Detroit Rock City
I now know why Metal Gear Solid was considered an Earth-shattering breakthrough in gaming. It wasn’t because of some kind of original “tactical espionage action” gameplay mechanic, or that it had incredibly lengthy cutscenes or enough recorded speech to intimidate presidents. It certainly wasn’t the exclamation marks that appeared on top of the guards’ heads when they spotted something moving within their 5-feet-wide cone of vision. No, Metal Gear Solid was legendary because it was the first major game where the cutscenes were almost entirely done with the in-game engine. As in, the same pixel-faced Solid Snake that you controlled was the same one being monologued to by every commanding officer, analyst, boss, soldier and ninja in the cutscenes.
If the Playstation and Sega Saturn era of the mid-90s have but one defining attribute, it’s the prevalence of MPEG video clips interspersed into games with no sense of coherence. Numerous games had this issue; cutscenes of either live-action film or CG graphics (that we used to think were so advanced in 1995, the fools we were), followed by in-game graphics of choppy, low-resolution 2D character sprites or 3D polygonal models that were as blocky as Ciao the 1990 World Cup mascot. The jarring difference between the cutscenes you were watching and the game you were playing always caused a sense of disconnection between me and the game, and made the resulting product feel…cheap. It often seemed like the only thing connecting an in-game cutscene to the actual gameplay was a lengthy load time.
I feel like Mega Man 8 is a perfect embodiment of this issue. The cutscenes are all designed either by the creators of, or meant to pay homage (i.e. rip off) to Astro Boy. They even nailed the same flat colours and slight film grain of the original cartoon. I was already insecure about the whole prospect of Mega Man being an Astro Replication before, but then I heard Rock talking in the most high-pitched of voices. I know 5-6 year old kids who talk with more testosterone in their voice than this Mega Infant. And its as if Capcom only had the recording studio reserved for 10 minutes and had to rush all the English dub-overs, because I swore I heard Dr Light let out a quick cough after telling Mega Man to stop Wily.
I always felt that the more a Mega Man game tries to tell a story, the more spectacularly it fails, but 8 could be a small exception on sheer camp value. There’s this big robot in space called “Duo” and he’s seen at the start of the game duking it out with some kind of cloud, Dragonball-style. They both crash onto Earth and Dr Light sends Mega Man out to investigate. It turns out that this cloud is known as “EVIL ENERGY”, and it consists entirely of pure concentrated EVIL. Dr Wily has apprehended this EVIL and is using it to fuel his latest creations. Despite Duo being this all-powerful alien Jesus-bot, its up to Mega Man to stop the forces of evil.
It’s hard for me not to laugh when you’ve got Duo trying to explain this whole EVIL ENERGY concept in the most serious tone possible. This being a Mega Man, you’ve got all the old standbys; there’s 8 robot masters to destroy, a Wily Fortress with (few) more stages to beat, and you’ve got Proto Man inserted in the game to do absolutely nothing.
Then you hop out of the cutscenes and into the game, where everything looks ever so different. Mega Man gets shorter, leaner and yet more detailed when you get to control him, and many of the enemies have animations significantly more fluid than anything in the movies. Enemies shatter into wild displays of debris and bolts, and the game as a whole feels a lot more “clean”. It’s a surprisingly easy game to look at, considering its era.
Now that I’ve spent a record 500 words talking about graphics in a review (and for a Mega Man game too!) I should comtemplate discussing the gameplay. And well, it’s a Mega Man game, these things have predetermined rules to follow and will be met be an uprising of angry fanboys should they ever change. You run, jump, shoot yellow circles, charge your gun up to shoot a bigger yellow circle and blink a lot in a series of ever-difficult sidescrolling stages. Like any Mega Man game, it’s very easy to figure out the controls but unless you’ve been following this series for many a year, you’re going to get thrashed by these stages and the pattern-driven bosses that follow. Even some of the mini-bosses will not take kindly to the yellow drops that you’re trickling onto their leggings.
