"When you think about it, it all began at PAX for us: The Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter. So I see PAX as a special event, the birth of Beck. All the people who came last year were part of that experience, and the all the people who hopefully will be coming to this panel... I really feel indebted to them, and we want to give them something to sink their teeth into."
Comcept CEO Keiji Inafune was clearly feeling a bit philosophical when I spoke to him at this year's PAX. But he also looked a lot more upbeat than I had ever seen him before. The first few times I interviewed Inafune over the past decade, he was working — unhappily, as it turns out — at Capcom, pining for his unfunded dream projects and speaking in oblique terms about the frustrations of trying to convince the company's conservative upper management to look to successful Western studios and development models in order to remain profitable in the HD era. In our more recent interactions, the stress of trying to launch a publishing company in Japan's unfriendly market had clearly been wearing on him.
In 2014, though, things finally seem to be going Inafune's way. His good fortune shows on his face. Even as his former company seemingly retreats from the video games market, Comcept has been making impressive strides. Over the course of the PAX weekend, the company hit three different milestones all at once: The launch of IntiCreates' 3DS action platformer Azure Striker Gunvolt, the free bonus retro-platformer Mighty Gunvolt, and the debut of the first playable version of Mighty No. 9.
The "something to sink their teeth" into Inafune referred to was, in fact, the beta version of MN9, a playable one-level demo of a game that a year ago had been nothing more than a pitch video and Kickstarter campaign. I had spent half an hour grappling with the demo immediately before meeting with Inafune, barely eking out a victory against the stage's boss: Mighty No. 5, aka Battalion. Having been one of the first to put down a pledge for MN9's Kickstarter campaign, the demo shows a peek into a work that's exactly what I'd hoped for when I committed my money to the game's creation. It's clearly inspired by Inafune and IntiCreates' work on the Mega Man series, but faster-paced, with an interesting dash mechanic that makes it distinctly its own creature. When I said as much to Inafune, he responded cheerfully.
"I'm happy you got that feeling from the game," he said. "That's exactly the point — the fine line we wanted to walk. For someone like you, who knows those old-school 2D side-scrolling games, to get it, that tells me that we achieved the goals we set out in front of ourselves. We really wanted to make sure Mighty No. 9 has its own gameplay identity, so to speak — that it is its own game.
"That being said, right from the start we always said those 2D side-scrolling roots, that part of gaming, that's also something we wanted to tap into. That part of those classic games still stands on its own merits even today. But trying to mix the two philosophies, those two sides of game production, posed a lot of difficulties. Today's gamers are used to very fast games, from generous checkpoints to the overall speed of the action. Trying to get that speed along with the classic feel has been a challenge, but I feel like we've been able to do it. And if old-school fans like you playing the beta agree, that's really the best testament."
The speed of MN9 comes through once you get a grasp on the play mechanics. Despite appearance, you can't approach MN9 as if it were just another Mega Man sequel; in a sense, it almost resembles IntiCreates' other Mega Man-alike, Azure Striker Gunvolt, in that simply shooting bad guys won't lead you to victory. Gunning down enemy robots will cause them collapse in a heap or become stunned, but eventually they'll pull themselves back together, forcing you to take them down multiple times before your attacks finally destroy them.
Instead, once an enemy is stunned, it becomes surrounded by a nimbus of energy in different colors. By executing protagonist Beck's dashing maneuver into a reeling foe, you'll absorb its energy field and completely destroy it while gaining a perk for Beck. Red energy may grant him a piercing shot, for example, allowing you to fire through walls and enemies to hit multiple or out-of-reach targets. Gather energy from multiple foes in a single dash and you'll chain together score bonuses that also translate into longer-lasting or otherwise more potent effects.
Dashing therefore becomes an integral part of the action, especially since it doubles as a "slide" beneath low walls (similar to some Mega Man X games). It helps increase the tempo of the action while also demanding precise play; Beck becomes more vulnerable to foes while dashing, so it's essential not to dash into undamaged enemies or zip carelessly about while under attack by projectiles and beams.
"[The emphasis on speed] is not about just one constant, full-blown, faster speed that's in the game," says Inafune. "We've implemented the dash, which is connected to absorbing the different kinds of energy and powers from the enemies. There's a balance. You first have to weaken an enemy before you can do the absorb dash. So there's a constant risk-reward scenario going on with every enemy. If you come to that enemy and try to dash into them too soon, before they're weak enough, you'll take damage. But, if you weaken and are being too safe and don't dash quickly enough, your absorb percentage decreases.
"So it's about finding that rhythm — every time, damaging them enough, dashing in, and absorbing their energy to get as close to 100% as possible. What that helps to do is create a balance so that if you're not a great gamer, a more casual type gamer, you can get in there and clunk on through. Your absorb percentage will be lower and the pace will be slow, but you'll still be able to move forward. But if you're a super-pro gamer, you're going to go in there and try to get as close to 100% as possible."
A big part of what makes MN9 work — and an area where its counterpart, Azure Striker Gunvolt, felt flat — comes from the player's perspective into the action. Whereas Gunvolt brings the camera in close to showcase big, expressive, hand-drawn sprites, MN9 zooms way out so you can see a huge amount of the environment at any given time. Beck constantly needs to dash, sometimes even chaining together multiple air-dashes to pass over hazardous areas, but players never have to perform these actions blindly. You'll always have a clear sense of what lies ahead, with ample visual information available at every moment to allow you to make split-second, hair-trigger decisions. This tends to be entirely too rare in high-speed 2D games. Inafune cites Sonic the Hedgehog as an example of a series that usually gets it right.
"Even with Sonic you have players who try to get to that maximum speed the whole time," he says, "but even they'll get hit by an enemy and be like, 'Ahh!' So creating that chance where a person's ego can push them forward to aim for the maximum level and still end up being hit every once in a while — that's what we really wanted to create here. The dash feature is there to do that. To create that speed, but also create a natural, organic sort of difficulty."
The emphasis on scoring and chain-combos gives MN9 the feel of something akin to a classic top-down shooter or Sega's PlayStation 2 Shinobi games, where players were encouraged to sustain their streaks of kills and actions in order to maintain a high score. Inafune acknowledges the spiritual connection.
"The arcade style of gaming from long ago where you try to get through as quickly as possible and get your name on the score board...," he muses. "Yeah, that's definitely something we thought about as we worked on MN9. Even more so, the thing we're proudest of... there's a natural rhythm you need to create while designing a game. Playing through the level and getting the high score is nice, but we've sort sectionalized the game in a way. So after you beat a certain number of enemies, you're rewarded with visual feedback saying, 'You're great!' or 'You're awesome!' or whatever.
"The idea is to compliment the player for clearing a certain section with a high percentage. That in an of itself is a sort of retro scoring system we've implemented. It's something old Japanese games used to do, but honestly, even today I still think it's pretty cool."
The game has quite a way to go at the moment. Only one level is currently playable, and I was told (with a mix of resignation and bemusement) that the level included in the backer beta is currently the easiest and most playable of the bunch... and by no means is it easy. Battalion's level requires some fairly advanced air-dashing skills, and Mighty No. 5 himself is quite a daunting opponent. While he looks and acts somewhat like a Mega Man boss, he's capable of a wide variety of maneuvers and his tells require careful attention. He also uses one of developer IntiCreates' favorite tricks: Midway through the fight, he launches an utterly massive attack capable of instantly killing Beck in a single shot.
That being said, Mighty No. 9 is definitely on track to become the game Comcept promised a year ago. For all the cynicism that exists around crowd-funding these days, MN9 offers a welcome example of a project that could only have been made possible by avoiding the traditional publisher system.