Sunday, January 9, 2011

Game Review: The Mega Man X Series, Part II

Part two of my look at the illustrious Mega Man X series will cover games 4 through 6. This trio took the series in a bit of a different, more modern (for their time) direction. Zero is playable and the games take on a distinct anime look for these three. A darker atmosphere and more badass demeanor in general sets these games apart from the first three in the series. Join me for a look back at these great relics from the Playstation era.

Mega Man X4

"What am I fighting FOOOOOOR?"

Playstation, 1997; Various re-releases on other systems in 200X

Publisher: Capcom

Developer: Capcom

Time to Complete: 2 to 4 hours

Mega Man X4 heralds the arrival of the X series on the 32 bit systems. It is a substantial upgrade from X3, incorporating some new abilities to the series as well as much improved graphics and sound. The music in this game is highly memorable, ranging from the energetic, fiery, and struggle-conveying volcano stage theme to the fast-moving, pulse-quickening military train stage theme. The sound effects themselves detract from the music a bit as they tend to be a bit overpowering in this installment; in particular, this game is the debut of the intensely obnoxious "WARNING" alarm before every boss fight. Some players might dig that, but I found it somewhat unnecessary.

Of course, the best new feature about this game is that, finally, Zero is playable for the entire game. He's got his own set of powers, ranging from the marginally useful (the dash-cut) to the very useful (the fire sword uppercut, the double jump). Playing as Zero (in a real way, X3's temporary Zero summon didn't really count) seriously sets this game apart from the first three, and helps to nearly catapult it to the heights the series reached early on. Zero may be a tremendously fun character to control, yet playing through the game as him is actually more difficult than playing through as X. Since X has range attacks and Zero uses a sword, you're required to completely overhaul how you approach the game; this especially goes for the boss fights, and the final boss in particular is very difficult in a Zero game. Zero is essentially the game's "hard mode", but it's so much fun that it doesn't seem like it.

The game itself is largely the same whether you're playing as X or Zero, with the same stages and (mostly - there is an exception or two) same bosses. The cutscenes differ between the two routes, as well as the endings. Despite the stages themselves being basically identical regardless of character, the game is different enough to be worth playing through as both characters - effectively doubling the amount of gameplay.

I never meant to give you mushrooms girl, I never meant to take you to my world!

Perhaps the biggest downside to this game is the incredibly bad voice acting. In cutscenes it's particularly atrocious; most of the time the voices don't synch up with the speaker's lips moving. The voices are difficult to understand and often embarassing to listen to. Capcom certainly could have sprung for some better voice acting and edited the cutscenes more effectively; if not, perhaps they could have done away with needing voices in the game altogether. As it is, it seems like they went for a gimmick with their new 32-bit hardware, had it fall flat, and didn't bother to spend the time to fix it. The voice acting is the single worst thing about the game.

On the bright side, there are many improvements. For instance, collecting energy capsules now automatically adds a small amount of energy to your sub-tanks even if your energy meter isn't full. This makes sub-tank filling FAR less of a tedious task. Of course, if your character has full energy, you'll get the full amount of sub-tank energy from picking up capsules. Thus, it's still good to keep your energy full, but it won't be as frustrating if you take hits. Protip: The area right above the starting spot of Frost Walrus' stage is a primo place to fill sub-tanks, especially once the stage is cleared.

The intro stage boss has a unique, badass theme

The boss AI in this game is significantly, massively improved over that of Mega Man X3. However, no less than four of the eight initial bosses will dash back and forth mindlessly if hit with their weakness, which is disappointing. Still it's a lot better than X3, where more bosses than that dashed back and forth mindlessly for the entire battle. The bosses in this game require a fair amount of ingenuity to defeat; for the most part, there's a way to easily conquer each one if you set your mind to figuring out a pattern to exploit. This makes for some really fun battles.

In closing, X4 is a return to goodness after the sub-par X3. It is well-paced, fun, and utilizes the 32 bit hardware well. And then there's playing as Zero, which is a total blast. The powers he gets in this game are tremendously fun. This is another good reason to snag the Mega Man X Collection.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10


Mega Man X5

Could have been the champion

Playstation, 2001; Various re-releases on other systems in 200X

Publisher: Capcom

Developer: Capcom

Time to Complete: 1-3 hours

Mega Man X5 is a game with a huge amount of potential. Originally, it was slated to be the last installment in the series (until Capcom decided to milk it with X6+). It should have been, since nothing really happens in the series after this story-wise. It's like Mel Brooks said... "Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money." It's a shame, since this game finally (sort of) reveals what's up with Dr. Wily and culminates the story of Zero in a powerful way. No X game that followed this one had any of the resonance or importance that this one did.

