Mighty No. 9: An Odyssey in Futility

It happened. Mighty No. 9 actually released last week after more than a year in delay. Despite the firestorm of criticism, I bought it, played it, and finished it. I’d like to give you my thoughts on the game, but first we should go through the odyssey the last few years have been.

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In September 2013, former Mega Man director Keiji Inafune and Comcept – the studio he founded after leaving Capcom – launched the Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9. It was truly a perfect storm. At the time, anti-Capcom sentiments were at a peak. The company had cancelled the highly anticipated Mega Man Legends 3 after Inafune’s departure and there was serious question as to Capcom’s status in the home console market amidst financial strife. Much like Konami has been the past year due to its divorce with Hideo Kojima, Capcom was a public enemy to gamers the world over.

This resulted in over $4 million in public funding through direct Kickstarter contributions and PayPal donations. On the final day of the campaign, Comcept held a livestream to watch the time tick down and the money pile up. I vividly remember that final hour. I recall one employee half-heartedly turning away from the camera and saying to another person, “I can’t believe how much money we’re making!”

I was one of those people – the backers. Twenty of that $4 million was from me. I feel comfortable with my reasoning at the time. As far as game directors go, Keiji Inafune was my first love. As a child, before I knew who even Shigeru Miyamoto was, I knew Keiji Inafune. He had given me Mega Man (or so I thought). He had given me my favorite game of my childhood: Mega Man X4So believe me when I tell you that the struggles and shortcomings of Mighty No. 9 are very real to me. The sentiments that I hold for Mighty No. 9 are not born from groupthink or Internet meme-culture.

After the game officially went into development, things were for the most part quiet. Backers were sent monthly updates. We were asked for input on occasion. Comcept for a short time did ask for more money to insure voice acting would be in the game and gauge interest in potential DLC. It wasn’t until the beta was released in late 2014 that conflict truly began to appear. Some voiced concern that the art style was unpleasing and that the gameplay was bland. I did my best to temper my expectations knowing that Comcept is still a young studio and this is still a budget game despite record crowdfunding.

As the initial spring of 2015 release window was closing, worries increased without Comcept locking down a release date. In April of 2015, it was announced that the game was delayed until September 15th but it came with the caveat that publisher Deep Silver would be bringing the title to retail with physical copies on PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U. Additionally, Deep Silver’s support meant that the planned voice acting and DLC would be funded. As a collector, I was pleased and could stomach the small delay in exchange for owning a physical copy of the game.

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However, backers soon learned that there would be no way to parlay our previously guaranteed digital version of the game for donating into a Deep Silver published physical copy. In other words, for people like me who prefer physical media, we would have to commit to essentially buying the game twice. This was an annoyance, but again, I could look past it. Physical copies were never promised to us. Deep Silver only stepped up as a publisher because of the immense support the game received at the time of its campaign.

What did get on my nerves was Deep Silver announcing a special
“Signature Edition” of the retail version a couple of months later with only 10,000 to be made. Backers were not informed by Comcept that a definitive collector’s edition was forthcoming and by the time it had been announced, it had quickly sold out at online retailers. The most dedicated and loyal of Comcept’s user base had been left out in the cold. Fortunately, before release, more of these became available (due to preorder cancellations) and once actual photos of the ‘signature’ box were revealed, it turned out to not be anywhere near worth the asking price.

Already damaged by lackluster beta footage and one delay, Comcept made a disastrous misstep in July of 2015. A pair of Kickstarters were launched for Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. Red Ash was an obvious attempt to recreate the Mega Man Legends series – right down to its name. In Japan, Legends is known as Rockman Dash. Red Ash? Re-Dash? Get it?

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The main Kickstarter for Red Ash failed and the side campaign for an anime based on the game barely succeeded. Almost nothing has been said of Red Ash since last summer, but as the Kickstarter was going down in flames, Comcept let it be known that a Chinese company –  FUZE – would be funding and publishing the game whether the Kickstarter failed or not.

While all of this was happening, rumors began surfacing of Mighty No. 9 not meeting its September 15th release. Think about that. Comcept had one crowdfunded game still in development after a delay with heavy speculation that it was going to be delayed yet again, but was coming to the public with another crowdfunding project at the same time. It’s no wonder why they went from one of the most successful Kickstarters of all time to falling nearly $300,000 short of funding a second game.

