The Blue Bomber Gets an Upgrade

Mega Man X

It's hard to describe the feeling when Capcom announced Mega Man X. Kids of the 1980s had already seen plenty of Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. games in a very short time (all the ones for the NES plus the Game Boy iterations), so the thought among many kids was, "oh, it's just another Blue Bomber game, but on the SNES." Of course, once we got to see what Capcom was doing with the game, many of us felt like it was the first true evolution of the series (considering how many of the classic games did the same old thing over and over again).

Of course, Capcom being Capcom, they quickly took the Mega Man X series and ran it as hard into the ground as the classic Blue Bomber series -- they were nothing if not whores for constant releases. But in this first release we finally had a game that felt truly revelatory. This was the direction Mega Man would take in the future and the series would never be the same. We were wrong (and not just because Mega Man 7 would come out and be just more of the same classic games on a new system), we just didn't know it yet.

It's the future, even from the classic series, and after a time of peace (after Dr. Wily was finally defeated), a new threat has emerged: Mavericks. These are robots with full artificial intelligence that have gone off on their own, seeking to take over the world for robot-kind. They're led by a true evil reploid (the game's names for all robots), Sigma, who would love nothing more than to wipe all of humanity off the Earth. If only there were a hero to battle the Mavericks.

And, wouldn't you know it, there were. Dr. Light's last creation, a new version of Mega Man dubbed "X", was sealed away in a capsule, with Dr. Light hoping he'd never have to be used. A new scientist, Dr. Cain, found X and studying the dormant bot, created the whole line of Reploids (replicant androids). But when the reploids revolted, Cain booted Mega Man X up. This set the new Blue Bomber on a quest to find Sigma, and all the robots he was controlling, and stopping them and their plans once and for all (or, at least, for a time).

The basic concept of Mega Man X is a lot it's NES brethren: after an intro stage X will be taken to a stage select menu where he'll have a set of eight elementally-aligned robots to defeat. These robots are named after animals -- Chill Penguin, Flame Mammoth, Armored Armadillo, etc. -- instead of "??? Man", but otherwise they still function the same. Defeating one of these eight robots grants X their power which he can then use in the next stage, and so on and so forth. Defeating all the robots unlocks the final set of stages where X can take on Sigma, this game's Wily replacement.

But while the basics of the game were the same, there was a lot to set this SNES title apart from all the NES games that came before in the series. For starters, as you'd expect, the game was much prettier. The SNES could produce some lovely graphics, full of lush colors and brightness, and this game used the power of the hardware to good effect. This is one of the more attractive looking games on the SNES, with bright details and solid pop to the graphics. It's a stunner to watch, over and over again.

The music, too, was pretty great in the game. There were a number of tracks that really stood out... well, frankly, all of them. The boss music in this game is good, along with the fortress music, and it's hard to pick out even a single favorite. Along with solidly constructed tunes, the game used the hardware to give everything a solid hard rock-synth feel. It's different from the NES classic entries but no less good (and, at least in this first game, I'd call the music an improvement over all).

Of course, what players remember most about the game is its upgrade system. In the classic series Mega Man would always start off with a basic set of abilities -- run, jump, fire, and then maybe slide or charge up his buster -- but this game featured a set of Dr. Light capsules to find that would unlock new abilities. The dash is the first thing people would normally get, and it had its uses, but then there was the weapon upgrade that allowed you to charge your buster even further, and charge boss weapons. Plus you could collect extra health expansions and reusable health canisters. There was a lot to do and, over time, it made X feel more and more like a force to be reckoned with.

That said, the collecting aspect of the game wasn't without its downside. I'm not for collect-a-thon games, titles where the whole point of playing the game is to collect items so you can then venture deeper and collect more items, on and on. That kind of game play wears after a while. It's not so bad here, with most stages only having two upgrades to collect, but it's still an essential aspect of the game. If you want to be able to clear the game most efficiently you have to collect everything.

