Sonic R Review

*Review based on Sonic R’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

Despite being the “fastest thing alive,” Sonic has always been playing a game of catch up with Super Mario since day one. Despite Sonic’s early titles and a handful of the blue blur’s other adventures over the years achieving their own sense of timelessness, Sonic never did catch up with Mario. If there is one genre that seemed like Sonic would, by default, have the upper hand on Mario, it would be the racing genre. Sonic is a character built around his speed. Taking the series and adapting it into a racing game seems like it should have had minimal bumps in the translation.

Which is why it’s both dumbfounding and hilarious that Sonic R – the first Sonic racing game on a home console – is an utter disaster, and one of the worst games Sonic has ever appeared in (and boy, is that saying something).

Depressingly, Sonic R was the only exclusive Sonic game released on the Sega Saturn, with the two other Saturn Sonics, Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Jam, being a port and a compilation of the Genesis Sonic titles, respectively. Although the Saturn was otherwise a stellar and underrated console (possibly my personal favorite from Sega), the fact that Sega’s biggest franchise only managed to pop out this turd of a game on the Saturn may have had something to do with the console’s short lifespan in the midst of the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64.

“My eyes! The goggles do nothing!”

As stated, Sonic R was a racing game starring characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Unlike other Sonic racing games that would follow, most of the characters run on foot. That may sound like it makes sense, since Sonic can run at the speed of light, and Knuckles and Tails are inexplicably just as fast (and, bizarrely, Dr. Robotnik has continuously outrun the blue hedgehog). But it ends up having disastrous results, as developer Traveller’s Tales apparently had no idea how to implement the traction and physics of running characters.

As soon as a race begins, it’s an absolute mess of game design. Your character reaches top speed instantly, while turning your character feels like a herculean feat of strength. As you can imagine, this makes Sonic R’s sense of control nothing short of abysmal. Amy Rose (who drives a car) and the unlockable Dr. Robotnik (who pilots his hovercraft…again, despite outrunning Sonic on numerous occasions) control marginally better, but that’s not saying much.

To make matters worse, the game as a whole just feels unfinished. You’ll often run through objects, get stuck in the scenery, or get magnetized to walls. The entire game feels like one big glitch. Combine that with the hellish controls, and Sonic R is downright agonizing to play.

Even the graphics are a drizzling mess. Okay, so most early 3D games aren’t exactly pretty to look at these days, but other Saturn titles – such as Nights Into Dreams or the 3D overworld of Sonic Jam – still have a lively look about them. Sonic R, by contrast, often looks like one massive blur of colors. It’s all too easy to go off track during a race because you can’t tell where you are and aren’t supposed to go.

It’s not just technical and graphical sins that Sonic R is guilty of, but even on a creative level, the game falls utterly flat. Sonic R boasts a grand total of five courses to race on, none of which are memorable. And the only modes to speak of are Grand Prix (which is a single race) and Time Trials (with Versus races just being two-player Grand Prix).

Compare that to Super Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. Released five year earlier on less advanced hardware, Super Mario Kart boasted twenty racetracks, five races in one or two player Grand Prix, one-on-one Versus races, and its iconic Battle Mode which featured four maps of its own. And while Sonic R may have more characters available than Super Mario Kart did  – along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Robotnik, you can also unlock robot versions of each character (sans Amy) as well as Super Sonic – each race here can only have five participants at a time, as opposed to Super Mario Kart’s eight. And while the characters in Mario Kart had differences in things like weight and acceleration, the characters of Sonic R often have unfair advantages over others (Robotnik can simply hover over bodies of water, which are entirely detrimental to Sonic and friends). In both concepts and execution, Sonic R feels greatly underdeveloped.

If I had to give credit to any of Sonic R’s ideas, it’s that it had an interesting attempt at adding an exploration element into the mix. As in the classic Sonic games, rings are scattered about everywhere, with their purpose this time around being unlocking doors that lead to shortcuts and hidden items. Each of the four starting stages houses one or two Chaos Emeralds, and five Sonic Coins.

“It should more appropriately say “We’re sorry you played.””

If you nab the Chaos Emeralds and claim first place, you get to keep the emeralds (which is much easier than it sounds, as the AI is so slow you can take your time hunting down these items and still end up lapping them). Collect every Chaos Emerald to unlock Super Sonic. Meanwhile, if you can collect all five coins on a stage in a single race, and get in at least third place, you’ll race one of the robot doppelgängers. Beat the metallic lookalike in their race and you unlock them. And for the curious, the fifth stage is unlocked simply by claiming first place in the four starting stages, with Robotnik being unlock upon victory in said secret stage.

But Diddy Kong Racing this is not. While these hidden goodies sound enticing in theory, the utterly chaotic, unfinished nature of the game itself makes their addition mean nothing. It’s like having sprinkles without the ice cream. And the implementation of these items is so half-assed anyway that you can unlock everything in about a half hour.

