Saturday, July 19, 2008
Admittedly, the more I hear about Capcom's surprise Mega Man 9 announcement, the more I'm reminded of their sad tendency to run their best franchises into the ground. No Capcom franchise got screwed worse than Mega Man - even Street Fighter, with its constant stream of gratuitous sequels and expansions, hasn't suffered a case of sequelitis quite as fatal as Mega Man's. Even barring the eight original series games, which is already a lot of sequels for any franchise, you've got 8 Mega Man X games, 3 Legends games, 4 Mega Man Zeros, 6 Battle Networks, and even 2 ZX games, not to mention all the side-games and compilations that've been shat out with varying quality for the past two decades (none of which I feel like counting). And the fact that Capcom has barely changed the core Mega Man formula since the first game hasn't stemmed the tide of "those motherfuckers are lazy" accusations.
But hey, who am I kidding? I love the Mega Man formula, and when Capcom does it right it makes for some ass-kickin' action games. It's so simple: a little robot man has to kill eight evil robots and steal their weapons, then slog through four tough-as-tits fortress levels before fighting all the same evil robots again. Force-feed me that shit, man! It's a tried-and-true, fun structure, and while Capcom has spanked it around in some less-than-stellar games (Mega Man 8, Mega Man X6, god knows what else), I always get a kick out of it. It's like a Tom Petty album - when you pick up a Mega Man game, you know exactly what you're getting, and if you already like it then it's almost always enjoyable. Once in a blue moon, however, Capcom will take the Mega Man formula and simply make it bigger and better than they ever have before. Case in point, Mega Man X.
Mega Man X was Capcom's first Mega Man game for the Super NES, released shortly after Mega Man 6 for the NES had hit the shelves in early 1994. Since Capcom had already exhausted the usual Mega Man formula on the NES, they decided that the beefed-up SNES would be the perfect chance to revamp the franchise and make it feel new again. They succeeded with flying colors; Mega Man X is a testament to the amount of craftsmanship Capcom puts into its best games. Playing X even now, you can tell that the developers, freed from the restraints of the NES, were simply shoving every ounce of creativity they had into this game, trying out a bunch of new ideas and making Mega Man more fun and impressive than ever.
Mega Man X's style is distinctly different from its NES counterparts; in revamping the series, Capcom decided to ditch the cartoony feel of the early games and inject a good dose of dark, futuristic imagery into the Mega Man mythos. Since plotwise the game takes place 100 years after the original series, the whole thing has a quasi-cyberpunk feel to it, with technological wonder popping up everywhere - even in the middle of a snowfield or a forest, there's more than a handful of creepy animal-like robots to be found. Obviously, the whole game is overrun with evil evil robots (par the course for any MM game) but here they're even more menacing and weird. While the eight Maverick bosses (as they're called) here are as notable as ever - like the obscuro-beetle Boomer Kuwanger or the out-and-out ferocious Spark Mandrill - even random mid-stage baddies manage to surprise, like the giant bee-like behemoth in the opening level and those swarming piranha fish in the water level that try to suck you in and swallow you whole. And of course, there's Mega Man himself - now called "Mega Man X" (or "X" for short), the protagonist of the game has a constant scowl on his face, always appearing hell-bent on burning some Maverick ass. It's a far cry from the emotionless NES sprite, and it's a perfect summation of the mood Capcom was going for.
And of course, there's the gameplay. While it sticks with the core Mega Man formula - you still play as a robot kid who has to kill eight bosses by shooting pellets at them - there are some substantial add-ons. Instead of sliding, you can now dash forward, not to mention being able to climb walls by repeatedly tapping the jump button. This not only makes your character feel more flexible, it allows for the player to run-and-shoot like some kind of action hero, making previous Mega Man games look stiff by comparison. Adding to this are various armor upgrades the player can collect; besides the aforementioned dashing, you can pick up a helmet for breaking blocks, armor for defense, and a stronger arm cannon - one that actually lets you charge up your special weapons along with your regular X-Buster. They aren't huge additions, but they're just enough to make that game feel a little more alive (read: bitchin') than previous Mega Man games.
If there is one element to Mega Man X that has always impressed me, it is its story. No, really, I'm kinda surprised too in retrospect. Capcom has never been a company known for compelling narratives - especially nowadays, with lousy scripts and terrible voice acting hampering even their best games - but Mega Man X's plot is a perfect example of less being more. Maybe it was just technical limitation, considering that Capcom was all too eager to shove contrived anime overdramatics into the series the moment they got their hands on the Playstation's capabilities, but X's plot is totally bare-bones - hell, they barely even give you any backstory in-game (besides the instruction manual and a very brief opening cinema that's nothing but technical specs). The game isn't hampered by excessive character development or obnoxiously long cutscenes, but when the game does decide to get a little dramatic, it's extremely invigorating.
Case in point: the character of Zero, X's mentor (and fellow badass). Zero, while not much more than a classic "good guy" archetype, is a very useful character in this game. For one, he gives the player something to shoot for. In the opening stage, X is forced to fight Vile, a Boba Fett-lookin' Napoleon riding a giant mecha that is purposefully impossible to beat. But then, hey, Zero shows up and blows the guy's arm off in one blast, telling X that if he "realizes his true potential" he can be just as strong as him. It's an ingenious gesture that's Capcom's inadvertent way of saying, "Hey, you can be just as badass as this guy if you play through each level a lot and get all the neat upgrades!" And when Zero blows himself up to save X against Vile near the end of the game, it's unusual how touching and sad it is (if you ignore the fact that Zero was "miraculously" revived in the next game, that is). Another favorite moment of mine has to be the ending of the game, which is - in this humble writer's opinion - one of the finest endings in any video game, ever. Basically, X blows up the bad guy's headquarters, letting it explode in a giant wave of light. But instead of some quick "THANKS FOR PLAYING" screen, you witness X standing on a cliff while a remarkably sad piece of music plays and a text monologue scrolls by: "Those who sacrificed themselves for the victory will never return." Shit, man. How many games in the early 90's - let alone Mega Man games - ended like this? It's basically telling the player, "Well, you beat the game, but you didn't really win. Everyone is dead because of you." It's probably the best downer of an ending this side of Half-Life.
Mega Man X is a short game - even if you don't know the game well, you can probably finish it in a few sittings - but it's a memorable one, as it's probably one of the finest action games available on the SNES. Unfortunately, appreciation for X often gets clouded by the slew of good-to-terrible X games that came in its wake, suffering an even worse case of rehashing than the original Mega Man series. Yeah, Zero would die and come back to life like fifty times, X would gain an annoying high-pitched voice, and main antagonist Sigma would become a half-brained crazy person, but Mega Man X still stands as a fantastic slice of 16-bit entertainment. Here's hoping Mega Man 9 can recapture some of that magic; hell, if the game is as good as its box art, I'd say we have nothing to worry about.
(Oh shit, I didn't mention the soundtrack, did I? It's probably the best game soundtrack ever made ever. But who cares.)