As these rumors were spreading, moderators on Mighty No. 9‘s backer-exclusive forum did their best to quell them and intentionally lied to backers. Shortly after the Red Ash campaign ended, the delay was officially confirmed. What a surprise that Comcept was ready to be honest once it was no longer accepting money from us.

In September, Comcept sent emails to backers that announced a February 9th, 2016 release date. It was explained that the game was in its final stages of development, but there were still bugs relating to online play on the aging engine they were using as well as port difficulties because they were developing for every platform. At this point, after being delayed into a completely different calendar year than originally planned, Mighty No. 9 had become a meme for Internet onlookers.

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In Comcept’s defense, due to just how many features they were promising and the plethora of platforms they were releasing on, Mighty No. 9 had grown to being a much larger project than originally intended. I find it ironic. The Kickstarter campaign had done so well that Comcept’s greed for more money led to them adding stretch goal after stretch goal to entice more money from the public. As people gave more and more, features were added to the game – including the online features that would plague development. What is the greatest irony? These features really were never necessary or desired by many players. I played through the game without doing anything relating to online play.

Against my better judgment, I began getting excited for Mighty No. 9 again in late January. I replayed Mega Man X a couple of times to remind me of Inafune’s greatest accomplishment. My skills and mindset were in tune to play one of these games again and accurately judge it. I was making plans for the game. Comcept and Deep Silver had been quiet. There was nothing from retailers to suggest the February 9th date wasn’t solid. Then, from seemingly nowhere, Mighty No. 9 was delayed for a third time. Even worse, it was delayed – at least according to Comcept – for the same reasons it was delayed the second time; online functionality still wasn’t working properly.

At that point, the game could not have a worse public image. Gamers far and wide, whether they ever planned to play the game or not, despised Mighty No. 9 and all it stood for. Mighty No. 9 was a publicly funded game marred by delays, public relations incompetence, and sheer tone-deafness at its own identity. And it wasn’t all on Comcept. Deep Silver had its own hand in hurting the game’s image late in the process.

But then it finally happened. Mighty No. 9 ‘went gold‘ and released on June 21st, 2016. However, “released” is actually a generous term. The Vita and 3DS versions still are not finished and it isn’t known when they ever will be (my backer code is for the 3DS version, by the way). The Mac, Linux, and Xbox 360 versions also were not ready to go directly on day one. So technically, on release day, Mighty No 9 was only on half of the platforms that its Kickstarter campaign promised.

Believe it or not, to say Mighty No. 9 came out on five platforms last Tuesday is even generous still. The Wii U version launched with massive functionality issues as rumors of users having their consoles “bricked” were spread. The bricking rumor (which would mean consoles becoming inoperable) was largely debunked, but many users reported hard crashes and having to unplug their console.

The talk of Mighty No. 9‘s development struggles being solely about online functionality had been disproven. The game has real issues across all platforms in regular gameplay. Speaking from first hand experience, I was fortunate enough to not experience any bugs, but did see some performance problems on PlayStation 4 regarding frame pacing. For a side-scrolling game without the best visuals, that is unacceptable.

Yet all of this could have been forgiven by me if the game was just good. If Mighty No. 9 just played at the level of its predecessors, such as the Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero series (the latter of which was developed by Inti Creates who has fingerprints on Mighty No. 9), then at the end of the day, I could look past the three years of frustration and imperfect game build. But it doesn’t play like those games.

Mighty No. 9 is not a good game.

In three sittings over the course of 72-hours, I played through and finished Mighty No. 9 last week. The further I got in the game, the worse it became.

Note: I played through the Mighty Numbers stages in order of 1-8

At its core, Mighty No 9‘s gameplay design is very foreign to me. To put it simply, in this game you shoot enemies into a damaged state and then absorb them by dashing through them. The entire game is designed around this mechanic. What that means to me as a Mega Man veteran is that because of the speed level, it’s not accurate to compare Mighty No. 9 to the classic series. It’s closer to the X, Zero, and ZX series in terms of gameplay, but lacks the wall jumping feature from those games which – in Mighty No. 9‘s case – makes level traversal more difficult and arduous than it had been in older games. Beck instead can jump to and hang on ledges to steadily scale walls up or down. And, yes, that is as big of a downgrade compared to wall jumping as it sounds.

