Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Downloadable (Dis)content

As a follow-up to my review of Mega Man 9, I wanted to say my piece about the game's bonus features and downloadable content now that I've had a chance to doodle around with them a bit more. So, without further ado-doo, here's what the game has to offer:

Hero Mode and Superhero Mode:

Mega Man 9 Superhero Mode screenshotAs if the game weren't difficult enough already, these two modes mess with the layout of enemies and powerups throughout the game. It's the same level geography, but the placement and presence of everything else is subject to change.

All of a sudden there's a cannon firing at you where there used to be an empty platform, that big health upgrade on the ledge has been downgraded to a small one, those disappearing bricks have been rearranged into a more challenging pattern, and that trio of UFOs has called in an entire squadron for reinforcements. And if that's not enough for you, I hear that you can also download a scourge and hair shirt for yourself as well.

Time Attack Mode:

Choose any stage in the game and race against the clock to complete it in record time. You start out with all the special weapons and utilities available to you, but you only have one try to beat the stage. (Aw, quit whining, you no-hoper.) This is a simple-yet-fun addition, especially for speed run freaks and competitive types.

Special Stage:

Mega Man 9 Fake Man stage screenshotAn extra Time Attack stage that is effectively a greatly extended Dr. Wily stage with new music, loads of enemies and minibosses to fight, and as a brand-new boss at the very end. Like everything else with the game, the Special Stage gets progressively more ridiculous and culminates in a fabulous "You've got to be kidding me!" moment or two just before the end boss. Probably my favorite special feature. Sissy-pants Mediocre Men need not apply.

Endless Attack:

Like Time Attack, you are given all the weapons and only one life to get through the stage... the stage that never ends. You jump and fight your way through a series of short levels that are connected by teleporters. However, every time you hop through a teleporter, you are taken to a randomly selected level. For example, you might go from an underwater level filled with deadly spikes to a level consisting of rising and falling platforms over an expansive bottomless pit. After a while, you'll take a break from the levels to fight a boss, and then return to the endless levels.

Mega Man 9 Endless Attack Mode screenshotAlthough all of the enemies and hazards are ones you've already seen in the main game, the music is all-new, the stage designs are all completely different, and you'll see some combinations that weren't anywhere in the original game (such as icy platforms underwater). Some of the levels resemble portions of stages from previous Mega Man games, and a few are actually identical, so there's a little bit of nostalgia here as well.

There's a good variety of levels, but it is possible to survive long enough for this mode to get a bit repetitive, although the randomized order and occasional boss fights keep it interesting. Regardless, it's surprisingly addictive, and it's surely the most replayable bonus feature. My current personal best is 247 screens, but I've only played this mode a few times, so I'm sure I can do better.

Proto Man Mode:

Of all the extra content, this was the one I was most looking forward to. The mysterious and hyper-cool Proto Man is one of my favorite Mega Man characters, and I started dreaming up ideas for a video game starring Proto Man long, long ago. Needless to say, this was going to be the most spectacular bonus feature in history.

At least, that's how it was supposed to be.

Mega Man 9 playing as Proto Man screenshotProto Man Mode has all the right ingredients: the ability to slide and the ability to charge up your blaster have been restored, you've got a shield that deflects enemy projectiles, Rush has been replaced with some super-slick utilities that act the same but look so much cooler, and it's freaking Proto Man!!!

Well, here's where they went wrong (prepare for the real Mega Man snob in me to come out now):

- The charged-up blaster doesn't fire the large ball shot we've all become accustomed to from Mega Man 5-8; no, it's the weaker shot from Mega Man 4 that does just as much damage but doesn't cover as much area.

I would be okay with this (I happened to like the MM4 charge shot just as much) except Proto Man loses his charge when hit--this drawback was added in MM5 when they upgraded your blaster to balance the fact that you could now hit more stuff with each shot. So now you've got the drawback without the benefit. Lame!

