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Parsing the Threads Between Games. Part 1: Mega Man X


     With the upcoming release of Mighty No. 9 and Azure Striker Gunvolt, we can look back at the work of the creative people at Inti Creates and Comcept to get a sense of how their older games of this style are used to inform their newer releases. This has also been the consistent thread that has run throughout the Mega Man franchise from the beginning. Each title creates an experience based on a few core play mechanics (run, jump, shoot), and explores mild variations (boss powers, upgrades, mobility). But every so often, they make a major breakthrough in the gameplay and feel of the franchise. With this in mind, I look back at the Mega Man X series on the SNES and Playstation/2, emphasizing the first two.

     I'm not going to go into each game and discuss their component parts, like a review. I'm going to look at the games holistically and focus on changes in the gameplay experience. It may be subjective, but hopefully the approach is general enough to highlight specific advances over a series.

     Mega Man X was released on the SNES in 1993, the same year that Mega Man 6 was released on the NES. This is a clear transition point, no more Mega Man games would be natively released for an 8-bit system. Even Mega Man 7 and 8 (released in 1995 and 1996) were 16-bit games. But the X series was king of the Super Nintendo. It lasted until 2004, X8, progressing through the 32-bit era to have its final releases on the Playstation 2. This umbrella of Mega Man X covers series developments like the Mega Man Xtreme games, Mega Man X Command Mission, the Mega Man Legends games, all but one of the Mega Man Battle Network games, and even overlapping the first two Mega Man Zero GBA games. For a long time, Mega Man was a key supporting pillar of Capcom's portfolio.

     I begin with Mega Man X because it was the first time in this series that its older mechanics were applied, and expanded, in ways that demanded a rethinking of the games design approach. The original Mega Man series on the NES generally stuck with the basic concept that Mega Man would grow by acquiring Dr. Wily's Boss Robots powers, and occasional use unique powers (remember Rush the Dog?). You choose the order you take on the stages, and you strategize about how the Robot Boss powers fit into a rock/paper/scissors pattern. Mega Man himself improved over the course of the series, he would eventually get a slide and the ability to charge his bullets: the Buster Shot. But only with each new title. In contrast, Mega Man X has the opportunity to not only rob the bosses of their powers, but he can improve himself within the context of a single game. Your abilities as X, standard abilities, at the beginning of the game cannot compare to your capabilities by the end of the game. The biggest reason for this, and the reason that Mega Man X significantly develops the franchise, is mobility and momentum.

This is a speed run by a world ranking player, the actual run starts at 4:38. Take notice of how much the game speeds up, and how much more the player is able to do once he gets the dash upgrade (starts at 8:15)

     X's implementation of the dash mechanic changed the speed of the Mega Man franchise. It was present in older Mega Man titles, but being able to use your momentum to speed up and extend your jump required the levels to be designed differently. Gradual ramps are in most levels to allow you to use this ability to charge through the stages in a way that you weren't able to do in the original series. You can also wall jump, which liberates you from the need to rely on flat platforms to ascend into a level, now all you need is a vertical surface. These two thing combined, the momentum of the dash and the wall jump, meant that the X series has stages that focused on speedy, focused vertical and horizontal design. And early on, it's done brilliantly. Like the old Mega Man games, mini bosses sometimes punctuate the stages; but this time they aren't always simply large enemies, but unique and thematic enemies that more closely resemble the boss battles.

     Mega Man X and Mega Man X2 are both wonderfully executed games, if you have not played either of them, you should. Mega Man X2 is my preference, but I recognize that it's because it was the game that I owned as a child. My friend had Mega Man X, so I played it a little, but X2 was the game that I slammed against my head for years. Looking at the whole franchise, Mega Man X is clearly the more influential and more significant release. Mega Man X2 was based on the same foundational mechanics, with slight variation to story development and unique upgrades. It was, at best, developmental. At worst, iterative.

     Mega Man X2 is more difficult than its predecessor. This is for three reasons, two of which are why X2 is important... it shows a trend in the franchise. First, X's armor upgrade. Simply put, in the original X game, it halves all damage, making most of the early and mid game a functional "easy" mode. You get no such boon in X2: your armor periodically charges, based on hits taken, to release a massive explosion. The second and third reasons are the things that make X2 important to tracking the franchise. X2 assumes that you've played the previous game and it changes the way the story unfold through mini-bosses and cinematics appropriate to the hardware. 

     My major reason that I think X2 assumes you've played X; because you have the dash from the beginning, and not earned through an upgrade, all of the eight Boss Maverick stages are designed under that assumption of X's mobility. The other reason I believe X2 is more difficult is the potential for the X-Hunter encounters. 

     Zero's three major parts get stolen by the antagonists, and you have the option to choose a stage that they are in, find their secret room, and duel them for Zero's parts. Then you still have to complete the level. Not only does this require you to fight another boss, but likely means you are going to have to use valuable energy tanks. If you don't get his parts, it means an additional mini boss in the last stage. You can stop and farm energy to refill your tanks, but this displays an exploit that is to the detriment of X2's gameplay. And for me, why I think Mega Man X is, as objectively as I can be, the better designed game. More significantly, it continues with the old Mega Man trend of slowly augmenting the play mechanics, but it also shows other important trends. It assumes you've played the previous games and it gradually focuses more on story.

     The later Mega Man X games deserve a nod as well. X3 was the last entry on the Super Nintendo, and continued the two major trends of X2. But this time around, some of the mini-optional-bosses require certain attacks to completely defeat them. You can earn the Z-Sabre, but only if you use Zero to beat a certain boss, and let him be sacrificed (as always happens if he dies while selected). While this can lead to more interesting, and dynamic story moments... it expects the player to have a deep knowledge of the game, ostensibly through repetition and experiment. Mega Man X3 is a good game and worth your time, but it is not a step forward for Mega Man X, it's a step sideways. Mega Man X4 was the first X game designed for a disc based system (Saturn and Playstation). But more importantly, it let you use Zero in a way that would become a gameplay staple in the franchises future: you can play the game as Zero but you primarily use his sword for combat, not a projectile. This is a shift that continues to develop in the X sequels, but then fundamentally alters the design of the Mega Man Zero series and heavily influences the ZX games. Mega Man X4 is also notable because it attempts to shift its focus more towards storytelling (through terrible cutscenes). X4 is still arguably a good game, replayable today, but the series continued to go downhill from there. Why it went downhill is another topic entirely. A last notable feature is Axel as a character in X7. He's significant because he transforms, completely, into the defeated enemy. That's an element we will see later games. Besides that, all I will say is this about Mega Man X5 through X8; I burned through them in a few hours, for perspective, and I wish I had those hours back.

youtube media from: Carls493, ermacownedyou, Tiki G, Silent Len, and SpeedDemosArchiveSDA

Next Time: Mega Man Zero!

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About Thumb Scarone of us since 11:57 AM on 02.25.2014

Been gaming since the NES days. I remember computers, before the internet. My motivation to learn how to read was to play Final Fantasy. Games have, wonderfully, helped shape my life. I love games, history, writing and discussion. Pursuing that is the goal.

I've played games on Nintendo consoles for most of my life, but branched out into PC gaming and Playstation by the mid-90's. Current platforms: Wii U, 3DS, Steam. Typically playing: 5e D&D, tabletop games, and a backlog of retro games.

We live in interesting times. I can't wait to see where the industry goes next.