When an entertainment series gets stale, creators try to knock it up a notch to win people back. Hollywood does this with new characters, marriage/death/coma story arcs, or remakes. When it comes to video games this usually means more blood, modes, fancier graphics, or new characters.
Mega Man was becoming very stale by the time it reach Mega Man 6 on the NES. The robot master names were becoming outlandish (Centaur Man, we are looking at you) and Wily was dull and needed to be put in a home. The series had already beat its story line into the ground (It was Wily! It is always Wily!). Mega Man X presented a new opportunity with the move to 16- bit graphics to change up the Mega Man formula to reinvigorate the series.
Capcom tasked In Keiji Inafune and his team with reinventing the series in 1993. They used the tried a true formula of a more mature storyline, enhanced the graphics, sound, new abilities, and finally a few new characters. Inafune followed the entertainment revitization formula to the very last clichéd letter. Did they succeed in reinvigorating the series, or did they just beat a dead robot with a stick? I recently did a speed run for our SNES Classic Month to test how Mega Man X stands the test of time.
Mega Man X boots up with a new story wrapped in tech jargon. Sifting through the lackluster cut scene, if it can be called one, reveals that the game takes place 100 years after the original Mega Man games. Dr. Light and Wily are dead. Even so, I still suspect it is all Wily’s fault. Both creators, Light and Wily, have made perfect robots. Dr. Light wanted to ensure that Mega Man X, or X for short, was morally sound. Being the genius that he is, Light put X in a capsule for 30 years and ran a morality program on him to make him into a good robot. Dr. Light is lucky that trapping him in a morality simulator for 30 years did not make him bats#%! crazy. One must assume Zero went through a 30-year badass training from Wily.
X is found by Dr. Cain, who is smitten with X’s awesomeness. The only logical thing to do then is to create robots modeled after X, Reploids. Of course, these quick knockoffs do not go through the 30-year training. Robots go crazy. Big surprise. A hunter squad of robots are sent to kill the crazy robots (Mavericks). Getting confused yet? The most powerful hunter, Sigma, encounters Zero. Zero messes him up like there is no tomorrow (this part is actually in one of the later games, but I cannot resist explaining since this is a badass cut scene). Sigma, who was supposed to be immune to the crazy, is now infected because of Zero. Sigma then goes insane in the mainframe. Now a crazy maverick, Sigma gets himself and island and plots the destruction of humanity. It is a prerequisite for all 90’s cartoon villains. X must now go in and stop the evil Sigma.
The story is clumsily communicated in the title sequence. The first level and boss fights do a much better job at communicating the plot points and invoking emotion. But, just like Mario, most do not play these games for a quality story. It is all about the gameplay and levels, so let us examine those areas.
The opening level serves multiple purposes. It teaches players how to play Mega Man by slowly introducing game mechanics one by one. X does this seamlessly through weak enemies, easy jumps, and forcing you to climb walls. The intro level even teaches players to look for secrets by placing one in an easily visible section. These touches show that the level design begins spot on.
The second key to Mega Man games is the feel of the controls. While the graphics and sprites have changed, X still jumps like Mega Man is supposed to. The speed feels natural. The shooting has a great blend of mashing and the charge shot. This may sound silly, but if you have ever tried Mega Man 8 you will know what a Mega Man game should not feel like. Ugh, I do not even want to think about that trash.
Mega Man gets to the boss of the intro level and is torn a new one. I remember thinking “damn that guy just F’ed me up” the first time I ever played this game. Then Zero blasts his way on screen and saved you. In the years since, Inafune has explained that they wanted to make Zero the main protagonist. The opening level demonstrates why Zero would be a great main character. Instead, we got stuck with X. After getting your ass handed to you, we enter the selection stage of 8 robot masters. Oh, excuse me, I guess they like to be called Mavericks now.
Building on the solid Mega Man foundation, X adds several pieces to reinvigorate the series. The first is the wall jump. This allows to scale walls, and hide behind the hit bars when fighting bosses. The second is the upgrade system. Not only does X get the boss weapons, but he can also upgrade his armor. The first armor upgrade is the dash. This speeds up the game drastically and gets you into new areas. The other big upgrade is an ultimate charge shot. This upgrade charge shot allows you to charge boss weapons too. These super effects are very useful and allow for some creativity and great level design. Another key are the hidden E-Tanks and heart pieces. This encourages exploration and forces new challenges. You are even rewarded for getting all the hidden items with a secret upgrade, the Hadouken. The final addition is the ability to ride in mechs. These suits bring new destructive abilities. Each addition is a welcome mix that enhances game play.
As hinted at above, the level design is top notch. The designs expertly utilize each boss weapon and upgrade. Each level has a theme that is carried through its enemies, backgrounds, and platforms. The levels vary through mine carts, conveyor belts, water, and air. Every stage feels fresh and unique from the last. One special touch, playing certain levels changes other levels. For example, beating Chill Penguin then puts snow on Flame Mammoth’s fires. Beating Launch Octopus then adds water to Sting Chameleons level (allowing you to get a hidden heart piece). The attention to detail here is fantastic and shows how level design can and should be done.
There is one Mega Man tradition that is missing from the X game- the boss refight room. I know several classic Mega Man games have the boss refights sprinkled in the Wily stages (like Mega Man 1). There is a symmetry to have the first game of a new Mega Man series go back to no boss refight room, but it felt like a tradition at that point. It is missed here as an extra challenge, but the Sigma stages are still quality.
Mega Man is legendary. The games have influenced countless people and changed gaming history. When thinking of which games embody Mega Man, I would argue that there are no greater games than Mega Man 2 and X. The proof is in how new “retro” games like Shovel Knight use Mega Man X as a blueprint for their game. Mega Man X is a game that is a special treat for anyone who secures an SNES Classic. Check out this beautiful masterpiece. You will not be disappointed.