After the third, and seemingly final defeat of Sigma, two large organisations rose to prominence in the war against the Mavericks: : The Maverick Hunters and Repliforce. Both organisations existed in relative harmony, even co-operating in joint operations, and the war was looking to come to a successful conclusion. That is until Sky Lagoon was attacked, resulting in the deaths of countless Reploids. The Maverick Hunters, being the defenders of truth and “justice” they are, declare the Repliforce as Maverick, and so the fourth great battle begins.
The story of Mega Man X4 is one of surface level madness, and strangely subtle depth. At first glance, the Repliforce seem irredeemably stupid. They go out of their way to be labelled as Maverick, when there are numerous ways the situation could have been resolved peacefully. Look a bit closer, and it becomes more apparent that the Maverick Hunters are overzealous, gun-hoe reploids, who brand anyone who does not bend to their edict, as Mavericks. This idls essentially a death sentence. X and Zero are mere vessels for this unjustified quelling to be carried out. Which camp you ultimately fall into, depends on how invested you want to get in a story about a robot shooting lemons, really.
What makes, and ultimately breaks, the story of Mega Man X4 are its production values. Large portions of the story are played out using spectacular anime cutscenes, with written dialogue between characters being top notch. X and Zero have unique interactions with every character you encounter, and even come with their own story arcs and cutscenes ,which is a nice touch. The thing that breaks immersion, is the voice acting. It falls into the ‘it’s so bad, it is good’ category. For a game, and series, that has surprisingly dark undertones, the voice acting does not fit at all. There are some genuine laugh out loud moments, which is all well and good, but it is a detriment to the story as a whole.
That being said, Mega Man X4 truly sells itself as a conflict between two opposing military forces, with X and Zero at the forefront of the conflict. Every stage is thematically relevant to a strategic resource. You might be assaulting Repliforce airships, in an attempt to deny them the ability to strike from the skies, or disrupting their munitions supply by destroying a cargo train. They even go as far as invading the internet itself, to cripple their cyber warfare capabilities. It is top notch stuff that gives each stage a unique purpose, outside of just being a complex Maverick delivery method.
It helps that the stages themselves are almost universally fantastic. Outside of their themes, they each come with a number of unique gimmicks. This could be in the form of a vertical auto-scroller, a string of time trials or even just an overabundance of death pits whilst hopping between aircraft. The game never feels boring, or stale. There is a real sense of momentum and progression that solidifies this as one of the better games in the series. The only stage that fails to hit the mark, is Jet Stingray’s jetbike sequence that can be a bit unforgiving, and generally not that fun to playthrough. It is mercifully short at least.
Scattered through each level are hidden collectables and armour pieces. There are a total of eight heart-tanks, each one increasing your health pool, two sub-tanks, which allow you to heal on the fly, and one weapon-tank, which refills your weapon energy. In addition, there is an Ex-Tank which grants you additional lives upon a game over. Finally, you have five armour capsules that grant X new abilities such as the air dash and improved charge shots. Unlike Mega Man X3, these collectables are all useful and located mostly logical locations. A little bit of exploration will yield incredible results, instilling that feeling that you are always getting stronger.
X4 is also quite a bit easier than its predecessors, although I imagine it is mostly due to the limitations of the hardware at the time. Each stage is split into two halves. Upon reaching the separating loading screen, your health and weapon energy will be recharged. If you die, you will be sent back to whichever half you were currently in. This has a few earth-shattering effects that help make X4 feel uniquely forgiving, yet satisfying to play. Death becomes mostly meaningless, which lets you make more mistakes without risk of significant punishment. At the same time, you are encouraged to use your secondary weapons more, as your ammo is generously restocked. The freedom this minor change provides, makes X4’s combat feel more open and less restrictive. These are eventually completely removed, should you collect the right armour piece, granting unlimited ammunition. This, once again, hammers home the experimental nature of the combat.
