The year is 1993. The NES era had come to an end and the Mega Man showing signs of apathy. If the Blue Bomber were to survive, Capcom needed to do something drastic, as moving to the SNES wasn’t enough. As if guided by Dr. Light himself, Capcom picked up Mega Man, launched him 100 years into the future, drop kicked the old cast into oblivion and dialled the grimdark up to 11. If that wasn’t enough, they even managed to make one of the greatest games of all time along the way.
It is fairly well established that the ‘X’ in Mega Man’s new title stands for: ‘Xtra-spicey-changes’. This is because Capcom grabbed the rulebook, burned it to make a cup of tea and went into a caffeine fuelled madness – nineties style. Everything from graphics, to gameplay, to tone has been violently jiggled and restructured to make X feel like a true advancement, not just a reskin. Mere seconds into the introduction, you are bombarded with the deepest lore-dump the series has ever deigned to present. In an ominously dark warning, Dr. Light himself warns you that X houses unimaginable power. Back in the day, Mega Man was just a lab assistant, who became a hero. X on the other hand, is a fully functioning artificial intelligence with an unlimited capacity for planetary annihilation. Spooky stuff indeed.
Once you get past all of the depressingly awesome fluff however, you have the endless joy that is playing Mega Man X for first, second or thirtieth time. Despite the numerous alterations to formula, the absolute core of the franchise has remained mostly intact. This means you have to guide our plucky, yet terrifyingly powerful hero through eight stages, killing eight nefarious ne’er-do-wells and absorbing their robotic souls to fuel your lemon shooters various munitions. Take your fully armed cannon to Sigma’s lair, give him a good beating, then watch the credits roll. It is tried. It is tested. It is exactly why we play these games.
Whilst the thrumming robo-heart is intact, the surrounding doodads have of course been reworked. X himself has lost the ability to slide, meaning your buttery Mega-Thighs are now officially retired by the time 21XX rolls around. However this devastating loss is remedied by the inclusion of wall jumping and dashing. Wall jumping gives you the ability to scale walls giving you an unprecedented amount vertical freedom, not to mention evasion. Dashing hurls X forward at an extreme speed – which when combined with a bog standard jump, X can launch himself across more than half the screen in a single bound. These two abilities may seem minor, especially considering one of them is a slightly tweaked slide, but you would be gravely mistaken in that conclusion.
This is due to how Stages have been designed. In the past, a stage would be made up of a series of self contained rooms that all link together in a linear progression. This gave the classic series a puzzle like loop, as you could almost always see where you needed to go, you just had to figure out how. In Mega Man X, a stage is one long, continuous ‘room’ that weaves together enclosed and open spaces seamlessly. This gives your new mobility options a chance to shine. It also compels you to explore the intricately designed levels for various doohickeys, rewarding you accordingly for doing so. Hidden in the various nooks and crannies are Heart Tanks, Sub Tanks and Capsules – all of which greatly enhance X’s survivability and general combat effectiveness. Capsules themselves are easily the most satisfying element, as finding one alters X’s appearance, visually showing his progression towards greater ass-kickery.
Actually plodding through these stages is where the real fun lies though. Whilst they mostly follow themes and tropes from classic games, like underwater, snowy or somewhat fiery, they are all masterclasses in how to design a challenging, yet ultimately fair series of obstacles. Whether you are outrunning a bulldozer, riding a minecart through a bat infested cave or valiantly bounding over a snowball, everything just feels perfectly placed. There is always enough wiggle room to allow for numerous mistakes, giving you ample time to attain mastery. These are some of the best stages the series has produced, and remain timelessly memorable almost 20 years later.
This level of ‘fair challenge’ can also be found in the the vast majority of boss fights. Despite coming from 10 other Mega Man games, X kicked my butt numerous times. You are expected to learn a bosses patterns, utilise your new evasion techniques and lay the smack down harder than ever before. On your first boss that is. As with practically every Mega Man game in existence, your first boss is always your hardest and most satisfying. Once you have nabbed your handy-dandy elemental tin-opener, the rest of the bosses fall like dominoes. X unfortunately is incredibly susceptible to this as not only do bosses die quickly to their weakness, but their attack patterns completely reset. This results you only having to memorise the first five seconds of a single attack to actually overcome them. The power trip is real, but this is a recurring issue with the series, that to this day has not been truly resolved.
Luckily weapons your receive from your various conquests are all incredibly fun to use, whilst remaining heavily situational – as is to be expected. Bouncing icicles off walls and watching the shards kill three enemies, whilst you are pulling off a series of impressive aerial acrobatics is eternally satisfying. Once X has acquired the Buster Capsule things start getting freaky though. You suddenly gain the ability to charge your special weapons, unleashing an incredibly powerful alternate fire mode. Experimentation takes on a whole new meaning when you have the equivalent of 16 weapons to play with. It really does elevate X to a whole new level of fun, with the world very quickly descending into a sandbox of adrenaline fuelled mayhem – and I love it.
Being on the SNES, Mega Man X is rocking the finest 16-bit graphics 93′ had to offer. Huge, intricately detailed character models, beautiful backdrops, memorable bosses and vast stages flood the screen at every opportunity. Amazingly, despite all of the extra snazz and gubbins, the game never feels ‘busy’. You’re never overwhelmed, or confused as to what is a platform, or an enemy. It is a perfect mesh of detail and minimalism that defined the NES era…only more so.
Complementing the new, edgy themes of X, 16-bit guitar riffs and banging drums simply explode out of your speakers. You are propelled forward on the wings of that stages sweet lick, and damn does it feel good. Once you reach a boss, the bad-assery ends, and the tension builds. The score suddenly taking on a sinister tone. It’s truly brilliant. The music helps develop a completely different feel to its classic brethren, further pushing the sense of advancement and ‘new’. Despite being Capcom’s first attempt, Mega Man X has a truly fantastic set of tracks that not only stand up to the classics, but surpass most of them in just about every way.
Mega Man X stands tall as not only a top notch Mega Man game, but also one of greatest games of all time. It successfully takes a waning formula, injects it with new life and kickstarts a whole new era of Blue Bombery goodness, that every gamer should experience at some point in their life. Whilst it does manage to fall into some of the traditional Mega Man traps, it manages to overwhelm most of that negativity with its seemingly endless supply of spit and polish.
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