Forgive me for sounding like an article on things only ’90s kids will remember or something, but looking back on things, Mega Man was practically the Assassin’s Creed of the ’90s. It was a near-annual stream of games that each varied in quality while still having similar formulas with minor changes, though the majority of them were still good. It got to the point where we couldn’t imagine a year without them (moreso if you go beyond the Classic series), which is why the massive gap since Mega Man 10 seemed shocking. Now we finally have Mega Man 11, though, back after an eight-year absence. But we keep saying that Assassin’s Creed needs to take more time off in order to improve and innovate, and the same can go for Mega Man. Will this absence still lead to a new entry that improves upon things?
Plot-wise, not much else has changed for Mega Man 11. Dr. Wily is back with another scheme for world domination, this time recalling an invention from his college days. Called the Double Gear system, it was a controversial way to boost efficiency in robots, as it put a lot of strain on them, which led to Dr. Light speaking out against his old friend back then and disgracing him in the process. Now Wily has burst into Light’s lab just as he’s performing a checkup on eight (of course) robots, reprogramming them. So now with eight new Robot Masters to battle, even more powerful than ever before, Dr. Light gives Rock an edge. So now with a prototype of the Double Gear installed, Mega Man sets out to do what he does best.
The Double Gear is indeed the biggest addition to Mega Man’s gameplay and it works extremely well. Using either the LB or RB button (or equivalent of), players trigger either the Speed Gear or the Power Gear. The Speed Gear slows down time and allows Mega Man to move faster, the Power Gear creates more powerful shots. Naturally, each one only lasts for a limited amount of time, with a cooldown meter to help things recharge. And if you don’t turn off any gear after said amount of time, it overheats and takes even longer.
It sounds simple in theory and may not even seem like a game changer at first, but the more you play around with it, the more fun it becomes. The challenge comes in recognizing when to properly use each one and switch between them. When an auto-scrolling wall of death is headed your way, you need to suddenly figure out whether it’s best to slow things down and take time to properly navigate or to quickly blow away any obstacles ASAP. The only disappointment here is with the special Double Gear attack, a fusion of both gears with an extra-long cooldown timer that can only be activated when Mega Man is low on health. I do love risk/reward dilemmas in video games, but never was there any real opportunity for this attack. If extremely low on health, it tended to be a simple energy tank that bailed me out more.
But getting back to how the Double Gear is a boon, it helps that the stages are perfectly designed to utilize it. Mega Man 11 has levels where everything is intricately laid out to benefit each mechanic or even none of them. From what I could tell, it may actually be possible for extremely skilled players to complete things without using the Double Gear at all. It would be an insane task, but it’s possible. But the fact that you can tackle levels in whatever manner you prefer and still receive a good challenge says a lot about how well-crafted things are.
Of course, utilization of the Double Gear isn’t the only thing that makes Mega Man 11’s level design a success. Per tradition, each one has a central theme and unique gimmicks related to its Robot Master. Blast Man has an amusement park with timed explosives and kamikaze sentai goons. Torch Man has a campsite with lantern enemies that leave the place in darkness if defeated. Acid Man has enemies that can gradually make harmless pits of liquid corrosive. They’re all a bunch of nifty ideas that work perfectly. Well, except for Bounce Man’s stage, maybe. The idea is great — a fitness center where you bounce off several colorful balls — but the execution falls flat. Namely because the controls for bouncing off of them feel a bit odd when it comes to timing. You practically have to double jump to get things to work.
But even if Bounce Man’s stage is a slight letdown, I do love Bounce Man himself. In fact, all of the Robot Masters in this game are some of the best the series has had. They all just seem to have more personality and charm than usual. Between Bounce Man’s childlike glee and rotund appearance, Tundra Man’s figure skater mannerisms and flamboyancy, Torch Man treating things like a fighting game with martial arts moves, and the others, there’s a lot to like here. Heck, the unlockable Gallery pieces flesh out every enemy and it’s worth checking them out. Even the mid-bosses in each stage are a delight in challenge and design.