After playing the first seven Mega Mans in succession, I feel like I’ve embraced Mega Man 8 with a renewed sense of appreciation. The enemies in this game are quirkier, the worlds more creative, the robot masters more grandiose and their subsequently-gained superpowers more versatile to use. The very first boss in the entire game is a robotic giant enemy crab, rendering this game a decade ahead of its time.
Mega Man 8 excels at the moments where it’s allowed to be a Mega Man game. That is, throwing the player in elemental-themed stages filled with enemies to shoot and bottomless cliffs to chance leaping over. And dying a lot. I wasn’t too crazy on some of the puzzle-driven levels, where you have to manipulate switches in the name of opening a path to the exit, but much in the same way I can fix a VCR/TV/computer/electronics in general, you’ll eventually solve these by way of fiddling with the buttons for long enough. However, some of the new excursions into other sidescrolling game territory don’t quite fare as well.
For example, some levels put Mega Man on the Rush Jet, transforming the game into a Gradius-style forced-scrolling space shooter. But Rush is not quite on par with a futuristic space ship, and these sequences are sluggish to control. Nothing sucks like realizing you’ve been trapped into a wall and feeling helpless as you slowly pace around the space, realizing you’re about to get crushed by the invisible forced-scrolling wall of God. There are also a few linear snowboarding sequences (yes, snowboarding. In the future. As a strategic offensive maneuver against the forces of Wily) which consist of Mega Man on a board, jumping and sliding when a traffic sign-on-rockets appears to instruct you. There’s a certain rhythm to snowboarding, jumping or sliding just as the signs begin to rocket away and warn the boarder behind you of incoming cliffs, but getting the hang of this rhythm is going to involve many snowboarding accidents on the Black Diamond that is the cliff to Wily’s lair.
Oh, and Mega Man has a soccer ball weapon now. Yes, really. Between this and the snowboarding, ol’ Rock Man was trying really hard to fit in with the cool kids in 1995. And it was only through surfing the internet trying to figure out what happened to the Rush Coil in Mega Man 8 did I discover that this soccer ball is the new Rush Coil. Mega Man has to jump on top of the combustible soccer ball and use the subsequent explosion as a means of jumping higher. Strange, yet in a way more bold than being propelled off a spring. You have to respect Mega Man in a deranged kind of way. As for Rush himself, the Rush abilities here feel kind of useless; there’s some kind of Rush Motorcycle adaptor that sounds badass on paper, until you realize that 2D platformer worlds don’t have much in the way of flat, road-like surfaces. The other abilities consist of Rush flying above the screen either giving you health or giving enemies the gift of bombs. The only time I ever cared to use Rush Ambulance was fighting the damned Wily UFO battle at the end of the game. And yes, this game has a damned Wily UFO battle. Someone is going to tell me that this s some kind of franchise tradition, but I can’t buy that. The UFO fight is always an annoying end-boss. Plus UFO fights started with the fourth Mega Man, and most of the Megafanatics favor the first three anyways, so we can safely drop this final boss concept without breaking a sweat.
Mega Man 8 also introduces a new upgrade system of sorts. For the first time in the history of the Mega Man video game series, Roll makes herself useful! She operates a shop where you can purchase assorted weapons upgrades in exchange for bolts you found in the game world. Why robots view readily-available bolts as valuable currency, I don’t know. Why Roll doesn’t just give me the damned upgrades as a work expense for my occupation of “saving the freaking world”, I don’t know either. There’s both a finite number of bolts to find in what amounts to the game’s optional fetch quest (of which you can just go on the internet to assist you) and a finite number of upgrades to adopt. The idea is interesting on paper, but I couldn’t help but feel like I shouldn’t have to waste precious bolts on key upgrades that Mega Man should be entitled to, like the ability to freely exit a stage you’ve already completed.
Lets revisit this notion of EVIL. Dr Wily has taken his latest creations and fused them with this power of EVIL, presenting Mega Man with his most dire challenge yet. How can the Blue Bomber possibly hope to defeat these four individuals?
