Friday, December 1, 2017

Game Review: Mighty No. 9

As you may have noticed, I've taken a hiatus from the SDP over the past year.  I've kind of been focused on other projects, especially my other blog, the Sekai Ichi Japan travel blog.  But I've finally reached a point where I can put that on hold and return to this.  To herald my long-awaited comeback, I'll start off by reviewing a couple of games that came out just last year.  I've had these reviews in the oven for quite a while longer, but haven't found the inspiration to finish them until now.  Maybe I should have published these reviews when they were still relevant, but putting enough time behind me gives me the benefit of cooling down any passions that may influence my criticism for better or worse.  ...Sure, let's go with that.  Now with no further ado, I present to you...

Mighty No. 9
  • Publisher: Deep Silver 
  • Developer: Comcept / Inti Creates 
  • Release Date: 21 June 2016
  • Systems: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, XBox 360, XBox One, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS
  • Genre: 2D Action (Platformer)
  • Players: 1 
  • Cost: US$20
Yup, almost three years since its debut announcement on Kickstarter, Mighty No. 9, the second coming of Mega Man in-all-but-name is upon us. And seeing as how I wrote an editorial on this game, in addition to funding it when it was on Kickstarter, I feel an obligation to review the finished product. I endorsed said project back then, but in retrospect I'm not sure why. In that very editorial, I even said I had gotten bored of the original Mega Man formula embraced by its spiritual successor. In fact, I'm actually more of a Sonic and Legend of Zelda kind of guy. (Which explains why I took to Mega Man Legends the way I did; it's basically Zelda with guns.) My expectations weren't the highest, but thankfully I managed to stay out of the drama concerning its repeated delays despite the inordinate amount of money thrown at it by its backers ("Beckers", if you will).

Mighty No. 9 is a jump-and-shoot platformer developed by Comcept and Keiji Inafune, the co-creator of Mega Man.  In other words, Mighty No. 9 is a jump-and-shoot platformer developed by Comcept and Keiji Inafune, the co-creator of Mega Man, or at least as close as it can be without the keys to the licence.  In a world where humans and robots live together, a mysterious event causes robots across the country to go haywire, including the Mighty Numbers 1 through 8, created by Dr. Light Dr. White. But some robots were unaffected, like our player character: the titular Mega Man Mighty No. 9, a.k.a. the not-so-titular Rock Beck. And faster than you can say "soy un perdedor", Beck and Dr. White are on the case to, respectively, restore the mad robots and get to the bottom of all this. In case you haven't figured it out now, the plot is exactly like any given Mega Man game, with the names changed around a bit.

Beck needs to dash into enemies to finish them off.
And so is the gameplay: Beck jumps among platforms, shoots enemy robots, and collects special weapons from defeated bosses. But even this formula gets shaken up, ever so slightly, by Beck's new ability: the dash. This move can be used with the press of a button and is unlimited in use, so if nothing else it is deeply incorporated into the game's design. Dashing is used not just for platforming, but also for attacking: shooting enemies enough turns them unstable, at which point you can dash to finish them off, and get a temporary stat buff in the process.  These boosts not all that noticeable however, and something like extra health or ammo would be much more appreciated.

Sometimes, it's not even worth the effort, especially if an enemy you've just stunned is hovering over a bottomless pit or other trap.  Try tp give it the ol' coup-de-grace, and there's a good prospect that you might mis-time your dash back to the starting platform, and fall to your doom.  But the thing is, you're pressured to do this anyway, since dash-killing baddies right after you disable them builds up a combo counter, which leads to extra points, which lead to... nothing in particular.  So much for that, then.  You could say this approach does help the gameplay stand out among the many other Mega Man titles, but when you get right down to it, is it just extra busy work, when we used to be able to just shoot targets into oblivion? Yes, yes it is. But who am I to complain about new mechanics? Lord knows we had enough Mega Man sequels to prove that making so many games without such a unique selling point isn't the way to go either.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Of course, getting through the stages themselves is only half of the battle; the other half is knowing -- I mean, fighting the bosses. Like in Mega Man, Mighty Numbers 1 through 8 yield their weapons when you defeat them, allowing you to exploit the weaknesses of other bosses with them. Once again, this give the player the challenge of figuring out which boss is weak to which weapon... except not, because you can have the game straight-out tell you what their weaknesses are!  But the thing is, every so often, you have to hit them with a dash to finalize the damage you've just dealt, and if you fail that, they heal that chunk of health you worked so hard to chip off! There are even a number of bosses who possess instant-kill attacks!  Speaking of, there is no reason why spikes still need to be an instant kill, as they are in this very game. To quote the Zero Punctuation review of (the admittedly superior) Shovel Knight:
"We've got bottomless pits for a perfectly functional, if slightly ambiguous, instant kill; we don't need spikes muscling in on their turf! Five minutes ago, a bloke the size of a pregnant bus jumped down and hit me with the metal windsurfing sail that he seems to think is a sword, and it didn't even take off a whole health point. Now I'm being splattered across four dimensions because my elbow brushed against the stucco ceiling. I'm a trifle miffed! I think it's only an instant kill because spikes were an instant kill in Mega Man, but it was just as unnecessary then, too."
That may be true of both games, but you know what Shovel Knight has that Mighty No. 9 doesn't? Infinite lives! Let me quiz you readers on this topic:

Q: Where did lives systems in video game come from?
A: From arcade games, to let the next person in line play (and subsequently, pay) as soon as possible.

