Review: Amending an old commercial: Two. Two. Two-D is better than three!
Mega Man has always been a busy little mascot character. From his days on the NES leading to eight iterations of the Mega Man Classic series all the way up to today with the release of three Mega Man console games in 2004. Mega Man X8 is the last of those games and finally makes the X series just as large as the Classic series. But after the disaster that was Mega Man X7, X8 proves that there is still plenty of life left in the Blue Bomber.
I would think that it's counterproductive at this point to worry about describing a Mega Man game. Everyone knows that in the X series Sigma is behind some horrible plan to take over the Earth and 8 Maverick robots can be fought in any order before taking on Sigma. Capcom is still obsessed about trying to add a story to Mega Man games, so in this installment X, Axl and Zero must rescue the creator of the Space Elevator, Lumine, from Sigma's clutches. That's it, one sentence.
The story can be quickly ignored though after you get into the game and realize that it's all in 2D. The 3D experiment from X7 has been abandoned and Mega Man is side scrolling again like an old pro. The jungle level that was released as a demo with Mega Man X: Command Mission returns as the introduction level, Noah's Park. If you've played the demo you can tell that the graphics have been slightly cleaned up, final sound effects have been added, the control is better and thankfully, backtracking does not make enemies respawn anymore.
This intro level provides the perfect tutorial for everything you need to know about X8. The Tag Team option of X7 is back as X, Axl and Zero are all playable characters from the beginning this time. The Tag option has also been upgraded as now a Tag Attack gauge fills as you defeat enemies and when it's full you'll be able to unleash a super attack on any nearby enemies. Although you do have to be very close to the enemy you'll be using the Tag Attack on and that can become frustrating in a harried fight. Like previous Mega Man's, you'll also be expected to collect metals to turn into Chips that enhance your Maverick Hunters.
X8 adds another new wrinkle with it's choice of Operators. Ailia is still there, but before each level, the player is given the option of choosing Palette (who can find secret passageways) or Layer (who is an expert at boss analysis). True die-hards can also choose to have no help and go with no Operator at all.
All of these features are just leading up to the eight Mavericks that X, Axl and Zero have to take on. Even after eight games it's amazing what Capcom can do with the level design. The cel-shaded look of X7 enhances the game's 2D visuals and makes the game worlds seem more alive than Mega Man ever has before. Simple things like a desert level, a jungle level, the fiery factory, the "digital world". We've seen it all before but never have we seen it look like this. On top of that, new tricks like search lights, gravity switchers, virtual reality hubs, and even a Metroid-style vertical hatch create a new, but familiar, Mega world. It matches beautifully with some of the classic Mega pratfalls like bottomless pits, spikes, conveyor belts and platforming. I said it when I had a look at the demo, but the world's "pop", it's the only way to describe it.
For those that weren't weaned on 2D side-scrollers, there are several levels that break up the straight platforming. The first half of the desert level features your chosen character being chased by a giant, out-of-control robot. Then, by flipping switches on a wrecking ball, players will have to swing that big iron ball at the robot's head while simultaneously avoiding his pinchers. The Mechs from X7 make a return as well, but this time they're called Ride Armor and they litter a different level. Thankfully, the best part of X7 is just as fun as ever. Finally, that brings us to a part of X7 that was improved immensely: the vehicle levels. There are two vehicle levels in X8, which are in a behind the back pseudo-3D that doesn't distract from the fun gameplay (mostly). One features a snow speeder and the other is on a hovercraft chasing a Maverick through a city. The snow speeder level is very fast and very fun. I loved it. Taking a hovercraft through a city is less fun as the excessive nightlife of the city causes a lot of slowdown, the Maverick makes very annoying chirping noises and the whole thing just isn't very fun. Slowdown creeps up a few times elsewhere in the game but it's not a major problem. The city is a lone misstep in an otherwise fabulous game.
To continue the breaking up of the normal Mega Man level progression, many levels also have secondary mission called Inter-Missions. These include destroying walls on the snow speeder course, exploring a vertical shaft that goes very far down and trying to destroy crab robots that have taken over a waterfall. Each Inter-Mission tracks and records your score and you can replay each one as often as you'd like forever trying to better that score. At times it's even more fun that the "real" game. Series favorite Vile also appears periodically to give you a one-on-one fight much like Break Man did in Mega Man III.
For Mega Man fans, X8 will provide the biggest challenge to the Blue Bomber's existence in a long time. It's a long and tough quest (with three selectable difficulty levels) that really puts your pattern platforming memory to the test. Unfortunately, even though X is selectable from the beginning this time, like X7, the game is heavily weighted towards Axl's weaponry and hover ability and Zero's double jump. So players wanting to play a Mega Man game as Mega Man may be disappointed.
The music is the usual barrage of hummable X-Tunes that fans of the series have probably grown to neglect. We just expect it at this point. We also expect Capcom will trot out some very cheesy voice acting including a subplot about Layer being in love with Zero even though she can't speak to him without rambling. The truly sad thing is that this glob of schoolyard gossip is a step up from the absolutely hideous voice acting of X7. Really though, I like my Mega Man like I like my libraries: no talking.