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Editorial

Polishing Tired Old Mechanics for New “Retro” Games

As you can tell from reading my Mighty No. 9 review here, I was quite fond of the game. I don’t think it’s going to set the world on fire, nor do I think Beck will have the same, lasting effect on gaming that Rock did, though I also don’t think gaming is in the same place now as it was when Mega Man first released, and if the Blue Bomber hit the shelves today, I don’t think it would be nearly as beloved as it was. I just don’t think modern gamers are as willing to accept the game that Mega Man was without the heavily rose-tinted goggles we always wear for our favorite old franchises.

Was Mighty No. 9 a perfect game? No. Was it a worthy successor to Rock, Roll, Dr. Light, Dr. Wily that carried over, for good and for ill, the legacy from the old series into the modern age as well as we could have expected? In my opinion, yes.

But I’m not here to defend my praise for the game–not that I should need to. In fact, it’s the “for ill” part that I want to touch on briefly. Because as good as I feel Mighty No. 9 really is, I think there was another game that came out recently that probably carries on the legacy of Mega Man better than Inafune’s latest brainchild: Shovel Knight.

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The comparison between the two games is obvious, but I didn’t mention Shovel Knight in my review of Mighty No. 9 largely because I have yet to actually play the darn thing. As much as I want to sink my teeth into it, I just don’t have the time to give it the time it deserves, or the disposable income to add it to my ever-growing Steam backlog. But I have seen it in action and I like what I see. It’s a spiritual successor to Mega Man in the best possible way, carrying over the spirit of the old Blue Bomber while adding an aesthetic and story of its own. That’s why I hesitate to call Mighty No. 9 a spiritual successor at all. It’s basically the same game. And that’s what was promised and that’s what we asked for.

But while Mighty No. 9 blindly translated a lot of conventions of yesteryear–both good and bad–Shovel Knight went smarter, by shedding parts of the formula that don’t translate as favorably onto the modern stage. What I’m talking about here, specifically, is the steep difficulty curve without any sort of mitigation.

As I mentioned in my review, Mighty No. 9 carries over the archaic and, frankly, outdated idea of “Lives” into the modern age of gaming. Plenty of games have done this–some better than others–but Mighty No. 9 does it in a particularly galling way. Inafune updated a lot of the game for modern times, from the graphics to the sound design to the level design and even some of the mechanics, but with those updates, he failed to realize that the lives system simply has no place in our modern games, not even nostalgia-bait “retro” titles.

I know you’ve all heard the story before: Back in the olden times, games had to do everything they could to artificially-lengthen the replayability of their games. Many designers came from arcade design where it was common practice to try and bilk as many quarters out of the poor sods playing their games as possible. It took many, many years, but I think gaming outgrew this disappointing practice, even though some of the games that came out of this era are the most timeless and beloved of all time (though I’d argue that’s the rose-colored glasses talking again). Unfortunately, many “retro” games, of which Mighty No. 9 most certainly is, hold onto this relic of gaming history for “authenticity’s sake.”

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The lives system simply doesn’t jibe with our modern sensibilities. The idea that I have to replay a section of a game three or four or five or fifty times just to get back to the part that was giving me trouble is frustrating in the extreme, particularly in a game like Mighty No. 9 where some of the platforming sections (particularly those with insta-death spikes) seem almost pixel perfect. I spent several hours on the last boss alone. I had the mechanics down, I had a great tactic for dealing with it, I could deal with every single attack pattern in isolation…but of course you don’t deal with challenges in isolation, and not only was I asked to be nearly flawless in my execution, but of course the damn boss had two forms. So I essentially had to beat two bosses in a row without any recovery in between (unless my handy helper bought saw fit to give me a AcXel Recover before going into the fight, which was always random) or be doomed to play a fairly lengthy and difficult level over and over again.

Games like Mighty No. 9 thrive on practice and repetition, but if I can’t practice a section more than three times before having to play the entire stage again, it’s no longer “difficult” in a sense that is praise-worthy. It’s tedious and any difficulty this design gives the game is artificial at best.

As I said in my review, this was never a deal-breaker for me personally, but I’ve seen a few people complain about it and I definitely have sympathy for their plight, particularly because there are so many ways this could have been done better. Shovel Knight, as I mentioned before, realized that, even as a spiritual successor to Mega Man, it needed to update this mechanic, and opted to implement a Souls-esque mechanic wherein you lose your loot and must make it to the section again to recover it. If you fail and die again, you’re substantially worse off…but you don’t have to replay entire stages over and over and over and over and over again. But at the same time, you do have an incentive to be careful in a way that you might not if death carried no bite.

In Mighty No. 9‘s case, the issue is made even more painful by the fact that there are no longer random health, energy and, yes, 1-up drops from enemies. While extra lives were rare in the old Mega Man games, they felt like they really made a difference. But in Beck’s opening number, you can only get one or two in a stage from certain hidden away areas (that are the same every time), which don’t really matter when you keep dying on the same part four or five times.

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In my opinion, Inafune couldn’t have really added traditional enemy drops into the game–not in the way we know them from the olden days. They were removed, I suspect, to keep things moving forward. In the old Mega Man games, the Blue Bomber could farm health, energy, and, tangentially, extra lives whenever he needed to. But Mighty No. 9 is a much faster-paced game. It’s a lot like a Sonic the Hedgehog game in many ways (a comparison I wanted to make in my review, but I couldn’t quite articulate it right…I’ll leave it to someone smarter than I to do so). Forcing the player to turn around and nab up something that an enemy dropped breaks the flow and, in a game that’s free-flowing and forward-moving like Mighty No. 9, this is jarring and unwelcome.

However, there’s no reason absorbing the enemies’ Xel couldn’t have served the same purpose. Maybe instead of dropping an actual powerup that you have to turn around and grab, maybe the act of absorbing the enemy provides the powerup. The powerups that exist in the game feel very underwhelming and barely last long enough to be useful. It would have been nicer, and probably not all that detrimental to the game’s intended difficulty curve, to add random health boosts on perfect absorptions. Since the points that come from those absorptions have no real gameplay weight, they felt unnecessary as it was. This could have been a nice little incentive to accurate and speedy play.

In the case of Mighty No. 9, I’d even argue that simply having infinite lives–or an option to toggle on an “easy mode” for those of us who don’t like to bash our heads against a concrete wall–would have been wise. Sure, it’s not exactly authentic to the “classic” feel of the Mega Man games, but many of those games were controller-hurlingly difficult and, let’s be honest, none of us want to repeat the goddamn end-game boss rush from the original Mega Man.

Again, I must say that I’m by no means backpedaling on my opinion of the game. Mighty No. 9 is a worthy successor to the Blue Bomber’s legacy with a few glaring flaws–many of which existed and are simply carried over from the Mega Man games with no thought as to how to mitigate them for a modern time or for the mechanics that have been changed/added–that by no means ruin the experience. However, if Inafune gets the chance to make a sequel, he would do well to take a few more steps forward, discarding some of the unnecessary baggage from the past that we’ve all outgrown, rather than sticking to it on ceremony alone. I think, in time, Beck will come into his own, at which point the series can move beyond simply being a modern rehashing of a 30 year-old game. But Inafune’s team can’t be afraid to leave the past in the past as far as mechanics that don’t belong in the present…and we’re going to have to accept that some of the favorite parts of our childhood are best left in the past, no matter how much we loved them back then. The problem going forward is going to be parsing those things that need to be left behind while keeping the spirit and the heart of the nostalgia-bait that we love.

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