Monday, April 10, 2017

Mega Man 8 - Changing Stations
Did the Blue Bomber successfully jump and slide his way over to the greener pastures of Sony's 32-bit realm? Dat's a good kreshun.

So after spending weeks extracting maximum value out the supremely excellent Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I decided that it was time to start buying some new games for my PlayStation console. Luckily, I hadn't entered the PlayStation space blind; even before I'd taken the plunge, I had my eyes on a handful of games that aroused my interest on the basis of their inhabiting genres and franchises in which I had a rooted interest. Among them were the console's three semi-exclusive Mega Man titles.

Now, I'd be lying if I told you that they'd garnered my attention because I was still genuinely enthusiastic about the series. I wasn't. At play, instead, was my inclination to seek out known properties and point to them as the justification for investing in new systems; that is, my playing it safe was the only reason that the Mega Man titles found placement on my mental wishlist. They certainly didn't find their way there because I had faith in Capcom's ability to produce a truly transformative Mega Man sequel. I didn't. Not anymore. Oh, no--I'd been skeptical of the company's efforts going back to 1996, in the time following the releases of the disappointingly derivative Mega Man 7 and the uninspired Mega Man X sequels. And I had no reason to believe that the company had rediscovered its creative genius since then.

Also, I wasn't going to deny that my lukewarm feelings for the PlayStation Mega Man titles were derived partly from a sense of resentment. As was also the case with Symphony of the Night, I was greatly annoyed by the fact that the Mega Man series was inexplicably ditching Nintendo systems, where they were known to have established roots, in favor of marrying itself to a rival brand whose marketers were all too keen on denigrating those of its type.

I knew for certain that Mega Man games sold well on Nintendo systems, so I couldn't understand why Capcom was so willing to spurn the N64, to which the series' fans were more likely to migrate. "At the very least, Capcom should make these games available for both systems!" I passionately argued. "It has absolutely nothing to lose by doing so!" Instead Capcom seemed intent on locking me out.

It just didn't make any sense.

But that was all in the past, where bitter feelings were best left buried. My thinking had since changed: Now that I was a PlayStation owner, I was kind of glad that its Mega Man titles had remained (somewhat) exclusive. Really, there was no better excuse for owning a second console--a portal through which I could access untraveled land and excitedly explore its new horizons! Also, right around the time I'd purchased the PlayStation, my interest in the Mega Man series was in the process of being renewed in light of two current developments: (1) the proliferation of NES emulation, which granted me convenient access to the Mega Man games I quickly learned to love again, and (2), as so inspired, my creation of a Mega Man fansite, which I was zealously updating on a daily basis.

Suddenly I had genuine interest in finding out what the Blue Bomber had been up to all those years. So I clicked my way over to and ordered myself copies of Mega Man 8 and Mega Man X4 (financial realities dictated that I wait a few months before ordering Mega Man Legends). Four or five days later, the games arrived in my mailbox.

Now, I hadn't done much research on Mega Man 8--tactically so, since I preferred for a game's content to surprise me--so I really didn't know what it was. I kept my mind open to the possibility that Capcom had found inspiration enough to push new boundaries and shatter the existing mold, though I suspected that Mega Man 8 was more likely to adhere closely to established formulas. Still, it was my intent to do as well as I could to put aside preconceived notions and start with a blank canvas.

Immediately the game started coloring my perception of it with an unexpected animated intro that nicely summarized the classic series' ten-year history. I'd always found FMV sequences to be off-putting--since they were often misrepresentative of a game's actual art direction, and they had the propensity to feel somehow detached from the simple side-scrolling action they were attempting to contextualize--but I rather liked how the technology was used here. Capcom's animators had rendered a scene that did well to pay homage to the past games while simultaneously providing new players a glimpse into Mega Man's richly populated universe. Really, I just thought it was cool to see all of the old Robot Masters and Wily bosses (Yellow Devil!) congregated into one space!

If only I'd known what I was inviting.

That is, once I clicked on "Game Start," I was absolutely flabbergasted by what I was witnessing. "Why are there minutes-long anime-style cut-scenes in my Mega Man game?!" I shouted in horror. "And why does Mega Man talk like a 5-year-old girl?!"

And it didn't get any better as the game progressed.

I couldn't believe what they'd done to Dr. Light. "Why is the good doctor being voiced as though he were an aged Elmer Fudd?!" I scathingly questioned, my every facial expression replete with puzzlement. "What's a 'meaty oar'? Who the hell is 'Dr. Wah-wee'? And why is this 'voice actor' tripping over his words? Did they accidentally pull this guy off the street? Did the director not know that he could yell 'Cut!'?!"

