Retro Review: Mega Man X

Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom

I believe everyone has a special connection to a specific piece of art. Someone may choose to curl up in bed, turn on a conveniently placed bedside light, and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; someone may nuke a packet of ultra-buttered popcorn and watch Titanic, tissues at arms length; and someone else may take a scenic walk, listening to Abbey Road on repeat. Few scenarios bring me more satisfaction when I, on a whim, untangle my Super Nintendo controller, blow out the dust from inside the console, and insert Mega Man X.

In the NES era, Mega Man was always a badass in concept. He was a humanoid who hunted down and killed evil variations of himself, took an ability from their obliterated corpses, and used those stolen abilities to kill more cronies. But in reality, Mega Man was just an adorable boy in a blue jumpsuit who was more apt at jumping from block to block than offing his wicked step-brothers. Then Mega Man X was released. Action took center stage to platforming, crafting an intense and hugely influential 2D gaming experience. This was the game that transformed Mega Man into a fully realized bounty hunter. A true badass.

This Blue Bomber retains his classic assortment of abilities – then just jumping and chargeable blasts – but added mobility comes in the form of a dash and wall-climbing, both of which prove vital during boss fights as means for dodging attacks. Wall-climbing also serves as a unique method of platforming, which is put to great use during vertically-oriented sections. These additions make playing as Mega Man mind-blowingly precise, allowing for a level of control that very few 2D action/platformers match, even to this day.

There is no linear order to most of the game’s progression– an integral aspect to the Mega Man design– but this iteration designs around this idea further. Players can choose the allotted eight stages in any order. Defeating a stage’s boss grants Mega Man a new projectile-based attack in the vein of the defeated boss, which also acts as a weakness for one of the other bosses. You never need the correct weapon to defeat bosses, but the option is there if certain encounters prove too difficult. I have always appreciated this design approach to optional difficulty, and I wish incentives were in place to reward players who choose not to exploit this system.  Acquired weapons are also used to obtain heart tanks (permanent health boosters) and sub-tanks (extra viles of refillable health) that are cleverly sprinkled throughout the levels. Upgrades to Mega Man’s suit are also well hidden throughout the game that make him a more potent killing machine.

There is no perfect order of progression – backtracking through previously beaten levels is required for completion. What initially sounds like a poor design choice becomes its greatest asset: everyone adapts the game to their own preferences. You can even make the game more challenging by replaying it in certain ways, like not using obtained weaponry, skipping useful power-ups, or playing through the levels in a different order.

Mega Man X’s levels are consistently incredible. While technically short, they all present unique challenges and threats that feel organic to their settings. The water themed stage features inhaling robotic fish (you’ll have to blast your way out if they successfully suck you in), speedy seahorses that frequently dive and ascend near deadly spikes, and missile strikes from anchored boats. There is no swimming. Instead, the physics are adjusted to increase jump height and reduce running speed. This particular stage even features two mid-level boss battles, which are both repeated twice, each with more environmental hazards. Sure, I may have picked the best designed stage to discuss in-depth, but the others still include noteworthy flourishes. Assembly lines, filled with requisite pulverizers and unfinished robots moving towards pits of lava, are plentiful in the factory themed stage. In the electricity themed stage, lights turn on and off rhythmically, while fluorescent enemies zip from right to left. These enemies illuminate proper progression and simultaneously halt progression if they are not swiftly reacted to. Plenty of concepts that affect the core gameplay mechanics are incorporated cleverly throughout, making for a varied collection of stages.

There are even subtle interactions between certain levels that can make progression easier. Clearing Chill Penguin’s predictably flurry-filled level freezes the lava in the Flame Mammoth’s factory, enabling you to walk on it and skip a few difficult segments. Eliminating Storm Eagle on his airship causes a crash into Spark Mandrill’s high-voltage dominion, causing power outages. Gone are the intermittent light sources in favor for a consistently dim lighting that makes for unobstructed navigation. These are the more difficult stages too, thus integrating a novel way of subtle game balancing that also serves as clever world building.

The final four stages are deviously demanding, but lack new ideas. No new enemies are introduced, but this works to the game’s advantage. These levels are dense with foes (and at times too dense), but because you are aware of their prowess, there are no unknown factors at play. Enemy patterns are predictable, so the last levels play like final tests, while the previous levels were merely study sessions. During this exam of sorts, previously defeated bosses appear like multiple-choice questions. Rather than featuring overly complicated skirmishes, the boss battles that cap these stages deal massive damage, but also move in easily internalized patterns, encouraging finesse over durability.

It saddens me to say that much of the game’s momentum is lost during the three-boss climax. What ensues is a long, poorly designed showdown where repeated failure is preordained. Sigma (Mega Man X’s Bowser) sics his fast moving, highly unpredictable hound on you in the first battle. Even after playing the game over twenty times, I still lack an effective strategy to take it out. Part two has Sigma hopping back and forth on the walls, attempting to slice you in half with his lightsaber. Where the hound has erratic, hard to decipher movements, Sigma’s movement and attack patterns are so basic and easily manipulated that it quickly dissolves into rinse and repeat. Worse yet, the final encounter occasionally places you in situations where some attacks cannot be avoided. These issues never appear during any previous boss fights, so seeing each one suffer from completely different, but equally bad designs is bizarre.

Mega Man X is the most successful reconceptualization a video game has ever endured. Capcom deftly distinguished which aspects defined the series and which further developed them. They also devised innovative ways to position the series as an action/platformer, rather than maintaining status quo as a platformer with minor action elements. The execution borders on perfection, with the final acts out-of-place design flaws functioning as the game’s only true misstep. While the ending of Mega Man X is bittersweet, it is also wholly satisfying in a way that has prevented me from playing X2 and X3. The original reached such astounding heights– is it even possible for the others to be as triumphant? But as a loyal Mega Man fan, I owe myself the opportunity to give them a shot—and even if they are technically better than their predecessor, I will always consider it the series’ crowning achievement.




Quick tidbits:

– You should start with the dash ability. Including it in Chill Penguin’s level was a mistake; I feel bad for people who tried playing that stage last. The up side is that you can choose to play through most of the game without the ability to dash. I can’t say I haven’t tried doing this.

– Pro tip: in the start menu, change the dash button to one of the shoulder buttons. This will make dashing a breeze.

– I really enjoyed Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X for the PSP. It was a port of Mega Man X with GRAPHICALS, but enough things were changed– a hard mode gave bosses an extra attack, a few power-ups were in different locations, the final boss was tweaked to be less frustrating, and you could play as Vile (one of the game’s bosses). These fixes, additions, and tweaks made justifying the purchase easier. The remixed soundtrack is also quite delightful.

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