We take for granted just how challenging the classic Mega Man games are these days. When I was a kid, friends and I spent weeks pouring over Mega Man 2, perfecting levels, memorizing boss patterns, internalizing those infernal lasers in Quick Man's stage.
How many lives were lost?
How many Game Over and password screens were showed on my buddy's television?
How many passwords were entered, just to be found out… they were wrong!?
Thirty years later, the beats of the classic Mega Man games are as natural to me as my own heartbeat, and while I still love… most of them, they don't really provide much of a challenge anymore. In fact, ten years ago, when Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 came to the Xbox 360, the experience felt like slipping into an old, favorite pair of shoes. Gamers around the world both praised and decried them for their difficulty level, but for me… meh, a few Game Overs later, I had the games beat.
Classic 8-bit Mega Man is eternal, but it's also a face that the franchise can't survive alone on. Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8 showed the world that Mega Man can work outside of his original retro incarnations, and now we have Mega Man 11 to reinforce that.
And yeah, with Mega Man 11, Mega Man is blisteringly difficult once more.
Mega Man 11 is available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch, and it carries three goals with it when it came to the market:
- Ensuring that Mega Man feels like classic Mega Man while also…
- Adapting the gameplay to make Mega Man relevant in a market saturated with retro platformers.
- Coming up with a new look for Mega Man, free from the 8-bit retro graphics.
The last is easiest to talk about, so we'll handle that first.
Capcom rarely turns out a dud of a soundtrack for the Mega Man series, and Mega Man 11 is no different, mixing sweet tunes into the gameplay that fit its era. While I still prefer the 8-bit chip tunes and the late-90s jazzy Mega Man 8 soundtrack, those have been ringing on my playlists for decades now. Mega Man 11's music, inspired more by pop and dance music, are sure to grow on me more in due time.
I can't fault its composers one bit for capturing the spirit of the indie world around them while still maintaining the gusto of the franchise's older tracks. My only complaint is that, sometimes, the excessive voice acting and sound effects create an annoying aura of noise pollution that drowns out the music. It's much harder to balance these sounds with an infinite number of audio tracks, something the NES never had to deal with.
As I always say, creation within limitations always yield better results, and this is why the classic Mega Man soundtracks are eternal. We could actually hear them while we were playing! I want to enjoy the tunes of Mega Man 11 more, but I can rarely pick them out when I'm playing. Luckily, there is an option to turn down other sound effects, so I suggest you drop that notch in the menu just a little.
It is in the graphics that I have a few problems that are hard to reconcile. Nothing against the character models in any regard, at least. Mega Man looks great, his character model is expressive, fun, and animates well. The character is one of the simplest in gaming history and has never required that much finesse to draw or render on a television screen.
The 3D nature of his models makes for some… annoyingly questionable contact errors with platforms, enemies, spikes, and projectiles… but in the end, they are likely my fault… ugh…
You can expect the same quality from the robots Mega Man battles as well. Each enemy the Blue Bomber encounters carries a consistent art style, one that feels natural from character to character, providing a cast of unique and fun robots that fall smack in the middle of the franchise's hallmark tradition. Of course, the eight Robot Masters, which are always the true star of any Mega Man game, are the prime examples of this top-notch animation.
Capcom's graphic designers succeed so well at creating the Robot Masters that even the most ridiculous of them, like Fuse Man and Block Man, become a bit more tolerable. Torch Man, Mega Man 11's leading candidate for the best-designed character, is a straight up knock out on screen.
The graphics department clearly created these models under certain budgetary limitations as these are in no way as detailed as they could be, but with the tools and personnel available to them, Capcom turned out a solid cast of imaginative personalities. These aren't full-blown character models designed with the AAA market in mind, but they are simple, effective, and fun, designed to appeal to the indie and retro market fans.
And while I might prefer the 8-bit sprites or Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8's graphics, I'm glad Capcom tried something new and succeeded.
It is in the levels themselves that I find some of the design lacking. I can't fault Capcom entirely for this though. All developers of retro platformers, especially ones that don't use pixation, struggle when it comes to meshing their characters onto HD backdrops. We saw it (too far greater extent) in Mighty No. 9, and in Mega Man 11, we still see plenty of examples of these struggles.
Compare screenshots of Mega Man 11 to Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8, and you'll see what I mean.
Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8 naturally squeeze its characters into those levels, and, dare I say, the background art also bursts with more life. Even the simpler and "boring" ones feel like they belong. Compare these to Mega Man 11, and yeah, I can see that Capcom's latest game has technically better backdrops with huge screen resolutions, 3D renderings, and full-on character art, but they are also dark, lifeless, and aside from Block Man's stage, don't come close to capturing the feel of the previous games.
It's hard, it really is, to generate that kind of natural feeling in 2D games with HD graphics. I see it all the time in games like Cosmic Star Heroine or Citizens of Earth games where there is an obvious disconnect between foreground and background. Modern games require backdrops that are enormous, far more expansive in scope than anything that the retro consoles had to create, and this means more drawing, more work, more chances for mistakes, and much more animation than ever before.
Some games can handle it, like Owlboy or Heart Forth Alicia, but Mega Man 11 can't. The biggest gripe I have about this game is that while the character animations and art impress, they feel like cutouts performing actions in front of blank screens. I get nothing from just gazing at the screen, something I can't say about the games that came before it.
So the game looks fine, backdrop hiccups aside, but how does it play? Well, like a Mega Man game, really. What do you expect?
Mega Man 11 sticks to the same action platforming formula we've been used to for the last thirty years. It drops Mega Man into a colorful stage of gimmicky traps, deadly robots, and perfectly designed platforming obstacles, and it sets the player loose to blast through the stage. At the end, a Robot Master awaits and will provide a final test to show they've conquered the stage.
