Mega Man 9 is my favorite Mega Man game along with Mega Man X. This is probably due to the fact that I've recently beat these two Mega Man games since developing my critical-eye. Regardless, there's a lot to be said for Mega Man 9, a game which just barely qualifies for the retro-evolved genre. The game looks old school and plays just like Mega Man did when I was a kid gathered around TV with all the neighborhood kids trying to come up with a strategy to defeat Gemini Man. Because MM9 is practically an NES, so much of the experience should already be quite familiar to us. For this reason, I only want to touch on a few points in bullet point essay style.
Many claim that Mega Man 9 is a very difficult game. I do not think it is for many reasons. Starting with a base made up of the default weapon, the M Buster, and a few lives, the difficulty in beating the game can be adjusted to a very fine degree. Players always have the option of...
- collecting lives before going into more difficult stages
- collecting energy tanks to refill one's health instantly
- using powers to more easily overcome enemies and tricky platforming sections
- using the powers that each boss is weak to
- spending bolts to buy additional lives, energy tanks, M tanks, and other power ups including Beat, Spike Shoes, and the 1/2 damage power up.
- farming enemy respawn points to refill health and weapon energy
Also, the more you play, die, and continue, the more bolts you'll accumulate. With more bolts, the player has more buying power to adjust the difficulty of their experience.
The levels in Mega Man 9 are masterfully crafted. They have the perfect balance of difficulty, enemies, length, original elements, simplicity, and organic unity.
- Each level is very linear and constructed like a sentence with a beginning, middle (mini boss), and end (boss). Each level/sentence represents a simple game idea. Look at Splash Woman's stage for example. The simple game idea is going down into the depths and come back out the other side. The traveling path makes a "u" shape.
- To keep things moving forward there are few scrolling sections to each level. Also, the player is prevented from backtracking horizontally. Once you enter a section, there's nothing else to do but keep pressing forward
- Enemies are generally fixed in specific locations within a level and have strict spawn design. Move just slightly off the screen, and a enemy you just destroyed will be waiting to take you on again. Many enemies function as a path blocker instead of chasing the player down. Having to shoot down such obstacles keeps the game focused on shooting instead of running/dodging. This design decision keeps the experience controlled, and uniform across play sessions.
- The organic level design and organic art direction harmonize perfectly in MM9. In Splash Woman's stage (see above) everything is designed and arranged to communicate a functioning water treatment plant. The water in the beginning starts to flow downward, and water mines and octopus robots provide primary security protection (1-3). As the water descends, the spikes filter out unwanted content (5-8). The water the runs through pipe filters that generate air bubbles as waste. This air is expelled through holes in the pipe work (9-12). Next players hit a pocket of air in a pressurized zone where pipe runners run maintenance and security (12-16). Traveling up you encounter a computerized system mixing and filtering sections of water via sliding disks (14-16). And then you're practically at the boss, Splash Woman, who will battle in nothing less than the purest, most highly filtered water technology can provide. Sure it's a little imaginative, but the forms are all there.
- By following through with this organic theme, the placements of the platforms and other level elements were guided. Like in Super Mario Brothers, bricks aren't placed willy nilly just so that Mario has things to break and platforms to jump on. The bricks in Mario are arranged to reflect functional structures; towers, bridges, stalagmites, etc. By following such organic guidelines, MM9 levels are as efficient, clean, and functionally focused as can be.
- Aside from unique enemies, like in Super Mario Bros. 3/Super Mario Galaxy, new level elements are added to the MM9 levels as needed to further develop and define the governing game ideas for each stage. In Splash Woman's stage, the platformable water bubbles (9-12) and the disappearing water sliding sections (14-16) are specific to this stage and add unique gameplay to the level.
Fleshing out a quality game after starting with a limited core design is a skill that Capcom uses very well. By adding a balance of abstract mechanics, extra modes, and unique level/enemy elements, Capcom is able to develop rich game ideas instead of flopping in undynamic, static redundancy.