As for the game itself, it has both good and bad points. First and foremost, the music in this game is diverse and generally great. A number of old Mega Man tunes make their returns in remixed form here; the remix of the Deep Sea Base from X2 is a particularly standout track. The music adds several points to the game's score, easily. I would go so far as to say that the music is on par with the first two games in the series, and the fact that the hardware is 32 bit might propel the soundtrack to even greater heights. This game has, in my view, the best regular boss music in the entire series, and the music that plays during the (Spoiler Alert, highlight if you want to know) final fight between X and Zero is one of the best tracks Capcom has ever produced.

There are a number of gameplay changes that are worth mentioning. For one thing, running out of lives just means you'll start over at the checkpoint you've reached, rather than the beginning of the stage. This is a departure from most Mega Man games, and certainly reduces the challenge factor by a fair amount. It also renders 1UPs entirely useless. Even in the requisite late-game boss capsule room, getting a game over will just put you right back there with the bosses you've defeated remaining defeated. This change can be either good or bad, depending on the player. Another change is that bosses now scale in power (meaning every time you defeat one, the rest get a little stronger) which is, in my view, a good change. It makes the early game bosses a lot more manageable, but again detracts from the challenge factor. Lastly in the change department, powerups can be equipped that enhance the player's abilities; for instance, Jumper (jump higher) and Quick Charge (what it sounds like). These add some customization to the game.

Like I said, there's a huge amount of potential here, but the game has its share of screw-ups as well. This game is to X4 what X2 was to X1: better in some ways, worse in others, and often not too distinguishable from its predecessor. (Weirdly enough, X6 would conclude the trilogy pattern by being both more difficult and not as good as the two before it).

The real star of the game

The gameplay is frenetic and fun. The controls seem slightly stiffer than in X4, but not to the point where it becomes a major issue. At the outset you choose between X and Zero. Again, it's worth it to play through the entirety of the game as both characters. Zero isn't so much of a "hard mode" in this game, and the difficulty is more or less even between the two characters. Zero gets a lot more plot, as well; it almost feels like this is more Zero's game than X's game. The game is more fun overall as Zero, without a doubt.

Unlike X4, the game doesn't force you to play as your starting character exclusively for the rest of the game, and it's possible to switch before any given stage. However, it's best to stick with the character you've chosen for a variety of reasons. If Zero is your initial choice, X starts with zero powerups. If X is your initial choice, Zero can't utilize the Black Armor code. And you'll want to use that code when starting as Zero, to even things up. I say "even things up" because, if chosen at the beginning, X starts with the Fourth Armor (aka his fully powered armor from X4). This is a first for a Mega Man game, and it definitely makes the game easier at the outset. At the same time, the armor hunts from the earlier games are missed.

But wait! There are several new armors to collect in this game, including the interesting Falcon and Gaea Armors. Each has a unique repertoire of moves. The problem is, the Falcon Armor is required to get the Gaea Armor, and one of the parts for the Falcon Armor is in the jet bike stage. So what's the problem, you ask? Capcom has always seemed to have a boner for throwing rail-stages at the player where the controls are completely switched up on them; perhaps the most infamous example is the sled section at the beginning of Wily's Fortress in Mega Man 8. That stage was the end of the line for many players. The jet bike stage in this game is stupidly brutal (in an otherwise fairly easy game) but at least it's short. However, if going for the armor part in the stage, you have to do a perfect run of the stage. That means collecting all the floating energy sparks while also surviving the stage. This is something that can take hours of practice - in a game that barely takes two hours to get through normally. As a result, both armors are essentially locked behind a tedious jet bike challenge that probably isn't worth doing for most players.

The trippiest stage background in Mega Man history.

Another problem with the game is the uneven challenge. Some stages are extremely difficult, others are over in the blink of an eye. The fortress stages, in particular, are over in a couple of minutes; the tough bosses (especially Wily's pet rock) make up for it though. The music may be great, but the sound effects are even more obnoxious than X4's, especially the text scrolling sound. It's loud and unnecessary, and reduces the impact of the game's better story sequences towards the end of the game.

