In terms of classic video game platformers, Mega Man has always been the black sheep of the family. Actually, Sonic is the black sheep of the platformer family, but Mega Man is a close second.
The Sonic comparison is fairly apt: Both series star edgy blue protagonists and have had an extremely hard time evolving. There are a lot of mechanics in the classic “Mega Man” games that don’t translate well to the modern day. Translating what once was to something new and special is difficult. Not every series can be Mario — popular in 2D, 3D and in every miscellaneous genre imaginable.
There was a time when Mega Man made an attempt for that sort of status. There were Metroid-style “Mega Man X” games, mobile “Battle Network” games, the short-lived three-dimensional RPG “Legends” series — there was even a soccer game.
Most of them were pretty bad. Not all, but not enough to sustain a series. The last main series “Mega Man” game came out in 2010. In 2013, the series’ original creators used Kickstarter to create “Mighty No. 9,” a spiritual successor. When it came out in 2016, it was also pretty bad.
So now there’s a two-dimensional “Mega Man” game that looks great and fixes almost everything wrong with the original games, right when nobody was asking for it. I’m not mad, I’m just confused, really.
I suspect that we have “Mighty No. 9” to thank for this. Nothing proves interesting in a property like thousands of people voluntarily ponying up millions for an off-brand facsimile, and the “Mega Man 11" art style bears an almost suspicious resemblance to the Kickstarter project. “Mega Man 10” was fully 8-bit pixel art with nearly no changes made to the series in terms of visual fidelity or gameplay. With all this talk of a spiritual successor being thrown about, maybe somebody at developer Capcom finally realized their audience was ready for a change.
Mechanically, the main focus this time was on developing more flexible difficulty, which has always been the feature main series “Mega Man” games lacked. Inflexible, ultra-hard difficulty isn’t central to upholding their goofy, Saturday morning cartoon-esque stories, yet they have — until now — always demanded near perfection from the player. It’s a holdover from the arcade era where you get three tries. If you screw up, you go back.
On top of that, the games have always had a strange difficulty curve. You start with just a basic blaster and then, as you complete levels, you get equipped with more powerful weapons. For the first half of the game, the enemies you fight don’t get any harder, so the beginning is a slog. The middle is too easy, but the final half is the hardest section of all — a veritable gauntlet testing the player on how expertly they can use the abilities with which they’ve acquired. The answer is usually that the player can’t use these abilities very well at all given that some of the special weapons are obtained during the game’s easy middle section, meaning there has been little need for them up until now.
It’s a rocky ride.
The work “Mega Man 11” did to smooth out the series’ bumps and edges can’t be understated. As a work of art, Mega Man has always done a great job at crafting a more compelling narrative fantasy than its peers, but this is the first time in a while where the basic gameplay loops were smooth enough for the other aspects to shine.
Three lives per level during a completion attempt is still the default, but extra health, lives and upgrades can now be bought with currency picked up across attempts, so all the usual level grinding doesn’t feel as pointless. Slo-mo and firepower super moves allow for more interesting and forgiving level design, while simultaneously encouraging suicidal challenge runs that exclude their usage. The level design for each boss stage provides numerous hints as to which weapons a boss might be weak to. It’s “Mega Man” design at its strongest, with more opportunities for beginners and veterans than the games have ever had before.
If there was only a single point of praise I could say about “Mega Man 11,” it’s that it is the first “Mega Man” game I’ve ever played where getting through the initial boss stages didn’t feel like torture. I genuinely felt like the first eight robot masters could be defeated in any order by someone with normal human reflexes and didn’t have to be killed in a pre-set, optimal path that I’d have to look up online.
If you’re reading this and have never played a “Mega Man” game, go pick this one up today. It’s on every gaming system that matters, it’s fairly cheap for the quality of content and there may never be a better time to jump in.
And if you have played a “Mega Man” game, go get “Mega Man 11” anyway. I’ve been downplaying it, but the game still has the classic Blue Bomber at its core. The skill ceiling is as high as the entry level is low, and in terms of fan service, it doesn’t miss a chance to toss out a reference to the series’ classic motifs. It’s a “Mega Man” game through-and-through, just better.
Final Grade: A
Marty Forbeck is a video games columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.