Movie Sleuth Gaming: Mega Man 11: The Blue Bomber Returns! - Reviewed

To my surprise, my time spent with Mega Man 11 was a challenge of managing expectations and enjoying what the game presented for what it was. It made a bad first impression with me. The game was showing poorly, but because it wasn’t the exact classic Mega Man that I knew and loved, it made for a negative first experience. Once I got over myself and just engaged with Mega Man 11 on the grounds in which it presents itself, I was met with a fun experience that mixes nostalgia with experimentation. I am not convinced I prefer it to the classic entries, but I appreciate the movements towards new mechanics and Capcom’s bold willingness to try something new with an old series.

Mega Man 11 constantly dances on the line between new and classic. A big personal surprise to me with new newest adventure for the blue bomber was the difficulty level. The series has a history of being formulaic, but it was by no means considered an easy one. This is partially to do with the era at which the first six NES games were made, but considering the hand-holding nature of many modern games I came into the experience worried that the difficulty level would be lowered for mass appeal. This was not the case. 

My hubris lead me to starting the game on the highest available difficulty, and I was immediately met with a frustrating level of challenge. Enemy damage is huge, the series’s frequent pits and spikes are out in full force, and the drop rate of items from enemies approaches zero. If you love a real challenge, it is there for you, and I am sure there is a community out there just devouring Mega Man 11 at this extreme level. But that person isn’t me.

What that experience did do was spur my exploration of the four different difficulty options and I am glad that I did. I was really having trouble with it at first, and I think spending some time playing on Casual (second difficulty level out of four) before bumping it back up one level to Normal was what ultimately helped the game ‘click’ with me. I was trying too hard to play the game like it was an NES game and not taking advantage of the new double gear system, and I was being punished for it.

The double gear system is the heart of what is new about Mega Man 11. It is a system that gives our hero a couple of new abilities that can be used anytime in tandem with the mega buster or any of the special weapons. The power gear increases damage of attacks when active, which also can change properties of the special weapons like explosion radius or area of effect. The other option is the speed gear, which allows temporary slowing of time to dodge attacks or navigate particularly harrowing platforming sections.

At first I just found myself ignoring the systems, not out of any particular protest, but just because I have spent years playing Mega Man without them. Once I embraced them and they became second nature the game truly opened up for me. The speed gear was essential as an ‘oh shit!’ button, and while it won't save you from the instant death pits in most cases, it was exceptionally helpful everywhere throughout Mega Man 11. I like the power gear as well, but it’s usefulness was much less limited. The changes it makes for the special weapons are useful but I didn't find myself using it very often during regular level progression. Where the power gear shines is powering up special weapons for weaknesses in boss fights. Powered up robot master weapons absolutely destroy bosses that are weak against them, and make some weapons actually viable to use instead of awkward and useless (I’m looking at you, Chain Blast). Overall I think it was a neat addition that adds a lot of fun for a newer player and a lot of optimization to a veteran looking to work on a speedrun or just get real technical.

The biggest single disappointment I felt with the game was something very close to my heart, even though it had nothing to do with the gameplay itself. This disappointment is with the music. Mega Man as a series has iconic music for the era, and I spend an embarrassingly large amount of time outside of gameplay sessions listening to it. The soundtrack is not terrible, but it is just generic and reminiscent of cheap Xbox Live Arcade games of the 360 era. Well crafted, but completely unmemorable. Even taking time to listen to it outside of the game, I acknowledge there are some catchy tunes, but nothing I would return to on any regular basis or earn a spot in the gaming vinyl collection.

Outside of the music, the rest of the game’s aesthetics are pleasing. The cartoony style of series continues like the latter titles, but it does so without the goofiness and animated sensibilities of the later series titles like 7 and 8. The 2.5D perspective adds a good layer of depth without overwhelming the eyes, but where the look shines is in the textures. The textures are colorful but not garish, and extremely suiting to the futuristic but adolescent style. As a colorblind person, I also appreciated their use of darker backgrounds with brightly colored foregrounds that looked appropriate but also represented enough contrast to be helpful for people with color vision issues like myself.

Considering my history and fandom with the series, I thought I would have had more to say about Mega Man 11. The series has a huge history, it comes from a company that has had a multitude of fans disappointed in their other recent marquee titles, and it has been nearly a decade since the last release, but I still find myself not waxing poetic on its deeper design. That made me nervous at first, but I think it is ultimately a good thing because of what Mega Man is as a series. Capcom didn't ruin Mega Man 11 by over-complicating it, uprooting the series, or carbon-copying the old style. They made a simple and well-crafted experience that earns its place in the series, and I’m glad I played it.

--Justin Wicker