Review: Mega Man 11 brings franchise back in full gear

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Mega Man battles Impact Man, a construction Robot Master made of three smaller robots. Image from Capcom

The year is 20XX- or, in this case, 2018. After an eight year hiatus, Mega Man is back in full force, with his previous games released on modern hardware and a new installment available. Although the super fighting robot waited long and hard for another adventure, time hasn’t dulled the developers’ skills. With modern game design combined with classic charm, Mega Man 11 shows that an old dog can be taught new tricks, and that’s not even referring to Rush.

Mega Man 11 is about as straightforward with its plot as the series usually is. Dr. Wily has a new army of Robot Masters, stolen from Dr. Light in this case, thus Mega Man sets out to bring them home in one piece. This time around, Wily’s plot for world domination begins as he digs up a project from his glory days at Robot University: the Double Gear System, which can overclock machines and push them to their limit. Knowing how dangerous Mega Man’s foes will be once powered up, Light finds an unfinished Double Gear prototype that Wily left behind when he dropped out of college, and despite the risks, Mega Man selflessly volunteers to have it installed into him in order to combat Wily’s forces.

While Mega Man Classic isn’t known for complex stories, the series excels in worldbuilding and lore, which Mega Man 11 further explores by answering a major question about Wily’s character motivations. In a flashback, Light and Wily are shown during their university days, as they were friendly colleagues before Wily went rogue. Both proposed a project to be funded by the university, but the board rejected Wily’s Double Gear in favor of Light’s research into sentient robots, which led to the creation of Robot Masters and serves as the catalyst for technological advancement in the entire series. Wily leaves out of jealousy and swears revenge upon Light, finally explaining why the two former associates parted ways. Not only does this explain an important part of Mega Man lore, it also gives Light a chance to develop as a character, as he questions whether Wily’s Double Gear System could have its merits after seeing Mega Man use it responsibly.

Mega Man controls exactly the way he should now that his full moveset has returned. After being removed in Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 to make the experience closer to earlier games, the slide and charge shot are back. While 9 and 10 are enjoyable, the lack of either mechanic made their gameplay feel slower; sliding speeds up Mega Man’s movement and allows him to maneuver under airborne obstacles, and the charge shot gives players a fighting chance even without tools earned later in the game, as well as dealing more damage while bosses are vulnerable rather than waiting too long to land a single hit. Without these mechanics, Mega Man just wouldn’t feel like himself, so their return is much appreciated. In addition, the rapid fire button from the Legacy Collection games returns, meaning button mashing is a thing of the past.

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The Speed Gear slows down time so long as the gauge doesn’t max out and overheat. Image from Capcom

The Double Gear System plays a major part in controlling Mega Man, and it may be one of the best mechanics the series has added to date. At any time, the player can activate the Power Gear, which increases damage output and allows Mega Man to shoot two charge shots at once, or the Speed Gear, which slows the world around him to give more reaction time and leave enemies vulnerable for longer. Double Gear can’t be used for more than a few seconds at a time without overheating, which renders it unusable for a few seconds until it cools off, so every second counts when using it. In addition, the Power and Speed Gears use the same gauge for overheating, so the player must manage when to use both. When Mega Man’s health is low, he can activate both gears at once for an incredibly powerful charge shot during slowed time. It’s best used only as a last ditch effort, as the cooldown time leaves Mega Man unable to use charge shots and lowers the amount of shots he can fire simultaneously from three to one.

The true genius of the Double Gear is how it appeals to all types of players, casuals and veterans alike. The Power Gear works best in the hands of hardcore players who know how to make a shot count and aim for weak spots, as the double charge shot might not be as useful for newcomers. The Speed Gear, on the other hand, makes platforming challenges and reaction time easier for casual fans. It even appeals to truly hardcore fans seeking a challenge, as every level can be completed without ever using Double Gear. Levels are designed so that experimenting with the Power and Speed Gears is helpful, but not necessary to move on. This works in the mechanic’s favor, as Double Gear may take a stage or two to get used to, but feels completely natural with a bit of practice.

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Blast Man has one of the best level concepts the series has ever had: an explosive amusement park attraction called “Blast Man Adventure.” Image from Capcom

Speaking of which, the levels provide a fair challenge while introducing and exploring mechanics at just the right pace. Obstacles are telegraphed and give appropriate reaction time, and the Speed Gear helps in the instances when faster reactions are required. The final two Wily stages are throwaway levels for the boss rush and final boss, which usually have their own levels surrounding them, and since there’s no intro or middle level like Mega Man 7 or Mega Man 8, this means the campaign feels slightly shorter than usual. However, the campaign’s length is balanced by every other level being longer than normal. Like how Mega Man 7 had expansive stages broken into segments by minibosses, Mega Man 11 has some of the longest levels in the Classic series, with each including a miniboss and some including a second version of the miniboss with added challenge. Thankfully, since the levels have excellent difficulty progression and engaging mechanics, they never outstay their welcome.

