Mega Man X is one of the Super Nintendo’s best combinations of action and platforming; even if for those who are familiar with what came before it, the game may wind up feeling like it is too safe for its own good
The year is 2120, about one hundred years after the events of the original Mega Man games. Dr. Cain, an archaeologist, stumbles upon the ruins of what was once the facility of Dr. Thomas Light, Mega Man’s creator. In it, he finds a capsule that contains the scientist’s most advanced invention: X, a robot capable of reasoning, feeling emotions, and having free will, which was preserved in such a state so that a diagnosis program could attest to the correct development of those abilities following a long period of hibernation. Dr. Cain studies the robot and decides to replicate it.
However, given these mass-produced copies, called Reploids, are able to choose their own path, many of them turn to crime. Human citizens begin to call them Mavericks and the government is soon pressured to act, and it does so by, with the help of Dr. Cain, organizing a special group of robots to hunt the Mavericks down. Led by Sigma, a Reploid whose refined programming supposedly gives him immunity to developing the behavior of a criminal, these Hunters fall apart when Sigma goes rogue. He then takes full control of an island by getting rid of all its human inhabitants; and announces his plan to destroy humanity, which he deems to be inferior to Reploids.
It is under these circumstances that X, carrying the guilt of being the source of the knowledge that allowed the building of Reploids and triggered chaos, is summoned to take on the role of a Hunter. And, like that, the Mega Man franchise takes its first steps into the world of 16-bit gaming with the Super Nintendo’s Mega Man X, a title that, although greatly enjoyable, alternates moments in which it uses the technological leap that supports it in significant ways with occasions when it seems to miss big opportunities to push its gameplay forward. In terms of the former, it is easy to point to its graphics and sound.
The charming pixelated visuals of the six 8-bit installments of the series are replaced with a look that is, in every sense, far more detailed: its sprites rank among the system’s finest; its effects add excitement to all the shooting; and the dark or monochromatic backgrounds of the game’s predecessors give way to multi-layered beauties. Meanwhile, its music, using a wider palette of sounds, is – despite not being as spectacular as that of the best NES Mega Man games – absolutely worthy of a series that has always displayed excellence and plenty of catchy hooks in its compositions.
Everywhere else, though, Mega Man X presents problems. Truthfully, they are not problems in the traditional sense of the word, for rarely – if ever – do they hinder players’ enjoyment, as the whole package amounts to not only an excellent Mega Man game, but also to one of the best platformers of its era. Nevertheless, whereas numerous classic properties of the 8-bit world took advantage of the coming of a new generation of consoles to, besides technically improving, expand their gameplay considerably, Mega Man – even following six NES games that adhered to the same rules – opted to stand precisely where it was.
Mega Man X does try to put forth a handful of new ideas, but in most cases they either are very superficial or come off as if developers were not fully committed to making them materialize in a truly meaningful way. As such, those who have been through the 8-bit originals can fall victim to feeling like the game is moving but standing mostly still, while gamers who come into it with little knowledge of what a Mega Man adventure is exactly are more likely to have a thoroughly enjoyable time.
Where most Mega Man games start by quickly launching players towards a screen on which the faces of eight brand new robot bosses are shown with all the well-deserved pomp and circumstance, Mega Man X kicks off by sending its protagonist across a chaotic urban landscape. The Mavericks are on the loose, wreaking havoc across a huge metropolis, and X is trying to control the situation.
In this introductory stage, it is possible to witness pretty much the sole non-technical evolution with which the game actually goes through: its storytelling, and the results are great. Because while the NES games were mostly silent and brutal journeys towards the finish line, Mega Man X uses a pleasant rate of dialogues and cinematics to give depth to its characters and life to the happenings it depicts. As they are either extremely brief or concentrated at the start and end of the game, they never detract from the action, but they do wonders to give the quest a bit of a heart and some interesting themes.
It is only after that flashy and satisfying beginning that Mega Man X does exactly what is expected from it, which is show the eight Mavericks the hero must defeat before storming the fortress, divided into four parts, where the final boss lies. It is precisely the same structure that gave life to its six NES counterparts, and Mega Man X executes it splendidly. The eight robot bosses are incredibly designed; given their looks, this time around, are based on those of animals, Capcom was able to take those organic creatures and turn them into mean menacing killing machines that are as remarkable as they are likable. Furthermore, as usual, each one of them is preceded by a stage, and not only are those levels themed quite well according to the nature of the robot sitting at their end, but they also present the usual Mega Man combination of tight platforming with a great deal of action.
Mega Man X translates that gameplay to the Super Nintendo quite finely. The stages are fast-paced tests that throw numerous enemies on the screen, and the balance between jumping and shooting is precise. The foes are quite diverse, and although getting rid of them ultimately amounts to the performance of one action, which is blasting them with the hero’s plasma canon, their arsenal gives them variety, as all minor evil robots have (in addition to very intriguing mechanical designs) their own distinctive attack patterns, and gamers have to learn them in order to get through to the end of the levels without taking much damage.
