Andrew in Steamland:
Original Game, Do Not Steal
Mega Man is dead, doomed to exist only as a procession of half-hearted ports capitalizing on the segment of gamers who don’t know what emulators are. That doesn’t mean demand has gone away, though; there are plenty of people who are nostalgic for Mega Man, and others, like me, who got into the series late and enjoy it because it does things modern games don’t. While Capcom might not want that money, indie developers sure do. And so the “we changed just enough to not get sued into oblivion by Capcom” genre was born.
One of the trailblazers was Rosenkreuzstilette, in much the same sense that Sir John Franklin was one of the trailblazers of Arctic exploration. In theory, it takes inspiration from classic Mega Man games to recreate the gameplay with an all-female cast who all speak German. Something about mages and Rosicrucianism, I don’t know. It all made a lot more sense when I found out the characters are repurposed from a canceled hentai game. I thought I’d give it a chance anyway; after all, it just got a Steam port not long ago, and my library is closing in on 200 games. Let’s go wild.
This game is wild, all right. The difficulty curve resembles a seismograph taken during the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Most stages occupy an uncomfortable niche where they’re hellishly difficult the first time and then never again. Every boss encounter played out the same way: I’d lose a life or two figuring out the attack pattern, then clear the fight without taking damage because bosses in this game only have two attacks. And that’s being generous, considering their second attack is just the first one with more projectiles, and they only bother using it once their health bar is half empty. It would have been even more of a letdown if I cared enough to use their weaknesses. That was never necessary once I figured out that this isn’t a hard game, it’s just an easy game with a lot of cheap tricks.
And there’s nothing cheaper than Quick Man lasers, the only Mega Man gimmick worse than those annoying disappearing blocks. Any veteran Mega Man player would simply kill the boss with the time-stopping weapon and clear the level that way. It’s what I did, but RKS‘s developers thought of that and inserted several falling platforms into the stage. They don’t work when time is frozen, forcing the player to do things the honest way – “honest” in this case meaning “look it up on Youtube because the intended solution is rote memorization.” Replaying the same sequence of blind jumps until you find the one path that doesn’t lead to instant death isn’t fun any more than tracing over Capcom’s work and then plastering it with references to other games makes you original.
The game’s biggest fault is that it suffers from ROMhack disease: the developers understand all the ingredients that go into a game without knowing how to combine them. Sure, RKS has eight bosses, weapon stealing, and instant death spikes. I have eggs, milk, frosting, and some flour, but that doesn’t mean I have a cake. If I throw it all in a bowl and microwave it for an hour, all I’ll end up with is inedible slop.
Still, I’ll admit I had just a little bit of fun with it. You might be wondering, if the levels are a chore, the bosses are disappointing, and it doesn’t do anything that wasn’t already better-executed in the classic Mega Man games, then what does that leave? It can’t be the story, which I couldn’t care less about. Honestly, it’s an unremarkable game that nobody would have paid attention to if not for how aggressively it wears its influences on its sleeve. But they’re good influences, so maybe, in its desperation to remind me it’s inspired by Mega Man, RKS briefly fooled me into thinking I was playing a better game.
Speaking of better games… actually, it’s not time for that yet. First, we have a game I thought about covering when it launched. However, out of sympathy for the developers, I delayed my review twelve months. Yes, it’s time to take a look at Mighty No. 9, the totally-legally-distinct-from-Mega-Man game produced by Keiji Inafune, the creator* of Mega Man, featuring such memorable characters as… is his name Beck now? I think it is. They wanted to make a pun by naming two characters Beck and Call, as in “call the fans and tell them we’re pushing back the release date so we can put in online leaderboards and ‘retro’ Minecraft skins for Beck.”
