To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.
Thirty years ago, an icon was born. The world recognized the touch of greatness, though cobwebs have accumulated over the years.
The first Mega Man video game released on the 17th of December 1987, just in time for Christmas, and though the game was not a commercial success, it was a critical one. Mega Man 2, a passion project crafted by developers on their off-time, came soon after and history was made. Enthusiasts are still talking about that sequel. These formed the foundation for Rockman, the blue, robot-blasting action-platforming hero who would come to be known as Mega Man in the West. His games were synonymous with tight gameplay, great music, and the jan-ken-pon (rock-paper-scissors) system of non-linear boss encounters; this open mission selection system is one which games have built upon and still utilize today.
I, too, was bitten by the Blue Bomber bug early in life when I first picked out a Mega Man 4 NES cartridge at a Toys R Us for my birthday. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Here we are three decades removed from 1987 and Mega Man has seen numerous reinterpretations: the X, Zero, and ZX series, the short-lived Legends spin-off adventures, the Battle Network RPGs and so on. Despite all the games, the cartoons and anime, the action figures and comics, even Smash Bros., it seems as if the light of the character has faded… What once flourished in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s had become a mere byword, an anachronism, a relic. Mega Man had thrived on being formulaic but after so many titles, has that formula become stale at last?
It is with resounding joy that I answer “No”! The eleventh title in the classic Mega Man series has been released. Legends never die.
Mega Man 11 commemorates the 30th anniversary of the beloved icon but does it do enough for the Blue Bomber to warrant a resurrection?
After all, it’s one thing to cash in on the immortal nostalgia of the 30-somethings and 40-somethings who remember Mega Man most fondly. It’s another thing entirely to create a new future for a franchise known for its stubborn insistence upon formula and give a new game validation for existence. I think if you’re a long-time Mega Man fan, you’ll be able to tell the qualitative difference between those two things if you play Mega Man 11 for yourself.
Coming into playing the game, I had four concerns.
The game first and foremost needed to capture the same quality of platforming, the tightness of the gameplay, the polished design as the original series. Mega Man needed to move and feel like I remembered him, like millions remembered him. His weight, the pace of his run, the height of his jump, the speed of his charge (especially) all needed to be finely tuned to the best titles in the series, those which appeared on the NES.
My biggest worry in this area was that Mega Man 11 would feel more like Mega Man 8 than Mega Man 2. A slower charge rate and a slower run might make the end result somewhat cumbersome and detract from the tension of the game. I recall thinking the Buster charge was sluggish in later titles in both the classic and the X series, so I definitely didn’t want to encounter that here.
Secondly, there’s the issue of the Mega Man rut.
Mega Man 11, by virtue of being the newest entry in a long-running series, had the responsibility of sticking to the classic formula while still being different, that is, having a reason for being. The last classic series entry, Mega Man 10, was released all the way back in 2010 with about as much fanfare as a one-horse parade. It was a return to the series’ NES roots but was it too little too late?
In the 8 silent years to follow, Mega Man only sprung up one more time in Rockman Xover in 2012 for iOS and Android devices. Xover was closed just 3 years later… Nothing signals the death throes of a limping franchise more than one last mobile game (I’m looking at you, Breath of Fire). To further compound the problem, Capcom has gained something of a reputation for forgetting about their older franchises.
There’s always additional pressure with a “comeback” title: Mega Man 11 couldn’t be so wildly different that it risked alienating those who loved the original games. At the same time, it had to innovate on the classic formula so it could feel like more than a footnote in the Blue Bomber’s eulogy. Maintaining and honoring the expectations of fans, as well as paying respect to the history of the character, were equally as important as paving a way for a bright new future, should Capcom really decide to pursue developing more Mega Man games.
This was not a spin-off. This was the continuation of a tradition begun in 1987, and traditions can be both comfortable and constraining.
Thirdly, the game had to be difficult (and I don’t say this as some kind of hyper-masculine, macho admission, as you’ll see; difficulty has an appeal beyond mere braggadocious swagger).
This is in itself a challenge; Mega Man 11 had to choose what kind of difficulty it wanted. Often times you’ll hear people say of retro games from the 80s’ and 90’s that their deliberate design unfairly increased the amount of difficulty present. Games, as we’ve heard, were shorter back then due to hardware limitations, so to give players more bang for their buck, developers ensured that the games would be tough to complete.
