Mighty No. 9 is the sort of game a developer would make if he wanted to make a Mega Man game, but if he had grown up in the era of iOS/Android mobile games and third-party Wii apps, and consequently had only ever read about Mega Man on Wikipedia, or played it for a few moments as a curiosity. Seen from this dismally low standard of judgement–that possessed still by a handful of diehard, rusted-on Mighty No. 9 fans (yes, these people actually do exist)–Mighty No. 9 is, to quote the aforementioned Mighty No. 9 tragics, “a cute, colourful, Mega Man-style game.”
Except, in fact, it is none of these things, evaluated by the standard which these defenders of the indefensible trot out: that of Mega Man itself. Anyone who has more than a casual experience with the classic Mega Man franchise–for example, someone who grew up repeatedly playing the classic games, even to the point of desigining fantasy robot masters–such a person would quickly, indeed almost instantaneously, derive from Mighty No. 9 not the satisfying sense of nostalgia that comes from playing a solid homage to a former classic (in the vein of, say, Axiom Verge), but rather, would feel a sense of profound disappointment. And then comes, if the hapless player should be a backer, incendiary fury. For, even although this is a review of the game itself, it is worth at least mentioning that this is a game which raised four million U.S. dollars of public funding, taken from people who simply wanted a classic Mega Man game.
That those people have been disappointed–and, more to the point, that they have been disappointed to such a degree–is enough to raise eyebrows and make one wonder about the ethical implications of supporting a company whose long history of disrespect towards its financial supporters, a legion of generous and optimistic gamers, is well recorded.
But this is not a review of the business practises of Comcept, deplorable or not as they may or may not be. Instead, it is a review of their product, Mighty No. 9. They do not get off lightly either way: both are terrible. The game is indefensible as a release priced at $40 (US); moreso at the common backer tier of $60. It is even indefensible when one considers the inclusion of a (horribly underperforming) PS3 and Vita edition, which comes as a cross-buy code with every PS4 version of the game. It is not indefensible because of the business practices of Comcept–not because of any lies they may or may not have told–not because of any promises on which they did or did not deliver. It is indefensible because it is a bad game. It is indefensible because it has all along been presented as the heir to Mega Man, when it is in fact nothing of the sort. It is an insult to the classic franchise which it can only ape, grotesquely, using a framerate which varies, and a game which stutters, across many levels of increasingly weary design.
It is hard to know where to begin: whether to focus on the static models and images used in the cutscenes; or the voice acting which should be enough to make any reputable performer blush with embarassment; or the graphics engine which hitches and haws like a drunken donkey; or the effects engine itself–shared across all platforms–with menu options that do not work on some systems and which cannot be activated or deactived on others. In only two areas is it possible to say something uniformly positive: that the conceptual art design for the game is colourful and otherwise without fault; and that the music is, if not memorable, neither unfitting nor poorly composed. But no game can survive on colourful concept art and an inoffensive soundtrack alone. There must at least be a core of solid gameplay. Yet, here as in so many other places, Mighty No. 9 disappoints.
Gameplay is primarily limited to the horizontal axis, with travel from the left side of the screen to the right, and very little vertical engagement. This is in stark contrast to the Mega Man games which include a large amount of vertical axis gameplay. In the classic Mega Man games, it is easy to conceive that the ratio of vertical to horizontal might have been near 1:1; nor was this an innovation added to later games. Quite the opposite: as Mega Man games decline in quality, so too does the imaginativeness of their stage design, corollated in the amount of vertical movement. Consider the Elec Man stage from Mega Man 1, which operates almost entirely on the vertical axis, or the Wily Stages from the same game. Consider the long vertical sequences in the Crash Man and Quick Man stages (MM2). This is vital in a platformer: a genre in which carefully timed jumps are a key component of success, and where varying those challenges is necessary for engaging stage design.
