Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mega Man 7 - Failing to Meet X-Pectations
Having witnessed what a reinvigorated Capcom could do, my hope was that its newfound inspiration would surface elsewhere.

For most of 1994 (and, well, for pretty much the rest of the 16-bit generation), I was utterly engrossed in all things Mega Man X. Having blasted away the looming specter of my preconceived notions, Mega Man X proved itself to be a superior entertainment product but moreover the special type of video game that I could enjoy from multiple angles: I loved replaying it; listening to its music; thinking about its storyline implications, both consequentially and retroactively; and savoring its awesomely realized visual presentation, which accomplished the amazing feat of capturing the spirit of the NES games while simultaneously working to establish Mega Man X as a shining exemplar in the class of games to which I always refer when speaking about those that exude a quintessential, unmistakable "16-bit vibe."

In addition, Mega Man X accomplished what those of its elite status often do: It left me wanting more. Now, this certainly meant that I was heavily invested in the idea of a Mega Man X sequel, but it was also my hope that Capcom's sudden burst of inspiration would spill over to the development of games in the company's other long-running series, many of which I was hoping to see reborn in an equally realized form. Hell--if Mega Man X 's unexpectedly transcendent quality was any indication, I figured, then it was possible that Capcom's innovative spirit might have already begun showing its influence in undiscovered ways! 

My problem was that I was looking for it in all the wrong places.

Namely, Mega Man X had cast such a spell over me that I was falsely convinced that Capcom's newfound creative energy would carry over to even the classic Mega Man series. I first made the terrible mistake of buying Mega Man 6 solely because I was certain that its ending sequence would contain a key storyline advancement--a natural, epic transition into the X series and most preferably a scene showing the much-dreamed-about confrontation between the original Mega Man and Zero, which I was desperate to witness. It featured nothing of the sort, and I almost wound up hating the game because it didn't live up to that single expectation.

But when it came to the newly announced Mega Man 7, the first 16-bit entry in the classic series, I was positive that both of my wishes would be granted--that Capcom's latest would finally evolve the classic series, bringing it in line with Mega Man X in terms of ambitious gameplay enhancements and aesthetic achievement, while serving as an unforgettable final chapter to a story that was ready to begin its metamorphosis.

Sure--the Nintendo Power coverage of Mega Man 7 made absolutely no allusion to any all-encompassing grand finale, instead detailing what looked to be a typical Dr. Wily plot, but clearly the writers were simply being silent on the matter because they didn't want to ruin the surprise! R-right?!

I wasn't too worried. Besides--there was so much more to look forward to. The screenshots revealed it to be a nice-looking game, which was an encouraging sign, and I was anxious to see how much Capcom had learned from its experience in developing Mega Man X. For the first time in a long time, I was genuinely excited about a classic-series entry!

Though, for reasons that should seem obvious, Mega Man 7 fell flat with me almost immediately. The game actually started out promising enough with its well-crafted intro scene, whose intriguing animation sequences and vibrantly colored illustrations spoke of the increased sense of scale I was hoping for, but none of those in following could maintain the illusion. There was the title screen, for instance, which stood out to me as one of the most plain and boring-looking I'd ever seen in a Mega Man game, its mundane presence lacking any in way of the visual intensity or the energetic musical accompaniment that was so abundant on that rockin' Mega Man X title screen.

The opening scene, wherein Mega Man was riding along with Roll and Auto, was painfully long and completely out of place, the plodding pace of the characters' drawn-out conversation slowly draining away whatever enthusiasm I could still muster; and its lame attempt at humor (Mega Man donning a Metall helmet by mistake) made me cringe, effectively turning my mood sour. I didn't remember Mega Man X needing all of this superfluous character-development; no--it got moving right away, its story told more through action and environmental changes!

I was happy to see that they included a pre-Robot Master intro stage, which instantly distinguished it from the NES games, but there was barely anything to it; it felt like an abbreviated, watered-down version of X's highway sequence, only with an extra heaping of Dr. Light's slowly delivered dialogue; the stage's bosses were pitifully easy--particularly series newcomer Bass, whose character-development was meager at best. Vile and Zero were far more interesting. There was simply too much in the way of exposition--all of it tediously protracted and hardly a fit for what what was supposed to be a fast-paced action game. In Mega Man X, comparatively, I could absolutely speed through both the text and the cut-scenes, neither serving to interrupt the game's flow.

The more I saw of Mega Man 7, the less impressed I was with its graphical style. It seemed as though Capcom didn't properly scale the 16-bit visuals to reflect the original series' more-compact level design; as a result, the character sprites were too large, parts of stage environments felt uncomfortably cramped, and the field of vision moving forward was too narrow. The camera offered a limited field of vision, which required that I tread carefully as not to collide with enemies as they unexpectedly appeared at the edge of the screen; this was a complete deterrent to the charge-forward-with-guns-blazing style of play the NES games so openly invited.

