We Were All Wrong About Mighty No. 9
Mighty No. 9 is an action platformer game, first announced in 2013 and subsequently funded via Kickstarter. The game’s development was fraught with delays, miscommunications, cut features and topped off with a cringeworthily terrible trailer. It was released in late June, not to fanfare, but to a chorus of groans.
Now, Mighty No. 9 is out. And the consensus is: we were wrong. We were wrong to put our trust in it. Even the game’s lead designer defended the game by calling it ‘better than nothing’*.
Playing the game in preparation for this review, my only question was: how could Comcept and Inti Creates have fucked up so badly?
Mighty No. 9 is a deepy, deeply ugly game. The stages are boxy, industrial-looking and unappealing, and the character models look like a teenager’s first attempt with Zbrush. Broadly speaking, the visuals are ruined by astronomically bad lighting and a deeply flawed use of colour. The characters are all statically lit, so they look the same in any lighting condition. I’m sure this was done to ensure that they pop out from the background, but the same could have been accomplished by not making the player character predominantly grey.
Grey is a good word to describe the game’s pallette, which is a rich and varied mixture of grey, dark grey, light grey, greyish blue and greyish red. Take Mighty No. 1’s stage, for example. Mighty No. 1 is the game’s token fire robot, and his stage is an oil rig. If I were designing the colour scheme for this level, I would have suggested setting it at sunset, against a blue sea, gray, red and perhaps one other colour as a highlight. The actual stage is set at night, and it’s comprised mostly of dark red, gray and blue, with dark red being the highlight colour. It’s one of the ugliest video game stages I have ever encountered. The game’s obsession with dull and unappealing colour palettes persists almost uninterrupted from beginning to end. Interestingly, there are some areas [mighty no 8 courtyard, ray arena, etc] that look a lot better, and unfortunately they only serve to underscore the rest of the game’s deeply lacking visuals.
The entire game has an atmosphere of grim, industrial blandness. If you go back and look at old Mega Man games, you find that the settings are often not particularly industrial, and the ones that are blend in other elements to add much-needed colours, shapes and visual interest.
If you compare the released game to the demos and development footage, it looks considerably worse. The final game is missing many lighting effects, such as god rays and dynamic lights, and the explosions didn’t always look like pizza either.
The character designs are all over the place. As with the levels, the number one problem is blandness. The human characters have a distinct air of ‘low-budget anime for kids’ about them.
The mighty numbers and enemies are mostly forgettable. A lot of the ideas from the concept art seem to have been forgotten or thrown out entirely. I was extremely disappointed to find out that Mighty No 3 never takes off her cloak to reveal that her body is a light bulb, as the concept art shows. I was similarly disappointed at the lack of Apple No. 1. Probably way more disappointed than I should have been, to be honest.
Although most of the enemies have extremely generic designs, and many look like straight expies of Mega Man enemies, there are a few highlights. The bust robots in Mighty No 8’s stage, for example, display the kind of ridiculous self-aware humour that is particularly evident in the later Mega Man games.
Unfortunately, these designs are few and far between.
Mighty No. 9 is a genuine assault on the ears, from the moment the title screen starts blaring to the moment you shut the game down.
The composition isn’t bad, although it’s a little forgettable. It’s certainly not as good as the recent Mega Man 9 and 10 soundtracks. But what really kills it is the arrangement: the whole soundtrack is made out of what sound like free FL studio presets. It’s flat, boring and lifeless, completely lacking even in any kind of dynamics. It has that ‘arranged japanese game soundtrack’ vibe to it, with the lifeless synth strings and the suspiciously distortion free synth guitar. The most fun you could have listening to this soundtrack is playing sample bingo: ‘Oh, I think I heard that piano sample in the Mega Man 9 arranged soundtrack!’ etc etc.
One of the stretch goals for the game was an 8-bit version of every track in the soundtrack. I switched to this mode, hoping that it would make things better; it did not. In fact, it made them worse. Like the normal soundtrack, it just feels amateurish, and deeply inferior to many of the fan-made 8-bit tracks that are floating around on Youtube.
One final note on the music: by default, the game has the music volume set to maybe 25% of the SFX volume. In normal gameplay, it’s completely drowned out. I can only assume that Comcept didn’t actually want anyone to pay attention to the music in this game.
Speaking of the sound balance, the game settings mercifully have an option to turn down the volume of the voices separately. The game’s largely non-existent story is complemented by voice actors who sound like they’d rather be anywhere else. People from this website can and have done a better job than the voice actors for this game. These voiceovers are a step below high-school amateur dramatics, they sound like they’re afraid of putting any emotion into their performances, lest their classmates make fun of them. Call’s voice actress in particular has to be singled out for refusing to read the question marks that appear on the game’s subtitles. Oh, and Beck sounds like Sonic the Hedgehog.