This feeds into the level layouts sometimes, too. Some stages are solid, lengthy constructions with a lot to do as you run the gauntlet to the end of the stage -- Launch Octopus and Sting Chameleon both have solid stages with a lot to do. Other stages, though, feel like they're just there to funnel you to the items, where if you ignore everything and blast to the end there's barely any stage at all. Flame Mammoth's stage is too short and has this issue, as does Armored Armadillo. The classic, lengthy gauntlets from the classic series aren't as prevalent here at all.

Maybe this was a limitation from the hardware, that longer stages with the prettier graphics and better sound would have been harder to fit into the cartridge or run on the hardware (the later X games on the PlayStation simply split stages in two to avoid this issue). Or perhaps Capcom was just lazier here, or struggling with the hardware. Whatever the case, an essential part of the experience was muted in the X games.

This game, too, has the issue that so many classic Mega Man titles had: the final stages feel like an afterthought. The first stage of "Sigma Castle" is actually pretty decent, lengthy and with solid challenges. But then the game stops putting real levels together, instead just stringing boss rooms together (this game follows the path of the original Mega Man, building the refights into the stages instead of having room of boss capsules at the end). The end game isn't super short but it doesn't feel varied, either.

And, frankly, for a major villain, Sigma isn't much of anything. His boss fight is interesting, don't get me wrong, but in comparison to Wily, of the floating ships, skull castles, and waggling eyebrows, Sigma is hardly as iconic. If we spent more time battling the villain over the course of the game (a position held for a lieutenant of his, Vile), more time working against his as he showed up to steal our victories from us, he could be a really solid villain. Here he just doesn't impress.

Better is Zero, a red-armored hero in the vein of Protoman. Zero has swagger, fighting enemies with his beamsaber while he lectures X on how to be a real hero. Zero steals the show in this game, it's just a pity we don't get to spend more time as the hero (or even play as him) in this title (his time would come, mind you). Everyone likes Zero and there's no question why: Zero is a bad ass.

When it came out I loved Mega Man X -- it was a breath of fresh air from the staid classic series, something willing to try new things and beat a (slightly) different path. I'm sure I view this game much the same way that kids growing up with the Battle Network series -- it was new and different with just enough of the past still baked in. But over the years, as a number of sequels came out doing the same thing as this game, just again and again, this original title stopped feeling quite so fresh.

I still enjoy it, and it was still the first game in the whole series I ever beat (without any kind of cheating). This game will always hold a special place in my heart. At the same time, though, I don't think it's quite the classic anymore. It's good but not quite great. Like the classic series it would have an entry that would be even better, that would improve the formula... right before the series would iterate itself to death.