Accordingly, the action felt kind of sluggish--not just in comparison to Mega Man X but to even to the NES games--and not as tactile, Mega Man's rapidity taking a noticeable hit. (The Mega Buster animation's newly applied start-up lag might have reinforced this notion had I not perceived it as the designers' attempt to ensure that Mega Man wasn't overpowered in his base form, which was a recurring issue in the latter three NES games.)

Though, I was a fan of what Capcom did in terms of background work and environments, which was always one of the most memorable parts of the package. I liked in particular the sciency feel of Burst Man's stage with its large beakers and flasks; the Jurassic Park-inspired environmental touches of Slash Man's stage (all of them clearly ripped off from the movie but nonetheless visually interesting); Freeze Man's winter wonderland, whose icy caverns gave view to robotic dinosaur fossils; and all of the whimsical trappings of Spring Man's stage, whose surfaces were adorned with carvings of cute little Metall couples and some neat visual-diagnostic readouts of Mega Man and the stages' enemies.

Still, none of them were quite as visually enrapturing or thought-provoking as Mega Man X's wondrous backdrops--whose collection included a sprawling cityscape, a mysterious forest, a bustling aquatic base, a sky-scraping airfield, and some elaborate industrial settings, all of which I liked to reflect upon while playing--nor was the level design they augmented anywhere near as creative. I knew from reading the Nintendo Power coverage that Mega Man 7's stages would be confined to two axes, whereas X's spread in all directions, but it wasn't my original sense that such an approach would lead to level design that could be described as suppressive and suffocating. In practice, the oversized sprites and compressed spaces made Mega Man 7 seem far smaller in scale than the ambitiously rendered Mega Man X.

Even the game's enemy design felt tame in comparison. Mega Man X featured towering foes whose attacks and movements shook the earth and had palpable visceral impact. Mega Man 7 had a robotic polar bear that pushed an ice block in your direction every few seconds. Mega Man X had unique, creatively designed enemies flying at you from all directions. Mega Man 7's assortment was content to just--you know--kind of float there and brainlessly patrol a tiny slice of land. I had to admit that Mega Man 7 was home to some genuinely interesting midbosses, like a rampaging, flame-spewing T-Rex and a bouncing, acid-tossing pumpkin, but that's about all I was willing to give it.

I didn't know whether or not it was the fair thing to do, but I just couldn't help but compare Mega Man 7's every perceivable attribute to those from Mega Man X, be it graphics, music, controls, pacing, level design or even the very vibe it radiated. I wouldn't give it space to breath and form its own identity, my thoughts always focused on how no part of it could measure up to the extraordinary Mega Man X, which as far as I was concerned was one of the best games ever made. And by the time I'd reached as far as Wily's castle, I'd already made up my mind that Mega Man 7 was so underwhelming that it would never, ever resonate with me in the same way as even the worst NES entry.

Even when I wasn't unfavorably comparing it to Mega Man X, I could still find fault in Mega Man 7: For one, I didn't like how they split the Robot Masters into two separate groups of four; it struck me as a cheap way for them to repeat the same formula while trying to create the illusion that they were actually doing something new and different. Also, this practice threw any semblance of a traditional weakness chain out the window, the divide requiring that a boss from the second group (Slash Man) have major susceptibility to two separate weapons (Mega Man 3 already did this to poor effect)! I was less bothered by this as time went on, but at first I perceived it as a tactically shortsighted approach--the wrong solution to the least of the game's problem.

I couldn't stand anything about Turbo Man's stage, whose obnoxiously timed conveyor-carried tire obstructions kept bouncing me into either spikes or concealed gaps that emptied Mega Man back to the stage's starting area. It'd make me increasingly angry when I'd come up short on jumps due to Mega Man's indiscernible sprite-detection in relation to platform edges. Grabbing onto the bottom rungs of ladders was also a pain, since their detection was equally indiscernible; it was more likely that Mega Man would fail to cling to the ladder, and I'd fall back down to a bottom level or more likely the screen below. It didn't help that troublesome enemies would often appear at the screen's edge as I blindly leaped, which was a problem for reasons I discussed previously.

Even with his reduced knock-back, Mega Man's airborne efforts--when conducted either normally or with Rush Adapter enhancement--were still entirely shaky, particularly when it came to that ghastly rail-lift section in the first Wily stage, where I had to navigate across sets of rotating platform chains (with timed drop-offs similar to those encountered in the early portion of Guts Man stage, which makes sense considering the stage's boss) while minding both the expansive gaps below and a distressing mechanic that caused the lights to flash out whenever Mega Man was standing on solid ground. You know--because when you think of "fun," the first thing that usually comes to mind is jumping between unstable platforms in the dark.

