Mighty No. 9 is an interesting tale from 21st century gaming that has doubtless been very influential… though perhaps not in the way that was originally hoped for.
One of the earliest success stories of the crowdfunding boom in the early 2010s, the Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 promised something a lot of people were hungry for: a new Mega Man game in all but name. And oh boy, people were hungry for it; the campaign smashed through its initial $900,000 goal within days of its announcement, and the final total raised through crowdfunding cleared $4 million.
It was a game that should have gone down in gaming history. Instead, its lasting legacy was as an example of how not to manage a crowdfunding campaign, and a final product that had a somewhat mixed reception. But was it actually that bad?
It’s important to acknowledge the mistakes made during Mighty No. 9’s funding and development, because these aspects form an important part of its context in gaming culture. But at the same time, it’s also important to divorce the final product from that context and consider it on its own terms. It’s also important to note that these two aspects were largely the responsibility of two different organisations: Comcept for the overall project management, Inti Creates for the actual development. So we’re going to look a bit at both sides of the story.
Mighty No. 9 was an exciting prospect for many gamers in the early 2010s because it promised a return to the classic Mega Man style run-and-gun gameplay that Capcom had seemingly abandoned. The project was led by Keiji Inafune, a man who joined Capcom around the time of the first Mega Man game in 1987 and subsequently acted at various points in the series’ lifespan as illustrator, artist, character designer and producer. Who better to front an attempt to take “the best aspects of the 8- and 16-bit era classics you know and love, and transform them with modern tech, fresh mechanics, and fan input into something fresh and amazing”.
It seemed like a natural winner, and thus it was no surprise when the Kickstarter for the project performed so well.
Questions started to arise when Inafune and the team started asking for more money for “bonus content” for the game, including English voice acting and DLC; these questions turned to concerns when Inafune launched another Kickstarter for a separate game called Red Ash: The Indelible Legend, which featured Mighty No. 9’s main characters Beck and Call — all before Mighty No. 9 had actually seen the light of day. This latter project was justified on the grounds that many of Mighty No. 9’s developers needed something new to work on after they had finished their part of the game; producer Nick Yu later acknowledged that this was not made particularly clear to the public.
It became obvious over the course of the project’s repeated delays that the whole thing had been rather overambitious — particularly with regard to the numerous ports, which turned out to be a lot more work than originally anticipated — and was starting to look like a serious case of over-promising and under-delivering. Reports of early beta versions of the game released to backers looking nothing like the concept artwork initially shown for the game didn’t help matters, either, and thus the tide started to turn against the game before it was even released.
Negative sentiment reached a head when the publisher of the game’s physical copies, Deep Silver, released a notorious trailer that was so offensive and insulting to the game’s potential target audience that even Takuya Aizu — CEO of Inti Creates, the company that had actually developed the game for Inafune’s Comcept outfit — called it out as being “unforgivable”. By the time the game was actually released, many people — backers, public and press alike — had become disillusioned with the whole project, and thus it enjoyed a mediocre reception at best, not helped by some final issues with backer rewards, including broken redemption codes for digital content.
The way development, promotion and release was handled was, to be frank, a complete mess; this was acknowledged by Inafune himself, who took responsibility for the situation, noting that he “owns all the problems that came with this game” and said that he understood completely if people “wanted to hurl insults at [him]”. Inafune’s translator Ben Judd subsequently added his now-famous comment that “we can hope that if things go well, there’ll be sequels; because I’ll tell you what, I’m not getting my 2D side-scrolling fill. And at the end of the day, even if it’s not perfect, it’s better than nothing.”
All this meant that the game has gone down in history as being something of a legendary flop. Which is a bit of a shame, really, because, you know, it’s not bad at all. Certainly “better than nothing” by quite a long shot.
Mighty No. 9 has a combination of Mega Man and Inti Creates DNA baked right through it; this becomes obvious almost immediately when you start playing. It has the simple controls, accessibility and carefully designed encounters of Mega Man, combined with the emphasis on technical gameplay that Inti Creates has proven itself to be so strong at over the course of the years since Mega Man Zero.
The game starts simply and gradually grows in complexity as you play through it, unlocking abilities with each defeated boss as in the Mega Man series. The first level acts as a suitable introduction to what to expect from the rest of the game, introducing you to the basic controls with some simple platforming before showing you how combat works against some fairly non-threatening foes.