The biggest issue with the game is one that could have easily been avoided. Every so often, the gameplay is interrupted by transmissions from Alia (the Chloe to X/Zero's Jack Bauer), usually stating things that are completely obvious ("Watch out for all those bats, X! You might be able to slide under them!"). These transmissions are unavoidable and unskippable, and really break up the pacing of the game. Worse still, they're accompanied by that obnoxious text scrolling sound. Breaking up gameplay with messages like this wasn't cool when Castlevania II did it ("What an awful night to have a curse.") and they aren't cool here. This is the one area where X6 actually improves on X5: the transmissions aren't required, and are easily skipped over in that game. The obnoxious text sound is done away with, as well. It's a wonder that the designers of X5 didn't realize what an annoyance this was before X5 was completed, and it detracts from the game quite a bit.

Oh, one final thing: for some reason, Capcom decided to rename the bosses in this game for the American version, giving them all Guns n' Roses inspired names. It feels silly to say this, but doing this actually screwed with the integrity of the series; it turns the bosses into a punchline. Unique names like Dark Necrobat, Burn Dinorex, and Spike Rosered  became Dark Dizzy, Mattrex, and Axel the Red, for instance. Some fans might think this is awesome, but I'm not one of them. It seems like this was a last-minute change to the game before the U.S. release, since the instruction booklet itself has them listed as their original names. Instead of making this last-minute change, maybe they could have used that manpower to fix some of the problems with the game.

In closing - the fun factor and soundtrack do a good job outweighing the uneven gameplay, random annoyances, and inadvertent restrictions the game imposes on the player; still, I wonder how good this game could have been if it were more polished and annoyance-free. Playing them back-to-back, I found this game to be more fun than Mega Man X4. However, as much as I hate to say it, this game doesn't seem as ironed-out as X4 and has some major issues going for it. As a result, it's difficult for me to give it a higher score than its predecessor, even if I want to.

One final note. For Mega Man story buffs like myself, this game brings the awesome. A number of aspects of the original series turn up in the final stages, including Quick Man's lasers, the rock monster, the skull tank, and a new version of Gamma from Mega Man 3. They're accompanied by giant Wily symbols, and Sigma goes on about Wily and how they've formed an alliance to destroy Mega Man X. This time the idea is to turn Zero back to his original, evil state and sic 'em. It's really good stuff that the previous games only hinted at and built towards. This game only scratches the surface of what can be done with these ideas, too. Unfortunate that these ongoing plot threads get unceremoniously dropped after X5.

Rating: 8.2 out of 10


Mega Man X6

They should have stopped at X5

Playstation, 2001; Various re-releases on other systems in 200X

Publisher: Capcom

Developer: Capcom

Time to Complete: 4-6 hours

Mega Man X6 starts out innocently enough. Zero is gone, off on his own spinoff series, while X is left to run with the torch in the X series, presumably going after whoever the higher power behind Sigma was (cough, Dr. Wily). It's a new beginning. ...except none of that really happens. Zero (spoiler alert) returns from his death about 15 minutes into the game, in an event that makes Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez's unexplainable revival in Highlander 2: The Quickening look like a well thought-out development. Then, he and X go after some new villains, Sigma reappears and gets plowed through (in the easiest final battle in the series) and that's that.


Yep, the Wily thread was dropped. Well, except for the whole Isoc thing, which was probably Capcom's way of killing the Wily storyline in a really subtle, whimpering way. There's this nefarious 'bot named Isoc who looks suspiciously like Dr. Wily, has the same voice actor as Dr. Wily from the later original series games, wears a lab coat, and is obsessed with Zero in almost a fatherly way. Isoc never fights the heroes... in fact, he turns up "dead" at some point with no damage, as if the soul left the shell or something. And that's all there is to say about him. Is Isoc (Newton) actually Albert (Einstein) Wily? Who knows. Most story buffs seem to think so, but it is never confirmed, and X7/X8 don't follow up on this in any way shape or form. It was a pretty boring way for his story to end, especially if it was Wily. The fact that Isoc's existance is completely ignored from the second he "dies" onward makes me believe that Isoc's quiet expiration was a lazy way for an increasingly lazy Capcom to resolve the Wily Is Still Around In Some Form storyline that Keiji Inafune had been working on for years. Nevermind that lots of fans were really interested in that idea. Disappointing at best. That story needs a better conclusion than it got. Don't hold your breath, though. If we ever get an X9, I'm guessing it will be more of a cash-in than anything with real story resolution. Maybe we can get a Xenosaga crossover and Axl can go on a date with MOMO. Who cares.

