Mega Man 9
Solid as a rock.
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.