I backed Mighty no. 9 when it was in Kickstarter, because… of course I did! I love the Mega Man games, and Mighty no. 9 promised to be “Mega Man, except not, but only for legal reasons,” and I’m 100% down with that 😛
and from what I’ve played of it, it has totally lived up to that promise! but perhaps… too much so? Mighty no. 9 has been getting mixed reviews, and from what I’ve seen, it totally deserves them: the game is retro in a lot of good ways, but also in some important BAD ways.
I’d like to break some of that down, think about why Mega Man – and faithful clones – don’t work alongside modern games, and try to come up with a couple possible fixes for the genre.
all the complaints I’ve seen online seem to boil down to the antiquated “lives” system of Mighty no. 9. sometimes there are complaints about instant-death spikes, or other hazards, but those are not the real issue – no one’s pissed about the pits in Mario games – the real issue, in my mind, is that these are coupled with the lives system.
and to be fair, a limited number of lives is not inherently a bad thing, either! (but then, I suppose I’d have to say that, since Mysterious Space – as a roguelike – is a one-life game :P)
but no, look: some games – like Roguelikes/Roguelites, and the Civilization games – dull the pain of a single life by making every game feel unique: the initial conditions are different, the maps are randomly generated, you can make game-changing choices during the course of the game, etc. the game is saying: “if you die, yes, you lose a lot of progress, but you’ll be playing a different game next time, so it won’t be a total slog.”
others – like Super Meat Boy – give constant checkpoints, and let you get straight back in the action without delay. “if you die, no biggie: you lost, like, 10 seconds of progress. and it took you 0 seconds to try again.”
some games even go so far as to do both of the above (endless runners), or lie somewhere in between (RTSes, maybe? I’m having trouble thinking of a good example here), making a sort of spectrum of “uniqueness of each play vs. quickness of each play”.
maybe we could add another dimension to this spectrum: number of lives! and so we might think: “we can give the player more lives – let’s say three – and in exchange…” wait… “make the game more of a slog after they’ve lost all three?”
hm… maybe this hasn’t really solved the issue after all…
yet this is how the original Mega Man games play out: the levels aren’t THAT long, but they’re ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE longer than a Super Meat Boy level, and there’s no new gameplay to explore by replaying a level. (okay: sometimes there’s a LITTLE; more on this later.) and the “but that’s okay! you have three lives now!” thinking doesn’t really help: when you lose all three lives because of some mechanic that’s giving you trouble, or because you don’t know how the boss moves, and/or haven’t figured the order you’re supposed to tackle the bosses in (more on this later, too!), you STILL have to replay the same stuff you’ve already experienced. there’s nothing new to see, or do, or discover, or learn. it’s still a slog.
and NO number of lives helps this. it so happened that when I started playing Mighty no. 9, I immediately wanted to change the voice acting from English to Japanese, and in the settings menu for this there was ALSO a “number of lives” setting, ranging from 1 to 9! setting aside that it seems a bit odd to hide this away with the language settings, this is a great idea, right? a good addition to modernize a Mega Man game!? but I was wrong: it wasn’t 😛 I beat the ice boss fairly easily, however the fire/oil boss gave me so much trouble, I lost all 9 lives. and even before going through all 9, I kind of wanted to just quit and go find whatever weapon the dude is weak to (it’s not ice, apparently!), but at the same time, quitting would mean giving up all the progress I’d made on this level, so now I’m in this situation where I’m making a choice between two things I DON’T want to do – quit and lose my progress, or keep fighting this obnoxious-ass boss – and that is not the sort of decision you want a game to be giving its players 😛
surely there’s a better way!
but first, let’s talk about “figuring the order you’re supposed to tackle the bosses in”, because as tedious/poorly-implemented as it is – in everything from Mega Man 1 to Mighty no. 9 – it is a very distinctive feature of the Mega Man games. while you could absolutely make a Mega Man-style game without this mechanic (which could be a step toward solving this problem of slog; see Shovel Knight), for something like Mighty no. 9 which – again – “Mega Man, except not, but only for legal reasons,” the absence of this mechanic would stand out.
