In 1985, the games industry came roaring out of a crash that almost destroyed it and rocketed into its brightest golden age. During this period, many of the industry’s longest-living dynasties were established. The Legend Of Zelda, Megami Tensei, and Final Fantasy were among those forged in this fire, and that’s just to name three that have installments coming out in the next 18 months. Some of these tricenarian institutions have survived by staying true to their roots, like the New Super Mario Bros. games that refused to fix what wasn’t broken about 1985’s original Super Mario Bros. Others have aggressively modernized. The upcoming Final Fantasy XV has practically nothing in common with its 1987 ancestor but its name. Whether to stay true or get with the times is a decision every long-in-the-tooth series has to make eventually, but the good news is that either approach is valid and can work—hypothetically.
Mighty No. 9, an incognito Mega Man game by series creator Keiji Inafune, tries to walk both paths and ends up going nowhere. On one hand, it digs up and reanimates rightly long-dead frustrations of the NES era, like instantly fatal environmental hazards and a limited-lives system complete with progress-erasing game-overs. On the other, it saddles itself with unnecessary irritations of the modern age that have no business in a throwback, such as frequent dialogue-heavy cutscenes and a miserable stealth level. The result is a chimera whose few good ideas and genuine innovations are buried under a mountain of puzzling art and design decisions. Neither a faithful recreation of the 30-year-old Mega Man formula nor a forward-looking rebirth of it, Mighty No. 9 suffers the downsides of both eras and offers very few of the benefits from either.
At the core of Mighty No. 9 is a great evolution of the original Mega Man series’ dirt-simple jump-and-shoot action. Main character Beck can soften up enemies with his arm cannon and then charge into them, absorbing some of their power to temporarily boost his attack strength, movement speed, or defense. Continuing to shoot a weakened enemy will destroy them outright, and the longer you wait to absorb them, the weaker their power-ups become. When taken as a whole, this system incentivizes play that is aggressive, fast, and precise, and when it works well, it’s a real treat. Replaying levels equipped with the knowledge of where their enemies are and how much punishment they can take before Beck can absorb them feels especially smooth and rewarding. It’s easy to imagine a lively speed-running community mastering this game by memorizing its enemy patterns and pain thresholds.
Unfortunately, this absorption conceit feels less like a reward for experienced players and more like a punishment for newcomers. Getting the most out of the blast-and-dash system requires that you either know the game’s enemy locations in advance or can adapt to new situations with superhuman speed. A lot of Mighty No. 9’s design decisions seem to exist merely to frustrate the inexperienced. The game’s levels lean increasingly on instant death traps, and later stages feature some downright confounding navigation puzzles. Expertly zipping through already-memorized areas with ease can be an incredible power trip, but those first few inelegant trips tend to just be frustrating and discouraging. Practically the entire game needs to be learned through trial and error a few screens at a time before it begins to feel as fast and cathartic as it wants to.
The game’s boss fights are better on average than its levels, but they too suffer from clumsy collision of retro and modern sensibilities. Like in classic Mega Man, bosses can be tackled in any order, drop a unique weapon when defeated, and are weak to each others’ special abilities. Bosses will also become susceptible to Beck’s power-absorbing dash move after sustaining enough damage and will recover their health if you don’t take advantage of their weakened states, so even here you have to play carefully and gracefully to succeed. A sticking point in Mighty No. 9 compared to the game’s spiritual forebears is that every boss fight begins with a cutscene, which is annoying because they’re designed to be fought multiple times until their patterns are memorized. Mercifully these scenes can be skipped, but skipping them is still slower than simply not having them would have been.
In fairness, these scenes are in service of one of the game’s newfound strengths: its endearingly wacky characters. Mighty No. 9’s cast is composed of pun-making comic-relief characters that play off Beck’s put-upon straight man. It has far more plot than it really needs (and its chattiness is actively detrimental—in one level I fell into a fatal trap because a character’s dialogue box obscured my view of it), but its zany cast is almost worth the trade-off, and watching your enemies gradually become friends is surprisingly endearing. The strongest character of them all is probably Beck himself. The original Blue Bomber was pitched as an in-over-his-head wunderkind, but his glassy-eyed stare and indiscriminate slaughter of his fellow bots make him look like a merciless robo-vampire in retrospect. By comparison, the flustered and violence-averse Beck is much more approachable. Plus, he has the good sense to keep his trap shut through most of the game’s story segments.
If Mega Man were a vampire, then Beck would be Frankenstein’s monster—a tragic figure created from disparate parts in an effort to revive the dead and whose superficial ugliness obscures a deeper sophistication. There is a germ of a great game at the heart of Mighty No. 9. The central rhythm of barreling through stages and softening up foes with expertly placed shots before zipping in at the perfect moment to collect your reward deserves to be better fleshed out and more thoroughly explored. But it also deserves a game that doesn’t send huge amounts of your progress up the chimney because you got a game-over, a technique that ought to have gone extinct back in the arcade days. It deserves a game that isn’t so tragically generic looking and a soundtrack with at least one song worth whistling. Inafune has been open about his plans to send Beck on another adventure in the future, so that game might be coming; this certainly isn’t it.