It was a decade ago that Capcom shocked and delighted retro purisists with Mega Man 9—a brand new adventure in the 8-bit style. It successfully brought back the series to its roots, reawakening fond memories of Mega Man 2.
Mega Man 11, which is billed in part as a celebration of the franchise's 30th anniversary, is basically the opposite of all that. Where Mega Man 9 deliberately uses 8-bit sprites, Mega Man 11 has a new cel-shaded look. Where Mega Man 9 hews as closely as possible to the original mechanics, Mega Man 11 dramatically expands them. Indeed, it's apparent that Mega Man 11 is out to reinvent the 30-year-old formula that has served the series so well.
Central to this new approach is the fresh system that was hinted at in the announcement trailer, and is now being shown for the first time. Called the Speed Gear and Power Gear, it allows Mega Man to either get a short burst of powered shots or what amounts to bullet time. If you're damaged enough, you can combine them into one powerful attack, though you will subsequently be hampered by a lengthy cooldown and a slower shot rate.
It was apparently developed by Dr. Wily in his college days—yep, he's back—and dug up to "overclock" his new line of robot masters, which includes Block Man and the newly-revealed Fuse Man. When you fight them, they activate their own gears, forcing you to adjust your strategy accordingly. I'm honestly not sure how I feel about the art style—the backgrounds in particular feel a bit plain—but I won't deny that the effects when, say, Fuse Man activates his Speed Gear look cool.
Outside of the boss battles, the levels are plainly, ahem, geared toward the new system. In Block Man's stage, for instance, you'll fight a robot consisting of a stack of discs that break apart and lands in different patterns, affording you precious little time to dodge and find an opening. Accordingly, your best bet is to use the Speed Gear to slow time long enough to figure out where the pieces will end up.
At other points, tricky platforming spots practically beg you to activate the Speed Gear to negotiate the tight jumping windows. Bulky enemies like a robot wielding a large hammer demand the Power Gear to be quickly dispatched. It's possible to get through Mega Man 11 without using gears at all, but well, it's very hard.
The difference is most apparent in the aforementioned boss battles. You still have to deftly dodge attacks, such as Block Man's rain of stone from above, but you also have to deal with multiple forms and super attacks. After taking a few hits, for instance, Block Man will activate his Power Gear and become absolutely enormous, forcing you to dodge a new set of attacks as he slams the ground and swipes debris at you. Fuse Man, as I mentioned earlier, will activate his Speed Gear and zap around the stage on a trail of lightning, which is best countered with a Speed Gear of your own.
The hardest thing for me has been adjusting to the start-and-stop nature of the Speed Gear. Decades of playing Mega Man have honed my sense of timing, and Mega Man 11 unwinds that a bit. There were times when the new abilities felt less helpful than mandatory, railroading me into a style of play that I didn't like to negotiate unbalanced levels.
At least, that's what the "It's different so I hate it" part of my brain is saying.
The truth is that evolution is painful and messy sometimes. Absent a few new power-ups here or there, Mega Man has been largely the same since the early '90s, making it a comfort for retro enthusiasts. The flipside of innovation is that it forces you out of your comfort zone. And that's exactly what Mega Man 11 sets out to do.
Anyway, this all brings me back to my original point, which is that Mega Man 11 is the opposite of Mega Man 9. Inti Creates' opus was a celebration that successfully brought the series back to its roots. It shed all the insecurity of previous eras and owned its retro identity, and it was a pretty darn good game to boot.
By contrast, Mega Man 11 feels like its intent on looking forward rather than backward. It has updated graphics; and four difficulty levels ranging from easy to hard (its hard even on normal, actually), new mechanics. It's not above wallowing a bit in nostalgia—multiple enemies return from the previous games, for example—but it's clearly here to refresh the formula.
I think this is generally a good thing for Mega Man. I want it to continue as many as anyone else, and innovation is certainly one path forward. I think my only concern is that it might come at the expense of the balance of the core gameplay—the very essence of Mega Man. The second you mess with that, you risk the series losing its identity entirely. Just ask Star Fox.
One way or another, though, this isn't the classic Mega Man of the '90s, and old-school fans will be in for as much of a learning curve as the newcomers. This could well be the freshest the series has been in years. But amid its departure from the comfort zone of 30 years of design, the jury is firmly out on Capcom's latest attempt to revive the Blue Bomber.
Mega Man 11 will release on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Switch on October 2.