But the real shit dressing on the shit salad is that they talk incessantly over the gameplay. They literally do not shut up. They babble almost continuously over most of the levels in the game, about the game’s plot, or about nothing, if you will allow me to make such a double-statement. If you die in a level and have to play it again, they repeat their lines over every single time. The mighty numbers themselves have a serious case of Flame Hyenard syndrome – whilst on-screen, they won’t stop repeating the same few canned phrases over and over. Beck likes to mouth off whenever he absorbs someone (if you’ve just started reading, hello!), which is a pretty fundamental part of the gameplay, and you’ll be doing it constantly. This game would be borderline unplayable if you weren’t able to turn the voices down. Why does this game even have voiceovers? If you’re not able to hire complement actors, why have voices at all?
But the real shit sprinkling of nuts and seeds (and maybe a few grapes) on top of the shit salad is that several of the bosses telegraph their next move solely through audio cues. The sound balance settings are in the game’s ‘general settings’ menu, which is only accessible from the main menu. I chose to mute them and simply suck it down, I do not regret my decision.
Mighty No 9 has a movement and control system lifted straight from a combination of Mega Man and Mega Man X, with a few new twists. The physics are a little bit looser, with Beck taking a brief moment to turn around, rather than turning on a dime. Beck can’t wall jump, but he can grapple onto some ledges, and also to pre-defined handholds on the side of walls. His default weapon shoots projectiles which can only move horizontally, and a maximum of three of these are allowed on-screen at once.
Mighty No. 9 distinguishes itself from its older and more visually appealing counterparts by way of its dash system. At any time, Beck can enter into a dash, which gives him a big burst of horizontal momentum. You can cancel the momentum in mid-air, or – in an interesting twist – you can immediately launch into another dash, losing very little height in the process. You can launch into a jump from a dash, although there’s not much point, as you can dash infinitely in the air with no repercussions. You can also turn around in the air and dash back to where you came from. Mighty No. 9’s levels are designed with this in mind, and often put you in situations that test your ability to use all the features of the dash. If you’re able to use it skillfully, you’ll be rewarded with powerups or the opportunity to skip certain sections of the levels. In contrast to most Mega Man games, this is a very aerial game, and you can easily spend upwards of 50% of your time in the air, depending on your playstyle.
The dash also works its way into combat with enemies. Most of the enemies in the game only take a few bullets before they transition into a weakened state. Enemies in this state will often change their pattern (becoming either more or less threatening) and become vulnerable to absorption, which allows you to kill the enemy by dashing into it. However, the weakened state only lasts for a certain amount of time before the enemy regains the health it has lost. Killing the enemy this way takes far fewer bullets, will give extra points, will refill your weapon energy and can grant other bonuses. This creates a really interesting gameplay dynamic, as dashing to absorb enemies is almost always the best route, but doing so also puts you in some danger, as it forces you to close in on enemies that may still be attacking you, and often their buddies as well. The game exploits this quite a bit, and the levels and enemy placements often use this to create interesting strategic choices.
Compounding these choices are the passive bonuses you can get by absorbing enemies. Some types of enemies will grant bonuses, such as increased speed, damage or bullet penetration. The bullet penetration ability is especially valuable, as bullets will not pass through stunned enemies. If you’re fighting a lot of enemies in a small space, the best strategy is often to make a beeline for any enemy that has the penetration bonus, – otherwise, trying to absorb any enemy could be extremely risky. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have very many passive abilities. They’re one of the more interesting aspects of the design and I would have liked to see more.
The dashing\absorption dynamic also plays out in boss fights – bosses will normally go into a stunned state 4 or 5 times during a battle, and at this point, you have 10-15 seconds to dash into the boss, or they’ll regain all the health they lost since they were last absorbed. Some bosses have patterns that take them out of harm’s way, so knowing when to shoot and when to absorb is critical to victory. For example, Mighty No. 2 creates a pillar of ice that you have to destroy to get her in range, and this move can buy her quite a lot of time, allowing her absorption counter to run out and reset her health.
Dashing and absorption are probably the highlight of the game’s design. Mighty No. 9 might look derivative, but these mechanics give it a very different feel to classic Mega Man. Although it seems like a small feature, it gives the game a great ebb and flow. Similar to Cave Story’s XP chips mechanic, it splits your time between two different styles, and forces you to change up your tactics on-the-fly.
