After the release of Mega Man 8, the classic series underwent an extended hiatus while the X series continued, eventually creating another spin-off; the Mega Man Zero series. That latter addition introduced the developer, Inti Creates, into the world of Mega Man. During that time, series producer Keiji Inafune had already expressed a wish to return to the roots of the franchise with a ninth main game in the classic series but didn't think the reception for an intentionally outdated game would be favorable.
However, with the rise of indie games and enthusiasm for retro games, the time was right for a revival, and Inti Creates was commissioned to make it given their record of making Action Platformers and their deep appreciation of the series. Consequently, Mega Man 9 was made to faithfully recreate the experience of the fan-favorite, Mega Man 2, while being technically impossible to make in that era.
The result is a game oozing with nostalgia for the series, and that gained favorable attention from both fans and critics. People loved its throwback to an earlier and simpler time, and many, including Inafune himself, considered it as another "Mega Man 3" attempting to dethrone the fabled second game.
With its 8-bit sound and graphics, it looked like a classic NES Mega Man game, and it reminded everyone how extremely solid those games still were. Of course, I don't think the game would have gotten such a favorable opinion if it wasn't designed as well as it did. While some complained about the increased level of difficulty, which may actually be the highest in any game except the first one, the game does give the player many tools to circumvent those difficulties if they so wish. Overall it's thanks to the expertise of Inti Creates that the game reminded fans of the best parts of the classics, while actually exceeding some aspects of them in many ways.
Reversing the trend of more modern Mega Man games, Mega Man 9 harkens back to the NES classics by relegating the story to the background. Yet, the game still manages to include a somewhat humorous storyline. Despite his past evil deeds, the people of the world somehow believed Dr. Wily's attempts to frame Dr. Light for the latest Robot attacks, which lead to the amusing image of Dr. Light behind bars.
This leads to Mega Man saving the day and clearing his mentor's name, and as he faces Dr. Wily at the end, the game reminds fans of the series of all the times Dr. Wily promised to turn a new leaf.
Curiously, one aspect of the story gives it a grey tinge that is close in tone to the modern Mega Man games. The reason for the latest Robot attacks is that their function has ended, and they were destined to be scrapped or recycled. This allowed them to be easily manipulated into Dr. Wily's evil schemes, but the concept of Robots "dying" when their function is over is discussed throughout the series.
Mega Man 9 doesn't only go back to the series's NES roots by making another 8-Bit game, it goes back to the basics of the first game, foregoing the slide introduced in Mega Man 3 and the Charge Shot introduced in Mega Man 4. In a way, this is a direct sequel to Mega Man 2 in style and function, with Inafune calling it "another attempt at making Mega Man 3".
Yet, this is a game made with modern technology and with a lot of knowledge about the previous six games. It knows that it isn't enough to feel like them, but it must try and exceed them in a way, and it honestly does manage to do that for the most part. The level design in each stage is expertly done, with interesting use of previous obstacles and smart introduction of new ones. The vanishing block in Plug Man's stage is one of the best uses of the classic gimmick, while the teleporters in Galaxy Man's stage are an interesting (if underutilized) addition.
As usual, the Wily stages combine the ideas well into challenging and fun levels and these are some of the best Dr. Wily stages. Thanks to how expertly crafted the game stages are, I didn't feel I missed the slide at all. Yet, many people found the game to be on the difficult side. That's fair, since there are many cases where I felt the jumping was a tad too punishing, and the game loved to spring enemies on you in the vicinity of pits and spikes.
Still, I think that's an overblown complaint to a degree thanks to the addition of the shop. If needed, you can buy items that save you from pits, sub-tanks for health, and even items that halve the damage you receive when entering the level. Honestly, the game gives all the tools needed to comfortably beat it.
It also gives you the option to increase the difficulty if you so wish, with two extra difficulty levels (that make things too frustrating in my opinion). A more interesting take is the Proto Man mode, which allows you to tackle the game as Mega Man's faulty brother. This mode adds a weaker version of the charge shot, a shield that protects you while jumping, as well as the ability to slide. As a price, Proto Man receives double the damage and cannot buy any items, but he also dishes out more damage as well.
Not taking any note of Mega Man 7 & 8's experiment in dividing the Robot Masters into two groups of four, Mega Man 9 goes back to basics with all 8 Robot Masters available to defeat in any order, with a weakness circle that still makes little sense: Splash Women> Concrete Man> Galaxy Man> Jewel Man> Plug Man> Tornado Man> Magma Man> Hornet Man. The design of the Robot Masters flows naturally from their NES days, and they wouldn't look out of place in those games.
Fans of the series will note that this is the first (and only time) the game featured a female Robot Master, and that remains a missed opportunity for Mega Man 10 & 11. Splash Women is cool from every angle and is favored starting level since she is relatively simple and has a fun stage with great music. Also, it helps that her weapon is probably the most useful boss weapon in the game.
Speaking of boss weapons, without the Charge Shot to rely on, they all get more usage from the player, and they provide more utility and power than most Mega Man games. From the defensive nature of Jewel Satelite to the platform creation capabilities of the Concrete shot, this collection of boss weapons is great and is not exclusively used to exploit boss weaknesses.
