10 for ’10: Mega Man 10

Mega Man 10Mega Man 10

Developer: IntiCreates

Publisher: Capcom

U.S. Release Date: March 1st, 2010

Genre: It is a Mega Man game.

For almost all of video game history the industry has defined “progress” by one metric: Presentation. Improved graphics and sound, more complicated stories, and the addition of professional voice acting have all been hailed as innovations that have taken video games to the next level, and their predecessors were discarded as mere awkward evolutionary steps, necessary but now redundant. Round abouts 2007, though, a small group of people spoke up and said “Hey, the games we played back in the day were fun too, and we haven’t come anywhere close to tapping the design space those great games offered up. Why not stop trying to make games that are like movies and start making games that are like games?” And so the faux-retro movement was formed. Designers liked them because they presented an interesting challenge. Publishers liked them because they were easy to make and distribute thanks to newfangled digital distribution technology. Gamers liked them because they appealed to their sense of nostalgia. Everybody was happy. And no game exemplified this newfound rush to regression more than Mega Man 9, a game that threw out twenty years of Mega Man advancement in favor of Mega Man 2-styled action. No charge shot. No slide or dash, no wall-climbing, no upgrades, no rankings. Just a blue robot with a pea shooter, eight Robot Masters who coughed up cool weapons, and a fight with Wily at the end. (I hope I didn’t spoil anything for you.) When Mega Man 9 was announced, people said “Wow!”, when it was released, they cheered.

When Mega Man 10 was announced, not two years later, people kind of raised their eyebrows — and rightfully so. Mega Man was run into the ground in the first place by a series of uninspired sequels released in rapid succession, after all. It seemed improbable that a game rushed out to capitalize on MM9’s success could have anywhere close to as thoughtful and clever design as its predecessor — so it should come as no surprise that it didn’t.

I worry that the whole retro fad may have a Daffy Duck I-can-only-do-this-trick-once flavor to it. The entire point of embracing technological minimalism is to produce improved game design — the whole restrictions-breed-creativity thing. If you can’t wow your players with eye-popping presentation, your focus instead shifts (ideally) to trying to create a compelling gameplay experience. A game that is in many respects a copy-paste of a previous success kind of flies in the face of that. Mega Man 10 feels like the designers looked at the acclaim for MM9, said to themselves “Hey, people seemed to really like the NES graphics and the no charge shot. Let’s do more of that” without considering that, while the graphics and the no charge shot may appeal to people, what really got their attention was the ingenious, almost subversive level design, the fantastic arsenal of weapons, and the wonderful music. MM10 tries for all three of those things, but it doesn’t quite get there — it’s simply a more haphazard project than MM9.

I’m of mixed feelings about MM10, myself. On the one hand, it’s true that it isn’t anywhere nearly as good as MM9. However, the game is not without its merits — it’s not a disaster like Mega Man X6. It’s a perfectly serviceable run-and-gun platformer with some clever stage gimmicks. Splash Woman aside, I think I actually prefer MM10’s roster of Robot Masters to MM9’s. MM10 is a lot fairer than MM9 — in a lot of places MM9 was trying to trick you, forcing you into situations where your finely-tuned Mega Man instincts would betray you. MM10 doesn’t do that, so it’s a lot easier to squeak by on pure skill — but this also makes it less interesting.

The music is similar… in some respects it might be considered better than MM9’s, but in a way that’s kind of missing the point. MM9’s music had a very strong NES vibe to it. It sounded like — and there’s no better way to put this — video game music, with very strong, catchy melodies that the chiptune soundtrack expressed perfectly. MM10’s soundtrack sounds more like modern video game music expressed through NES bleeps and bloops — it might be stronger from a compositional standpoint or more technically impressive, but it doesn’t quite fit the game as well — kind of like how those 8-bit reproductions of the Super Mario Galaxy soundtrack sound kind of false. There are some good pieces in MM10’s soundtrack (Nitro Man, Solar Man, Dr. Wily Stage Boss, Endless Stage) and none of it is out-and-out bad, but there’s nothing that quite matches the majesty of Galaxy Man or We’re The Robots, much less the authentic stuff from the NES days.

The weapons, unfortunately, are more or less a total loss. After MM9’s arsenal of versatile, multipurpose weapons, it was fair to expect a similar deal from MM10 (if not quite as good — MM9 arguably has the best collection of Master Weapons in the whole expanded series), but it disappoints, returning to the Mega Man standby of weapons that will kill you a boss in five seconds but have no other applications. I didn’t have any trouble whatsoever performing a reverse boss order run once I’d worked out the Robot Master patterns — unlike MM2 or 9 where there were certain stages I just didn’t want to go unless I had a certain weapon, MM10 is buster-only territory. Too many of the weapons only work at awkward angles or in a certain part of their animation… and while it probably wasn’t fair to expect anything as game-breakingly useful as MM9’s Jewel Satellite, MM10’s Water Shield didn’t even try.

The weak arsenal has the (unintended?) side effect of making Endless Mode a whole lot less fun, and it didn’t need the help. I devoured MM9’s Endless Mode, but MM10’s, despite improved production values (MM9 just reused assets from the regular game; MM10 has a whole swath of sprites and backgrounds just for Endless Mode), is much weaker. Part of this is indeed thanks to the crappy weapons — part of the fun of MM9’s Endless Mode was rationing your weapons so that you’d have enough Jewel Satellite or Black Hole Bomb to get through the really difficult rooms, but in MM10, as long as you’re careful to keep Solar Blaze topped off (for annoying Sniper Joes), you’ll do fine. That is, if you don’t take a cheap hit and die. I don’t have any way of proving this, but it certainly seemed to me that MM10’s Endless Mode had a lot more places where taking a single shot would knock you into a pit or spikes. In MM9, no matter how down you were, with careful play you could climb back out — roguelike philosophy at its finest. In MM10, the game will as likely as not kill you before you knew what happened. It even has the audacity to include vanishing blocks! Some of the most difficult vanishing blocks in any Mega Man game, even!

Thankfully, the game’s other DLC mode more than makes up for its mediocre Endless Mode. Bass is quite simply the most fun you will ever have in a Mega Man game — he’s not quite broken, but when you’re doing well with him it almost feels like cheating. He shreds bosses even without a Master Weapon and has near-MMX mobility in a classic series game. Plus, Treble is essentially Rush Jet Original Flavor — the really fun, useful version of Rush Jet found in MM3, not the gimped version that’s been in every Mega Man game since, including MM10 when playing as the Light Bros. I almost wish Capcom would patch MM9 so I could play as Bass there and not have to put up with MM10’s general inferiority.

It’s a bit of an open question where Mega Man goes from here. Father of Mega Man Inafking is gone, as everyone knows, but it’s not like his presence was stopping crappy Mega Man games from being released, the way Miyamoto steps on the neck of any Mario game not worth the name. I wish they had done Mega Man X9 instead so that we could get his vision on that before his split with Capcom, but ah well… I’m sure we’ll get it eventually. I’m less sure whether it’ll be good, and that’s not what I would have said if you’d asked me after I’d first played MM9. MM10 isn’t bad, as I said, but… after MM9, I kind of thought we’d moved beyond “perfectly serviceable” Mega Man games.

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