Friday, September 11, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Second Chances - Memory Log #44

Mega Man X2 & Mega Man X3

I think by this point I've blabbered on long enough about how much I love the original Mega Man X. I mean, sure--I could certainly dedicate more time to further quantifying my fondness for the game by piecing together scattered memories and discussing the measure of their resonance, but that would be superfluous; all of the most important points have already been made. Though, for the purpose of framing this particular piece, I'd like to add the following adjunct: Mega Man X has long been the only game in the X series I've cared to play.

It's not that I don't believe its sequels to be quality games (at least those of which I've played); no--it's more that I'm indifferent to their existence because not a single one of them succeeds in achieving the same level of excellence, nor does the scope of their content convey to me that their creators were striving to advance Mega Man X's established formula in any meaningful way. Rather, theirs was a swift, determined march toward the realm of ordinary. The original Mega Man series was three games deep before its creators ran out of ambition and resigned themselves to a future of profitability over progression, but the X series began its decline immediately following the the inaugural entry! That's not how it should have been; Mega Man X, a game whose every pixel was soaked with inspiration, deserved at least its Mega Man 3.

Instead, Capcom followed up its SNES masterwork with two straight disappointments--Mega Man X2 and Mega Man X3, whose strict adherence to convention was so instantly obvious to me that I needn't play more than two stages of either before I started to grow apathetic. I'd wait for something amazing to happen--to be wowed by a mind-blowingly innovative game-mechanic or an awesomely new twist on level design--but nothing ever did. My only choice, then, was to abandon all hope and accept the fact that these games were so steeped in formula that any hint of transcendent game design was unlikely to be found. There were some promising signs, sure, like when I could play as Zero for a few minutes or test out some new model of Ride Armor, but such instances would sadly terminate before they could blossom into anything grander.

I could only describe Mega Man X2 and 3 as "more of the same," and even then they somehow felt like less. They fell so flat with me that I rarely felt compelled to play them; in fact, had I not been the author of my own video-game-themed "Superbooks"--within which I mapped out the Mega Man games' stages, fleshed out their stories, and provided descriptions for their weapons and enemies--I might have completely abandoned the sequels not long after X3's '96 release. 

But that's how it wound up working out, anyway. Once I lost interest in playing games for the purpose of writing about them in my books, I had no more need for X's sequels; I wouldn't go anywhere near them again for five years.

That nothing about either game stands out to me is the reason they continue to blend together in my memory (for a while there, I'd often forget which Mavericks belonged to which game). That's why it seems appropriate for me to lump them together into a single entry.

I'll start with Mega Man X2, for which I had such high hopes.


Mega Man X's surprise post-credits sequence, in which Sigma's visage appeared on the background's teal-colored monitor (which originally appeared to be nothing more than a stylish detail) and threatened to return in a new form, was an effective cliffhanger for me. I was eager to see where the story was headed and how Sigma's alleged resurrection was going to affect change in X's universe. More so, I couldn't wait to see how the reinvigorated Capcom was planning to top what was perhaps its greatest creation ever.


Though, Nintendo Power Volume 67's first preview of Mega Man X2 raised a few red flags; it was pretty standard in terms of providing a brief plot synopsis and select gameplay details, but its enthusiastic tone was repeatedly tempered by worrisome comments like "the same great gameplay as last year's original 16-bit Mega Pak" and "Mega Man X2 isn't a revolution--it's just a lot of fun." Seeds of doubt were certainly planted, but they didn't sprout immediately, because I was otherwise easily distracted by the rather intriguing information about Capcom's newly invented "C4 chip," which was said to possess the capability to boost the game's graphics beyond anything we've seen and allow for rotating boss characters and "deep, 3D perspectives." Future issues even made a big deal out of its ability to render of a "wire-framed" Sigma boss.

If there was there anyone out there gullible enough to get excited about a game merely for the fact that it was built around graphical trickery, it was me, so I was kind of looking forward to seeing what Capcom was going to do with its new technology. For whatever reason, I just wasn't feeling as excited for Mega Man X2 as I thought I should have been, so I allowed for my interest in the game's C4-enhanced visuals to become the driving force behind my purchase.


