As the first Mega Man produced by Keiji Inafune after the legendary Tokuro Fujiwara left Capcom, it is fitting that this game may be the first and most perfect realization of the franchise's original vision. This game looks like the original design concepts of the first Mega Man perfectly depicted in the game. Thanks to the advanced capabilities of the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, this game still has some of the best purely 2D sprites and animation in the series.
With such an amazing graphical basis to start with, it is a surprise that this game isn't as loved or highly rated as I think it should be. At that point, the divide between the Classis and X series still polarized people, especially since the excellent Mega Man X4 was released in the same year. Or, maybe, the game's lesser-polished aspects were held against it. Its terrible voice acting, in the service of perhaps the most nonsensical story in the series, is legendary. Also legendary are the auto-scroll sections, which may be the only genuinely negative parts of the experience.
Personally, I always loved this game despite some of its more obvious flaws. It is the one that most closely resembles a cartoon coming to life and the differences in design sensibilities and tone between it and the rest of the X series justified having them as separate entities. It also has some really good music, cool bosses, and stages, as well as the aforementioned amazing graphics. Most of all, this is the realization of long-held dreams by the designers of the franchise, chief among them being Inafune himself.
It's worth noting that as the first Mega Man game released in the new generation of consoles, this game was harshly criticized for not utilizing the capabilities of the new hardware. Like many of the games of its era that eschewed chasing the trend in favor of advancing what's already beautiful (and many of those games were unfairly lampooned as well), this game aged wonderfully while early 3D games look ugly as sin. Also, it's worth noting the dual console release of the game, with the Saturn version having a slight advantage (except with regards to Tengu Man Stage's theme). Sony reportedly didn't want to support publishing a 2D-focused game in the US, but only did to stop Sega from having such a high-profile exclusive.
No matter how you slice it, the story of Mega Man 8 doesn't make sense within the lore of the franchise. Starting with a battle between two robots in space, the defeated robot crash lands on Earth, carrying something the game calls "evil energy". Somehow, the game never addresses the fact these two robots are basically aliens, and the series never tackles that fact again.
The game introduces a new, extremely forgettable character, Duo. This alien robot's entire purpose is to rid the world of "evil energy", which falls under the control of Dr. Wily. Naturally, Mega Man teams up with Duo to take on the evil doctor, while Proto Man does cool anime-character stuff in the background, and Bass shows up for a cool boss battle but nothing else.
First for the series was the use of Anime cutscenes to tell the story, and these were well done to a degree, even if they are made with the exaggerated sensibilities of 90's Shonen anime. What's not well done was the terrible voice acting, which is so bad, that it is worth listening to just to hear it. I cannot fathom how such terrible VA, especially the muffled voice of Dr. Light, was ever cleared for release.
As the first Mega Man release on the fight generation of consoles, some people may have expected some radical advances in the series, which they didn't get. This game, like many before it and after it, follows the tried and true formula of the franchise. In fact, the only major addition to this game is the "Ball" special weapon. Initially, this weapon seems like a ridiculous throwaway. However, it actually allows Mega Man to do a double jump (jump and launch a ball then immediately explode it).
Other minor additions are the power-ups you can purchase using a limited supply of "bolt" collectibles you can find in the game's stages. These power-ups, from different Charge Shot options to the ever-useful "Energy Distributer" item do shake things up a bit. Interestingly, the number of bolts does not allow you to buy all power-ups, forcing you to choose what you want to buy.
If you want to get all bolts, then you will need to revisit some stages, since a lot of bolts require the use of special weapons to uncover. That's not a necessarily bad thing considering the great music, and the fact the levels are really fun. Each level has some unique gimmick keeping it fresh. Grenade Man's Stage has explosive floors as well as those timed explosive platforms, while Astro Man's Stage has a maze structure. Surely, the most unique stage is Sword Man's stage, which has multiple rooms where you need to use specific special weapons to progress. With such good levels, you wish they were longer and a little bit more elaborate.
Some other gimmicks are not as positive. For example, a shmup section in Tengu Man's stage is interesting, but not as fun as a regular stage. However, the worst offender, by far, was the hove-board auto-scroll sections. Anyone who played this game will have nightmares about the "jump" and "slide" voice commands that were uttered during those sections.
Following the same format as Mega Man 7, the game is divided into two sets of four bosses after the initial opening stage. Except, this time, the game makes sense in having two separate weakness wheels. First: Clown Man >Grenade Man> Frost Man> Tengu Man. Second: Sword Man> Search Man> Astro Man> Acqua Man.
One thing I wanted to mention initially is how fun a lot of the special weapons you get are. Most of the weapons are unique, fun to use, and useful in both combat and platforming. For instance, the Tornado Hold weapon generates a vertical tornado that both damages enemies and elevates you to higher platforms if you jump into it, while the Thunder Claw is a low-energy whip weapon that can be used as a grappling hook. Other weapons like the Flash Bomb are really satisfying to use, while the Flame Sword is an early look at the coolness of the Z Sabre. This means that the Charge Shot is not as dominating as it once was, and that's a good direction in the balancing of the game.
