(Author’s Note: Gotta take this time to give massive props to my buddy Captain Bland for serving as a Human FAQ for this game for me. Without his assistance, there’s better than even odds this game stays in the Played But Never Finished Pile.)
Confession Time: Of all the major franchises in the history of gaming, the only series I have less experience with than Mega Man is Zelda. I played a couple of the NES games, but never got close to beating them, and that was it. I remembered them being crazy difficult, and I did not have the emotional control as a child necessary to advance very far into them without going on a Lou Piniella-esque tirade. Even when Mega Man X came out and my friends insisted that it was awesome, I was still skeptical. Even the mighty Nintendo Power couldn’t convince me to give it a try.
As it turns out, I was really screwing myself out of a pretty damn fine game. You play as X, a creation of Dr. Light that is apparently not a robot janitor this time, starting out by running down a ruined highway in pursuit of the nefarious Sigma, who has seemingly hijacked Dr. Light’s ideas and figured out how to inject them with evil. You end up getting beaten down by one of his henchmen in a fight you are scripted to lose (which I did not realize at first, and made me think this game was going to be even rougher than the original Mega Man). After you get trucked, your partner Zero shows up and helpfully informs you that you’re not strong enough to battle Sigma’s forces yet, which is true, but that would’ve been nice to know before I got the everloving crap kicked out of me…
Anywho, after Captain Obvious comes to the rescue, that’s when we get to the Mega Man we know and love, picking our path through a series of themed stages with a boss at the end and defeating them to gain their power in some weird robot anime version of Highlander. This time around though, we’re not fighting guys like Gutsman or Cutman, oh no, this time we get bosses with either awesomely bad professional wrestling names or horrifyingly bad porn names: Storm Eagle, Spark Mandrill, Boomer Kuwanger, and those are just three. Much like the earlier Mega Man games, there’s technically no restrictions on what order to take them on, but certain bosses are weak against certain powers, so it helps immensely to know the right path.
This time around though, your arsenal isn’t the only thing that gets upgraded. Scattered throughout the levels are energy capsules that give X boosts like improved armor, the ability to dash by double-tapping the control pad or pressing A, and supercharge your X Buster to the point where it can blast a massive wave of energy or give a secondary function to the weapons you obtain from level bosses. There are also hearts in each level that increase your life bar, and sub-tanks you can fill up and then deploy in mid-level to refill your life bar, similar to the reserve tanks on Super Metroid. However, a lot of these upgrades are either hidden in out-of-the-way locations or are simply not possible to collect without certain powers, so if you intend to get them all, you’ll have to return to levels multiple times or do a lot of scouring, and a lot of them require perfectly timed dash-jumps that will drive you crazy after the tenth or so time where you fall just ONE PIXEL short of reaching a ledge.
For example, take the X Buster upgrade. To get it, first, you need to find the helmet upgrade on Storm Eagle’s level, which requires one of those perfect dash jumps AND Flame Mammoth’s power. Once you have the helmet upgrade, you have to return to Armored Armadillo’s stage, make another perfect dash-jump, and then manage to not fall off the wall before head-bashing all the blocks between you and the energy capsule, because if you only get halfway and fall, you won’t be able to reach them again unless you restart the level, and this even assumes you know that those blocks can be smashed in the first place. And THAT requires you to know about the upgrades at all, which I did not until Captain Bland mentioned them in passing.
Now, to be fair, you could probably beat the game without any of the upgrades, although I probably wouldn’t advise you to, and this game, while challenging, is nowhere near the level of cockpunch the first two NES games. As I said, I’m certainly no Mega Man veteran, but by taking the time to observe enemy attack patterns and getting a feel for how X handles, you can make actual progress in the game without being driven to ragequitting. The usual death traps like spike pits and bottomless gaps are still here, but they now exist to punish careless players or major mistakes instead of existing to make sure you get killed at least once per stage. That’s not top say there aren’t cheap tactics like the light flashes that come at you at lightning speed in Spark Mandrill’s stage or the knights that keep their shields out until you get close enough to them to be attacked, but for the most part, there’s not an overarching sense that the designers were out to get you.
Play control is pretty smooth here. Y fires, and holding it charges your attack up, B jumps, A dashes, and L and R cycle through your weapons without having to pause. In another subtle-yet-brilliant move, you can slide along walls and hop up them, allowing you to save yourself from falling down pits or buying some time to figure out a boss’s attacks. At certain points, X can hop into a giant mechanized walker and dish out giant metal fists of fury, although sadly, those sections are rather short and hopping back out can be a bit sticky.
As you would expect, MMX looks and sounds fantastic. Everything is well-detailed, from X pulling the levers while driving the mech, to the douchey giggle the pickax-throwing enemies do if they hit (which makes you want to blast them into the fourth dimension). X himself is extremely well-designed, looking heroic while still being small enough to be the underdog, especially compared to the giant turtle-mortars or the bosses. Just like the early games, X’s suit changes colors if you switch weapons, and you also see the different suit upgrades that make him look like a total badass by the time you collect them all. Even the backgrounds are well done, and although it doesn’t quite look 3D, it feels a lot deeper than a normal side-scroller. There are a couple of dialogue scenes in the game, usually when you find an energy capsule, and they’re handled through the usual text box style, and the Dr. Light hologram is pretty cool-looking. Sounds are also high-quality, especially for the weapons you obtain from bosses; Flame Mammoth’s weapon belches out flame masterfully and Launch Octopus’s homing missiles putter their way towards their targets.
This was the first Mega Man game that I’ve actually played from start to finish, and I’m happy to report it was a very fun ride. It’s a much softer starting point to get into the series, at least in terms of difficulty, and I’m actually intrigued enough by this one to want to play X2 and X3. The only real problem I had was in finding all the different upgrades, but then again, this came out long before the days of online walkthroughs, so it’s not like this game couldn’t be beaten without outside assistance, and it may be entirely possible that the designers eased up on that as the series went along. I can definitely see now why it got the attention that it did, and it further illustrates J Man’s point of why we’re seeing Super Ultimate Mega Man Battle Network Number One DS.
Challenging, but the right kind of challenging without being unnecessarily brutal. Graphically gorgeous.
I’m not gonna lie, if I didn’t have Captain Bland’s assistance, I’d probably be nowhere near beating this game, and advancing very slowly. If you’re playing this completely blind, you’re gonna have to search every available nook and cranny. Twice. And dear God, start with Chill Penguin’s stage.