Mega Man 9’s Speed Metal

Mega Man 9 fixed Mega Man by distilling the Blue Bomber’s staid gameplay to its essentials: moving and shooting. By striving to limit itself to the restrictions of twenty year old hardware, Inti Creates game highlights how bogged down with its own design the series core gameplay had become over its evolution. What they made is a long lost NES game.

The story immediately sets the tone in sprites full of personality. Having again been defeated by our blue hero, Dr. Wily swears off his evil ways. But its not long before the residents of Monsteropolis are in danger from a collection on renegade robots again. But its Wily that steps up to protect the city, claiming innocence and insisting the robots were created by the good-natured Dr. Light. To clear his name, Mega Man heads out.

It can’t be overstated: Mega Man 9’s choice to adopt an 8-bit graphical style is the linchpin for every gameplay choice.

Mega Man 8 was burdened by its animation. Its frame count was too high, making running, jumping and shooting slower and less precise than the previous releases. The rest of that game was slowed down to compensate. Reducing the graphical fidelity would make every frame matter. The Mega Man in 9 snaps into action as fast as you can hit the button. The conceptual de-evolution freed Inti Creates to further simplify the moveset, stripping out the slide move and charged Mega Buster.

By removing the charged mechanic introduced in Mega Man 4, Mega Man’s buster gun gets a single damage value and size, promoting player skill where it had propagated a rhythm of charge-move-charge to fight enemies whose health would have to be increased to balance out the difficulty.

These changes allow tightly built levels with obstacles that test your manual dexterity, some of which were lost or adjusted to match Mega Man’s diminished control. The levels are choreographed dances tuned to the precision of a Swiss clock. If you know a course well enough, you can start running and reach the end without much slowing you down. It’s brilliant and fair.

The levels are even more amazing considering so many are means to explore a single core concept. From the rotating screws of Tornado Man’s stage to the teleporters of Galaxy Man’s, these concepts are introduced well and comprehensively develop over the course. The sheer cleverness of design is coupled by the games strong desire to subvert the expectations that have fossilized in a decades-old franchise. You’ll find proof when you reach your first Robot Master- the giant ‘W’ that for eight games preceded the fight with Wily’s minion is now an ‘L’, reaffirming that Dr. Light needs your help.

Then there’s Splash Woman. By Mega Man 5’s Gyro Man, it was clear Capcom was starting to run out of themes for the series Robot Masters- see Centaur Man (6), Shade Man (7) and Tengu Man (8) for more evidence- and weren’t gonna be stopping any time soon. With the first female on its roster, Mega Man 9’s bots are a different story: the collection is appropriately traditional (Magma Man), winkingly ridiculous (Concrete Man) and requisite Man with a shield (Jewel Man). The battles are interesting, logical and tough.

And they wield awesome firepower. Whether it’s the fire-and-forget Hornet Chaser or the marginally controllable Black Hole Bomb that swallows everything in its radius including enemy shots, the weapons are flexible and fun. Yes, some of these weapons are similar to ones found in the other entries, but the arsenal as a whole offers versatile gameplay options for those who want to be creative.

The action is accentuated by the break neck speed of a diverse chip tune soundtrack. Classic pieces are accompanied by new compositions rich with texture. They’re just bangin’. Listen to the bubbly ocean beat of ‘Splash Blue (Splash Woman Stage)’ to see what that means.

By cutting off the chaff weighing Mega Man down, Capcom was able to create a pitch perfect entry to one of the most iconic franchises in videogames. As much as it lives in the past, Mega Man 9’s sheer audacity created an important legacy- it followed in the footsteps of the legendary Cave Story and helped shepherd a resurgence of retro game design that would lead to the indie game boom and darlings Super Meat Boy and Fez. That’s remarkable for a game whose greatest ambition was to be a NES cart.

DEVELOPER: Inti Creates Co

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