When Mega Man 9 was first revealed to have NES-style graphics, it came as a huge surprise to almost everyone. Retro-style games are popular now, but that wasn’t the case in 2008. Capcom decided to go back to basics, dialing Mega Man’s abilities back to what they were in Mega Man 2, and in so doing succeeded in recapturing the magic that made the early NES Mega Man games so great.
In some respects, Mega Man 9 is the perfect Mega Man game. It has easily the best set of eight weapons in the series. Every one of them is useful during normal play, and they even managed to make the latest version of the ground-following weapon (a la the Search Snake) really good. By removing the ability to charge the Mega Buster, the game ensures that boss weapons are always the best option, assuming you can spare the energy. Mega Man 9’s learning curve is all about using these weapons efficiently, and it is exceptionally rewarding.
The bosses are not quite as special as their weapons, but they’re pretty good in their own right. While certain recurring themes in the series appear here yet again (how many variants of Fire Man do you really need?), every boss is unique enough to avoid feeling stale. They do have pretty simple patterns by Mega Man standards, and careful observation can make all of these fights doable even without the appropriate weapon. The endgame bosses are particularly inspired, combining some new ideas with a few cool throwbacks.
I only have two significant criticisms of Mega Man 9, and the first is that the weapon cycle is boring and predictable when it comes to bosses. Every boss has one weakness, and every other weapon does minimal damage. While it’s possible to beat the bosses without the correct weapon, the lack of any nuance or secondary weaknesses makes the kill order essentially set in stone. The games after Mega Man 2 and 3 all had a similar boring kill order, and it’s too bad Mega Man 9 didn’t try to recreate that aspect of those games.
The other problem Mega Man 9 has is that its stage design is brutally hard. Every boss’s stage feels like a late-game Wily stage from previous entries in the series. Some of these challenges can be overcome with the right weapons, but others are straight up nasty platforming challenges that you simply need to master. The game is filled with the kind of pixel-perfect jump requirements you see in Mario Maker levels, as well as death traps that are essentially unavoidable the first time you encounter them. The stage design brings to mind early NES games where memorizing the levels was essential to finishing the game. Mastering Mega Man 9’s stages is very satisfying, but the difficulty cliff will turn off all but the hardcore before they get to that point.
All in all, Mega Man 9 does a good job recreating the magic of early Mega Man games, and if you’re a fan and like a challenge, it is a must-play. In addition to the basic game, you can play as Protoman, there are two higher difficulty modes, and a ton of challenges that range from hard to nigh impossible. This is a game made for hardcore Mega Man nuts, and if you are one (as I am), you will absolutely love it. If you’re not, well, I hope you don’t get frustrated easily.