Reading through the game's manual certainly didn't instill me with any confidence; it was so compact and plain-looking compared to Mega Mega X's, and it lacked a similarly appealing storytelling device (its newspaper-styled "Future Times" article was eye-catching, though not as creative or immersing as Dr. Cain's journal entries). The importance of video-game manuals might have been dwindling at that point, but they were still an essential part of the package.

Mega Man X2 started falling flat with me moments after I switched on the SNES. Its title-screen music wasn't nearly as rockin' or energizing as its predecessor's. The intro stage wasted its intense lead-in, the Reploid Factory beyond neither as elaborately structured or epic-feeling as X's besieged highway. And none of the designers seemed to realize that a gigantic stage boss doesn't automatically generate a sense of awe, especially when you can take it out with four or five charge-shots.


My first selection was Wire Sponge's stage, since English-writing method taught me to always start at the top-left when given the choice. It was a poor decision: I found Sponge's stormy Weather Control Center to be unusually cramped, aesthetically drab, and devoid of interesting enemies. Its challenges, instead, were built around inhibiting weather conditions and the use of tricky jumps to navigate across series of narrow, vertically moving platforms platforms. Having to constantly fight against a resistive downpour reminded me of my first experience with Toad Man's stage, which was equally unpleasant and left me with a sinking feeling.

After failing several times to safely work my way around those moving platforms--X meeting one spiky death after another--I concluded that Mega Man X2 was going to be a much-tougher game. My assumption was correct: Successive Maverick stages continued to demand that I put to work my advanced Mega Man X skills (long-distance jumps of all variety plus those used to perform wraparound maneuvers), which were considered basic here, if I hoped to endure them. Also, I seemed to be taking damage at a much greater rate, the enemy hordes efficiently wiping me out whenever I was slow to react to their presence. When you consider my frame of mind at the time, you can understand why I listed this as a big negative.


Putting Wire Sponge's stage aside, Mega Man X2 was an aesthetically pleasing game. I was most impressed with its background graphics and foreground texturing, which produced memorable scenes like the fleeting ocean sunset of Bubble Crab's submarine base, the scrolling war-torn city whose oppressive buildings stood uncomfortably close to Wheel Gator's aircraft, the parallax dunes of Overdrive Ostrich desert habitat, and the flanking scrap heaps of Morph Moth's junkyard. Stages like Wheel Gator's personalized tank and Overdrive Ostrich's sandstorm-plagued missile base had at least a unique flavor to them,
if not a particularly memorable cast of minor enemies. The latter even allowed for X to ride on those motorbikes as seen in the intro! Though, I had an awful time trying to control them--specifically when attempting to boost off that final ramp and arrive safely on the other side with the bike intact, which was required if I wanted to procure the stage's heart-tank power-up.


The soundtrack was high-quality, too, though, again, not quite as rocking or empowering as Mega Man X's. If anything, the composer's best piece was reserved was reserved for the X-Hunter stages, which frankly needed the strong musical augmentation, since their visuals and level design were otherwise forgettable.

Though, what really dragged the game down for me was the application of the new X-Hunter system. The addition of roving sub-bosses Agile, Serges and Violen--all of whom were ridiculously overpowered compared to their Maverick minions, which was troubling because you almost had to encounter them early on--wrecked the flow of the game and put pressure on me to clear stages out of order, lest I'd miss the chance to defeat them and retrieve Zero's stolen parts. Ordinarily, I'd simply kill myself and hope for one of them to shift over to the next stage in my natural order, but doing so only served to cheapen the experience. The penalty for avoiding them was having to fight the real Zero, as reconstructed and reprogrammed by Sigma and his pals, in the final X-Hunter stage, which triggered the bad ending. 


Save for the few times I didn't believe a game to be worth such an effort, I was always the type to strive for the best ending possible. However, I questioned if it was worth taking the trouble in Mega Man X2, whose X-Hunter system felt less like a bold new gameplay mechanic and more like the Mega Man team's typical ploy of adding superfluous content in favor of endeavoring to create something that could truly differentiate a game from its direct predecessor. Bringing back the X-Hunters later on as final-stage bosses only exacerbated the feeling of redundancy. Hell--the second battle with Violen was virtually the same as the first! "How cheap is that?" I questioned.

