*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Mega Man 11*
Mega Man is in a unique place among gaming’s classic franchises. Unlike Mario or Zelda, Mega Man doesn’t strive to innovate with each new iteration. In fact, the Blue Bomber more or less settled on its formula back in the NES days, which saw no less than six entries make their way on the console. Perhaps ‘settled’ is too negative a way to put it, as the series found ways to tweak and twist its classic formula, and each entry still remained fun to play.
After a decade of classic Mega Man titles (which saw two additional entries on SNES and Playstation/Saturn), developer Capcom simply stopped making further iterations in the classic series in favor of its various spinoffs like Mega Man X or Mega Man Battle Network. Then, after a decade of dormancy, the original Mega Man series returned with Mega Man 9 in 2008, which paid homage to the NES games. It seemed like Mega Man was here to stay once again, with Mega Man 10 following suit in 2010. But after 10, the series once again left the spotlight. This time, however, there weren’t even any spinoff titles to speak of. Mega Man simply disappeared (outside of recent compilation releases of past games). Series producer Keiji Inafune left Capcom, and many thought the developer was withholding the series out of spite.
Well, after an eight-year hiatus, the main Mega Man series is finally back with the aptly-named Mega Man 11. And while it still may not be an evolutionary step in gaming that we expect from Mario or Zelda, Mega Man shows no signs of rust after his extended absence. The wheel may not be reinvented, but Mega Man 11 still finds enough new tricks to feel like a proper sequel, and not just a nostalgic retread.
The first difference you’re bound to notice between Mega Man 11 and its immediate predecessors are the visuals. While 9 and 10 paid homage to the 8-bit origins of the series, Mega Man 11 looks like a proper follow-up to Mega Man 8’s more cartoony aesthetics. It’s a welcome change of pace to be honest. As nice as it was to see 8-bit Mega Man return on (then)modern hardware for the past two games, simply repeating the throwback visuals for a third time in a row may not have had the same appeal. By continuing the style of Mega Man’s 7 and 8, 11 feels like a more unique sequel paying respects to Mega Man’s most tragically overlooked gems. Not to mention the variety of bright colors and ‘softer’ character models transition really well into the current gaming age. As is expected of the Mega Man series, 11 also features a great soundtrack that – although not among the series’ best – provides some of the catchiest video game music of 2018.
As for the structure of the game, well, it’s exactly what you would expect: Eight Robot Masters are waiting at the end of eight different stages, which can be played in any order the player sees fit. Each defeated Robot Master gives Mega Man a new power, with each power being particularly effective against a different Robot Master. Once these eight stages are completed, Mega Man moves on to Dr. Wily’s Castle for a small series of especially difficult stages leading up to a confrontation with the mad doctor himself.
In another nod to Mega Man 8, the Blue Bomber can collect bolts throughout stages, which can then be used to purchase items in between stages. Some of these are the usual extra lives, E and W Tanks (for refilling health and weapon power, respectively), but you can also purchase special items like a shield that reduces damage by half and Beat the robotic bird, who will rescue Mega Man should he fall into a bottomless pit. You can also purchase items that will permanently boost Mega Man’s abilities during your playthrough.
If the structure is the same, what exactly is new about Mega Man 11 that differentiates it from its predecessors? Well, the benefit of platformers is that, even if a series re-uses the same blueprints, the level design alone can distinguish one game from the rest. And for the most part, the level design in Mega Man 11 is stellar. The stages are lengthy, have distinctive themes that find their way into the gameplay, and provide a good challenge. On the downside, the game seems to overuse some swarming, constantly spawning enemies, which feels like an unnecessary means to make already difficult platforming sections even more difficult. Sure, past Mega Man games had some sections with constantly spawning enemies, but Mega Man 11 pulls that card a little too often.
The big new mechanic of Mega Man 11 is the Double Gear System. As the name implies, the Double Gear System features two new abilities, both of which are activated with shoulder buttons, and can only be used for a short duration before the Double Gear System overheats and needs to recharge. The Power Gear boosts the strength of not only Mega Man’s Mega Buster, but also the Robot Master abilities, leading to a variety of super powerful moves. Meanwhile, the Speed Gear makes Mega Man move so fast that everything around him seems to be in slow motion.
The Double Gear System is a great addition to the classic Mega Man gameplay, though it can feel a tad underutilized. The Power Gear, in conjunction with the Robot Master abilities, adds an extra element to the series’ rock-paper-scissors setup, and the Speed Gear sees some innovative uses in auto-scrolling and sub-boss sections. But by the time you finish the adventure, you can’t help but feel that the game could have provided more opportunities where you felt the gears were needed. Mega Man 11 does feature some additional challenge modes – like time trials, collecting blue balloons for points while avoiding red balloons, and things of that sort – but they aren’t exactly game-changers. So while these modes may serve as fun distractions, they still leave you wanting a little more for the main adventure.
Mega Man 11 is a tried-and-true sequel. A worthy follow-up to an iconic series that feels all the more welcome due to the series’ lengthy hiatus. The Double Gear System is a nice little twist, but you may hope that, come Mega Man 12, the series might see a more radical change. Imagine a Mega Man title with 12 Robot Masters! Or 16! Or a sequel that lets you combine Robot Master abilities! The series already has a timeless formula to fallback on, so it could use a littler more experimentation. If Mega Man 12 tries its hand at something radically different for the series and falls short, they can always backtrack with Mega Man 13. This is a hard series to cause any permanent damage to itself.
The classic Mega Man formula will admittedly always work to an extent, and Mega Man 11 is as fun as ever. But considering the Double Gear System feels a little underutilized – and other than that system this is a very straightforward Mega Man sequel – you can’t help but hope that the next entry will bring a little bit more to the table in regards to newness. Mega Man 11 delivers the Mega Man goodness the gaming world has been missing for far too long, but hopefully next time around, Mega Man can push himself to be even more.