*but not really
Might No. 9 (I wasted the Revolution 9 reference too early, it seems) starts off on the wrong foot and stays there. In fact, the first thing I saw when I went to pick up the game was a lie, or at least some marketing executive’s delusional dream: the front of the box boasts that this is a cross-buy game, and owning the PS4 copy entitles the player to the PS3 and Vita versions as well. Only there is no Vita version. Well, what about the DLC advertised on the back of the box? Comcept had the gall to take four million dollars from the fans up front and then launch a game with day one DLC anyway, but they can be somewhat forgiven if it’s good. And maybe it is, but I’ll never know; the code inside the box expired in February. That’s less than a year after the game’s launch. Not only are digital codes perishable goods now, but they have a shorter shelf life than canned beans.
But is the game fun? Everyone’s heard about the mismanagement, about Inafune bailing on MN9 to beg for money to rip off Mega Man Legends, about the infamous “anime fan on prom night” trailer, and while none of those things bode well, they don’t doom the game. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl managed to claw its way into my cold, black heart despite its Duke Nukem Forever-esque development cycle. Who’s to say MN9 is doomed just because of a little horrendous incompetence at every level and every stage of production?
A lot of the legwork on the game was done by Inti Creates, who have a better track record making Mega Man than Capcom do. After making four Mega Man Zero games, two ZX games, Mega Man 9 and 10, and the original-but-suspiciously-Mega-Man-like Azure Striker Gunvolt series, they’ve pretty well shown that if they couldn’t make MN9 fun, nobody could. Unfortunately, Inafune was hellbent on simultaneously launching the game on a dozen platforms while forcing the dev team to use an engine none of them had any experience with. On top of that, I can’t shake the feeling that Inti Creates put their B-team on the project while the real talent was busy with Gunvolt 2, which was released a few months after MN9.
Just looking at it is enough to instill wariness in the player; while it would be an exaggeration to call it hideous, MN9 definitely looks cheap and uninspired. Where Gunvolt uses crisp, 16-bit-inspired sprite art, MN9 looks like a collection of default Unity assets. I’d say it doesn’t look like a four million dollar game, but Mass Effect: Andromeda cost ten times that much and looks downright ghoulish, so money can’t be the deciding factor here. It may have more to do with how little thought went into any aspect of the game’s design.
Consider the level design. In a good game, and especially good platformers, the player should be able to acquire mastery of the game’s mechanics and an understanding of its design simply by playing it. Playing MN9 for a few hours, the greatest understanding I picked up was that the game hates me and doesn’t want to be played. I’m not sure what other conclusion I’m supposed to draw when there are multiple drops into traps that can’t be avoided without clairvoyance. Yes, I suppose it’s slightly clever hiding instant death spikes just below the edge of the screen in a narrow shaft where the player won’t have room to move out of the way by the time they’re in sight. It’s also infuriating. I Wanna Be the Guy is free, and at least I’d know what I’m getting into. What’s your excuse, MN9? Did fans not reach the stretch goal that makes the game playable?
Even if level design were a non-issue, the core gameplay is dull and unrewarding. The game is built around dashing into enemies to absorb their power, and the problem with this is twofold: as a series, Mega Man is built around shooting enemies, which encourages keeping some distance from them, but the dash in MN9 peters out almost immediately and confers no momentum; and the power-ups from this have almost no utility and disappear after one or two seconds. If there’s almost no advantage to using it, and it isn’t fun in and of itself, then what’s the point? It would make sense if Beck were extremely mobile and the dash ensured the entire screen is in play. It would make sense if Beck had ranged and melee attacks from the start. It would make sense if the level design encouraged moving ahead quickly and didn’t have cheap, nigh-unavoidable traps littered about. But none of those things are true, so by extension there’s no real reason to engage with a mechanic so important, most of the infamous “anime fan on prom night” trailer was devoted to it. Not that the game gives the player much choice, since dashing is mandatory to clear boss fights. See, damaging the boss doesn’t actually deal damage; unless the player dashes into the boss, it will recover within a few seconds. But you can’t just dash into it at any time, only when the boss dips below certain health thresholds. Good luck figuring out what those are, because these health bars are almost impossible to read.
