Games | Everything Wrong Is Right Again

Article by Parish | July 6, 2008

Mega Man 9 may save video games.

Yeah, OK, so that's a load of purple hyperbole coming from someone who hasn't even played the game yet. Like everyone else, all I have to go on is a handful of screenshots and the impressions of a complete stranger who may well be lying about its quality simply to toy with our feelings. (The Internet's cruel like that.) But the significance of the next Mega Man game has nothing whatsoever to do with how well IntiCreates manages to pull off a classic-styled 8-bit action game -- sure, it'll be easier to make a case for MM9's importance if playing it doesn't make you pine for the sweet embrace of death, but what really matters about MM9 is simply that it exists.

Someone on a forum somewhere remarked that you could practically gauge a given gamer's age based simply on their reaction to the news that MM9 is being built, effectively, on NES technology, a marked step backward from the series' last outing. Mega Man 8? didn't exactly push any technological boundaries, mind you, but it did at least represent some of the most elaborate 2D gaming art that had been seen in 1997. Now, more than a decade later, it's actually jumping backward two hardware generations, while the industry itself has advanced by equal increments. Two steps forward, two steps back -- what hath Paula Abdul wrought?

So yes, winnowing forum-goers age by their positive and negative responses to the game works on a certain superficial level, to be sure. Gamers who grew up with the NES Mega Man games are generally pumped; those who came to the franchise with the X series or later are baffled. But anyone who looks more deeply into the decision to go old school should also find plenty to be excited about. There's more going on here than the obvious nostalgia-button-pressing on the surface; behind this seeming madness is meaning. Meaning and purpose.

It's a simple purpose, too: Nothing more ambitious than the desire to make a good Mega Man game. This is evidently much trickier than one might think, because a lot of Mega Man games have been released over the years, and quite a few of them have been, frankly, no damn good. The vast majority have been merely meh. But nearly everyone can agree that the best games in the series were the originals, the NES games that launched the Mega Man empire, such as it is. Of course, some will argue otherwise -- every game in the series has its fans, even the crappy games. Yes, someone out there is convinced that Rockman & Forte? for WonderSwan is an overlooked work of genius. Filter out the crazies and the statistical anomalies, though, and you'll find tremendous affection for the classic NES games.

Which isn't to say that all the NES titles were masterpieces, which is where much of the collective ambivalence about MM9 comes from. Let's be honest: The drop-off in quality after Mega Man 3 was steep and painful. While the latter NES games had their moments, the simple fact is that by the time the 8-bit titles were retired the series had long since become a rote exercise in pulling in some easy cash every autumn. There's certainly no guarantee that MM9 won't simply be another Mega Man 5: A soulless, hacked-together mess of a game recycling old ideas and offering nothing new -- well, nothing new of any particular value, anyway. (For some reason, spelling out "MEGA MAN V" through hidden bonus items never really caught on. Funny, that.) I mean, hey, even the basic premise of MM9 is similar to MM5 -- that devious Dr. Wily has gone and framed one of Mega Man's close personal friends in sight of the world. Gosh, can Mega Man save the day? I sure hope so!

But I don't think MM9 will be another MM5. If Capcom were more concerned with taking the safe, easy route, IntiCreates would be churning out Mega Man ZX: Rapture or some such nonsense, another two-hero game, each playable character capable using the same basic Guardian/Biometal powers as in the past six IntiCreates games, along with the same recycled sprites for each. That's not where they're going with this. Instead, they're taking an unconventional approach, eschewing the obvious direction of another easy cookie-cutter sequel for the world's most popular system in favor of a deliberately regressive return to the good old days, with far more creativity in the handful of screens on display than we've seen in the past five years of Mega Man combined. It looks like goofy, nonsensical, cartoonish fun -- precisely what the original Mega Man lineup should be.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the retro look is a cynical attempt to ride the Famicom nostalgia that seems to have a permanent grip on Japan, a low-budget attempt to latch onto the coattails of retro-styled games like Yuusha No Kuse Ni Namaikida, with the added benefit of authentic retro heritage. And no doubt that's some part of the inspiration behind MM9's look -- old people still love their old games. But while series creator Keiji Inafune is a canny man, he's also an honest one; he freely admits that the old Mega Man games are his favorites, which is an executive's tactful way of saying "those are the best, and the people who have followed in my footsteps mostly suck." I've even asked a few avowed MM9 haters (including a certain opinionated co-worker) what their favorite Mega Man game is, and the answer is universal: Mega Man 2. This isn't a coincidence; MM2 was a truly brilliant game, tough but wonderfully balanced despite its innate openness. Every power-up in the game had a purpose, every boss required different strategies, every enemy was memorable. Despite its modest technology, it was packed with personality; despite its simplicity, it's almost infinitely replayable. MM9 is an attempt to bottle the lightning that made that classic so exquisitely perfect.

A fundamental rethinking of what makes a good game is at play here. The classic Mega Man series worked because of the specific play mechanics made possible by their technology. When the games went 16-bit, something intangible yet essential was lost -- the pace slowed, the "improved" animations interfered with the playability, the oversized sprites felt cramped on the screen and overly loose in the heat of action. The exceptional, precise feel that had defined Mega Man was compromised by the need to upgrade to Super NES standards. The advanced tech perfectly complemented Mega Man X?'s more measured and sophisticated action, but when Mega Man 7? tried to follow in its footsteps the results were disastrous. MM8 made things even worse by overcompensating, dumping ill-fitting gimmick stages into the mix. The inescapable truth is that Mega Man, at least the incarnation represented by a plucky little Astro Boy knock-off fighting googly-eyed robo-critters, works best as an 8-bit game. Stripped of over-animation and the needless details of superior technology, MM9 can go back to being what Mega Man should be about: Blowing up robots, taking their powers, and enjoying the hell out of it because it controls better than just about any other action series you can think of. I'm even almost kind of looking forward to the inevitable disappearing block gauntlets, maybe.

