Looking Back: Mega Man X

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As part of our celebration of the Mega Man series hitting its 25th anniversary, we are featuring a look back at many of the games of the X series. For this entry, I’ll be looking at Mega Man X.

I will admit this up front: I'm a total sucker for the Classic series. That being said, the series features some of the best game design out of Capcom. Unfortunately, it also features some of the absolute worst. Luckily for everyone involved, this first installment of the series is a fantastic piece of platforming goodness, I can breeze through this retrospective without much fuss. 

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By now, most people have seen the Sequelitis episode that compares classic Mega Man and Mega Man X  (warning: some language NSFW) and thus understands how absolutely genius Capcom was with introducing the new abilities in the series in the antepiece-loaded highway intro level. Being not just a new Mega Man series but the first new Mega Man  series since the original, there was a peculiar problem that confounded Inafune and friends in 1993: On one hand, there had to be enough elements carried over from the classic series in order to maintain interest from long-time fans and to really call itself a Mega Man  game. On the other hand, there had to be radical changes to many aspects of the series in order to really justify its existence as something more than a Darker and Edgier retreading of its NES source material.

Luckily for everyone involved, Mega Man X does a stupidly good job at carrying over aspects of the original series while doing some things radically different. Beyond the upgrade to the 16-bit SNES, replaces the Classic series' more stop-and-start story with a more fleshed out story, complete with melodramatic cut scenes and the saddest on-screen death of any character this side of Ballade. It trades the eight Robot Masters with more creative animal-inspired Mavericks and replaces Dr. Wily with the slightly more psychotic and scary Sigma, and the Maverick Virus in general.

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The greatest change is the flow of the games over its thirteen levels and how the titular character undergoes a transformation into a force to be reckoned with. In the (new) opening level, not only does the player get to discover the new abilities X has such as wall-jumping, the player realizes that X is just weak. His life bar is tiny and he gets served pretty solidly by the level's boss before he is saved by veteran Maverick Hunter and immediate fan favorite, Zero. In this way, it is clear that not only is X sort of weak, but that at least a handful of important characters are far stronger than our little blue friend. How the game unfolds not just in story but in showing the limitations of our avatar and the hints it gives about how to grow in strength and speed.

Through the eight Maverick levels that make up the bulk of the game, the player's mind is not just on discovering the weakness order but on figuring out how to make X strong. The player is forced into the new armor upgrade system by being forced into upgrading the boots because the armor upgrade is unavoidable in the very level that the select screen cursor has a a default. It is here that Dr. Light's hologram tells the player directly that there are other similar capsules with other upgrades for this new Blue Bomber. Other upgrades are a little less explicit, but I would like to think that most players can deduce that X's life bar can be expanded to look like the Maverick bosses, and with a little experimenting with just the dash boots or simply wandering about certain parts of levels (like Spark Mandrill and Flame Mammoth), players can find several tanks. Same goes with the Sub-Tanks whose passageways tend to be a bit less hidden (like Storm Eagle's).

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So all in all, there are sixteen (regular) different upgrades players can find and each makes X stronger and thus makes the levels a bit more manageable. In this way, the flow of Mega Man X  is dramatically different than the classic series. Up to MMX 's release in 1993, the Classic games were far simpler, focusing on simply running, jumping, and shooting your way through the eight Robot Masters and using Special Weapons to augment Mega Man's ever-increasing set of default abilities such as the slide and Mega Buster. In some ways, MMX borrows this incentive to find upgrades hidden in levels and the progression from pathetic blue wannabe to white-armored superhero from games like Metroid, and most RPGs.

