Thursday, July 5, 2018

Mega Man 9: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

Mega Man is not an unknown franchise. The player plays as the titular character, jumping and shooting through stages. He defeats eight bosses, absorbing their abilities to use for himself, and then faces the evil Dr. Wily at the end of his cavernous fortress. The franchise just recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. But there is still one game in the series I want to talk about.

This is quickly becoming the most overlooked title in the franchise. I'm talking about Mega Man 9.

This might be the strangest game I've written about so far. Mega Man is a highly influential franchise and is a gaming icon, so why would I choose to highlight a game here in one of these posts? I normally talk about excellent games that fell through the cracks. Surely everyone knows about this series.

Well, what brought this on was more of a pet peeve. I'm seeing revisionist history lifting its head and spitting on what is one of the best games in the franchise. This has happened ever since the Mega Man Legacy Collection was released (and its sequel) which packaged the original 10 main Mega Man games spread across the years in one easy to play compilation. The original 6 NES games remain quite good (2 and 3 are still by far the best), The SNES Mega Man 7 has finally gotten more of the respect it originally deserved, and Mega Man 8 is still regarded as one of the lesser entries despite its 32-bit graphics being the most advanced. Proof that purty graphics and advanced sound mean nothing is the design is weak. But 9 has recently been talked down more and more on for its aesthetic, its difficulty, and the face that it didn't "progress" the series forward. This despite the fact that it is possibly the best game in the classic series. Those dogging this game are completely missing context. Playing all 10 games back to back will not give you an idea as to why Mega Man 9 was so important, and a revelation. In fact, it might be the most important entry since 2 broke the series worldwide.

Let me explain why that is, by using historical context.

When console gaming shifted to the 32-bit generation, a regrettable thing happened. 2D gaming was slowly being thought of as inferior and cheap, going from AAA status to eventually completely vanishing (outside of a small handful) in the massively overrated PS2 generation that followed. Many franchises suffered from this obsession with purty (now horrendously dated) 3D graphics and some like Sony Computer Entertainment of America, would even refuse to release 2D games at all. For anyone who grew up... at ANY console era before the current one? They knew how silly this all was.

Whole genres and legendary franchises were thrown away for flash in the pan newness that has dated worse than anything they replaced. And all those franchises created at the time are almost all buried and forgotten now.

So, it was a bad time to be a legacy gamer.

But the industry did their damage to their own brands. Series like Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania, Streets of Rage, Double DragonTurrican, Street Fighter, and Ghouls n Ghosts, were all but destroyed or left to the bargain bin, and the Mega Man series was no different. It suffered for sins it never committed.

Capcom released Mega Man 8 in 1997 for the PlayStation (and Saturn, in Japan) a few years after Mega Man 7 had graced the SNES and the Mega Man X sub-series had taken off on the same system. Mega Man 8, however, was not a success. It featured colorful 2D sprites, CD quality audio, animated cutscenes, and was released on the series 10th anniversary. It was also not very good. The levels were barren, the difficulty was non-existent, the power ups were weak, the new voice acting was atrocious, and because it was 2D that was even more damaging. Also, the soundtrack was weak, and for a series like Mega Man, such a thing is unacceptable.

One of the few exceptional themes in MM8

The game is not horrible, but it would have hardly mattered if it was the best game in the series. 2D was derided mercilessly in those days by the ever-trustworthy gaming press and abandoned by auteur creators who decided to jump on the 3D-only bandwagon. It was a perfect storm that was unleashed against this title.

Because of Mega Man 8's failure and the industry change of being obsessed with purty 3D graphics over solid gameplay, the series wouldn't see a new mainline entry for a decade. 2D gaming suffered for it.

In this time, Mega Man as a franchise continued, but it became bloated. 8 was a good indicator as to how that happened. The quick and rock hard shooting action was overwhelmed with bells and whistles and gloss to hide the deteriorating level design, over-designed controls, and uncreative boss and level ideas. The newer sub-series (relegated to "inferior" portables, at that) as had the same problems. Most of the later Mega Man X games exemplify this issue. Mega Man had lost its simplicity, and its soul in the process.

