Throughout the 16-bit era almost every major franchise saw an update. These iterations used the advanced features of the consoles of the time to really go to town and flesh out the original creators intentions. From Mario to Castlevania to the Ninja Turtles your favorite gaming heroes were stepping out in style. But one icon was curiously missing for the first half of that generation curiously enough. Capcom made no bones about whoring Mega Man out over the years (the mental image I just conjured is so wrong) so it was odd they were taking their time. As it turns out they were making sure their flagship character got the treatment he deserved.
Mega Man X was released at the tail end of 1993 in Japan and the beginning of ’94 for the US to universal acclaim. I spent almost $70 for the game and was nearly grounded for it but it was worth every penny. Just about everything you knew about Mega Man was thrown out as Capcom treated the X series as a new franchise. Why start over? By 1993 the original series was a sad and tired husk of its former self, having worn out its familiar formula through far too many installments. Establishing a new world allowed a clean break; without any constraints they were able to establish a new continuity with new characters and its own rules while at the same time keeping the elements gamers loved from the original series.
This new series takes place 100 years in the future and stars a new Mega Man created by Dr. Light but sealed away because he was too powerful. After being unearthed, X was used as the blueprint for a new series of robots that could think for themselves and had free will named Reploids. For a time peace reigned but a virus began to spread causing reploids around the world to go Maverick, thereby setting the stage for the series as we know it.
All of the familiar trappings from the original series return, but now have been expounded on and taken to the extreme. The level and number of improvements to the formulaic pattern the Mega Man series has followed are absolutely staggering. The stage select is here in all its glory but now the levels are absolutely massive. All of the added space is there for a reason: there are numerous power ups to collect this time around. Heart Tanks to increase your life bar, Energy tanks and the biggest addition: new parts for your armor. These capsules hidden by Dr. Light boost facets of your armor and are necessary if you want to find all of the hidden items.
But what truly makes the game special is the attention to detail. The boss weapons you receive all have a secondary function when used in combination with your buster upgrade. Charging them up and using them together is fun and will have you scrambling to see if that ledge you couldn’t reach before is now accessible. The locations of some of the secrets are downright clever at times, challenging you to sometimes break your ingrained gaming knowledge to find them. The order in which you complete the stages has even greater meaning, as killing one boss will drastically affect another level completely. For instance, if you defeat Chill Penguin first, all of the lava and fire in Flame Mammoth’s stage is now frozen. These little details all combine to give a richer experience.
There is far more story in the game than in previous MM games. Mega Man X is not a silent protagonist and through his interactions with Zero you get a sense of his character and their camaraderie. The bosses you face were normal Reploid citizens infected by the virus who have since gone Maverick rather than being robots built for the express purpose of fighting you, and to a degree you feel for them as you have to put them down. The added complexity of the characters extends to the challenge. By the later installments of the Mega man series you could power through the game off the strength of the Mega Buster alone. Here that is nearly impossible, as even a fully powered shot barely makes a dent in their HP. Becoming familiar with the workings of each weapon is necessary, and as a bonus, nailing a boss with their weakness will usually produce special animations such as Armored Armadillo losing his armor or Spark Mandrill becoming frozen in place.
The graphics are outstanding with expertly drawn backgrounds and awesome robot designs. The art style used for the Mega Man X series is a bit more “adult” so to speak to further distinguish it from the classic series. The more mature tone has resulted in a darker shift in the graphics but not to the extent that you would cal it grim and gritty. While I’m not necessarily a fan of rock music, the soundtrack is too good for me to dismiss it. This is very much the next generation Mega Man game we were all awaiting.
The only question remaining is: what took them so long? Games of this caliber aren’t released very frequently but when they are it truly is an event. Mega Man X totally does its heritage justice and ushered in a new age for Capcom’s mascot. This was the shot in the arm the series badly needed and should be played by everyone.