Core to Mighty No. 9’s combat is the combination of Mega Man-style shooting with the the distinctly “Inti Creates” flourish of dashing through enemies that have been “destabilised” from taking enough damage. This additional layer of complexity takes a little adjusting to, particularly if you’re used to classic Mega Man, but soon becomes second nature and becomes rather satisfying. You’re encouraged to develop your skills through a combo system that rewards you for leaving as little time as possible between destabilising the enemy and absorbing them with your dash attack, as well as providing even bigger bonuses for taking down multiple enemies at once.
This aspect of the game becomes particularly interesting during boss battles, since it turns these encounters into more than just simple slugfests. Not only do you need to carefully observe the boss attack patterns in order to find a suitable opening in which to attack, you also need to ensure that you close the gap between you in order to hit them with a dash attack at various milestones. Failure to do so means that the boss will heal themselves, requiring you to effectively repeat a phase of the battle.
These boss fights demonstrate Inti Creates at its best in terms of game design. Authentically old-school in their execution, they rely heavily on learning the various telegraphs and tells to watch out for — mostly coming in the form of subtle animations on the boss’ model. You’re given enough of a buffer in terms of life to be able to take a few hits while you’re learning how the fight works, meaning that clearing the encounter first time isn’t beyond the grasp of an experienced Mega Man veteran. Those with less experience, however — I count myself in this category, to my shame — will find themselves making enough progress each time to ensure that they won’t be discouraged by frequent failure.
This design extends to the levels themselves, too. Some levels feature sections that might initially seem impossible to navigate — the most notable examples being some sequences that require you to accurately dash through narrow passageways without touching electrified walls or sections of floor — but again, it’s extremely rare to find yourself crashing into a vertical wall of difficulty. It might be frustrating not to get through one of these parts first time, but, as they say, practice makes perfect, and this is most certainly true here.
As you progress through the game, you start to develop an understanding of the game’s clear visual language for what it expects you to do at any given moment, and the “right” way to do things just starts to come naturally. You’ll instinctively be able to parse the best way to deal with certain enemies or negotiate particular arrangements of platforms — or, as often happens later in the game, how to deal with combinations of these things. The levels towards the end of the game, after you’ve defeated the eight “Mighty Numbers” who are the game’s take on Mega Man’s Robot Masters, are a particularly good example of this.
Mighty No. 9 has drawn a fair amount of criticism for its visuals looking distinctly “unfinished” in places, and particularly the fact that they bear little resemblance to the original concept artwork. However, there are a number of situations throughout the game where the relative simplicity of the presentation works in its favour; sparse backdrops in a number of situations ensure that everything going on in the foreground is kept clear and easy to understand, and ultimately in a game like this that’s the most important thing.
Whatever criticisms you may care to throw at the visuals, there’s little denying that the game has plenty of variety to offer in its overall experience. No two levels are quite alike, and indeed some, like the Capitol Building, in which you’re constantly being stalked by the sniper robot Countershade as you proceed around a wrap-around environment, offer something quite different to what you would typically expect from this type of game. And as previously noted, the final stages in the game work extremely well as a means of testing everything you’ve learned throughout the previous levels, be it the stealth-based level where you play as Beck’s super-cute female counterpart Call for an all-too-brief period, the Robot Factory’s use of light puzzles that require the use of the various abilities you’ve absorbed over the course of the whole game, or the Battle Colosseum’s use of daunting situations and dynamically changing environments to keep you on your toes.
Ultimately Mighty No. 9 may have been a disappointment to those who were expecting something more from the Kickstarter and the hype surrounding its original announcement… but taken on its own terms, divorced of that original context, it represents a good example of Inti Creates doing what it does best: solid, enjoyable, well-crafted 2D gameplay with plenty of personality about it. And, of course, a difficulty curve that might initially seem steep to those less well-versed in the old-school way of doing things — or those who have gotten a bit rusty — but which is actually nicely paced to keep you on your toes while continually encouraging you to improve.
It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s certainly better than nothing. And for those who enjoy Inti Creates’ other work, don’t sleep on this one just because of its reputation; it may not be popular to say so, but for all its flaws, Mighty No. 9 is a good game that achieves exactly what it sets out to accomplish, albeit perhaps in not as quite a polished form as was originally intended!
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