Some variety in the racetracks is attempted by means of having different aesthetic settings for the courses (such as nighttime or winter, the latter of which freezing water), but they ultimately have a minimal effect on the gameplay, and only serve as an outdated showcase of the Saturn’s graphical capabilities. Apparently there wasn’t enough time to design more levels or polish the gameplay, but at least the developers found time to add rain effects to the courses.

The one element of Sonic R that I will admit is enjoyable is the music. Now, it isn’t genuinely awesome music as in the Genesis Sonic games. Rather, Sonic R’s soundtrack is when the music of the series began to enter “so bad it’s good” territories. Each race track comes equipped with a cheesy theme song with surprisingly high production values (a la the early seasons of the Pokemon dub) that may give you a bit of earworm.

“You’re winner!”

Sonic R was a bad game in its day, and its lack of quality has only been magnified in the years since its 1997 release. To say Sonic R failed at being a Mario Kart killer is a gross understatement. At the very least, Sonic can take solace knowing that he eventually found himself in one of the better Mario Kart clones in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and its sequel. But the damage done by Sonic R was so great that it took Sonic and friends a good, long while before they reached that point (and even when they did, they were still ultimately not Mario Kart).

It’s hard to imagine how a Sonic racing game could go wrong, let alone this wrong. But Sonic R is indeed one of the worst racing games of all time.

 

2

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Tails’ Adventure Review

*Review based on Tails’ Adventure’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

The Sega Game Gear may not be the most remembered handheld of its day -being in the shadow of the wild success of Nintendo’s Game Boy – but it did have its moments. One of the more fun ideas to come out of the Game Gear was giving Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick Tails some games of his own. A duo of titles starring Tails were released on the Game Gear. One of those titles, Tails’ Skypatrol, was a bit of a disaster. The other, Tails’ Adventure, however, displays some fun ideas. And though the passage of time has worn Tails’ Adventure down a bit, its ambitions are still quite admirable.

While Skypatrol was an auto-scrolling flight game whose ideas never seemed to mesh together, Tails’ Adventure has a much clearer focus on what it wants to be.

Tails’ Adventure is a side scrolling platformer, but greatly deviates from the norms of Sonic games at the time. While Sonic’s platformers were focused on action and speed, Tails’ Adventure is much slower and built around exploration. To be more precise, Tails’ Adventure follows the Metroidvania route, with Tails progressively improving his abilities, and finding new items so he can access previously unaccessible areas.

At the start of the game, Tails’ only means of attack is throwing an endless supply of bombs at enemies (the game takes place before Tails met Sonic, and thus hasn’t yet learned the speed or spinning attacks from the blue blur). But you’ll quickly start finding more weapons and items hidden throughout the game’s stages. You’ll find ‘Super Gloves’ to lift heavy object, additional bomb types, a hammer for melee attacks, and a remote-controlled robot dog who can crawl in small spaces.

Once you gain new items and weapons, you’ll often have to revisit a previous level to see if there are any new paths you can find with the tools you’ve gained. Tails can only hold four of these items at a time, however, and in between stages, players have to return to Tails’ lab to choose which four items they want to bring with them.

Additionally, Tails can find the Chaos Emeralds, which essentially level up our two-tailed hero, RPG style. Rings still serve as health as they do in the Sonic games. But here the rings aren’t gathered and lost in bulk, but are more like hit points. At the start of the game, Tails has a maximum of ten hit points, with each Chaos Emerald claimed adding ten more to that maximum. Similarly, Tails retains his ability to fly by using his tails like a propellor, but can only do so as long as he has stamina. As you may have guessed, the Chaos Emeralds also add to Tails’ stamina bar.

It’s actually a pretty fun progression system. It adds a bit of depth to the experience and while simultaneously differentiating it from Sonic’s games, and still being simple enough to feel at home in a handheld game in the mid-90s. The concept may not be as refined as it is in Metroid or as it would be in Castlevania (being released in 1995, Tails’ Adventure predates Symphony of the Night by two years), but it’s fun and creative.

Sadly, as enticing as the game is in concept, much of its execution has felt the effects of aging.

As stated, the game is slower than Sonic’s outings, but Tails perhaps moves a bit too slowly, to the point that it makes the platforming a bit annoying (yes, you can usually fly from one platform to the next, but the game will often throw a wrench in that plan, like a strong gust of wind, to leave Tails reliant on traditional platforming). One item you get during the game are shoes to make you run faster. It sounds like the shoes would solve this issue, except they have to be equipped in the lab like the other items (thus taking up a spot for an item better suited for exploration), and still need to be selected to be used (meaning you can’t attack with them in use). Additionally, using the shoes has an awkward feel to it. Instead of just holding the action button to run while moving, you have to hit the action button at the same time you move for a quick burst of speed, but Tails won’t keep the momentum if he changes direction. It has a very clunky start-stop feel to it.

