“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C. Clark
Speaking of magic, let’s talk about one of the greatest games of all time. When Capcom’s series reboot Mega Man X hit the Super Nintendo, the world would never be the same. Alongside Super Mario World and a few others, I’d consider MMX to be the best side-scroller there is. It’s certainly my favorite and that’s why I’m reviewing it on my birthday weekend.
The original Mega Man series that ran predominantly on the NES, though there were a few games for the Game Boy and later the SNES. Those early games were rockin’ but they became pretty formulaic. Virtually everyone knows the basic Mega Man format: fight robot bosses (usually 8 of them), take their weapons, fight the last boss, the end. We’re not complaining. Those games were cool but they had little room to grow. Perhaps that’s why Mega Man hasn’t translated as well as Super Mario through the various generations.
Mega Man X really didn’t change much about the basic formula, but it did ramp up the volume to eleven. Stripping away everything “kiddie” about the original Blue Bomber, the new Mega Man X struts onto the scene taller, edgier, frownier, and better equipped than ever. It’s clear that this was a new series that aimed to top everything that could be topped about the original.
A primary difference between the original Mega Man and X is the setting both operate in. With the prototypical, you got the sense of a vibrant, colorful world with a lot going on, with real human characters existing alongside the robots in society. There was no real sense of tension or danger. It was lighthearted, optimistic even. Robot bosses were often re-purposed and reprogrammed utility droids.
With Mega Man X that concept flips on its head. I hesitate to call it “dystopian” but where are all the people in MMX? The stages seem like they’re abandoned, automated. Empty. There is a society but it seems as if it’s comprised entirely of robotic mercenaries and bounty hunters. It’s a bleaker, darker future.
Even Doctor Light himself has passed on. That revelation shocked me as a kid when I first played this. I didn’t think that they would link together these two different takes on Mega Man in that way. But his designer and “father” is indeed dead. Mega Man X (whom most refer to simply as “X”) encounters the digital ghost of Dr. Light, his hologram speaking to X from beyond the grave in capsules the good doctor left for him throughout the world.
This adds to the mystery and underlying sense of tragedy about the world. What happened? Is X the same as the first Mega Man? How long of a time has passed? What happened to Dr. Wily? Did Mega Man finally kill him and was that the event horizon for this society? To Roll? Rush? X appears in a foreign and hostile world where everything has changed.
Well, maybe not everything.
Mega Man X still uses the 8 stage format with a robot boss awaiting you at the end of each level. They’re just not named “Something-Man” anymore. Now they’re animals, and their design has sky-rocketed in complexity. Upon defeating each boss, X captures their special weapon and can use it in any subsequent stages. In fact, these special weapons can cause extra damage on a certain other robot boss in a kind of rock-paper-scissors style of strengths and weaknesses gameplay on an eight-point scale. There’s an order to beat the bosses in if you plan to take advantage of their special weapon susceptibility. That’s distinctly Mega Man gameplay.
And special weapons can now be cycled through using L and R buttons without having to go into the start menu. Thank you, SNES!
The order in which you defeat the bosses will change depending on how much backtracking you’ll want to do for upgrades. Everyone typically starts with Chill Penguin because the Dash upgrade is located in his icy stage and as a boss he’s pretty dang easy to defeat.
That brings up a few key differences that mark MMX as innovative. Chill Penguin is easy to defeat because you can make use of wall-crawling as Mega Man X. You can now jump against a wall and climb up it by jumping off of it, defying the laws of physics, or slide down it slowly. This allows for entirely new level design rather than just the typical platforming of the earlier games.
Also, there’s the upgrades. I’ve already mentioned it a bitsy. Every time X encounters one of five capsules left behind by Doctor Light, he’ll be bestowed with improved equipment. The Dash is definitely the first one you’ll want to get since it dramatically increases your mobility and agility. You’re forced to run into it on Penguin’s stage.
The other upgrade capsules are hidden in a few other stages. They include a helmet upgrade which allows X to break certain blocks with his head (don’t be jelly, Mario!), a body armor upgrade which reduces damage sustained, and an upgrade to Mega Man’s X-Buster weapons systems, allowing him to charge up his regular attack even more and even charge up his special weapons for far more devastating attacks.
There is a fifth hidden capsule that’s really hard to find unless you know where it is exactly. You’ve got to collect all the other upgrades, heart tanks (extra permanent health) and sub tanks (which recharge health) first. At the end of Armored Armadillo’s stage, there is a mine cart that you ride all the way to the boss gate. If you fall in the pit below and die four times, then on the fifth attempt across the chasm you can climb up the opposite cliff face to find the last capsule.
You discover Doctor Light’s hologram has ditched his familiar lab coat for a kung fu style robe. In fact, he’s cosplaying as Ryu from Street Fighter (this is Capcom, after all) and he’ll teach X how to perform the iconic Hadoken!
This secret attack can kill any enemy, even bosses, with a single hit (minus the final form of the last boss). And if you don’t know how to perform the Hadoken, then I’m not sure you’re going to be playing something from the era of Mega Man X.