Something that immediately struck me as off was the fact that the dash feature was not mapped to one of the face buttons, but instead to the right bumper (R1 on the Dualshock 4). This made no sense to me. Anyone who’s extensively played Mega Man X knows that it should be mapped to the right face button – ‘A’ on a SNES controller and Circle on a PlayStation controller. In previous games, this was because with one motion of your right thumb, you could easily transition from dashing to jumping to shooting.

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A= Dash, B= Jump, Y= Shoot

This unusual discrepancy is inconsequential because you can remap the buttons to your liking, but it struck me as a concern. It was a sign that Mighty No. 9 wasn’t completely in-tune with what made the games it was trying to be a spiritual successor to fun. In fact, this became a growing theme with the game.

If you’re a fan of Mega Man X, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t seen Egoraptor’s Sequelitis video on the game.

I don’t see eye-to-eye with Egoraptor on a lot of things, but there is a very good point made in terms of what conventions from Mega Man Classic remained in Mega Man X. The series is known for having amazing controls to this day. For nearly 30 years, Mega Man has had perfect movement speed, jump arcs, and character weight. Mega Man epitomizes what it means when a 2D game has “tight” controls. Mighty No. 9 throws that idea in the trash.

I cannot tell you how many times I died directly due to the fact that Beck controls like a feather. Everything is just so floaty. The dash feature, which should make the game more navigable, can sometimes be your worst enemy. It can be difficult to gauge just how far it will take you. The dash also makes you more vulnerable than usual, so if you’re hit during it, expect to be stopped in the middle of your tracks and sent flying backwards. Additionally, you cannot attack while dashing. This annoyance is compounded by the fact that like the original 1987 Mega Man game Mighty No. 9 features no ‘damage boost,’ meaning if you get hit and then fall into a spike trap or the equivalent, you’re instantly dead. There is no invincibility period when it comes to that.

I said it’s a foreign game to me because over the years, I’ve adapted to the mindset that Mega Man games with dashing functions were best played as quickly as possible. Don’t fight what you don’t need to. If things can be jumped over, then jump over them. Mighty No. 9 has similar mechanics, but is predicated on fighting everything you see so that you can absorb the enemies, get temporary upgrades, and increase your high score. It’s as though the dash was built solely for absorption and the designers were discouraging the player from using it to aggressively transverse the level. In other words, even though this game has a dash and the level flow of a Mega Man X game, play it slow and methodically like a classic series game. Again, it makes me question whether or not Comcept truly understands how players play the games that they were trying so hard to emulate.

Mighty No. 9 is a legitimately difficult game. Some of that comes from design. Some of it is from just how poorly realized its mechanics and levels are. To my fellow Mega Man fans out there that haven’t played it, I give you my word that the difficulty is real to even players like us and not just to those who haven’t spent countless hours playing this kind of genre.

Difficulty can be a good thing when what you’re playing feels rewarding. Mighty No. 9 has some stages that are average for what you’d expect in a game sought over by Inafune. Other stages are unmitigated disasters. Countershade (Mighty No. 8) comes to mind instantly.

This stage is one big circle that has the player going from room to room searching for Countershade who is sniping you from a distance. When you find him, you get a couple of shots in and repeat the process. In the later encounters, the room he appears in has instant-death traps strewn about for an easy kill to make you repeat the entire process from the beginning. If he appears in the beginning room, it’s especially deadly.

I cannot think of any level in a Mega Man game that is a bigger disaster than this. There’s no thought to the enemy placement. You feel obligated to kill everything you see because you know you’re probably going to be doubling back through these rooms later. It’s incredibly easy to suffer a cheap death and start the whole level over due to the lack of damage boosting. To top it all off – or perhaps to soften the blow – once you do get to the actual boss fight, Countershade is ridiculously easy. I don’t think he hit me more than once.

That stage is not alone. Brandish’s stage (Mighty No. 7) has you car hoping on a speeding freeway. With the way damage works in this game, one hit could mean an instant death as if you were playing Ninja Gaiden on NES. What’s really wrong here is that you can be punished for going too fast. Brandish will appear throughout the level to destroy pre-determined vehicles. One vehicle in particular allows you to land on it and then shortly after speeds off screen; causing you to either go backwards to another car or fall to your death.