Mega Man 4 vs. Mega Man 5 charge shot comparison- To charge the blaster, you hold down the fire button, and you know that you're charging because you start flashing funny colors. No surprise there. Except, unlike every other game, it takes a very brief moment before you begin to flash. During this moment, if you release the fire button, you won't shoot anything at all. Not even a regular shot or a pathetic half-charged shot, which is what normally happens. Just... nothing.

The way I play, my blaster is charged at all times unless I'm actually firing at something, in which case I resume charging the moment I'm done firing. This has been my playing style for 2/3 of the classic Mega Man series and all of the X and Zero series as well, and now I can't safely play that way. It's like showing up to a duel with a shotgun instead of a pistol, and I can't cock the weapon until I've taken my five paces and turned around.

- The shield, though delightful in theory, is unreliable; sometimes it reflects projectiles, and sometimes it's as if the shield isn't even there. Maybe there are holes in the shield that I can't see.

Mega Man 9 playing as Proto Man screenshot- Proto Man receives an absurd amount of damage from enemies. Off the top of my head, I would estimate that he takes about 2-3 times more damage than Mega Man from any given enemy.

Given that each hit takes such a large toll, it's difficult to "eye up" your health meter and estimate whether or not you can sustain another hit when considering using an E-Tank, which are especially scarce because...

- The Shop feature is no longer available. You don't collect screws, and you can't buy anything. Which means it's nine rounds of Plug Man stage to rack up the E-Tanks and extra lives necessary to even have a shot at beating the game, unless you've already mastered the other bonus features before playing this one.

This also means that you can't get the Energy Balancer (which automatically refills your special weapons' energy without switching to them), or any spike guards, or Beat, the little robo-bird who can rescue you from bottomless pits, which is especially necessary because...

- Proto Man gets knocked back twice as far as Mega Man when hit, so it's incredibly easy to be knocked into a bottomless pit by a stray bullet. And there are a few spots where this happens EVERY TIME.

- Instead of your regular blaster being able to fire three shots at a time, you've been demoted to firing only two shots at a time. If you miss or if your shots deflect off of a particular enemy, it could be as long as 1-2 seconds before you're able to fire again.

This might not seem like much, but in a fast-paced action game, such a delay feels like an eternity--imagine watching the car you're tailgating slam on its breaks, and you need to wait 1-2 full seconds before you can react.

Proto Man is supposed to be cool. Being knocked into pits by dinky little bullets and flailing around frantically in a failed attempt to fire as you get mauled to death by tiny fish that resemble Flounder from The Little Mermaid hardly make you look cool. They may, in fact, make you look uncool.

Mega Man 9 playing as Proto Man screenshotThe fact that you're playing as Proto Man and the inclusion of the sliding ability are really the only things that make this mode worthwhile at all. One would think that the charge shot and shield would help to offset the ramped-up difficulty, but the truth is that those two additions are liabilities and usually are more trouble than they're worth.

At the very least, they could make up for the unfairness by adding a new ending for Proto Man or at least some alternate cutscenes, like they did with the Mega Man X games when playing as Zero instead of X, but they didn't. In fact, all of the cutscenes have been removed outright, so even beating the game feels a little hollow when you defeat the final boss and it jumps right to the credits.

The sense of accomplishment is gone, and even the feeling of satisfaction for overcoming something difficult is absent--to use another car analogy, Mega Man 9 is like racing on an obstacle course against intense competitors, but playing Proto Man Mode is like being a part of that race in a great-looking lemon.

Proto Man is no lemon. He deserves better.

Am I happy to play as Proto Man at all? Of course! Am I irked and/or saddened by the lack of polish? You bet. It's like getting the Daredevil #1 you've always wanted, except with some dog-eared pages and a few coffee stains and no cover and a leaf of poison ivy as a bookmark.

As for the Achievements, well... I dunno. While it's neat to be able to brag to all your friends that you killed 1000 enemies, fought a boss for 10 minutes straight, beat the entire game without dying, getting hit, or missing a single shot with your regular weapon, I'm not sure that it's healthy for anybody to ever work toward getting all of those accolades. Those are the kinds of weirdos who launch gnomes into outer space.

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