To understand how the core design of Mega Man 9 is limited, we need to first look at the core mechanics and compare them against Mario and even other versions of Mega Man.
- No RUN mechanic. Megaman moves at the same instant and constant speed whether he's on the ground or in the air. Because there is no accelerative motion forward, it's not jarring to the player that Mega Man doesn't skid to a stop. It's not unusual that Mega Man can instantly reverse his direction in mid air either. Where Mario uses the RUN mechanic to create momentum (physics wise and game design wise) and increase difficulty by reducing the reaction time window for the player, Mega Man marches on in a relatively simple fashion.
- Mario must get a running start to achieve his maximum jump height and distance. Mega Man doesn't, which makes difficult jumps within a level less dependent on adequate running room. For this reason, Mega Man can create difficult platforming challenges in a very small space.
- Mega Man can only shoot straight. To aim, he must JUMP and SHOOT. Because the JUMP mechanic is highly direct in degrees of vertical height, players have the ability to accurately SHOOT at just about anything within jumping range. Fortunately, pullets travel through walls. These properties create interesting aiming situations that mix anticipation, aiming through levels, and platforming in unique ways.
- The core mechanics (MOVE, SHOOT, JUMP) aren't very dynamic. You can't jump on enemies. Enemies generally aren't stunned after being shot. Also, the momentum from leading one's shots is diminished somewhat when it relies on memorization or luck.
- Unlike other 8-bit and 16-bit Mega Man iterations, MM9 Mega Man can't CHARGE, DASH, WALL KICK, SLIDE, or WALL SLIDE. The acceleration when SLIDING gives players the ability to dodge low flying attacks at the risk of falling off of platforms or running into enemies. As we know, the CHARGE mechanic does all kinds of wonders for gameplay. The WALL SLIDE/KICK mechanics give a lot of vertical definition to Mega Man's movement possibilities. Combining the DASH with the WALL KICK, gives players the ability to leap far off from walls. With these mechanics, enemies, bosses, and platforming sections have more versatility to mix things up. The DASH mechanic when combined with the JUMP mechanic, gives Mega Man the ability to quickly move about any environement. Like Mario's RUN mechanic, moving more quickly also comes with risks. Without these things, MM9 is clearly more limited in the enemy and platforming challenges it can put players through.
Ultimately, Mega Man must be able to defeat the vast majority of challenges with MOVE, JUMP, and SHOOT. After all, these mechanics make up the core/base of the game and are inexhaustible. When a game isn't very dynamic (mechanic dynamics, interplay, counterpoint), instead of emerging as a vehicle of expression, such games usually move in the opposite direction toward optimization. While this is true for MM9, the design of Mega Man's (mostly) optional acquired powers give the player a vehicle of expression while dynamically changing the paths and strategies available to the player. It is these powers that give MM9 design layers, dynamics, variation, and depth.
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The limitations of Mega Man's moving and shooting abilities are apparent. But with every boss Mega Man defeats, he gains the use of one of their abilities. Each ability enhances some combination of Mega Man's moving, shooting, and defensive abilities filling up a unique design space. Starting at the top middle (12 o'clock) and going clockwise...
- Plug Ball: Travels quickly along the ground, walls, and ceilings. In the air, this attack shoots straight down, which is unlike any other Mega Man attack.
- Magma Bazooka: Shoots a triple spread attack. The fastest of two projectile attacks that can travel diagonally up or down. This attack can also be charged.
- Hornet Chaser: Up to three can be fired at a time. They will slowly chase down any enemy on screen flying through walls to get to them. These hornets also have the ability to retrieve items from the field and bring them back to Mega Man.
- Concrete Shot: A fast projectile that quickly arcs downward making it difficult to aim. This projectile also stops against walls, ceilings, and enemies. Once it hits something, it solidifies into a brick of concrete that players can use as a temporary platform.
- Black Hole Bomb: A two stage attack that sends out a slow moving target and then activates forming a black hole that draws in enemy fire and enemies. Setting up this attack requires a little patience, knowledge of the level, and timing.
