It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Mega Man in action. 2010’s retro revival Mega Man 10 was the last time the Blue Bomber received a new release, with Capcom being seemingly hesitant to give the character a spotlight after the very public departure of Keiji Inafune, the iconic designer of the robotic hero. Since the launch of Mega Man 10, there’ve been many attempts by other developers to fill the void left behind; Inafune’s own Mighty No. 9 ended up being a crushing disappointment while new IP like Azure Striker Gunvolt showed fans that the dream could live on. Now Mega Man is back at the forefront with Mega Man 11, a brand-new release in the classic series, and Capcom has proven that it has lost none of the magic that defined many earlier entries in the series; make no mistake, this is a triumphant return to form.
The story picks up in the distant past, with a young Dr. Light and Dr. Wily arguing in front of a research grant board over whose research deserves further funding. Dr. Light — who’s researching the concept independent thought for robots — wins over Dr. Wily’s idea of powering up robots to be better than humans, and Wily leaves in a cloud of shame and anger, setting the stage for a life-long rivalry. Jumping back into the future, Wily digs up his old research again and sets into motion yet another plan for world domination, with Mega Man jumping into action to put a stop to him. As ever, the plot is hardly a central focus, although we were surprised at some point in how it touches on deeper subjects like artificial intelligence while also showing the shades of grey that exist between the ideologies of Light and Wily. You won’t find any Mega Man X-esque attempts at more focused storytelling here, but the plot does make an attempt to add more intrigue to the standard ‘Wily is at it again!’ song and dance.
Gameplay will be immediately familiar to fans of the classic series; you’re given the option of taking on eight robot masters across eight levels that can be tackled in any order, with the gauntlet of Wily’s Castle following on before the big finale. Right away, it’s clear that the development team did its homework on nailing down tight controls to give players the best chance at navigating the many harrowing and difficult obstacles that stand in your way before each stage; though the physics do feel distinctly different than previous Mega Man games, there’s a satisfying weight and responsiveness underlying all movement that does an excellent job of matching the pixel-perfect platforming of the originals.
That tight control is absolutely necessary to one’s success too, as this is a hard game, even by Mega Man standards. Insta-kill spikes, death pits, liberal placement of enemies in dangerous scenarios and quick boss movements are all par for the course here, but nothing feels strictly unfair about them. Unlike some previous Mega Man games, which struggled with cheap enemy placement or unfairly large sprites, just about every mistake made on your journey is squarely your fault. Aside from the notable trope of previously unseen enemies leaping out of pits just as you’re jumping over them, nearly every hazard and enemy is properly telegraphed to give the player a chance to react in time. However, if you’re new to the series — or just don’t have the quick reflexes to make fast decisions — there’s both a ‘Casual’ and ‘Newcomer’ mode below the standard difficulty, making the experience much more palatable. As you’d expect, Mega Man does more damage while taking less, checkpoints are more generous, and items in the shop are cheaper, making for an experience that doesn’t lose the feel of a Mega Man game, even if it sacrifices the infamous difficulty.
Whatever difficulty you choose to play on, new to Mega Man 11 is the Double Gear System, a fresh ‘overclock’ mechanic that notably impacts the gameplay without feeling too gimmicky. By tapping either of the shoulder buttons, you can either activate Speed Gear — which slows everything down to half speed — or Power Gear — which dramatically raises Mega Man’s damage output and modifies his special weapon effects. These can make an enormous difference in swinging the odds in the player’s favour, but they’re designed to supplement one’s experience, not support it, so a cooldown gauge is implemented to keep them from being overused. When a gear is active, the gauge slowly fills up and if it maxes out, and Mega Man can’t use any gears until it empties all the way. After taking a bit of time coming to grips with it, usage of Double Gear quickly becomes second nature, and it feels like an organic addition to the classic gameplay, sort of like the introduction of the spin dash to the Sonic series in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Rather than making a marked change to how you play the game, it smooths out the bumps at certain chokepoints and allows for a more streamlined experience.
Perhaps most importantly, the entire game can feasibly be played without once using the gears, but then again, Dark Souls can technically be beaten with a naked character. Stages are clearly designed with the occasional use of the gears in mind, but they implement plenty of smart hazards and obstacles to constantly keep the player on their toes. Memorable instances like outrunning a raging forest fire or dodging between a series of controlled explosions like an action movie star seem to be a suitable evolution of the 'put-up-or-shut-up' stage design the series has come to be known for, while the overall stage themes help to make each one feel entirely distinct from the next. From stem to stern, each stage is certain to challenge you with a plethora of unique obstacles, and the gradually ascending difficulty and complexity of these obstacles creates a sense of there being ‘acts’ to each level. It must also be said that stages are longer than those of previous entries in the series; they can still be beaten in relatively brief increments, but runtimes are generally closer to ten minutes than they are to five.
