I’m sure I don’t need to lead off with an overview of the plot for another Mega Man game. If you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. All you really need to know is that you are still blue and you still kick more ass than a irritable mule rancher. Running for your life while simultaneously blowing adversaries to smithereens is par for the course. The only real storyline beats of note are in animated flashback sequences, where you learn that Dr. Wiley and Light’s backstories have been intertwined since their college years. Apparently the duo were in direct competition for research funding, which the good doctor ended up snagging, thereby kicking off the fierce rivalry that we know today.
Back when Mega Man 9 and 10 made their triumphant return from dormancy, the art style was easily one of the most lauded part of the overall design. The return of 8-bit visuals made the series feel like a triumphant retread of sorts. This time around, that neo-retro aesthetic has been replaced with something decidedly more modern. You don’t have to look far to realize where the inspiration for this sudden shift came from. Remember back when people went mental for the Keiji Inafune’s Kickstarter, way back in 2013? Well it appears that Capcom was very much paying attention too. Kiss your pretty pixels goodbye because now the polygons are where it’s at.
Each stage makes full use of their newly deepened palette, ensuring that every single design is unique, while also staying within the theme of each end-boss. Players will traverse their way through a campground that is lit up like a tinderbox, an enemy-fortified construction site or even a weird facility that has walls that are surrounded by balloons, just to name a few. There’s no chance that worlds will be confused for one another, simply by virtue of the extremely diverse aesthetics. Hell, there are even enemies that are exclusive to each stage.
Along with the adversarial units that are distinctive to each level, there are also mini-bosses that will be encountered at the half-way point of each mission. Sometimes these evil bastards will even come back for a second round of mayhem, just to make things even more challenging. If you haven’t managed to clear any stages, these sessions can prove to be rather difficult. But much like the end-stage bosses, once you have a few extra weapons under your belt these battles become immensely more manageable. Oddly enough, I fed way more lives to these lower-tier nuisances than the eventual “big bad.” It’s hard to precisely put my finger on what was different, but something felt a bit off in the balance. It was almost like they each had separate difficulty settings, and they had somehow been inverted. That said, I’m sure it is something that can be tuned up with the inevitable post-release patch.
After completing a world, Mega Man is rewarded with a new weapon and sent back to Dr. Light’s lab to gear up or save the game. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Using the literal gears that are collected throughout the playthrough, players can chose to purchase from a substantial collection of one-time-use items, weapon enhancements, or even persistent equipment upgrades. Obviously the most straightforward objective would be to load up on a fresh batch of lives. Depending upon the difficulty, the maximum number of lives allowed varies, so pay close attention. Among the different types of available items are boosted shields or cleats that will help limit sliding on slick surfaces like ice (hint, hint). There are even weapon augmentations that will automatically start charging the blaster while it isn’t in use. What surprised me most was that none of these amplifications unbalance the gameplay. Sure, certain improvements make scenarios more manageable, but they don’t feel unfair at any point.
Despite looking like the series has finally decided to put its “big boy” blaster on and meet the more modern graphical expectations of this console generation, it still very much retains a retro feel as far as the controls are concerned. While the game makes full use of all the standard face and shoulder buttons, it still feels like it could have been accomplished using an SNES gamepad. Everything feels right at home on the D-pad, which plays like a spot-on replication of previous installments. Movements are crisp and responsive as long as the PS4’s directional buttons don’t tenderize your thumb to a blistered hunk of flesh. Trust me, when you are white-knuckling through particularly difficult sections, it’s bound to happen.
As much as Mega Man 11 tried to deliver a retro-inspired experience, there were still times where the geometry of modern game design breaks the nostalgic immersion. In 8-bit level design there were definitive squared edges to damn near everything on-screen and animations that had starts and stops that would relatively line up with said square edges. It was the by-product of the paradigm’s grid-like stage layout. Now that the polygonal approach is front and center, it’s much easier to inadvertently catch the edge of a platform when trying to jump from a lower height. This was especially on display during the several stages featuring the dreaded chase sequences, where something on the left edge of the screen is trying to catch/gobble up our favorite bionic boy. It was only exacerbated further when jumping between two platforms that were both in motion. I found this to be endlessly frustrating and a primarily contributor to my demise on far too many occasions.
Speaking of the chase sequences, while they did prove to be a bit of a navigational nightmare, it also doubled as a fantastic way to make use of the new Double Gear system. Early on in the story we learn that this was actually a creation of Dr. Wiley, which Dr. Light aped back in their undergraduate years. Essentially the new mechanic enabled two new perks: slowing down time and enhancing the strength of Mega Man’s blaster. Obviously this can only be used for a finite amount of time in order to avoid blatant abuse. It’s pointed out that this is a completely optional tool, which I can only imagine is called out to avoid pissing off the hardcore purists. However, in most of the chase scenes they felt goddamn impossible to complete without the extra help. So I guess that means the mechanic is successful? Regardless of how you look at it, good or bad, I felt dirty every time I used it as a crutch.
No matter how you look at it, Mega Man 11 feels like a genuine successor to the storied franchise. Though it’s much prettier than you’ll remember in your mind’s eye, the lineage is unmistakable. Aside from a few minor platforming quirks thanks to the introduction of the third dimension, this is still the Blue Bomber that you’ve come to know and love. But don’t let the gorgeous presentation fool you, because it will still mercilessly kick your dick in with remorseless gusto. A heaping helping of retro-inspired, buster-blasting goodness awaits, so suit up. Your inner ten-year-old will thank you for it.