With the release of its latest entry, the Mega Man series continues its struggle to remain artistically relevant. Although Mega Man 11 features a 2.5D graphic style, a first for the series, the game otherwise offers little that we haven’t seen from its predecessors. Its overall lack of originality isn’t surprising, as this is, after all, a franchise with a platformer-shooter foundation that hasn’t changed much over the course of three decades. But when you compare this latest sequel to all of its ancestors, it ranks almost dead last in terms of sound and level design, as well as control—three elements that separate the best Mega Man games from the mediocre ones.
As always, Mega Man must eliminate eight of the evil Dr. Wily’s robots. Defeat a boss and you gain its special weaponry. But there’s little sense of gravity to the proceedings, and in no small part because the game inexplicably adopts the same high-pitched or otherwise cringe-worthy voice acting that was the nadir of Mega Man 8. And don’t expect to hear any music that competes with the energetic and menacing tracks of Mega Man 2, the emotionally conflicted melodies of Mega Man 3, or the straightforward head-banging tunes of series spinoff Mega Man X. The undistinguished techno-driven soundtrack here simply gives the impression of Mega Man hanging out inside a college bar.
At least Mega Man 11’s level designs fare a little better. Especially of note, Bounce Man’s stage is a kinetic triumph, with lines of bouncy balls that both help you reach higher areas and knock you into goofy enemies, bungee-cord platforms that send you flying high into the air, and big hands that slap you across the screen. And Blast Man’s stage excitingly features a string of chaotic explosions that are pure exultation. But the other environments follow more predictable formulas that have been run into the ground throughout the lifespan of the Mega Man franchise and platformers in general.
As if the series needed another ice-themed level, Tundra Man’s stage, with its slippery floors and harsh winds, completely lacks in imagination, especially in comparison to the devious gauntlet that was the ice stage in the original Mega Man or the high-octane snowboard sequences in Mega Man 8. The conveyor-belt dynamics of Block Man’s stage and shifting lasers of Fuse Man’s stage are also old hat. But the biggest failure in terms of creativity and good taste is Torch Man’s stage. It’s bad enough that the series is content to go back to the same old well, but this latest fire stage sets some kind of low bar, what with its gimmicky moving wall of flames and its gratuitous use of Native American symbols as cheap props in a desperate attempt to appear clever.
But the game’s most egregious wrong is its stiff controls, which are reminiscent of those in Mega Man 7, the worst title in the series. Considering that the first two Mega Man games suffered from slippery controls before Mega Man 3 ushered in perfectly balanced movement for your true-blue hero, it’s absolutely puzzling that this is where the series has ended up. When you climb up ladders, Mega Man feels like an old man as he slowly goes from rung to rung. The most unforgivable part, though, is the weirdly noticeable pause after you perform a slide. In many previous entries, you could slide and hold the forward button to seamlessly transition into a run. Here, it’s as if Mega Man slightly malfunctions after every slide, which, as you can imagine, isn’t good when you’re trying to escape a stage-consuming fire or zip through a series of snug passages to avoid getting spiked to death. The fact that Capcom can’t make this decades-old maneuver feel effortless is evidence that this series might need to go in a trash compacter like old machinery.