Fail, and it's back to the beginning.
This time around, as it was with Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8, fans have a new set of physics to get used to. With the graphical change comes a jumping mechanic that feels brand new, but by and large, the core gameplay remains intact and has never felt so good. Blasting robots apart feels amazing, propelled by Mega Man 11's responsive controls and the satisfying smash of the Mega-Buster into animated metal. Oh, the weapons feel so great in Mega Man 11.
As mentioned before, Mega Man 11 is also really challenging. Thirty-year veterans, like myself, expecting to jump into the game and punch right on through without a hitch are in for a surprise. Capcom's level designers deserve a pat on the back for delivering some gruesome platforming segments and other gimmicky obstacles. Torch Man's stage acts as a modern-day Quick Man stage with the ever-encroaching threat of fire seeking to burn Mega Man's tin backside.
And there is no pit in the abyss deep enough for the designer of Bounce Man's ball pit platforming segments!
Mini-bosses sometimes prove more difficult than the Robot Masters themselves, and maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but were the stages always this long? Mega Man 11's levels feel like they drag on forever, sometimes requiring three checkpoints and opposed to the traditional two. Traditional Mega Man logic teaches us to save those Energy Tanks for the boss fight to give you a better chance of winning, but the length of these stages forced me all too often use them in the actual stages themselves just to stay alive, something I rarely do in the classic games.
Longer stages are fine, but they're also devastating to your motivation, making it that much harder to dust yourself off and pick up your bootstraps and try again when you see that Game Over screen for the hundredth time.
Mega Man 7's in-game economy is also back, allowing Mega Man to buy power-ups and items from Auto. Eddie calls to deliver items, Beat calls to summon Mega Man's trusty bird companion to clear out all enemies on the screen, passive power-ups that let Mega Man slip less on ice or not feel recoil from the Mega-Buster. I mention the in-game economy in the difficulty section of this review because you are very likely to get every item before clearing even a single Robot Master.
At least… I did.
Maybe I'm getting slow in my older age, but man… this game is tough. After years of feeling like a badass at Mega Man games, my five-year-old self is laughing at me from deep within, reminding me just how much practice I sunk into these games in my early years.
*inset David Hayter's voice saying "Double Gear?" here*
The classic core Mega Man mechanics are pretty much intact and play very nicely for the modern world, so I'm not so sure that the game needed another layer. However, Capcom thought differently. Mega Man 11 incorporates a new layer of gameplay into the mix called the Double Gear system.
At it's most basic explanation, you tap the L1 button on any controller, and Mega Man's power level rises. He can fire more blasts at a time, and his Mega-Buster even launches two blasts at a time. This Fire Mode bootstraps when an enemy is vulnerable or exposes its weakness for an extended period of time. At that point, let her rip!
The R1 button functions as a slow-down mechanic, which drops the speed of the game and is a far more useful mechanic. This allows Mega Man to perfectly line up shots, platform more safely through spikes or difficult jumps, dodge incoming projectiles, or finally give him an upper hand in the timing battles against Sniper Joe!
Of course, players can't spam this mechanic infinitely. Too much usage of either gear overheats Mega Man from within, rendering the mechanic useless until it cools down. Balance is key in mastering the Double Gears.
And in all honesty, I sometimes forget it's even there. I've battled with Sniper Joes enough over the last thirty years to know how to take them out with little aid, and once the physics are second nature, using the slow-down mechanic isn't really necessary for platforming. The trick is finding where to use these mechanics in battles against mini-bosses or Robot Masters.
The Double Gear system is designed to make the game easier, but as a veteran Mega Man player, I instinctively looked at each stage as I would had this been any other Mega Man game from the last thirty years and proceeded through them without much of a second thought on utilizing the gears. It feels a little tacked on and not like a core component of the experience…
…but while I call it unnecessary, maybe that's why I also find the game so challenging… hmmmm… There's room to experience and master it, but doing so is in no way essential to the game.
Mega Man 11 is a worthy successor to the classic series, and I'm beyond thrilled that Capcom gave it the chance to thrive on the modern digital market. In terms of "modern" Mega Man games, I'd rank it under Mega Man 9, which was a perfect Mega Man game that accomplished absolutely everything it set out to do, whereas Mega Man 11 has a few issues with its presentation and the balance of its mechanics.
I'm also inclined to rank it under some of the all-time indie greats like Hollow Knight and Shovel Knight, but the truth is none of those games would have existed had it not been for Mega Man in the first place, so nyaa-nyaa!
Those games are also cheaper than Mega Man 11, so if money is a value you're looking to measure when buying your games, you might want to wait for a sale on Mega Man 11. If you bleed blue and have been tangling with Robot Masters for three decades though… how dare you even think of waiting! Mega Man 11 is out, you're childhood is back, and it's a lot of fun!
Capcom has created a solid platformer in Mega Man 11 that should provide veterans with a nostalgic romp, speed-runners and streamers with a challenging conquest to show their audiences, and newcomers a solid look into one of gaming's most beloved and venerated franchises.
Like most Mega Man games (the ones not called Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 9), Mega Man 11 is not perfect by any means and has plenty of flaws to nitpick. But, considering how extinct the franchise was and how Capcom took a huge leap of faith on the fans greenlight this in the first place, I'm grateful that it exists and that it feels like a fresh, natural fit for a whole new generation.
And man-oh-man, it hurts so good to get my butt whooped in a Mega Man game again.
Disclaimer: We were provided a copy of Mega Man 11 for the Nintendo Switch by Capcom and we played the game for five hours before writing this review.
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