Mighty No. 9 Review – Scummy Number Nine
If it wasn’t for the prolonged history of Kickstarter controversy, launch delays, art direction shifts, and the name of Keiji Inafune attached to this production, Mighty No. 9 could easily be mistaken for a below average action-platformer. Despite successful crowd funding and the subsequently controversial backing by Deepsilver, Inafune’s studio, Comcept, upset fans by abandoning the traditional 2D art style. What’s more, despite having plenty of time and resources, Comcept decided to publish an unmitigated train wreck of half-baked ideas and terrible design decisions.
As the opening narration awkwardly states, the game takes place “in the current year,” full of advanced robots that suddenly begin to rebel against humanity no thanks to some mysterious computer virus. To stop the attacks of the Mighty 8, a group of the deadliest robots ever, Dr. White sends his creation, Beck into the fray. Using a blaster and his ability to assimilate the unique attributes of his enemies, Beck must end the rampage, discover the evil mastermind behind these schemes and save the world.
The first impressions of Mighty No. 9’s narrative were awful and they don’t exactly get better. While it is clear that this game is meant to be a successor to Mega Man, it forgets that when it comes to an action game it is best to keep exposition to a bare minimum. The entire plot summary in the above paragraph is stretched out over the entire game’s opening level, complete with redundant dialogue and a lot of interrupting cutscenes. For instance, Dr. White asks how Beck can fight back, this is after about three minutes of you learning the basic controls and defeating several enemies. Dr. White then proceeds to answer his own question by saying he forgot that he had installed weapons on Beck. This wasn’t a character quirk, it was just a terrible throwaway line. It especially doesn’t help that the voice-actors’ performance quality flails from serviceable to cringeworthy.
A lot of this could be forgiven if Mighty No. 9’s gameplay was solid but its very fundamentals are rocky at best. The marketing of the game continuously stated that it would be a throwback to the old action games from the NES and SNES era. On the most superficial level Mighty No. 9 succeeds. You’ll be spending most of your time moving to the right and shooting enemies, each level is full of tricky platforming sections where a single wrong move is instant death. The stages can be beaten in any order and each major boss defeated gives you a unique power to make the rest of the game a bit easier.
There is also a notable arcade and speed run influence with the inclusion of Beck’s dash ability. Enemies won’t immediately vanish once you hit them enough times, instead they will stay frozen in one spot glowing for a few seconds. By dashing through them you not only finish off said baddie, complete with a score multiplier for hitting multiple targets at once, but you also get a random power-up that can range between a speed boost or letting your attacks go through multiple enemies at once.
These elements are quite charming and if handled properly had the potential to be an amazing experience, but Mighty No. 9’s severe problems hold it back, particularly its lack of clarity with its players. What made the games of the console Golden Age so impressive and everlasting was the way it intuitively taught players the game’s rules, and the subtle yet impactful ways it visually coded certain elements. Those games utilized simple controls in clever ways to create a whole breadth of unique situations all while slowly escalating the skill required. Those games were legitimate master classes in design. Comparatively Mighty No. 9‘s idea of making a game old school hard is to not explain half of its rules to the player and watch them struggle.
When an enemy is ready to be dashed through, they stay still and will eventually just vanish if you’re not quick enough. However, bosses keep moving and if you can’t hit them because their increasingly tedious attack patterns take them off screen they’ll just regain all the health you laboriously chipped off. Attacks and enemies cannot be dashed through except when they can. The various power-ups you get for maintaining a combo are never fully explained and don’t have any satisfying power or punch to them making their inclusion feel pointless. There is an ability that allows you to regain some health similar to the health storage tanks in Mega Man X but there is no clear way to figure out how to use it or even obtain it. All of this I had to figure out the hard way by losing an untold number of lives, a lot of guesswork and replaying certain obnoxious stages repeatedly across several hours because proper pacing and thorough tutorializing are four-letter words to Comcept.
That last part is especially telling because despite the pedigree at work here the game shows a noticeable lack of design discipline. The dash ability is novel enough, but you have no limit on how many times you can dash in a row, and the levels tend to leap from pixel precise dash challenges with instant death so obnoxiously laid out it feels like a thirteen-year-old made it to wide open auto-scroll sections that are rendered laughably easy by your ability to just dash past most of the threats. I can distinctly recall two sections that should have been sincere tests of skill, and instead became complete farces due to this lackadaisical attitude. There are several boss battles that seem to only deal in cheap instant death attacks or an annoying special move that requires you to hammer buttons and wiggle the control sticks to break free with no rhyme or reason. Yet if you somehow survive dealing with these discount Robot Masters, the special weapons you get from their defeat are situational at best like Aviator’s fanblades just letting you jump higher and glide a bit or Countershade’s ricocheting rifle rounds.
The perverse cherry on top of this whole mess is that it looks and runs terribly. Explosion and fire effects look universally awful. Character models and animations look like they were made overnight by an overworked 3D animation student rather than a professional. The Wii U version of the game even after a hefty patch is riddled with frame rate drops and unforgivably bad stuttering and clipping. There was even a game breaking bug I encountered where I had to restart an entire level because a boss got stuck in a corner of the room where I couldn’t reach. All of these issues would be understandable if this game was in early access or was still in development, but for something that is on store shelves right now and is expecting $20-30 it is downright insulting.
In fact “insulting” might be the best way to summarize Mighty No. 9. It was already a hit for thousands of ardent Mega Man fans who financially backed it on Kickstarter, but it had no real drive to do more than the bare minimum. What little innovation it attempts to introduce to the genre is bungled spectacularly by a clear sense of non-effort. What little moments of sublime brilliance that I did find in the game’s three to five-hour runtime like the entire Battalion stage or a unique sniper boss fight were immediately drowned out by an immeasurable number of other annoyances, problems and missteps.
Mighty No. 9 is not the worst game imaginable but given the talent, pedigree, time and resources on hand, Keiji Inafune and Comcept should have stepped up to bat and knocked this out of the park. Instead, they stayed in the dugout and talked a big game before striking out.