The weapons themselves are a blast to play around with. From screen nukes, to hurricanes, to fiery uppercuts and even full blown cloning – X4 gives you a lot of fancy tools to mess around with. What truly sets X4 apart from its SNES brothers however, is the full implementation of Zero. Whilst unable to attain any armour capsules, does receive eight weapons in the form of techniques. Instead of equipping them, you must input a specific command, which will then unleash a variety of elemental melee attacks. This effectively splits X4 into two, completely different experiences. X is as wonderfully powerful, and diverse as he always has been, whilst Zero adds a fresh new style that is more complex than a 2D Beat em’ Up, and slightly less complex than a 2D Fighter.
Unlocking these weapons requires the systematic killing of each Maverick, and X4 has some pretty memorable fights. Cyber Peacock teleports around the room and tries to ambush you, Split Mushroom clones himself and Magma Dragoon rushes you down using explosive fire attacks. Each one is perfectly balanced in terms of power, meaning you can choose, and defeat each of them using just your buster. As is always the case, the Mavericks are all incredibly vulnerable to their weakness, which results in an easy win if you decide to abandon the buster, and bring out the big guns…if you are playing as X. Zero has a much harder time when it comes to taking down Mavericks due to his attacks not necessarily being strong to any of the Maverick you are fighting. This means you need to master the art of evasion, positioning and swordplay to come out on top.
As has become a series staple, at key intervals you will be forced to combat a more powerful enemy in the form of the Colonel. He acts not only as an expository vessel to progress the plot, but also as a skill check. He requires timing, patience and attack pattern recognition to beat and has no real weakness. He ends up being one of the more satisfying bosses to take down, and is a nice change of pace from the Maverick stomping you normally partake in.
After the last Maverick bites the dust, you move onto the endgame stages. These are visually, and thematically fantastic, although gameplay wise, a bit of a let down. They are rather short affairs, with no challenge designed to test you in any real capacity, which is a shame. Luckily the boss fights within these stages are pretty fun to fight, especially the final, unnamed boss. This guy has three unique forms that you must beat back, to back. It is a long, arduous battle that will probably result in many deaths. But it remains fair, and successfully concludes a fantastic game.
X4’s biggest strength is how good it feels to play. Great levels, enemy design and theme can only take you so far. Despite moving from SNES to PS1, Capcom successfully nailed the core feel of X and Zero. Dashing, jumping and shooting all feel amazing – successfully delivering the frantic, momentum based gameplay the series is known for. There is fluidity of motion to each input, and a perfectly balanced weight behind your attacks. X3 had a tendency to pack levels full of enemies with incredibly high health pools, X4 amends that and enemies go down in a way that feels challenging, without impacting the flow. This goes for both X and Zero, which is an achievement in and of itself.
As this is the first game to grace the PS1, X4 looks leagues above its 16-bit counterparts. Sprites are beautifully intricate, animations are gorgeous and the stages are brimming with details and even easter eggs. Moving backgrounds, humongous bosses, explosions everywhere – this game looks fantastic. Despite the game being significantly busier, it never feels overwhelming. You never get distracted, or feel like the screen is too crowded. I am a massive fan of the 16-bit art style of the classics, however I was immediately converted once I saw just how breathtaking X4 looks, even to this day. The only place that has not aged well, is the spiral staircase in Split Mushroom’s stage, which can be forgiven when you view the game as a whole.
Musically X4 is top notch too. The heavy rock vibes of the SNES era are back, and sound amazing with the PS1’s improved hardware. Interestingly, they decided to mix in some synthy techno tracks, which are equally as good. It rounds out the sound in a way that keeps it pleasingly diverse. The soundtrack doesn’t just mesh together into a cacophony of indecipherable noise, instead giving you a varied blend that cleanses your palate. It is easily up there with the best in the series.
Mega Man X4 is a truly special game. It recaptures the magic of Mega Man X1, repackages it with a wonderful 32-bit artstyle, and ups the production values across the board. Sure the voice acting is a bit hit-or-miss, but the overall package is undeniably amazing. This is a perfect entry point for newbies, and a beautifully written love letter to long time fans. An absolute must play.
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