This is largely possible to Mega Man 11’s stellar aesthetics as well. Some may scoff at the jump to 3D, but Capcom managed to pull it off here. Mega Man and his enemies still have the same wide-eyed charm as always with great animation. The backgrounds and scenery are as colorful as always and full of more cool details than ever. Seeing a giant Block Man pyramid or a bunch of Metools around a campfire is a sweet delight. Unsurprisingly, the music is also a delight for the ears, full of as many fast-paced electronic delights as ever. Regardless of the number of dimensions, it’s still the same classic Mega Man style, just more enhanced.
All of this and we haven’t even gotten to the basic gameplay yet. I suppose that’s because there isn’t that much to talk about. Mega Man 11 still utilizes the same simple controls as all of its predecessors did: Jump, shoot, charge, slide, et cetera. No need to fool around there. But with the same classic setup comes the same classic difficulty, especially with the boss fights. Now enhanced with the Double Gear, each Robot Master has an additional stage where they have supercharged attacks. It’s a simple addition, but an effective one that adds to the fight the game puts up. And as usual, defeating them means experimenting and attempting to figure out which weapon gained from one Robot Master is effective against another one…or alternatively, just barge in with a load of energy tanks that you purchased from the store, like I did.
Yes, the store is back for Mega Man 11, allowing players to collect screws to exchange for power-ups. As you progress, more gear appears to check out alongside the energy tanks and extra lives, including chips that can charge the Mega Buster automatically, allow for bigger blasts, make enemies drop more health and more, in a nice touch (although a way to purchase multiple consumable items at once would be appreciated). These are all completely optional, of course, but the wide variety of upgrades combined with the multiple difficulty levels may actually make this the most accessible Mega Man game in some time. And yes, if I haven’t made it clear by now, things will be challenging. And sometimes, not exactly in the best way.
As expertly as Mega Man 11’s levels are laid out, some cheap deaths are inevitable. You never know when one small blast knocks you off of Rush Jet and into a bottomless pit, for example. And the game really seems to love those pits, auto-scrollers, and other insta-kill methods more than usual. Maybe this is meant to be its way of compensating in order to allow more multiple gameplay styles while still keeping things challenging. It never becomes so annoying that it ends up being a deal-breaker, but it is a notable flaw.
Which, while we’re at it, bring us to Mega Man 11’s most notable flaw. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I asked if Mega Man 11 had an ace up its sleeve? Some hidden surprise to rock us with? Well, the answer is…no. It’s…pretty much just a Mega Man sequel.
Now, it’s a darn good sequel, in case I haven’t made that clear already. And Mega Man 11 clearly has made improvements with a new style, the Double Gear mechanics, increased upgrade options and more. It even has a good chunk of optional challenge modes and time trials, which are fun and add to the replay value. But I just couldn’t shake that feeling that Mega Man 11 just needs a little something more. And annoyingly, I don’t even fully know what that something is. Maybe it should have been longer. While the difficulty will keep you on your toes for hours trying to make the perfect moves in order to cross a series of pits while missiles are being fired at you, some parts do feel a bit short. The last few sections of Dr. Wily’s castle even had me going “Is that it?” at times.
Maybe this was just our fault. We were seemingly expecting some grand, triumphant return; not just a sequel, but the Blue Bomber’s biggest adventure yet. But it seems like Capcom just wanted to pick up where they left off. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. A classic, traditional adventure with a few enhancements is probably what we need to get used to Mega Man being back again. But should Mega Man 11 get a sequel – which it should, let’s not wait another near-decade for this, Capcom, it will need to evolve in some way or another. Maybe a greater focus on story? Mega Man 11’s narrative is a simple one, but it works, and we’d like to see more of that, along with the returns of characters from the previous games. But that’s all for next time. And for now, what Mega Man 11 has works perfectly.
Even if it could stand to benefit from a little something extra, this is still a triumphant return for the Blue Bomber. Mega Man 11 is another stellar entry in the series, plain and simple. The classic gameplay still works as well as it did years ago, and the newer touches courtesy of the graphical enhancements and the Double Gear system are welcome additions. It’s a sweet blend of the old and the new that makes for one rock solid platformer, and one you should check out, even if this is your first experience with the franchise. Welcome back, Mega Man. I know we shouldn’t call it a comeback because you’ve been here for years, but you still know how to deliver a knockout.