*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.
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.
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.
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.