Mighty No. 9 Review (PlayStation 4)
I own and have beaten every numbered Mega Man game, most of the X series, and own entries from nearly every off-shoot, from Battle Network to Legends to the Power Fights. I have four different figures of Mega Man characters on my desk encouraging me as I type, and Super Smash Bros Mega Man as the wallpaper on my phone. I've loved these characters and their games and have known what makes them fun and enduring since I was old enough to hold a controller. When Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune launched a Kickstarter to create a spiritual successor to his beloved (but corporately-owned) character, I was beyond ecstatic. Now, after several years, delays, and missteps, the Kickstarter-funded Mighty No. 9 is here, and believe me when I say that the supposed spiritual successor to Mega Man is a Mega Bust.
Mighty No. 9's basic story comes ripped right from the playbook of Dr. Wily. Robots are running amok, and only the special blue robot with the arm cannon that shoots lemon pellet-esque energy blasts can save them! There are eight Mighty Numbers to defeat, and each one grants you a special power that a different boss is weak against. Accompanying Beck are his creator, the wise Dr. White, the regressively subservient girl 'bot Call, and that stupid fat robot guy, Dr. Sanda.
As Beck you'll run and gun down small enemies, dodge hazards, and use his Dash mechanic— one of the few elements which differentiates him from the Blue Bomber. When enemies are weakened, Beck can dash through them as a finisher, gaining temporary power-ups and extra points for a point-scoring mechanic that hardly anyone cares about. The dash, supposedly a major selling point for this game, is terribly designed for a number of reasons. Dashing through enemies isn't fun because the visual indicator which tells you they're vulnerable is often unclear. Especially when there are multiple enemies clumped together, you'll often take damage. The dash itself is a stumpy little move that never quite feels fast enough, goes far enough, or has enough control. It aspires to be like Mega Man X's dash, but that move brought with it a brilliant sense of control and acceleration, making it a joy to zip around enemies. This is slow, short, and wrecks the flow of movement.
Speaking of flow, the levels themselves are completely lacking in that department; the layouts are poor, rarely allowing you to sink into a nice runnin', gunnin' groove. The hazards feel haphazard, strewn about in a way that feels random and guileless. A good game will present players with a challenge, then modify the rules of further similar challenges based on the original. Mighty No. 9 seems to confuse unfairness and time-wasting with smart gameplay, pitting you against enemy gauntlets to pad out gameplay while creating terribly unfun levels. For example, the Countershade stage, which has players running in a circle while trying to damage the boss enough to get him to fight you. Should you die, no matter how much progress you've made, you're back at the very beginning, ensuring that you'll be playing through the same handful of screens over and over.
The stages are also a visual mess. The cheesy graphics often obscure which elements you're supposed to be paying attention to --- is that pillar falling in the background something dangerous, or just window dressing? It was so foggy-looking I didn't even notice it. The experience is further marred by poor visual choices such as nearly opaque muddy waters or an ice level where things are so similarly-colored it's nearly impossible to make out Beck against them.
The Mighty Numbers aspire to be challenges like the Robot Masters and Mavericks of old, but those bosses had patterns that were simple or predictable (once you knew what to look for). The Mighty Numbers generally do a terrible job of letting the player know what kind of attack is coming, and the result is a slew of boss fights that feel mostly random. A good boss fight will use strong audio/visual cues to give the player a chance to react; the Mighty Numbers frequently just attack at random and call it a challenge. Some do adhere to better patterns, but even those potentially fun fights are ruined by the dash mechanic. After you've managed to do enough damage to a boss, you'll have to dash into them to slice off the damage you've done. Due to the vague hitboxes on everything in the game, you'll often get hurt while dashing at the vulnerable boss. f they become vulnerable to the dash during a point where they're unreachable/otherwise invulnerable, they'll regenerate the damage you've done, punishing you for having the audacity for doing damage at the wrong time.
Changing powers feels clumsy and is handled more poorly than it was on the Mega Man Anniversary Collection (which was released nearly a decade ago). The graphics are atrociously bad, looking like an Xbox Live Arcade title that could have launched with the Xbox 360. The sound design is awful; the all-too frequent and all-too cheesy voice acting often sounds blown out, as if the audio clips weren't balanced properly. The voices and sound effects are far too loud at default, completely drowning out the nearly-muted soundtrack. Hitboxes across the board are far too generous in favor of the game. Lethal hazards will often kill you despite the fact that Beck's character model was only touching the air next to the hazards. If there's something that could have been polished, odds are it wasn't.
On the plus side, the character designs are mostly likeable and cute, and the DLC character Ray is generally more fun to play than Beck. Ray's health depletes constantly and gets replenished by dashing through enemies, making the base dash mechanic much more engaging and rewarding. Unfortunately, her depleting health is marred by a constant heartbeat sound effect, which gets old about three beats in. Also, since the rampaging Mighty Numbers aren't inherently bad, merely corrupted by some kind of malicious coding, it's nice that Beck purifies their programming and brings them back to normal. Having your friends-turned-foes-turned-friends again show up in some levels to help you is very satisfying and adds a nice slice of character (while also making the levels easier).
Throughout this review I've drawn constant comparison between Mighty No. 9 and Mega Man, and that's because Mighty No. 9 invites that comparison across every dimension. It looks kind of like Mega Man, it plays kind of like Mega Man, and it's supposed to be Mega Man, but it's not. Mighty No. 9 banks on the nostalgic goodwill created by its forebearer, a franchise which had decades to refine its formula and take it in new directions. This game relishes in the past instead of having learned from the games of the past, keeping the old-school tough-as-nails gameplay while building something newer. Mighty No. 9 plays like a fan game; something made with a lot of heart, but very little wisdom behind it. If Keiji Inafune wants Mighty No. 9 to become as beloved as his blue-and-cyan predecessor, he and his team would do well to think deeply about modern updates to his classic formula to figure out what it is that makes them work so well. As is, Mighty No. 9 is a mighty, mighty failure.
This review was completed based on a digital copy of Mighty No. 9 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.