In Seismic’s stage (Mighty No. 4), one section has you destroying barrels to progress as a large drill encroaches on you from the left side of the screen. One of the barrel placements is nearly impossible to destroy unless you have the shooting upgrade from having absorbed an enemy or Patch (the helper robot) gave it to you upon re-spawning. The barrels are also destructible using some of the skills you gain from beating bosses, but if you had come to this stage first, passing this segment would have felt like blind luck. The way to do it without any upgrades or skills is to make use of the ‘action’ feature that allows Beck to jump backwards and shoot towards the ground when you hit the right trigger button. But this feature is so seldom used and never taught to you that passing that section may as well be up to chance.

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Yes, there are things in Mighty No. 9 that are simply not taught to you through gameplay. Did you watch the Egoraptor video? A lot of that video is done to ultimately make the point that so much of what the player needs to know is taught through the level design of the the very first level – the iconic Highway Stage. Mighty No. 9 instead has a bunch of tutorials hidden on a side menu in the stage select. And when I say “a bunch,” I mean there are literally dozens of things to read about regarding the game’s mechanics. It may as well be a PS1-era user manual.

The ‘action’ feature is one of the most useless functions I’ve seen in a game like this. The type of enemy placement in this game really is no different than previous Mega Man series outside of it not being as well thought out. You didn’t need a new angle to attack enemies from, which is why I may not have destroyed a single enemy with this feature. What’s worse is, due to the Dualshock 4 having analog triggers, depending on how you hold the controller and how tensely you play, you can accidentally trigger this function with the slightest pressure.

That feature is not alone in being nearly useless. I found little to no use for nearly every skill I gained from beating the Mighty Numbers. Like in Mega Man games, the skills you gain will give you an advantage over a boss who is weak to that skill. I found myself never needing to do that because truth be told, the bosses were fair enough to beat with just the standard buster. Only Aviator (Mighty No. 6) and the final boss had me experimenting with the skills to find an easier way. On top of that, the skills are difficult to use, in my opinion. The old system of cycling through them with the bumpers in Mega Man X was far more simple and easy to use on the fly than what Mighty No. 9 did. Basically the cycling feature works on a visual idea of up and down rather than left and right. Plus you have to hit an extra button to actually equip the skill and un-equip to go back to the buster. You also can’t change what’s equipped through the pause menu.

One thing you can do through the pause menu is consume the equivalent to E-Tanks/Sub Tanks. However, how you acquire those tanks is much different. The ‘I’ and ‘II’ tanks are found through absorbing enemies. So if you do your due diligence and destroy lots of enemies on your way to a boss, you can get there with what are essentially two lifelines. The problem with this, however, is that like any other upgrade you get from absorption, they disappear on death. This means when you die on a boss, you will be lucky to have even one tank if the helper bot, Patch, gives you one upon re-spawning. Against the final boss in particular, if Patch is unkind and the three goodies it spits out don’t include a tank, you may as well throw that attempt in the trash.

This is a maddening piece of game design. In previous games, Sub and E-Tanks were a commodity that the player valued and stored. As long as you didn’t get a game over, you could pile up to nine E-Tanks in the Classic series and use them against bosses to your heart’s content. In X, the Sub Tanks were unaffected by death and how you managed them was completely up to your skill of knowing how to fill them and when was the optimal time to use them. In Mighty No. 9, whether you have one may be up to complete blind luck. I realize I’m stumbling into a trope of modern gaming right now, but I ask you to think of Dark Souls. Imagine if in a Dark Souls game whether or not on your next boss run you would get to use your Estus Flask was completely up to chance. Imagine if when you re-spawned at a bonfire there was a little troll there deciding whether or not to give you the flask on this life. That’s what happens in Mighty No. 9.

And again, nowhere is this more frustrating than the final boss. At best, I could get to halfway through its second form on only one life bar. To finish it off, I would need a tank. It also isn’t as though the final boss was interesting or thrilling to fight.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Dare I say, there may not be a final boss worse than that in the entire Classic, X, Zero, or ZX series. Everything about it was just so uninspired from its art design, the attack patterns of the first form, the first form not having a unique boss song, and the overall apathy I had at the significance of the fight in the story.