The game is at its best when it joins platforming with the foes, using the bad guys as extra obstacles that either make tough jumps slightly harder or that force players to perform tougher tricks, such as using X’s wall-jumping ability, a new element to the franchise, while shooting. The sole annoyance that comes from the stage design lies in how enemies reset as soon as they move out of the screen, even if just by one inch; as such, when navigating through those harsher segments, it is very common – and frustrating – to destroy a robot only to have them reappear right away because their re-spawning point was out of view for a second and by a millimeter, hence eliminating whatever progress had been achieved.
Despite that general great degree of design, which produces thrill and excitement, Mega Man X suffers from how, ultimately, it only has eleven stages – if those inside the final boss’ lair are counted. It is true that it is the same exact number of levels held by pretty much all its prequels, but in comparison to what other platformers of its time had to offer in terms of value, it is a very shy quantity. Additionally, the Mega Man games had always extracted length out of massive challenge: their levels had to be replayed multiple times in order to be cleared, since their traps were often so evil they had to be memorized.
That does not apply to Mega Man X, because its courses are not that difficult, which should at least be a relief for newcomers. There are deadly spikes that kill immediately when touched, there are a few fun mid-stage bosses that pose big threats, and there are a couple of nerve-racking platforming portions that drop the protagonist into bottomless pits if he fails. However, getting to each of the Mavericks can be done after a few tries, especially by more experienced players.
To be fair, the Mavericks themselves are – as the norm dictates – frequently very hard: their attack patterns are fast, varied, hard to avoid, and quite wild; moreover, while their weapons damage X considerably, his plasma canon does little harm against their armor. Due to that, memorizing their moves and finding a way to beat them is bound to require gamers to go through the stages a handful of extra instances, a task that can add some time to the experience when one considers that, if all lives are lost, players lose the well-placed checkpoint that comes right before all battles against robot bosses, being therefore made to start the level from scratch. Nonetheless, as usual, defeating a boss allows X to add the Maverick’s weapon to his arsenal, and given each one of them has a specific weakness to the weapon of another, figuring the right one to use will go a long way towards making the activity of beating them easier.
To avoid the risk of being too brief that surrounds it, Mega Man X tries to give legs to its gameplay in a number of ways. Firstly, all eight regular stages have, hidden in them, one energy tank that will cause the hero’s health meter to expand by two units. Not only are these well-concealed, but many times they require certain weapons to be reached, which is bound to force additional level replays. Fortunately, though, the process of finding and getting them, which can get a bit cumbersome, is made more efficient because not only is it possible to exit the stage as soon as the item is acquired, but also due to how the Mavericks, after being beaten once, completely disappear, eliminating the need to fight the bad guy every time. Secondly, some levels also feature sub-tanks, which can be stored and used to refill X’s health when necessary; a quite useful asset to carry when facing the gruesome sequence of bosses that closes out the game.
Although those two extra elements are perfectly fine, Mega Man X introduces a couple of other quirks that are not as fully realized. The first one, which can also be found tucked away in some stages, comes in the form of four advanced pieces of equipment, which are: a more resistant armor, a more powerful blaster that can be charged for a longer period of time, a helmet that breaks special bricks, and the ability to dash. The armor and the charged shot are undeniably useful. Contrarily, the helmet is bafflingly underused. And it feels forced to make the dash, which was a regular ability first seen in Mega Man 3, an unlockable skill; so much, in fact, that its hiding place is in plain sight and missing it is not a possibility at all.
The second new gameplay twist is that after certain bosses are beaten, a few changes happen in a couple of levels; for example, defeating Chill Penguin causes a portion of Flame Mammoth’s stronghold to be frozen. It is a cool touch, but the issue here is that besides not being a more present feature (as there are only three such alterations), those effects – though usually meaningful, as they can make levels significantly easier or harder – occur in such a low-key manner they are likely to be ignored by most, which makes the implementation of the quirk feel half-baked.
Consequently, Mega Man X is the particular kind of game that, at the same time, succeeds because it is too similar to what came before it while also struggling for that same reason. Its levels are finely designed and its bosses are utterly memorable, supporting a gameplay experience that is undeniably enjoyable; however, as the franchise was leaping between generations, it is partially disappointing to see it remained strongly attached to its 8-bit roots. While many major gaming properties took advantage of the arrival of a new era to expand their reach, try out new ideas, or simply mature, Mega Man stood pat.
With a decreased level of difficulty when compared to its NES counterparts, the value of the package of eight robot bosses it offered grew shorter; and although it does try some new tricks to give more depth to its content, a couple of them are not fully realized. Regardless of those shortcomings, though, Mega Man X is one of the Super Nintendo’s best combinations of action and platforming. Even if for those who are familiar with what came before it, the game may wind up feeling like it is too safe for its own good.