And, really, the whole subplot of X fighting to regain Zero's parts kind of bothered me. Zero's return was meant to be all heroic-feeling and celebratory, but for me it only served to make a mockery of the first game's emotional parting. "Why should I be sad when a Reploid dies when they can simply be rebuilt at any time?" I wondered. 

It reminded me of why I largely avoided comic books, to which I referred as "consequence-free entertainment" (anyone who dies will inevitably be brought back, and the status quo will always be maintained). The "mature" Mega Man X series, I thought, was supposed to be above such silliness.


I liked how Magna Centipede's stage entailed the meeting area as shared by the X-Hunters during those scenes where they plotted their next move against X. Call it another weird fetish, but games always earned points with me when they allowed me to visit places as depicted in shadowy cut-scenes (as did Rolling Thunder, wherein you suddenly arrive at that large computer monitor as seen on the title screen). 

What I didn't like was how they recycled this same stage for use as the final battleground; its all-too-familiar aesthetic qualities prevented the Sigma fight from feeling as epic as it should have been (similar to how the Dracula Duck showdown in Ducktales was diminished a bit by the lack of specially crafted decor). Our battle should have taken place at the cloudy heights of a tall tower or somewhere within a mysterious cavern--not at the place with the falling blocks. Also, the appearance of the wire-framed Neo Sigma wasn't as impactful as it should have been, since I'd already seen the C4 (properly termed "Cx4") technology at work earlier on in this very same stage--when I tangled with a rotating, wired-framed sword enemy ("Chop Register," as it's called). I didn't find the Neo Sigma battle to be particularly creative, either. 


All Neo Sigma was doing, essentially, was moving from left to right and back, and it seemed as though the designers were hoping that the technology, itself, would be impressive enough to justify the price of entry. As far as I was concerned, it wasn't; no--the Sigma battles in Mega Man X were far more climactic and memorable with only their meager "sprite technology."

I was being hard on Mega Man X2 for a reason. It had a lot to live up to and fell woefully short. Oh, I thought it was a well-made game, and it certainly had its moments, but it was disappointingly inferior to Mega Man X in every measurable category. At its core, it was an exact duplicate: Beat eight Mavericks, gather and collect eight heart tanks and four sub tanks, and locate four Dr. Light Capsules. Being equal to a predecessor in terms of content is fine, but it doesn't relieve you of the responsibility of having to somehow raise the bar (even the game's big secret, the Street Fighter II-inspired Shoryuken uppercut, felt safe and predictable). Considering how much Capcom blew me away with the inspired Mega Man X, I was certain that the company had regained its mojo and stood ready to take its newly established X series to the next level, but, sadly, it didn't work out that way. Instead, I was so unmoved by the experience that I didn't even feel compelled to immediately replay Mega Man X2. 


Though, I had to give it one thing: I was genuinely intrigued by the ending sequence and particularly Sigma's inference that Zero was "the last of the doctor's creations." That single utterance fascinated me to no end and spawned pages'-worth of theories in my Superbooks; I'd propose that maybe Zero was a refurbished Proto Man (because his log number "000" had to have been the adopted title for "Zero"), or perhaps he could have been a mutinous creation of Dr. Wily.


This was Mega Man X2's best hook, and I had vowed to purchase a future X title just to see where Zero's story arc was headed. And maybe I'd be surprised. I mean, there was surely a possibility that Capcom was ready to redeem itself with that real next-level Mega Man X sequel I'd been waiting for.

Right?


Well, no. My experience with Mega Man X3 was total Groundhog Day material. All of the complaints I lodged toward Mega Man X2 were still valid here.

