In Ratatouille there’s a scene in which the grumpy old food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of Remy the rat’s titular dish and he recalls a memory of a time when he was small, wide-eyed and innocent. Everything was simpler, everything was fresh, the sun shined a little brighter, and mom was there to cook his favorite food. Anton’s bitter, jaded defenses, built over years of tasting the same bland junk over and over again, crumbled against the might of Remy’s refined technique and mastery over what is called a “peasant dish”, something boring, nothing special. He took what is common and plain, saw what worked, saw what didn’t, remixed it, kept it simple and ended up with something extraordinary, something even an ultragrump could not only appreciate but stack up next to the best dishes of the past.
This is exactly (well, maybe not exaaaactly) the situation Capcom and I are in. After years of tepid sequels and endless spin-offs the chefs at Capcom scanned their vast history, reworked their basic recipe and gave me, er, us the best Mega Man game since Mega Man 2, or Mega Man X. Playing Mega Man 9 flashes me back to those Saturday mornings full of Captain N, Super Mario Cereal and hot chocolate me mum made for me. Fueled by sugar and early morning sunlight – or better: dreary, gray rain! – I waged war against Dr. Wily and his creations for everlasting peace. 18 years later, I’m a little taller and really unshaven, but I’m the same Nintendo-loving kid stuck in arrested development. I rolled out of bed, downloaded MM9 on the Wii and turned the Wii-mote sideways to better resemble a NES pad. The opening title revealed old-school pixel art and 8-bit sound. It was Saturday morning again.
All the nostalgia would be insulting if there wasn’t an actual game to back it up. Mega Man jumps, runs, shoots and climbs beautifully. You can inch his feet pixel by pixel to the edge of a platform to make that perfect jump and the platforming hardly suffers from the slippery movement that afflicted Mega Man Powered Up. It’s almost sexy how taut the controls are. Any error is due to lack of focus on the part of the player or the difficult, creative level design, stuff we never would have seen on the Nintendo back in the day. There are rotating platforms, Portal-like, uh, portals that require momentum to traverse, and weight-sensitive pendulums. Many of those are combined with instant-killing spikes. Familiar environmental hazards like wind and rain return from past Mega Man games, each with their appropriate tactile feedback. Water and wind will impede your movement, making it difficult to hop blocks in mid-air … or above instant-killing spikes. The maligned disappearing blocks make a comeback and true to form, they’re the cruelest of bastards.
Most obstacles, including the eight robot bosses, can be conquered through old-fashioned memorization and tenacity. It’s very much a trial and error game and I’ve racked up hours of playtime just playing through the stages again and again before even seeing the door to the boss room. This. Game. Is. Hard. But it’s not impossible. When you successfully pass a difficult jumping segment or figure out the right weapon to use against an aggravating enemy, the resulting wave of well-earned satisfaction feels like mom’s hot chocolate. Warm, with lots of marshmallows.
Being a fantastic game it also sports fantastic, cute, appealing graphics and character design. Mega Man, his creator Dr. Light, his sister Roll, and adversary Dr. Wily all look as you may remember them. Mega Man is still a blue, helmeted Astro Boy, Dr. Light a scientific Santa Claus, Roll a loli fetishist’s dream and Dr. Wily the evil Albert Einstein. Some of the new robot bosses are variations on previous themes (Magma Man must be Fire Man’s brother and/or Heat Man’s cousin) and some of their weapons even serve the same function as previous games’ (Jewel Man’s Jewel Satellite is Wood Man’s Leaf Shield). Regardless, the weapons seem way more useful than they were in past games (Black Hole Bomb is sex) and the bosses manage to have way more personality as well. I felt pretty bad gunning down Splash Woman, a robot mermaid who sings little 8-bit notes to summon fishies to her aid. Sure, she also fires laser blasts from her trident like the Little Mermaid’s father but isn’t killing a beautiful mermaid bad luck? It felt like offing a colossus, as in Shadow of the … :(
The music is definitely among Mega Man’s best rocking riffs. The tunes from Concrete Man’s, Galaxy Man’s and Magma Man’s stages are destined to be held up as high as Mega Man 2’s soundtrack, atop mountainous caravans carried by robot oxen wearing construction helmets. It’s stirring stuff if you’ve grown up with the Mega Man tunes stuck in your head, and it’s just impressive there are still game music composers out there who can crank out melodies this cool with an 8-bit sound set. Capcom rarely disappoints with its music and sound design (I point at Ace Attorney and Resident Evil for other luscious examples) and Mega Man 9 brings it full circle.
It brings everything full circle! Hopefully Capcom’s example will light a beacon for other developers to notice. Game series struggling for a bright future like Castlevania (a fighting game? really?) and Sonic the Hedgehog (a werewolf? REALLY?) would do extremely well to take a hard look at Mega Man 9, then take an even harder look at their own respective histories. Maybe instead of wasting tons of money and effort and fan trust on poorly-executed 3D debacles they could take what works from their illustrious past and release something inspired for cheap on the Wii’s WiiWare and Xbox Live. Fans clamored for a new classic Mega Man and Capcom answered with an alarmingly awesome game. Wouldn’t it be great if more game companies gave us what we want?
Apparently Racer X-esque secret brother Proto Man is hiding behind an extra 200 Wii Points. Yeah, Capcom’s doling out some of the content as downloadable “extras.” Altogether they bring the asking price up from 1000 to 1600 Wii Points. It’s still much less than than some snazzy hi-def game that’s probably crap anyway but I’m undecided as to whether or not I’ll splurge more on “extra” stuff. I tend to fall on the side of the whiners who want their “extras” as part of the whole damn game to begin with.
Aw hell, who am I kidding. Of course I want to play as Proto Man.