Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mega Man X - Evolved to Perfection
After spending years pumping out one pedestrian sequel after another, an inspired Capcom turned up the volume and rocked my world once more.

As it was, I'd played through cherished favorites like Mega Man 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past so many times and had so thoroughly immersed myself into every fiber of their essence that not a single barrier remained standing between us. I'd feverishly explored and re-explored every inch of their wondrous worlds, obsessively dissected their every perceivable theme and subtext, and readily sought to decipher their every mystery. Yet even then, there was something about them that left me stumped--a shared aspect to their collective that I forever struggled to define; games from their class, that is, could be said to possess a certain transcendent quality that long resisted my attempts to apply it meaningful form using either words or feelings.

These were games I considered to be "perfect," but I struggled to fathom the creative realities that allowed for games of their caliber to be developed. Among the questions I often ruminated over: Where, exactly, does a "perfect game" come from? Can it result from careful planning, or is it more likely that excellence is achieved simply by chance? And at what point do its creators become aware that they've succeeded so brilliantly? 

In the case of Mega Man X, more pertinently, I wondered if it was possible for a game this aggressively ambitious to have derived from the minds of the same people who brought us the last half-decade's-worth of NES and Game Boy releases, all of which were content to cling tightly to the safe principles of a standard formula?

That I didn't originally believe them to be capable of such was the reason I wasn't particularly excited about Mega Man X at the time of its unveiling.

The first news of Mega Man X's development unexpectedly appeared in Nintendo Power Volume 50's Pak Watch section but with surprisingly little fanfare, I felt--the short preview relegated to one of those late-page triparted assemblages usually reserved for second-tier projects like the Adventure Islands, Pac-Mans and ClayFighters. I didn't find it odd that landscape-changing games like Street Fighter II: Turbo and the first home console port of Mortal Kombat were given precedence over a new entry in the Mega Man series, whose formula was starting to grow a bit stale, but still--last-page treatment was hardly appropriate for the first 16-bit entry in one of gaming's most beloved franchises.

The preview was so absent of meaningful information, in fact--so underwhelmingly mundane in its description--that I didn't even consider the possibility that Mega Man X was an inaugural entry in an entirely separate Mega Man series! I assumed that the "X" denoted a Roman numeral and that I was instead reading about the tenth entry in the original series--a confirmation that the NES and Game Boy titles shared the same canon and were finally being grouped together in preparation for the arrival of an all-encompassing next-generation Mega Man game! 

Though, the math just wasn't working out for me. As it stood currently, there were five NES games and three Game Boy games, which left me one short; so, I figured, it was either that (a) Capcom was planning to rush an 8-bit Mega Man 6 or Mega Man IV to market in advance of X's release, or (b) the lineage included one of those Japan-exclusive games I'd never heard about.

Yes--slightly enthused mathematical computation was about all that abbreviated preview could inspire. I mean, the screenshots looked great and all (though I can clearly tell in retrospect that they were of an early build), but intriguing depictions, alone, weren't going to be enough to convince me that I should be excited for yet another Mega Man game. I was frankly burned out on the series, and Capcom's recent efforts did nothing to reassure me that things were about to change; the company's track suggested that Mega Man X would be nothing more than a prettier, more colorful iteration of the same game I'd been playing since the summer of 1989, thus it didn't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Now, was I going to run out and buy Mega Man X anyway? Oh, you bet. But I would be going into it with zero expectations (because that'll teach 'em a lesson!).

My opinion about the game started to shift dramatically when Nintendo Power Volume 56 arrived with an illustration of Mega Man X on its cover (on both its normal cover and the subscriber-only engraved-chrome cover), which was a pretty big deal to me; any game that could nab feature coverage on a holiday-focused issue of the magazine had to be something special. As I flipped through the first few pages of the feature, I was very pleased with what I was seeing but at the same time a little bit nervous. See--it was easy for me to express outwardly that I wanted the series to evolve--to insist that it break free from the bondage of standardization--but I couldn't ignore that I also harbored a conflicting feeling of apprehension when it came to the idea of tearing down the old institution ("Am I really ready to let go of the old Mega Man?"), so it was actually kind of scary to see the changes taking hold, even if most of them weren't really that drastic. 

