The Mega Man series was absolutely massive back on the NES. I can’t think of any other series that managed to cram six mainline titles in its franchise onto one piece of hardware unless we are going to cheat and include the PC. When the Super Nintendo came along though and Capcom was finally willing to put its NES development to bed, they wanted to do something new with a series whose parts had been pretty set in stone up until then. Along came Mega Man X, a rejuvenation of the series and a split off into its own franchise that, while having many ingredients from the original Mega Man titles, managed to feel like something new, separate, and a lot more action-focused.
Mega Man X takes place far off in the future. Mega Man X the character was created as a test of integrating free will into robots, but when someone else uncovered and duplicated his programming with little caution, some of these other robots known as Reploids misused their free will and would end up becoming rogue criminals deemed Mavericks. X, along with fellow Maverick Hunter Zero, now must take down eight such Mavericks, their leader Sigma and his right hand man Vile, and a lot of generic robot enemies that also somehow fit into things presumably. The game itself has a few scenes to sort of suggest at its greater plot, but for the most part, Mega Man X drops the ball on telling its slightly more serious story, to the point Sigma, the main antagonist, can seem to have come out of nowhere without any outside knowledge. Thankfully, Mega Man X doesn’t need much in the way of explanation to teach the player its controls and their capabilities. Admittedly, other reviewers have overplayed how well the first level of Mega Man X works at teaching the player how the game works (there are certain players who will never intuit a wall jump even if they’re trapped in a pit for hours), but it does serve as pretty good preparation for the game that lies ahead.
Mega Man X is an action platformer where you start off with just a chargeable arm cannon but can unlock new weapons and upgrades throughout the course of the game. For some reason I personally have a self-imposed challenge of trying to beat Mega Man games with just the default Mega Buster as my only weapon, and I did actually manage to complete Mega Man X in my first run with it despite how difficult that sometimes ended up being, but the upgrades are certainly a lot of fun and shouldn’t be ignored unless you are specifically going for some sort of challenge run. After the opening stage, the game presents you with eight levels that you can challenge in any order, but that idea is a bit disingenuous. The dash power-up, one of the most pivotal pieces of X’s moveset, is only unlocked once you go to Chill Penguin’s stage, and some areas and fights are a lot more difficult or potentially even unbeatable until you get the dash. This is the only case where such an issue exists, but the stage order you pick can lead to some interesting interactions with both the stage designs themselves and the Mavericks you face at the end of them. When you defeat one of the animal-themed Maverick bosses, one of their weapons is added to your arsenal, and you can shift to that weapon any time and use it so long as you have the ammo. The eight weapons are a surprisingly good set, with unique aspects to each of them to give them different niches in the levels. For example, the Boomerang Cutter can be used to grab items just out of reach, the Storm Tornado is good for clearing lines of enemies, and the Shotgun Ice can bounce off of walls to take out shielded enemies from behind. On top of the weapons, the game also throws in upgrades scattered throughout the levels, mostly in the form of health expansions and the sub-tanks that store extra health you’ve gathered. There are also upgrade capsules besides the dash one that can make Mega Man X more durable and capable, and these secrets help make the levels have a bit more depth to them and can even give a reason to return to them after you’ve defeated that stage’s boss.
The weapons can also be used against the other bosses, with each one having a weakness to one of the other Maverick’s weapons. However, some of the weapons do a bit of a disservice to what can otherwise be a pretty interesting battle where your dodging ability could have been put to the test. Luckily for me, I only fluidly discovered the weaknesses of Sting Chameleon and Armored Armadillo, the two bosses who seem to demand their weaknesses a lot more loudly. The thing is, the weaknesses often make quick work of the boss if you’ve figured them out, and the reason this is a bad thing is that most levels are pretty much just build-ups to the boss battle. The stages have rather basic designs to them, with the generic enemies packing too little punch to serve as challenges and those same enemies dropping too many health pick-ups that it’s not difficult to farm them to recover from getting hit. Some areas will have instant death pits or spikes, but the game is rather kind in their placement and thus the stage itself tends to be about getting to the boss with as much health as possible while trying to find any secrets along the way. It doesn’t help either that Mega Man X is merciful in starting you at the boss chamber if you die, and while a game over will make you restart the entire stage, that health preservation isn’t so important as long as you have an extra life with you. That second life will put you back at the start of the boss chamber with full health, so the health preservation angle disappears completely! The stages thankfully aren’t boring despite being basic, they’re just not all that challenging. They do often contain minibosses that can at least serve as a bit of a roadblock to progress and a microcosm of challenge. Quite nicely, depending on the order you play the stages in, you can see the influences of beating one stage before another. The fire level freezes over after beating Chill Penguin’s ice stage and the forest level can flood if you take on the water level first, but these are small and rare touches unfortunately.
One thing I quite like about Mega Man X compared to some of the Mega Man titles is how it handles the final stages and the series standard boss rush. Besides the password system that can drop you in at the start of any level, Mega Man X also spaces out its boss rush between the stages that unlock after the initial eight. Rather than a grueling gauntlet, it’s actually fun to face your old foes again mixed in with some new bosses as well. The final boss tips a bit too hard towards difficulty rather than fun, but for the most part, Mega Man X, even when it’s easy, manages to make shooting and avoiding damage a thrill. Figuring out how your new weapons can interact with bosses and stages adds an extra layer to that experience, although I still recommend the weaponless run to anyone who wants to make the boss battles as exciting as they could have been.
THE VERDICT: While the original Mega Man series trends towards moments of precision platforming along with taking out enemies who serve as obstacles, Mega Man X focuses hard on the dynamic thrill of racing through stages and blasting baddies along the way. Since it is the first outing using this new approach, the game’s stages aren’t quite fit to put up a fight against the skills they’ve given you. Variety comes mostly in the form of what enemies you are quickly killing, what the miniboss might be, and some rather plain segments where you pilot a big punching mech instead. It’s easy to point at and say what makes the levels different, such as the mine carts in Armored Armadillo’s stage or the water areas in Launch Octopus’s, but they don’t really change the gameplay too much or challenge you in any unique way. Thankfully, the central gameplay design is still really fun on its own and the stages have just enough variety to them that it never grows stale.
And so, I give Mega Man X for the Super Nintendo…
A GREAT rating. While greater stage variety and stronger enemies and bosses could make Mega Man X better, what is presented to us is still a game that focused on making movement and shooting dynamic and thrilling and it delivers on that excellently. Visual design and music helps keep the levels feeling different even when their gimmicks are more related to those elements than providing unique challenges, but learning how your weapons interact with enemies and the world and using them to make yourself a more capable Maverick Hunter gives the game some solid progression despite the mostly free form level selection. Things are open to your involvement and your level of skill with what you have will determine whether or not you can take on certain stages and bosses before you have the weapons that will help you out, and there are just enough goodies hidden about to make exploration worthwhile and interesting despite the game’s push to make you blast through the levels quickly.
Mega Man X is an excellent experience, it just needed that extra oomph in its levels to really push it into exemplary territory. Still, there’s no denying that this branch off from the main series paid off with a wonderful game.