Article by Jeremy Parish | March 2, 2010
Mega Man X
It’s 2010, and that makes this the year of Mega Man X. Yeah, sure, the game is set in 21XX, 100 years (or more accurately 1XX years) after the original games, but you can still make a strong case for the Mega Man X/2010 connection. In film copyright indicia style, 2010 is written "MMX" -- just like the game’s initials! More importantly, having reached 2010 means we escaped the grim prophecy of the original Mega Man, which predicted Dr. Wily would try to conquer the world with bug-eyed robots back in 200X. And, of course, 2010 is the year Capcom is releasing Mega Man 10, which (as every junkslut knows) is totally not the same thing as Mega Man X.
With MM10, Capcom is clearly delineating the divide between the two series and flatly stating the fact that, no, MMX was never intended to be just the tenth Mega Man but rather an entirely separate series with loose connections to the older game -- so loose they frankly wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, in fact. Of course, this is Capcom we’re talking about, so it wouldn’t do for them to make things simple. Thus, the entire premise of MM10 revolves around “roboenza,” a flu-like computer virus that infects Roll and forces Mega Man to run around blowing up rogue robots in order to save her life. (Dr. Wily, of course, is stunned -- stunned! -- at this shocking turn of events and has no idea how such a virus came to exist.) Roboenza almost certainly has its origins in the collective Japanese social panic over H1N1, but it also bears an annoying similarity to the Maverick Virus that stood as the long-running plot device fueling the X franchise. So, no doubt a certain group of players will stand firm and declare this mystery virus the final proof that Mega Man 10 actually is Mega Man X, because of course the semantics involved in numbering an overextended franchise is the sort of important issue that merits dogmatic obsession. We nerds have got our priorities straight, brother.
Whatever Capcom’s intent with MM10, and however much the more freakishly obsessed corners of fandom froth at the mouth about the titles of videogames, we can still take away one sterling truth from all of this: Mega Man X will forever be one of the finest entries in the Mega Man franchise.
That’s no small claim, given that there are something like 100 Mega Man games now. One imagines God walking on the beach with Keiji Inafune in days of yore, promising him that his videogame progeny would someday be as numerous as the sands at their feet... but only if they starred a small blue robot. The franchise has seen its ups and down to be sure. Beginning with MMX, it came to pass that the highest ups often arrive in the midst of the dreariest downs.
The Mega Man series was in a grim way in 1993. The 16-bit era was in full swing, with Nintendo and Sega locking horns via advertising (and TTI pitifully piping up, “No, look over here!” from somewhere off-camera) and fans taking up sides astride a deep line in the sand. Sega published Treasure’s blistering technical masterpiece Gunstar Heroes, handily one-upping the Contra? series and setting a new standard for run-and-gun platformers. And how did Capcom respond to this challenge? With Mega Man 6, a tired exercise in by-the-numbers NES gameplay, a creation so uninspiring Capcom couldn’t even be bothered to publish it themselves. Nah, they were too busy counting money from the Super NES-exclusive releases of Street Fighter II to bother with old tech; one assumes Nintendo took up publishing and distribution duties on MM6 as their way of saying thanks to Capcom for pretty much winning the 16-bit console wars for them with a single release.
Yet while the world looked at this latest Mega Man game and let out an enormous collective yawn, the franchise wasn’t actually as dead as it seemed. Inafune, the series’ co-creator, was hard at work on Mega Man X, a project crafted to revitalize the tired brand for the current generation of hardware. Like the second Mega Man game several years prior, this new project was an obvious labor of love, brimming with fresh ideas and new potential. The rote tedium of the later NES games was nowhere to be seen, despite MMX’s adherence to the traditional Mega Man structure. New hero X -- like the game itself, a new model robot patterned after the original Mega Man but with far greater capabilities -- still battles through eight themed stages in order to defeat robots and acquire their powers before running through an ultimate gauntlet of stages where the final boss awaits. But the bosses are more interesting than the older games’ “Attribute Man” style enemies, based on animals and insects while demonstrating more complex behavior and a wider array of abilities.