Another good move in that direction is with the bosses themselves. After the extreme imbalance of Mega Man 7, it's nice that most of these bosses do not completely disintegrate when hit by their weaknesses. It still damages them highly and even incapacitates them to a degree, but the fight retains some of its challenges.
That's great because I love the design of many of the Robot Masters this time and loved how their animations and attacks made sense within the dynamics of battle. Fighting against Sword Man was a special treat with his two-sectioned body, where you need to jump through his lower body and then slide under his upper half as it charges you. Almost all the other fights have neat little touches like that and were always exciting to play.
Unfortunately, despite some good battle designs, this may be one of the easiest Mega Man games yet. Removing the option for energy tanks, the game gives you more ability to withstand most bosses. Don't worry if you depended on those tanks before, since there is an emergency rations drop option to use later. Regardless of the relative lack of challenge, what's important is that these battles are fun, and some like Sword Man (who talks too much by the way) and Bass may even be iconic.
This was the first soundtrack that Shusaku Uchiyama composed for Capcom, and it showcased a different musical style with a significant synth and electronic influence. If you recognize the name, then you won't see any similarities between this and his more recent Resident Evil Village soundtrack. Here, there is consistent style throughout the OST, and it takes advantage of the cleaner 32-bit sound to provide catchy techno rhythms and some complex tracks.
In some way, that doesn't work great in several forgettable tracks but sounds cool and different from anything else when it does work. Even throw-away menu tracks have an addictive rhythm to them that wormed its way into my brain. Still, the soundtrack overall is one of the weakest in the series so far and is both upstaged by earlier and later OSTs.
Anyways, here are my top three tracks of the game, which are still good enough to worm themselves into your brain:
This track opens with a slightly industrial synth melody. The same melody is repeated in a slightly suffocated organ before the synth sound comes back on, shredding at a higher tone. In the background, cymbals are crashing like explosions. The entire track fits the "base" aesthetic of the level, giving both an industrial and military tone to the music. In general, this is the typical sound of the game's soundtrack, and this is the best application of something that is somehow relaxing and atmospheric, while also being quite energetic at parts.
The game's opening track does a great job at establishing the sound and feel of the entire game, a breezy stroll with the occasional peaks (and as with the underground section of this stage, the occasional valleys as well). The opening electronic percussion rhythms foretell the general style of the game's soundtrack, and you can hear their influence in much of the game's menu music. Then, the main chill melody starts playing, with a breezy synth sax melody. As the main melody resolves, the melody repeats at a more energetic trumpet scale. It's adventurous, it's breezy, and the consistent electronic percussion you hear will be heard throughout the game.
The PlayStation and Sega Saturn versions of the game had largely similar soundtracks, with the exception being Tengu Man's Stage theme. Ironically while both are highly regarded, many people consider the Sega Saturn song to be one of the best tracks in the game. I disagree with that assessment and consider the PlayStation version to be the better one.
Talking about the track itself, it is a highly energetic and cheerful rhythmic melody interspersed with some exotic sounds. It starts with a cheerful keyboard trot, and it becomes more melodic, it's accompanied by some nice xylophone counter melodies. So far, it fits the soaring nature of the stage and has a nice and breezy feeling to it. That effect is further enhanced when the second section start and the sitar starts kicking in. It gives the entire a more exotic sound, and better fits the "Tengu" element of the stage's boss.
Taking everything into account, Mega Man 8 is not as bad as some people think it is. Many of the criticisms leveled against it were unfair. Some of the critics lamenting the "cutesy" look of the graphics and how it betrayed the "fan's" expectations of the series apparently had no idea that it was exactly how Mega Man was supposed to look from the beginning. Seriously, some Western critics may have thought the original Box Art to actually be an accurate depiction of the game. Also, criticisms against lack of advancement ring hollow in hindsight.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are many minor flaws holding back the game. From a poorly conceived story, VA, and a slightly disappointing soundtrack, to a general lack of finesse. The game has some cool gameplay ideas that are not fully utilized, and while its best aspects are appreciated (boss fights being a highlight), you felt it needed to better utilize them.
Still, there is no better depiction of the Classic Mega Man series on a graphical and design level than in this game. Mega Man 8 graphically represents the culmination of all the Mega Man design ideas of the past and is the closest to seeing the design documents of Inafune and company come to life. That in itself is something worth celebrating.
Rankings: I may actually be somewhat biased for this game, being one of the first, if not the first, Mega Man game I ever beat. Still, y bias wouldn't put in anything above Mega Man 5, and that seems to fit the game enough.