Grenade Man: As I preached time and time again, Dr Wily would be greater served by robots designed to use real world weapons rather than, say, bubbles or leaves. Every now and then, he surprises me with a Napalm Man-like WMD. Now we have Grenade Man, a 6 feet tall walking device designed to go kamikaze for the cause. Even the resulting shrapnel would be taller than Mega Man. Grenade Man’s weakness is that he lives in a Call of Duty-driven world, where the grenade indicator will keep a player safe.
Frost Man: Is the twentieth time the charm? It seems like at least every other Mega Man game has an Ice-oriented boss, leading me to think that perhaps that parka-wearing midget from the first game was a pioneer of sorts. However, the power of EVIL has made him the size of an ice truck with the mentality of an ice truck killer. Dexter spent an entire season trying to stop Frost Man’s human equivalent, what chance does a little kid like Mega Man have?
Tengu Man: As if Astro Blatant-ripoff cutscenes alone weren’t enough of an indication, a boss villain inspired by a creature of Japanese folklore should be the indication that Capcom stopped giving a damn about catering to the average American. But he’s tall, employs his beak in a sexy pose, throws a giant wind-blade-thingy and traps Mega Man in whirlwinds of pure EVIL. When you think about it, Mega Man 8 has the most intimidating bosses out of the entire nine-game series.
Clown Man: Nevermind.
Following the Mega Man 7 approach, the game divides its evil robot master stages into 2 groups of four. Before moving on to round two, you’ll get an extra stage, followed by an action-driven cutscene involving a gigantic, scary-looking robot boss that whoops Mega’s ass. I was in shock! With a setup like that, I was itching for payback, the chance to engage in an epic battle with this giant mechanical menace. But no, Duo just wipes the robot out in the movie. What a tease, Capcom. Anyways, new robot masters.
Sword Man: Okay, so Sword Man is a small step backwards from Grenade Man in terms of being inspired by weapons and their subsequent obsolescence. His coolest attribute is that he was disemboweled at the abdomen, presumably by Wily in some kind of freak accident failure, but the power of EVIL compels him to fight on anyway with a removable torso.
Aqua Man: If Mega Man 7’s Slash Man was begging for a lawsuit from Marvel Comics, then here’s a boss that’s practically teasing DC’s lawyers, screaming aloud me “sue me! Sue me!” While he’s basically a giant, weaponized eyedropper, Aqua Man does present another fun, creative display in the three-ring circus that is Mega Man 8. And he begins a fight by generating some rain and a rainbow that displays his name. Ladies and gentlemen, the second homosexual robot master in Mega Man history.
Astro Man: Perhaps an attempt at redemption for creating Clown Man, Dr Wily rebounds with a machine boasting mastery over the very cosmos. It’s almost as if Wily combined EVIL with Stephen Hawking. Or perhaps he’s Capcom’s way of subtly mocking anyone who dares accuse Mega Man of resembling a more legendary figure in animation.
Search Man: Imagine you as a child, getting lost in the woods. Who’s going to come rescue you but Search Man, a scary, two-headed forest ranger packing heat. Dr Wily has fused this EMTbot with evil, thus turning him into some kind of Searcher of death. Strange concept…but at least an awesome design.
Once you purify these 8 machines of their EVIL-ness, then you get your shot at Wily’s … one that begs me to the question the use of an underground tower. However, these late-game stages feel very brief. There’s another Rush Jet level, another Snowboard level, and very little Mega Manning on your way to a select-few bosses (one cool return of a classic boss, and one lame idea boss that requires the use of the soccer ball.) And then there’s the blasted UFO fight, and then the game’s over.
Mega Man 8 is a bit uneven. The game feels light on content towards the end with an anti-climatic final series of levels. (Much like this review, but you’d be having a hard time writing reviews for EIGHT FREAKING MEGA MAN GAMES TOO by this point) But your road to those levels will at least be entertaining enough, thanks to some great bosses and mostly solid gameplay action. The game (or at least the allegedly inferior Playstation 1 port) is part of the Mega Man Anniversary Collection of last generation, along with 7 other 3 ½ star+ rated games, so you’d best be investing in that.
3 ½ stars