To anyone who understands the joke I just made: Yes, I hate wasted story potential and unnecessary characters.

The bulldozer becomes the bulldozee
Perhaps the strongest point Mega Man X6 has is that the music is still awesome. No real surprise there, music is one of the best things about this entire series. One thing that can nearly always be relied on with Capcom is that they're responsible for some of the greatest game soundtracks of all time. Devil May Cry, Mega Man, Street Fighter...the list goes on.

Unfortunately, that's about the only strong point that the game has. The boss design is boring and redundant. The weapons aren't very useful. The stage design is completely tedious at best and generally awful, filled with bad ideas (the location of one of the two sub tanks is a great example - it's basically unreachable for 95% of the game unless you play as Zero more or less exclusively). The difficulty in this game is through the roof, to boot. To make up for this, the game always starts you back at the most recent checkpoint, giving you unlimited lives. However, unlimited lives don't make it any easier or more fun when you spend the game dying over and over again. And, not to be braggadocious here, but this isn't coming from a newbie. The difficulty is likely inaccessible for anyone new to the series.

For the first time in the series, Zero isn't fun to play as. His controls are stiff, he's slow, and he's a bit on the clunky side. Most of the awesome moves he had in X4/X5 have been done away with and replaced by a rogue's gallery of really boring, non-useful abilities. His defense is even lower than ever, and coupled with the higher difficulty you're going to die a lot whether you like it or not. Unlike X4/X5, this game isn't even really worth playing through twice as both characters. Hell, it's barely worth playing through once. X is highly, highly recommended for that playthrough. The only way I can see a second playthrough not being a waste of time is if one were to punch in the Ultimate Armor code and go to town Nova Striking everything in the game as revenge for all the grief it gave you the first time around.

All of that said, as I've mentioned before, this game has the easiest final battle in the series. Sigma poses about as much threat as a pinata in this one. Go figure.

You've crossed the wrong man, totem pole.

The boss names are back to normal (no Guns n' Roses) for this one, and yet they manage to be even stupider than ever. Metal Shark Player in particular jumps out at me. Why is he a player? Why not just Metal Shark? Better yet, Steel Shark. Go for some sexy alliteration. Seems like the days of bosses with cool names like Flame Mammoth and Storm Eagle are long over. Mega Man X wouldn't have been as cool of a game if Chill Penguin were called Cool Penguin Hipster. It would be outright idiotic. And the stupid boss names somehow get even worse after this game, as X7 sports such goofballiness as Flame Hyenard and Ride Boarski.

As I said in the MMX5 review, the annoyances with text noise (and text in general) have been fixed for this one, which definitely deserves a positive mention. That may be the only thing X6 improves over X5, though. Everything about this game screams "cash-in". Don't get me wrong, they could have made a decent X6 even if the original series creator wanted X5 to be the end. Just had to go in a different direction. But they didn't. Instead we get a game that basically just copies X4/X5 without being nearly as good (kind of like Terminator 3!) with a completely inane revival of Zero, lots of wasted potential, and the worst level design in the series. If this weren't a Mega Man game, I wouldn't give it the time of day. The fact that it is, and the great music, save it from mediocrity... but it's a real let-down.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10


  1. "The music in this game is highly memorable, ranging from the energetic, fiery, and struggle-conveying volcano stage theme to the fast-moving, pulse-quickening military train stage theme."

    Don't forget this one:

  2. "the final boss in particular is very difficult in a Zero game."

    Everything you said about the Zero game in X4 being much harder but more fun is true, but I found the final boss to be much easier with Zero, while near-impossible with X.

  3. "(Weirdly enough, X6 would conclude the trilogy pattern by being both more difficult and not as good as the two before it)."

    X5 and X6 also seem very similar on the surface, like X2 and X3. In the case of 5 and 6, both games have still scenes instead of animated cutscenes, and have similar casts (Alia and the crew).

  4. Oh, right, and X5 and X6 both have the bizarrely named Robot Masters. Can't forget that.