Other issues are typical design pitfalls: spikes or lava being placed just out of view, leading to some “leap of faith” moments. The boss fights are repetitious and uneventful. And it would be nice if the game gave some description of the items once you’ve claimed them (it took me a while to realize what the Super Glove did, as it does nothing unless there’s a liftable object right in front of you, with not even an audial or visual cue to let you know you’re pressing the action button in vain).

Perhaps the most unfortunate drawback of the game are the submarine stages. While most levels are played as Tails on foot (or in the air, as it were), others are played underwater as Tails pilots the “Sea-Fox.” Similar to the general gameplay, you get new weapons and enhancements for the submarine, but the constant stopping and switching between items feels out of place with the faster paced submarine sections. And to be blunt, the Sea-Fox levels just don’t seem as well thought out on the whole.

So many of its gameplay elements haven’t aged gracefully in execution, but that doesn’t mean they were inherently bad. Considering Tails’ Adventure was a handheld title in 1995, its emphasis on exploration and character progression are admirable. And given its hardware limitations, the game looks and sounds great. The visuals are on par with the Genesis Sonic titles, and while the soundtrack may not match Sonic’s ventures, it’s fun and catchy in its own right. Sure, it may stink that Tails still isn’t allowed to fight the same level of villains as Sonic, at least the antagonists this time around have a consistent theme (robot ducks!) and aren’t a random hodgepodge like in Skypatrol.

If you’re comparing it with many of the platformers and Metroidvanias that have been released in the two and a half decades since, it’s hard to say Tails’ Adventure stacks up. But its ambitions and ideas make it easy to respect and appreciate. Tails’ Adventure may not boast the timeless appeal of the Genesis Sonic games, but it’s a game that still deserves some applause in its own right. It’s actually a shame this was the end of the road for Tails, and he’d soon be relegated back to being Sonic’s player two forever more. If only  sequels were allowed to build on Tails’ Adventure’s foundation, Tails may be flying high right now.

 

5

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble Review

*Review based on Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble’s release as part of the Sonic Gems Collection on Nintendo GameCube*

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble was the first Sonic platformer released exclusively on the Sega Game Gear handheld system. Prior handheld Sonic titles were based on the Genesis games, like the Game Gear versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, or were simultaneously developed for the Sega Master System, like Triple Trouble’s own predecessor, Sonic Chaos. While those games all felt like “Sonic Lite,” Triple Trouble actually made a decently successful attempt at replicating the look and feel of the Genesis titles. While there are moments of fun to be had with Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble, it ultimately suffers the same fate as many early translations of classic franchises onto handheld systems, with the limitations of the hardware holding it back, and ensuring that the experience has aged poorly.

Triple Trouble gets its name from the fact that it boasts three antagonists: the big bad of course being Dr. Ivo Robotnik, who is joined once again by Knuckles the Echidna (who is being mind controlled by the good doctor this time around, as opposed to manipulated by him). The third villain in this triumvirate is Nack the Weasel, a treasure hunter who is after the Chaos Emeralds for his own desires. Admittedly, Nack is one of the better “not Robotnik” villains of the series, so it’s a shame that after his debut outing, he made sporadic appearances for a couple of years before being dropped from the series.

The game is a platformer very much in line with the Genesis Sonic games. Players can play as either Sonic or Tails as they collect rings, zoom through stages, and try to track down the Chaos Emeralds in the game’s bonus areas. Though Sonic is the star of the show, Tails is the more ideal character, as his ability to fly for a brief time makes it much easier for him to scour the stages for all their hidden goodies. Especially since the hardware limitations rob Sonic (and Tails) of some momentum when on foot, making the series’ trademark sense of speed feeling clunky. Going through loops becomes a pain pretty quickly because of it.

The level design is nothing special, but isn’t necessarily bad, either. Again, Triple Trouble did a pretty decent job at translating the Sonic gameplay to a handheld for the time. But this was the time in which the convenience of handheld gaming came with the price of sacrificing some quality, and the limitations do begin to show up pretty quickly through the repetitious stages and the lack of new elements for the series.

Their are five worlds total (strangely, only one of which boasts the series usual moniker of “zone”), with each consisting of two stages and a boss level. The stages themselves are pretty straightforward, though gaining all of the Chaos Emeralds (of which there are only five this time) is a bit more difficult, perhaps more so than it needs to be.

As usual, you have to hold onto fifty rings before you can enter a bonus area. While the Genesis titles had Sonic enter the bonus areas through the convenience of checkpoints or giant rings, here the bonus areas are found by breaking hidden monitors with a picture of an emerald on them (much like the monitors that hold the series’ power-ups). Not only are these small monitors easy to miss, but if you accidentally break one while holding less than fifty rings, it won’t do anything, thus wasting an opportunity to get an emerald.