My frustration was an inevitable result of the designers intentionally using cramped level design and enemy pop-in against me. It was all too often that I'd encounter a narrowly placed gap whose clearing required pixel-perfect jumps, or a long expanses that had to leap over while under duress from enemies both visible or anticipated.

Oh, and I abhorred that new flame-engulfing mechanic that would take effect whenever Mega Man would come into contact with fire; the damage-infliction it caused was crippling, and the game had plenty of opportunity to use it against me--including one particular rage-inducing instance, which I'll discuss later.

Still, Mega Man 7 had its bright spots: I was pleased that it borrowed the weapon-swap and stage-exit functions from Mega Man X, which I thought worked to create a natural sense of evolution for the Mega Man character--his slow build toward becoming the type of hero we'd see in the X games (I liked that the "Exit" item wasn't a standard feature and instead had to be earned, which showed that he wasn't quite there yet; developers are sometimes tempted to present prequel-based heroes as being either on par or superior to their descendants, which never made sense to me).

Its Robot Master battles had more variety in terms of field conditions and attack options: Burst Man could encase Mega Man in a bubble whose natural trajectory would carry him up toward the spiky ceiling. Cloud Man could conjure storms whose fierce winds would push him into the gaps on either side of the room. Slash Man would splash him with an adhesive substance ("pudding drops," as I called them) that would temporarily negate his ability to shoot (though, this was more annoying than anything). The winged Shade Man could suck his away his health and consequently restore his own. Turbo Man could transform into a race car and speed across the screen. Also, the Robot Masters would exhibit obvious damage-infliction when struck with their weakness, just like their Maverick counterparts!

Mega Man 7 may have lacked X's ingenuous stage-altering mechanic, but I liked how you could manipulate its stage elements using the Robot Master weapons. I could, for instance, freeze the lava in Junk Man's stage and shatter it away or use the Thunder Bolt to reactivate its non-functioning machinery. I could envelop Cloud Man's stage in snowfall if I blasted those little weather bots with the Freeze Cracker (also my usual welcome whenever I travel over to Harlem), in effect revealing the surfaces of invisible platforms. And, most memorably, I could burn away the trees in Slash Man's stage (which I didn't originally figure was possible, since they seemed too large of a background object to be manipulable) to open up a hidden path to the room in which my pal Beat was imprisoned.

The game also had a satisfying exploration-factor: I liked how you could return to completed stages and search for alternate routes and hidden rooms, a lot of which housed secrets (special items like Beat letters and optional meetings with Proto Man). Most desirably, I could use Rush Search to fish out all of the game's most useful, and otherwise expensive, shop items and avoid having to pay for them! It still took me years to figure out that I could procure the Energy Balancer and Exit items in the Robot Master stages, but I'm glad it happened that way; its speaks of the game's hidden depth.

While I didn't care for how they split the Robot Masters into two groups, I was a big fan of that intermediate stage that separated them--the Robot Museum, which featured my favorite audio and graphical themes in the game. Though it was exceptionally short in length, the museum did a lot with very little: I loved the background visual of the encapsulated Robot Masters from the previous NES games (Snake Man, Blizzard Man, Pharaoh Man and Heat Man placed up front with Plant Man and Flame Man seen in the distance). I remember scrolling the screen as far over as I could in an effort to find more of them. Doing so gave me plenty of time to listen to the stage's outstanding theme--a short medley that combined the music of Snake Man, Guts Man and Heat Man. Mega Man 7's music, in general, was catchy and exuded a distinct tone, but it felt somewhat subdued; this medley, alone, was proof that it could do better.

The entire stage provided a much-needed dose of nostalgia while providing an intriguing glimpse into what the old Robot Masters would look like in 16-bit. 

Honestly, I didn't know what to think of Bass first. His seemed like a superfluous addition that only served to distract from the importance of the Robot Masters, who I thought were supposed to be the real stars of show. Over time, though, the character sort of grew on me and became a welcome differentiator--much more so than the X series' X-Hunters and Nightmare Police, whose presence only felt intrusive. Also, Treble reminded me of Sigma's companion Velguarder, which made me believe that there had to be a connection between these characters

For all that went well, however, the fact was that my first play-through of Mega Man 7 was plagued with feelings of apathy, frustration, and disappointment caused by my constantly unfavorably comparing it to Mega Man X.

What really sealed Mega Man 7's fate, pissing me off in the way that only the most maddening of games had in the past, was the battle with Dr. Wily's final form--another unoriginal teleporting capsule but this time with a sadistic twist. I mean, Holy Christ, man; this was one of the most infuriating things I'd ever experienced in a video game! 

