Mega Man 7 occupies the awkward spot of being the first game officially confirming that the Classic Mega Man series that started on the NES is distinct from the Mega Man X series rocking it on the SNES. While the release of Mega Man 6 before it may have been a clue, it was released before Mega Man X in Japan and was an NES game either way.
Not with this game though, which was released on the newer console after the second Mega Man X2 game, which undoubtedly confused many people. Here is another game starring a blue robot that can copy enemy abilities, being released with a different numbering system just 6 months (3 months in Japan) after another game starring the same dude. It's unclear why Capcom felt they needed to run parallel Mega Man sub-series together in the same castle, but it probably wasn't planned well given the conflicting release schedules.
According to the developers of the game, they were given an extremely tight three months window to develop, the game. If that's true, then the result is astoundingly amazing given the constraints. However, it also explains why Mega Man 7 feels like its missing core components that bring down the final product. It's poorly balanced and feels like it misses the driving force that compels you forward that I find in most other Mega Man games, and it also has this EXTREMELY ZOOMED-IN look that interferes with the entire game.
In effect, Mega Man 7 does fulfill its goal of updating the classic NES games to a newer console, giving a new and updated look to the iconic designs of the original games, which to be fair are entirely different from the style the X series was going for. However, in that process, while effectively updating the look of the originals, I feel it didn't carry the heart and the intangible qualities that made those games so fun to play.
This series always had a typical Saturday-morning cartoon kind of story going around in the background, which wasn't explicitly brought up in the NES games, but was both available in the manuals and strongly suggested visually. Starting with Mega Man X on the SNES, the story came more not the forefront, which is why I am starting this small Story section from now on. Naturally, this will contain narrative spoilers, so read at your discretion.
The story of Mega Man 7 picks up right where Mega Man 6 ended with Dr. Wily in prison. However, he already prepared contingencies in place, preparing eight Robot Masters to break him out of prison if he is ever captured, and so begins the game's story. Mega Man, who now must also protect an expanding list of family and friends (including father-figure Dr. Light, his sister Roll, a pet dog, and a pet bird, and the new Auto who is more like a crazy uncle) must also go on to protect the world.
Early in the game, you are introduced to Bass and Treble, who are obviously evil versions of Mega Man and Rush created by Wily and might as well be called Waga Wan and Wush. Initially pretending to be allies, they soon betray Mega Man and fight him in the game's best boss battle. As I stated above, the story has a typical Saturday-morning cartoon feel to it, which also fits in with the visuals and doesn't have any complex undertones to it. This makes the ending of the game extremely surprising, as Mega Man suddenly is fed up with Dr. Wily and is about to kill him "as he should have done before" just before Bass saves the evil madman. Later, we see Mega Man on the credit screen, walking toward the camera while Wily's Castle burns in the background, grimacing with hate and intent. This sudden character trait, which had no build-up and doesn't fit the character at all, feels like a carry-over from the X series and is never referred to again in the continuation of the classic series. It's just really weird when Mega Man is about to murder an old man begging in his ridiculous manner and feels like another thing that would have been handled better with longer development time.
After the introductory stage (which now became a standard after Mega Man X), which is weirdly very short, you can pick up which stages to go to as usual. Unusually though, you can only pick from four stages, with the remaining four unlocking after you finish the first and beat another small mid-level. While this reduces the freedom of choice at the start, it's not a big deal in principle (but is a big deal in practice as will explain in the bosses section).
It may have been done because of the game's focus on collectibles, with the four BEAT letters all being available in the initial four stages. Collecting these letters allows you to don the augmented Rush suit, which allows you to fly for a bit and shoot you're rocket hand. Other collectibles are strewn about in the stages, with the ability to get cool stuff like Proto Man's shield and augmented power up. Something you can buy with bolts, which you can find in stages and use as currency in Auto's new shop.
Thankfully, the way these collectibles are spread about does not require frequent revisiting of the same stages, which spares you from rather uninspiring stages. To be clear, I don't think that the main issue is with how these stages are designed, as much with how Mega Man controls and the zoomed-in look that heavily constrains your vision.
I feel that playing the game is just less snappy and fun than other games in the series, and that's mostly because you feel like you are running on a treadmill, not effectively changing the zoomed-in scene as you progress. Frequently, you are hit by enemies jumping at you from the border of the screen or fighting larger sprites that are rarely fully in frame. This claustrophobic feel is entirely at odds with the colorful and zany character designs of the classic series, and it's a shame the game didn't have more time in the oven to correct these flaws.
Unlike its pedestrian stages, Mega Man 7 boss battles, both the Robot Masters and Wily's Castle bosses, are a highlight of the game. However, let's just take one glaring error out of the way. With two selections of four Robot Masters, you will be excused for believing that it means there would be two weakness circles for them. You would be wrong, as I confusingly was the first time I played it because the weakness circle has all eight Robot Masters. Obviously, this means that one boss of the first found wouldn't be helpful against the remaining three, locking into you a single optimal path: Burst Man> Cloud Man> Junk Man> Freeze Man> Slash Man> Spring Man> Shade Man> Turbo Man.
Regardless of this oversight, the basic fights against almost all of these Robot Masters are great fun (except Slash Man who is extremely annoying). These fights are challenging and highly involved, but are fair and fun throughout. The bosses telegraph their movements well but still require some skill to dodge their attacks. Best of all, their attacks make sense with their overall design, and the entire battles are fun to go through.
