…Then she goes down, overwhelmed in the feasting grins of pressmen and Press women who’ve moved from being owned by men to being owned by fashion, these are more deeply merciless.
-Les Murray, A Deployment of Fashion
“The following is a contributor post by the Badly Backlogged Mage.”
Mighty No 9 is quite fun.
It says something about Mighty No 9, and the internet in general, that this feels as comfortable as saying “I eat puppies”. But my firm view is that if Mighty No 9 had been released minus all the hatred it would have been warmly received and probably have a little die-hard following, instead of the punchline that it now is.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Mighty No 9 without talking about its infamous development cycle. So let’s do that because I like a challenge.
Mighty No 9 is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man series. But I’ve never played Mega Man, so that means little to me. Actually, that’s not true, I played Mega Man 2 briefly as a child but found it too hard and frustrating to play. I tried again as an adult with Mega Man 9 on the PS3 a few years ago and had exactly the same reaction. So from my perspective, Mighty No 9 is already looking good compared to its predecessors.
But while I don’t know Mega Man, I do know NES-era platformers. And Mighty No 9 is definitely inspired by those, for better and worse. Move from left to right, shoot bad guys, beat the boss, don’t fall down.
Journey to Silius, Streetfighter 2010, Bionic Commando, Probotector (aka Contra)
The interesting part is the “dash” move – when the player shoots enemies they don’t immediately die, they are first staggered, and then flash. If the player dashes into a wounded enemy, the enemy is absorbed for a score bonus and a brief (and minor) power-up for the player. The faster you absorb the enemy the more points you get (based on a percentage that ranges from 10-100%). Each 100% absorption adds to your combo counter, with a satisfying “achievement” sound and golden combo-counter. Alternatively, you can just shoot the enemy again to kill it for no bonus.
This mechanic is brilliant because it offers the player a constant risk/reward struggle. Your weapons are long-range, and you’re vulnerable while you dash. So if you dash into an enemy, you’ll get hit. If you dash and wind up standing next to a new enemy, you’ll also get hit. The obvious answer is to try and injure all enemies in a group at once so you can dash into them all in one go. But if you fire into a group of enemies and miss one…will you take the risk? How well do you think you can judge the distance of your dash?
The dash also allows for some interesting platforming, because you dash horizontally very quickly with no vertical movement. So you have a maneuverability that isn’t immediately obvious.
Each time you finish a level you get ranked from A – D, with “S” for a great success. Your end ranking is determined not only by score, but combo, damage received, time, and overall absorption percentage**.
Also, and this is the obvious Mega Man influence, each time you defeat a boss you’ll gain the ability to transform into a creature with that bosses’ powers. There are 8 bosses (excluding the end boss) so there are 8 forms in total. You can switch between forms at any time, although each form has a power level which decreases each time you shoot that form’s weapon. The power bar recharges with time and, you guessed it, absorbing enemies.
You can tackle each of the game’s 8 initial stages in any order you want. Each power makes one other stage (and usually its boss) a little easier, and the game will helpfully tell you which power is useful in each stage. Each stage is typically quite unique too, each level usually has a different emphasis or some unique mechanic (such as one level which incorporates “hide and seek” with a sniper).
The net result is a game that has a pleasant array of different experiences packed within a fairly short space of time. I played this game over about 2-3 months, by finishing one stage each Saturday. It was a lot of fun.
But, as you’ve no doubt heard, Mighty No 9 has its share of problems. The worst of these come from the game’s 8-bit roots; there is a reason we stopped making games like this. The main offender is an unholy trinity of 80’s platformers – limited lives, insta-kills and cheap deaths. It works like this:
- as you play a level, you’ll come across various traps which will kill unless you know they’re coming. So the first time you come to them, you will probably lose one (or more) lives;
- when you finally get to the boss, you will probably lose the last of your lives as you learn how the boss is moving. Losing all your lives though means you have to restart at the beginning of the level;
- replaying a level is tedious and frustrating, which means you’re more likely to make mistakes; and
- the game is filled with areas where any mistake results in an instakill. So while you’ll avoid the cheap deaths, the more frustrated you get, the more you’re likely to lose lives before you reach the boss again.
This happened to me so much in level 1 that I almost quit right then and there. And I would not have blamed anyone else if they had done so. I replayed that stupid first level so many times until I finally memorised the bosses’ movements well enough to defeat him.
But before you wail too hard on Mighty Number 9 for this, remember that it was standard game design back in the day. Heck, it was usually worse – in Probotector (aka Contra), if you lost all your lives you had to restart the entire game, not just the level! And that wasn’t unique to Probotector, that was the norm! Castlevania, Mega Man, Marble Madness, Jungle Hunt, Super Mario Bros., Sonic – I cannot think of a single platformer of the era that did not use that mechanic. And don’t think they were above cheap deaths either – they weren’t.
But the mechanic sucked. We got rid of it for a reason, and Mighty No 9 should have left it in the grave. It ameliorates it a bit by giving you extra power-ups when you restart a level, and thankfully you don’t have to restart the entire game. But it’s not enough.
Despite all the broo-ha-ha over this game, that is the only mistake that I think really mattered. And I understand why they made it; if they’d put a checkpoint in each level just before the boss, the game would have been a lot easier, and a whole lot of self-declared defenders-of-the-gaming-faith would have been up in arms for daring to make their beloved genre of 80s-style-platformers accessible to outsiders. But it was the wrong call.
Also, lest we forget how annoying knockback can be.
