Despite the negative meaning, the phrase “bottomed-out” is a good thing. With your back against the wall, you are forced to make a change to ensure survival. We often associate this with many aspects of life, such as life, love and even video games. For example, many believe Capcom “bottomed-out” with Mega Man X6 and X7, the weakest entries in the formerly 2D X series. Another example: Britney Spears “bottomed-out” with, well, everything she has ever done (okay, not such a good example). Again, these are all good things, for it forces (eventual) change.
And change is the name of the game with Mega Man X8. Capcom listened to the complaints arising from X’s first foray into 3D with X7 and went back to the drawing board once again. Gone are the problematic third-person perspective action stages, focusing on the more traditional- and previously rare- side-scrolling perspective. The controls have been tweaked for better interaction. The graphics are improved, as is the sound. Everything is tied together with a true sense of urgency and drama not seen since the Super Nintendo outings. However, the road to redemption isn’t all lined with roses; cheap game play bits and a lack of polish slow the Blue Bomber’s latest comeback. But with that said, this is the best X game in years.
The story of X8 is simple, yet focused compared to the past PS1&2 efforts. Humans are migrating to the moon amidst the continued reploid rebellion. To facilitate the relocation, the Orbital Elevator- built under the Jakob project- plays a role in transportation between the Earth and the moon. A new generation of reploids- supposedly immune to mind-crippling viruses is sent to work on the moon. Progress seems to be on the horizon, but project overseer, Lumine, is captured by a long-missing (and fan-favorite) nemesis. Worse yet, the moon-bound reploids are turning Maverick. All signs point to a greater evil at hand. But who would do such a dastardly thing, and why? Is everything all that it seems? And will X finally stop bitching about having to fight? Fans of the series can guess before reading this review, but there some real surprises in store.
Most of X8 is a return to what made the series great: side-scrolling gameplay based in traditional Mega Man trappings. But one feature that continues to advance is the graphics. After the cel-shading experiment that was X7, the visuals in this installment are cleaner and easier on the eyes. Not to say that they blow away groundbreaking games like Metal Gear Solid 3 or Killzone– it’s not even close- but they are a massive upgrade. The main characters are leaner in appearance, but are still blocky and bland close up- free of thick, black lines. The move towards the Mega Man X Command Mission art style hinders the look somewhat, straying further from X’s 2D roots. Other characters range from acceptable to ugly, as do the bosses. Even the return of a certain enemy is slightly ruined because of a bizarre color choice. The character animation, though, is smooth. I do miss some of the little flourishes, like your character beaming to and from each level. The animated cutscenes are joy to watch. Reminiscent of a modern Japanese anime, the digital animation and vibrant colors bring the characters to life.
Backgrounds are similarly simple in appearance, but are free of garish objects. The switch to a 2.5D perspective (3D objects on a side-scrolling, rotating plane) allows for less stress on the game engine, and smoother-looking graphics as a result. The use of polygons lends to a multi-dimensional look and feel. While lacking a high polygon count, the simple-yet-clean look holds true with the series. They also contain numerous little details that breathe life, such as flying birds, floating clouds and various lighting/filter effects. Even the fully 3D stages no longer look like SNES Mode-7 experiments. Unfortunately, nasty slowdown and object draw-in rear their ugly head in full 3D levels. You get the sense that the game is struggling with the visuals when even a character conversation induces slight slowdown. Overall, the graphics are leagues ahead of X7, but only compare with the second generation of PlayStation 2 games.
Sound is almost as important as gameplay in the Mega Man series, and X8 varies in this department. The soundtrack veers between the Japanese rock of the PS1&2 installments, and the serious, majestic tones of the original Mega Man X. And as history has proven, Capcom does better with the somber selections compared with the generic rock littered throughout. The stage select screens, assorted boss battles/stages and intermissions evoke memories of the 16-bit days in their epic strains and head-bobbing bliss. The majority are average, but nothing more. And the one misstep- a love theme (you read right) worthy of 1970’s porn- is memorable for laughable reasons. Sound effects are sharp and on point. The voice acting is tolerable, erasing the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard catastrophe that was X7. The highlight is X, finally sounding like the mature, courageous hero who’s now worthy of iconic worship. Others are solid- Axl is no longer a whiny brat- although Zero sounds like a teen heartthrob. Their lines, however, are as wooden as ever: “He used to be a Class-A Hunter, but now he’s our sworn enemy.”
The control in X8 is upgraded from its predecessor, coming closer to the tight feel of the 2D games. Capcom eliminated most of the floaty character feel plaguing X7, resulting in a greater sense of command. The layout is traditionally simple, with a button designated for jumps, dashing, and your standard/special weapons. Swapping characters is done with the L2 button and a double attack involves the R2 button. Working in tandem, everything is responsive and second nature.
