Around February of 2015, Issun of the Talking Time forums proposed a question, “What five games would you use to demonstrate to anyone, be it an alien or someone from three-thousand years in the future or a fellow gamer or your mom what defines gaming now and forever?” I made up a list of five games pretty quickly, so, for the next five posts (effectively the next two weeks), I’ll be highlighting my choices. So we’re starting with…
Mega Man X
Why is it on this list?
Unlike every other entertainment medium I can think of, video games are about improvement. Casting aside retrograde amnesia or a serious degloving accident (don’t google that), from moment one, you are only ever getting better at any given video game. This is a completely separate experience from consuming cinema, music, literature, etc. Yes, you can get better at writing, composing, or playing music, but, try as you might, you will never get any better at listening to Baby Got Back. The experience is wholly different with video games, where, without even realizing it, you are getting better at any game you are playing, whether through leaps and bounds or just incrementally gaining the knowledge to avoid that goomba. It’s one of the chief reasons I believe video games are not only good for children, but people from all walks of life. It’s all those benefits people are always attributing to sports, but without the tedious getting up.
The Mega Man series embraces this idea, and always presents a little metal boy that improves with the player’s skill. As you, the player, gain the skills and knowledge to defeat robot masters, mavericks, or net navis, your digital avatar gains further skills and abilities to better defeat the next threat. There’s a glorious synchronized ballet performance in every Mega Man game, even though most people just remember those damn disappearing blocks.
So Why Not Any Other Mega Man Game?
Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 are both phenomenal games, but both have obvious choke points for new players. Even before the Boobeam Trap of Mega Man 2, there’s every chance someone’s first stage will be Quick Man, and that experience will end… quickly. Mega Man 3 isn’t as punishing, but by the time you reach Doc Robot and have to face two Mega Man 2 bosses per stage and ridiculous Rush Jet sections, well, let’s just say there’s a reason it was a long time before I ever saw the third Wily Castle. And Mega Man 9, another unparalleled game, is astonishing almost because it’s a masters course in Mega Man design, which makes for an uniquely challenging game, but a poor starting point.
The Mega Man X series has one major advantage over every original series game, and that’s that it improves not only X’s armory through weapon acquisition, but also rewards the player for exploration through movement, armor, and life upgrades scattered about its stages. Every single X game starts with an appreciably weaker than Mega Man version of X, and, should the player show any skill in discovery, will culminate with an X that could turn any given Wily-bot into robo pudding. It’s one thing to obtain a neat fire weapon, it’s another to gain a leg upgrade that allows dashing new opportunities.
So Mega Man X, not X2? X4? I know X6 is right out…
Mega Man X is the purest embodiment of the X concept. Already by X2, we’re introducing things like the X-Hunters, who take up time with weird little cinema scenes and then offer “rewards” in the form of Zero’s body parts. That’s fun and all, but to a completely new player, the Zero parts offer no obvious advantage or upgrade until the absolute last moments of the game. You find a heart container in Mega Man X, and you get a health upgrade; it’s straightforward and easy to understand. By Mega Man X4, the series has acquired way too much jibber jabber, and it’s downright embarrassing to select Storm Owl’s stage, and then listen to X be actually surprised to encounter, at the end of the Storm Owl Stage… Storm Owl. It’s even worse when X pleads with any given target to stop the violence and why can’t we just talk this out, as, come on, I just selected this stage for the express purpose of murdering this guy, X, get with the program. You have a gun for a hand for a reason!
And to be perfectly clear, by no means do I claim these games are bad for their plot excesses or items that don’t immediately benefit the player; I’m simply stating why these issues make these games a poor choice for a “first game”.
Any other reasons for Mega Man X?
Millions. Mega Man X was a very carefully constructed game from beginning to end. The Intro Stage takes the time to nudge the player into using each of X’s innate skills, from jumping to shooting to wall jumping (and shooting), and even ends with a “plot” that encourages the player to get better. While it’s a shame that the player only has a 12.5% chance of choosing Chill Penguin first, his stage simultaneously introduces the essential dash mechanic and the concept that you should be looking for these crazy Light capsule things. Do you want to try to tell me that, after seeing X with freshly armored legs and nothing else, you thought, “Well, guess that’s it, improved shins, that’s all I need. Way to go.”
Stages interact in interesting ways: Storm Eagle’s airship very clearly begins to crash after his defeat, and then the remains can be found in Spark Mandrill’s Stage messing up the power grid. Interestingly, this “levels affect levels” mechanic did not make a noticeable return until Mega Man X6, when it was reintroduced compliments of a monkey’s paw. All over, Mega Man X interacts with the player in significant ways, without once taking the time to stop and shout “Hey listen” to jerk the player’s attention toward the obvious.
While I know my own bias is affecting my hypothesis here, there’s also the fact that a number of systems within the game are synonymous with what I consider to be “gaming”. Lives and health restoration items are available as enemy “drops” or just laying around. Bottomless, deadly pits and lethal spikes litter locations best not tread. Even the basics of jump, shoot, and beat the boss are all things that we, as gamers, take for granted (and must have been learned at some time, right?). If this game had at least one door that necessitated pressing up to enter, it’d have all the video game shorthand anyone would ever need.
What about Maverick Hunter X?
Despite being a “remake”, Maverick Hunter X falls far short of its predecessor. The reduced screen real estate is a pain, and even leads to some weird and atrocious scrolling errors related to enemies and powerups. Additionally, it’s acquired all the plot baggage from other later Mega Man X games, so get ready to hear Sting Chameleon’s monologue on violence before his brutal end. And, to top it all off, some of the upgrades have been “reshuffled” throughout the levels, which leads to a lot of unnecessary backtracking and general confusion. Vile mode is a blast, though, and I’d recommend the game for anyone who is already familiar with Mega Man X and the series, just keep it far away from amateurs.
So Mega Man X is for amateurs, then?
It’s for everybody. I might go as far as saying that Mega Man X is the ur-video game, almost primal in how it defines itself and all other games before and since. Mega Man X is not the first video game ever made, and it’s entirely possible that someone who has been producing games for decades (say, Shigeru Miyamoto?) has never played or even heard of the game, but everything involved in Mega Man X, from intro to three forms big bad final boss finale, is “video game” as I think of the medium, and, even in games designed decades and generations later, there’s a little X in there.
Let’s call it, I dunno, the X-Factor.
The Gaming 5 #1 Mega Man X
- System: Super Nintendo, also available on Wii/WiiU, and any system that had that X Collection. The Maverick Hunter X remake is for PSP, also available on Vita.
- Number of Players: Just one. I suppose one significant “video game” thing this game is missing is a two player mode of some kind, but, hey, can’t win ‘em all.
- Favorite Maverick: Chill Penguin just seems like he’s trying so hard. Good on him.
- Favorite Maverick Stage: Armored Armadillo’s mineshaft is a great deal of fun, particularly with the great minecart sequence in its finale. That also might be the only time a vehicle is any fun in a Mega Man X game.
- Did You Know? Sigma went through a number of redesigns before they settled on the zombie robot we all know today. At least one/three of those designs got recycled into X2’s X-Hunters, proving that Inafune and friends never let an idea go to waste. Come to think of it, there’s an enemy called Gunvolt in there…
- Would I play again? Because I know the game so well at this point, I’m always happy to see a version pop up on any system, as it is an ideal way for me to calibrate and test a new controller. Three face buttons and L and R are used frequently across the game, and collecting all items requires some dedicated control stick waggling. Also, ya know, I rather enjoy the game.
What’s next? Let’s claim this list is a mystery, but I’ll provide the hint that Ridley is too big for the next post. Please look forward to it!
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