It's hard to talk about Mighty No. 9 without also discussing the game's troubled release. Missed release dates, a change in art design, and a baffling second Kickstarter while the development team struggled to meet promises for this one. Mega Man fans could be forgiven for expecting a disaster in the works of such a publicly rocky development. But despite all this, how does the game measure up? Thankfully, Mighty No. 9 delivers a passable platforming-shooter experience that, while flawed in some ways and with some bizarre design choices, left me with the sensation that I played a modern day Mega Man game, save for the improvements many modern platforms have.
The game follows the titular character on a quest to stop a massive robot uprising as mechanical beings have started going berserk. Playing as MM9, the player will clear out and recover Mighty No. 1 through Mighty No. 8, bring them back to their senses, and uncover who or what is behind all this. The story is serviceable, and it's surprisingly nice to be given a reason why robots are attacking other than the usual reason of just being built for it.
Mighty No. 9's frantic gameplay is broken down into two main segments: platforming and shooting. Both are passable but have significant problems holding them back from feeling as good as they can be. MM9 the character moves just ever so slightly too slow, and on repeat playthroughs of levels, especially when tackling the more troublesome bosses, MM9's movement can feel like a tedious chore.
Shooting is equally just shy of quality. The standard pea shooter can only fire horizontally, and over time, the limited firing ability becomes your greatest source of frustration as you frog hop up and down to line up a shot with an enemy that's just a hair above your line of fire. Specific power-ups in previous Mega Man games allowed the player to shoot with more nuanced octo-directional aim without breaking the flow or difficulty of the game, and their exclusion in what the Kickstarter practically advertised as the next generation of Mega Man seems baffling.
Defeating bosses unlocks new shooting mechanics that may fit your liking, and indeed, make certain bosses more easy to deal with, but selecting these different power-ups doesn't feel fluid. The left shoulder buttons on your controller act as the up and down switch to cycle through them. Only instead of cycling between transformations, you cycle between selecting the transformations and then select with the transform button. Why not just have the power-ups instantly swap out as you cycle between them and remove the need for the selection? This may sound like griping but in the heat of a boss fight, the game practically turns into a bullet-hell shooter, and every wasted second on something that could be made more efficient is an extra chance to be killed by a death that feels cheap.
Speaking of deaths that feel cheap, easily the great majority of deaths in my time with Mighty No. 9 were from falling off tiny platforms from enemy projectile knock back. These deaths are a staple of classic NES platform games, but they were phased out for good reasons. They have little to do with player skill, they can be frustrating more than feel challenging, and they're the result of lazy level design. Mighty No. 9 features these in nearly every stage. Again, when you're making your run to try another shot at the boss, these meat grinder style obstacles can become incredibly unsatisfying to play.
The level design doesn't do much to shake up the formula, and most levels follow a blueprint of hallway→large room→hallway→large room→hallway→boss room. Some of the more memorable levels were with Mighty No. 8 and Mighty No. 6. In the former, you run down a circular hallway dodging sniper fire searching for the boss, while in the later you're scaling a massive mid-construction skyscraper while using/fighting the strong winds. The game is in dire need of more levels like these because the combat and enemy design do not hold up the more traditional levels.
Most enemies in the game are handled the same way, just point, and shoot. There are more nuanced examples, like the shield bearing knight enemies that require you to get behind them or dodge their attacks and use that as an opening. But most require little strategy or thought, and aren't all that interesting or memorable. Some enemies, such as the pong-inspired mini-boss in the ice/water level, can provide a challenge for the player, but most are so easy you can ignore them. With the exception of enemies that like to hang around the aforementioned bottomless pits with tiny platforms, many re-runs of levels I discovered a good jump and generously mashing the dash button would completely erase a whole section of the level. Once you discover this, it's hard to resist the temptation to ignore the lethargic enemies completely in this game. This speaks volumes to how unsatisfying the combat can become. Any game where the player would rather run past the enemies than deal with the battle is in serious need of rethinking its core combat mechanics.
The music of Mighty No. 9 is nothing to write home about but does provide for suitable atmosphere against the cartoonish anarchy of the Mighty No. 9 universe. It's difficult to recall a single song off the top of my head, but while playing it always felt appropriate to the levels particular flavor.
Performance is thankfully sound in Mighty No. 9. The game maintained a rock solid 60 fps for my entire playthrough, and load times were normally less than three seconds on my modest rig. Some areas of the game had egregious stuttering, especially the water/ice level, but most ran smoothly.
The game also makes some very strange, immersion breaking choices. As mentioned above, this game had a long and public development with negative media attention. Perhaps some of this seeped into the development of the game, as weird choices in descriptions and text inorganically seem to reference online message board culture. "It is the present year" is the very first words you hear in the game. Jokes are one thing, but this is the game making its absolute first introduction to the player a reference to current year arguments, something many people may not even be familiar with. The game is willing to put internet snark above telling you anything about the plot or characters. Other parts of the game, like one character claiming"ethical journalism" is telling people what they want to hear, continue this strange ironic response to conversations that were being had years ago. It doesn't ruin the game, and it's unlikely many are playing Mighty No. 9 for the story, but it rips any sense of immersion away from the player in some strange attempt to get one over on those who criticized the game during its development. It twists what should be a colorful cast of characters into these sock puppets for a developer to get some kind of "no you" response to anonymous people, rather than just getting on with the story.
Mighty No. 9 is not a bad game, just a flawed one. The basic movement, shooting and platforming need work. The level design is empty and unremarkable. The enemies are too easy, while the deaths are cheap far more often than they should be. But the bosses are genuinely challenging at times, and the power-ups scream classic Mega Man. This isn't the game many will be hoping for, but it isn't the train wreck some may have thought (or even hoped) it would be. Mighty No. 9 is a perfectly suitable scratch for the nostalgia itch of the platform shooting games of old. But if you're expecting this game to spark a renaissance of Mega Man style games, well, you may end up sadder than an anime fan on prom night.
Mighty No. 9 was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and the Shield Portable.
What do you think of Mighty No. 9? Did you back the game on Kickstarter? Will you be buying it when it releases June 21st? Is there anything missing from this review? Let us know in the comments!
UPDATE: Clarified that not all past Mega Man games offered 8-way aiming.
Mighty No. 9 is a serviceable callback to the original Mega Man that is brought down by baffling design decisions and a strict adherence to mechanics that were phased out for a reason.