The time-tested gameplay of the Mega Man games has changed little from its 8-bit beginnings, and X8 wears its pedigree proudly. After the controversial move to 3D in X7, Capcom wisely returned the series to its comfortable side-scrolling roots. There are a few carryovers from the previous title, as well as new changes to shake things up. Some, like cheap hits and game play additions, aren’t so welcome. But fans will find enough familiar territory to satisfy their Maverick Hunter hankering.
Like X7, you can choose from three Maverick Hunters: poster boy X, sword-toting Zero and upstart Axl. X is unchanged, with his standard X-Buster and advancements gained from armor upgrades. Zero is reformed, trading his body-protecting mid-air slash from X7 for the time-honored arcing slice. Axl underwent the most changes. He can no longer hover or move forward while shooting, but can fire in eight directions. His weapons have unlimited ammunition, his copy shot is improved and more versatile- allowing Axl to mimic his enemies more effectively. For each stage, you choose two heroes for battle. Your choice plays a crucial role, as certain Hunters have the edge in weaponry and abilities to make stages and bosses a breeze. X and Axl are good for long-range battling, and Zero is great for hand-to-hand combat- though rare. In addition, the grouping of specific protagonists helps uncover secret items. The use of teamwork in X8 is a refreshing change from the solo days of old, and introduces new strategies and challenges to tackling levels. Aside from picking your tandem of good-doers, you can also choose who will navigate you through the level. Series regular Alia is balanced for course-plotting and boss information, Pallette is biased towards stage navigation (and secret paths), and Layer can pick apart boss weaknesses- and is also jonesing for a certain pretty-boy Maverick Hunter (ow!).
The biggest change is the structure of the stages. X7 introduced fully maneuverable 3D stages to the 2D scrolling mix, and X8 promptly removes them. Being that the levels are entirely rendered in polygons, this allows for the camera to swoop in and around at different angles. This turns the fixed movement into a 2.5D-style game- 3D graphics that rotate and bend on the 2D plane. As a result, you can now see your path and most of the enemies onscreen. Also, the flexibility of polygons lends to some creative environments, such as the gravity-rotating maze of Gravity Antonion.
The Maverick stages hearken back to the yesteryears of Mega Man in their structure. In fact, most are a little too straightforward, with little room for wandering off the beaten path. Not to say that it’s a cakewalk; each level is loaded with enough spikes and traps to send a controller a-flyin’. Therefore, reflexes, thinking and level memorization are essential. And although this is a staple of all Mega Man games, some won’t take to the one-hit kills and cheap enemy attacks. This might put off those new to the series, but veterans will overcome the slights. In particular, the move to polygons altered hit detection for the worse, making cheap hits and spike deaths more frequent. And the shooting stages reminiscent of X7 are annoying, boring and pointless.
Thrown into the stages is a modified life system. Unlike the majority of Mega Man titles, you only have one life. When you die, it’s game over- to a degree. Depending on the difficulty level chosen, you have a set amount of continues- retry chips- or unlimited chances. It may seem weird at first, but it’s an interesting take on the standard formula.
The Maverick bosses in X8 are back and in full, wacky effect. The boss battles are nothing new- use particular weapon on boss, evade pattern; wash, rinse, repeat- but still entertain. The Maverick designs and names are even more bizarre, ranging from Bamboo Pandemonium (a body messily-composed of scrap metal and a shrunken panda head), to Optic Sunflower (yes, a sunflower) and the aptly named Gravity Antonion (looks like an ant, has a butt like an onion). Patience; Dungfling Monkey is coming.
Like the past few X games, you can upgrade your character’s abilities for powerful results. Instead of merely finding upgrades, though, X8 introduces a currency system- metals- to create upgrade chips. The chips range from life refills, to additional character attacks and continues. And you’ll need these to progress in the harder difficulty modes.
Though X8 is one of the shorter X games in recent memory, it’s no slouch in the challenge department. Each of the three difficulty levels- Easy, Normal, and Hard- provide a nice set of trials for different players. And beating each difficulty level unlocks a wide assortment of extras. Secret characters, bonus boss battles, additional item and ability chips, and numerous endings are in store for fans and ambitious gamers alike. They’re worth the time invested.
Mega Man X8 is the game X7– and X6– should have been. Learning from the growing pains suffered with their previous effort, Capcom plays to the series’ strengths. Implementing the clean-shaded polygon graphics with traditional 2D gameplay, X8 finds the balance between staying true to its roots while slowly advancing the series aesthetically. The solid sound, responsive controls and challenging game play are all staples of the series that remain intact. While many will knock the X- and the entire Mega Man– library for not advancing with the times, messing with a good thing has proven dangerous with X7 (and other 2D series’ adjusting to 3D).
With the introduction of polygons in 1995’s Mega Man X2, I never thought their use would result in a good X game. But X8 is the game I imagined the future would bring. And knowing that Capcom is well on their way to reviving the darker Mega Man saga, I am looking forward to the next installment with renewed interest. The Blue Bomber is indeed back.