With all these upgrades to find in the eight Maverick levels, it's a good thing that Mega Man X 's levels are all designed superbly. As mentioned above, there are hints both implicit and explicit about the upgrades X can receive and the locations of these upgrades are given away in small hints. Whether it be an odd ledge or breakable blocks, breakable bunkers, or odd bottomless caverns, Mega Man X  designs its levels to force players to experiment and consider the mechanics of the abilities they can acquire and think about what effects can benefit them. It is this plethora of important yet hidden items that gives greater purpose to the sometimes zany charged-up versions of the Maverick weapons X acquires. Using the buster upgrade, X can create a fast-sliding platform, a huge tornado, and a destructive firestorm that can blow up certain objects. The game does a considerably good job at showing players things that they cannot do, but with a little creativity, the average player will discover that these chargeable weapons can help further X's strengths in other areas.

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An aspect of Mega Man X that does not get enough consideration is how defeating certain Mavericks will influence other levels. Storm Eagle's jet (first seen in the opening level, actually) crash-lands in Spark Mandrill's level following the avian foe's fall, disrupting the electric currents that would otherwise damage X and opening up new parts of the level. Defeating Launch Octopus leads to a flooding of Sting Chameleon's level, allowing players to grab an otherwise unreachable heart tank. Likewise, Chill Penguin's destruction leads to Flame Mammoth's level losing much of its flowing lava, also allowing players to grab a heart tank that is nearly unreachable despite its very public location on the magma flow. These effects have gone unnoticed in a lot of retrospectives, but they show a greater understanding of how to create deviations in a game series that has the great strength of facilitating and welcoming player choice. Not only do players have to consider the weakness order of Mavericks and the multitude of hidden items, but the effects of defeating certain bosses and the priorities of finding particular upgrades are thus intertwined.

Speaking of the bosses, they are all a considerable step above both in design and complexity from their Robot Master ancestors. From grabbing the ceiling and shaking down spikes from above to a fight on a conveyor belt to avoiding getting blown off a jet, Sigma's lieutenants have fighting patterns that are as furious as they are varied. What is also interesting to note is that Mega Man X marks the first time bosses are dramatically changed by the weapons used on them. Some Mavericks lose their armor, others lose limbs, and some become frozen in place.

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The graphics are obviously a step above what we were used to with the NES games, with a new art direction accompanying this jump in quality. While the world of the series is not (yet) a crapsack world, there is definitely a darker tone to 21XX. The very first level is set on a ruined highway-the first of that kind of real world depiction we see in any Mega Man game. Likewise, unlike the Classic games that featured cute, large-eyeballed but malintentioned robots that simply disappeared after sufficient blasting, the baddies in the series have a propensity to explode in a bunch of parts. Heck, Robot Masters had it easy with disintegrating as they did-their Maverick decedents explode in flame and giant white explosions.

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The music and sound helped paint this new world. From Storm Eagle's blasting anthem to Armored Armadillo's appropriate manic and fast-paced tunes, Mega Man X  has music that is fitting for its bosses. In other realms, the music is not just great but complimentary to the evolving storyline. Sigma's first level has an appropriate sense of foreboding, as does the following level's track that not just recognizes Zero's demise but the continuing task that lies before X. Just so, the final two tracks of the game belies the shortening of distance between the player and the final showdown with Sigma. 

While the X series would wind up taking a lot of crazy turns and even more melodramatic and tiring twists, it is sort of remarkable in hindsight that Capcom decided to understate the connection of this game with its Classic forbearers. While the connection between the two series would become more explicit in later games, the quiet confidence Capcom took in not just hurling the series a hundred years into the future but with almost no story explanation with what exactly happened to the familiar cast of characters is something that is hard to imagine today. 

Indeed, as the Mega Man series begins its post-Inafune age and as Mighty No. 9 takes shape, both Capcom and Comcept face the same question they faced in 1993: How do we create radically new worlds for our players while maintaining the right foundation? As this question vexes both companies, they could do worse than to reflect on the first game that navigated these waters: Mega Man X. 

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Screenshot credits: GameFAQs, StrategyWiki and MMKB

James is a features contributor for The Mega Man Network. He is now back in the United States. Sometimes he updates his Tumblr.

The views expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Mega Man Network.