Of course, exploiting boss weaknesses is still a big part of the game's appeal, and it's good to know that it doesn't completely remove the challenge in boss fights. Nearly every weapon has an additional effect or quality that makes it more effective against the boss that's weak against it. For instance, Tornado Blow not only damages Magma Man more, but it also blows his fire projectile above the screen. If you are looking for more of a challenge, the basic fights against all eight Robot Masters are challenging but beatable and properly balanced. With an average of three patterns to each boss, there are obvious strategies to figure out, and the fights are almost always both fun and fair. This extends to the Dr. Wily bosses, with a new iconic take on the Yellow Devil that's mind-bendingly smart.
This is one of the best combinations of bosses, boss weapons, and fights in the classic series. I didn't feel any fight was unfairly difficult, or trivial when using the correct weapons, and most Robot Master's attacks made thematic and mechanical sense. The one exception is Galaxy Man, whose weapon is excellent, but has the stupidest fight in the game.
When creating the soundtrack for this game, the head composer, Ippo Yamada wanted the team to be inspired by the sounds and spirit of the NES games, but not be constrained by the same tools they had. Consequently, while the music sounded like it would fit right well in an NES cartridge (except the tracks have names this time around), it would have been impossible at the time.
If the goal was only to convey the same spirit of the classic games, then this was a clear success from the start. However, I think that this soundtrack not only does that but also rubs shoulders with the best soundtracks of the entire franchise. It's just soo damn good, and Inti Creates knew that, creating an arranged version of the album (that's not quite as good) as a promotion for the game.
Curiously, Yamada didn't contribute many arrangments to the soundtrack, yet he still came up with one of my top three songs on the list. Hiroki Isogai also had minimal input, but one of his three tracks also found itself on my list. Ryo Kawakami and Yu Shimoda did the lion's share of the soundtrack, with Shimoda authoring my top pick. Ironically, Kawakami's Magma Man's stage theme was my fourth pick.
All of this soundtrack is amazing, with these three tracks being the top of the bunch, but the margins were really thin:
We're the Robots opens with a bang, its chorus immediately announcing an excellent track that is curiously unique in style to the rest of the series, with an Asian influence unheard with the exception of Yamato Man's Stage theme. The chorus is a heroic brass synthesizer (or maybe trumpet) back and forth, and as it goes down, a menacing tune is added to the melody, before it climbs back up heroically. After the chorus, the track's Asian influence shows, with a softer melody using what sounds like Japanese flutes or Chinese strings. It's a fast melody with persistent percussion that goes back into a different rendition of the chorus. Here, the song does a call and response between the heroic brassy heights of the chorus and cascading keys arpeggios that somehow sound like Mario losing a life. At the conclusion of the second chorus, the fourth and final part of the track reveals itself, with a grungy staccato of all the instruments before it goes back into the chorus. This is a sublime track that continues the tradition of great Dr. Wily songs, and the Super Smash Bros. sound team agreed as they commissioned an excellent remix of the track.
Yamada's major contribution to this soundtrack, besides his vision and leadership, is this excellent theme. Composed of three distinct sections that effortlessly flow into each other, this is a rocking track that evokes electric guitar music and/or a furious use of wind instruments. It starts with an upbeat guitar jig accompanied by a sharp windy sound, then the main melody starts. It has a rocking climbing and descending melody while a guitar counter-melody plays in the background. The main melodic section has a heroic vibe that resolves into a more desperate and pronounced guitar section with a call and response between triumph and struggle. Without a clear switch, the third section of the track begins with the main melody getting into a sharper instrument and the call and response becoming more pronounced before going back to the top.
It's only fair that the first female Robot Master got an amazing track, with Isogai crafting a soft and catchy theme that fit the character and her level. It starts energetically with a heroic trombone or horn intro, accompanied by the soft echo of a marimba. Quickly, the flute melody starts, and it carries the entire track. It's the same heroic theme at the start, but as if it's tempered by ocean waves, asking the player if they are ready to face this level. The second part of the track answers, going back to a more energetic rendition of the opening, still backed by the marimba in the background, and empowered by contrast to the soft flute melody before it.
Taking inspiration from the classics, Mega Man 9 is not only a throwback to some great games, but a distillation of what made them great in the first place, and consequently better than most of them. Impeccably balanced, I think it walks perfectly on the tightrope between challenge and fair play even though it is accused of being too difficult.
Although it might be accused of being too reverential to the source material, I think that's part of its charm. There is a reason people still enjoy Mega Man 1-6, and this game understands that. It understands the unique charm of the visual, the 8-bit sound, and the pure joy of Action gameplay when taking on those 8 Robot Masters.
It's not a surprise that this game was an instant success at its time, but the complaints about the game also foretold the relatively lukewarm reception its sequel got. Sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad, as has been commonly the case with this franchise as a whole.
I think this is the second-best "classic" Mega Man game, being better balanced and constructed than Mega Man 2 and suffering none of the issues of Mega Man 4-6. It also has an AMAZING soundtrack, a great collection of bosses and boss weapons, and just the perfect balance of stress and reward.
Rankings: Only reason I am not ranking this on top of Mega Man 3 is because it was not designed with a slide in place. I think the boss battles could have been even better with that added dynamism. While the Proto Man mode adds the slide, the game wasn't balanced to include it.