mega man 9

Mega Man 9

I have beaten Mega Man 9. Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Saying that Mega Man 9 is difficult is like saying that the surface of the sun is hot. The game is intentionally retro, boiling Mega Man back down to its most basic components. In fact, Mega Man can only do three things in the game. They are:

  1. Jump
  2. Shoot
  3. Die

The game is as simple as it is merciless, and the combination instantly fascinated me. I came late to the Mega Man 9 party. In truth, what really sparked my interest was this excellent essay by Bruce Morrison, in which he explains why a game so unbelievably difficult is ultimately a joy to play, if you have the right mindset. He also touches on the idea of game-based versus internal rewards. In short, players have come to expect that games will reward them for playing well, and game studios are only too happy to oblige. The Achievements systems on the XBox and Playstation make the notion explicit, and to a certain extent, ridiculous. Players are rewarded and patted on the back for making even the most rudimentary progress. Picked up the wrench in Bioshock? Have a badge. Successfully navigate the perils of the tutorial level? Here, you’ve achieved something.

Mega Man 9 does not partake of this orgy of auto-congratulation. Mega Man’s only reward—the only permanent reminder that you’ve made real progress—comes when you successfully complete an entire level and obtain a Robot Master’s power. Yes, Mega Man 9 does have Achievements, but they clearly take the term very seriously. Defeat each Robot Master in thirty seconds. Now do it in ten. Beat the entire game in under two hours. Never miss a shot. Never get hit. Would you like me to part the Red Sea while I’m at it?

Mega Man 9 feels exactly like a Buddhist enlightenment (bear with me). All is suffering. You die over, and over, and over. Amidst all the pain, you begin to accrue a deep, almost imperceptible inner knowledge. Gradually the illusions of the world around you fall away. That which once seemed impossible becomes nothing to you. You transcend. Plug Man’s infamous vanishing platforms become less an obstacle than an opportunity to demonstrate Jedi-like powers of precognition (fast-forward to about 1:00).

Enough about personal challenge, inner reward, and Buddhism. Mega Man 9 is a great game. The game’s decidedly lo-fi approach masks a surprisingly rich experience. Your options may be limited to jump, shoot, and die, but there’s a great deal of variety embedded in how you do those things. Consider the play style of one Ms. PinkKittyRose, which is very different from my own. Look at her on Wily Fortress Part 1. Unlike me, she barely touches her Robot Master powers. She’s far better than me with the default Mega Buster, and the way she plays is very different because of it. When she used Rush Coil to bypass the magma blasters (around 3:20), my jaw hit the floor. I must have died thirty times getting the jumps exactly right. Like a true Buddhist, she saw that the answer to this problem was no problem.

If you want to see true transcendence, you need look no further than the “speed runners,” brave souls whose sole purpose in life is to complete the game in the shortest possible amount of time. In their quest to beat the clock, these people (and I use the term loosely) have explored the game at the furthest boundaries of creativity and discovered subversive, unexpected treasures. To watch one of these people play the game is to witness, in one particularly specific form, the very length and breadth of human thought. For your information, Mega Man 9 can be played from start to finish in about twenty-three minutes and sixteen seconds. Got some free time? Here’s how you do it. Mesmerizing.

One particular reveiw of the game, written by Sumantra Lahiri, struck me as odd. He writes:

While Mega Man 9 has all of the elements to make a classic 8-Bit game, it some how just misses that 8-Bit perfection of Mega Man 2. For whatever reason, that intrinsic quality of a classic 8-Bit game seems to constantly elude it. In many ways, Mega Man 9 is definitely one of the better Mega Man games in its long storied run, but the truth is this; Mega Man 9 is good, not great. Though to say that Mega Man 9 did not attempt to capture that feeling of 8-Bit perfection would be false.

What does that mean? I think Lahiri’s problem is that he’s been confounded by what I call the Twelve Year Old Effect. The most awesome year of your life is the one in which you, personally, were twelve. The television shows will never be funnier, the ice cream will never be sweeter, and the video games will never be more “8-bit perfect” than they were then. It doesn’t strike me as particularly fair to dock Mega Man 9 points simply because it isn’t Mega Man 2.

Mega Man 9, like all great games, builds a complex experience out of a simple premise. Jump, shoot, die. Repeat until enlightenment is achieved.