If you do have fifty or more rings and break the monitor, however, you can enter one of two different bonus zones: the odd-numbered emeralds take Sonic and Tails to labyrinths they have to navigate to find the emerald, and sometimes end with a fight against Nack. The even-numbered emeralds see our heroes pilot a plane in a 3D environment where, similar to the bonus stages of Sonic 2, they must collect a set number of rings that fly from the background to the foreground while avoiding bombs.

The former category just end up being too confusing, which may not be a problem if you had more chances to claim the emeralds. Meanwhile, the latter category feel like sloppy versions of Sonic 2’s bonus games, with the rings and bombs not being visible until you’re pretty much right on top of them.

Graphically, the game actually looks pretty impressive. Triple Trouble doesn’t quite capture the timeless look of the Genesis Sonic games, but it comes closer than it has any right to. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the music, which comes nowhere near the memorable tunes of the Genesis titles.

Released in 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble was decent for what it was at the time. If you were on the go, but still wanted to play a Sonic the Hedgehog title, Triple Trouble came as close to possible to providing the classic Sonic experience on the go. But like Super Mario Land, Triple Trouble just hasn’t aged well. The awkward momentum of the characters, combined with the tedious nature of finding the Chaos Emeralds, and the general lack of newness or challenge for the series makes the already short adventure that much less noteworthy.

Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble wasn’t bad per se. It’s just very much a product of its time, and not a particularly memorable one at that.

 

4

Sonic the Fighters Review

*Review based on Sonic the Fighters’ release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo GameCube*

Because of the wild popularity of the series in its early years, Sonic the Hedgehog still gets frequent comparisons to Super Mario. But it’s an unfair comparison, really. While Mario has had an unrivaled longevity, still releasing “best games ever” thirty years on, Sonic went the path of The Simpsons. That is to say, it sticks around because of its early quality and appeal, but it’s overstayed its welcome, and has been bad far longer than it was ever good.

But Sonic’s issues didn’t happen all at once, and even in the franchise’s heyday in the 90s, the series made some notable missteps. Among the biggest of these missteps was Sonic the Fighters, which was not only the first Sonic fighting game, but also the first 3D title starring the blue hedgehog.

Released in arcades in 1996, the concept of Sonic the Fighters wasn’t doomed from the start. The series has plenty of colorful, distinct characters that could be translated into the fighter genre. But Sonic the Fighters fails the concept at every turn. Elsewhere, Mario spent his ’96 revolutionizing 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 and starring in one of the best Role-Playing games of all time in Super Mario RPG. Suffice to say, even back then, it was easy to see where the war between Mario and Sonic was going.

The biggest issue with Sonic the Fighters is how insanely rudimentary it is. This is as bare bones as a 3D fighting game gets. Moves consist of basic punches and kicks, which can be combined with directional inputs and pressed repeatedly for simplistic combos. But these aren’t the refined combos of Street Fighter, not even close. There is no depth to the combat of Sonic the Fighters, and the game ends up feeling like little more than chaotic button-mashing. There is no thinking to the gameplay whatsoever.

The one novelty the game tries to bring to the genre is that, in place of standard blocking, characters have barriers. Barriers can’t withstand too many hits, and if all of your barriers break, you are defenseless, and need to get a few hits on your opponent in order to build your barriers back up. It’s a decent idea in theory, but because the execution of the game is so utterly mindless, you can basically just mash the punching button ad nauseam to wear out your opponent’s barriers and continue doing the same until you get a knockout. This is a fighter as thoughtless as it is basic.

“You might know everything I’m going to do, but that’s not going to help you, since I know everything you’re going to do! Strange, isn’t it?!”

Sonic the Fighters even lacks depth in its gameplay modes, with only the standard single player arcade mode and two-player versus being available. The arcade mode sees players go through the eight characters on the playable roster, before facing off against Metal Sonic and Dr. Eggman (the former being ridiculously cheap and can take you out in three hits, while the latter is hilariously easy). Aside from the unfair Metal Sonic, the enemy AI is as mindless as the game itself. And you should really only subject a friend to the two-player versus mode if you both have a great sense of humor about these things.

The character selection includes the obvious choices of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy, but also throws in more obscure Sonic characters in Espio the Chameleon from Knuckles Chaotix, and Knack the Weasel (here called ‘Fang the Sniper’) from Sonic Triple Trouble. Meanwhile, two new characters were introduced in Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite (who is in fact a bird. No, I don’t understand the name, either). Humorously, the two characters introduced here who were never seen again feel more in line with the look and feel of the Sonic franchise than the countless goofy animals who were introduced to the series later on and stuck around to this day.

