Mega Man 9: Modern, Meet Retro. Retro, Meet Modern.
Okay, so I've gotten to play Mega Man 9 a bit and I think the game is a great specimen, gaming's first meta-period-piece. Some people call Upton Sinclair's The Jungle a snapshot of culture and a piece of history, but not a very literary or entertaining read. It maintains its importance as a cultural artifact, a turning point, something that matters. Mega Man 9 doesn't innovate or call itself art or revolutionary, but it is a great piece of our period, something that will help old gamers understand new and new understand old.
Mega Man 9 may not have consciously meant to do that, but it had to be in the developer's minds. The thing I love most is that it manages to display the developers' opinions (or at least, the opinions they're allowed to express) of video games in an open state. What I mean is that while the message Mega Man 9 sends is not readily apparent to those not critical of games, it's not exactly invisible.
Mega Man 9's differences aren't limited to its place in time and its salute to the past. It is also a carpet ushering in the era of the new. It's similar to the first 6 editions, but should not be properly regarded as part of the old series. It's paying respects to gaming's past while admitting that we've moved on.
The first difference is the required integration into current game systems. This includes a traditional Mega Man menu with "Go Back To Live Arcade" written on it and a save feature that doesn't feature passwords, but simply a hard drive. These are simply requirements, though; the game itself doesn't necessarily have to be different based on this. But it doesn't end there.
The level and boss designs in Mega Man 9 are very different, and so are the ways you beat them. The levels are shorter and the difficulty concentrated. In the former Mega Man games, the difficulty was smooth and buttery. Here, it's chunky and not evenly spread. In a Mega Man level, there is only one objective: get to the end. It was always hard, but here it's a different kind of hard: single, isolated points of concentrated insanely stupid challenge.
There are basically two kinds of levels:
1. Easy, then a difficult miniboss (or series of bosses) battle in the middle, then a moderately difficult section to finish. (Magma, Concrete, Jewel, Hornet. Concrete has 3 elephants instead of a singular mini-boss.)
2. Easy, then an extremely difficult section filled with difficult-timed jumps and plenty of instant-killing pits or spikes. (Tornado, Splash, Plug. Galaxy Man is this pattern, too, though his level is much easier than the other three of this type).
The bosses are different, too. Previously, the bosses would follow set patterns. Here, the bosses follow patterns, but they change depending on your position. In Mega Man 3, Snake Man ran back and forth across the screen no matter your position. These bosses will stay on one side if that's where you are. The bosses are thus more difficult because their A.I. is improved. They go from being wind-up clocks to responsive, auto-attacking land mines. Their attacks are based on your position.
But here's the catch: they still do the same amount of damage. They have to run into you about 8 or 10 times and then you're dead. And there is no power slide, no chargeable mega buster as introduced in Mega Man 3 and Mega Man 4; nothing to help compensate for the increased dodging difficulty. I wonder if dodging some of them is impossible. Hornet Man is extremely difficult but possible to avoid, but I see no way to dodge Magma Man at all.
Yet, Magma Man is one of the five bosses I've defeated. And I didn't beat him by using a secret weapon, a gaming feature that can only linger in the past. I beat him by using screws I'd collected over my lives to purchase energy tanks. I kept refilling my life, and then I beat him. It takes a while to earn those tanks, but I got them.
Mega Man thus goes the way of the future: it turns out you really can just muscle your way through the game as if it were another XBox 360 game with regenerating health and save points. The achievements, awards, and time attacks are there to give you bragging rights and assure you there's still a reward. If you want to see the content, the story, the world, that option is surely open to you. Games can be difficult; that is allowed. However, to see every part of the game's content, including the ending, is guaranteed as long as you put in the time. That's now considered a right in the games of today, a right that was never demanded in the 80s or even the 90s.
Yes, it's difficult. Sure, you have lives, sure, the save points aren't as convenient as most modern games are, and sure there are extremely difficult bosses, jumps, and landings, but really, Mega Man 9 isn't a remake of the past; it's a tongue-in-cheek admission that we've moved on while maintaining respect for the path paved before. It's "what happens if we make the past meet the new?"
The story at the beginning has a key line from Dr. Light that prefaces Mega Man's design philosophy: "Be careful, Mega Man, you haven't done this in a while." Almost none of us have, and we are likely to never do so again.
(Update: I revised this on the 10th because some of it was very poorly written.)