The game also has a pretty in-depth scoring and combo system. Absorbing enemies builds a combo meter, and the quicker you absorb them, the more points you earn. Uncovering secret areas gives a flat score bonus, as does completing certain areas in less than a specified time. There is no gameplay benefit to getting these points, but the ranking system will help replayability, if you’re a stickler for that kind of thing.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Mighty No. 9’s gameplay are the boss weapons and transformations. Compared with recent Mega Man games, the boss weapons are mostly useless and the transformations are almost entirely aesthetic. The only useful weapons I found were Mighty No. 5’s, which fires a remote mine that sticks to surfaces and enemies, and Mighty No. 7’s, which can be used to cheese the final boss. Most of the weapons are extremely situational, and many are orders of magnitude less useful than your default blaster. It varies from boss to boss, but quite a few of the counters are soft, rather than hard, and you may have better luck on the bosses just sticking with your default weapon.
The game lacks any kind of ‘Weapon Get!’ screen, which doesn’t sound like a big problem, but I’d honestly forgotten how much I need that screen to show me how to use a weapon – there were several weapons with alternative functions that I didn’t learn about until quite late in the game. For example, Mighty No. 6’s has a boomerang-like weapon which is utterly useless in combat – but if you hold the weapon button and jump, the boomerang turns into a propeller, which lets you jump higher and glide. To be fair to Mighty No. 9, I think that information is in the game, but it’s hidden off in an obscure menu somewhere.
Another nitpick I have with the weapon system is switching between weapons. Mega Man 9 and 10 are examples of how this should be done – you have a pause menu that you can access to switch between weapons, or you can use buttons on the controller to switch through them in real-time. Mighty No. 9 instead opts for a really awkward menu system – you push one button to bring up the list of weapons as a vertical menu (no names, just relatively small icons), then you use two other buttons to move the cursor (but this doesn’t actually select the weapon) and then finally confirm your choice by pushing the first button again. It’s magnitudes more awkward than using the system in Mega Man 9 and 10, and there is no way to pause the game and swap weapons. The sheer clunkiness of this system actually dissuaded me from using the weapons a lot of the time, and it’s a nightmare during multi-stage bosses, where bad menu usage can easily result in premature player death. Who am I fighting here, the bosses, or the menus? And for that matter, what am I fighting for?
I feel obligated to talk about the game’s enemy behaviours in this review, but you’ll probably have heard a lot of it before. Many of the enemies in the game are straight expies of old Mega Man enemies, sometimes to an almost plagaristic level – for example, there’s one enemy that functions and looks almost identical to Mega Man’s ‘Sniper Joe’ enemies. However, there are also a few sprinklings of originality to be found. There are fast-moving enemies that will bumrush you, but flee if they’re damaged and enter their vulnerable state. There are fire enemies that will stick out or rotate long flaming poles, retract these poles as they take more damage, and unretract them as they recover their health. There are floating enemies which are shielded by spinning discs, who shoot their shields at you as projectiles, leaving them vulnerable to attack for a brief time, but forcing the player to act quickly before the shields return. The original enemies in Mighty No. 9 are designed with an acute awareness of the game’s absorption dynamic, and encounters with them are interesting and varied as a result.
The major issue I have with Mighty No. 9’s enemies is the lack of variety. Each level has a handful of unique enemies, but there are a core group of enemies that appear in pretty much every level in the game. Some of these enemies are pretty flexible, and they still make for interesting encounters even on the final level, but others just feel like cannon fodder. The bland visuals and lack of enemy variety has the unfortunate side-effect of making some of the levels blend into one another.
Mighty No. 9’s level design is generally good. Some levels are much easier than others, as in classic Mega Man, so there’s definitely an element of discovering the path of least resistance. There are stage gimmicks, but they’re mostly forgettable. The one really egregious example of poor stage gimmickry is Mighty No. 8’s stage. The entire stage is one long, linear corridor that loops around. The boss hides in different parts of the level, and takes potshots at you with a sniper rifle, forcing you to take cover for extended periods of time. When you do find Mighty No. 8, you have to attack him within a certain amount of time, or he runs away to another part of the level. You have to do this several times.
To the level’s credit, he fires bullets that bounce off walls and can be redirected through the level by certain objects, which makes dodging them quite interesting – but other than that, it’s an absolute slog.
The levels are made in a very standard platformer style, mostly regular platforming, but peppered with the standard gamut of autoscrollers, minibosses and monster closet-type encounters. Of these, I quite enjoyed the autoscrollers and minibosses, but the monster closets felt as though the game was just trying to buy time. For most of the game, the camera scrolls in all 4 directions, although there are also vertical and horizontal scrolling sections. The presence of vertical scrolling and 4-way scrolling make the level layouts feel a lot closer to Mega Man X than classic Mega Man.