The intrusive tactics of the Nightmare Police, Bit and Byte, were a complete retread of what the X-Hunters had done a game earlier. Neither was as overpowered in comparison, but their very appearance, similarly, messed with the flow of the game and threatened to potentially thwart my bid to earn the best ending. In the case of the returning Vile, whose presence was only slightly less intrusive, it was necessary that I access his base sometime before defeating the final Maverick, lest I'd suffer the same fate of missing out on two of the true Sigma bosses and the game's best ending. Sometimes I'd forget about the early Vile encounter altogether, firmly slotting him instead as a final-stage boss, and wind up getting pissed when the Bit-Byte combo (Godkarmachine O Inary) would show up in Sigma Stage 1 in place of the elephant boss ("Press Disposer"). 


Hell--missing an opportunity to take down Bit, Byte or Vile was such a common occurrence that the older me didn't even have memories of any "alternate bosses." I didn't, that is, until late-2000, when someone informed me by email that the "Mega Man X3 Characters" page on my now-defunct Mega Man website was missing the elephant and squid bosses (and I was apparently so unenthused about the idea of playing X3 for the purpose of ripping sprites that I never bothered to actually add them to the page).

All the same, it was an aesthetically pleasing game but the weakest of the three in terms of graphics and music. Oh, it had some memorable background work: I liked in particular Neon Tiger's sprawling jungle as illuminated by a beautiful sunset, the snow-covered city ruins of Blizzard Buffalo's arctic base, the richly dense scrolling skyline that could be seen encircling Gravity Beetle's airport complex, and the gloriously flowing waterfalls of Toxic Seahorse's reservoir. But everything else ranged from generic-looking to overly mechanical.


Its soundtrack featured pieces that were certainly on the par with the original's (the stage themes for Toxic Seahorse and Gravity Beetle, in particular), but again--there just wasn't that sustained level of excellence. Those like Blizzard Buffalo's drab-sounding stage theme and the uninspired, particularly unemotive Light Capsule theme (by far the worst of the three) were proof that the game's composers were running out of inspiration.


Also, X3 had some questionably bad boss design. A few of the Mavericks' offense repertoires consisted entirely of predictably dashing across the room in a straight line, their movement easily evaded with wall-jumps and air-dashes. Hell--Blizzard Buffalo and Tunnel Rhino, both of whom specialized in this practice, were practically the same boss. At the least, certain Mavericks, like Crush Crawfish, weren't as instantly neutered by their weapon weakness and would continue to mount some semblance of a response. Not that it made fighting them any fun. No, not at all.


Mega Man X3's was a case of either too much or not enough. Getting to play as Zero and stylishly finish off enemies with his wicked green sabre was cool, but his appearance in the game was otherwise anchored by a painfully restrictive set of rules (he's unable to fight Mavericks, and you permanently lose the ability to switch to him if he dies during one of the stages); I wanted to switch to Zero at every opportunity, truly, but I was hesitant to do so because I didn't trust myself to keep him alive. I enjoyed experimenting with the new Ride Armor models, too, but the sequences that were designed for their use weren't terribly fun or interesting. "How about letting me take one of these into a boss battle?" I proposed. 


Otherwise, X3 is where the series started to grow unnecessarily complex. All I wanted to do was collect Light's upgrades and well the heart and sub tanks. I didn't especially care to acquire any "special" armor upgrades (I would always choose the second air-dash, since it was the only one that proved useful if not game-breaking) or the Gold Armor that by its very existence trivialized the entire concept. "There's no need for any of it," I thought. "Why not just come up with interesting new ideas for the standard armor-set?"


Throw in the intrusive sub-bosses with their flaky requirements, and you had a Mega Man X game that was more complicated than it needed to me. The key to expanding the formula in a meaningful way, I felt, lay in the developers' ability to rethink their approach to level and character design (you know--like letting us play as Zero without restriction!) rather than come up with new ways to pack in more collectibles.


Mega Man X3 was most certainly the toughest of the three games. The great degree of enemy traffic--and my spastic response to it--would often leave me in a crippled state early on in a stage; the game was littered with difficult jumps that required creative use of air-dashing; and a lot of the special items (heart tanks, sub tanks, and Ride Armor modules) were especially difficult to corral--they, too, requiring creative use of X's abilities. Specifically, I remember having a miserable time trying to deal with the final form of Sigma, whose hitbox was so comically tiny that I almost lost my mind as I struggled to successfully land a single goddamned shot. Had I not discovered quick-and-easy solutions for refilling sub tanks (including standing still when decked out in Gold Armor), I might have had no choice but to quit--for the sake of my health. Few final bosses had ever infuriated me in that way. 