I liked, for instance, how the stages seemed to spread out in all directions and how X could upgrade his suit by locating special enhancement parts (including leg armor that would allow him to execute a cool-looking dash maneuver), but I wasn't fully comfortable with the game's tonal shift (which I suspected might veer toward overly "gritty" where I would have preferred something more akin to the the original series' lighthearted tone) and the switch to animal-themed bosses that seemed to lack the personality of their "Man"-themed counterparts. Most of all, I was worried that the original series was going to be abruptly abandoned--replaced permanently by this "Mega Man X" reboot--when it deserved at least an epic final entry.

My fears were somewhat allayed as I started focusing more on the text and read through the description of the game's story, which I was excited to learn was a respectful continuance of the original series, though placed many years in the future (I took this to be Capcom's assurance that the original series would get a chance at closure). I was highly intrigued by the inclusion of a ghostly Dr. Light, whose presence was evidence of a clear link between the two series. I spent the month in following wondering about their true connection plus how and if other established characters like Proto Man and Roll would be returning; many a school hour was spent drawing up dozens of possible storyline scenarios in the back of my notebooks (my recurring theory was that X was secretly a refurbished old-school Mega Man, wiped of his memory). As the game's release edged nearer, my anticipatory activities only grew more spirited.

For certain, it was the first time in a long time that I spent my own money on a Mega Man game without feeling like a complete sap; after years of resigning myself to disappointment, here I was able to once again excitedly rush home, tear open a Mega Man game's packaging, and pore over the manual hoping to absorb all of its information and fully engage myself in the story. And my excitement was rewarded: I greatly enjoyed reading and re-reading through Dr. Cain's fascinating "journal entries," which detailed his excavation of X's capsule, his ongoing progress in the creation of Reploids, and his coping with the emergence of the Maverick forces. I thought it was a unique and interesting approach to introducing a game's narrative and establishing character motivation through the first-person perspective of Dr. Cain; it worked to create compelling mental renderings of figures like Sigma and Zero, who I couldn't wait to meet!

Mega Man X was a game that spoke to me in the loudest tones from the moment I snapped it into the SNES and flicked that purple switch. I barely understood what was going on in that intro with all of those tech specifications being strewn about the screen, but somehow the bewildering confluence of aural and visual chaos filled me with a sense that the Capcom was ready to remove all harnesses and clear the way for an unrestrained journey into the unknown. The first stop was the gateway to my adventure--the proceeding title screen, which blew me away with its visual energy and one of the most rockin', invigorating title-screen themes I'd ever heard! I had to stop and let it play a few times--draw empowerment from its every rousing drum beat and guitar stroke--before taking the next step.

As X confirmed my choice of "Game Start" with his charged buster shot, I prepared to be tossed directly onto the typical Robot Master-style selection screen as I had in so many other Mega Man games, but I'd instead arrived on what looked to be a standalone intro stage, which was already a startlingly huge departure from the norm; I was unceremoniously thrust into a highway scene, right into the thick of the action, and immediately informed of the world's impending instability via the image of denizens speedily fleeing westward, away from danger, in their robotic vehicles; I was anxious to find out what was waiting for me just a few screens over, but I decided to hang around the opening area for a bit and gauge X's movements while taking in the atmosphere of the place (I loved the background visual of a vast, sprawling cityscape contrasted against a foreboding skyline)--to familiarize myself with this new version of Mega Man and the world in which he was born into.

The graphics, the music, the sound effects--every aspect of the game was brimming with intensity, almost as if Capcom was loudly advertising upfront that this was a grown-up, matured Mega Man experience, its action familiar yet not bound by the old shackles of convention. My first run through this highway stage was all about learning the timing for enemy attacks; in my earliest experiences, the big blue bots' spark and missile attacks seemed so much swifter in execution than anything I'd ever seen in an action game, Mega Man X wasting no time in making it abundantly clear that I was going to have to buckle down and sharpen my reflexes if I hoped to stand a chance. At first, I was kind of overwhelmed by the speed of these encounters, but I would later come to credit them with helping me to greatly improve my reaction time--one of many things Mega Man X did for me as an enthusiast.

