The original Mega Man series has always worked best with 8-bit graphics and a focus on core gameplay over innovative abilities. Mega Man 11 manages to break both of these trends, creating the first real departure in the series that manages to stand on its own as a good game without simply relying on a 30-year-old formula.
In terms of structure, Mega Man 11 is not trying to innovate at all. You have 8 bosses to choose from, you use each boss’s weapon to defeat another in sequence, and then you go through a few Dr. Wily stages before the game ends. Unlike the retro-style Mega Man 9 and 10, Mega Man 11 brings back the charge shot and slide, adding to them the new “gear system” to round out Mega Man’s basic abilities.
The gear system allows Mega Man to get temporary boosts of speed (slowing the game down) or firepower, and managing these boosts can get you past tough platforming puzzles or through nasty enemies. Neither is strictly necessary, but they definitely help. When low on health, you can engage both powers at once, though you’ll be offensively penalized for a short time afterwards. Enemy bosses can and will also use the double gear system, usually resulting in two distinct phases in these fights. One of the nice aspects of the double gear system is that its limited time of engagement puts less focus on waiting for a charged shot to build, allowing the basic Mega Buster to shine like it usually can’t in games where you can charge it.
The bosses here have some personality, a la Mega Man 8, but this aspect works a lot better than it did in that game. You’ll find a number of basic archetypes here, like the cold, fire, and electric bosses, but their attack patterns take advantage of both the increased graphical fidelity and the double gear system. The right weapon is usually devastating against the right boss, but several weapons have very limited usage so the battles are not always a cakewalk even when properly armed. Alternate weapons can be useful for hitting bosses more easily than the Mega Buster even when they don’t deal devastating damage, giving the game a bit more of an open feel as to boss order.
One of the highlights of Mega Man 11 is the stage design. Each stage is uniquely themed and takes full advantage of the HD graphics to present an interesting scenario. The boss weapons are not the best in the series in terms of moment-to-moment use, but the stages are designed to give them moments to shine. The ability to switch weapons with the right stick, along with having dedicated face buttons for the Rush Coil and Rush Jet, encourages experimentation and item use (not to mention speed running).
The best thing I can say about Mega Man 11 is that they finally managed to extract the fun of Mega Man out of its original 8-bit context. Sure, plenty of its spin-off series have been great outside the NES, but original Mega Man has long lacked something in its later sequels. This game feels like old Mega Man but in beautiful HD, and for the first time there’s a clear vision for how to create new Mega Man games on modern systems going forward.