These cut-scenes were hilarious in their ridiculousness, sure, but they had the effect of making the game look silly. That they were implemented as is spoke to me that Capcom of America simply didn't care about how its game was going to be perceived. You don't do that to a respected series like Mega Man.

We've since come to consider the inexplicable voice acting to be an "essential" part of the game's legacy--a memorable aspect from which the mocking voices of enthusiasts everywhere will continue to derive endless entertainment--but, really, it probably shouldn't be. Mega Man 8 will remain one of the most quotable games ever made for all the wrong reasons. It's kind of sad that it'll be remembered more for its characters' inability to pronounce simple words.

It was right about then that I grew to appreciate how the limitations of older hardware worked to keep developers in check. Now that I'd seen Inafune and company's true conception of the Mega Man universe, I longed for the days when the modest capabilities of systems like the NES and SNES forced them to temper their artistic vision and instead invite us to imagine what Mega Man's world might look like. And what I was being shown here was not what I wanted it to be.

Furthermore, I didn't think that the interplanetary struggle involving "evil energy" was at all necessary. The plight of Mega Man and his friends was interesting on its own; we didn't need some eclipsing tale of warring celestial beings whose very existence minimized the Mega Man characters and the scope of their struggle. Mega Man stories were best kept simple; widening their compasses to include extraterrestrial invasions and intergalactic warfare only served to weigh them down with unneeded excess. This is to say that I wasn't terribly interested in following the story of space-hunter Duo, whose participation meant little to the actual game; I'd rather Inafune and friends have focused their energy on further embellishing the wonderful world of Mega Man and his Robot Master adversaries.

I had mixed feelings about the game itself. Some of its immediately observable changes were quite jarring, and I'd often have to stop for a moment and consider how they'd affect the action going forward: Mega Man could suddenly swim, which likely eliminated the possibility for traditional buoyancy-based platforming challenges. There were sloped surfaces and wide-open spaces, which were historically differentiating attributes of the Mega Man X series; I wondered if Mega Man 8's Robot Master stages would invite the same style of exploration. Mega Man could now fire Mega Buster shots while another weapon was currently equipped--a highly desirable ability that I wished had been available in previous games; it was my hope that it would carry over to future entries. And Dr. Light provided me a new Mega Ball weapon ... for some reason. "Whatever," I thought; I couldn't imagine that I'd find any useful application for it.

I was honestly bothered by how the frequent loading screens functioned to interrupt the game's flow. All sense of logical progression would be lost when suddenly Mega Man would teleport off the screen and after a ten-second loading time reappear in a completely different area with both his health and weapon energy fully restored. Most egregiously, this constant replenishing of his meters worked to trivialize the game's challenge. "Why bother being tactical when I can find reward for simply tanking my way through a stage section?" I reasoned.

More than anything, I wasn't particularly enamored with the game's art direction and general aesthetic. Now, I was never a fan of Mega Man 7's large character sprites and resultantly cramped environments, but I could concede that its boldly colored, sharply outlined graphics at least rendered it somewhat visually compatible with its NES predecessors. In contrast, I couldn't reconcile Mega Man 8's bubbly, chibi aesthetic, which was characterized by its softly colored textures and muted brightness; Mega Man was portrayed less as a diminutive robot warrior and more as an anemic child. Nothing about the new anime style resonated with me; Mega Man 8 just seemed so visually distant from the games I grew up with. For that matter, the new design for health and weapon-energy pellets stripped them of their character; the same was true of the now-generically-styled energy meter, which was so much less distinguishable in comparison to the traditional sliver-based meter.

Also, I wasn't a fan of how chatty Mega Man and the Robot Masters had become. Their endless vocalizing and quipping only served to ruin my mental image of how these characters communicated (that is, not like a bunch of goofy children exchanging lame one-liners). It struck me as more unneeded overproduction.

And then there were the two words that would come to torment me for all of eternity. Merely hearing them triggers traumatic memories. Whenever I think about the snowboarding sections to which they're indelibly bound, I find myself paralyzed with fear. In fact, I can hear their voices echoing in my head right now. They say...


"What in the mother of a frick is this?!" I exclaimed loudly after wiping out for the umpteenth time. "Why the hell is this in a Mega Man game?!"

It was almost as if the level designers had deliberately plotted to drive me insane. 

I mean, sure--there were always things in Mega Man games that made me angry, be they blind drops onto spikes or required pixel-perfect jumps, but these snowboarding sections took the cake. What I was experiencing in Frost Man's stage was worse by a factor of about a thousand; we're talkin' the type of inexplicable dreck that was infuriating enough for me to consider never playing this game again. I was that pissed.

