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Sure, eighth-generation consoles can render massive, intricately detailed 3D worlds filled with human avatars so lifelike that they blush when kissed. But 2D platforming, a genre that started in 1981 with Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and dominated the industry sales charts into the early 1990s, is currently experiencing a second golden age on the high-powered hardware. Games like Celeste, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells and Shift Quantum — to name just a few of the many standouts from this year — demonstrate that game designers haven’t come close to scraping bottom when it comes to innovation, both in gameplay mechanics and graphical wonders.
Into this ongoing platforming renaissance comes Mega Man 11, the first game in the main Mega Man lineage in over a decade, and the first to abandon pixel art (currently in a separate but related renaissance) for cell-shaded graphics. And while there are many good, some great, elements of the new-look Mega Man, and while it’s hard to fault Capcom for largely sticking with a formula that has worked for three decades, given the unprecedented number and variety of amazing platformers competing for my time and currently blister-free thumbs, Mega Man 11, in 2018, just feels a bit … boring?
I mean, the developers did nail the formula. As an ’80s baby whose love-hate relationship with the franchise goes all the way back to the first game, the nostalgia here is overwhelming.
The Robot Master battles feel familiar in the best way. That uniquely Mega Man progression of going from being decimated in under 30 seconds to coming out of the first phase unscathed, rinse repeat for phase two, etc.; the frantic button-mashing while your eyes dart back and forth between the boss and his power bar; the experimenting with subweapons; the agonizing deaths where you might have prevailed if you’d only remembered to pause and use an E tank one second earlier. No complaints here, although it’s worth pointing out that in 11 games there’s been exactly one female Robot Master: Splash Woman in Mega Man 9.
The big new gameplay element here is the Double Gear System, which allows Mega Man to, for a few seconds, either slow down time — thus making it easier to navigate platforms while dodging the ever-present flying, shooting enemies — or power up his Mega Buster and subweapons. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is it feels so completely natural to the franchise, to the point where even now as I type I’m second-guessing myself that it’s really never appeared in a MM game before. It adds a welcome layer of complexity to a series that has long pushed the limits of how intricate and challenging a jump-and-shoot platformer can be.
The big disappointment, and the main reason I don’t see myself revisiting this game all that often, is everything in the levels up until the boss fights. Mega Man stages have always been extremely linear outside of the occasional vertical room with more than one ladder out, but even putting that aside, there just isn’t much going on here.
There are several rooms that contain maybe one or two enemies that would be a cinch even if you couldn’t use the Speed Gear to basically walk right through them. Even the minibosses — with one or two exceptions — don’t present much of a challenge. The disappearing blocks — the sine qua non of Mega Man obstacles — don’t even show up until the first Wily Fortress stage! I mean …
And outside of appearance, there’s not a ton of variety between the stages. There’s a level with wind, a partially underwater stage (where the currents work … just like the wind), some autoscrolling screens, but nothing really unique or innovative.
Mix into all this a few rooms that are extremely challenging, even on the easiest mode. So challenging in fact that they seem like they dropped in from a different series.
It feels weird to accuse a Mega Man game — the franchise that might be responsible for more smashed controllers than any other platformer — of being frustrating. Of course, it’s frustrating — that’s part of its appeal! But this game is frustrating in ways that go beyond the Mega Man team’s historical sadism.
One example that springs immediately to mind is in the Bounce Man stage, where several rooms are navigated by, well, bouncing Mega Man off of rubber floors and walls. In order to execute a high bounce, you have to hit the jump button in a pretty small window — and you have to nail this timing over and over and over to advance through the stage. When considered in the context of one current platforming trend where ultra-technical movement is the norm, the level hardly stands out. But in this game, where no other stage contains a traversal method anywhere near as precise, it feels completely out of place.
Mega Man 11 is a competent and very nice looking entry in a storied franchise that should satisfy anyone looking for a Robot Master fix after a decade of going without. But if you’re waiting for the next great platformer, well …
(this is you still waiting)
Mega Man 11 will be available Tuesday on PlayStation 4, XBox One and Nintendo Switch.
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