The narrative surrounding Mighty No 9 was splashy and bold from the very beginning: the original creator of Mega Man returning to reclaim his former glory and show those such-and-suches at Capcom that they were wrong to dismiss his most iconic creation. As time passed, and delays mounted, it seemed destined to fall victim to impossible expectations. Even setting more reasonable ones, though, I felt let down. When you get past the marketing wizardry that launched one of the earliest examples of a smash-hit crowd-funded success, you're left with a merely so-so throwback.
I'm usually a champion of visual simplicity, but Mighty No 9 serves as the counter-argument. Nintendo excels at designs that look simple but cohesive, with colorful bubbly bits that make their worlds seem welcoming and friendly. This game looks like the artists ran out of time. The environmental textures are sometimes flat and dull, occasionally over-detailed, with no strong identity between them.
The indecisiveness extends to the characters themselves. Beck's design is an overcomplicated twist on the classic Mega Man. His adversaries are sometimes classically well-realized (Brandish), but otherwise appear like someone tried to glue back together a Go-Bot from a bag of mixed parts (Aviator).
I'm also just generally sour on the 2.5D style of Mega Man games, since the character hitboxes never feel quite as pixel-precise as they did in the old days. I know the polygonal style allows for a greater degree of animation with less manpower, but it really doesn't show here. In the handful of cutscenes, characters barely move. Their mouths don't even animate most of the time. It just looks cheap and shoddy.
But with all the clear homage to 8-bit Mega Man, I imagined that's basically how it should be played. Wrong. Playing it like a classic Mega Man game oscillates between frustrating and boring. Stages are sparsely populated, because they're meant to be approached like a speedrun. Beck borrows from the Mega Man X series with a dash ability, but this time the air dash is infinite. That's a large part of this game's identity, because rather than simply shooting enemies until they are dead--which you can do, but it isn't recommended--you're supposed to weaken them and then dash straight toward them to absorb their power.
In effect, this serves as a score multiplier, and has some overtones to the story (such as it is). Designing stages around a speedrun mentality means the player has to run in blindly the first time through. It simply doesn't make sense to insert this many one-hit-kill traps while also communicating to the player that they need to move forward as fast as possible to avoid boredom. It's an absolutely senseless, fundamental flaw with the core idea behind the game.
The X Factor
Mighty No 9 makes a abysmal first impression. It doesn't look very good, it doesn't explain its systems well, and its resemblance to classic Mega Man sends the wrong signal for its playstyle. All of that makes it more of a shame that it also has some genuinely neat ideas and a playstyle that, while not wholly original, is at least some sort of jazzy riff on what we've come to expect from the classic games.
Also, this game seems very aware that in the age of the Internet, treating the rock-paper-scissors element of boss weaknesses as a mystery is pointless. Instead, it telegraphs the boss weaknesses for you by having the previous boss offer advice on the next one in the sequence. Entering a stage when you've defeated the correct key-boss will also have them pop up to help you overcome some stage obstacle--complete with obnoxious voiceover.
That philosophy is applied to the end-stages as well, which are designed like puzzles that test your full suite of powers. Since your boss powers recharge over time, Mighty No 9 can take advantage of it by always assuming you have access to any of them. Mega Man tended to pull back from this idea, making every obstacle at least possible with your default power set. That's not the case here, and it's refreshing.
Speaking of stage design, one stage in particular breaks from the left-to-right mold and is better for it. Countershade, a politically-minded sniper boss, is holed up in a government building. You're sent to find him, and you have to follow the trail of his red-line sniper sight back and forth as he teleports to different spots in the stage. It's not as impressive if you die and have to repeat the same scripted events, but as an experiment in using this medium to try something new, I appreciated it.
Not Yet a Man
Those few points of praise aren't enough to recommend it, however. In its day, Mega Man went from a pioneering force in action game perfection to the poster child for redundant, cookie cutter sequels that failed to push the genre forward. Mighty No 9 does present a few concepts that feel like they could have been the next iterative step. Even if it had avoided its many pitfalls and baffling design choices, though, it's likely a few decades too late for such minor improvements.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by the publisher. Mighty No 9 is available in retail and digital stores now, for $29.99. The game is rated E-10+.