Let's Take a Look at the Artillery:
Mega Man X's Light Capsule Upgrades (Best to Worst):
  1. Leg Part: This item gives X his iconic dash, a feature that was included (by default) in every other game in the series. The dash is like the original blue bomber's slide, just without the emphasis on one-block-tall spaces to slide through. Great for going fast and an essential part of the game play
  2. Hadoken Part: This is a secret arm part, only collectible after you have all the other parts, heart tanks, and sub-tanks in the game. Once you have all that you can find a secret capsule on Armored Armadillo stage that will grant you the hadoken, a powerful projectile that can kill most bosses in a single hit. Just note that you have to do the Street Fighter hadoken command (down, down-forward, forward+fire) to fire the hadoken.
  3. Arm Part: The other part that really set X on his path of divergence from the original Blue Bomber. While both X and Classic could charge their busters (with Classic having that ability from Mega Man 4 on), X gained the ability to charge boss weapons and cause them to do different things (only a few Boss Weapons in the original series could be charged, on a case by case basis).
  4. Body Part: This part reduces the amount of damage X could take by half. It's great, but it doesn't do anything else... although considering most of the later body upgrades had largely useless features, this isn't entirely a bad thing.
  5. Helmet Part: This game starts the tradition of totally useless helmet parts for X. In this game there are bricks that X can break if he has a helmet and bashes his head against them. Why they thought this was a better idea than just using a boss weapon I don't know, but the implementation is stupid and just don't add anything to the game.
Mega Man X's Maverick Weapons (Best to Worst):
  1. Flame Mammoth's Fire Wave (Fire.W): I like this weapon a lot. It's basic form is like a flame thrower with X spraying fire from his buster. It's range isn't great but the wave does a ton of damage to enemies in its wake. It does consume ammo quickly, but it's worth it for how much damage you can do.
    • Upgraded: And this is where the Fire Wave really gets its name. When X charges up the Fire Wave he can release it as an actual wave, traveling along the ground dealing damage to anything in its path. It'll just chew up ground-based enemies. Only downside is that once it hits a step or wall it stops. Still, this is a pretty solid charged attack.
  2. Chill Penguin's Shotgun Ice (S.Ice): This is a pretty decent, linear weapon with a bit of strength behind it. Shooting out linearly, the best benefit of it is that if it hits a wall it will break and the shards will bounce back in a fan pattern. Can freeze some enemies for extra effect.
    • Upgraded: When charged the Shotgun Ice will create an icy sled for X to ride on. It's amusing but impractical.
  3. Launch Octopus's Homing Torpedo (Homing.T): This one is exactly what it says on the package -- when you fire it, a homing torpedo goes out and zooms towards enemies. Flying enemies aren't always easy to it, nor are fast enemies, as they can dodge out of the way and confuse the torpedo, but for everything else this is an easy-mode weapon with decent strength and ammo.
    • Upgraded: This upgrade is just... odd. When charged, X will fire out six larger torpedo that look like fish. They'll function the same as the single smaller guy, but they're fish. Like... why? Still, a solid, powerful attack although I tend to find that the single use torpedo are more beneficial.
  4. Sting Chameleon's Chameleon Sting (C.Sting): Another basic weapon, this time we get one that shoots not only in front of X but also slightly upwards and downwards as well. Upside is that it has plenty of ammo and deals decent damage, but the knock against it is that it's not super fast. Plus, I've noticed that, on a packed screen, the three projectiles can contribute to lag, which really sucks.
    • Upgraded: That said, you use this weapon for the charged upgrade which causes X to flash like a disco rainbow, rendering him invincible. If you just want to charge through mobs and get through stages as quickly as possible, this is the upgrade for you.
  5. Boomer Kuwanger's Boomerang Cutter (B.Cutter): This is your standard boomerang-type weapon, shooting out a projectile that will travel in a long, wide arc before coming back to X. The benefit of this weapon is that it can grab loose items, even heart tanks and sub-tanks, and bring them back to X. It's not a bad weapon but it's an even more useful utility
    • Upgraded: Like with the charged Homing Torpedo, this version of Boomerang Cutter just goes for the "more is more" approach. When charged and fired, the weapon shoots out large boomerangs along the cardinal directions, dealing damage from all sides. It's not bad, but it has little practical impact in the fast pace of the game.
  6. Spark Mandrill's Electric Spark (E. Spark): This is a pretty solid, linear weapon. Fires out small sparks that travel across the screen, and X can have up to three of them going at once. When they hit a wall they'll erupt into a linear discharge, traveling up and down the wall. Pretty nice.
    • Upgraded: This weapon will unless an electric wave in front of and behind X. Pretty solid, but the range is limited.
  7. Storm Eagle's Storm Tornado (Storm.T): Now we're getting into the less practical weapons. This weapons shoots out a linear tornado that travels along the screen. It's not bad, and there are some enemies (and, of course, Flame Mammoth) that are weak to it. I've just found that, more often than not, it bounces harmlessly off of too many enemies to be of much worth.
    • Upgraded: And I hate this version even more. Instead of traveling horizontally, this creates a vertical cyclone. It's nice being able to take out enemies above you, but X doesn't stand still -- he's built for speed and dashing -- so this weapons is already off screen before it even gets going. It's bad.
  8. Armored Armadillo's Rolling Shield (R. Shield): Honestly, this weapon is pretty useless. It's like a big Bubble Lead, bouncing out from X and rolling along the ground. It's huge, yes, and thus hard to enemies to dodge, but it's damage is questionable. Worse, when you have one shield out, watching it bounce around, you can't fire any more. It's terrible.
    • Upgraded: The charged upgrade is at least nice, granting a protective shield to X for a limited time. Small enemies will dink off and projectiles will be bounced, but a large enough object will nullify the shield, eliminating it. If you want true invincibility you'll want the charged up Chameleon Sting instead.