But Mighty No. 9 dispenses with this, prefering to adopt a more Contra-style of run-and-gun gameplay. Speed is emphasised, with Beck (the main character, A.K.A. Mighty No. 9) flicking aross the screen left and right using a dash ability which terminates damaged enemies and absorbs their power. This allows Beck to fly, in effect, and the stages have enemies placed so as to encourage this sort of timing. But if the player should mistime a manoeuvre or proceed at a more stately, Mega Man-esque pace, the entire game bogs down into a slow, unhappy slog, punctuated by the arrival of the occasional enemy. And none of them pose any particular threat, nor do they require any thought to pass. This is extended to the use of special weapons, which in the best areas of the Mega Man games dramatically ease passage through difficult sections of a stage, or make defeating a boss much easier. In Mighty No. 9, none of the subweapons are particularly useful or good, and it is just as easy (in fact, usually easier) to use Beck’s base weapon.
Part of this is down to poor enemy and game design, which means that everything can be defeated with a few shots of the blaster and a dash. Why, then, waste time switching to a special weapon? But part of it is also down to unimaginative weapon design: none of them do anything particularly needful in the game, because nothing needs the weapon. Or, to put that another way, the weapons were designed not around how they work but rather around a simple rock-paper-scissors style weakness and strength system. It was clear that from the beginning, they knew which weapons would work on which bosses. That was the purpose of having multiple weapons. What the weapons actually do–this was added later, almost as an afterthought. It does not appear to have been a part of the level design or fundamental to the construction of the game itself, as it should have been. Consider use of the Flash Stopper in the Quick Man stage. Or, consider the Bubble Man stage of Mega Man 2, which is greatly simplified with the use of the Metal Blade or the Quick Boomerangs!
Yes, these stages are beatable with the blaster. It is even relatively easy by NES standards, at least to this experienced platform player. But with the Quick Boomerang and the Metal Blade, annoying enemies like the hermit crabs, and the prawn-belching fish, are much easier to despatch. Similarly, the addition of the utility items, and the later Rush modes, served the same purpose. The water of some Mega Man 3 stages (in particular, the Gemini Man stage) is much easier with Rush Marine, whilst the Rush Jet allows traversing the disappearing brick sections that some players find so aggravating (just as the jet did in Heat Man’s stage). Mighty No. 9 includes few, if any, of these design elements. The stages appear to have been designed without regard for the items which Beck acquires. Consequently, there seems little point to collecting the powers of the bosses, and this is one of the main joys of a real Mega Man game.
There are technical problems: on the PS4, the game cannot maintain 60fps in all places, dropping to 40fps with a noticeable hitch. This is especially peculiar because the game is not graphically demanding. Poor programming seems the likely culprit, given that the game was ambitiously announced for ten platforms. It seems to have been designed as a sort of one-size-fits-all hat: everyone can wear it, but no one wears it well. The vsync feature, for example, cannot be turned off with the PS4, and cannot be turned on with the Xbone, although both systems allow players to change the setting (it has no effect). Few major titles are so unpolished as to ship with inactive menu features. But the lack of polish is Mighty No. 9‘s most obvious shortcoming. Nothing is polished. The voice acting sounds like it was done in a single take. The stages have rough edges, and poor (excessively simplistic) models in places. The strange, flat lighting leads to oddities as well, so that all of the characters appear to have been coated with a thin layer of clear gel.
It is not often helpful to compare one game to another, but here it is easy to dispel any claim that these are limitations of hardware or software. The month-old Bloodstained demo from E3, which this reviewer has played repeatedly in full, shows a level of polish and presentational excellence completely absent from the full release of Mighty No. 9–a game which has been in development for years. Consequently there can be no excuse for the shoddy workmanship on display in Mighty No. 9
Is Mighty No. 9 a terrible game? Although it has moments of poor gameplay, design, and presentation, it is not as a whole a terrible game. But neither is it excellent in any regard. It is, at best, inoffensive. It is, at best, the sort of game one would expect to find for $1 or $5 on iOS or Android. A few minutes of fun might be had, before the entire thing becomes wearying, through lack of innovation, development, or cleverness in design. Unless, of course, one has never experienced anything better–thought about anything better–really considered from where comes the ‘greatness’ of a great platform game: in short, for the ten- or fifteen-year-old gamer who has known nothing but the wasteland that is iOS-style games, and whose knowledge of Mega Man comes from five minutes of play and a Wikipedia article. For such people, Mighty No. 9 is their bread and butter, and very probably represents the average platforming game they have experienced.
Those poor people!