Speaking of impossible to read, the final boss is yet another Yellow Devil fight, only this time it’s neon purple. It really stands out against the neon purple background and neon purple foreground. When I’m allowed to actually damage the boss instead of merely dealing pretend damage, it glows a convenient shade of neon purple. Fortunately, it’s very easy to check if the damage registered due to the life bar’s neon purple hue. The only problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to dodge its neon purple attacks, possibly because I’m not a hummingbird and my pitiful human eyes can’t see far enough into the ultraviolet spectrum to appreciate these aesthetics.
That’s two bad games, so obviously I’m about to talk about a good one. Some of you have probably already guessed which one, even! A game that’s fair, fast-paced, and replicates the feel of Mega Man while still doing its own thing. A game that sells itself through gameplay, not plagiarism or meaningless pedigree.
Takkoman: Kouzatsu World.
Yeah, sure, Gunvolt is good too, and probably deserves its own article. I was actually going to include it in this one until I balked at playing four or five games for a single article; if people want to read about it that much, I can always do a second part. Faced with a choice, I went with the inimitably weird, relatively obscure Takkoman. It’s a bit of a cheat, I’ll admit, seeing as the game isn’t on Steam. Please humor me.
Even by my standards, this is a niche game: it’s a fan production inspired by memes and sprite edits in a Touhou fighting game thread on 2chan, so I anticipate some skepticism when I tell you it captures the spirit of Mega Man better than any other derivative title I’ve played – even the one made by Inafune. At the very least, it makes the most of the Mega Man Zero holy trinity of jump-dash-slash. On some level, it’s another “what if instead of robots, everyone was a magical girl?” find-and-replace job like RKS, but Takkoman takes things in a decidedly more surreal, more interesting direction.
Like MN9, it places a greater emphasis on dashing than real Mega Man games. Unlike MN9, it doesn’t make me want to drink until my heart gives out. The key is that in Takkoman, dashing is useful, intuitive, and fun. Not only is dashing in multiple directions possible, but dashing also clears enemy bullets and makes the player invulnerable for a split-second. This second point is indispensable, since this game’s other parent is Touhou, and as such enemies are liable to spew out strings of colorful bullets at any moment. The other thing the game brings to the table is that, unlike every other Mega Man and Mega Man-shaped game I’ve ever seen, boss weapons don’t replace the default attack, and are instead activated through a combination of directional inputs and a dedicated button, like a fighting game. And if platformer/SHMUP/fighting game sounds like the poster child for too many cooks spoiling the broth, don’t worry – it actually feels natural. At their core, the game’s design sensibilities are still Mega Man. Don’t let the armless, neckless homunculus of a player character fool you.
None of this is revolutionary, and the level design ranges from uninspired to decent. One level is set mostly within an elevator where wave after wave of enemies is thrown at the player; it’s fun, but it feels like the developers ran out of time and shipped with half the level missing. Also, someone on the team had a bad habit of plasting floating arrows all over. Nothing in Takkoman is so non-linear that I ever got lost, so I’m not sure why they felt that kind of hand-holding was necessary. And… well, I’m trying to think of more rankling sore spots and coming up short. While the levels can be a bit lacking, the boss fights offer exactly the challenge and fast-paced action I want from this kind of game. Controls are responsive, movement is tight, and the graphics are look shockingly good, even if I’m not sure what I’m looking at most of the time.
If I don’t have as much to say about this one as the others, it’s because they share much of the same formula and conventions: eight bosses, four or so extra levels leading to a multiple-phase confrontation with the final boss, you know the drill. All three of these games share a lot of the same DNA. But then, the genetic similarity between a human and a chimpanzee is roughy 96%, yet I still wouldn’t want to have a chimp living in my house. That 4% can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes it makes more difference than all the crowdfunding stretch goals in the world.
Just to dispel any lingering doubts you might have, I’m absolutely serious. I wouldn’t inflict three bad games in a row on myself. It’s with complete sincerity that I say Takkoman is as fun as it is weird.
And it’s really fucking weird.