It's been over 30 years since its NES debut, but Capcom's classic Mega Man is still one of the greatest platform games of all time. The series has evolved over the years - and not always in the right direction - but the recently released Mega Man 11 is a monumental achievement. It modernises the game while retaining an innate understanding of what made the originals so special - and it looks and plays beautifully across all platforms. For my money, it's Capcom's Sonic Mania moment: for series purists it reminds you of everything that made the original games great, while also serving as a good jumping on point for new players.
To fully appreciate Mega Man 11, we need to first consider what it is that makes Mega Man so special and how the team has improved upon each element in building this new game. First, there's the stage design. To begin with, Capcom has opted to build Mega Man 11 with 16:9 widescreen in mind, opening the playfield in the process. This isn't the first widescreen Mega Man game, of course, but it's the first to truly utilise the additional screen space. This wider canvas has enabled the team to push out the level design and introduce new challenges that would not have worked as well in a smaller space.
When it comes to crafting these challenges, however, Mega Man 11 wisely channels the classic games. Mega Man is widely recognised for its approach to teaching through level design - the idea is that challenges are presented to the player in controlled environments - you learn through doing. Basically, the designer introduces a new enemy or hazard early in a stage allowing you to easily recognise and learn how to handle the new threat before combining them to create more difficult challenges.
This is a key element in building a great Mega Man stage, but it's something that later installments, particularly in the X series, started to lose with the introduction of in-game dialogue boxes. They increased in frequency to the point where they started to break up the game, and in combination with less interesting level design, it's clear why titles like Mega Man X6 aren't held in high regard. It's a situation that's even worse in breakaway title Mighty No 9 - and that's before we even start to talk about poor performance and lacklustre stage design.
Mega Man 11 brings things back to basics, with brilliant design across the board. Firstly, the game eliminates dialogue boxes completely and returns to the classic formula of well-designed screens that introduce new concepts that are slowly integrated and layered over one another as the stage plays out. Every single stage features its own unique concepts - from the sliding ice and spikes featured in Tundra Man's stage to these crazy spheres in Bounce Man's stage, all the way to the crazy flame mechanics featured in Torch Man's level. As a fan playing through the game, there's a continual sense of delight that the developers of this new series entry truly understand the formula and what makes it so great.
But more than that, they also understand how to integrate all of this into a modernised game. So, for example, the developers take full advantage of the expanded field of view and the increase in screen real-estate with a series of stage layouts and challenges pushing beyond the classic series. That's not even getting into the quality of the platforming and enemy placement - the jumps are perfectly designed to feel satisfying but challenging while enemy placement is simply perfect. Overall, we're looking at a perfect fusion of modern and classic game design.
The enemies themselves also follow the classic pattern - each has a clear attack pattern and weak point that keeps players on their toes. You need to learn and counter these patterns to progress smoothly through each stage - you can't just rush through. And that was another area where Mighty No 9 fell short - enemy attacks and placement didn't really matter. You can just hammer on the attack button and keep holding forward: it doesn't really matter if you take damage or fumble your way through a stage, it never requires much in the way of precision. Without this challenge and the need to learn patterns, the gameplay simply becomes dull and rote after a short while.
But great level design only works when paired with perfect control, and again, the developers of Mega Man deliver. The series depends on sharp, responsive controls designed to allow players to deal with challenges quickly and efficiently. Mega Man 11 draws from the later games in the classic series with features such as the slide and charge shot, but improves upon the formula with a few smart additions.
Remember Rush? Introduced in Mega Man 3, Rush is the robotic canine sidekick designed to assist Mega Man in a variety of ways but using him always required entering the menu, selecting him and then popping back out to the game screen. This is how it's always worked - but it broke up the flow of the game. In Mega Man 11, Rush is now assigned dedicated hot keys which summon one of two Rush forms without ever visiting the menu. It's not just much more convenient, it also allows players to utilise Rush in quick reaction scenarios.
Then there's the Double Gear system. This is a brand-new addition to the game that assigns two options to the shoulder buttons - one Gear increases Mega Man's power while the other triggers slow motion. Both are intuitive and simple to use. This also highlights a nice addition to the game - while gameplay itself avoids dialogue boxes and the stages are never interrupted, Capcom did build in small tutorial rooms that pop-up after you obtain a robot master's power. It's a great way to get a grip on the new powers before using them in a stage.
The main point here, though, is that Mega Man 11 offers excellent, responsive controls that are a perfect fit for the series - high-speed camera shots reveal that Xbox One X delivers latency of around 62ms, which is on par with the PS1 era titles and a huge improvement over the X Legacy Collection. Switch follows closely with a 68ms response, but curiously, PlayStation 4 pro is closer to 90ms - a full two frames slower to respond. It's not a deal breaker but we are looking at input lag closer to a 30fps title than the full 60Hz experience that Mega Man 11 delivers.
And yes, you do get a locked 60fps regardless of the platform you play it on. Mega Man 11 uses Capcom's established MT Framework to get the job done, delivering 1080p60 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and a full 4K60 on the enhanced consoles - with all versions backed by SMAA anti-aliasing, which really works well here. Switch holds up too, with 1080p60 while docked and 720p60 in portable mode. The only compromise on the Nintendo hybrid is a lack of anti-aliasing in all modes. Regardless, all versions are equally solid in performance terms and the experience just feels beautifully smooth throughout - and in this respect, it's a big upgrade over the classic NES originals, which could slow down. And it's so easy to take for granted but pulling this off is no mean feat - again, look at Mighty No 9 to see how easily it can all go spectacularly wrong.
The selected visual style is totally consistent across platforms too, channeling the feeling of hand-drawn graphics but relying primarily on 3D models. The texture work is sublime, while dynamic lighting and occasionally even dynamic shadows help spice things up. What's really impressive here is that there's a sense of artistry in the environments that takes the kind of shading you might see in a pixel art game into account - it's all so vibrant and well designed.
In conclusion, all I can really say is that Mega Man 11 hits all the right notes. Everything that I look for in a Mega Man game is accounted for here - and improved upon. While Mega Man 9 is a fantastic throwback style of game, this is how I've wanted to see the series evolve for years. Mega Man 11 truly is Capcom's Sonic Mania moment - a special release that looks, sounds and plays beautifully, that honours the past without being afraid to utilise the strengths of modern hardware. If you have any kind of interest in platform games, this is absolutely essential.