by Jed Pressgrove
Conceptualized by Mega Man artist/producer Keiji Inafune, Mighty No. 9 does what Mega Man and countless other home-console platformers have failed to do: marry the motivation to complete all levels with the urge to achieve a high score. More than enough satisfaction can be had by beating Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Ninja Gaiden, and if you are going to do anything more, speed runs and finding secrets tend to be more attractive than engaging with these games’ scoring systems. Not so in Mighty No. 9, where trying to create an endless combo (and add to your high score) gives you bonuses to help you through lengthy but imaginative levels, such as a military base in which you must climb on and dodge boxes that fall off various conveyor belts.
Ingeniously, Mighty No. 9 ties its high-score focus to the dash, a descendant of Mega Man 3’s evasive slide that did away with the stricter trail-and-error positioning of the first two entries. To start a combo in Mighty No. 9, you must first shoot an enemy enough to stun it (different foes take different numbers of shots for stunning), then you must absorb the enemy by dashing into or near it, whether in midair or on the ground. However, you must use the dash quickly after the stun, or the absorption won’t register as part of a chain and will end the combo. Thankfully, if you recognize your dash will be too late, you can keep a combo going by avoiding the stunned enemy altogether or blasting it until it disappears.
In addition to stretching out combos, absorbing enemies grants power-ups, such as increased speed and health tanks that can be consumed during a level. One of these effects, stronger firepower, brings a dilemma. This power-up stuns enemies faster, which can be a blessing when your health is low, but it also makes your shots pass through multiple characters, meaning that you might accidentally stun an enemy that is too far away for combo linkage. Because of these situations, you sometimes have to play counterintuitively to get the best combo and high score, such as waiting until multiple enemies separate enough so that you can jump between them and fire only toward those you can absorb fast enough.
The goal of a long combo doesn’t just inspire otherwise illogical behavior, though; it also encourages stunts with the protagonist’s flexible dash. For example, you can stun an enemy floating high above a death pit by jumping in the air and shooting them once, then, while in midair, you can transition into a dash after the shot to absorb the enemy, and then, instead of falling to your death, perform another dash (or multiple dashes) to reach a ledge. Because you only fall slightly between midair dashes, you can skip portions of levels by doing the move over and over, but certain levels, such as the brilliant White House-like setting that involves tracking down a propaganda-spewing sniper, can punish you for spamming the dash and not paying attention to how it can throw you into enemy fire or an instant-death trap.
The dash even has an unusual role in boss fights. Each boss has a health bar that is split into segments. You decrease a segment by shooting the boss, then you must try absorbing the boss to permanently erase that segment of health (and potentially continue a combo). If you don’t do this within a certain period, the boss will regenerate the entire segment. This rule forces you to consider ahead of time how you and the boss will be positioned as you fire away.
While Mighty No. 9 has very noticeable flaws like weak-looking explosions, some terrible voice acting, and a rambling story, its fascinating take on the combo and dash makes it the most underrated Mega Man game (in spirit). Popular commentary has failed to recognize the ingenuity because too many critics and fans are obsessed with prerelease hype and gossip. Just ignore the Kickstarter groupies. It’s actually fitting this game released within a year of Mega Man Legacy Collection: the series’ legacy would be greater if it showcased more daring, well-executed tweaks on the formula like Mighty No. 9.