There are two other significant problems with the game, although comparatively, they’re minor annoyances. They are:
- the visual design is cluttered. On one stage in particular you’ll keep mistaking oncoming obstacles as being part of the background; and
- the game sorely needs a good tutorial. Or (even better) a well designed first stage that demonstrates the ins-and-outs of the dash move (like the famous World 1-1 on the original Super Mario Bros.), as well as a little section after you defeat each boss which shows you the pros and cons of each new power you absorb (like in Little Big Planet 3, and many others).
You will notice that I have not included the big issue that people won’t shut up about and that’s the graphics (“Oh it looks PS2 era! Quick, burn it with fire!”). Now listen to me very carefully, because I’m only going to say this once:
I do not care about “graphics”.
And honestly, I don’t think anyone else cares about graphics. Heck, Mega Man 9 came out in 2008 and it looks like this:
No-one jumped up and down whining that it looked like something from the past. Mighty No 9 is not AAA, it was never going to compare with Assassin’s Creed XXII: The Quest for Relevance and it’s not meant to.
The lower-res graphics match the game’s aesthetic, which is 80-90s children’s anime. Which, let’s be honest, was done on the cheap and was never that good.
Now what is a valid criticism is that the game’s visual design is not great. It’s not awful, but it’s insipid. While I’ve never played the Mega Man series it’s quite obvious that despite the inferior tech its games had a much more cohesive and engaging visual style.**** Here’s a comparison with Mega Man X from the Snes era:
The Mega Man X screenshot has a clear location and visual theme (there are skyscrapers and he’s standing on a highway, the world is dark and grimy). Mighty No 9 is…well he’s supposed be in a fuel refinery, but it appears to consist of one cylinder. Where’s all the refinery equipment? And where exactly is he in the refinery? And the background is dark-ish, but there’s a lot of bright pink in the foreground so…what style are we doing here?
But it’s only an issue that stops the game being great. It doesn’t make it bad. The visual style of Mighty No 9 is consistent enough and mostly serviceable (except on that one level where obstacles look like part of the background – that’s both annoying and unforgivable). Put it this way – my toddler was fascinated with the robots in this game in the same way I was once fascinated with Astro Boy.
There are two other criticisms often lobbed at this game that I’m going to deal with:
- There are some kinds of movement, particularly a “leapbackwards while shooting” move, which is vestigial and rather pointless. I don’t know if it turns out to be super-important if you’re interested in getting S-ranks, but as far as I’m concerned, this means nothing more than “there’s a move I don’t use, and it’s not annoying because I don’t use it”.
- Some of the forms are more useful than others. I don’t think that’s a criticism at all; with 9 different forms in total, you don’t want to be constantly switching between 9 equally valid forms of attack. This is a good design choice, not a bad one.
The 8-bit Review
If you don’t compare this game to world-famous games that have remained popular for decades, then the visuals are pretty decent. The bosses in particular are well designed – they’re all unique with individual personalities that come across quite strongly, and their animation conveys a strong sense of how each one moves, thinks and feels. Every character who is not a boss is cliched to the point of self-parody, but fortunately, this is a game, not an anime.
A step-up on the visuals. The sound effects are quite good at building tension, with a series of soundscapes helping to place and distinguish each of the sages. The main theme, for example, does a good job of conveying the game’s retro/robot aesthetic.
The gameplay is quite clever – once I got through the initial hump, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Giving the player a long-distance weapon but then encouraging them to get in close and do it quickly…it’s genius. It’s the same idea that Doom (2016) would apply to the FPS genre in the same year. Although when Doom did it, people didn’t make 30 minute YouTube videos explaining why it sucked.
Add to that the nice range of variety with the 9 different attack forms, and there’s quite a bit of gameplay depth here, especially if you want to get into chasing S-ranks.
The game’s biggest weakness and the reason that ultimately I can’t recommend it. Most people would probably quit in frustration at the first level, and I can’t blame them. I think the only reason I stuck with it was I had nothing else to do that morning.
Once you get a grip on this game then you’ll find that the challenge is just right. I played this game once a week for about 1.5hrs at a go, and each day I’d finish a level. That was enough time to make beating the level feel like an achievement, and not too long to make it annoying.
If you’re so minded, there are a lot of extras here, and that’s not including chasing S-ranks. I wouldn’t even normally score replayability, but the game was so obviously designed with this being a core feature that it must be mentioned.
The bosses in Mighty No 9 are great to deal with. Otherwise, the characters, story and general narrative are terrible. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal (“kill Dracula” is hardly a plot for Castlevania) except this game seems to have delusions of adequacy when it comes to story. It puts a surprising amount of emphasis on conversation, for example, and heaven knows why because the writing is painful. Fortunately, there’s not much of it.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I loved the challenge. I loved experimenting with different forms. I loved the thrill of learning how to beat each boss. And, most of all, I loved the way that it delivered the experience in neat 1.5hr packages that I could enjoy once a week on Saturday mornings. This is not a brilliant game, far from it. But (if you get over the initial hump) it is a fun one.
I’ve read long diatribes about why the game is awful and picking apart all of its minutiae and I do not agree. I’ve responded to some of the more common criticisms in this article, but you can feel free to tell me about how Keiji Inafune killed your dog in the comments.
Aggregated score: 6.3
* Yes I know I should go back and try Mega Man again. But I can only write of my experience to date.
** And probably some other factors that I can’t be bothered looking up. But these are the obvious ones.
*** Qudos to the Well Red Mage, a true Mega Man fan, for the following comparison.
The Badly Backlogged Mage courageously fights a rearguard action against his unfortunate spending habits. You can follow his crusade at https://mrbacklog.wordpress.com/
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