It's been eight years since the last Mega Man game, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it wasn't that long ago. Since 2010's Mega Man 10 released on PlayStation 3, Capcom has subtly kept its robotic hero in the limelight with a spate of Legacy Collection re-releases, while Keiji Inafune himself created the lacklustre spiritual successor, Mighty No. 9. While Mega Man 11 delivers the proper sequel fans have been waiting for, it's not afraid to add some new elements to the 30-year-old formula.
The first thing you may notice about the Blue Bomber's new adventure is its appearance. Almost all of the games in the classic series, whether due to hardware limitations or stylistic choice, are 8-bit, but this retro look has been shelved in favour of 2.5D, cel-shaded visuals. It's a big change that does mostly pay off, but some locations in the game look a little flat. It's certainly colourful, and the image quality is squeaky clean, which is important when enemies and projectiles fill the screen.
Another big change is the Double Gear system. Installed in Mega Man after Dr Wily enhances eight robo-adversaries with the same technology, it allows him to either power up his weapons or slow down time for short periods. It's certainly possible to play the game without it, but it's clear you're meant to make the most of this new gameplay gimmick. The time-slowing ability in particular comes in very handy during tricky platforming sequences or certain boss fights; Fuse Man zooms around at lightning speed, so it becomes almost a necessity to activate the time gear so you can avoid his strikes and get some shots in. It can take a while to get used to, but effective use of Double Gear can make the challenging levels a little more manageable.
And make no mistake, in true Mega Man style, this is a hard-as-nails game. There are four difficulty modes ranging from Casual to Superhero, meaning newcomers can ease themselves in, but fans can also set themselves a real challenge. Occasionally the difficulty can feel unfair; there are certain jumps that are hard to read, and even some blind leaps of faith that can lead to unavoidable damage. Enemy placement can feel nasty at times as well, almost as though Capcom is purposely trying to screw you over. Platforming is also extremely strict. Your timing has to be perfect in some cases, with no wiggle room for error, and taking damage in mid-air can and will send you hurtling down a pit.
It's frustrating, and potentially off-putting for new players, but it's also very Mega Man -- part of the experience is learning the levels and perfecting your run. In between each stage, you can also access Dr Light's lab, where you can buy items and upgrades with Bolts dropped by enemies, and this certainly helps smooth some of the game's hard edges. Being able to buy extra lives, energy tanks, and upgrades to the Mega Buster or the Double Gear system is a godsend.
The eight main stages, as usual, can be played in any order, and it remains a good approach that allows you to try a new level if you get stuck, or experiment with which weapons are best for each area. Having said that, there does seem to be at least the hint of an order. Block Man's stage is almost certainly the easiest place to start, and Tundra Man's level is far more manageable when you've unlocked a late upgrade that prevents you from sliding on slippery surfaces. The level design overall is pretty strong, but there are a handful of moments you'll dread replaying, such as the underwater segments in Acid Man's level.
As for the Robot Masters themselves, the fights are tough but doable. Attacks are fairly telegraphed, and combining the Double Gear powers with your unlocked abilities makes the boss battles an entertaining dance of reflexes. Mega Man absorbs their powers when he defeats them, and a radial menu on the right stick makes switching between them a breeze. Some are more useful than others; Fuse Man's fast moving balls of electricity are great for hard to reach enemies, and Block Man's, er, blocks make quick work of most airborne foes. However, Blast Man's bombs move too slowly to be practical, and the strange trajectory Torch Man's fire blast makes it very difficult to use effectively.
Outside of the main game is a suite of extra modes you can use to hone your skills and complete challenges. These are fun distractions, and online leaderboards adds a competitive edge that'll keep Mega Man die hards jumping in to improve their times or scores. Balloon Rush removes enemies and asks you to sprint through each level, hitting blue balloons and avoiding red ones, while Jump Saver tasks you with completing each level with as few jumps as possible. These modes will really test your Mega Man mettle, re-purposing the main game's levels with devilishly tricky challenges.
Ultimately, Mega Man 11 is another rock solid entry in the long running series. The new presentation style and Double Gear system is largely a success, and aside from some particularly nasty areas and enemy placement, the level design is decent. The level of challenge is what fans will have come to expect of the franchise, but unbelievably strict collision detection can result in some harsh losses. It's a tricky balancing act to make a new Mega Man game for hardcore fans as well as newcomers, and Capcom has just about walked that tricky tightrope, but not without some small wobbles on the way.