Most of the levels take a new and interesting spin on common Mega Man level tropes: Torch Man’s stage turns the cliche fire level into a combusting forest campground, Tundra Man’s ice level is a frozen museum, etc. The remaining levels each have completely original concepts, such as Block Man’s rebuilt temple with stone carvings depicting Mega Man’s defeat. The best level concept belongs to Blast Man, who makes his base in an abandoned movie studio and theme park attraction that he themed around himself, titled “Blast Man Adventure,” which takes the cake as one of the best level ideas the developers have ever had.

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When using the Power Gear, Block Man transforms forms the head of a massive block golem with its own health bar. Image from Capcom

Like the levels, the bosses are well designed from both a character and gameplay perspective. Each boss has some aspect of their design or backstory that sticks out, such as Torch Man originally being designed to teach fire safety and martial arts, or Acid Man’s mad scientist motif leading him to swim through chemicals to check their composition. One of the coolest designs is Impact Man, a construction Robot Master made of three piledriver robot brothers that combine into one. The boss battles are fun of their own accord, but what sets them apart is that they’re using the same tools as Mega Man. In previous games, bosses often gained a new attack at low health, dubbed “desperation mode” by fans, but Mega Man 11 takes this a step further by having bosses activate either the Power Gear or Speed Gear during desperation mode. No two bosses use either of the gears the same way; for example, Block Man uses the Power Gear to transform into a massive block golem, but Blast Man uses it to create a massive bomb, and while the Speed Gear lets Bounce Man ricochet off the walls, it allows Tundra Man to perform a spectacular finale for his show on ice. This is arguably the best set of Robot Masters to date, as every one of them has something to like.

Of course, the franchise’s trademark mechanic, the Variable Weapons System, makes a return. Upon beating a Robot Master, Mega Man copies a limited-ammo version of their weapon. Each boss is weak to another boss’s weapon, and since the Robot Master levels can be tackled in any order, the first playthrough of any Mega Man game is an experimental experience in which players discover for themselves which weapons are strong against which bosses. This also gives Mega Man games incredibly high replay value, as the player can choose to take on different bosses in different orders and choose whether or not to follow the intended weakness pattern.

Mega Man 11 has one of Mega Man’s better arsenals to date, and while not every weapon is as useful as the rest, they all have a purpose. Like the Double Gear System, levels are designed around solving problems with different weapons, as enemy hordes and platforms are intentionally placed in locations that specific weapons can reach much more easily, although it’s also possible to use the default Mega Buster. For example, Block Man’s Block Dropper can hit multiple enemies, even those shielded from the front, by dropping blocks from above. Weapon weaknesses are also telegraphed in advance since every miniboss is weak to the same weapon as the boss, and every stage has an obstacle that said weapon can interact with or destroy. Since levels are designed to give different weapons new uses, this makes the replay value even higher, as almost every weapon has potential in every stage regardless of weakness order. However, the weapons can’t be discussed without mentioning Mega Man’s trusty robot dog, Rush. Platforming utilities Rush Coil and Rush Jet return, with the latter being unlocked after completing four stages, but they can now be mapped to a specific button and used at any time without having to switch to them in the menu. While weapons can be selected from the pause menu, they can be scrolled through one-by-one with button commands, which is especially welcome after the lack of weapon scrolling made Mega Man 9’s incredibly useful weapons much slower to access. Beyond weapon scrolling, the right joystick has a weapon wheel that assigns every weapon to a different direction, which makes weapon selection faster and more convenient than in any other Mega Man game.

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The Power Gear version of Acid Barrier looks much closer to how Acid Man uses it in his boss fight, as corrosive chemicals fly back at any enemy that attacks it. Image from Capcom

As if the weapons weren’t excellent enough, they can all be strengthened by the Power Gear at the cost of higher ammo required per use. While the Power Gear’s charge shot isn’t the most useful tool for newcomers, the Power Gear is at its best when combined with boss weapons, as each becomes significantly stronger or gains a new attribute. For example, Acid Man’s Acid Barrier is a shield weapon that allows Mega Man to deflect projectiles and shoot acid for a short time, but when using the Power Gear, the shield itself can destroy enemies and reflect projectiles. This means the best time to use the Power Gear is during boss fights, along with a few situations where certain weapons can be powered up and used effectively.

The item shop returns as well, this time taking the best elements from all of its incarnations. The shops from Mega Man 7, Mega Man 9, and Mega Man 10 allowed the player to collect bolts as currency to purchase as many disposable items as they needed, from lives to E-Tanks, but offered very few permanent upgrades. On the other hand, the shop from Mega Man 8 offered useful permanent upgrades, but no disposable items could be purchased. In addition, only 40 bolts could be found as collectibles rather than currency, and since the amount of bolts required to purchase every upgrade was more than 40, it was impossible for players to experiment with different upgrades in a single playthrough. Mega Man 11 has bolts as currency, but offers both upgrades and disposable items, which strikes a perfect balance between both versions of the shop.

