There were many game demos on the floor at San Diego Comic-Con, but few that I was more excited or more apprehensive about than Mighty No. 9. As a true blue Mega Man fan, as well as an early backer on Kickstarter with a decent chunk of change pledged toward the game’s future, I desperately wanted this game to live up to my expectations. In fact, I was almost afraid to pick up the controller. What if Keiji Inafune had lost a step? What if Mighty No. 9 wasn’t a return to form after all, but a vanity project from a developer past his prime? What if this proved to be the final nail in Mega Man’s coffin? Such was my emotional investment in Mighty No. 9, far greater than the monetary investment I’d contributed, and I began to panic as I realized how much I cared about this supposed return to the gaming bliss of my childhood, and the fragility of that promise scared me. Not enough to turn me away, but it did give me a moment’s pause.
Well, it turns out Mighty No. 9 isn’t a return to form after all. It’s something better: an evolution of the form, wherein a fresh and addicting and utterly captivating experience has been built atop a sturdy, familiar foundation. Mega Man fans will initially feel right at home with the controls of Mighty No. 9, but as one of the booth attendants explained to me, if you’re playing it like a Mega Man game, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, you can jump and shoot and dash and it all operates quite like a combination of Classic and X gameplay, but there’s one core mechanic that changes everything.
The ability to dash into weakened enemies to absorb them and grant bonuses is absolutely essential, and in order to receive bonuses like shot penetration and speed boosts, players must dash into enemies as soon as they are weakened for a 100% absorption rate. This means, when you are playing the game correctly, Mighty No. 9 is fast. It’s shockingly fast. Watching the attendant play through a level after I’d fumbled around and died a lot, I realized that Mighty No. 9 is a kinetic work of art. Timing the exact number of shots just as you dash into an enemy is a sweet science, and with unlimited dashing on the ground or in the air, a great player can turn Beck into a tidal wave of destruction, sweeping through levels and absorbing every enemy in his path.
That might make the game sound easy, but it’s quite the opposite. I played both demo levels, the ice stage and the military base, and even after multiple attempts, I failed to reach either boss. The level design is absolutely diabolical, using Beck’s incredible dashing abilities against him by placing enemies in front of instant death traps and luring unsuspecting players to their doom. Enemies fire rapidly, and their bullets still affect you when dashing, so you have to be constantly aware of what you’re dashing into. The attendant showed me a dash slide that can be used to evade incoming fire, but this requires careful timing to pull off.
Dash absorption makes its way into boss fights as well, because boss health has to be taken down in chunks and then absorbed, or else their bars will refill. This forces players to stick close to bosses and, as you can imagine, that presents all kinds of problems. None of the deaths that I experienced or witnessed during the demo were cheap or unearned, though. It’s a brilliant kind of game design that makes players curse their own mistakes, rather than the game itself. This is why the attendant compared Mighty No. 9 to Dark Souls, with a difficulty level relative to Mega Man 2. I’ve beaten almost every Mega Man game from the Classic, X, and Zero series, so it came as a shock to fail so many times during the demo, but that just made me want to try again and again. Like I said, addicting.
There’s a scoring system in place for the truly hardcore, with scores based on absorption rates, damage taken, and secrets discovered. These secretes take the form of point-based achievements that players can complete during levels, and the attendant told me that the highest ranks are impossible to get without finding every secret achievement in the level. This feature is sure to fuel the game’s compulsory playability among more competitive gamers.
The only criticism I took away from the demo is the voice acting. Later Mega Man games have been notorious for bad voice acting, but this is next-level cringeworthy stuff. It doesn’t help that Beck yells the same phrases almost constantly during gameplay. I can only hope that voice tracks are separate and can be muted in the options, because it would be a shame to mute the SFX and Manami Matsume’s soundtrack just because of this late addition to the game. Yes, it is that bad. Bad enough that removing the headphones while playing actually improved my experience. Hopefully this is a non-issue when the game releases with individual audio controls, but as I said, my emotional investment in this game is so great that I can’t help but worry. The character models and animations also left quite a bit to be desired, but the game is so fast and frenetic that the visuals don’t have much bearing on the gameplay, so this shouldn’t be a problem for the kinds of players that Comcept is catering to.
I am most certainly one of those players. This demo has erased my fears, and replaced them with hope and a hunger for more. I’m already jonesing to play again, and these last few months are certain to creep by. I quite literally can’t wait for September 15th, and if you didn’t make it down to Comic-Con to try the game for yourself, then rest assured: Keiji Inafune hasn’t lost a step, and the future of 2D action platforming is in good hands.