Mega Man 11 is a good game and a worthy eleventh entry in a series that once set the bar for tricky platformer. It also feels strangely flat, the latest iteration of a formula that has remained largely unchanged for decades. Mega Man 11 is great as a Mega Man game. Maybe that's why it didn't do much for me.
The Mega Man formula, first introduced in 1987, has hardly changed in the past 30 years. You play as a blue armored robot who has to fight eight other, more common robots. Each of these robots has its own theme, power and level of enemies and pits. You can choose these levels in any order and once you have completed all of them, you will be on your way to the last villain, the evil robot master Dr. Wily, play through a final battle with obstacles and bosses.
Mega Man has acquired some new skills over the years. In Mega Man 3, he learned how to slide and in Mega Man 4, he found out how to recharge your shots to do more damage. Apart from these tricks, very little has changed. What makes this series stand out is their clever and rarely imitated approach to upgrades: when you hit a robot, you get its power, which you can then use for the rest of the game. Each boss is weak for one or two of these powers, and discovering their weaknesses is usually a matter of trial and error. Once you have it, destroying the boss is a snap.
Mega Man 11 is the first Mega Man of this generation and the long awaited return of a series that was once the king of the platformer. The thing is, platformers have gotten really, really good. From the hypnotic flow of Celeste to the exciting exploration of Hollow Knight, the genre has evolved beyond anyone's imagination in the 80s or 90s. For example, Shovel Knight builds on the basics of Mega Man's 2D action platform and adds a rich history, sophisticated equipment system, and more. Celeste is a brilliantly woven work of art full of hidden challenges and clever twists in its core jump mechanics. In contrast, Mega Man 11 simply feels like it got stuck in 1987 and couldn't adapt. The graphics may be sharper and the levels could be different, but I still found myself running and shooting in 1988 Mega Man 2 against the same number of bosses and the same final villain.
Maybe that's why I felt so conflicted when playing Mega Man 11. I spent a lot of time doing it. The levels are creative and challenging. The Bounce Man stage is particularly pleasant, a clever circus full of jumping balloons and flying pests. I also like how Mega Man 11 leaves very little room for error like in previous games in the series. If you are hit by a falling block and fall into a pit, you die. If you run out of life, you will end the game, forcing you to repeat the phase you are in. It's an old school arcade approach that increases the stake of every moment by making death far more meaningful. The jumps are tricky, the enemies are irritating and it is satisfying to conquer every level, especially at higher levels of difficulty. (I'm pretty okay with games like this, so be warned: "Normal" isn't a joke. "Casual" is more like the normal mode of other games.)
The skills that Mega Man unlocks are also fun. If you destroy Block Man, you can conjure up blocks from the air. If you defeat Tundra Man, you can summon large vertical storms from both sides of your body. There's also a brand new system called Double Gear that can either slow you down or temporarily increase your strength. It's a fun mechanic that saved me from more than a few deaths during some of Mega Man 11's tougher boss fights.
After completing all eight levels, followed by an overwhelming endgame glove with a few extra levels and bosses, I was done. It took me about three hours. I don't feel like these hours have been spent badly, but I had to think about how much I liked other side-scrolling games I've played recently. Mega Man 11 feels like a relic, a rusty old robot that someone has dug up and brought back to life without cleaning every corner. In other words, Mega Man 11 is like Mega Man at the start of the game. It is good at what it does, but it can only do one thing.
My time with Mega Man 11 left me with the question: is that all that Mega Man can be? Is Mega Man 11 caught up in our expectations of what a Mega Man game should look like? We know that there will always be eight bosses, that everyone will always lose a new skill, and everything else. What would happen if there were 10 evil robot masters? Or 12? Or four? What if they introduced backtracking or a networked open world or some other strange, groundbreaking idea? Would the fans rebel? Would the players rush to Reddit to say, "This is not a Mega Man game!"
One of the bosses Mega Man is fighting this time is called Block Man. As you fight him, he suddenly turns into a giant monster that takes up most of the screen and constantly beats and beats you. It's an unusual moment because Mega Man bosses don't change often. They follow certain patterns and hitting them is usually a matter of learning and conquering those patterns. I was briefly excited when I first saw it because I hoped the rest of the game would undermine my expectations in a similar way.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. There were no other surprises in Mega Man 11 and although it is a solid, well-made game, it ultimately made me dissatisfied.