Mighty No. 9

Anybody who’s followed Mighty No. 9 on its arduous three year journey will already know the legacies it’s inherited; its relationship to Mega Man, the numerous production problems (delays comprising the majority of them), etc. And from what I’ve heard, it’s these legacies that many other reviewers have tried to disavow that they might approach the game on its own terms. Such a task is impossible. Mighty No. 9 takes such specific inspiration from Mega Man and wears that inspiration so proudly on its sleeve that it would be unfair to pretend it never existed. It’s better to admit how much of an impact all this has left on the final product.

Now I’m not saying this to criticize the game. In fact, it’s within this specific context that Mighty No. 9 shines its brightest. The game holds a deep understanding both of what makes Mega Man work and how to repurpose that within a modern context. That’s why you see the story meaningfully advance everything you didn’t even realize makes Mega Man great. It’s also why the game focuses on the kind of sleek, slick action that gives it life beyond its source of inspiration. No matter the circumstances, Mighty No. 9’s history serves to uplift the game rather than undermine it.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-06-22 18-36-22That said, there are some pretty conspicuous flaws that need addressing. If I were to summarize Mighty No. 9 in a single sentence, I’d describe it as a throwback to old-school Mega Man, but infused with modern sensibilities. For as much good as that infusion brings, it’s also the source of a lot of frustration. Consider how the game plays. Despite its habit of teaching you some vital abilities/features in too much detail, others inexplicably go ignored, even when they’re absolutely necessary to finishing a level. I can’t tell you how many times I found my progress through a level come to a halt because I didn’t know about some feature the game assumed I’d learned by now. I can tell you that the first such instance was at the end of the first level, where I had to learn for myself that you couldn’t beat the boss without dashing through it.

Meanwhile, the cinematics move at the slow pace of DuckTales: Remastered, but without as much of its charm. Most of that comes down to the human characters not being as funny as the writing seems to think they are. They may be presented as comic relief, but more often than not, their jokes fail to hit the mark. It certainly doesn’t help that many of them look like plastic, lifeless dolls.

But these flaws don’t define the Mighty No. 9 experience. What defines Mighty No. 9 is how well it preserves Mega Man’s hopeful optimism for the future while addressing issues its predecessor isn’t equipped to handle. While both games were made as pop entertainment aimed at a younger audience, they’re also heavily informed by the political climate of their day. For Mega Man, those politics draw from two sources. On the one hand, you have Astro Boy’s positive outlook on the state of technology. Much like the early Japanese manga, the Mega Man games see technology as inherently good. Yes, they can be used for evil purposes, but that evil is the result of people maliciously abusing machines rather than anything inherently wrong with them. This is why the series’ defining feature has always been its protagonist repurposing enemies’ weapons as his own: to show that in the right hands, these same destructive tools can be put to good use.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-06-24 12-51-35On the other hand, this set-up lends itself well to the late Cold War logic that Mega Man also drew from. The stories in these games were always the same: that dastard Dr. Wily would either reprogram society’s peaceful robots and turn them to evil, or he’d just build his own robots to conquer the world. As much as this moral simplicity owes to the games’ cartoony limitations, it owes just as much to the time it came from. Even in the 1980s, there were still clear lines along which good and evil could be drawn: capitalism and communism, First World and Second World, etc. Moreover, major threats to society were often the result of distinct, active agents fighting for clearly identifiable causes. Problems like these simply wouldn’t make any sense in a modern context. (That’s part of why we haven’t seen a proper Mega Man game in six years.) We’re seeing many of the institutions and infrastructure we thought we could trust collapse before us, and extremist ideologies threaten to poison us from within.

It only makes sense that Mighty No. 9 address these problems in its story. Sure, its narrative may look like innocent cartoon fun on the surface – a virus causes the city’s robots to go haywire and wreak havoc, leaving it to our hero Beck to save the day – but beneath that fun lie subtle yet forceful connections to contemporary political issues. The Mighties make this especially clear: far from being generic robot overlords, each one is brimming with personality while also being tied to a distinct social force. Battalion, for instance, is a hardcore military extremist who’d feel right at home in Full Metal Jacket. Meanwhile, Counter-Shade is the xenophobic revolutionary bent on overthrowing the United States government. And then there’s Avi, the journalist willing to cause disaster if it means he can have fun reporting on it. Suffice it to say that the Mighties preserve the game’s sense of fun while also rendering pointed and specific commentary on how these various institutions have failed us.

That’s not to say the game is a bleak, post-apocalyptic look into the future. In fact, what I really enjoy about the game is how its optimism manifests. Nobody’s permanently evil in the world of Mighty No. 9. The Mighties, for example, aren’t enemies to be conquered, but comrades that need a guiding hand to bring them back to the side of good. It just so happens the hand in this case is a literal one. Each fight with the Mighties concludes with Beck ripping the illness out of them and returning them to their former selves. But this is far from a throwaway moment; Mighty No. 9 commits to depicting them as good guys long after you’ve beaten them. Expect to see your pals helping you out in the next level, either clearing obstacles you’d otherwise have to avoid or giving you hints about what weapon works best on the upcoming Mighty. In addition to establishing character, their continued presence also establishes what exactly Beck is fighting for: not only his friends’ eventual redemption, but also a world that might be free of whatever illness led them astray in the first place.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-06-23 12-25-56All this, and I have yet to explain how the game actually plays. I may be repeating myself at this point, but Mighty No. 9 will instantly feel like familiar territory to anybody who’s played a Mega Man game before. All the hallmarks are there: the squat robotic hero who slowly shoots his way through futuristic levels, stealing weapons from fallen bosses only to use them on later ones. Sometimes the parallels are so blatant that they’re impossible to ignore. Brand, for instance, looks/plays like an obvious cross between Proto-Man and Zero. (It certainly doesn’t help that his stage looks like it was ripped out of Mega Man Zero.)

Yet to pretend as though these features define the game would vastly overstate their importance. I didn’t even use many of the weapons I was given unless they were absolutely necessary. My focus instead lay on dashing through the levels, the game’s most definitive feature. Dealing enough damage to an enemy will stun them, giving you a chance to dash through them and purify them of their viruses. Get the timing just right and you build combos and multipliers to increase your score. Throw in a few other score bonuses (Sprinter for clearing sections of a level really fast; Fine Play for clearing a boss’ pattern without flaws) and you have the sort of modern arcade sensibility that Inti Creates has always excelled at facilitating.

So it should be no surprise to hear that the strong focus on scores had me more engaged with the game than I might have been otherwise. I’d dash into an enemy the second they got stunned so I could keep my combo going. I’d blast through sections I’d already played through many times before, just to see if I could get the Sprinter bonus. I’d become more attentive to boss patterns, spotting which gaps in their armor gave me the best chance at earning Fine Play. I’ll admit that my overzealous play style led to several frustrating deaths on my part, but the rewards outweighed the costs. What I got was a sleek, fast paced, confident fusion of retro and modern.

Is Mighty No. 9 perfect? Of course not. Several areas of the game could use some improvement. But taken on its own terms (whatever they may be), what you have is a game that venerates its forebears but refuses to let itself be tied down by them. It knows how out of place Mega Man would be in today’s world, so rather than recreate every little detail of its predecessor, Mighty No. 9 shakes the formula up just enough that it becomes relevant again to a contemporary audience. It isn’t a game with its gaze fixed unblinkingly on the past, but one that looks forward to the promising world of tomorrow.

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