The story itself was lukewarm mush that I could barely care to follow. There was the obvious homage to the very first Mega Man: Beck is robot forced to take up arms against his brothers and sisters from the same creator just as Rock had to become Mega Man to stop six of Dr. Light’s other creations in Mega Man. But the ultimate payoff as to why the Mighty Numbers were malfunctioning and what was the root of the problem felt mailed-in by whoever wrote the story. The entire endgame felt very rushed and incoherent.

Furthermore, the storytelling itself was bad. Cutscenes were done with the already poorly done 3D-models of characters interacting with static mouths.

It just looked far poorer than it was probably intended to. If it wasn’t in the budget to do fully animated scenes, it would have been a better idea to have presented the dialog like a storybook with characters’ portrait arts speaking – like you see in JRPGs and similar to Mega Man X8.

Still, I don’t want to give you the impression that there is nothing positive in Mighty No. 9. There are good things in this game. For one, I like that you could use the tanks without pausing by hitting the Dualshock 4 trackpad (I assume it’s the equivalent of ‘select’ on other platforms). The Mighty Numbers you defeat are not killed, unlike the Robot Masters and Mavericks of the older series. This means once the other bots are defeated and cured of their malfunctions, they re-join your team, in a way. The Mighty Numbers can then aid Beck in helping clear future stages. For example, Dynatron (Mighty No. 3) came to my aid in turning off electrified death traps in Countershade’s stage. This was a really cool feature and a throwback to stages being affected by other stages you’ve cleared like in the original Mega Man X. However, this concept also meant there wasn’t a traditional boss rush before the final boss. I can take or leave that custom, to be honest. There is a boss rush mode available after you beat the game.

The boss fights were, for the most part, fine (the final one aside). Again, nearly every bosses was perfectly beatable using only the buster. Each fight did invoke a nostalgic feel of fighting a Mega Man Classic boss and trying to win the ‘health-bar race’ against my foe. On average, boss fights were never too easy or too difficult (Mighty No. 1 Pyrogen having an instant-kill not withstanding). In fact, I’d say the stages themselves were tougher than the bosses, which makes me again wonder if they were meant to be that way or just came out that way due to faulty design.

Music was hit and miss when it comes to what I expect from Inafune’s games. Some tunes were catchy and others were forgettable. I would say Mighty No. 9 has better music than the average video game, but it doesn’t stack up well against several Mega Man games. I will have to listen back in the future to get a better handle on this topic.

There are other things that bother me that I don’t hold against the game. For example, I really dislike the art direction and choice to make it a 2.5D game. But with that said, those things don’t make or break whether or not the game is actually good. Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is going for a similar look, but its latest gameplay demo looks far better than Mighty No. 9 ever did pre-release. Bloodstained, too, has Inti Creates working on it.

That leaves us with the whys and hows. Why did Mighty No. 9 end up the way it did? I’m only in the position to speculate. A lot of negative things are said about Keiji Inafune these days. There is an unmistakable narrative that he is a conman that cares more about his games being fiscally successful than he does them being critically successful. You may have seen or at least heard of this infamous Hideki Kamiya tweet.

Kamiya, a legendary director in his own right (Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, etc.), has multiple times blasted his former Capcom colleague on Twitter.

Though Kamiya is normally very outspoken and brash on Twitter, he isn’t wrong. In fact, a backer thought Kamiya was so not wrong about Mighty No. 9 that they had their name appear in the credits as “Kamiya was right.” And I have to agree with Mighty No. 5040. Kamiya was right in calling Inafune a businessman but not a creator. At the very least, in present time, that is the case.

From my perspective, Inafune and Comcept have been obsessed with making Mighty No. 9 (and Red Ash included) a financial success for their company. That’s why there’s been talk of Mighty No. 9 getting a sequel, an animated series, a live-action movie, and anything else you could think of. Mighty No. 9 was met with such a positive reception that the mindset has always been to parlay it into the most profitable franchise it could possibly be rather than making the best one-time product Comcept could make and then taking it from there. That is why, in my opinion, we got one of the most disappointing games in history. The focus and attention to detail simply was not there, nor do I think all $4 million was properly invested into the product we received.