That is until you use the correct weapon against each boss, which extremely trivializes them. Not since the Mega Man 2 that a weakness completely pulverized the Robot Masters and removed any semblance of challenge. Ironically, this was the side effect of a well-intentioned mechanic, as the weak weapon not only damages the bosses but also does some other effects on them as well. For instance, Cloud Man falls down after a burst bubble engulfs him, while Junk Man is locked into an east-to-dodge loop.
Thankfully, the Wily Castle bosses remain challenging even with their weaknesses exploited, including the boss battle against Bass which is the highlight of the game. Here, it's highly suggested that you don the Rush Armor, as you will fly around the screen as Bass dashes around, each of you firing at the other with intent. It's such a fun battle, and I wish it was designed with half damage for both characters.
One thing to note is the extreme difficulty of the final boss, which apparently was intentionally designed to be insanely difficult and require the usage of Energy Tanks to survive. If anything, this fight justifies Mega Man's murderous rage and would have entirely justified obliterating Dr. Wily then and there.
Mega Man 7 is the first game in the franchise that was decided to be composed by several composers at the start (Mega Man 3 changed composers without a plan). In fact, the sound team consisted of a whopping 10 people, which is huge for the time. The majority of the soundtrack was composed by Toshihiko Horiyama with Makoto Tomozawa composing about 10 tracks, and Yuko Takehara of Mega Man 6 fame composing a single track. Surprisingly, all three composers feature in my top 3 tracks selection.
This wasn't the first Mega Man soundtrack on the SNES, so Capcom already had experience working with the more advanced sound chip. Naturally, the soundtrack had more of a range and complexities than ever could be done on the NES, but the tracks didn't lose their melodic strength. I feel that the difference in style between Horiyama (who favored a more direct and energetic style) and Tomozawa (whose tracks had a jazzy feel, with some really different stuff) gives is clear, but fitting as well. Tomozawa's tracks are suitably used in more dramatic sections, with the different styles accentuating the event.
Regardless of how you feel about the weird musical juxtaposition, these tracks are all great on their own merit:
Of all the tracks in Mega Man 7, you can trace some sort of influence within gaming for their construction, except with this unique track by Tomozawa which defies explanation. This plays after Bass betrays Mega Man, and perhaps its construction is the only clue to Mega Man's outburst at the end of the game. For me, this track feels like it belongs to an 80s movie of some kind. You know the movie I am talking about, where this song plays in the silent scene, as the lead detective discovers yet another body and has flashbacks of the past that drives him to a realization of some kind. I wish the game cut all sound effects in this stage because it would have fit so much with the track.
Anyways, let's discuss the track itself. It starts with quick but quiet vibraphone arpeggios when an electric guitar is heard from the distance and then another electric guitar responds with some quick chords. Here, Mega Man is in silent retrospection, when at the 30 seconds mark, the electric guitar in the distance starts the song's melody in earnest. This guitar doesn't let up, with the melody going into more complex harmonies and even shredding at some points, evoking a sense of desperate determination that is typical to Dr. Wily's stages. When the song goes back to the start, it has already added in more layers, and the silent retrospection of the start is instead replaced with the desperate determination of the end.
Takehara carries on with her excellent Mega Man 6 work in making this track. It's a rhythmic and catchy track with hidden complexities all over. Other than its "galloping" beats, I am not sure it really fits in with the Jurassic feeling the level is going for, but it's a great stand-alone track regardless of how much it fits. The track start is percussive, with a galloping start and some bass wind instruments in the background before the main flute melody kick-in. Once the flute starts, evoking a jungle theme, it's accompanied first by some Harpsichord chords and then an oboe countermelody before it reaches the funky second part of the song. Here, there is a call and response between the flutes and percussive drum or marimba. While the second part feels more like the beach than a forest, the somber flute retains the setting throughout.
This is a track that feels like it belongs to Castlevania, but at the same time fits the Mega Man soundscape. It naturally fits Shade Man, who is like a discount Robot Dracula, really well. Horiyama starts with some spooky xylophone arpeggios with organ backing that's like a slowed-down "Bloody Tears", then the melody changes into a heroic "castle invasion" mode with string melody, but with a heroism that is tempered by desperation. When the song goes back into the spooky starts, it adds in layers, with a backing organ playing a desperate melody in the background to the spooky arpeggios. This is a very good track that evokes two musical traditions and fits in with the stage really well. It's worth noting that Shade Man's Stage has an alternate song that is a remix of the first stage in Ghosts 'n Goblins, which is great.
Mega Man 7 occupies an awkward spot indeed. While clearly not being as good as the other SNES Mega Man games, I think it also showcased why the parallel Classic Mega Man games deserve to exist. They are going for an entirely different style and vibe, and could still offer it with the tried and true solid gameplay of the series.
Unfortunately, due to a rushed development schedule and probable lack of fine-tuning, this game wasn't one to instill much confidence regarding the future of the classic series. For every great point to its favor, there was a counterpoint against it. Great graphics and design were undermined by an EXTREMELY ZOOMED-IN camera, great bosses were trivialized by the lack of balancing in their weaknesses and great gameplay wasn't met with great level design or the opposite.
Still, there are some aspects of the game that still holds up today, like some great music tracks and that fight against Bass, which is why it's still a game worth playing
Rankings: While I think this is easily the most conceptually flawed Mega Man game, it still didn't have a system that ruined a game as much as Mega Man 4's introduction of the Charge Shot.