Saturday, October 4, 2008

First impressions: Mega Man 9

Why does Capcom hate me so? All I've ever done is try to like their games, and yet they keep fundamentally missing the point: fun games are fun, difficult games are not.

Whether you're a stalwart Capcom fan-boy or just a casual gamer who has purchased a Capcom title after being told, "you have to try this, it's awesome!" you know exactly what I'm talking about, whether it be the cheap and unblockable boss attacks in Street Fighter 2 or the completely unmanageable camera in Devil May Cry. In the old NES days I used to tell myself that it was a limitation of the hardware not living up to the designers' vision, but Mega Man 9 makes me question that even more.

HISTORY: If you're reading this review, then you probably have at the very least a passing interest in the Mega Man series of games, at least enough to know that the series is more than twenty years old now. Mega Man 2 is considered by many to be the best in the series, because it was the first Mega Man (and probably the first game in general) where you could choose any of eight different stages (Mega Man only had six stages before the last one), and upon defeating the boss of each gained a power that would help you defeat another one more easily. When my friend Chris rented it one Friday night back in 1988 we had no idea that you could do this. Unfortunately we had started the game on one boss, Quick Man. If one is familiar with Mega Man 2, then one also knows that they should never attempt Quick Man's level on the first go without taking on Flash Man first. With enough practice we beat it, only to find out that we could have chosen any of the other bosses at any time. With Quick Man under our belt, the other bosses weren't much of a problem. After we learned what the game was about, it quickly became one of our favorites.

Mega Man 3 was the next game in the series, and Capcom ramped up the difficulty so high that Quick Man's stages didn't seem like such a challenge anymore. This was the last game in the original series that I bought for the NES, as much of the fun was gone by this point. It took strategy guides, the Nintendo hot line, and word of mouth to figure out which weapons were effective against which bosses - and they still didn't have one or two hit kills for any of them like the previous game! The rewards for figuring any of this out was low indeed! Still, Mega Man 3 was longer than the previous game, and in those days bigger evidently meant better - some people to this day consider MM3 the superior.

I could never get by the difficulty of Mega Man X, and by Mega Man 8 on the Playstation console almost all of what had made Mega Man 2 so fun was gone from the series. It was my sincere hope that Mega Man 9 would change that, as it was actually developed by former Mega Man Capcom employees. I was out of points, so I decided to download the trial as soon as it was available. Here is what I found...

GRAPHICS: I have maintained for years that if you took an old video game and just re-made it for a new system that could handle everything you want to do with it, that it would look and play much better than the envelope-pushing garbage we are faced with as gamers every day. I'm proud to say that in that respect Mega Man 9 proves me right. This is an unabashedly eight-bit game, and it looks beautiful, with none of the slowdown and sprite loading errors that plagued these games on the earlier systems. You can select whether to turn the sprite flickering on and off, if you want to make it feel slightly more old-school, but it still runs smoother than any NES Mega Man title.

SOUND: The hard techno eight-bit music of the series makes a resurgence, and with the familiar boss theme to boot! I can already tell that the tunes will be mostly forgettable, which is unfortunate for reasons of the soundtrack artist, but still keeps up with the overall aesthetic of the game.

CONTROL: While Mega Man 9 looks and sounds like these old NES games it isn't so much a throwback to them, as that series worked to give the "Blue Bomber" more abilities and equipment as time went on. The developers obviously felt that Mega Man 2 was the last balanced game in the series, as from Mega Man 3 on he could slide and from MM4 on he could charge up the Mega-Buster weapon and blast enemies with it more effectively than before, making all of the other weapons he collects along the way irrelevant; Mega Man 9 in contrast keeps Mega Man's abilities to the bare minimum: running, jumping, and shooting the underpowered Mega-Buster. This is a very welcome subtraction from the previous games, and it just muddled something that used to be completely straightforward.

GAMEPLAY: The enemies in this game seem to keep some sense of elemental weakness - with names like Concrete Man, Splash Woman, Magma Man, and Tornado Man you at least know that you are dealing with earth, water, fire and wind, as opposed to Mega Man 3's completely nonsensical Gemini Man, Snake Man, Top Man, Shadow Man, etc. Thus it seems as if the design team finally figured out that it's better for the gamers to be able to figure out the weaknesses in their own right, like Mega Man 2 did. In the demo, you only get to go up against Concrete Man. If this stage is any indication, I will skip the rest of the game.

