Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at a once-enormous action series with an in-depth science fiction plot.
#31. MEGA MAN X series, by Chris Hepburn
While the original Mega Man games changed the face of the platformer genre and became beloved by most, the Mega Man X series did more to create and solidify some of the best action platforming in games. Countless games now look back at the Mega Man X series as a reference point due to the fantastic platforming fundamentals the titles showed.
What makes the X series better than the original was the addition of the dashing and wall jumps; these opened up a plethora of new level design options for the developers to use. Additions such as hidden items that can only be found by risking one’s life—for example, sliding down the side of a fatal drop—diversified the Mega Man palette, adding a fresh sense of risk and reward. Enemy encounters also became much more elaborate, from forcing players to use wall grabs to avoid bullet hell-inspired attacks, to ensuring that dashing was used to save one’s robo-hide from devastating enemy abilities, or even jumping between multiple flying projectiles. In essence, Mega Man X made players feel like an action movie hero.
Especially interesting aspects of the level design were how drastically different the themes can be for each while still feeling like a traditional Mega Man X game. In the first title, levels changed depending on what bosses were defeated, such as defeating Storm Eagle meant a giant flying ship would crash into the Spark Mandrill level, cutting power to the first portion of the area. This was a great way to make players re-explore stages in an attempt to find items.
Unfortunately this was a feature that was not seen again. Though helping to kick Mega Man X off with a unique twist, changing the levels depending on order of completion might have resulted in more work and confusion for the developers than was feasible, as the concept was disregarded for the rest of the series.
The gameplay for the X series is highly responsive and engaging; while the games are hard, they are never unfair. With practice and patience, the games become much more manageable while also being tough enough to offer replayability.
X can use a normal Buster Shot and Charge Shot, and with the destruction of a robot master X then gains one of their abilities, opening up many new ways to play and experiment, especially when each boss is weak to another. Abilities also open up new areas in levels, making each place worth going back to.
Many games overstay their welcome or do not last long enough to satisfy players. Mega Man X offers a great blend of action and length to please people. After a playthrough or two, the games can be completed in a few hours, as most of the time at the beginning dedicated to exploring and learning the specifics of each game. As the player gains knowledge of the patterns, placement, and items in a given title, the game transforms into being about how to best optimize a playthrough, or how to change it up to offer a challenge.
Original Mega Man games were light on the story, each sequel following more-or-less the same structure, yet Mega Man X managed to incorporate a heavier story and still being able to make new entries that made sense. Mega Man X‘s big bad guy is neither a scientist, nor a specific robot, but a virus, an ideology, and a plague all in one.
Sigma, also known as the Sigma/Maverick/Wily-Virus, had a righteous ideology of protecting people and the sanctity of life; focused on robots and humans living together. Eventually, this twisted into a plague that turned humanity’s creation against them as they were deemed an “inferior race.”
Pitting the pacifist X, who wants peace, against a twisted and ultimately manipulative virus established an endearing and captivating relationship between protagonist and antagonist, as Sigma becomes a recurring enemy through the whole series.
In the X series, Zero stands in for Proto Man, in the same way X himself takes the place of the original blue bomber. Zero is seen as an inspirational figure to X and a sympathetic, exciting character for the player to connect to, being a stronger warrior at higher rank, with a more brutish attitude. Like Sigma, Zero also continued to be important through the series as much of the mystery behind him becomes unravelled, including how he is affected by the Sigma virus.
Like the best science fiction stories about robots—and many similar anime series and movies such as Astro Boy—Mega Man X delves into questions of what it means to be human and how a synthetic human can be expected to interact with the world. Neither Zero nor X were taught how-to-be by their creators, but instead formed their own being. Far better than the perfunctory story of the original Mega Man series, the struggles of these characters and their independence as robotic creations carries legitimate dramatic weight.
Inevitably, Zero became a playable character in Mega Man X4. The game was built like any other previous title and played amazingly well with the two different types of character. Zero plays up close and personal, chopping away at enemies and gaining new sword attacks, such as fire uppercuts and flips that turn him into a spinning saw blade of death. Just like X’s abilities, Zero’s new sword and element abilities can be used to access new areas. This dual-protagonist setup empowered Capcom to give the games more replay value, as the interactions were different depending on which character was selected.
Later entries in the series took what made the games amazing and expanded into new areas; exploring ways to enhance the design philosophy of Mega Man, and though Capcom did not always execute this properly it was a learning experience which only made it a stronger studio.
The first big step had been the new movement mechanics and a larger, more thought-provoking story. In level design, the X series was in some ways closer to the ‘Metroidvania’ genre than the original series. With X4, the developers added the ability to play as multiple characters, and later the implemention of 3D. The many varied levels of Mega Man X even saw X and friends riding vehicles to add variety to the jump-and-shoot gameplay.
With Mega Man X7, the story would show off the future technology of the robots with the addition of Axl as the third playable character—but the game was critically panned for trying to include elements of 3D in the gameplay. X8 would improve on these areas, but the series had taken a blow and regrettably came to an end.
The series saw spin-off entries such as Mega Man Xtreme 1 and 2, Game Boy Color titles that managed to hold onto what made the home console games special. On the PlayStation 2, X was even given his first full JRPG: Mega Man X: Command Mission, taking him, along with Zero and Axl, to a new area for a game that was wholly unique to the series.
The series also spun off into the Mega Man Zero games on the Game Boy Advance, which reversed the X series’s dynamic with an amnesiac Zero and X as his mentor and guardian. The new series was somewhat more of an open-world, while keeping the amazing gameplay from the X series and delving into the story of what happened after both the initial war with Sigma and the Cyber Elf War. This, of course, resulted in fans screaming for answers, as Capcom has not revealed the official timeline of the series.
Sadly, Capcom has continued to make games based on the original Mega Man instead of the X series, and has declined to continue the story for fans who want to know more about the Cyber Elf Wars. The original is a classic, yes, but the X series has done far more in its evolution of the series from story to mechanics to be forgotten.
Perhaps the story is what stops Capcom from making a sequel, as most gamers now may not know the story of X’s infamous battles with the Reploid Army, his infected friends, and the incredibly well-written Sigma Virus. The recently released Mega Man X Collection 1 and 2 may be just what gamers need, to show Capcom that fans want more of the series.
Thanks for joining us this week for a sprawling series that we hope will not be forgotten by time. Do you have a favourite series that you wish had another chance to answer its long-lasting questions? Why not share in the comments, and we will see you next week on OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games for an important story-based game that might finally see a definitive ending.