Mega Man X was filled with spectacle and exhilarating action. Helicopter enemies violently thrust their spiky protrusions down onto the highway's surface, destroying it layer by layer. The comforting luminance ominously faded to signal the emergence of threatening mid-bosses. The destroyed carcasses of giant robotic insects crashed to the ground, epically collapsing entire sections of the highway with great "cinematic flair" ("cleverly disguised slowdown"), the resulting destruction sending all parties plummeting to the ruins below. Breathtaking wall-jumps, executed so very simply, added a whole new dimension to the gameplay and single-handedly set Mega Man X apart. An enormous aircraft menacingly hovered overhead, its hatches serving as the drop-off point for vehicle-riding baddies and a frightening Boba Fett analog (Vile) in a nimble mech suit.

I hadn't even finished the first stage and I could already confidently state that this was the Mega Man I'd long been searching for.

Zero rushing in from offscreen to save X from certain death at the large, crushing hands of Vile's mech was one of the most awesome moments in gaming history; his utterly heroic musical theme, his staring down and repelling of a super-tough enemy, his calm and collected aura--everything about Zero screamed "coolness." His was the type of riveting entrance kids would daydream about making, their imaginations filled with images of swooping in at the last minute to take out the bad guy and save his imperiled friends. Just listening to Zero's adrenaline-pumping theme was enough to make me wish I could be a hero in a world just like Mega Man X's. Unfortunately, though, I got stuck here for the next 20 years.

There's something about a Mega Man game's choose-your-own-path style of progression that makes it difficult for me to recall a specific chronology of events, and as a result so many of my memories blend together and elude my attempts to afford them true origin. But I remember that my adventure started on Chill Penguin's stage, which would become my customary initial choice for the rest of time--Chill Penguin being my Mega Man X equivalent of iconic starters like Guts Man and Air Man; my first run through his stage sticks in my memory because it entailed my first meeting with the holographic vestige of Dr. Light, whose somber appraisal of the situation combined with a hauntingly pensive capsule theme to create powerfully conveyed emotional undertones unlike any I'd ever felt in previous Mega Man games, which were unrelentingly upbeat even in the face of Dr. Wily's apocalyptic schemes. I was caught off guard by the gravity of its sad, reflective strains, which I'm sure elicited chills as they wholly enveloped me.

Appropriately, the music inspired thoughts about how all of this came to be--about the ills that must've befallen Dr. Light and the sanguine Mega Man universe as I once knew it. I was going to keep playing Mega Man X because its gameplay was topnotch, but as of this moment--one of the most memorable in the 16-bit era--mine was an equal-part motivation to advance the story and learn more about the nature of the original series' residual influence.

I emerged from the capsule with the dash move (X's superior version of the slide maneuver), of which I was instantly a fan; like the wall-jump, its inclusion added a whole new dimension to the standard Mega Man action. The dash move allowed for me to tackle the game's wide variety of platforming scenarios with breathtaking leaps and acrobatic zeal and provided me the means for of keeping the action moving at a desirably blistering pace. 

Mega Man X sought to distinguish itself in any way it could, with many of its seemingly slight tweaks turning out to be critically important additions; the more I experimented with these enhancements--like the ability to cycle through my available weapons using the shoulder buttons and exit stages I've already cleared--the more I appreciated their distinct contributions to the establishment of the game's uninterrupted tempo, which is what made Mega Man X what was.

Mega Man X was proving to be transcendent in every way--so much so that I couldn't help but occasionally park the controller and take some time to soak it all in. I spent most of that first session, in fact, making mental notes about its remarkable aesthetic achievements; for one, the game was gorgeous-looking, its every vibrant texture flush with detail and rendered in a way that made me wonder about what was going in beyond all of those forest patches, mountains and corridors. The action moved briskly (save for a few more instances of slowdown, which I was willing to overlook and play along that it was actually a "cinematic technique"), the characters were superbly drawn and wonderfully animated, and the wild boss encounters were punctuated with some of the most impressive, if not excessive, explosion effects in the history of explosion effects!

Mega Man X refused to skimp on even the tiniest detail (sometimes to the detriment of its frame-rate), which was one of my main takeaways.