And believe me: I had to use every ounce of my remaining energy to restrain myself when I realized that this scene was about to repeat in the first stage of Wily's complex. "Just stop with this nonsense already," I begged.

The fella who came up with the idea should have been made to JUMP! JUMP! and SLIDE! SLIDE! his way over to the unemployment line.

That was my mood as I advanced further into Wily's complex. I wasn't enjoying myself, and eventually there came a point when I mentally checked out--entered a mode wherein I was now playing through the game simply for the purpose of getting it over with.

And it was too bad that it had worked out that way, because before then, I was actually starting to appreciate the ways in which Mega Man 8 was attempting to differentiate itself.

That is, it was becoming clear to me that Mega Man 8 had a lot going for it. I could see that its creators had unquestionably endeavored to test out a variety of new ideas and mechanics--most of their efforts successful: Being able to fire Mega Buster shots while employing the use of a Robot Master weapon was proving to be a boon (sadly this mechanic was indeed absent from future series entries). Swimming opened up the potential for new and interesting types of underwater platforming challenges and combat scenarios. The Mega Ball turned out to be more useful than I originally thought--not so much as a weapon but as the means for executing midair jumps and generally sequence-breaking.

Mega Man 8, much more so than its predecessors, offered a ton of customization options via Dr. Light's Lab--the game's shop--which introduced a whole new selection of equippable items that could be used to modify Mega Man's abilities (like rapid-fire shots and faster Mega Buster charging, and endow him with special qualities (immunity from spike damage and damage-recoiling, swifter ladder-climbing, etc.). I wasn't keen to utilize many of them, since I preferred a more bare-bones style of Mega Man play, but my feeling was that their very existence played a big role in affording the game a next-level shine.

Though I wasn't a fan of side-scrolling shooters, I liked how they handled the Rush-fueled flying sequences and particularly the Gradius-style upgrade system, which teamed up Mega Man with all of his closest robot comrades, each of whom contributed to the airborne assault in his own unique way: Rush could earn a three-directional spreadfire attack. Beat would damage enemies by colliding with them, as had long been his modus operandi. Eddie would flip open his top and discharge an arcing projectile. And Auto would fire rockets from his shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. It was all cleverly implemented, I thought. I was shocked by how much I genuinely enjoyed playing through those segments.

I had to give the level designers credit for mixing things up and testing out new ideas. You had the flying sequences, Astro Man's looping mazes, Sword Man's single-chamber challenges, and the (*shiver*) snowboard sections. You could ride your way through stages on the new Rush Cycle or use the Thunder Claw to latch onto series of pegs and epically swing over large expanses. The long and varied stages were crammed with uniquely styled backdrops and platforming challenges. And the chatty Robots Masters, much more so than their forebearers, were versatile in how they could launch a range of attacks (that is, more so than the usual two).

Also, as I'd hoped, the Robot Master stages did indeed invite exploration--this via bolt-hunting, which gave me a good reason to go back in and spend some time inspecting their every nook and cranny.

I was happy to see that they were trying new things even if there were times when I didn't like the results.

As I progressed further into the game, I even started to warm up to its audio and visual stylings. While the game had its share of background work that I'd observed to be bland and featureless, I thought it did rather well when it focused on depicting skylines, city- and mountainscapes, waterfalls, and lava-filled caverns--all of which I found memorably attractive.

It was usual that Mega Man soundtracks were high in spirit and discernibly dependent on strong rhythmic percussion, so I was kind of taken aback when I observed that Mega Man 8's music was instead imbued with relaxed tones and a low energy that worked to generate a more pleasant ambiance. But I liked that the composers had taken this approach; I found their music to be both charming and distinctive, each track doing its part to help the game carve out a unique personality. For one, Mega Man 8 had one of the best, most-soul-filled Robot Master-selection themes in the entire series; I consider it to be my chief source of nostalgia for the game.

I still wasn't enthralled with the game's art direction--particularly how Mega Man looked--but I couldn't deny that Mega Man 8 otherwise boasted a uniquely attractive aura. This became more apparent to me in my successive play-throughs.

Capcom certainly wasn't skimping on content here. And quite frankly, Mega Man 8 needed every bit of it. It needed to flaunt as many bells and whistles as possible to distract from the fact that it was yet another formula Mega Man game--specifically a carbon copy of Mega Man 7 with its split bosses and intro and intermediate stages. I can't say that they succeeded in doing so (at least not from my perspective, since I was expecting nothing short of a revolutionary shift), but I can at least recognize the effort.

