The 32-bit era were dark days for 2d gaming in the early years. Sony actively limited the number of 2d games released on their console and while the Saturn was a powerhouse in that department the Sega of that generation had their head too far up their ass to show it off. That Mega Man X4 was released in that period is something of a miracle but I guess it shouldn’t be surprising considering the relatively high profile of the series. Mega Man X4 introduced enough new elements to the series to reinvigorate the stagnating gameplay and while it isn’t necessarily the revolution the first game was it still remains one of the better action platformers of that generation.
Mega Man X4 was released in the fall of 1997 worldwide. Far more story driven than previous installments X4 follows X and Zero as they come into conflict with the Repliforce, a separate group of Maverick Hunters led by the General and his second in command, Colonel. The Repliforce are branded as dangerous and tensions escalate when the Sky Lagoon crashes and they are blamed. Rather than standing down and going into custody they instead choose to be branded as mavericks rather than abandon their ideals. X and Zero are dispatched to stop the rebellion and unveil the mastermind behind it all. Much like Mega Man 8 Capcom has loaded the game with FMV cut scenes to move the plot along and while grainy and saddled with terrible voice acting (good god the voice acting is bad!) are effective story telling tools.
If you are at all familiar with any game in the series you know what to expect. Heart tanks are available to increase your life bar, sub tanks refill life, and new to the series are the weapon tank and EX tank which refill weapon energy and increase the number of default lives respectively. At the start of the game you can choose to play as X or Zero and although you cover the same levels both have separate story arcs through the game with unique bosses and cut scenes. Playing as X is exactly what you would expect however Zero represents a complete paradigm shift.
The Mega Man games have always primarily been about long distance attacks and hitting the enemy before they reach you. Zero flips that premise and forces you to adapt to melee fighting. The Z-Saber trades long range attacks for power and technique. The 3 hit combo attack it possesses is devastating to enemies in a way the X-Buster lacks and is very rewarding at how fast you can clear a path through enemies. Rather than lifting the boss’s weapons Zero learns new techniques for his Saber, some that require energy but most are standard techniques that can be used infinitely and boost your offensive power.
Unfortunately that power comes at a cost since Zero does not receive any upgrades to his armor as well. Playing as Zero ups the challenge a bit, especially considering the game puts up quite a fight already. The secrets are very well hidden and the bosses will punish you if you do not learn their patterns or exploit their weaknesses. Despite that the game is more than worth powering through.
And its exceptionally pretty. Eschewing the cartoon look of Mega Man 8 X4 features many rendered sprites and elements to better portray its more “hard” edge look. Everything blows up in a spectacular shower of gears and sparks and the backgrounds exhibit the kinds of lavish detail Capcom was known for in the 2-d space. I preferred the rendered look here over the saccharine tone of MM8; that isn’t to say it wasn’t a beautiful game just that it bordered on childish at times. I know some people hate the rendered graphics and say it lacks the purity of traditional hand drawn art; fuck that. This is a phenomenal display of 2d power that was a virtual feast for the eyes during a time where most 3d games were low frame rate stuttering messes that seemed like they could collapse if you sneezed too loud.
It was a ballsy move by Capcom to stick to 2-d at a time when every franchise made the leap to 3d regardless of whether it made sense or not. While it can be argued that it was more of the same that isn’t necessarily a problem when the same old formula is so damn good. Two semi unique quests and a wealth of secrets give Mega Man X4 plenty of replay value and make it more than worth your gaming dollars.
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