Mega Man X7 is not a game you'll hear too many fans say they love, let alone like. It's a major departure from the norm: most notably, the game adds a third playable character and a third dimension—the graphics are 3D instead of the traditional 2D, and gameplay shifts between classic sidescrolling action and an "all-range mode" at various points in each stage. There's also a bigger focus on the story, with occasional animated cutscenes and frequent "talking head" cutscenes interspersed throughout the game. All the standard upgrades of Heart Tanks and armor parts are supplemented by a choice of further upgrades (such as increased damage and longer saber combos) that can make a tremendous impact on the difficulty of the game. X7 doesn't introduce anything inherently abhorrent or out-of-place for an X game, but the ham-fisted execution of the new ideas combined with an inconsistent handling of the old ones makes the game stand out as different for all the wrong reasons.
In other words, it's pretty terrible.
The graphics are fine. The sound effects are functional. The music is good. With a few exceptions, control is pretty tight. Menus are clean and organized. The overall story isn't any worse than anything we've ever seen before in a Mega Man game. The voice acting is adequate, but not stellar. Replay value is higher than usual because of all the upgrades. Special weapons are generally useful and decently fun to use. Many aspects of the game are, at the very minimum, acceptable. Unfortunately, X7's problems are so widespread and are rooted so far below the surface that all the better aspects of the game would need to be amazing to compensate for them.
There's one place in the game that exemplifies nearly everything that's wrong with the X7, and that is the battle with Flame Hyenard. First off, "Hyenard." Seriously, "Hyena" isn't that difficult to spell. The battle begins on a very large square platform surrounded by lava; not one but two Flame Hyenards run at you, launching small fireballs at you, as a huge four-legged machine slowly and innocuously marches around the outside of the platform. Obviously you need to defeat Flame Hyenard, but it's not immediately obvious (a) which of the two Hyenards is the real thing, and (b) what the marching machine has to do with anything, aside from shooting missiles at you. Maybe you can turn on your radio to get some useful information from Alia, but you're so sick of, "Can you hear me... [overlong pause] ...Zero?" that you've learned to tune her out when she tries to contact you.
So you attack the Hyenards. And you discover the most unbearable sound in videogame history: Flame Hyenard shouting, "BURN IT TO THE GROUND!!!" or some variant thereof every time he attacks with fire. He is constantly attacking with fire. And there are two of him. Is there music in this battle? Because all I hear is, "BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND BURN IT TO THE GROUND" mute TV.
So you attack the Hyenards in silence, hoping there aren't any audio clues that are necessary to your survival in this battle. They soak up a lot of damage, and it doesn't look like the boss's health bar is going down, so either they're decoys or they need to be destroyed before you can fight the real boss. Then again, it's difficult to tell sometimes how much damage you're doing to a boss, if any at all; their health bars are long enough that the tiniest bit of damage should be easy to see, but even some of the most powerful attacks only shave off only a little bit at a time. Boss fights have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in length, depending on your technique—even the wimpiest attack in Mega Man X could fell a boss in 32 hits; Axl without any power-ups needs to unload hundreds of shots to take down the bosses in X7, and that's even before their health bars grow to ridiculous proportions in the final stages.
Oh, but here's a surprise: as soon as you destroy the Hyenards, new ones immediately take their places. So they are truly decoys. Guess you should look at taking out that huge walking robot, then. There's lock-on targeting system that should identify where you can hit the robot...but nothing's coming up. And you're still being hounded by Hyenards. Zero can't really get close enough to damage it, so you use X or Axl to look for a lock-on...but you don't realize you're just far enough away that you can't get a lock. Eventually, by accident, you lock onto a leg and start firing, and before too long you've managed to stop the machine in its tracks. Now what? Is there something else to lock onto? Are you too far away? The machine starts moving again, so whatever it is you need to do, you need to do it quickly. Stumped, you consult a walkthrough, which tells you to wall-jump up the side of the leg to get on top of the machine. Why, that's absurd. Wall-jumping only works on about five surfaces in the entire game, like this is Metroid Prime 2 or something. There's no way you're throwing yourself over a lava pit to try to wall-jump up a leg. Even if you do manage to grab the side of it, you'll probably fall off the moment you land at a funny angle that totally would've worked in any other X game.