You’re sure to pick up plenty of bolts from blasting enemies, and these can then be spent in the shop for a series of upgrades to give Mega Man the edge. Here, Auto and Roll offer Mega Man consumable items — like E-tanks and Beat calls — and permanent upgrades that bring things slightly closer to the Mega Man X style of gameplay. Though they aren’t cheap, items like a faster cooldown for the Double Gear gauge or the ability to move at full speed when in Speed Gear mode can make a huge difference in how you approach some stages. Some may no doubt find the upgrades make Mega Man a little too overpowered, but we found that it added a notable element of tangible, optional progression beyond that of just obtaining more weapons from robot masters.
Once the credits have rolled, which should take somewhere in the ballpark of five hours, there’s still plenty to do beyond just rote replays of the campaign. For one thing, an in-game achievements system challenges players with tasks like killing a certain number of enemies in one use of the Speed Gear, or beating the game without using a continue. There are fifty achievements in all, and these go a long way towards helping the player approach the game in unconventional or extra-challenging ways, but the real meat of replayability is found in the Challenges tab.
Here, you can test yourself against a series of challenges that modify stages in unique ways, such as Balloon Rush, which removes all enemies and replaces them with dozens of blue and red balloons, or Jump Saver, which tasks you with clearing a stage in as few jumps as possible. Each of these modes is timed and has different thresholds for bronze, silver, or gold medals, and your best performances are saved and uploaded to a global leaderboard. Though these challenge modes all ultimately have you running through the same stages and fighting the same bosses from the campaign, they provide interesting twists that make them worth your time, providing a more arcade-like approach that easily makes this the most replayable entry in the series.
It must be said that those of you looking for a deep well of unique content will doubtless be disappointed at the relatively short runtime of Mega Man 11, but we’d argue that the focus of this series has never been on providing a lengthy adventure. Mega Man has always been about brief and tight design that focuses on challenging player skills in ways that few other platformers attempt, and in this regard, Mega Man 11 feels like the fullest realization of the concept yet, with the fleshed-out arcade mode acting as a worthy companion to the base game. If arcade sensibilities aren’t up your alley, we’d recommend you stop and think before picking this one up, but do bear in mind that there are dozens of hours of entertainment to be had.
In terms of its presentation, Mega Man 11 ditches the pixel art that has defined previous entries, opting for a 2.5D approach that has proven to be divisive so far among fans. The new art style perfectly captures the distinctive goofy look of the series art that has previously only been approximated by spritework. Characters and animations are colourful, charming and smooth, while details like advanced lighting and particle effects help to keep the visuals feeling modern. The looks certainly don’t appear cheap or half-baked, and environmental details like comets in the night sky or distant city lights from a village in the shadow of a mountain show that the development team was keen to create a distinctive and thorough tone which is well-maintained and consistent throughout your journey. What’s more is that everything runs at a smooth 60 FPS whether docked or in handheld; we didn’t encounter any situations where there were noticeable drops.
The Mega Man series has always been known for having some of the best chiptune tracks around, and though Mega Man 11 drops this memorable style in favour of a more modernized electronic soundtrack, it still provides plenty of great songs for backing your experience. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are any anthemic tracks on the level of the Mega Man 2 Wily Theme; this soundtrack is noticeably subtler in its implementation, but it picks up where it needs to when the action on-screen gets decidedly more intense. Considering the bar that’s been set, the soundtrack is the most disappointing thing about Mega Man 11 in how it merely satisfies, rather than excels.
Mega Man 11 is an excellent resurgence for the Blue Bomber, imbuing the tried-and-true classic gameplay with modern touches and new ideas that expand on existing concepts in interesting ways. The underlying action platforming gameplay is just as tight and challenging as you remember, and when combined with the new visuals and extra options for replayability, you’ve got a game that’s every bit as good as those that came before, while surpassing them in some ways. Mega Man 11 is a modern classic, a fitting refresh for a beloved series, and we’d highly recommend you add this one to your Switch library whether you’re a newcomer or you’ve been playing since the NES days. Bravo, Capcom.