I'm sure Mega Man, the cult NES 2D action platformer, wasn't this hard back in the day. I remember actually enjoying Mega Man 2 and 3 in the early nineties. And actually being able to get past the first few screens. Some things change, and some things stay the same, as they say.
Mega Man 9, a brand new Mega Man game developed by Inti Creates and published as a downloadable title by Capcom over Xbox LIVE, PSN and WiiWare, is the hardest game I can ever remember playing. Perhaps my gaming skills have been massaged into oblivion by endless tutorial levels and accessible interfaces. Perhaps my hand-eye coordination is degrading due to old age. Whatever the reason, Mega Man 9 pwns me. It pwns me good and proper.
For the first hour or so of play, I couldn't get past the first two or three screens on any of the nine available stages. I would tear my hair out trying. Not only do you feel as if Mega Man 9 actually wants you to die, a lot, but you also get the impression that it jumps for delirious joy when it sends you falling to your doom. Damnable white bullets, frustrating floaty enemies, elephants that shoot giant balls across the screen from their snouts then suck them, and you, back in - I suffered from it all. I endured painful death after painful death from them all.
Normally I'd simply give up, put the unreasonable difficulty down to poor game design or something like that and give it a 4/10. But Mega Man 9 is supposed to be like this. In fact, it's great because of it.
That's because it's been designed to be one thing and one thing only - a treat for masochistic Mega Man fans. The kind of people who can speed run through Mega Man 2. The kind of people who can hack into the Matrix with their mind and instantly know how many pixels they have to spare. The kind of people who love 8-bit gaming so much that they've never really let it go. The kind of people who would happily play Mega Man games until their eyes burst from sprite flicker.
Sprite flicker is, in fact, the proof of the pudding. In the game's options menu you can turn what's called Legacy Mode off. By default the sprite flicker is on. That's right. Capcom has deliberately left sprite flicker in the game, as if to reinforce its 8-bit-ness.
The game has no widescreen support either, instead displaying in classic 4:3. The music is a mix of 8-bit beeps, whoops and brrrs that's guaranteed to rekindle memories of playground football and that first kiss behind the P.E. shed. And the graphics... well the graphics are on a par with Mega Man 2. A 20-year-old game.
Mega Man 9 hasn't been designed to drag the little blue bomber kicking and screaming into the 'next generation'. This is not a HD remake of a classic title either, like Capcom's already released Bionic Commando Rearmed, or the upcoming Super Street Fighter II HD Remix. Mega Man 9 sticks two pixellated fingers up at all that jazz. It's unashamedly, punishingly hard. And it doesn't care what you Halo and Gears players think.
As such it follows the classic Mega Man format - fight your way through brutal 2D platform stages, face off against a boss and, as a reward, get yourself a new gun. If your mad l33t hardcore skillz are good enough, you'll have a blast breezing through this and will instead be more interested in the Time Trial mode and nailing those speed runs. Crucially, Capcom has implemented an online leader board system - great for showing off your mad l33t hardcore skillz to the rest of the world.
There's also an in-built achievement system as well. There are 50 challenges which range from the fairly easy (although fairly easy in the context of Mega Man 9 means nigh on impossible in the context of modern gaming in general) to the 'oh my god I don't believe it (39 - Blue Bomber - Defeat a boss without getting damaged - good luck with that one)' category. These challenges are guaranteed to give the fans something to aim towards. For the rest of their lives.
If you somehow get through all of the game's stages, AND somehow complete all of the game's challenges, Capcom's got some DLC up its sleeve to keep you interested. This includes even harder modes and new characters to play as (Proto Man). The only down side to this is that you'll have to pay for it all.
While the game's story is almost incidental to the retro platforming challenge, it's worth noting, since it's all part of the game's charm. Set after Mega Man 8, riots have sprung up across the world after an army of mysterious robots attack. Everyone suspects the evil Dr. Wily, but he lets everyone know, via a TV broadcast, that the robots are in fact Dr. Light's, and has somehow managed to get hold of footage showing Light asking Wily to join his evil plans. Hilariously, he asks people to send him money so that he can build a new robot army and save the world. Does he really expect us to believe him?
The vibrant, retro look reinforces the game's charm even further. The backgrounds are eye-catching, the enemies well designed (you'll hate them and appreciate them in equal measure) and the level design challenging and thoughtful enough to satisfy any Mega Man maniac. In short, Capcom's done a fantastic job - if you're a fan.
If you're not, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. There's nothing particularly fun about constantly dying what feels like a hundred unfair deaths an hour (the ability to buy power ups from a store does help, but not by much). If Mega Man is more of an enigma than a role model, you'll want to pass this one by. And don't feel like you're not hardcore because of it, either. You can't win them all.
So, some things change, and some things stay the same. My 2D platforming skills have certainly changed. For the worst. My time with Mega Man 9 has proved that conclusively. But some things stay the same, even when everything else moves on. For that, Capcom should be praised. Still, a 'next-gen' Mega Man would be so cool...