As such, NES games, in particular, are remembered for having strict rules, limited lives and continues, and level designs which demanded extreme timing and reflexes as well as trial and error and subsequent memorization, and that’s not even mentioning games which were difficult because they were broken.
Not everyone loves such things but pattern recognition specifically was a hallmark of the ancient Mega Man titles (I’m not generalizing Mega Man as it was a stand out series in its time). This writer loved that about those games; a sense of familiarity developed into a feeling of ownership in overcoming a boss fight on the dozenth attempt because you saw through those attack patterns. Mega Man was mine because I developed the ability to beat the games after they beat me so many times.
My hands start sweating just looking at this image.
With Mega Man 11, however, I don’t think modern audiences would have tolerated really unfair difficulty (however you choose to define that) in a short platformer like this without a grand story to it. This game needed to still channel the challenging nature of the classic Mega Man games without relying on cheap deaths or cruel level design.
In our time, certain indies, such as roguelikes, and certain darkish soulsy games are known for being hideously difficult but it’s still a hit or miss affair. Players must feel informed enough to avoid dangers, otherwise a lost life becomes a slap in the face; a loss must be the player’s fault in order to be meaningful, otherwise it’ll feel like being chastised when it was actually your little brother who had their hands in the cookie jar, not you.
Could Mega Man 11 give players enough space and time to make mistakes without undue punishment or would it fall into the modern trend where “difficult” is a promotional buzzword?
My fourth and final concern regarded the new mainline feature: the Double Gear system. In my estimation, it needed to be more than just a gimmick. Maybe the best way to measure that will be whether it survives this game and makes it into the next, if there even is a “Mega Man 12” coming, just as charging the Mega Buster or sliding became trademarks before it.
The Double Gear system featured heavily in the promotional material for Mega Man 11, which made me skeptical about it. It’s healthy to be skeptical, within reason, but I wanted this game to be noted for its adherence to a classic style of platforming, not necessarily for a supplementary feature. If you’ve seen the commercials or played the demo, then you’ll know that the Double Gear is very much front and center.
Triggering the Speed Gear.
The system grants Mega Man new speed and offensive capabilities. With the right shoulder button, he can activate the Speed Gear and move so quickly it appears as if everything else around him slows down to a crawl. With the left shoulder button, he can toggle the Power Gear and unleash more devastating attacks with his Buster, even upping the power of the robot master weapons he collects. These twin abilities can either be used separately or in conjunction as a kind of desperation move if Mega Man’s health is critical. They are, however, best used in short bursts; Mega Man can overheat his system if he uses the Double Gear too long, which will leave him vulnerable with limited capabilities afterward for a brief time.
It’s an interesting addition which can’t be totally abused to make the game a cinch while still coming in handy for the game’s dicier jumps and confrontations. In other words, the game seems to designed so as to accommodate the new Double Gear system. It’s necessary in some spots without totally carrying the player through the game. Does it escape the territory of gimmick, though?
Does Mega Man 11 jump over all four hurdles, or does it stumble headfirst into a pit of spikes? I’ll address how this game met my concerns in the segments below.
The 8-bit Review
2010’s Mega Man 10 revisited the visuals of the original six Mega Man games as they appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System. For Mega Man 11, Capcom decided it was time to give the series a face lift. I think this was wise for a few reasons: as endearing and iconic as the NES graphics are, this was the first classic Mega Man game in nearly a decade. It seems appropriate that Mega Man 11 gives audiences something new, visually, something which would say more than just “this is Mega Man as you remembered him”. If the series is to have new legs, it needs to have a new foundation in immediate memory and current history, no offense in the least to the original titles.
As such, Mega Man 11 is lavished and bedazzled with candy-colored imagery from its smoothly animated characters to its ornate backgrounds. This is 2.5D, evidently, with 3D polygonal actors moving across 2D “hand drawn” backdrops. The lighting effects look exceptional, the enemy designs retain the same cutesy/retro appeal, numerous particle effects accompany blasts and lasers and explosions of all sorts. Mega Man himself gains new details when equipping boss weapons: a new head and arm cannon design correlate with the special weapon. It’s not a massive innovation, but I was surprised it hadn’t already been done before in the classic series, instead of Mega Man simply changing colors.
Mega Man’s running animation still seems off to me, as if his feet don’t accurately represent how fast he’s moving. Also, the interior sections of stages can seem very repetitive, if not downright mundane. Given that TV screens are now much larger and game screens share the new size, the characters in Mega Man 11 can seem tiny at times, the Blue Bomber included. These are minor criticisms in a rather attractive game.
