After ten installments in the main franchise along with an extra stop on the SNES to include a fan favorite character, multiple portable iterations, an enhanced remake on a satellite service as well as one on a poor selling hand-held, eight installments of a darker and edgier yet similar series along with a remake of the first and a few handheld titles, four sequels to that series, and yet another two sequels that series, you’d think that Capcom would have the Mega Man series down to a science by now. What elements in a Mega Man game are, in short, the Mega Man-est. Not to mention the end results of the various experiments.
Capcom determined this back in 2008 when they released Mega Man 9 on then-current consoles. After years of bloat and experimentation, they returned Mega Man back to his basic elements: jump, shoot, collect and use Robot Master weapons, and have an occasional extra item or two. 9 is arguably in consideration for best game in the classic Mega Man series of games. It returned to basic functions and was designed tightly around that.
Mega Man 10 was a departure from that, somehow. It exists as proof that it’s more than just what the character does that makes a good game. It also requires consideration of actual design elements of the game. In a game in which a character runs around with an energy meter, suggesting that enemy damage is supposed to be the main threat, the leading cause of death shouldn’t be stage hazards that instantly lead to death. They can add to the peril, but they cannot consistently be the obstacle in the way to death. This game sold fewer units than its immediate predecessor, and Capcom put Mega Man on the shelf for a while.
2018 saw the release of Mega Man 11. The game clearly aims to be bigger and better than 10. Returning to the series are Mega Man’s charge shot and slide. In addition, the experimental gimmick in the game is the Double Gear system – means by which the player can temporarily increase damage caused by Mega Man or slow down time for greater precision. It sounds interesting, but I already showed my hand when I used the word gimmick. That word is never a compliment.
Excess tends to allow game designers to hide imperfections and imprecision. It can be a distraction. The early console Grand Theft Auto titles were lauded for their open worlds, but the focus was always on what you could do in the game rather than what you were supposed to be doing. Because the controls were not great, the story uninteresting, and tasks were either boring and needlessly frustrating. But who cares when you can kick someone out of an ambulance and go around picking up and delivering the injured or steal a cop car and become a vigilante?
There are three elements of design excess in Mega Man 11: the Double Gear, the currency drops, and the level design.
The Double Gear system is the one staring players in the face. At first it seems clever. It offers new challenges by forcing players to slow down the action to be more precise in their jumping and dodging. But that was never lacking before. Mega Man games have always been about precise jumping and dodging. The Speed Gear offering just requires players to press an extra button to get something they had before. Then there’s the Power Gear which, honestly, is the lesser function of the system. It’s biggest addition is the powering up of the special weapons, which is something present in all eight of the Mega Man X games via the same method that Mega Man charges his arm cannon – just hold the button. This requires an extra button to get that. Extra button presses, extra buttons, and all for very little reward.
On the standard difficulty level, this game is challenging to get through. It suggests to me that the wrong lessons were learned from Mega Man 10. There are plenty of unfair hazards in the game. One common one I noticed was requiring players to make jumps that, after scrolling the screen in that direction, would reveal a precariously placed enemy who would whack the player into an instant death hazard. But not to worry. Ever since the GameBoy entries in the series (which were difficult due to the device itself) there has been a shop system in the game. Here players can buy a variety of items, from 1-ups to spike and pit protection to honest-to-goodness upgrades that makes sense to exist by default. (There are two upgrades for collecting weapons energy: one that automatically shifts collected energy to the weapon with the least and one that applies collected energy to all weapons.) In previous installments, collecting screws, the currency of these games, was no easy task. They would either be limited or rarely dropped. They came way too easily in this game, and it seems to be by design. The game expects players to lean on the shop. Because the game has poor stage design.
Speaking of stage design, the stages are much longer than Mega Man stages of days past. Now none of us are measuring stages screen-by-screen and comparing them to what Mega Man fans have meticulously captured from past games, but they are longer and unquestionably feel longer. There’s a certain stage length that the better Mega Man games have hit that, partially due to design, take players into a flow state in which the length of time it takes does not seem noticeable. The length of these stages requires additional checkpoint sections that break up and slow down the action, making a flow state less likely.
What is funny is that despite the excess, the game has fewer actual stages to go through than many other Mega Man games. It lacks an intro stage, any form of interim stages prior to reaching Wily’s (the villain of Mega Man’s forever war’s) fortress, and even a false final stage before the real Wily battle. There isn’t much to the game. Which should be good for a game in this series. It just looks like they they did not know when to stop adding to it. Which takes what, at its core, is a competent game and makes it, at best, mediocre.
I’m glad I got to play another Mega Man game; the series is one of my all time favorites. I just wish that its “next gen” HD debut had been more refined. It’s ironic that a series about a protagonist who takes way and utilizes the most functional abilities from his opponents is made by a company known for making endless sequels and, more recently, moving in directions opposite of what the fans want to see. But I say all this knowing that I’ll be there with credit card in hand for a new copy of the next Mega Man game when it releases. Because I also learn the wrong lessons from my experiences.