But when I'd completed that first play-through of Mega Man 8, I was feeling pretty down on the game. I was aggravated going into the final stage, and the obnoxiousness of the Wily battle only served to exacerbate my pain. Once the anger subsided, there was only a sense of flatness. I didn't even feel compelled to reflect upon the experience as I watched the credits roll; I just wanted the game to be done--just wanted to eject that CD and move on to Mega Man X4, for which I had high hopes. 

It took me a few days to clear my head of negative thoughts and find a balance.

Thinking about Mega Man 8 more objectively reinforced the notion that it was abundant with positive qualities, sure, yet it featured nothing so earth-shattering that I point to it and say, "Now there's something that has the power to convince me that the experience wasn't entirely underwhelming!" I liked much of what it did, yes, yet I was expecting so much more from a "next-generation" Mega Man game--something that could shake up the formula in a major way. Maybe a wholly new approach to level-progression or the incorporation of adventure-game elements. Anything.

But that's not what Mega Man 8 wanted to be. It was rife with creative spirit, yet it resigned to explore its ideas strictly within the bounds of established formula--of long-standing tradition. It conveyed a sense that it wanted to break free from the shackles of convention, yet it could never muster enough courage to Rush Coil its way over the prison fence. "That's fine, I guess," I compromised. "Mega Man 8 is still a pretty good game." But I couldn't help but be disappointed that it passed up the opportunity to harness the power of the PlayStation and take a great leap forward. You know--like Symphony of the Night did.

Was it possible that I was being unfair to Mega Man 8, much like I was to the similarly formulaic Mega Man 7 in the years following its release? Maybe. But at the time, my feeling was that Mega Man 8 just wasn't the game it needed to be.

Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I was, in fact, being unfair in my assessment of Mega Man 8. This wasn't a sentiment that developed during my future interactions with the game, no (in reality, I'd only played it three times at most, with all such play-throughs occurring during the early 2000s); rather, more uniquely, I've come to recognize its value by seeing it through the eyes of other series fans--mostly via their Let's Plays and speedruns as performed on sites like Youtube and Twitch. Watching others enjoy Mega Man 8 and express their nostalgia for it has had the effect of making me feel regretful for how I placed the undue burden of unrealistic expectations upon its shoulders and then narrow-mindedly judged it through that prism. As they had, I should have tried to appreciate it for what it was--immerse myself in it during a time when I was starving for 2D action games and those like Mega Man 8 were doing their best to remain relevant and address the needs of enthusiasts like me.

It's not that I don't want to give it that chance now, mind you. I actually do! The problem is that I've longed lacked desirable access to Mega Man 8. I don't want to hook up my PS2 to a high-definition television that can't properly display the game's visuals, nor do I want to play it via emulation using my Microsoft Sidewinder controller, whose mushy d-pad renders precision-based 2D action games completely unplayable. Frankly I've played the first seven Mega Man entries to death, and it'd be nice to add a relatively unexplored game to my rotation. My only hope, then, is that Mega Man 8 sees digital release on this new crop of consoles. Then I'll be able to five it a fair chance--perhaps craft some better memories.

It would be even better if Capcom were somehow able to bring us the Saturn version of Mega Man 8, whose exclusive content includes special appearances by Cut Man and Wood Man! Clearly bringing them back was Capcom's way of pandering to older fans, but, really, who cares? It was such a cool thing to do! If anything, their inclusion helps to imbue the largely unobtainable Saturn version with a mystical quality.

So no--Mega Man 8 didn't reinvent the wheel, like I was hoping it would. It didn't carry the series to new heights, as Mega Man X most famously did. And it didn't utilize every ounce of the PlayStation's 32-bit hardware to render technologically advanced worlds and therein ingratiate itself to Sony's newly cultivated audience of tech-obsessed gamers. "But so what?" I say. It didn't need to do any of that; as I've previously expressed, experience has taught me that I shouldn't judge a game for its inability to meet my arbitrarily conceived expectations but instead for how well it succeeds in its stated mission. Mega Man 8 is unapologetically formulaic Mega Man game, and there's nothing wrong with that. And even then, it's probably more ambitious than I've estimated.

In the present day, Mega Man 8 is as viable a choice as any when I'm on the hunt for substantive 2D action games and store shelves and digital shops are disappointingly bereft of them. At a time when I'm desperate to find games that can competently fill that void, there it is just waiting for me to rediscover it.

With any luck, I'll be able to do that soon.

May Mega Man 8's next move be to JUMP! JUMP! and SLIDE! SLIDE! its way into my waiting hands.

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