There was a time, not long ago, when the internet at large was pretty hopeful and optimistic for Mighty No. 9. Intended as the “spiritual successor” to the legendary Mega Man/Mega Man X series, and with design work and character art from Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune, a lot of people expected (or at least hoped) that the game would rank among the best of the current 2D indie gaming renaissance. But now the game has finally arrived, and even if you look past the lengthy development, numerous delays, Kickstarter troubles, and every other issue that our would-be robot savior encountered on his way to our computers and consoles, you’re left with this: Mighty No. 9 is a very average game with a fun concept brought down by the dual weight of design issues and high expectations. And it’s fair to say that’s a big damn shame.
Upon starting Mighty No. 9, everything seems fun enough at first, even after wrestling with the gamepad configuration to find a controller that works with the PC version. After a brief explanation of the charming, Astro Boy-by-way-of-Space Channel 5 world you now inhabit, you’re dropped into an introductory level set on a city highway besieged by rampaging robots. This first level – and, really, the overall story and setting – should seem immediately familiar to anyone who’s played creator Keiji Inafune’s landmark SNES title Mega Man X, and the game’s old-school jumping and shooting action will help you feel right at home even with the more modern 2.5D presentation.
As you progress through Mighty No. 9, the connections to Mega Man and Mega Man X seem all the stronger the further you go. You can progress through differently-themed levels in whatever order you want, absorbing powers from defeated bosses to use against other foes and challenges later, all the while working to discover the cause of a robot uprising currently throwing the world into chaos. Defeating bosses in the correct order affects later levels by allowing your former foes to lend a hand in combat or change the layout of a level, not unlike how Mega Man X’s levels would be subtly affected by the order you completed them. On the surface it does feel very indebted to Capcom’s seminal 2D action series, but the mechanics of Mighty No 9 strive to go a little deeper than that.
Beck, your hero, has a few skills that set him apart from your usual super fighting robot, and this is where the biggest hook of the game comes from. The main gameplay loop is based upon Beck’s ability to absorb powers from every enemy robot you defeat, not just the bosses. After weakening an enemy with a few familiar-looking lemon-shaped blaster shots, you can perform a quick dash move to absorb their energy (referred to as ‘Xel’, which the game insists is pronounced like ‘cel’) so long as you don’t accidentally destroy them first.
Depending on the color of the energy absorbed, Xel gives you a temporary boost to one of your stats such as speed, damage reduction, blaster power, and so on. Absorbing more Xel in a short amount of time gives you combo boosts to maintain your bonuses even longer, and getting the hang of this system quickly is crucial to getting anywhere in Mighty No. 9.
So, a Mega Man X-influenced title with a ‘treat all your enemies like powerups’ mechanic not unlike the recent DOOM – sounds pretty fun so far, right? It sounds fun, but sadly it isn’t quite as simple as it seems. Buried deep, deep down within this game is a solid and entertaining idea that, when it actually works, inspires a lot of fun enemy encounters and brings you damn close to that zen-like feeling the best 2D action games can inspire.
But when I say it’s buried deep down, I mean it. Mighty No. 9 nails it in the concept but generally fumbles it in the execution. The levels themselves are inconsistently designed, packed with cheap, frustrating deaths and built in a counter-intuitive way, preventing you from actually using your powers in the way the game wants you to. Cheap deaths, unfairly difficult platforming sections, and insta-kill purple spikes abound, all seemingly fashioned in a way that punishes you for playing by the rules rather than encouraging you to hone your skills the way the best 8- and 16-bit action platformers had done. Balancing that difficulty is a crucial skill that Mighty No. 9 only demonstrates a handful of times, leaving you with far more frustrating “gotcha!” deaths than anything that you could actually avoid by mastering the game’s systems better.
And while a few levels redeem themselves with either solid design or a fun gimmick – a race across the back of moving vehicles, for example, or a frantic hunt through a level for a constantly relocating sniper – the majority of them are bogged down by unfair and uninspired layouts. The most consistently fun level design, ironically enough, stems from the Metal Gear VR Missions-influenced challenge levels, which provide you with a series of fun platforming trials with their own goals and mission parameters. These may actually be the most entertaining and well-thought out levels in the game, and it’s a shame that same sort of care and enthusiasm wasn’t worked more thoroughly into the game itself.
This goes double for the boss fights, which might actually be the most disappointing part of the game. In keeping with the game’s look and spirit, the bosses are charmingly designed, loaded with personality, and blessed with typically competent voice acting (including an entertaining turn from voice acting legend Steve Blum). However, they’re just not that fun to fight. Every boss has at least one insta-kill one-hit attack, which are frequently poorly telegraphed and difficult to avoid until you’ve already lost three lives and finally know what to look for, and even then you’re more likely to lose that last life and get shuttled all the way back to the beginning of the level. At this point, if you’re anything like me you’re way more likely to rage quit and just do something else for a while.
Really, this is the most regrettable part of Mighty No. 9. It would be different if the game was a total failure – bad controls, terrible graphics, etc. But down beneath the generally-bad level design and more-frustrating-than-fun boss fights lives the soul of a good game trying desperately to claw its way to the surface. Blame a tortured development cycle, blame a newly-formed studio who might have over-promised during the project’s earliest days, blame publisher interference, blame whatever you want – the fact of the matter is that whatever promise is held by Mighty No 9’s gameplay hooks and core concept is trapped below a suffocating layer of amateurish design and frustrating choices.
Do I regret the time I’ve spent with Mighty No. 9? Not by a long shot – despite my complaints there are still far worse games I’ve played, and I’m frankly just happy it ever came to be. But more than anything else, I want there to be a second chance for it. I want a Mighty No. 10 or whatever they call it. I want everyone involved to get another opportunity to salvage this concept into something truly fun on the level we were all hoping it would be. Because despite its upsides and highlights, Mighty No. 9 just isn’t what we (or, surely, its developers) were hoping it would be – however, the core concept and world isn’t completely unsalvageable.
Let’s just try to avoid Kickstarter next time, huh Inafune?