For those of you living under a rock, the Mega Man franchise is one of gaming’s original heavyweights. The Blue Bomber almost rivals Mario when it comes to having such a diverse and storied career. Being one of the first games to combine shooting action with platforming, its emphasis on choosing your own level and variety of weapons propelled it to legendary status. To this day we still see our fair share of Mega Man, whether in his own series, or in spinoff games like Marvel vs. Capcom. But this is SNES HUB, and you are not here to learn about Mega Man Battle Network, now are you?
That said, all you need to know is that around the fourth Mega Man, the quality of this NES staple began to diminish. By the time the sixth game rolled out, with lame enemies such as Plant Man and recycled weapons from previous games, it was clear that Capcom was facing a major content crisis. The series was in desperate need of a reinvention. Enter Mega Man X, with its darker story, improved control and gameplay, along with 16-bit polish that only the SNES could bring to the table. I like to think of Mega Man as growing up with his fans, giving us the silly antics of Dr. Wily early and saving the edgier and more mature story of the Mavericks for later. The late NES games were kind of like Mega Man’s awkward adolescent years.
Taking place centuries after the original games, X is a robot who is found by a kindly doctor and is used to create a new generation of robots. Over time problems develop and robots begin attacking the public, causing the doctor to found a group known as the Maverick Hunters. This new group keeps the peace until a fateful day when Sigma, the leader of these hunters goes maverick himself, leading an invasion of the Capital. It is up to X to save the city and crush the robot insurrection! While it may seem trite, the story actually integrates into the gameplay, with an X that has not yet grown in power struggling against clearly superior foes. You will get to see him grow in power as the series soldiers on, which is a novel approach that is very much appreciated.
Take the opening level as an example. High up on the skyway of a futuristic city, X battles numerous robots that have been driven mad by the Maverick Virus. This level has everything I can think of to make it the definitive introduction level on the SNES. Two helicopters battle X and are destroyed in a spectacular explosion, taking a piece of the skyway with it. A giant airship launches vehicles at you! All of this culminating with a losing battle with one of your primary antagonists. It does an amazing job of showing the scale of the war, as well as what is at stake. X MUST get stronger and he knows that he has no other choice.
Luckily the rest of the game is just as consistent. You are tasked with finding and destroying the eight Maverick leaders who have taken over the island. Then you’ll move on to destroy the high leadership of this robot rebellion. As usual you can choose from eight different levels, each culminating with a battle with a Maverick leader. It is in this menu that you will begin to get a glimpse of how this game changes things up. The Robot Masters are modeled after animals, which is a great change of pace. Just like in the NES Mega Man games, beating a boss will award you his weapon. The weapons you collect will help you expose weaknesses on the other bosses. Keeping with the game’s theme of rising to a challenge, you will stumble upon upgrades to X’s functionality. From things like armor that allows twice as much damage than usual to X-Buster upgrades, X is given the tools to defeat his enemies and make this uphill battle easier. Your choice of weapons can also change the patterns of the battles. Use the Boomerang Cutter on Launch Octopus, and suddenly you will find his extra arms cut off, making for a much easier (and different) fight. These weapons can also be used in different ways, affecting your progress through a level. Did you know that if you charge the Chill Shotgun, it can make a platform? This creates a massive amount of replay opportunity, as it is fun to experiment and see what the different weapons do in different situations.
Another way that Mega Man X uses attention to detail to its advantage is in the level designs. Since you are liberating an occupied city, these stages take the form of common municipal landscapes. You will tour a power plant, an airport, and even a communications tower as you battle for these strategic locations. And while all makes sense in the context of the ongoing events, the real innovation lies in the cause and effect relationship that these stages share with one another. It is an amazing idea unique to this game. What it basically amounts to is that beating one stage will trigger changes in another stage. Imagine that you beat Chill Penguin’s mountain fortress. It causes an avalanche that freezes the factory over. This means you will no longer have to deal with fire in Flame Mammoth’s level, but instead alters the level’s course in other ways. There are numerous other examples of this kind of cause and effect dynamic, which makes the game radically different depending on which stages you play through first. It is a great system that really gives this game an exclusive personality, as even its sequels never used this idea.
No more stiff controls either as X operates like a dream from here on out. Sure you will miss the slide, but only until you get the dash! The ability to cling to walls is also welcome, and improves boss combat drastically by giving you a way to avoid them. Between these two abilities, it’s finally your fault if some of these baddies hit you now, as opposed to being an inevitability like in earlier games. They even throw in things like a head-butt that also functions like a double jump. You have never had more control!
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the game still uses passwords …
I remember that although I was wowed by the 16-bit iterations of Mario, Zelda, and Contra, it was Mega Man X that will go down in history as the game that really made me think about just how much of an improvement the SNES was in its capabilities. Everything from the colors to the animation just has a superb feel to it. I love the little touches like one steam-powered robot hissing as it took more and more damage, or the look on the faces of the Mavericks as you land your killing blow. Mega Man’s new look also delivers, taking the awkward looking bot and revamping him with style. The enemy designs are of equally high quality, mixing in old and new enemies with great results. The mid-level bosses in particular are a great showcase for the systems capabilities. Then there’s Zero, who was almost the main playable character. I do not think that there was a cooler character introduced in the entirety of the 16-bit era (looking at you, Sonic). He acts as a mentor of sorts to X, and my only complaint is that they never showed enough of him.
Music is even stronger than the visuals, if that is possible. The music in the Mega Man series has always been stellar, and X shows us that Capcom is committed to continuing that tradition. Standout tracks include Sigma’s Fortress, the Freeway, and the Airport.
So in closing, Mega Man X is a dream come true for fans of the series. It gives solid weight to the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I understand why developers want to reinvent their franchises at times, but they must not forget that they do not make games for themselves. They make them for us. That is what makes Mega Man X so special. Instead of creating a new gameplay skeleton, they took what was and made it better. By the time the credits roll, showing us all the baddies in that classic Mega Man fashion, it feels satisfying. Keep on going strong Blue Buddy.
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