Perhaps part of the reason Comcept’s Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter campaign was so successful was that, as opposed to many other Kickstarters (even from developers as well-established as Keiji Inafune) you knew exactly what you were getting from the finished product. Without even getting as specific as using potentially lawsuit-inducing terms as “Mega Man” or “Capcom Totally Boned My Series”, one look at the concept art and rough level mock-up proved you were in for good old fashioned jumpin’ and shootin’ like some kinda jump ‘n shoot man. I don’t need to get into how successful the Kickstarter itself was or why, here; there’s been plenty written about it already and anyone with a passing knowledge of Kickstarter-funded video games knows how it worked out. Comcept has been impressively transparent about the whole process, and with a scheduled release of April 2015 bearing slowly on us, they’ve offered a free work-in-progress demo to any backers. Speaking as someone who gave way too much money to the initial Kickstarter campaign, one was sent my way last week, and my first question was the same as the one you would likely have: so is it any good?
To prevent any further dancing around the subject: yes, Mighty No. 9 plays a lot like Mega Man…at first (and we’ll get to that). There’s jumping, there’s shooting, there’s spikes, there’s areas where you’re stuck fighting either a lot of smaller guys or one bigger guy until you can progress…look, if you played any Mega Man from 2 onward, or at least the first Mega Man X, you know what you’re in for to a degree. And isn’t that why we hoisted all of our money towards it?
Mighty No. 9, however, probably most closely resembles the glorious Mega Man 9 (in more than just the use of ‘M’ and ‘9’), released for Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3. Where Mega Man 9 shined is that it was able to apply the lessons of 20 years of game design in the interim to a thoroughly retro experience, and Mighty No. 9 continues to tread that path. While the level design manages to invoke the infuriating 8- and 16-bit action platformers of our youth, it isn’t quite as malicious – sure, there’s the occasional jerkass enemy whose placement and existence seems simply to knock you into spikes and make sure you have a bad time, but overall the game feels…manageable. It’s the good sort of challenge that makes you feel like you just have to give it a second try, and not that you’re bashing your head up against a series of systems you just don’t quite get like, say, Alien Soldier or the original Demon’s Souls. It perhaps gets a little too giving with the power-ups and extra lives (I finished my initial playthrough of the single demo level with 5 lives remaining…up from the 2 you start with) but you’ll still feel like you earned it when you beat the boss, which is a feeling any 2D action game worth its salt could invoke in you.
Before you start a game, there’s a few helpful screens designed to explain to you a few of the mechanics, including the one that perhaps sets Mighty No. 9 apart from its illustrious forebears the most: Xel absorption! The enemies you battle (and, presumably, all robots in the Mighty No. 9 universe) are powered by a mysterious technology called Xel, which mostly seems to manifest itself using neat translucent pixel effects when any of the characters explode or get damaged. Looks neat, but what does it mean for YOU?
Beck (the robot you control – his sister is named Call, get it?) has the ability to drain Xel out of robots he’s defeated to provide a temporary boost to his firepower or speed, or to fill up one of two “Health Stocks” you begin the game with – think like a heart/E-tank from Mega Man except you don’t have to find them. Absorbing Xel is accomplished by damaging enemies to the point where they become ‘stunned’ and their Xel begins leaking out, and then doing Beck’s dash attack through them to draw their Xel into your body for various benefits.
On the surface, it isn’t much different from how bad guys in any number of video games drop power ups when defeated, but it forces you to be a lot more proactive about it. The timer on them being stunned is limited, and colliding with an unstunned enemy always poses the risk of pushing you backwards into another enemy or an obstacle – and if you don’t absorb a boss’ Xel when prompted they regain most of their health back and prolong the fight even further. It sounds simple on the surface, but the constant rush to absorb defeated enemies to reap the benefits really does a lot to differentiate the overall feel of Mighty No. 9. Whereas Mega Man‘s combat and traversal relied heavily on proper positioning, pattern recognition, and good timing, Mighty No. 9 travels at a much brisker pace and asks you to react to things more as they happen without allowing for much time to study enemy and platform locations. The overall effect is almost closer to that of something like bit.trip or a more traditional platformer like – hear me out here – Adventure Island with the constant need to move forward and dispose of foes and obstacles as they come. It isn’t a perfect system, as there’s not much visual feedback to indicate when your speed or firepower has been boosted other than a small ticking timer above Beck’s head, but the health benefits alone are enough to make sure you remember to absorb everyone you fight – and only if you remember the Health Stocks are a thing you can use. I completely forgot they existed for the first hour or so I played the game and it made a world of difference.
Sure, there’s a ways to go until its finished, but overall I’m terribly pleased with how its turning out, and all of my issues are minor ones. Between this and their recently released handheld title Azure Striker Gunvolt, Comcept are quickly establishing themselves as being adept at creating fun action titles based around learning a core gimmick or mechanic not unlike what games like Bionic Commando used to ask of you. When you boot it up, is it going to feel EXACTLY like an old school Mega Man? No, but that’s not quite what we were promised, and if you’re still hard up for a new Mega Man it’s worth going back to 9 or 10 for that. What Mighty No. 9 CAN promise you, however, is this – a well-made action game that both evokes pleasant memories of times gone by with a healthy dose of modern aesthetics (graphically the game would’ve fit right in on the Dreamcast, and I mean that in the best way possible) and design.
If the beta is an accurate slice of what the future holds for the finished product, then Mighty No. 9 will perfectly bring back the Mega Man-esque sensations of fighting to get past a tricky spot, of exploring an adorable Astro Boy-esque future, of conquering a series of themed bosses with charmingly chunky designs, and eventually saving the gleaming world of tomorrow. It’s following the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. And, really, that’s all it wants to do. That, and prove that a beloved game creator can land on his feet after getting maligned by his former employer.
Good luck and god speed, Mighty No. 9. Not that you’ll need it.