“I have to applaud the fun animations. But not much else.”

If there’s any plus side to Sonic the Fighters, it’s in the visuals. Obviously, the game isn’t pretty by today’s standards, but the ‘early 3D fighter’ look here is complimented by the cartoony characters of the Sonic universe, giving Sonic the Fighters a visual charm that similar 3D fighters of the time like Virtual Fighter simply don’t have. This is hit home by the fun visual gags of characters getting squished and stretched like Looney Tunes characters when struck.

That’s about all the positives I can give Sonic the Fighters though. The game itself is just too thoughtless in both the bare minimum nature of its ideas, and their sloppy and chaotic execution. I wish I were exaggerating when I say Sonic the Fighters is so bad, it makes Street Fighter the Movie (the Game) look like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by comparison.

Sonic the Fighters was an early example of Sonic lacking in the adaptability and timeless appeal of Mario. But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud. Sonic would eventually find himself in a stellar fighting game… once he joined Mario and company in the Super Smash Bros. series.

 

2

Tetris Effect Review

*Review based on Tetris Effect as played on Playstation 4. Maybe one day I will experience it on PSVR*

There is a common misconception that video games are an “in the moment” medium, and that whatever the current landscape of gaming is is guaranteed to be its apex, knocking yesteryear’s games to irrelevancy. While it’s true that video games are a bit more susceptible to age than other mediums given both their interactive mechanics and that technology advances so quickly these days, plenty of titles from gaming history stand the test of time, proving that fun and creativity aren’t bound to the technology that presents them. And perhaps no game has better stood the test of time than Tetris. The brainchild of Alexey Pajitnov has remained a touchstone in gaming for over three decades, shaping the puzzle genre and seeing a re-release on any and every platform that’s capable of playing video games to this day.

Tetris Effect – the PS4 exclusive named after the real world psychological effect Tetris can have on the mind – is but the latest iteration of the timeless puzzler. While the ageless masterpiece remains intact, a few additional modes, along with some spectacular visual effects and music, make Tetris Effect feel like the go-to version of Tetris on contemporary hardware.

The core gameplay is, of course, as it’s always been: block pieces fall from the top of the screen, and players have to fit them together into full rows, thus eliminating them and racking up points. The blocks (called “Tetrominos”) come in seven different shapes, and as the game goes on and the blocks drop faster, the player has to think fast in order to continuously complete rows to keep the game going.

There is a new addition to the classic gameplay, however, with the ability to enter “the Zone.” By eliminating rows, you gain energy, and once enough energy is stored, you can enter the Zone at the press of a button. While in the Zone, time freezes, and the blocks no longer fall on their own. This gives the player some time (until the energy runs out) to complete extra rows and earn additional points, and can be a real godsend when the speed really picks up in the late game.

Tetris Effect features a kind of campaign mode, in which the player has to complete twenty-seven different stages in order to complete the game. While all these stages can be replayed once completed, in order to progress in the ‘story’ players have to complete 36 rows on each stage (save for the last, which requires 90). The stages are separated into different ‘worlds,’ and if you perform well enough on each stage, you can complete a whole world without continuing for an even greater score.

“Can I, like, drown in this game?”

While the only gameplay difference between stages is the difficulty, every last stage boasts its own visuals and musical score. And, my word, what fantastic visuals and music they are! Each level is an audial and visual wonder, with brilliant little touches added to the experience, such as each fallen block adding a beat to the music, and a surprise visual effect accompanying the completion of a Tetris (four rows at once). Tetris Effect is a stunningly beautiful game, but its aesthetic wonders aren’t so much a display of PS4’s hardware capabilities (though they are that too) so much as they are used to showcase an almost spiritual reverence for the Tetris experience. This isn’t merely another port of Tetris, but a gushing love letter to the iconic puzzler. Every audio and visual pleasures serves as its most blatant means of worship towards the grand daddy of falling block games, and to give the player that same level of reverence for Tetris.

“Seriously, I want to eat, sleep and breath this game.”

There are a number of additional modes added to the mix to keep things fresh. One sees players trying to eliminate ‘cursed’ blocks by completing the rows they’re found on, with more cursed blocks spawning after an allotted time. One of my favorite new modes will count down a set number of blocks, and after said blocks are placed, a line block will automatically fall into a designated spot, leaving the player to strategize around the inevitable line blocks. The new modes are fun and plentiful, and give a variety of alternatives for when you want a change of pace.

Sadly, there is one glaring omission with Tetris Effect: it lacks multiplayer. Though players can check out other player profiles around the world and see what modes they’re currently playing or prefer to play, you can never actually play a round of Tetris with another player, whether locally or online. This is more than a little disappointing, given that puzzle games are often at their best when they bring out the competitive nature in multiple players (see Tetris Battle Gaiden). And with the fun new modes Tetris Effect brings to the table, it makes you wish the game would have put that same inventiveness to the test for a multiplayer mode (even something as simple as two or more players taking turns in placing Tetrominos on the same board would bring a fun new twist to the formula). For all the many things Tetris Effect gets right, the absence of any kind of multiplayer mode feels like a missed opportunity.

