There are few Kickstarter projects that have gained as much attention as Keiji Inafune and Comcept's Mighty No. 9. Billed as a spiritual successor to Capcom's seemingly dormant Mega Man series - a lineage Inafune is closely connected with - this new project was supposed to bring back everything fans loved about the Blue Bomber and introduce a new IP that would develop into its own successful franchise. But after some controversial delays, questionable communication between the Kickstarter campaign and its backers and a shaky launch, Mighty No. 9's journey from concept to finished article has been a bumpy one - and now that it's finally here, we can't help but feel a little short-changed.
In Mighty No. 9 you play as Beck, a nice and gentle robot who has to go on an adventure to stop and recover eight other "Mighty" bots, all of whom have been corrupted under mysterious circumstances (sound familiar, Mega Man fans?). With the help of Dr. White and sister Call, Beck tackles eight missions in any order, defeats the robots and gains their power. Mighty No. 9 doesn't deserve criticism for its surface similarity to Mega Man; the game was pitched to backers as a spiritual successor, after all. But where games like Shovel Knight took their inspiration from retro classics and made wholly original, compelling experiences out of them, Mighty No. 9 is content to mostly copy its predecessor's gameplay mechanics.
The one significant change is in defeating enemies. Instead of killing an enemy you can dash through it, collecting its "Xel," which grants temporary speed and power buffs. Scoring is also based on the Xel you collect, and the faster and more accurate you are with your dash the more points you'll accrue. This twist is certainly very fun when it works. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like the stages were designed with the dash in mind. Often, levels filled with instant death-traps are so cheap that after a few tries you'll want to go as slowly and methodically as possible so as not to dash and die. There's a difference between challenging and frustrating, and Mighty No. 9 constantly finds itself in the latter category.
One particularly infuriating stage has a section that is seemingly a dead-end. Clearly someone behind the scenes noticed, because a hint message appears on the screen telling you exactly what to do. This wouldn't be so bad if hint messages popped up throughout the game, but this was the only instance of a hint message outside the tutorial stage. If something is so obtuse that you need to give the player a text prompt for them to continue, then level design tweaks are surely required. Bosses, which are pattern-based, are usually best beaten with brute force; when they're down to half their life-bar they'll change up the pattern, as most game bosses do. Yet occasionally - and inconsistently enough that it caught us off-guard each time - a boss has an instant-kill move that will force you to start the battle over.
To make matters worse, the powers that Beck collects aren't as satisfying as they should be. Some of them are helpful; one power allows Beck to fall softly and slowly while another freezes enemies and gives you more time to dash and absorb. But for the most part, Beck's powers are only useful for a single stage (following Mega Man's "rock-paper-scissors" formula) and feel rather redundant otherwise. After defeating a robot you can get a hint as to where to go next by seeing which stage has an "advice" button. One cool addition is that defeated robots will come back to help you in certain situations, but this doesn't have too much of an impact.
In addition to the eight stages (and late-game levels that most Mega Man fans will expect), Mighty No. 9 has a challenge mode with small missions, as well as multiplayer and boss rush-style modes. All of these feel half-baked at best and completely tacked on at worst; we'd have much rather had an excellent single-player experience than this messy array of features that are clearly only there because they were promised as Kickstarter stretch goals that hadn't been properly thought out ahead of time. The online multiplayer modes (which were partially blamed for the game's constant delays) run poorly. In the co-op challenge mode, you and another player (playing as Call) go through small stages and eliminate enemies. In the race mode - which felt janky and borderline unplayable - you go head-to-head with another player to make it to the end of one of the eight main stages. The consensus here is simple: don't bother with the multiplayer. The netcode feels completely broken, and both modes would have been much better suited to local play.
Amazingly, we're not quite done with the negatives yet. The game performs poorly overall on the Wii U, struggling to maintain a stable pace. If there's too much happening on screen the game will behave like it's on a PC that can't handle the software. Quite frankly, the visuals are mystifying in their rough, poorly shaded and lifeless state. The concept renders of Mighty No. 9 looked a lot better, and while it's understandable that concepts and vertical slices are often unrealistic for a final product, there's no reason for a 2016 sidescroller to look this modest and for it to run like it's trying to process something on the level of the new Legend of Zelda on a GameCube.
The music is generic, meanwhile, and the option to switch to retro, chiptune-style fails to excite as the compositions are so simplistic. There are also multiple difficulty levels, and on normal you can adjust how many lives Beck starts with. And don't be proud - with all the cheap deaths in this game you'll want the maximum nine lives, at least for some parts. The GamePad simply mirrors the game, but we mostly used the TV screen as characters and foes can seem rather small on the controller alone.
Mighty No. 9 is not a terrible game, nor is it even a bad one - it's just plain mediocre. From its downright disappointing visuals to its flat music and bland-at-best level design, everything about Mighty No. 9 screams of mediocrity. And let's be clear - if this were a fan game made by a small group of devoted Mega Man fans it'd be deemed more impressive. Yet this is a budget retail title developed by one of Mega Man's lead designers, which also had involvement from Inti Creates, a proven studio with hits like Mega Man 9 and Azure Striker Gunvolt among its credits. We're not sure where things went wrong, but Mighty No. 9's finished product is just a "mega" disappointment.