Ten years passed. Mega Man, and 2D gaming as whole was dying, relegated to handhelds like the Game Boy Advance (and the newly unveiled PSP and its obsession with "console gaming on the go" was threatening even that) with series like Castlevania and Contra holding as hard as they could despite their blatant sabotage by the industry to convince audiences that these games were not worth your money. 2D gaming was one generation away from being forgotten and abandoned.

Then something happened.

Capcom announced Mega Man 9 in 2008. Not only was it the first console game in the series in over a decade, but it was also back to basics done in the style of the NES games with no frills. It was going to be a full download game, too! This was innovative for the time. 2D games were being treated as full console games again!

If you're rolling your eyes now, it's because you weren't there in 2008. Before Mega Man 9, retro aesthetics were not a thing. They didn't exist outside of novelty mods or bonus levels. Downloadable games were also not what they are now and were mostly re-releases of old games like Pac-Man, or simple arcade shooters like Geometry Wars. Indie games had not even dented the mainstream market, and were still small--Braid was still two years away. The closest thing to Mega Man 9 was Bionic Commando: ReArmed which was merely a remake of an NES game with modern HD graphics. This should tell you how much of a big deal this was. Mega Man 9 was a brand new NES game built from the ground up, meant to take the series to its roots before it lost its way, and it was being treated as a serious project.

Even the first trailer blew gamers away.

There was nothing like this in 2008, and after years of 2D being relegated to the gaming ghetto, this was a revelation. Gamers were hyped like they hadn't been in a long time.

But not everyone was in love. Places like IGN scored the graphics a 2 due to not being modern enough. This was obviously long before faux-retro existed as no one knew how to rate graphics not purposefully being made in a different artstyle (and sprites on a console, at that) and was a sticking point for a lot. Others complained about the difficulty, but they were simply out of practice. I can say that as someone who beat it the first day it was released.

When it released the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The reason for this is because Mega Man 9 is an expertly designed game that came out at the exact right time and was so popular it caused a sequel to come out less than two years later . . . but we'll get to that. The point was that even Capcom were surprised at the reaction it received. It was not just another entry in a long-running series. Mega Man 9 saved it, and might have helped save 2D gaming in the process.

Those looking at it through the lens of the present are missing what this game actually accomplished. This was before New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out and outsold ever game of its generation. A 2D platformer on a console was unheard of at the time. After all, the industry had done such a bang-up job convincing gamers of their inferiority for two straight generations. This was before retro games were even considered a viable product. Mega Man 9, dogged for its lack of originality by Current Year fans, actually started many trends going on today.

And it gets no credit for any of them.

The aspect ratio of the original games (in the era of widescreen) was kept the same, the moves were kept to Mega Man 1 and 2 levels of simplicity, and the level design and enemies are all perfectly placed to take advantage of your dodging and shooting skills. It was made for those looking for a classic experience. Mega Man 9 is derided for being a "Mega Man 2.5", but that only tells half the tale for fans obsessed with bells and whistles. Mega Man 9 went back to the series roots in order to remind itself what it was originally all about. Aside from using a handful of musical tracks such as the password theme, Mega Man 9 pared the series down to its bones and thrived on wholly original content. It was jumping, shooting, and action, at its tightest. In many ways it was the first real sequel since Mega Man 3 to actually capture the original spark the series had been brought to life with.

In-game achievements (not common at the time) say even more. The game is considered hard, but it can be beaten without getting hit. Sure there are some deaths you might not see coming the first time, but that is a series tradition. You simply learn better for your next try. And there's nothing on the level of the original games' difficulty, which are still beloved to this day. Every level can be beat by running forward and timing your jumps and shots at the right time . . . without you having to stop. Every single boss weapon has multiple uses, can effect just about every stage and the environment, and has different applications depending on the enemy it is used on. This game is perfectly balanced, has a clean aesthetic, and a soundtrack that is one of the greatest of all time.

This is how well-designed and tweaked the game is. Every other entry in the series almost looks sloppy compared to it.

