July 16, 2008 - Dr. Wily wants your cash. Robots are going wild all over the world, wreaking havoc and disrespecting public property, and the infamous Dr. Albert Wily has called a primetime press conference to claim that he's not responsible – but he'll happily step in to stop the madness, for a price. Just call his toll-free number and make your pledge today.
That's how Mega Man 9 begins, and the Blue Bomber leaps into action once again to clear the good name of his creator, Dr. Light, who Wily also takes the time to blame for the current robot rampage (in-between his appeals to his watchers' wallets). The game's full 8-bit cutscene intro sequence was completely intact here at E3, which was refreshing – because the rest of the demo was, sadly, limited.
There were no bosses. There were no special weapons. There were no profile pictures placed in the classically styled eight-window stage select screen, and even then there were only two stages you could select. It was about as limited a look as you'd ever get at any game.
But yet, even having experienced only a fraction of what the full release of Mega Man 9 will present, it's still easy to report that this new old game is on the right track to recapture that retro feeling. I spent the week before E3 purposefully playing through each of the first six classic Mega Man titles from the NES, and with that context established it's easiest to classify Mega Man 9 as something of a mash-up of those 8-bit adventures.
The gameplay is firmly rooted in Mega Man's earliest adventures, Mega Man and Mega Man 2 – you can only run, jump and fire, while more advanced techniques like sliding and charging your Mega Buster aren't included. But the style of the game is more in line with the later NES editions, Mega Man 5 and Mega Man 6. The enemy designs feel more similar to those series installments, and effects like the explosions that result from a large foe's destruction are taken straight out of those last 8-bit titles.
The mish-mashed feeling gets even stronger when you consider the inclusion of collectible bolts, which are ultimately used as currency in Auto's shop – that's an element that wasn't introduced to the series until it had already left the NES, as its first appearance was in the SNES Mega Man 7. The character of Auto even makes his 8-bit debut here, looking intentionally less detailed and colorful than ever before. It makes you wonder what Bass and Treble are going to look like in NES style. (They didn't show up anywhere in this demo.)
The two stages available to play in the E3 Mega Man 9 demo were Concrete Man's and Plug Man's. Concrete Man's level was a mix of a forest and a construction site, like an old-growth nature preserve that's in the middle of being leveled to make way for a parking lot. The foes you'll face there include rock-tossing birds that always seem to be annoyingly out of reach for your blaster, diamond-shaped turrets that leap out of bottomless pits to take shots at you, and the enormous ball-rolling elephants that you caught a glimpse of in the game's official trailer. The powerful pachyderms attack you in a group of three – you destroy one, and the next screen over presents another one. You destroy him, and the very next screen presents a third. It's like the giant robot dog sequence from Wood Man's stage in Mega Man 2. You know the one.
Plug Man's stage is also reminiscent of Mega Man 2, but it's Crash Man's stage that it references – though the theme of the level is primarily electrical, it's also overly populated with the Telly-spawning pipes first made popular in Crash Man's level's opening area. The slow, floating, wide-eyed foes always seems to be hovering right in the worst possible spots, making navigating over and around them especially tough. Nevermind that most of the floors in the level are either lined with instant-kill spikes or simply have no floor at all.
In the second half of Plug Man's level, the lights go out. The rooms get dark, and you're faced with some weird static-filled panels placed in the background that you're forced to run past to advance. And, when you do so, a black-colored Mega Man clone is spawned out of the static. The dark doppelganger runs quickly after you, and while it doesn't have the power to fire at you, its running and jumping is more than enough to make it a dangerous and annoying adversary. This enemy, as it turns out, is what that "mysterious Black Mega Man" was all about in the trailer and early magazine articles about the game.
Finally, it wouldn't be Mega Man without the infamous disappearing block sequence – and Plug Man's stage had that too. A pretty deviously patterned one, too, as certain blocks would intentionally mislead you into jumping to a "safe" platform, only to find that another invisible block would then appear in the very space you just tried to leap to, causing you to be blocked off, knocked back, and killed by falling into a pit. The disappearing blocks have always been a Mega Man staple, but it's already apparent that in Mega Man 9 they'll be more sinister than ever before.
It would be my absolute joy to continue to go on and on about my first experience playing Mega Man 9 here at E3, and it's amazing just how much there was to see and reflect upon in just two of the game's levels. And old-school gamers like me that grew up playing Mega Man's first adventures in the 8-bit era have probably been tracking right with my far-too-specific old game references all the way through this piece. But I'll reign in my nostalgic enthusiasm for the game now to conclude and say that Mega Man 9 is getting it right. It's a little bit off and doesn't feel quite like a perfect companion to the original NES Mega Man games, thanks to its mish-mashed approach of presenting a grab bag of different elements from each of them. But even still, after over a decade and a half since the release of the last game made in this style, it's an incredibly enjoyable and valiant return to form.
Whether you own a Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, I'd highly recommend setting aside a couple of bucks now to be able to download it when it goes live on each system's respective digital distribution service later this year. Better that your money go to Capcom, you see, than that old double-crossing Dr. Wily.