Besides, it's not like Capcom is taking some bold, heretofore unimagined step forward (or backward, as the case may be). Mega Man 9 may be the most dramatic technological regression ever seen in a major game franchise, but it's hardly the first. Remember how the Internet crapped its collective britches last year when Square Enix revealed Dragon Quest IX, a follow-up to one of the best-looking PS2 games ever -- as a DS game running on hardware barely more impressive than the original PlayStation? Remember how Contra 4 was the first chapter of that series in more than a decade to feel like it belonged to Contra from start to finish, a feat it accomplished by ditching all the awful 3D and aiming directly at its 16-bit predecessors? Remember how the only Sonic games worth a damn these days are the portable Sonic Rush? titles rather than the head-slappingly terrible 3D console games? Remember how the PS2-based console Castlevanias feel like like an afterthought while the portable, PS1-quality 2D platformers are clearly where the team's most sincere efforts are being invested? Mega Man 9 is simply the ultimate realization of something a lot of developers have been playing at for quite a while.

Look, here's the thing: Gaming is an artform. Not Art-with-a-capital-A, mind you; that's an argument for another time. I mean simply that gaming is a medium that lends itself to both creative personal expression and corporate-crafted emulations of creativity alike, just like books and music and movies and paintings. And as with any artform, an essential component of successful expression is knowing which tools to use and when to use them. Games have come a long way in four decades, and the palette of tools available to creators are vast. For most of the medium's existence, though, mainstream designers have only chosen to go with the most sophisticated tools, always pushing the limits... or at least riding in the slipstream of giants, as budgets dictate.

Progress is all well and good, but the simple fact is that certain kinds of games work best if they hold well back from the cutting edge. The PlayStation era brought with it some genuinely excellent innovations and some welcome reinventions of classic franchises. But the attrition rate for long-running series was downright heartbreaking; sure, no one was sad to see Bubsy die, but Contra deserved better. But what about the nebulous in-between games like Mega Man Legends? and Chrono Cross? -- brilliant creations in their own right, but pretty lousy as sequels to fan favorites? With the announcement of Mega Man 9 and a Chrono Trigger? remake within a week of one another, the answer seems to be: Let's go back to the drawing board. Let's do what's best for gamers, regardless of the technology involved. Let's make the best games possible.

To invoke the A-word again, look at the evolution of art through the millennia; we started with crude clay figurines that vaguely resembled a fat chick, eventually figured out two-point perspective and how to represent light and dimensionality, and eventually got to Chuck Close. Once painting reached photorealism, what was left? Style. Expression. Personality. Fanboys can bang on about Hideo Kojima, but MM9 has the potential to be true postmodernism, in the artistic sense. It could well be the work of a creator who has taken a look at what the modern medium has to offer, then deliberately reached back into history to find his solution, combining the mechanisms of the past with the sophisticated thinking made possible by decades of advances.

Mega Man 9 is cause to believe that everything that's gone wrong with these old franchises can be made right again. As the recent spate of retro-tinged sequels like Dawn of Sorrow? and the upcoming Wario Land Shake It (a true sequel to Wario Land IV?, with the added benefit of high-resolution Production IG visuals and some thoughtful motion controls) demonstrate, there's still plenty of life left in those hoary old franchises -- plenty of new ideas to be eked from genre tropes that we all assumed were tapped out when the 16-bit era slouched to a halt. But bleeding-edge visuals and game elements may not be the best way to realize those inspirations. Really, what can you do to improve Mega Man with bloom lighting and shader mapping? Is 2D Mario platforming really any better with real-time light sourcing and self-shadowing? Classic franchises earned their stripes in the days when great graphics were still pretty laughably simple; they became classics because they offered satisfying gameplay beneath whatever passed for visual polish in 1988. So why not let those games live in their proper environment? Just as Halo is demonstrably silly as a 2D platformer, Mega Man (at least, the old-school variety of Mega Man) sucks in 3D. Gamers have known it for years; the fact that developers are realizing it (and, more importantly, that publishers are letting them act on it) suggests that there's hope for this medium yet.

Gaming's long-term saving grace may be that the point at which top-of-the-line games became too pricey for all but the best-funded studios to create is the same point at which alternate distribution technologies emerged. Mega Man 9 has taken a decade to become a reality because there was no place for it until now. We're fifteen years past the point at which MM9 as it exists today could have been a full retail release. But an affordable downloadable title? Well, that's something else. And herein lies the true strength of the current generation of consoles: Not that they offer the power to render ultra-realistic cubes of glistening, gelatinous meat, but rather that they provide an avenue by which to offer the full spectrum of game experiences.

Not that this is any real secret; the whole idea behind WiiWare and XBLA and PSN was that it would offer an alternative venue for developers to release less-than-top-of-the-line software. The exciting thing, though, is that major publishers are finally starting to get it. Square Enix can release an oddball simulation game gussied up to look like an action RPG, but does it really count when they cheat and use assets from a big-budget game from a system nearly as powerful as Wii? MM9, on the other hand, is something completely different. It's a recognition that certain game concepts are still viable, that those concepts work best within a specific context, and that it's still possible to make use of the appropriate framework.

There's certainly no guarantee that gamers will embrace MM9's regressive design, of course. Maybe it'll flop hard! The important thing is that Capcom's taking the chance, and in doing so sending out a clear statement to the gamers and designers alike: The best available technology isn't always the right technology.

Images swiped from GamesRadar | Back to GameSpite Issue 8