MMX is really the definitive 16-bit sequel. It retains the basic mechanics of its 8-bit predecessors, but it ratchets up both the game mechanics and detail to a more impressive level of complexity. Capcom wasn’t content with simply sprucing up the visuals; there are enough differences to how X controls versus his simpler predecessor that it’s clear this wasn’t delivered as a separate series on a fickle whim. X has lost the original Mega Man’s ability to slide (ducking below enemy fire with a forward dash instead -- a similar yet not quite identical skill), but in return he has more varied upgrades, multifunctional weapons, and best of all the ability to cling to and leap off of walls. (He can also throw hadouken ki attacks straight out of Street Fighter, if you like.)
The player’s upgraded move list is matched by a significant increase in enemy complexity. X’s foes are more clever than any robot from 200X, and they’re more dangerous. Where Mega Man’s later chapters let him blow through the entire game on the strength of his charged-up Mega Buster, that’s a far more difficult proposition here; even at full strength, the X-Buster barely dents most foes. It’s necessary to learn the more intricate timing of their attack patterns and return to the franchise’s earlier days by making smarter use of the Maverick bosses’ weapons. Fortunately, the powers that X acquires in the course of his mission are second only to Mega Man 2’s in terms of utility, so you never feel like you’re being forced to rely on otherwise useless tools in order to defeat a particular boss. You can usually judge the quality of a Mega Man game by the versatility of its weapons, so that puts X in good company.
What really sets MMX apart from the majority of its predecessors -- and, unfortunately, from just about all of its successors -- is the game’s attention to detail. The pace of the action is slightly slower than in the standard Mega Man games, but not in a sluggish sense. Rather, the pacing is more deliberate, which gives players more time to observe their enemies’ actions and respond accordingly. Bosses, for instance, give special tells when hit with the weapons they’re vulnerable to. More subtly, the slower pace gives you a little more time to soak in the game’s ambiance and take note of random stage details, such as areas that need to be revisited later in the game in order to access hidden items. Visitors making repeat visits to old stomping grounds may be surprised to discover that different stages interact with one another. Defeat Chill Penguin while he’s directing a blizzard your way and Flame Mammoth’s blazing incinerator of a level will have iced over, making it considerably easier to get about. Fascinating little details like this really demonstrate the effort Capcom invested in the game.
It’s a pity the rest of the series never quite lived up the standard established here. By Mega Man X2, the series was already pretty much exactly what gamers had come to expect from Mega Man: More of the same, but with different weapons (none quite as interesting as their predecessors). The first game’s intricate little details were largely phased out in favor of a tiny handful of 3D effects that required a special chip, jacking up the cartridges’ price; the stage interactions were abandoned in favor of a superfluous subplot involving the resuscitation of X’s noble partner, Zero. It wasn’t until Mega Man X4 that the series did something genuinely interesting -- providing very different play styles and skill sets for both X and Zero -- but by then most of the goodwill had faded away. The Mega Man faithful were enraptured by X4’s additions and plot twists, but the series had already worn itself into a rut that left most gamers cold. And even the most diehard fan had little patience for the perpetual end boss, Sigma, who had the endless persistence of Dr. Wily but little of the kitschy charm -- just a big honkin’ chin and a demo reel’s worth of warmed-over bad guy dialogue.
But in looking back at a great game that began a hollow legacy, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the game was great. MMX quickly begat a string of unimaginative sequels that ground Mega Man’s reinvention into the exact same rut it was supposed to have rescued the franchise from, and what could have been an enduring blockbuster franchise was inevitable Capcom’ed into unambitious pablum. Yet for one brief moment, Capcom demonstrated a beautiful marriage of imagination, skill, and affection to reinvent a failing series into something sophisticated and new, yet incredibly faithful to its inspiration. Maybe the world in which Mega Man X was the start of something wonderful turned out to be as imaginary as the world in which Dr. Wily attacked Monsteropolis in 200X... but we can always look back at this masterpiece for a brief glimpse at that wonderful, alternate reality.