You do it anyhow. And it kinda works. You're up on top of the machine, and it starts moving again. The real Flame Hyenard is there, and you manage to land a hit before he starts attacking with two of his clones. But hey, that time you did damage. Soon the Hyenards have got you trapped, circling around you with fireballs blazing as missiles launch from the doors beneath your feet. Now it's just a matter of damaging the right one—which would be a heck of a lot easier if you could disable this worthless auto-aim that's preventing you from firing where Hyenard is going to be by the time your weapon reaches him.
Tired of your auto-aimed shots just missing the circling targets, you get into position to fire a point-blank range during the next pass...except the machine you're standing on is still moving, and you're gradually sliding backwards out of position. Consequently, you miss a shot with Splash Laser, Flame Hyenard's weakness, and find yourself frantically pressing the button to take another shot...but nothing's coming out. Are you out of ammo already? The weapon energy bar is so absurdly thin that you have no idea how many shots you have left. Beyond that, the color gradient across the bar makes it unnecessarily difficult to read when it's partially full—the empty space in your energy bar was solid black in previous games, making it easy to tell the difference; now it's transparent, so your multicolored energy bar all too easily blends in when it's against a multicolored background.
Hours later, once you've spent some time away from the game, you'll have an epiphany that the downward-arcing Splash Laser went off the side of the machine, and you must've been locked out from firing another shot until the projectile was completely off the screen...and it's quite a fall from the top of the machine to the bottom of the lava pit.
Presumably out of weapon energy, you resort to charging up your buster as X to take out Flame Hyenard. Except there's this weird thing that happens sometimes where you try to fire a charged shot, and your charge just disappears. Like, poof. Not so much as a dinky shot fired. It's like you never started charging up at all. Which is a serious problem when you're rapidly losing health and need to kill this clown ASAP.
So you switch to Axl, or Zero; whoever the other person is with you at the time. And somehow you just manage to squeak by with a victory. And you proceed to the menu screen, where Alia will tell you AGAIN about how you can upgrade your systems thanks to the Reploids you rescued in the stage you just beat. Except you don't want to upgrade either of the people you have in your party at the moment. You want to save that upgrade and use it on the other guy. But you can't. And there are only 16 power-ups in the game to cover the 36 upgrades across all the three characters (12 upgrades per character). It's one thing to have more upgrades than you can afford to get in a single playthrough; it's another thing entirely to force you to buy upgrades at regular intervals when there's a third character you might want to upgrade who's not available until roughly halfway through the game. And it's not like it's safe to skip power-ups until you have him, either, because several of the Reploids you need to rescue can be permanently destroyed by nearby enemies if you leave them alone.
Once you've listened to Alia blather about everything from your new weapon to assigning power-ups to Hunter rankings, with no option to tell her to can it, it's back to the familiar menu choices: Stage Select, Save, or Exit to Title. Well, you have no interest in fighting Flame Hyenard again, so you definitely want to save your game. Alia asks you whether you really want to do that. You've been through this dozens of times with other games; just keep on clicking the confirmation button to speed your way through the options. Except X7, by default, positions your cursor on "No" instead of "Yes," as though the game is expecting you to make a mistake every time you choose an option. So instead of speeding through the saving process to quickly get back to the action, you need to carefully select each option, including whether or not you really want to save your game in that slot, and whether you really want to return to the game instead of the title screen. Between the endless prompts, the plentiful slow-moving text that you can't ever speed up, and the atrocious load times, the game screeches to a halt between stages. In the time it takes you just to save your game, you could've made it to the midway point of Air Man's stage in Mega Man 2.
Seriously. There are entire Mega Man games that are shorter than the amount of time you'll spend on the menu screen in X7.