Also, the soundtrack continued to be incredible, its spirited dynamism never ceasing and its every successive stage theme seemingly more rockin' than the last. It was one of those musical efforts that made me stop and wonder if the composer was possessed at the time ("From what divine, otherworldly source did you derive?" summed up my reaction to what I was hearing). Every Mega Man game had three or four standout themes and a few very-good ones, but X was loaded with top contenders, each track a masterwork in storytelling through sound. My favorite theme belonged to Storm Eagle's stage; though short in length, it had me deeply invested in its rousing tale about a helmeted hero taking to the skies and relentlessly chasing down a rogue aircraft. Storm Eagle's stirring theme encapsulated everything that made the game's music such a triumph in enrapturing augmentation, the soundtrack so unremittingly energetic that Mega Man X sometimes felt like an action movie come to life.

I don't remember how, exactly, that first session with Mega Man X terminated or if it took me more than a few hours to complete it (the suit upgrades and the allocation of four rechargeable sub tanks worked to compromise the game's difficulty, though I do recall having some trouble with Sigma's final form, which always took me to the limit), but I could never forget the first time I watched that final scene with X standing on the mountain cliff. Once again catching me off guard with its emotionally driven narrative, the sobering text scroll and its disconsolate musical accompaniment filled me with sadness and almost broke me (almost), as if I cared about X and his unenviable plight; it was a poignant finale to my Mega Man X experience and yet an encouraging start to a series that was bound to become something truly special (well, about that...). 

As I handed myself over to the contrastingly optimistic credits sequence, with its inspiriting music, I knew that I had fallen in love with Mega Man X and couldn't wait to revisit it.

If I had zero expectations going in, then Mega Man X was prepared to defiantly whip up a set of its own and then smash it to pieces in protest; in doing so, it succeeded in elevating the series to new heights, scoring perfect in almost every conceivable category. It was an aesthetic masterpiece. It controlled beautifully, X able to gracefully soar through the air with pinpoint directional influence (though, I would have liked to be able to turn off the dash's alternate double-tap input, which tripped me up more than a few times). The weapons were fun to use--some of them a bit plain and derivative in their default form but otherwise a combination of creative and wonderfully destructive when charged up. And the level design was outstanding; I loved exploring every inch of the stages' expansive terrain and searching out the locations of sub tanks, heart pieces and hidden areas. 

I loved, also, how the stages' layouts, themselves, told their own stories while contributed to the ongoing narrative. Mega Man X featured a brilliant (and sadly abandoned) mechanic wherein preemptively clearing certain stages would helpfully alter others. The infrastructure of Spark Mandrill's electrical power station, for instance, would be torn to shreds if I were to first complete Storm Eagle's stage, the fallout of which Eagle's destroyed aircraft crashing down into Mandrill's domain and crippling it; battling and defeating Chill Penguin in his snowy mountain habitat would cause an avalanche to spill onto the reactor of Flame Mammoth's factory stage, whose expansive fiery pits would be frozen over and rendered harmless as a result.

The were even in-stage micro events, like in Sting Chameleon's forest stage, where I could halt a cavern's violent tremors by defeating the massive service bot that was stomping about in the hidden area above and directly causing the damaging rock shower. And still some stories were more subtlety told, like the one involving that lone Bubble Bat found early on in Armored Armadillo's stage; its misfit appearance told such a sad tale, the little fellow obviously a leftover, obsolete remnant from the old Mega Man universe. That it was able to hang around so long--to survive for nearly a century following its production--made me feel bad for killing it, though I didn't mind collecting all of those 1ups it seemed to drop exclusively.

Mega Man X's was a fully formed world, wholly its own creation and yet respectful to its source material. I thought the best example was how the designers ditched the 8-capsule fallback and instead interspersed the Maverick bosses into the second and third stages of Sigma's castle, which was a much-appreciated nod to the original Mega Man (I loved that they honored the original by positioning the cutter-brandishing Boomer Kuwanger as the first in line as they once did with the scissor-tossing Cut Man). They even kept the old Robot Master transition music, which helped to keep the original series close to heart at a time when kids like me were probably fearing for its legacy.