Here's how it went: Essentially, Wily would appear in a location and fire out a set of four randomly grouped elemental projectiles, all of which would track Mega Man using a three-point darting animation. At first the attack seemed to be completely unavoidable; there were no perceptible holes in it, and I was convinced that my only option was to intentionally make contact with the projectile I knew would inflict the least amount of damage (preferably the electrical projectile, were it available). Being slaughtered over and over again was aggravating enough, but having to reengage the eight Robot Masters every time I suffered a Game Over--the whole affair both tedious and time-consuming, which is never a good combination when you're angry and in a rush--was absolutely soul-crushing.

Now, I eventually stumbled upon a workable evasion tactic (jump near the edge of the screen to draw the projectiles over to its middle portion, then turn and slide beneath them), but it only worked in theory; it wouldn't be effective if, say, Wily happened to reappear directly overhead or if I took too long to fire off a shot before reacting. Most of the time, though, I'd execute my tactic properly but get nicked by a projectile anyway, which made me doubt that I could ever reliably evade this attack. And yet the most irritating part about all of this was not that I couldn't avoid Wily's attack but that I seemed to be a magnet for the fearsome fire projectile, which administered that aforementioned inescapable engulfing effect in addition to invariably wiping out one-fourth of Mega Man's energy every time it made contact!

I had to inevitably settle on the strategy of acquiring four Energy Tanks and a Mega Tank--their collection providing me six full energy meters with which to work--and yet it would still be close at the end (part of the problem was that I knew his weakness, Wild Coil, but didn't realize that the weapon's trajectory could be altered to where it would bounce higher). 

This Wily battle was thoroughly exasperating and amounted to one the worst final impressions a game ever made. By the time I'd reached the final stage, I could almost feel myself warming up to Mega Man 7, but the thought of having to relive this final battle made me never want to play it again. "What the hell were they thinking?" I wondered in my anger "Why did Capcom decide to use a Mega Man game as the testing ground for their most challenging final boss ever?!"

Putting a cap on this mess was Mega Man's unbecoming behavior in the ending sequence, his actions so jarringly out of character that it made me uncomfortable. Suddenly the forever-naive Mega Man was inching his way toward Wily, his buster outstretched and fully charged, and indicating an intent to kill, telling Wily, "I gonna do what I should have done years ago!" He didn't actually act upon the impulse, of course, but I was still left speechless by what just occurred. The credits sequence that followed, in which Mega Man could seen angrily marching away from the fiery residual of Wily's destroyed castle, continued to a portray a wrathful side to him when I couldn't remember such a thing even being hinted at. I wouldn't dare to call it "meaningful character development," since there was no follow-up and Mega Man went right back to being a clueless sap in future games.

Nothing about the brief ending sequence suggested that we were due for a Mega Man X transition, naturally, which I kind of suspected would be the case. I wasn't even mad about it this time. I can't recall when I sensed that I was hanging onto a pipe dream, but at some point I'd since resigned myself to the fact that the classic series was going to continue on indefinitely whether I liked it or not. Besides--I didn't have the energy to think too deeply about it, since that Wily battle had wiped me out emotionally.

Despite how angry I was with Mega Man 7, I returned to it in due time. I held firm to my opinion that it was the worst game in the classic series, but I didn't think it was bad. To the contrary: The more I played it, the more I felt comfortable in admitting that it was actually a solid game and worth a play from time to time. I didn't feel compelled to include Mega Man 7 in my frequent Mega Man binges, in which I'd marathon all of the classic-series games over a short period, but I'd give it a run-through every few months or so, each time learning to like it a bit more--particularly as the menacing specter of Mega Man X started to diminish due to my disappointment with its sequels.

In truth, I've gained a pretty strong appreciation for Mega Man 7 over the years. It was an easy target for my criticism during the mid-90s when there were many other games like it on the market, but I started to feel more connected to it as the 16-bit era drew to a close and the industry's hurried transition toward 3D left the side-scrolling action genre in the dust. It was only then that Mega Man 7 began to exude its "16-bit vibe," which never meant more to me than it does right now. And while I've never been able to fully reconcile the aesthetic differences that exist between this game and its NES predecessors, simply seeing Mega Man 7 in action--listening to it and savoring it--is enough to evoke from me the same kind of nostalgia. 

Time does that, I guess.

Retrospect has taught me a lot about Mega Man 7 and what Capcom intended for it: They didn't wish for it to evolve the formula or take Mega Man to the next level. No--that's what the X series was for. The ongoing classic series was instead intended to be a safe retreat for those who were still looking for simplicity and accessibly in their action games. Mega Man 7 was their reminder that the original model was still the greatest ambassador to the cause. It was also a darn good game.

And, really, that's all it ever wanted to be.

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