Mega Man 7 is in an awkward place; while most big NES franchises made huge leaps to the Super Nintendo, the mainline Mega Man series' 16-bit thunder was stolen by its Serious Business spin-off, Mega Man X. Released after X and its sequel Mega Man X2, Mega Man 7 is Capcom's attempt to bring its classic platforming roots to a new mid-'90s generation.
Naturally, with a console jump comes a corresponding upgrade in the visual department. Mega Man 7's meticulously detailed environments drip with colour, reminiscent of the cartoon show that aired around the same time the game was released. The most controversial change is the size of the sprites – to show off the gorgeous new 16-bit character models they take up a disproportionately large percentage of the screen, making it more difficult to dodge enemy attacks and anticipate upcoming obstacles. To compensate for this, enemies and level designs are notably less complex than their ancestors in previous titles... but the spike pits will still kill you instantly, of course.
Perhaps taking influence from the successful X series, 7 introduces many more cutscenes and story elements than what the NES originals had to offer. After a slightly wonky opening cutscene with awkwardly separated text ("DR. WILY ALWAYS KNEW HIS SCHEMES MIGHT END IN" on one screen and "FAILURE AND HAD PLANNED FOR JUST SUCH AN OCCASION" on the next screen), the main game features pleasant in-game story sequences with text-based dialogue; the conversations set it apart from other popular NES platforming franchises like Mario, Metroid, and Castlevania, all of which still relied on mostly silent characters during the SNES era.
Of course, one cannot write about the Blue Bomber without mentioning his music; 7 features a cornucopia of catchy tunes, although they're on the lower end of the spectrum by stellar Mega Man soundtrack standards. Most notable is the abrasive "Robot Museum" theme that teeters on the edge between energetic and totally irritating. As a pleasant surprise, there's also an easter egg on the level select screen that lets you listen to the Ghosts 'n Goblins theme while playing Shade Man's stage.
The plot itself is standard Mega Man fare most notable for its introduction of the very "1990s edgy" anti-heroes Bass and Treble, foils for Mega Man and his faithful robo-canine companion Rush. It's all an excuse to get our cybernetic hero to trek through the requisite smorgasbord of archetypal platforming worlds: the ice levels, the fire levels, et cetera. These tropes can feel tired, but responsive controls and silky smooth gameplay make 7 a joy to speed through. Rather than let players tackle Robot Masters in any order they choose, 7 gives you a selection of four to begin with, and the other four are unlocked after you defeat the first batch. It allows for more difficulty progression and a nice halfway point to the story, but it also limits the signature nonlinear structure of the Mega Man series.
In addition to the standard levels, Mega Man collects bolts that he can use as currency to buy items like extra lives and energy tanks at Auto's shop – something never explained in-game that many players might miss, since the way to get to the shop is by pressing the Select button at the stage selection screen. You can grind for bolts if you want, but the game is fairly easy overall; once you acquire your first power-up weapon, bosses become much less challenging and there's no need to unreasonably stock up on health.
True to form, Mega Man 7 sports a wide variety of weapons as well as a cacophony of hidden items and power-ups, including the chance to fight Proto Man for his shield. Taking a hint from Mega Man X's more Metroidvania-esque design, 7 encourages exploration in a much more fluid way than its predecessors, but if you're a series veteran put off by the huge array of upgrades, you can also play through in a straightforward manner instead.
While the levels and bosses aren't as creative as the golden era of the first Mega Man trilogy, the fresh coat of paint gives 7 the flair to place it firmly above its worn-out predecessor Mega Man 6 – with a half-dozen entries on the NES and a launch after the SNES was already on shelves, 6 was a Game Out of Time in dire need of a generational facelift. The complexity and challenge in 7 are toned down a bit, making it a great jumping-on point for newbies to the series that might be turned off by the unrelenting difficulty of the older titles.
For players new to the Mega Man franchise, Mega Man 7 is the perfect place to start: a pure platforming experience in contrast to the more complex Mega Man X, and colourfully inviting without the harsh challenge of earlier core Mega Man entries. It's by no means the best title in the series, however – gigantic sprites make the game frustrating at times and lead to more generic level designs to accommodate the character models. If you can take it with a grain of salt, Mega Man 7 is a solid addition to the library of any platforming enthusiast, from franchise veterans to players trying out the series for the first time.