does not retread the beaten path, but it also does not reinvent what Mega Man is. It simply pushes the series forward in logical and satisfying ways. Whereas Mega Man 9 recaptured the core Mega Man experience as it was, Mega Man 11 reintroduces it with a modern coat of paint. Mega Man 11 defines who Mega Man is and provides a glimpse of where he can go. You could say it shifts Mega Man into the next gear.
Fight for Everlasting Mega Man!!!!
Personally, I don’t expect the next big Mega Man game to be a traditional 2D platformer. That said, I also doubt that we’ll never see a 2D platformer in the vein of these games again. Despite their differences, Mega Man 9 and 11 both channel the strengths of 30 year old games and highlight the enduring strength of their core principles. They both garnered a lot of praise and they both sold well relative to the series history. That speaks to the importance of what Mega Man represents as a platformer – there’s a timeless quality in these games that transcends traditional notions of game design progress. No matter where future games may go, as long as they tap into the essence of Mega Man, both in a game design and a narrative sense, they are likely to find similar success.