You’ll need every trick and platforming skill you can muster to face the new threat that has arisen in the form of Sigma, a powerful Reploid master. No more facing a mere man in a lab coat. Dr. Wily is long gone. Good thing X has Zero to watch his back!
The 8-Bit Review
Crisp, clean imagery, dark outlines, shimmering colors, outstanding and impressive graphics. This is one of the best examples of what the 16-bit era of gaming was capable of. It’s also very well-animated. It sets itself apart from the original Mega Man series.
Mega Man X reminds us that Mega Man’s name in Japan was Rockman. This sound track is certified legit. The music grabs you by the cajones (or juevos) right from the first stage and never releases its vice-like grip.
This is 80’s rock if the 90’s never happened to stop the 80’s from taking over the universe. Extremely fast-paced, the OST is crowded with tracks that pump you up for the action, pushed to a frantic level with X’s new range of abilities and agility. Shredding guitars, thrumming bass-lines, and relentless drumming fill one of the best action soundtracks from the SNES.
“Spark Mandrill” and “Boomer Kuwanger” stand out as practically iconic. I’ve jogged to these tracks and it makes running for exercise fun. If that isn’t the world’s foremost accomplishment…
Taking everything that was fun about the first Mega Man, Mega Man X should be the archetype for how to handle a series reboot. Nothing here is introduced that removes any of the delight of the earlier games. There are only elements added that further develop the side-scrolling action game. It’s not an overkill of innovation. It’s enough.
The ability to dash alone gives Mega Man X such a faster pace than most other games in its genre. Level design became much more detailed and complicated with the addition of wall-crawling. And there are of course the upgrades as well and the new ability to charge up special weapons, making for not just eight new attacks but sixteen technically.
Mega Man X’s motto was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just make it more awesome.”
Created by Dr. Thomas Light, Mega Man X was given the ability to form his own decisions and chose his own destiny. Nearly a century later, after being sealed for diagnostics, X is awakened by Dr. Cain who was blown away by X’s capability for free will. Cain created a new race of robotic entities called Reploids that could replicate X’s freedom. But a virus infected the Reploids and turned them against the humans. Where did this virus come from? (spoiler: highlight to reveal) It’s later revealed that the virus was Dr. Wily’s last middle-finger to the world and the infection was spread by Zero, Wily’s creation. Infected Reploids were renamed Mavericks. Maverick Hunters were a unit of fighting robots recruited to face this new force. X and Zero are Maverick Hunters. The game’s antagonist Sigma was too until he was also infected with the virus and chose to cleanse the world of humanity and usher in a new age of complete robotic domination.
Mega Man X benefits most from its silence. It never sits down to tell you exactly what happened so you can get bored of the story and fall asleep. It’s sense of mystique goes a long way. Dr. Light’s communications describe X as a machine designed with the ability to choose, though the hand of fate has decreed the necessity for X to fight despite his creator’s wish for peace. MMX dabbled with elements of pacifism, necessary violence, loss, and free will. X is forced with the dilemma of facing the Reploid master Sigma, a former Maverick hunter like X and Zero who turned against the humans. In choosing to stand against Sigma, X is volunteering alienation and betrayal against his own kind. Heavy topics for a simple platformer but they do not weigh the game down because they are hardly there at all beyond the cryptic words of a scientist who has been dead for an unknown length of time.
And of course there’s the fan favorite, Zero. He is X’s partner-in-arms and he seems to understand X’s potential. Though Zero is a powerful almost mentor-like figure through most of the game (spoiler: highlight to reveal) his death at the hands of Vile make for a shocking turn of events that make X the world’s last hope. Short of a sci-fi opera, MMX has a basic dystopian premise that would have been sillier if it had all been spelled out. As it stands, obscurity commands this narrative.
As an action platformer, MMX is extremely accessible. Every mode of X’s movements and attacks have been done before and what is actually new is introduced simply and individually. You don’t need to worry about gaining too many brand new abilities at once and there is plenty of room to experiment. Highly accessible.
Is MMX hard? I’ve played it more times than nearly every other game in existence and there are still some tricky parts. It’s short enough to complete in a single sitting but there is a password system. Just in case. The final fight with Sigma can be extremely taxing, especially if you didn’t take the time to backtrack for every item and upgrade. Expect it to be tough if you’ve never played through it at all before. I hesitate to call it grueling but if you haven’t memorized boss patterns, it can be a grueling go.
Why such a high score for uniqueness? Is it really that distinct given there were almost a dozen Mega Man games that came before this one? Yes, it is that unique. Because it took the tired Mega Man formula and made it cool again, not with a choir of bells and whistles but with careful, calculated additions to the gameplay and a fresh, mature setting. Revitalizing a familiar franchise is no easy feat.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Mega Man X is still one of my go-to games on the Super Nintendo. I play it about once a year or so. I’ve loved Mega Man since I first played the originals on the NES and X only calcified that love into permanence. Familiar and evocative yet fresh and cutting-edge, MMX showed the world that this is how you save a franchise. Now the world just needs another “Mega Man X“. I don’t think Mighty No.9 quite cut it. If only Capcom would quit sitting on their hands and dust off a new iteration of this classic, robotic action hero.
Aggregated Score: 9.8
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Categories: Game Review