Mega Man 9 (Xbox 360) review
"This is a game where your skills start out rusty, yet your experience as you improve goes from “pretty good but wow is this game hard” to “I can't believe I used to have trouble with that!” The sense of accomplishment as each stage is cleared hasn't been this significant in a Mega Man game in 20 years."
I won't bore you with a history of the Mega Man franchise, from its inception to its waning years to the beat my heart skipped following word that a retro-styled Mega Man 9 game was coming. You know most of that already, or can easily learn it elsewhere. I'd rather talk about gameplay.
First and foremost, that means a discussion of difficulty. Mega Man titles have always been rough. The most brutal of them can still make hardcore cringe and Mega Man 9 continues in that vein. Franchise veterans are used to spikes meaning instant death, or beams of light flashing through the screen and obliterating them. They've fallen through their share of false floors and dropped into more than one bottomless pit as fickle blocks that formed a makeshift bridge over an abyss suddenly disappeared beneath them. While most of what you'll find here adds nothing to that assortment of pitfalls, somehow it all seems more devious than usual.
A wonderful example is the Tornado Man stage. Near the beginning, you'll find yourself crossing a wide gap. Ledges float back and forth on set courses--indicated by wires--and spike traps float in the air just waiting to puncture your deceptively weak armor and ruin your good time. So you hop onto the first lift when it comes within range. It starts back toward the right and suddenly you're looping under it, then on top again, then back down. Jumping at the wrong moment is suicide. You'll launch yourself straight into a pit, or upward into the perilous needles. Somehow, against all odds, you have to navigate this gauntlet of doom and when you reach the other side, it's not over. The rest of the stage features driving rain (complete with whirling umbrella machines that float down from the sky and knock you about) and barely a moment where you would ever dream of saying that you can safely walk more than a step or two. Reach the end and there's a showdown with a maniacal robot monster that sends gusts of wind toward you as he flits about the chamber. Did you bring the right weapon to topple him, or was your trip through his lair just practice?
Other stages feature similar challenges and sometimes even grueling mini-boss encounters. One hosts a series of three elephants. The first one sends a ball rolling toward you, which it then sucks back toward itself. You can hop to a nearby ladder and dispatch of the threat from safety above the main battlefield, but it's a temporary reprieve. Your second adversary isn't positioned near a ladder and also makes the ball bounce, meaning you're more likely than ever to take severe damage coming and going until you memorize the pattern. Then you arrive at a third of the behemoths and now there are bottomless pits beneath you. Not only does taking damage drain your dwindling life meter, but it could cause you to stumble to your death. As expected, there is no ladder.
Remember Mega Man 3? A series of similar rooms awaited you in the Top Man stage, each inhabited by robotic bobcats that sent bouncing orbs toward you. The difference there was that you could jump or slide under the shots and avoid damage pretty easily, or you could rush through the mechanical felines and on to the next challenge while temporarily invincible. The screen would scroll onward to accommodate you if that was your wish. Here? Don't even think about such cheap tactics. They just don't cut it.
The pleasing result of all of that tough platforming and shooting action is that when you finally overcome the challenges along the way, then encounter a boss and you kick butt--perhaps because you're just that good at dodging and shooting, or maybe because you saved up and brought an energy tank or a weapon gained from defeating an easier opponent--you'll feel terrific. This is a game where your skills start out rusty, yet your experience as you improve goes from “pretty good but wow is this game hard” to “I can't believe I used to have trouble with that!” The sense of accomplishment as each stage is cleared hasn't been this significant in a Mega Man game in 20 years.
Once the eight robots are defeated, your next stop is a multi-stage fortress on your way to a final showdown with the specters of those you've already defeated. Navigating these stages, while simpler than some of what you've already encountered along the way, can still be a nerve-wracking challenge. Then you'll go up against a maniacal scientist before finally the closing credits roll. Don't stop there, though; there are achievements up for grabs!
Like the rest of the game, achievements are tough. Sure, you unlock one simply by beating the game however you like. That's a relative gimme. Most of the others are more demanding, though, like the one that challenges you to avoid taking a hit against any of the robot masters. You're also rewarded for refusing to use energy tanks, and for defeating all bosses using only your pathetic arm cannon. The most ridiculous one, though, is called “Mr. Perfect.” It's just what the name implies. To earn it, you have to finish the game without taking a single hit. I value my sanity too much to even attempt such a thing.
Achievements are clearly intended to keep you playing long after you otherwise might not, to keep the challenge there even after you can sleepwalk through some of the more devious moments, but for me they're unnecessary. Others might decide to embark on speed runs for the boost they'll receive to their gamerscore, but I'm content to replay stages just because they're so excellent. The graphics are in-your-face old school and many of the upgrades have been stripped away in favor of brutal simplicity (aside from Beat's presence, this easily could fit in between Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 with no one the wiser), yet Mega Man 9 is still one of the most thrilling adventures that fans of the blue bomber will ever experience. I once thought that they didn't make games like this anymore. I'm glad I was wrong!
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 08, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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