Tetris Effect may not reinvent the timeless formula Alexey Pajitnov created over three decades ago, but it does deliver an undeniably beautiful experience that may just deepen your appreciation for what is the most accomplished of video games. Tetris Effect expresses such a devout admiration for its source material that it’s impossible not to be taken aback by it.

 

8

Mega Man X8 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X8’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

Mega Man X8 is like a small miracle. In stark contrast to the original Mega Man series – which kept a consistent quality even in its weakest entries – the X sub-series provided diminishing quality with each subsequent installment. The first few entries were great, but by the time the series reached X7, it had completely lost its way. In 2004 – a decade after the release of the first Mega Man X – the series received its eighth and, as of this writing, final installment. Returning to the side-scrolling roots of the series while retaining 3D visuals, Mega Man X8 served as a fitting return to form for the series. It may hit a few snags, and some of its more aged elements prevent it from reaching true greatness, but X8 is probably the most inspired Mega Man X game since the first two.

In a lot of ways, X8 feels like a rectification of X7. Not only does it ditch the 3D segments, but also refines the promising ideas that its predecessor failed at in execution. Once again, players can take control of Mega Man X, Zero and Axl, with all three being available from the start this time. Zero once again uses a laser sword and possesses a double jump, but X and Axl have more differences from one another this time around. X retains the classic Mega Man playstyle, with stronger blasts and his charged shot intact, while Axl may not be as strong, but has rapid fire shots and can shoot in multiple directions (at the expense of being able to move when he shoots), and still has his hovering ability.

“Shine get! Star get! Weapon get!”

Each character has additional differences from one another as well. While X of course gains the powers of fallen bosses, and Zero once again gains additional moves, Axl now receives different guns from each boss. Perhaps most notably, since Axl lacks the punch of X and Zero, his special move allows him to turn an enemy into a capsule, which he can then use to transform into said enemy and gain its abilities (Mega Man X7 made it clear Axl could transform via cinematics, but this ability had no presence in gameplay before. That alone speaks volumes for the difference in effort between the two games).

Like X7, you can select two characters per stage, and can switch between them at any time. This time around, the feature actually feels worth it, as you’ll often require the special abilities of different characters to uncover a level’s secrets. As an additional bonus, both characters actually have to die in order for the player to lose a life this time (albeit falling into a pit or touching a spike still results in an instant loss). Weakened characters can even recover some health when swapped out, in what seems like a feature ripped out of one of Capcom’s own fighting games. You can now even perform a powerful team attack with both characters if you can build up its gauge by stringing together combos.

This time around, you can select one of three navigators to give you hints throughout the stages: the returning Alia, and newcomers Pallette and Layer (AKA best girl). Depending on who you select, your navigator will give you different information regarding stage hazards, hidden items, and boss weaknesses and strengths during different parts of a stage.

Mega Man X8 also boasts a myriad of secrets which, again, often require combinations of characters and their abilities to unlock, leading to a great sense of replay value. Gone are the Reploids that need saving and abilities that can be permanently missed. In their place are pieces of scrap metal strewn about the levels (think Mario’s coins), which are used as currency in between stages to purchase chips.

Here’s where things start going against the series’ formula. Recurring items  like life tanks now have to be purchased, and even extra lives are exclusively found in the game’s shop (by default, you have three lives, but can buy up to three more at any time). You can buy single-use items to prevent the aforementioned insta-kill from spikes (though the character will only retain one health). Besides the basics, you can also properly build up each individual character, granting them extra health, damage reduction, and other such bonuses. Additionally, secret ‘rare metals’ are hidden throughout levels that, when collected, add more items to the shop, including new weapons for Zero.

The only series’ collectible that remains in the levels themselves are X’s armor pieces, but even those have a fun new twist. X now gets the “Neutral Armor,” which can be (somewhat) customized with armor pieces from the Icarus and Hermes sets if you can unlock them (you can equip the Hermes helmet and boots while wearing the Icarus buster and chest armor, for example). So while Axl has the ability to transform, and Zero gains additional weapons, X being able to find and customize armor really makes each character distinct from one another.

Should you miss out on any of the items, you can restart your game in New Game Plus, where you can not only uncover the items you missed out on, but also gain access to even more unlockables, including the ability to play as the three navigator characters! Once again, it seems like everything that was good in concept about Mega Man X7 (secret characters, RPG-like progression for characters) was actually realized here in X8.

“How dare you call me an incredible scientist!”