The battle was more maddening than epic, and the chase sequence that followed was too annoying to feel climactic. 

And if I was pissed off, then the ending scene was likely little consolation. For one, I didn't understand what it was trying to tell me--why X had to "destroy Zero" in order to save mankind--and was left feeling empty. Also, there was absolutely no followup on X2's allusion to Dr. Wily, which was tremendously disappointing but not surprising considering how Capcom had played me in the past. "And why the hell is the credits theme a variation of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer?" I wondered in my moment of disillusionment. Could someone tell me, please?


And that was my relationship with Mega Man X2 and 3. I completely misplaced my faith in Capcom, which I presumed was riding a wave of renewed passion of vigor, and what I got instead was a cold slap informing me that nothing about the company had actually changed. Mega Man X's SNES sequels stood atop my list of the generation's biggest letdowns, as they only served to narrowly define the series' scope.

These days, ever-consumed by the thick fog of nostalgia, I can't help but feel a little more welcoming of Capcom's efforts. I mean, I still view all of the X sequels as inferior to the original, but I think my criticisms of them might have been a tad bit excessive. Having played them again recently, I can say that they're actually pretty good games when judged on their own merits (the first few, at least). In fact, I now feel about them the same way I feel about the original series' post-Mega Man 3 sequels: I'm glad they exist in a world that has long since forgotten their core values; indeed, the retro scene would be a much emptier space without them. Honestly, they're needed now more than ever

Personally, I look forward to playing them again when they become available in a preferred format.

"But what about those other Mega Man X sequels?" you ask. 

Well, my friend, that's a whole other story.

2 comments:

  1. I share your reverence for X1, I didn't care for X2 at all (other than some of the awesome tunes), but I did, and still do, enjoy X3 immensely (possibly even moreso than X1 even). I also liked X4 on the PS1, but X5 and X6 were both lesser entries in my opinion (and it still irks me to no end that some "comedian" on the localization crew renamed all of the X5 Mavericks with Guns 'n Roses inspired monikers--don't get me wrong, I love the band's music, but that kind of crap does not belong in a Mega Man game). On the Playstation 2, X7 tried too hard to be more of a 3D game (and I never liked X/Zero's new third wheel, Axl), with poor results, which Capcom mostly rectified in X8, but neither one of those was all that great either. The PS2 Mega Man X: Command Mission RPG was okay though (it's a wonder Capcom never made a classic Mega Man RPG in a similar vein). I'm a fan of the later Mega Man Zero Gameboy Advance games too, but the Gameboy Color Mega Man Xtreme rehashes, while serviceable, were inferior to the Gameboy classic Mega Man (I-V) rearrangements.

    I'm not sure why, but Sigma never sat well with me--he's a poor successor to the delightfully deranged Dr. Albert Einstein, er, Wily. Sigma just never impressed me much as an uber villain (although some of his more monstrous, final forms look cool). I think Vile should have been the ultimate evil, and Sigma his lackey, not the other way around--Vile's more sinister looking, even if he's basically just a Boba Fett rip-off.

    Have you ever played the polygonal remake of X1, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, on PSP? I never have (largely 'cuz I don't, and have never had, a PSP), but it looks interesting (aside from the graphical upgrade, you can play the entire game as Vile).

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    1. I had a PSP, but I avoided the Mega Man games for two reasons: (1) It was too costly to keep up with new releases for two portable systems at a time, and (2) I'd basically turned my back on the series following my poor experience with Mega Man X6 (I didn't touch any of the DS Mega Man games for the same reason).

      Really, though, I've had my eye on Powered Up for the longest time. It looks like a fun reimagining of the original, but what draws my interest most is the ability to play as the Robot Masters, which is something I've wanted to do since the 80s.

      It seems inevitable that it'll somehow find its way into my collection.

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