This is because Mega Man 9 is one of the best games of all time.

One of the finest pieces of VG music ever composed

So why is it getting such a divisive reaction these days? That question can be answered quite easily by looking at what came after. What it built was torn down not two full years after 9's release. Mega Man 10 is why Mega Man 9 gets tarred as a lesser game than it actually is. It makes 9's innovative ideas and freshness look like stale pandering, which it was not at the time. Everything Mega Man 9 did, it's sequel did.

And did it worse.

It copied 9's entire media campaign making it look like a cheesy knock-off novelty, and made Mega Man 9 look as if it were merely one in a sea of retro ideas that got lucky. It got a purposely bad box art for promotion, just as 9 did, to take away even that new idea. It used retro graphics, just as 9 did. It used the same aspect ratio approach. It purposely designed itself after Mega Man 2 (only it feels more like the inferior 4 through 6) just as 9 did. It was "Mega Man 9.5", basically everything 9 was accused of doing was actually done by Mega Man 10. And by the time it came out, 10 had already missed the zeitgeist started by 9, which hurt it further.

The level design was uniformly weaker and less thought out than 9. The boss weapons were terrible and unoriginal. The music is not even close to the excellence of 9, with only a handful of catchy themes sticking out. Nothing new was added except what originally killed the series to begin with: bells and whistles. The uniqueness of 9 purposefully going back to the style of 2 and building from the ground up is undercut by doing it again here where it has no reason to.

And that's Mega Man 10's legacy. Copying Mega Man 9 and undercutting all its innovations in the process, thereby ruining two games in the process.

What 10 should have been is what Mega Man 11 is now-- a brand new entry with overblown graphics, fresh ideas, and an original focus. After 9 brought the spotlight back on the series was the time to go all out with new ideas. It would have given the series the shot in the arm it needed before sinking into the abyss for nearly another decade thanks to 10's disappointment and the disaster surrounding Keiji Inafune leaving the company.

So what gamers get now from playing the series is 6 NES entries of deteriorating quality after the third one, an underrated seventh game, an overblown eighth relic from an age that hated its genre, and two games that went back to basics for easy cash. Playing them back to back is confusing, especially if you pay no attention to the time gap in between the entries.

But that undersells what Mega Man 9 actually did. It was a huge hit. It was talked about on message boards as gamers fought to see who could see the end first. It caused a sequel to be greenlit really quickly after a decade of hibernation. It was designed, and plays, masterfully for those who knew what the series was made for. Mega Man 9 is an excellent game. It is also an important one.

And I think it deserves to be known for what it is. Mega Man 9 is one of the best. Don't let revisionism fool you. Few games get as good as this one.

One of my favorite medleys

I'm also creating entertainment of my own! Check out my novel, Grey Cat Blues, if you haven't. Action, adventure, and romance, on a distant planet. What more could you ask for?


  1. I agree 100% about 9 but I'm also a huge fan of 10. I think its level design is just as good as 9's but with a different focus - 9 has tougher obstacles while 10 has tougher enemies.

    1. Fair enough. I've never clicked with 10, though I appreciate that it brought Bass back as a playable character, and the Wily stages are excellent.

      It's certainly not the worst game in the series.

  2. Thank God the DS and 3DS kept 2d gaming alive or we might not be enjoying the quiet renaissance we enjoy these days. Shovel Knight and the rest would not exist without 9 and I salute it.

    1. Yes!

      I still remember when the PSP was announced, and was scared the death of the GBA would be the end of 2D gaming.

      Thankfully the DS line carried it forward to where we are now.

  3. I haven't played Mega Man 9 but a lot of what you say is so true of so many video games. The industry is so relentlessly fixated on technology that it gleefully buries entirely profitable genres just because they no longer have the technological edge. It's sickening and it's why I'm totally fine with "nostalgic callbacks" like MM 9 and so many other crowdfunded projects happening.

    1. I was recently watching a video of a game called "Ion Maiden" which is a new FPS built in the same engine as Duke Nukem 3D. There were things being done in it that aren't even thought of now.

      It is amazing just how much has been lost over the years.