Even the story is a refreshing change of pace for the series. Following the disasters that have befallen the world in the past few entries, humans have begun colonizing the moon, which they travel to via the Orbital Elevator. The director of the elevator is a new generation Reploid named Lumine, who soon becomes kidnapped by Vile (the series’ secondary villain returning for the first time since X3). Meanwhile, eight other new generation Reploids are seemingly becoming Mavericks, despite that their generation is supposedly immune to the Maverick Virus.

Naturally, X, Zero and Axl set out to rescue Lumine and fix the problems the eight Mavericks are causing, and suspect that Sigma is behind everything (why would they think otherwise at this point?). And while Sigma does serve as a major antagonist in the plot, the story does take a different direction as the game goes on. It may not be anything earth-shattering, but by this point, anything other than “surprise, it’s Sigma!” is very much appreciated.

With that said, not everything is great about X8. The music, while certainly not bad, isn’t particularly memorable. And while the visuals are nice enough, they lack the timeless quality of the 2D entries in the series.

“I prefer the sunflower from Conker’s Bad Fur Day.”

The stage design is mostly excellent and creative (including one level which plays with gravity, and another that’s almost entirely a descending obstacle course), but one stage sees the gameplay shift to a chase sequence in which the player hunts down the Maverick boss in flying vehicles through a city a la Attack of the Clones. This stage proves to be X8’s own little dose of ‘good in concept, not so much in execution,’ as it just isn’t particularly fun to play. Another level also changes the gameplay to motorcycling through snowy terrain (reminiscent of the polar bear stages from Crash Bandicoot 2), and though this level is actually a lot of fun, it does mean that two of the game’s stages remove the ability to use the benefits you work hard to unlock.

Thankfully, Capcom seemed to be aware of this, and made the opening stage of X8 repayable to uncover some additional items. Though one other frustrating level remains in the form of the game’s final stage, which ramps up the difficulty far beyond the rest of the game.

So Mega Man X8 isn’t a masterpiece, but when you consider how far the X sub-series had fallen by the time it got to X7, then X8 has to be one of the best turnarounds in video game history. On one hand, looking back at Mega Man X8, it feels like it was the right decision to end the series on a high note to redeem it after the decreasing quality of its predecessors. But on the other hand, with X8 getting so much right and feeling like a proper step forward, it would be nice to see the X series make a return and build on what X8 started.

It’s been over fourteen years since Mega Man X8’s release, and while the series has remained dormant in that time, the fact that X8 fixed so much about what went awry with the series has only made the heart grow fonder for the series in the years since. Who knows whether Mega Man X9 will ever happen or not, but the fact that the series actually managed to find its stride before it rode off into the sunset is an achievement in its own right.

 

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Mega Man X6 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X6’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

Is Mega Man allergic to the number 6? As far as the main series goes, Mega Man 6 has to be the weakest entry, as it represents the series’ most creatively lazy moment. The Mega Man X series also reached a low point with its sixth installment, aptly titled Mega Man X6. While Mega Man 6’s biggest crime was complacency, it was at least still competently fun. X6, on the other hand, is a bad game. Bad enough that series’ producer Keiji Inafune – who wasn’t even much involved with the title – felt that fans were owed an apology for it.

Released a year after X5 was intended to wrap-up the series, Mega Man X6 feels rushed in a way that no other entry in the franchise – even other annual installments – ever did. There is such a lack of polish emanating from Mega Man X6, that you may wonder if anyone involved with its production even tested it before release.

“How dare! This games translates Mega Man like this!”

Set a mere three weeks after the events of X5, Mega Man X6 sees the world in disarray. Zero seemingly sacrificed himself saving the Earth from a space colony that was on a collision course with the planet. Though Zero managed to survive the ordeal (much to the dismay of Inafune, who wanted Zero to have a hero’s death), much of Earth’s population – both human and Reploid – have been wiped out (so I guess by Zero “saving the Earth” the game means it in very relative terms). A new ‘Nightmare Virus’ has been created by a maniacal Reploid named Gate, who is using the virus to turn Reploids into Mavericks (so basically it’s identical to the virus from the last game). Zero went into hiding to repair himself, but the Nightmare Virus is said to have been created through Zero…or something. It gets kind of hard to follow, especially with the hilariously bad translation.

Anyway, the structure of the game is the same deal as before: Eight bosses to choose from, beat them to get their powers to use on other bosses, defeat all eight to move onto the final stages in Gate’s secret laboratory. There is at least a little deviation from the formula here in that you don’t actually have to beat all eight main stages to move onto Gate’s laboratory. Once again, optional mid-bosses will find their way into some stages, and if you can defeat two of these mid-bosses – Nightmare Zero and oddly-named High Max – you can go straight to Gate’s lab without finishing the rest of the stages.