- Laser Trident: This attack fires and travels very quickly in a straight line, and has the ability to cut through enemy defenses because nothing stops it. There are also special obstacles that can only be destroyed with the Laser Trident.
- Jewel Satellite: Activating this power creates a shield of jewels that circle the player that reflect basic enemy attacks. These jewels can also completely eliminate weak enemies upon contact infinitely without any additional energy consumption. A collision with a stronger enemy will cancel the jewels. The ring of jewels can be launched as a projectile.
- Tornado Blow: This handy attack sweeps all enemies and their attacks up and off the screen forever. The wind that sweeps away the enemies also floats Mega Man upward extending the height of his jump.
- Rush Coil & Rush Jet (not depicted): These two abilities give Mega Man a super jump and the ability to fly a jet around for a limited time. Rush, the dog, can safely stand on spikes allowing players to access some areas safely. When Rush Jet collides with a platform or wall, he disappears leaving Mega Man behind to deal with situation.
The decay goes a bit further. When players die and respawn, the energy/ammo they consumed on the previous life doesn't reset. In this way, dying and poor playing isn't completely remedied by having lots of lives. If you use all of a power trying to defeat a boss and fail to finish him/her off, then when you go back to fight that boss, you'll have to battle without that power. This is most apparent in the final assault on Dr. Willy's fortress. Players have to fight through 4 large levels and 11 bosses before getting a chance to fight against Willy's 3 stages. If you mismanage your power at any point in this gauntlet, you'll have a hard time replenishing your supplies.
The way these powers are designed, it's no wonder that enemies drop refilling power pellets less often than energy pellets or screws. It's also no wonder that the shop only lets you by one M Tank which refills all of Mega Man's power supply and health.
The design in Mega Man 9 is so clean and apparent that we all can learn something about game design from it. The game is simple. The controls are tight. And the player can make it as hard as he/she wants. The first play through is long and filled with learning and the kind of refinement that requires a determined will and self discipline. Then each subsequent play through gets easier and easier. With convenient speed running options Mega Man 9 is more concentrated on its best qualities than the other 8-bit brethren.
"With these powers....I have the power... to do it better....to do it faster." ~me
Approaching a repair of Mega Man 9 is tricky. After all, the game was intentionally design to reflect the design of the Mega Man games from the NES era. Most of the suggestions I could make for the game would invariably counter its original aim and goals. As with any repair, upholding the spirit of the game is key. It is not the job of the repair man to make a new game, but make the game that already exists better, cleaner, and communicate its ideas more clearly.
With that said, these are just a few ideas that I have for Mega Man 9. Some are repairs. And though some are changes, I think they're interesting enough to post.
- The ammo bars for Mega Man's powers should be quantified for the powers that consume lots of "pixels"/ pellets with a single use. Tornado Blow and Jewel Satellite are two examples of powers that take a chunk out of their ammo/power bar. Because of the way the power bar is divided into pellets, it's difficult to gauge how many more uses of a power are left. This is a simple fix to help player count their bullets so to speak.
- Like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Mega Man 9 should contain a puzzle mode or challenges that are short levels focusing on the unique properties, nuances, and intricacies of Mega Man's powers.
- Though the random drops from destroyed enemies has been in the Mega Man series since the beginning, considering the possibilities of taking this design element out of the game can lead to some refreshing design alternatives.
- To balance not getting health drops from enemies, it would be interesting if Mega Man could get small health bonuses by destroying enemies with the M Buster at close range. When gunplay is at the core of a game, I always like design elements that define the space between a gun and the target in interesting ways.
- To refill the ammo for powers, it would be interesting if Mega Man could interact with specific enemies and/or the environment. How about standing under a rushing waterfall to refill Splash Woman's power? Switch to Magma Man's power and draw in energy from lava pools or flame attacks. Having more unique interaction with the level would give players more reasons to travel back to old levels while preserving the conservation design of the powers that already exists in Mega Man 9.