I couldn't yet say that Mega Man X was my favorite game in the entire series, but I was quick to rank it amongst the best games on the SNES, which similarly powered through my veil of pessimism and became something I adored. I loved it so much that I couldn't stop playing or thinking about it; it was with me everywhere I went. I'd continued to spend school hours exploring its themes, writing up my own interpretations of its story, and drawing up theories as to how the series were connected. I'd use my tape recorder to capture all of the game's audio and listen to it while I was at my aunt's house, generally rocking out to it but otherwise using it as augmentation to my daydreams. I'd listen to the Sigma Stage 1 theme, for instance, and let its mysterious tones inspire an imagined scene where I stealthily infiltrated a tightly guarded mountain fortress under the cover of night; or I'd incessantly play to the credits theme and imagine that I was running home to great fanfare after completing a heroic mission.

I could enjoy Mega Man X for its action and its aesthetics, but I could also find time to marvel at its hidden depth and appreciate the little touches, like the selection screen's special squares that would allow me to view the Maverick's technical specifications and their stages' location on the map, and how they designed it so that the Ride Armor robots would instead be stationed beside their vehicle if I were to mosey in without a Rider Armor of my own, the act affording me precious time to nullify their potential advantage. Also, Sigma's startling post-credits appearance worked where so many of the series' other cliffhanger moments failed, his piercing words purposeful and providing a great lead-in to a sequel, which I was very much anticipating.

It was the biggest deal in the world when Nintendo Power Volume 60 arrived with news of an impossibly-well-hidden power-up that would allow me to obtain a Hadouken move as taken straight from out of Street Fighter II--another of Capcom's masterpieces. The fireball was pretty much game-breaking in that its blast was potent enough to take out any boss, including Sigma, in a single shot, but it was a super-cool Eager egg nonetheless. Though, I wasn't at all a fan of the process you had to undergo to acquire it--having to throw myself into a pit four times beforehand; luckily that 1up doling Bubble Bat was present early on in the stage in question. While I had some fun with the Hadouken at the time of discovery, I mostly ignored it in the future because procuring it was time-consuming and it further compromised the game's difficulty.

A lot of what I learned about Mega Man X was actually done so in retrospect, like how you could cut off Flame Mammoth's arms and Launch Octopus' tentacles using the Boomerang Cutter. I was absolutely floored to learn that you could grab the buster upgrade much earlier in the game--in Mammoth's stage--when it was my long-held belief that it could only be procured via the cut-scene following Zero's death! To wield it that early in the game almost felt taboo.

In time, Mega Man X would become one of my most-played games ever, my level of admiration for it so great that I could confidently proclaim it "the perfect Mega Man game." Sure--it played upon an existing template and was formulaic in many ways, but it did it so well--turned the volume up so high--that the similarities were hardly any kind of anchor. It felt so fresh and new, regardless--a credit to its rejuvenated creators. Take, for instance, Sigma's mountain fortress, whose design received so much care and attention that it actually felt like something special, much like the how Wily's castles did in the days before Mega Man's creators got fat and happy.

Unfortunately, though, future Sigma strongholds (or at least his henchmen's) wouldn't resonate with me in the same way, nor would any of Mega Man X's sequels. Sadly, Inafune and his crew would fall right back into old habits and begin pumping out sequels that were no larger in scope than the original work and unnecessarily complicated in place of innovative. As much as I wanted for Capcom to blow me away with inspired, large-scale follow-ups to one of the greatest games ever made, they were content to deliver me more of the same; none of the sequels could come anywhere near as close to capturing my imagination, nor could they hold my attention for longer than a few weeks. If in the years ahead I was craving some Mega Man X action, it would be that I'd rather play the original, which, in my opinion, was superior in quality to both Mega Man Xs 2 and 3.

I mean, they were solid games and all, but they were no Mega Man X, which came along at the right time--when I needed it most--and changed my world for the better. Ever since then, it's been an important part of who I am as an enthusiast. I'm still not comfortable with calling it my "favorite" game in the series, since I remain so very much enamored with the first three NES games, but I maintain that it's pretty much the perfect video game.

Twenty years later, I'm still not able to succinctly articulate why games like Mega Man X are "perfect," and I struggle to come up with a satisfying explanation for why their creators haven't been able to successfully replicate them. Though, I think I'm starting to understand: It's not about what you create as much as how much heart and passion you put into it. Technology and know-how aren't enough on their own. Hell--seven inferior Mega Man X sequels prove as much.

Mega Man X, however, shows us that you can improve upon an old idea--far beyond anyone's wildest dreams--if you're willing to take the risk.

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