Mega Man is unfair. Your character has mediocre speed, a pathetic vertical leap, and a wimpy pellet gun, yet you're asked to conquer a barrage of rivals who have no such handicaps. The series' tricky bosses and obstacle courses invite exasperation. You play for the promise that once you discover new ways to use your limited arsenal, success will be that much more gratifying for the effort.
Limitations breed creativity, and Mega Man 9 takes that philosophy to its extreme. Capcom's latest Blue Bomber title has gotten buzz for its emulated 8-bit graphics and sound, but the real gamble here comes from reverting to the simple game mechanics of Mega Man 2. Stripped of frills like slide moves and blaster charge-ups, which had become staples of the series, Mega Man 9 had the potential to be a boring retread that coasted on retro charm. Instead, the limited framework inspired the developers, many of them veterans of the NES years, to design some of the most innovative and vexing levels the series has seen.
Perennial villain Dr. Wily may be scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of evil-robot nomenclature—"Plug Man"?—but his henchmen's bases offer an engrossing variety of challenges, such as Tornado Man's spinning-magnet platform puzzle and, in the Concrete Man stage, the most annoying trio of robotic elephants you will ever encounter. The game doesn't disappoint until you reach Dr. Wily's fortress, which lacks the surprises of the main stages. After nine episodes, maybe the old man's heart isn't really in it.
Beyond the game: Catchy synthesized tunes nail the sound of the cartridge era. Splash Woman's theme stands out with a poignant, almost elegiac melody that suits the title's nostalgia.
Worth playing for: Experimenting with Black Hole Bombs and other special weapons is great fun in Mega Man 9, a welcome departure from recent entries in the series, where an enhanced Mega Buster made other weaponry less relevant.
Frustration sets in when: Fifty unlockable trophies extend the game's lifespan, but some of the goals—e.g., "Clear the game without getting damaged"—are downright sadistic.
Final judgment: Two decades after peaking with Mega Man 2, the franchise hits another high.