Version tested: Xbox 360
I usually resist the urge to include snippets from press materials in my reviews, mostly because I like to retain a little fragment of industry mystique. If you knew the scintillating truth of what goes on behind the gilded portcullis of the games business (clue: lots of truffles) where would the magic be? Even so, the letter which accompanied the review code for Mega Man's ninth platform outing is almost too perfect not to share a little.
"We want to HURT YOU," it begins, in alarming fashion. "Mega Man 9 is the hardest game ever," it proclaims. "You will die on every screen. At least a hundred times," the letter continues, now sounding more like a terrorist threat than an invitation to play. "Our goal is to make you cry and give up, not just on the game, or gaming, but life itself."
Crikey. Capcom wants to drive us to suicide, and its weapon of choice is... Retro?
Mega Man 9 is a brand new NES game for the 360, PS3 and Wii. Unlike Capcom's recent digital downloads, this isn't a modernised sequel or remake. It's absolutely, undeniably a NES Mega Man game, right down to the crunchy music, chunky colourful sprites and basic controls. It just happens to have been made in 2008 for today's trio of consoles.
It's also bloody hard. There's a fine line between "hard" and "unfair", though, and it's in the sliver of space between the two that the difference between a good retro game and a bad retro game becomes apparent. Thankfully, Mega Man 9 is a good retro game.
Pretty much everything kills you. That's the first thing you learn. Mega Man's energy bar erodes quickly through the slightest contact with the numerous enemies and obstacles, some of which can be blasted away with your weapons (of which, more later) but there are also times when you swear it's impossible to get past a screen unscathed.
To make things extra tough, each impact knocks Mega Man backwards slightly. Just enough to drop him off a ledge, into a deadly pit, or onto some jaggy spiky thing. Mmm, thanks.
Yet when the worst happens, you're always aware it's your fault. Like most great 8-bit titles (or games in the 8-bit style) the game operates like clockwork. Everything is predictable, everything follows a set pattern. Identifying that pattern, and using it to avoid damage, is the throbbing heart of the gameplay. Far from becoming routine, it's a constant tightrope walk, with each new screen bringing fresh hazards to navigate past. Die, and in true sadistic retro style you start the level over again.
While some may justifiably wince at such cruel and arguably outdated design, it's essential for raising the stakes. The game just doesn't tolerate second best, and thus harks back to a time when completing the latest game was a feat you spent weeks or months obsessing over, earning enormous playground respect in the process - not something you absent-mindedly bashed through in a weekend rental.
For those who can stand up to the stiff demands Mega Man brings to the table, there's a huge amount of gameplay here. As is traditional for the series you can choose which order to tackle the game's stages in, and each has a different boss at the end. For the record you'll face Concrete Man, Jewel Man, Hornet Man, Tornado Man, Plug Man, Galaxy Man, Magma Man and, in a monumental blow for gender equality, Splash Woman.
When defeated each boss bequeaths you a new weapon, which then makes attacking the other stages slightly easier than facing them with your default blaster. Magma Man leaves you a bazooka, for instance. Beat Hornet Man and you get the ability to fire swarms of hornets that will home in on enemies. Rest assured, whichever boss you eventually beat first, the weapon you get as a reward will be a lot of fun.
You can also purchase additional items and abilities by collecting screws, and you start with some default assistance from Rush, the robot dog. Summon him and you can jump off his back to higher platforms. Later on, you get the ability to fly with your clanking canine pal.
It takes effort and perseverance to unlock the really useful goodies, but they can make the difference between swearing loudly for the hundredth time at the Game Over screen and actually completing another level. Also unlockable are additional game modes. You start with Time Attack, which offers online leaderboards and is thus perfect for speed-run freaks, and you can later add Endless Attack (survival mode by any other name) and a selection of "special" mini-games to your menu.
The game urges you onwards with a list of 50 challenges, although most of them will make the average gamer's blood run cold. How about beating the game 30 times? That earns you the title of Truly Hardcore. You can even lay claim to being Mr Perfect if you manage to clear the entire game without taking any damage. At all. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that particular task physically impossible by any mortal human. Go on, prove me wrong, Mr Twitchy Fingers arcade addict.
Given its stated intent to punish the gamer, in order to make those tiny moments of victory taste all the sweeter, it's clearly foolish to criticise Mega Man 9 for its extreme difficulty. This is most definitely a game for players who savour every last pixel-perfect leap, an exercise in precision and dexterity that will leave the average player frustrated and punch drunk.
There will certainly be a large number of people who will view Mega Man's ninth outing as post-modern pandering to hopeless nostalgics. They won't be far wrong, but that's missing the point somewhat. Capcom has crafted a love letter to its own past, and its own fans, that is both effective and generous in satisfying its peculiar niche audience.
8 / 10