Hard deaths in Mega Man 9

It has been ages since I have completed an 8-bit Mega Man title, so the release of Capcom’s Mega Man 9 has been nothing short of a blessing to me personally. Now the first thing people will tell you about the game is that it is hard. Not just hard, but rather the stuff of legends: “So hard you can’t possibly like it, you’re not hardcore!”

True, Mega Man 9 is hard. Yet at the same time, it was refreshingly ‘easy’. I have died more times than a year’s worth of death in other games, but the game always made it crystal clear where, when and how I died. I could anticipate it the next time, learn from mistakes and actually gain skill in navigating the level.

After doing that often enough, something magical happened: I stepped over the threshold into the magical zone of flow. Completing the task became ‘easy’ and I started to mix it up, finding ways of playing the game that defined ‘my style’ rather than the task at hand. I had a temporary drop in ability to play the game, as I took more risks knowing the game’s rules, but the results where very good and improved my skill.

Mega Man 9
Mega Man 9
To be honest though, that is what happens with all good games. Grasping the basics of the game and expanding upon its rule set while bending it to your own whims, is what it is all about. It has been at the basis of each and every game I have played. The importance of Mega Man 9 in this respect, is that it manages to communicate very clearly (and dare I say, abruptly) what can and cannot be done in the game.

When I think of some of the more recent games I have played, I find them to be fuzzy in comparison. In a first-person shooter chances are that a failure can rest upon a handful of external factors which may or may not equate directly to skill.

Mega Man 9 is trial-and-error with direct feedback; the earlier mentioned first-person shooter might incorporate trial-and-error with delayed feedback. A flawed decision might only show up a few minutes later or the complex artificial intelligence might actually randomize combat to such a degree that the course of action to take can only be guessed at. Sometimes even relying upon sheer luck. Or at least, that is what it feels like.

But this is all silly, of course. I cannot possibly be claiming that advanced artificial intelligence is worse than enemies that respawn as soon as they are a few inches off the screen, now can I? Yes and no. The fuzziness has its own zen nebula; its own zone of experience where you become one with the environment, but it is a zone that remains filled with static no matter what you do. There is an element that cannot be grasped or touched for that matter.

Mega Man 9
Mega Man 9
Mega Man 9 presented something I have been missing in more recent games for a long time: that the player is directly responsible for its actions. Physics, artificial intelligence, randomly or procedurally generated content… It all adds to the fuzziness and its constantly changing environments make for a less predictable game. That in its turn may generate a constantly challenging and evolving game-experience, but at the same time that makes you lose influence on how to play the game.

How to gain control over it. How to bend its world to our whims through the game’s own rules. How to beat the game at its own game. Its cheap deaths and unfair challenges actually drill the solution into your mind without teaching you it by proxy. That is gaming. Not only to let the player complete the assignment, but also to make it realize what is wrong and what is right on its own terms. In my opinion, that needs to return to games. We need that more in modern games.

And though Mega Man 9 is still very hard, I am almost sure that more players will also feel in control with this game than with most other games.

Whether they actually like that or not is another matter entirely.