Considering this is a series originally named for a character with a musical genre reference in his name (Rockman), the music in Mega Man 11 was somewhat disappointing to me. I played through the game twice now and no particular tracked jumped out to me as all that memorable. Mega Man 11 seems to have fallen into the bane of both the classic and the X series where the music becomes less about rock with furious percussion and bass riffs and high screaming solos and more about electronic synth music, what I’d call in some cases elevator music. It can’t be relied on to increase tension in this game too often.
What I really wanted from a comeback title such as this is what everyone would want from a comeback album from their favorite 80’s band. I would have loved something on par with or even close to “Air Man”, “Skull Man”, “Snake Man”, or “Elec Man”. Many of the tracks seem to lean more heavily into house or dance:
“Fuse Man” is one of the better examples, in my opinion:
This was one of the best songs on the soundtrack, I thought:
Then there’s the voice acting. At least in this entry you can tell the actors are putting some heart into it, like they care about the parts they’re playing.
The robot masters especially convey some energy (maybe a little too much with Impact Man) and the cast brings personality to a game which really, let’s be honest, doesn’t actually need voice acting. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should include voice actors and Mega Man isn’t exactly known for an immersive story, anyway. Rock’s voice may seem a little old for his stature, considering the squeaky kid voice we’ve been treated to all these years, but Light, Wily, and Roll are spot on with the robot masters being a little hit or miss.
None of this is so bad it’s awful, so much as it’s just bad enough to be average. At least the voice acting is above average when it comes to the voice acting in the Mega Man series. It’s not pwetty, Docta Wiwy. It’s lightyears ahead of that.  link to Mega Man 8
SPOILER talk ahead! If you want to skip to the next section, Ctrl+f Gameplay.
After just mentioning spoilers, let me just say that there isn’t much of a developed story beyond the familiar “Wily causes trouble, Mega Man stops him”, but given the series’ history and the fact this is a simple platformer, that’s not the issue at hand. What I think was potentially a missed opportunity was how the game essentially begins and ends with the status quo for the Rockman universe.
After defeating Wily, the mad scientist is once again thrown in the local revolving door (prison) and Mega Man flies away triumphant. In post-credit scenes, Dr. Light is shown fixing the robot masters and implementing the Double Gear system, a complete 180° from his position on the tech in his youth. Maybe if he hadn’t been so dismissive of Wily (the Double Gear is actually Wily’s invention) then this whole confrontation could’ve been avoided and Wily would be a friend, not a foe. Way to go, Light.
Mega Man 11 surprised me by focusing on the dynamic between Light and Wily. It begins with a cutscene from their past when they were young robot researchers. I think that this relationship is really what should be central to the Mega Man series, especially going forward. Rock himself doesn’t allow too much room for character development but learning more about the animosity between Light and Wily, and dredging up more forgotten tech from their past, could make for interesting storytelling.
Is the new Double Gear system a mere gimmick? I’m happy to report that for the most part it allows for more dynamic gameplay, and it helps the classic series keep up with, say, the dynamism of the X series with its numerous upgrades and armors.
Slowing down time or cranking out extra damage on a whim encouraged the developers to pursue longer levels and more powerful boss fights to compensate for Mega Man’s augmented abilities. The levels here are the longest in the series and the boss encounters feel like true events. The robot masters even make use of the Gears themselves, morphing into powerful war machines, gaining new abilities. The Double Gear is everywhere and it’s up to the player to decide when (or remember when) to effectively use the dual abilities, though there are some notable instances when it is crucial for survival.
This is the biggest cue that the developers were being thoughtful with implementing the Double Gear system. Various sections scattered throughout the game’s levels in which the require familiarity with the Double Gear. This is best seen with the Speed Gear and I’m thinking of things like the waves of fire on Torch Man’s stage. These fire walls will kill Mega Man instantly and you have to run through an obstacle course to escape them, which is almost impossible without liberal use of the Speed Gear. Just be sure you don’t overheat the system.
However, I played entire game only using the max gear once. That’s the desperation move that combines speed and power together. I simply couldn’t remember to use it when I needed to, just like early on I had difficulty remembering to use the Double Gear system at all. Turns out that more than two decades worth of Mega Man habits were hard for me to eradicate.
