Homage is difficult. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a homage to 1980’s video games and the Toronto indie music scene. Both the novel and the film are wildly inventive and beautiful works which use the specificity of the premise and place to say wider things about love, responsibility and growing up. Mockbuster movie Transmorphers is a homage to Transformers. It’s absolute cack.
The difference is care and attention. The developers of Metagal clearly love Mega Man, and this homage to it feels affectionate and true. From the screen-scrolling to the way you upgrade your arsenal by stealing boss’ special powers, there’s a specificity to Metagal that’s hard not to admire. And there’s a lot of time to admire it. The game over screens provide a lot of time to reflect.
It looks the part, with nice, clean pixel graphics, although it feels a lot sharper in handheld mode. When blown up on the TV, it feels out of place and a little blurry. The sound design fares better, as the soundtrack is exactly how we remember NES games sounding (jaunty and twee) rather than what NES games actually sound like (monotonous and painfully high pitched).
Metagal isn’t a straight up copy of Mega Man, though, as it brings its own ideas to the table. Abilities utilize a charging system, as expected, but you start with a blast-shot and the ability to regenerate health. You can also collect cogs along the way that help you by allowing you to restart from the last screen, which helps with the problem of having to repeat vast parts of levels. They’re a valuable commodity.
Also is clever in the way that it builds up its levels. In Mega Man stages could be tackled in any order, so you never really felt you could use the full potential of all the different skills acquired. It all came together in Wily’s castle, but perhaps a bit late. Metagal only has four skills to earn and is followed by four levels you can only play once you have them all. This works better, as it allows use of the upgrades in surprising ways – one particularly cool upgrade swaps your position with the enemy you’re shooting at, which leads to some nice puzzles.
But it’s not all good news. Sometimes the difficulty level feels less tough and more unfair. It calls for finely-honed platforming skills, and when enemies hit you, you get knocked back and lose control. Ugh! We even had to suppress our screams when this happened.
For all its strengths, it doesn’t quite do enough to move beyond Mega Man. The ability to duck and maybe multidirectional shooting would have made it feel more refined. As it is, it feels a little too constrained by its inspiration. The character designs are also a missed opportunity. As much as we approve of gender swapping, the character selection screen outfits are so skimpy that my wife commented on them. That’s the wrong side of fan service.
In all, Metagal is an experience elevated by its platform. On Switch in handheld mode, it feels right at home. It’s just a shame it hasn’t done more of its own decorating.