One thing I feel obligated to mention is the game’s approach to difficulty tuning. Mighty No. 9 has an expy of Eddy, who will occasionally drop into the levels and give you health upgrades and extra lives. Unlike Eddy, who gives you random stuff, this guy will give you items depending on your current performance in the level. If you’ve died a lot, you’re likely to get a lot of stuff (up to 3 items, one of which is very often an extra guy). If you’re doing comparatively well, you might only get a small health pickup or a passive ability. This is a pretty heavy-handed way of doing difficulty tuning, made more so by the fact that enemies don’t drop health pickups or extra guys, meaning that this (along with the odd extra guy you’ll get from a secret area) is your primary method of recovering health and guys. However, whilst it’s heavy-handed, it’s also totally transparent, and I would much rather a difficulty tuning mechanic convey to me exactly how much shame I should be feeling, rather than trying to make me think I’m getting better at the game when I’m not.
In more general terms, I found the difficulty of Mighty No. 9 to be fairly consistent with previous Mega Man titles. It offers a fair challenge that is never particularly unreasonable (except for maybe the final boss). I rarely had to replay levels more than a few times, and I beat a number of the levels and bosses on my first try. This is definitely a game made for long-time fans of Mega Man, and if you’re new to the series, or to 2D platformers, it won’t pull any punches, but otherwise you should expect a game that has a satisfying and even difficulty curve.
The game is available for the standard indie price point ($20, or 20 trillion post-brexit british freedom pesos). The main game, including DLCs, will last you 5-6 hours, assuming you’ve had some experience with Mega Man, and beyond that, there’s extra difficulty options, the aforementioned ranking system, a challenge mode with around 60 challenges (split into co-op and singleplayer challenges) an online battle race mode (which you can try at your own risk) and leaderboards for all of those things.
Unfortunately, Mighty No. 9 fails to deliver on many of its kickstarter promises. Ports of the game have been promised, but have yet failed to materialise. Stages are missing. And some of the stretch goal features, like the 8-bit soundtrack, feel like they’ve had very little effort put into them.
- Estimated Delivery: Dec 2013
- Regular Documentary Episode by 2-player productions – only 2 so far, one from right at the start and one from the middle of development
- Extra Stages (kickstarter shows ‘two more stages’, ‘extra end stage’, ‘intro stage’ AND ‘single-player call stage’ – contestable, but the final game has an intro stage, 8 main stages, and then two more stages, plus a very short optional DLC stage. If you’re assuming that the game would have 8 stages and a final stage, then the stretch goal additions would put the total at 14, but the game only has 13.
- PSVita and 3DS releases
- Mac and Linux versions (may be coming later, but not at the time of review)
- Challenge mode (and it’s quite good)
- Support character
- Co-op challenge mode
- New game+ and extra difficulty modes
- 8-bit soundtrack
Mighty No. 9 surprised me. It surprised me because I actually got a great deal of enjoyment out of it. When things get going, and you’re barrelling through the stages at high speed, building up combos, absorbing enemies, et cetera, it’s a lot of fun. It really begs the question: what was everyone expecting?
If this game were released yesterday with zero build-up, it would have been received much more positively. But the game was assassinated by disastrous marketing, endless delays and almost unattainably high expectations. The truth is, Mighty No. 9 isn’t bad. The game design is often quite clever and at worst relatively enjoyable, even if the other elements are poor. Mighty No. 9 joins Mega Man X8 and Mega Man 5 in the comfortable mediocrity zone – it might not be quite as good as its peers, but even a bad Mega Man game is still a good game. No, not you, Mega Man X7, go back to your hole.
Speaking of Mega Man X7 – did you know that Mighty No. 9 got worse scores from critics than that game? I think that Mighty No. 9 is a sacrificial lamb – It’s a game that it’s socially acceptable to hate. Game commentators point to Mighty No. 9 in the same way that they did to The Order : 1886, as if it’s proof that they’re still real critics, as if it somehow validates them, the fact that they can occasionally pick out a mediocre game and assign it the score that it actually deserves.
I’ve played a lot of bad action platformer games, and am in the process of making one. As the terrible opening cutscene rolled on, I was already devising a review (‘Mighty No. 9: Better Than Nothing?‘) in my head. But, whilst it’s far from perfect, the more thoughtful aspects of Mighty No. 9’s design challenged those assumptions and ultimately left me quite impressed.
If you’re looking for a great Mega Man-like game to play, I would definitely recommend Mega Man 9 and 10 over this. You should also try the equally excellent (and free) fangame Mega Man Unlimited. But if you can pick up Mighty No. 9 in a Steam sale or Humble Bundle, it’s worth a try. Just remember to turn down the voiceovers.
Version reviewed: PC (Humble Store DRM-free)
* Although this may not be the most nuanced translation of what he said.