Shielded enemies can have their guards blown back by a well-timed charged blast.
Mega Man also has the potential for much more than just what he gets through the Double Gear and boss weapons (which, note, seem very diverse this time around). Between stages, he can visit Dr. Light’s laboratory to purchase items or upgrades in exchange for the bolts he finds throughout the game’s stages. These include the familiar E Tank, as well as Beat summons, extra lives, and W Tanks. Mega Man can even purchase permanent upgrades he can toggle on and off: non-slip shoes, weapon recharge equalizer, larger blasts, etc.
The game also includes a host of quality of life upgrades. In the old days, you had to open the start menu to switch between boss weapons. Now, you can switch them on the fly with the shoulder buttons or even bring up a fast select mini-menu with the right joystick. The familiar Rush Coil and Rush Jet are also automatically mapped to buttons on the controller so there’s even less reason to stop the action to open that start menu. It makes playing the game a much smoother experience.
The entire game is still structured around eight stages and boss battles followed by Wily’s Castle, and I was somewhat surprised they didn’t deviate at all from that formula. Maybe a second Castle could have been implemented? Or what if the layout of the final stages was less linear? One wonders what kind of possibilities could be attempted without completely destroying the fact that this game belongs to the classic Mega Man series…
The core gameplay remains as simple and easy to grasp as ever. The addition of button mapping for Rush and the shoulders for Double Gear and weapon swapping are the only real additives to the classic jumping and gunning gameplay, and all of them minus the Double Gear were warranted changes to help smooth out the experience. Considering how little the gameplay has changed since the early days when the whole thing could be played with a d-pad, a start button, and an A and B button… I’d call Mega Man 11 a win for player accessibility.
I believe the developers did a great job making Mega Man difficult. The game brought me to the edge of my seat several times. On average, I got two game overs in each stage before making it to the robot master at the end. I read one take on the game recently which posited that the game was too difficult because it didn’t offer suitable rewards for how tough it is. Well, it doesn’t seem like the hardest game in the series, anyway. Besides, I believe the appeal of many retro games for many retro gamers and indeed one of the appeals of classic Mega Man is in the difficult gameplay itself, not in a final cutscene or a trophy popping. We live in the achievement-hunting age but Mega Man existed long before any of that when overcoming an obstacle was its own reward.
Both the Double Gear system (dat Speed Gear) and Dr. Light’s lab make Mega Man 11 easier than some of its predecessors. Currency is easy to come by and you can buy enough items for spamming E Tanks to get you through any boss encounter. You just have to be careful around the spikes and bottomless pits or insta-death traps. I completed this game on Normal but there are three other difficulties, and I don’t know that I have it in me to beat it on Superhero difficulty…
Does Mega Man escape the rut? Not really. Not at all. The structure of the game is entirely the same as it was since the first few games in the series. Only two things for me were worth individual points themselves since I grade beginning with 5/10 and mark up or down: presentation and Double Gear. The latter avoids being entirely gimmicky and the former was a much needed facelift for a bright future for Mega Man. Otherwise, it’s entirely what you may expect from the eleventh title in a series known for being formulaic, though that may allow new players on new hardware to experience for the essence of Mega Man for the first time.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
For me, playing Mega Man 11 feels like going home.
Nostalgia can only take you so far. Mega Man 11 needed to stand on its own two legs, which, while shaky, I think it performs rather reliably. Is it quality platforming? Yes, it is. Is it stuck in ye olde pattern? Absolutely. Is it tough? Not as tough as the series once was but it’s no cakewalk. Is the new Double Gear system a gimmick? I’m leaning toward more no than yes. So Mega Man 11 did most of what I wanted it to do, minus some uninspired music and voice acting.
Mega Man 11 is a return to the series’ roots in many great ways, proving that Mega Man can still be fun in today’s gaming atmosphere of 100+ hour open world epics, quirky indie throwback titles, and multiplayer battle royales. Its appeal will be admittedly niche, I suspect, with the crowd that is old enough to remember Mega Man and only a small percentage of new players jumping on board. It may be too little too late once again for the Blue Bomber and who knows if Mega Man 11 will leave an impression large enough to deserve a twelfth title, but for now, this old retro gamer is going to revel in the return of the Blue Bomber, whether it’s ultimately triumphant or not. Not once did I suspect at the start of the 2010’s that we were going to be getting a brand new Mega Man game!
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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Categories: Game Review