“Mega Man 11” finds itself in an identity crisis, stuck between two very different eras in gaming. The core of the game is classic “Mega Man” straight from the Nintendo Entertainment System, with the Blue Bomber jumping and shooting and stealing the power of his enemies. He’s got some new tools, particularly the much ballyhooed Double Gear system, but none of Mega Man’s new toys are total game changers. The presentation fully pulls the game into modern times, a sleek animation style and full voice acting replacing the 8-bit graphics and scrolling text of yesteryear. The result is a fun and flawed experience trying to cater to two different types of gamer.
The fundamental “Mega Man” experience remains the same in “11,” eight bosses stand between the hero and Dr. Wily, the diabolical mastermind behind the world’s current dangers. Each boss sits at the end of a themed obstacle course in which Mega Man must defeat enemies and traverse obstacles in order to earn an audience with the big baddie. Defeating the boss earns Mega Man a new power, which can be used in the other obstacle courses and against the other bosses.
Nothing in that last paragraph would discern “Mega Man 11” from its predecessors, and honestly, that’s not a bad thing. The previous games built a massive fanbase on that core concept, and there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken. There are some tweaks, sure, and a few of them really come in handy. Enemies with shields like the Sniper Joe can be knocked into a stun with a Charge Shot, which means creating an opening to attack instead of waiting for one. Health items no longer stop the action dead while Mega Man heals, keeping the game flow nicely intact. It’s not a total cut and paste job from the early 90s, but the core concept of “Mega Man” remains mostly whole in “Mega Man 11.”
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Each stage’s design serves as a master class in how to challenge a player, with a few key moments destined to stick out. Running from the raging forest fire in Torch Man’s stage will challenge even the most experienced “Mega Man” player, while Acid Man’s underwater areas will invoke fond memories of Bubble Man’s stage in “Mega Man 2.” Each stage strikes that classic “Mega Man” style of introducing obstacles slowly, letting the player conquer, then combining them into a labyrinth of challenging platforming. The stage designers at Capcom certainly have not lost their touch.
The modern enhancements to “Mega Man 11’s” aesthetics are impressive as well, particularly in boss fights. Tundra Man’s spotlight, Acid Man’s wave of acid, and Torch Man’s powered-up look pop off the screen, the HD graphics serving all of these moments well. The voice acting — an element where previous “Mega Man” games have sorely lacked — is well done this time around, even if some lines are repeated ad nauseum. Roll and Auto say the same two lines every time Mega Man purchases an upgrade in the Shop, so be ready for it.
Aesthetics aside, in previous “Mega Man” games trouble came with the addition of a new mechanic to the core concept. For “Mega Man 11” that’s the Double Gear System, which boosts Mega Man’s powers with a single button push. The Power Gear buffs his attack power and speed, while the Speed Gear slows down time for a brief moment. The gears overheat if used too much, causing a lengthy cooldown. At low health, Mega Man can activate both at once for a brief time, but this super enhancement cannot be shut off and upon overheat also disables his Charge Shot for the entire cooldown period. It’s easy to activate, easy to shut off, and offers a little bit of help in tight spots.
Major emphasis on “a little bit” in that last sentence, because ultimately the Double Gear System proves inconsequential to the experience. The Speed Gear is the far more useful of the two, slowing down the action for some on-the-fly strategizing, but the Power Gear barely made an impact in the adventure. There’s one moment in the ten-hour adventure where the Power Gear proves its worth, and that’s simply not enough. The Double Gear System could have had more of an impact on the “Mega Man” experience, but ultimately proves to be little more than window dressing.
Much more important to Mega Man’s success is the Shop, where Bolts dropped by enemies or found in the worlds can be used as currency to buy extra lives, energy tanks, and equippable upgrades. Top upgrades include a chip that automatically charges the Mega Buster without needing to hold the button, a shield buff that creates less knockback on hit, and a part that lets Mega Man move at normal speed while Speed Gear is active. Being able to buy these powerups allows for more agency in the adventure, grinding bolts to stock lives and energy tanks in preparation for difficult moments or building Mega Man into a powerhouse as desired.
“Mega Man 11’s” attempt to unite modern and classic gaming nearly succeeds, but ultimately trends more in the “classic” direction. The modern enhancements to the look and feel of the game work well, but the main mechanical attraction ends up being little more than window dressing. That’s not to say “Mega Man 11” isn’t fun, it most certainly serves up some enjoyable jump n’ shoot action, but the missed potential is hard to ignore. It’s good to see Mega Man back in the saddle, but “Mega Man 11” is one small step for this man instead of one giant leap for robotkind.