Additionally, defeating Nightmare Zero will unlock the ‘real’ Zero as a playable character. Having to unlock a character who was playable from the get-go in the last two games may seem underwhelming, but at least it’s consistent with the story. And on the plus side, Zero actually has some new moves this time around. X, believing Zero to have died, took up his comrade’s old sword (in addition to the X Buster), so Zero has a newer, more versatile sword. Also like X5, the player can select two versions of X from the start (the standard version, and the Falcon Armor from X5), and there are secret armors for X and Zero to be found throughout the stages.

So far, that may not sound too bad, just a bit familiar. But where Mega Man X6 not only becomes a disappointment, but an embarrassment to its series is in its level design. Not all the stages are flat-out terrible, but at their best they’re still forgettable. Those stages that are terrible, however, will leave you scratching your head wondering how Capcom felt such levels were finished.

“Metal. Shark. Player. Did they just pull a bunch of random words out of a hat when making these guys?”

The eight bosses here are Commander Yammark, Blaze Heatnix, Ground Scaravich, Blizzard Wolfgang, Rainy Turtloid, Shield Sheldon, Infinity Mijinion, and Metal Shark Player. The names alone are cringeworthy, but as bad as lame as these characters are (except maybe Turtloid), their stages can be that much worse. Blaze Heatnix’s stage in particular is notorious for a tedious sub-boss which is recycled four additional times in the same stage. Do you think they were out of ideas?

“What’s even happening?”

Since its beginning, the Mega Man series has been known for its difficulty, but X6 seems to be a parody of this aspect of the franchise, with numerous moments that feel outright unfair out of incompetent game design. Some sections feature blind jumps that – should you jump too far – could send you plummeting into the series’ infamous one-hit kill spikes. There are multiple instances of enemies and projectiles bombarding you from all directions, apparently forgetting this is a platformer and not a bullet-hell game. And one particularly arduous moment in Blizzard Wolfgang’s stage sees the player robbed of the series’ wall-jumping ability as you’re trapped in a pit, waiting for ice blocks to fall to create a way out. That may actually be interesting, except that should you get stuck in between two stacks of ice, you have no means of escaping except slowly awaiting death by means of the falling obstacles (on top of the ice blocks, fire balls and robot wolves are also falling on you).

Perhaps none of the stages are as poorly designed as those of Gate’s Laboratory itself. The very first of which features a series of spiked walls that are next to impossible for X to overcome without his secret armor, and should you decide to pick Zero to use his abilities to maneuver through the stage, it ends with a boss who, in turn, is next to impossible to defeat with Zero. There’s a difference between making a game challenging, and simply stacking one insurmountable odd after another on the player and calling it a day. Mega Man X6 apparently didn’t get that memo. I’ve played trolling stages in Super Mario Maker that are less infuriating.

“Bingo! Dino DNA!”

There are, however, two aspects of Mega Man X6 that are enjoyable: The first is that it builds on two aspects of the past two X titles by putting them together. Like X5, you can equip X and zero with different abilities, which are now unlocked by rescuing Reploids scattered throughout the stages. X5 had players simply select abilities after completing a few stages, while X4 and X5 featured savable Reploids who merely granted extra health or lives. By combining the concepts, both features feel more worthwhile, and create a better sense of progression.

There’s even a little twist to the proceedings in that robot ‘Nightmares’ can possess the Reploids before you rescue them. It’s an interesting concept, but one that’s utterly ruined by the fact that once the Reploids are corrupted by Nightmare, you’ve missed out on them for your whole play through. There are no second chances. So if you want every Reploid and item, you’ll often have to reload your previous saves.

The other highlight of Mega Man X6 is its soundtrack. While it may not reach the heights of the scores of X, X2, or even X5 (let alone the main series), the soundtrack of Mega Man X6 still creates a number of catchy tunes that encompass a wide range of styles. Even Metal Shark Player’s stage is livened up with its Terminator 2-esque music.

While the music may be a highlight, the same can’t be said for the visuals. The backgrounds still look as sharp as they did in X5. But many of the character sprites look downright unfinished, with some of the Maverick bosses seemingly lacking animations (I’m looking your way, Infinity Mijinion). Sure, X and Zero look great, but that’s because they’re the same as they were in X5. The Mavericks, on the other hand, often look rushed out the gate.

It’s kind of amazing to think just how far the Mega Man X series fell from grace. The first X breathed new life into Mega Man, the second one matched it in many ways, while the third was a solid follow-up. X4 may have been a bit familiar, but the appeal is still there. Hell, even X5 isn’t a lost cause. But then comes Mega Man X6, the first entry in either of Mega Man’s two primary side-scrolling series that stumbles more than it strides. The character progression and music are still fun, but the level design ranges from mediocre to disastrous, more or less screaming the game’s rushed development through a megaphone. Its lack of polish is embarrassing.

 

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