Mega Man’s Edgy Teen Years
Mega Man X is a title that is beloved by many. In fact, many would consider the early games in the X series to be among their favorite Mega Man titles. Releasing in 1994 in North America, this game was unique because it came out on the Super Nintendo directly before Mega Man 6 was released on the original Nintendo, creating two concurrent Mega Man series that seemed only tangentially connected. Would this gamble pay off for Capcom? Or were they starting to get too big and unwieldy, milking their franchises for all they were worth?
When I first started up Mega Man X, I had no idea what I was in for. I remember playing Mega Man II a lot on my brother’s NES when we were growing up, but back then, I really had no idea what the game was all about other than a blue robot and a bunch of really tough enemies. Booting it up, I was greeted with what looked like a computer login menu, which then lead to a diagnostic of Mega Man X and an emergency message left by Dr. Light himself. This first experience was enough to show me that the world of Mega Man X was going to be VERY different from the word of the classic Mega Man games.
Story-wise, the Mega Man X games take place around 100 years after the end of the classic Mega Man games, although details are fuzzy on what, exactly, happened to the original Mega Man at this time. Mega Man X was clearly created by Dr. Thomas Light and needed to be sealed away in a capsule for a minimum of 30 years to pass his diagnostics and prove he was not a threat to humankind; yet, he is not awakened until about 100 years afterwards by Dr. Cain, proving that he was forgotten about for some length of time. This brings up fascinating story possibilities right from the get-go, which was never a primary focus in the classic Mega Man games.
In fact, the way that story was presented in Mega Man X was very unique during this time. Right away, you are thrown into combat and learn about all of these different “reploids” (or “replica androids”), a type of robot that could conceivably have free will and demonstrate their own form of decision-making, even if it ran contrary to what humans wanted. Reploids who choose to rebel against humankind are deemed “Mavericks,” so hunters among the ranks of reploids were charged with the duty to fight back against the Mavericks for the sake of peace. Throughout the story, you interact with various characters and learn this backstory in a very organic manner, whether it’s through the animosity of Vile, the cunning of Sigma, or the friendship and heroics of Zero. Mega Man X has a great focus on these characters and other Mavericks throughout the entire game, and it really gives you reasons as to why these reploids went Maverick and rebelled against humanity.
Soundtracks during the early Super Nintendo era were a bit hit-or-miss, but make no mistake: the music in this game is simply phenomenal. Right from the introductory stage where you are learning the mechanics, you can tell a lot of love went into this first Mega Man title for the SNES. Composed by Capcom’s “Alph Lyla” in-house band, it was clear that this was the next evolution for Mega Man music. The combination of the rock-and-roll and metal musical themes with the SNES sound chip made for some extremely memorable music, with the clear standout being Zero’s theme song whenever he appears to help out X. This upbeat, heroic tune is as clear and distinct as Proto Man’s theme from the classic series, yet with more excitement and energy, showcasing that Zero was a completely new kind of character for this universe.
The gameplay is typical Mega Man fare, but feels like an upgrade in every kind of way. You are still traveling from left-to-right on a 2D plane, shooting enemies and gathering energy and power-ups along the way. The introduction of the upgrade system, however, really helps to differentiate this title among platformers at the time. As you are exploring different stages, you will come across a capsule leftover by Dr. Light. He will appear as a hologram and explain the purpose of each upgrade before you proceed. The four upgrades you get in this game change the dynamics of each level significantly, allowing you to dash faster, take more damage from enemies and the environment, or even charging and delivering a devastating energy blast from your arm cannon.
While stage selection is a staple of the franchise, Mega Man X had a key difference in the type of progression you made from stage-to-stage. There were times when your actions in one stage will actually change the layout of another, leading you to more upgrades or an easier way of traversal through environmental hazards. For example, if you beat Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth’s fire-based stage will actually be frozen over in areas, making it easier to get through. This type of dynamic change between levels really helps the player to feel like there is a sense of connectedness in the game beyond boss weaknesses, and it certainly helps to encourage me to do replays of the game to try to find all of these little secrets and changes.
If you want to play Mega Man X nowadays, there are so many ways to do so! The most convenient method is to pick up a copy of the Mega Man X Legacy Collection and play the original SNES version that way; however, if you have a PSP or Vita, there is a full remake titled Maverick Hunter X that adds extra story bits and a short animated movie that really helps to fill the gaps in the plot.
To this day, I go back and replay Mega Man X at least once a year. To be honest, I started just the other day for the purpose of this retrospective and I simply couldn’t put it down. It is one of those games that truly stand the test of time, not hindered by archaic control schemes or being lost forever on a hard-to-find console. It is easy to start, but hard to master, and perfect for those who want a retro experience that isn’t TOO retro and stuck in its ways. With its intriguing storyline and compelling character interactions and morality, it will truly be a gaming experience that will make you ask, “WHAT AM I FIGHTING FOOOOOOR!?”