Replaying X7 was inevitable, though: My first and only playthrough was a mess, both in terms of item collection and my ability to stay alive. It's not like me to leave a Mega Man game so far from 100% completion, and I'm too much of a fan to walk away from an installment I know I can do better at, no matter how much I dislike the game. Besides, with how drastically different the game experience can be depending on which boss order you choose, I strongly believe that you need to play through a Mega Man game at least twice to truly get a feel for it. X7 nagged at me both as a player and as a Mega Man expert of sorts: I owed it to myself, the game, and the people who listen to my opinions about Mega Man to give X7 a second chance. And if I was going to replay a game I was so glad to be done with, I was sure as heck gonna make sure to cross it off my Backloggery and not leave myself a reason to subject myself to the game ever again: this playthrough would be done on the hardest difficulty with the intent of 100% completion—if a single Reploid got killed before I could rescue him or her, I'd get up and manually reset the game, sitting through all the loading screens and replaying whatever miserable portion of the stage I'd gotten through just to try again.
Because clearly, I am insane.
I admit that the second time through X7 was notably better than the first. Not enough to improve my overall opinion of the game, but it was definitely less painful. Knowing what to expect helped me to structure my approach to the stages, and I could focus more on refining my strategy than figuring out what I was supposed to do in the first place. I also decided to try using Zero this time instead of relying entirely on Axl (and later, X) to keep my distance from the enemies who'd surely cut me apart even faster if I tried to get in close with Zero's melee attacks. As it turns out, Zero rocks. His attacks are very powerful, he's nearly unstoppable by the time all his key upgrades are in place, and the special attacks he gets from bosses are not as difficult to pull off as I'd originally thought. (I'm still haunted by visions of X6 and the Zero series, which feel more like combo-heavy fighting games than the platformers I'm any good at.)
The middle of X7 was honestly, genuinely enjoyable the second time around. My characters had been thoughtfully upgraded for a change and were powerful enough to be a fair match against the bad guys, before their health bars got all ridiculous in the last two stages. I discovered the joys of swatting back enemy projectiles with the Z-Saber, knowing where all the power-ups and Reploids were hidden so I didn't have to keep revisiting the stages to search for them, and using A-Trance against random stage enemies whose temporarily stolen abilities made life easier. I was comfortable enough with the challenges to start playing around with the special weapons more, trying them out in places where they were more of a gamble than my default weapon. And after the endless random battles and unnecessarily large locations in EarthBound Zero, I was in the right mindset to deal with the wide-open areas of X7 and all the start/stop action that comes from taking so long to get from one challenge to the next.
That, I think, is the primary reason I decided to replay X7 so soon after first beating it: EarthBound Zero warmed me up for it. I wanted something more modern, with less repetitive graphics and a more streamlined interface; X7 fit the bill. I had been dealing with skewed challenges and uneven character progression for so long that X7 would feel more like it was par for the course than a downgrade from the norm. EarthBound Zero's story progression and character motivations hardly made sense at times; I haven't even touched on how questionable X7's story really is when you start to analyze the cutscenes, but I wasn't getting my hopes up by turning to a game that promised to have a compelling and cohesive story. If I was ever going to replay X7, now was the time.
I never deliberately sit down to play a game because it's terrible. Unlike movies, I find that bad games rarely have the potential to be so bad they're good; that extra element of interactivity ruins the fun of watching a train wreck, because you're on the train when it crashes. My compulsion to play (and replay!) games after I've established they're terrible stems from my intellectual curiosity about what makes a game good or bad, my completionist tendencies, my loyalty to the franchises I love, my penchant to look for the positive amidst the negative, and my passion for objective analysis of a largely subjective medium.
Plus, bad games provide great inspiration for blog posts.
Are EarthBound Zero and Mega Man X7 truly terrible? No, I don't think so. There are absolutely redeeming factors in both games. But I'm in no hurry to recommend them to anyone. The low points are far too low and plentiful to gloss over, no matter how good the rest might be.
Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a talking owl who seems to want me to write about King's Quest V next.