And you know what? I understand. I can get where Inafune and Comcept are coming from in that regard. Comcept is a small studio. Since its founding, all Comcept had done was co-develop on titles like Soul Sacrifice and Ninja Gaiden for Vita on the behalf of publishers. Mighty No. 9 was to be their first intellectual property to see the light of day. Its financial, longterm success will undoubtedly have an impact on a lot of people’s livelihoods. Trying to put the property in the best position to succeed by securing licensing deals and whatever else is understandable – but not at the cost of making a subpar game or lying to the people who donated to your cause.

In the end, Mighty No. 9 leaves me wondering what happened to the man who created Mega Man X or whether that man existed at all and was just a mirage created by a multitude of talented people working under him for years. Keiji Inafune has always had an inflated legacy. He’s often credited for being the father of Mega Man when the man truly responsible for the first game was its director, Akira Kitamura. Kitamura also directed the legendary Mega Man 2 which is often still heralded as the best game in the entire franchise. Inafune was just an artist at the time who made it all come to life.

Even still, when I think of Inafune’s true accomplishments, I think of X. The first Mega Man X is still one of the best games ever made in my opinion, and Inafune certainly was a creative force on that from art direction, to concept, and game design. How is it that this creator – who would also spearhead Mega Man Legends and Mega Man Zero – could now be revered as nothing but a businessman?

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Sadly, I wish I could say “never again” to Keiji Inafune, but I can’t. In September, a game codeveloped by Comcept and Armature Studio will launch for Xbox One and Windows 10: ReCore. How much of that game has actually been developed by Comcept is very questionable to me seeing as Armature is stationed right here in my hometown of Austin, Texas. A Polygon article from last year makes it seem that Comcept is handling philosophy while Armature does the legwork. Armature has a respectable legacy and ReCore has looked exciting, so I can say I will buy at least one more game with Keiji Inafune’s name on it in my lifetime.

That, of course means I’m not completely against buying a Mighty No. 9 sequel, Red Ash, or any other Comcept developed game. I always urge people to keep an open mind and at least wait until release before burying a game. If the sequel does come, I’ll wait for people I trust to actually play it before making a decision on whether to give Comcept another chance.

I also would like to put a word in to not discount the crowdfunding process just because of Mighty No. 9. Crowdfunding is a dangerous new concept in gaming and I understand why people are weary of it. Those that buy-in are taking part in the ultimate preorder; paying for a game in full (and sometimes more) before it’s even developed based on faith. Preordering itself has a growing, negative stigma in gaming due to the belief that it leads to developer and publisher complacency. It’s easy to understand why crowdfunding can be viewed in an even worse light.

I’d argue that the positives crowdfunding has done for gaming outweigh the negatives as of today. The success stories, big and small, in my view outnumber the missteps. It ultimately falls on the shoulders of the individual to make the decision to fund a game or not. I respect those that choose not to ever crowdfund on the basis of principle. However, I do not think it’s a practice that should go away just because it isn’t perfect. I’d hate to see true creators be left out in the cold because some have abused the process or let their donors down in some way.

Concerning us Mega Man fans, we must continue to wait. As far as I’m concerned, we have still yet to receive a proper Mega Man game, homage or otherwise, in several years – unless of course you count Shovel Knight (a great game made possible by crowdfunding). Sadly, I suspect the next Mega Man game proper by Capcom will either be on mobile or, perhaps even worse, be licensed out and based on the animated series coming in 2017.

Then again, maybe the next game will be a proper effort. Capcom, for as evil as it seemed a few years ago, has not given up on Street Fighter. Capcom hasn’t given up on Resident Evil. There’s even rumblings of Devil May Cry returning in the future. Maybe – just maybe – our favorite blue bomber will be given his just due again. I would say there’s never been a better time in the last five years to begin development on a new game than now; in the wake of Mighty No. 9‘s heartache.

But until the time comes, I will keep playing my older favorites and wishing our friend a peaceful sleep.

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Author: Scott

Scott is a content creator, gamer, and student from Austin. At the ripe old age of 21 he discovered that the Nintendo 64 is never worth returning to and that Castlevania Rondo of Blood is the best Castlevania ever made. Can successfully rap the entirety of "Mass Destruction" from Persona 3.

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