Long time readers (just humor me and pretend they exist) of Retronaissance will remember that the very first article posted was Professor Icepick discussing why he hated Mega Man X. The article was focused on the character, but I still can’t let that stand as the only article on this website about the Mega Man X series. As the title implies I love the Mega Man X series, and if anything that is an understatement. Unlike certain internet personalities I’m not going to claim it having a life bar was an innovation, but short of that I can’t praise the series enough. My purpose with this article is to explain why I think Mega Man X is not only the best Mega Man series, but one of the best series of all time.
Let’s start with a little history. It was 1993, two years into the SNES’ life, yet Mega Man was still seeing yearly releases for the NES. Six games in the same series on the same system was unprecedented at the time, and everyone wanted Mega Man to just move on to SNES already. In either very late 1993 or very early 1994 (I’ve never been able to find a consistent date), Mega Man finally came to the Super Nintendo in the form of Mega Man X. After the initial “where are 7-9?” state of confusion, people realized this was a reinvention of Mega Man. Everyone from the original series was dead (although most people assumed Mega Man X was Mega Man), and a new cast of characters was introduced.
Let’s look at how the setting and characters stack up against the original series. In the previous article, X was criticized for being whiny. This is really not a big issue, X doesn’t start getting really angsty until the later games (this article is mainly about Mega Man X 1-4, the prime of the series) and it only affects the gameplay in one game that everyone hates anyway. For the most part X is just there to be the playable character, like Mario, Link, and the original Mega Man. Sigma isn’t the deepest villain, but his motivation at least feels more serious than Wily’s desire to take over the world (OF COURSE!) just for the heck of it. Sigma also gets some interesting backstory revealed as the series goes along, and never did anything as stupid as Wily’s Mr. X disguise. Vile only had an important role in Mega Man X1, but both his scenes were much more memorable than anything a villain had done during gameplay up to that point. Vile’s unwinnable battle at the end of the intro stage and his arm being blown off is one of the most memorable and jaw dropping moments of the entire Mega Man series.
And of course, we can’t forget who it was that blew off Vile’s arm in that battle. Zero is definitely the most popular character in the X series, and that spot is well earned. Everything about him was done perfectly, his heroic entrance and promise that you could become as powerful as him got you really excited about collecting the upgrades. Sacrificing himself, becoming the first character besides a Mega Man that you could play as in a main series game, his Wily connection, everything about Zero was awesome. Although I’m tired of playing as him and prefer he go back to his MMX1 role as a non-playable badass and mentor, there’s no denying that Zero is one of the biggest contributions any Mega Man family game has made to the franchise.
The setting and presentation of Mega Man X was also very well done. The darker tone but still varied and colorful settings were just what people wanted out of SNES. There were amazing enemies that couldn’t have been done on NES like the giant bees in the intro stage or sea serpents in Launch Octopus’ level, and the death animation for bosses was the most amazing thing I had ever seen when I first played MMX. The music fit the tone perfectly and the fact that I can remember so much of it says a lot. I have a soft spot for animal themed groups of villains, and Mega Man X probably caused that. Each weapon giving boss being a different animal gave them much more variety and implied personality than the Man bosses from the original series. Finally killing Vile and Sigma felt much more dramatic than the fights against Wily, especially since X actually grew in power throughout the game.
Okay, we’ve got the minor stuff out of the way, time to focus on the gameplay. There are two omnipresent additions the Mega Man X series added to basic gameplay, and they are the core of why it is better than the original Mega Man. These are, of course, dashing and wall climbing. While the original Mega Man series had excellent control, the lack of any way to control your momentum when going into a jump (as opposed to something like Mario where a running start will affect how far you can jump) could lead to some frustrating “get as close as possible to the edge of a platform and pray you can make it” moments. The Mega Man X dash fixes this, giving you a burst of speed and distance whenever you need it without changing the normal jumping physics from the original MM. Wall climbing also reduces frustration from barely missed jumps, but what really makes it great is how well the levels are designed around it. Almost every level and boss would be impossible without it, the vertical platforming is used to full and excellent effect.
The new jumps aren’t the only thing Mega Man X added to the series. The upgrade system was rare for platformers at the time, and made for far more exciting secrets than 1-Ups or E-Tanks. X started with a tiny lifebar dwarfed by the bosses, but finding heart tanks in stages would gradually increase it until you were on equal footing. The subtanks were a brilliant idea, making you earn your energy refills by picking up health items with a full lifebar while their reusable nature meant you could never completely screw yourself over. What really matters, though, is the capsules. Getting permanent upgrades to your dash, buster, defense, and whatever random thing the helmet was being used for was one of the most exciting things a platformer could do. They also made X look a lot cooler. Mega Man X also made some minor but GREATLY appreciated tweaks to the interface. Being able to exit completed levels at any time, weapon energy powerups automatically filling your lowest weapon if you didn’t have one equipped, and getting your weapon energy back after clearing a Sigma fortress stage are such obvious accommodations that I can’t believe the Classic series has the nerve to make you pay for them.
You may have noticed I’ve been focusing very strongly on the original Mega Man X. While it is my favorite in the series, the main reason it is getting so much attention is because the first four MMX games are all very similar. Mega Man X2, X3, and X4 are all fairly close to being level packs for MMX1 (Zero’s unique play style in X4 aside), and you know what? That’s fine. Mega Man X is such a superbly polished and incredibly designed game that there honestly wasn’t anything that needed a major change. The changes in the later games are what caused the downfall of the series (although X5 and X8 are absolutely worth playing), the simplicity of the original Mega Man X is a strength, not something to be fixed. The almost infinite customization possible in the Zero and ZX Mega Man series hurts the level design, MMX at its prime knows your abilities and only has to plan for a few simple upgrades.
Mega Man X may have some memorable story moments, but it’s the simple gameplay (which allows for the level design to be complex) that makes the series what it is. The game may be a new generation for Mega Man, but it is really a refinement of the Classic series that polishes everything until it absolutely glows. I think this is the core of why I love it so much, despite the new and at times engaging setting the gameplay does not feel like a reinvention and all the problems that go along with that. Mega Man X is what the classic Mega Man games had the potential to be, and losing sight of that is what hurt the series in its later games. The classic Mega Man series already proved that you can go home again, and the X series desperately needs and deserves that same chance. Maybe in 1997 people thought the series needed to change, but it has been 15 years since then, and what we need now (especially after all the turmoil Mega Man has gone through) is what the X series was. Mega Man X9 needs to happen, the world needs X now more than ever.