Q: Why do console games have lives systems?
A: Because they were ported from arcade games.

Q: Ah, but what if the console game in question was not an arcade port? Why would it have a lives system then?
A: ...I got nothing.

Dashing and precision platforming don't mix, especially when insta-kill spikes or bottomless pits are involved.
See, if you must include a lives system in your game, don't make it mandatory; just include it as an option, like Arcade Mode in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. (Incidentally, why haven't they ever brought Arcade Mode back to CoD? Was their Special-Ops mission mode from Modern Warfare 2 just so revolutionary that they couldn't look back?) And sure, losing all your lives just forces you to restart the level in question, not the whole game, plus you can set your lives to as many as 10 right off the bat. But that's just putting patches on the problem instead of addressing the root cause.

But even if the game did offer infinite lives, there's one more problem which grinds my gears. Each time you die, the game docks you a penalty of 3,000 points. And by the game's standards, 3,000 is a lot of points. This matters because you get grades for your performance upon completing a level. And if you get killed enough that your score ends up at 0, all you get is a meager finishing bonus and a D rank. I guess the idea is that you get better at the stage so you can do it without dying even once, but getting that D the first time around does not leave a good impression of the game, and could very well discourage players from trying them again.

Let's change the subject to something which doesn't cause frustration. In comparison to the old Mega Man games, which couldn't afford a detailed story due to space constraints, Mighty No. 9 does a great job in building up its setting.  The boss characters all have some sort of utility purpose they could have been used for before turning evil, a concept which hasn't been explored since Mega Man 1.  The levels all take place within appropriately-themed industrial sites throughout the USA, plus a level set in the White House, of all places.  Then again, this same level has you chasing down a sniper in a long, looping corridor without checkpoints -- but with more insta-kill spikes, of course -- so they might as well not have bothered.

The limited character animations make most cutscenes feel unfinished.
World-building is one thing, but the graphics which bring that world to life fail to impress.  Sure, a game like this doesn't need too many visual gimmicks to work, but it's still well behind the times. On the one hand, animations like Beck's walk cycle are expressive and bouncy. On the other hand, the animation in cutscenes is considerably more limited, as characters don't move their mouths when they talk! Like, at all!  Even Mega Man Legends, a game that came out two decades ago, animated the character's mouths, and that was just with 2-D textures!  And yet despite it all, the game is somehow a bit poorly-optimised.  Maybe it's just on the PlayStation 3 version I played, but there are quite a few instances of slowdown and frame-skipping.  One such instance even made me miss a ledge and fall to the death!  It's these sort of thing which gives the impression of a game that's only half-baked, and make us wonder where the heck all that money we backed it with went.

In conclusion, Mighty No. 9 is basically this generation's Daikatana, for there are many coincidental similarities between the two games.  Both were developed by brand-new studios started by game designers with quite a bit of pedigree behind them.  Both were announced three years ahead of their eventual release, during which time their developments were plagued with accusations of mis-management amidst vast budgets, not to mention some insulting advertisements.  And when the actual games came out, their almost-admirable attempts at world-building were overshadowed by game mechanics which work against the player, graphics which seemed a whole generation behind the times, and were general disappointments at best.  Not to mention, they are both tangentially related to actually good games by developers who had their heads screwed on tighter.  For Daikatana, it was Deus Ex, by the "good" half of Ion Storm.  And for Mighty No. 9, that would be Azure Striker Gunvolt by Inti Creates, who coincidentally also did work on this game.  Perhaps I should review Gunvolt myself one day, but in the meantime, I think I've got the perfect tagline to describe this whole affair: "Keiji Inafune is about to make you his b!tch."

Suck it down, ladies and gentlemen.  But until next time, this is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

+ Promising world-building.
+ The bonus challenge missions.
+ Expressive characters and animations.

- The dash-to-kill mechanic is an unnecessary addition forced upon us.
- Relentlessly difficult, even without the lives system.
- Extremely basic graphics and sub-par optimisation.

Control: 3 spikes out of 5
Design: 1 spikes out of 5
Audiovisual: 2 spikes out of 5
Value: 3 spikes out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

You might like instead: Azure Striker Gunvolt, Shovel Knight, Strider

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