so let’s try to work around it, instead.
there’s a couple ways I can think of to solve the problem, and one of them is explored in Mega Man games, and is core to metroidvanias: giving uses to newly-acquired tools in old places!
for example, in the NES Mega Man games, there was almost always SOME boss weapon that would let you blast apart blocks that you couldn’t blast apart before; in Mega Man X, a new weapon, or power-up from Dr. Light, might let you blow up obstacles faster than you could before, or blow up obstacles you couldn’t blow up before, or – just to be crazy and different – sometimes simply beating a boss just straight-up changed ANOTHER boss’s stage in some fundamental way (by putting out most of the fires, changing the water level, etc).
Mega Man X in particular makes pretty good use of this. there were many levels in that game that you WANTED to play again, even after already completely beating them, because you now had a tool you needed to get some max health upgrade you’d seen earlier but COULD NOT figure out how to get.
that being said, I DO have to wonder: without the nostalgia I have for Mega Man X, would it hold up today?
I… mm… I kind of think… maybe it wouldn’t?
the problem is, you STILL have the issue where when losing all your lives, and returning to that level later, it’s still the same level! maybe you could blow up a block you couldn’t before and get a healing pickup, or whatever, but for this approach to REALLY work, EVERY boss weapon needs to open up some new route, or grant access to some new, optional, permanent pickup, to save the game from feeling like a slog. and maybe Mega Man X50, or whatever they got up to, does this AWESOMELY; I don’t know. (if it does, though, Mighty no. 9 had no excuse for not copying this!)
ANOTHER solution though – which I’m not sure I’ve seen in any Mega Man or Mega Man-like game – would be to allow you to make PERMANENT progress through a level.
imagine this: you’re playing Mega Man X, and you get to that horrible Chameleon boss, and he’s swinging around, and turning invisible, and OH MY GOD YOU HAVE HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF THIS. so you quit. you go to the stage of the weirdly-named guy who looks like a robot ninja samurai, and you murder his face, get his boomerang weapon, and think “maybe THIS will beat that stupid-ass Chameleon.” so you go back to the Chameleon stage, BUT – but, but, but – INSTEAD OF HAVING TO DO IT ALL AGAIN, BAM: you’re just right outside the boss room. or maybe you get to choose where you want to start, from a list of points you unlocked, so that you can go back and find some health pickup that you needed the boomerang for. whatever. you get the point. you – the player – already beat this level. you already blew up the stupid grasshoppers that hide in the grass. you already went through the cave where rocks fall from the ceiling, and rock golems throw MORE rocks at you, just in case you weren’t feeling like you’d quite had enough rocks in your life. there’s nothing else to see here; you’re here to try your hand at the boss again; to do the thing you haven’t yet done! and maybe he’ll STILL kick your ass (but probably not, because spoilers: boomerangs totally wreck chameleons, just like in real life; did you not know about that?), but that’s okay: you could run around elsewhere, get some permanent health pickups you missed before, and try the Chameleon later, WITHOUT the “ugh, but now I have to do that whole stupid level again!”
whatever avenue you want to take as a game designer – randomized content, super-short checkpoints/levels, unlockable items and shortcuts – the goal is the same: if you’re going to punish the player with a setback, immediately give them something new to explore, or do, or find, or experiment with, EVERY time they try again.
Mighty no. 9 is so faithful to Mega Man, I think it fails to do that. I have only played three levels so far, so maybe I haven’t discovered something yet, but A) if that’s the case, don’t make your player wait so long before showing them how fun your game is, and B) based on the reviews I’ve read online, I don’t exactly have high hopes 😛
and while we’re talking about all this, hey: is Mysterious Space there? does every play-through have something new to explore? something new to do, or find, or experiment with? mmmm… maybe not?? (I don’t feel like MOST Roguelikes do; it’s why I’ve struggled to enjoy the genre >_>) BUT: I’m absolutely going to keep working at it, and perhaps thinking about where Mighty no. 9 has fallen short can hint at places where other games – even one as unrelated as Mysterious Space – might be able to shine.
thanks for reading 🙂