You see, what the developers seem to fail to understand is that Mega Man 2 has difficulty settings. There is a "normal" difficulty, and a "difficult" difficulty. From MM3 on the "normal' difficulty level has been absent, and Mega Man 9 is no exception.

I'll admit it - I can't get through the demo. It is not fun to play. Any sense of nostalgia that I feel is wiped away mere seconds later when I'm faced with three consecutively harder versions of the same robot. I'm all for a challenge, mind you, I'm just getting tired of the word challenge meaning that no matter what I do a robot elephant is going to suck me off... a platform, that is. I could probably get through it too, if one of the stupid robots would just drop a large "life energy" once in a while instead of useless power-ups I don't need, or if the game didn't send me back to the beginning of the level every stinking time. I know that MM2 does the same thing, but at least MM2's stages were shorter and therefore not as much of a setback!

What it amounts to is that the developers kept all of the difficulty of the later Mega Man games and then crippled the main character so that the stages are even more needlessly difficult.

AN ASIDE: I've been noticing this in a lot of games recently, where the gameplay time is "padded out" just to add artificial "value." Some examples are the puzzling Braid (I liked your game and paid the $15 for it, so why is it that some puzzles require a tremendously stupid leap of logic to figure out? It's so incredibly padded that once one figures out the puzzles they can get through the game in less than an hour every time!), the acrobatic physics-driven N+ (every fifth stage requires about 1,000 attempts before I can get through it - no, I'm not exaggerating, I got an Xbox achievement for it. The other stages are challenging, but these stages are nearly impossible!), and Capcom's own Bionic Commando: Rearmed (did that last stage really need to be so hard? I mean, the NES version was hard, but Rearmed takes that word to a whole new meaning with those stupid collapsing platforms!).

Let's look at a fun, but still almost universally loved game, Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. It plays fast, the player has at most two hit points, and there are stages that are filled with enemies, but even when the player dies they almost never feel like the game has cheated them. I was even able to beat it on one "life" on several occasions. Now lets compare and contrast that to a game like Capcom's Super Ghouls & Ghosts on the SNES. The player similarly has two hit points and the stages are relatively barren of enemies in the early stages. So why is it that even on the lowest difficulty setting, and the maximum number of lives and continues (a total of twenty-seven tries) I cant get past stage 2? Is it because enemies just appear at odd spots on the screen with no way to avoid them, or is it because the stage will actually kill you without warning or any way of knowing where to stand when it tries? One constantly dies in this game without knowing how or why it happened, and trying to navigate the stage differently a second time doesn't mean that the previous obstacles will be avoided. Worth it? Most definitely not!

Capcom as a developer has been doing this for years - if they'd just put half as much effort into making the game mechanics work smoothly than trying to put as many cheap enemies as possible into Super Ghouls & Ghosts, it probably wouldn't have been the only game I ever took a masonry hammer to. I'm willing to bet not many people were able to get through the original Strider on the Genesis either. Did those few stubborn people who wasted twenty-three hours a day get a pot of gold at the end of the pain rainbow? No! While the rest of us were out working, romancing women, or moving on to games that were actually fun they got hundreds of hours of frustrating controls, cheap bosses, and "gamer's thumb." If you actually played through the game I salute you, jackass! Capcom did me one further with Maximo: Ghosts to Glory on the PS2. I was apprehensive, but my manager lent it to me, and I liked it! Except that when I bought it with the intention of finishing the game the dick game designers decided to punish me - when one continues so many times in the game, the game starts requiring more coins to continue, and as the game progresses they get extremely rare. Fun? No! Frustrating? Yes!

OVERALL: My beef with this game is my beef with Capcom, is my beef with all game designers: if you're going to make a game specifically for the hardcore market, perhaps you should start labelling all of your games "WARNING: HARD CORE DIFFICULTY" in big red letters on the front. This way, people with little skill or no patience (like me) won't waste our time or money on something that gives no enjoyment, and very little content, only "challenge."