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Mega Man 11 revels in smaller details, such as Mets enjoying a campfire in Torch Man’s stage. Image from Capcom

Mega Man 11 is perhaps the best looking game in the series not only because of the improved power of modern consoles, but also because of the new visual style. Although the blast from the past in Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 gave a fine return to 8-bit graphics, updating to cel shaded graphics was the perfect way to modernize the series. The backgrounds are colorful and detailed, and thanks to the original level concepts, no background in the game feels boring. Animation is fluid and expressive, with the minor exception of Mega Man’s default walk cycle, which players won’t see very often considering how much jumping, shooting, and sliding Mega Man does in any given level. The new character designs combine the simple charm of the NES era with the complex and creative body types of Mega Man 7, and Mega Man in particular has the best design he’s had to date. The game also revels in the finer details, such as Mega Man taking on elements of boss appearances when he uses their weapons rather than just changing his color scheme.

As per usual for the series, Mega Man 11 has yet another fantastic soundtrack, this time as part of the techno genre, which fits a futuristic setting like this. Although boss battle music isn’t particularly memorable, the stage select and level themes are all standout tracks, with highlights being Tundra Man, Acid Man and Blast Man’s themes. As a pre-order bonus, eight instrumental remixes of the Robot Master stages were included. While it’s disappointing that these tracks are currently unavailable to later adopters of the game, each one has a fantastic mix of mellow and exciting vibes, and instrumental orchestra and piano tracks like these would be an excellent direction for music in later installments. Surprisingly, the game’s excellent audio doesn’t end there, as the voice acting is shockingly good, at least by the franchise’s standards. Unlike the hilariously bad voice acting of Mega Man 8, Mega Man X4, and Mega Man X7, this cast gives good performances all around, complete with cheesy one-liners for almost every character. Highlights include Jesse Merlin’s ridiculously over-the-top performance as Impact Man, Benjamin Diskin’s voice of Mega Man that’s more tolerable than almost any other version of the character, and Keith Silverstein as Dr. Wily, who was one of the best possible choices for the role.

Continuing upon Mega Man 10’s introduction of new difficulty modes, Mega Man 11 may be one of the most accessible games in the series with four different difficulties. Admittedly, the way each mode is labeled may confuse some players, as they’re labeled not by difficulty, but by experience with previous entries. Normal mode is designed for those who have previous experience with the franchise, but Casual mode should have been labeled as Normal mode since it still provides a reasonably fair challenge for those new to the series. Newcomer mode, while a welcome idea for those unfamiliar with platforming games, is a bit too patronizing due to how low enemy damage is and how bottomless pits are no threat, so new players interested in the series will find Casual mode to be the most accessible. Superhero mode also exists, but it’s designed for those who’ve mastered the game’s mechanics. As far as the game’s challenging design goes, it doesn’t feel like there are many cheap obstacles. Thus, every mistake feels less like the game’s fault and more like the player’s, as Mega Man always has at least one tool for the job.

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Although Bounce Man’s stage takes a while for newcomers to finish due to rubber balls that send Mega Man every which way, this segment can be quickly completed in speedruns with strategic weapon usage. Image from Capcom

For other challenges, extra modes can keep players coming back, although most of the bonus modes are somewhat superfluous. The best modes are time attack, which allow players to run through any stage with all weapons, and balloon attack, which tests players’ platforming and shooting accuracy to hit all blue balloons in levels while avoiding red ones. However, when looking for extra challenge, the best option is speedrunning, as Mega Man 11 provides many tools that make speedruns varied and full of crazy maneuvers. The Double Gear System and excellent weapon selection, both of which the levels are designed around, make the game a blast to complete quickly, and thanks to the quick weapon wheel and button mapping, less time is spent switching to the right tool for the job than previous entries. Impact Man’s weapon, the Pile Driver, is also a perfect weapon for speedruns, as it thrusts Mega Man forwards in the air or on the ground while damaging enemies.

Despite a few minor issues holding it back from being the best Mega Man game to date, this is certainly among the greatest entries in the series. By updating series staples and adding quality of life features, the game is much more accessible to new players, and longtime fans can appreciate the deep mechanics and tight platforming. Experimentation is encouraged with weapons and the incredibly unique Double Gear system, and replay value is higher than ever. While Mega Man 9 was previously considered the franchise’s long-awaited return despite retaining flaws of earlier entries, Mega Man 11 is a true return for the series, and this is likely only the first part of a new chapter for the blue bomber as he gears up for greater things to come.

Mega Man 11 is available for $29.99 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, XBox One, and PC. This review was made using the Nintendo Switch version.

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