Friday, August 11, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Disappointment and Regret - Memory Log #55

Mega Man X4, X5 & X6

Let's put Mega Man X2 and Mega Man X3 aside for a moment. Because if we're really going to highlight Mega Man X games that so inextricably blend together in my memory that I'd struggle to identify any single Maverick, stage theme, weapon, or graphical detail as belonging to a respective game, then we have to talk about Mega Man Xs 4 through 6.

Really, I find theirs to be a whole new level of indistinguishability.

I'm quite serious: If you were to put me on the spot, I wouldn't be able to point out the ways in which X4 and X5's plots differ. I'd likely fail to place any of the supporting characters. I'd have to guess as to which soundtrack belongs to X6.

About all I remember for certain is that they're practically identical in terms of storyline, visual style, mode of progression, and overall content. And that's regrettable because it shouldn't have worked out that way; rather, I should be here talking about my cherished memory of how the PlayStation trilogy of X titles built toward the series' unforgettable grand finale! But, sadly, I can't do that.

"So where did things go wrong?" you ask.

Well, it all started a few days earlier, when Mega Man 8 was failing to set my world on fire. I was looking for it to finally evolve the classic Mega Man formula in a meaningful way, whereas Mega Man 7 unfortunately punted the ball, but it chose to instead closely adhere to the established template, whose age was now showing. At the time, I viewed Mega Man 8 as disappointingly derivative, its a wasted opportunity to use the power of 32-bit hardware to showcase newly conceived, boldly innovative design techniques. And as I plummeted into a bottomless pit for, oh, the 50th time during one of those "Jump! Jump! Slide! Slide!" segments, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to be finished with this game so that I could move on to Mega Man X4 (purchased in tandem), for which I had high hopes.

I didn't believe it so delusional to think that history would repeat itself--that Mega Man X4 would heroically dash its way onto the scene and conjure the evolutionary spirit of its amazingly ambitious progenitor.

And now the burden fell on Mega Man X4 to deliver to that expectation.


And, well, the early signs were discouraging.


My heart dropped when the action commenced and it became immediately apparent that X4 had resolved to replicate Mega Man 8's--and not its SNES predecessors'--general aesthetic. X's sprite sported that same scaled-down, anemic look. Once again the "slick" redesign for health and weapon-energy pellets stripped them of character and distinguishability. And it remained true that the now-generically-styled green energy meter was so much less distinctive in comparison to the traditional sliver-based meter, which I saw as essential to the Mega Man series' fabric. I mean, the game looked OK, and it animated nicely, but something about this visual style was just off.


Everything about the game's level design seemed antithetical to the foundational tenets established by the original Mega Man X: The stages were cramped and linear, their navigable spaces often limited to narrow corridors. Its action was normally locked to a single screen, and as a result there was a clear lack of wide-open spaces and the element of exploration. And its breaking up stages into separate parts, which was one of Mega Man 8's more egregious transgressions, served to interrupt the game's flow and erode any sense of cohesive design. I'll reprint what I said about this design choice in my Mega Man 8 piece, since it also applies here:

"All sense of logical progression would be lost when suddenly Mega Man would teleport off the screen and after a ten-second loading time reappear in a completely different area with both his health and weapon energy fully restored. Most egregiously, this constant replenishing of his meters worked to trivialize the game's challenge. 'Why bother being tactical when I can find reward for simply tanking my way through a stage section?' I reasoned."


Mega Man X4 was "graphically superior" to its predecessors from a technical perspective (with its multiple scrolling layers and large amount of onscreen activity), sure, yet there were many instances in which its environments felt flat and lifeless. It was typical that backgrounds were visually uninteresting and at times seemingly de-emphasized, their textures lacking for color and detail.

This chosen art direction rendered X4 spiritually distant. The SNES games had a patented visual style that just worked, and for some reason they decided to ditch it for one that wasn't nearly as attractive.

I mean, I was all in favor of developers trying new things--shaking up tired formulas--but I wasn't particularly fond of changes that betrayed an original vision. X4, I felt, was guilty of doing so.


Now, X4 did have some things going for it: This time, I actually liked the anime cut-scenes. Well, it's more that I found their content to be highly intriguing--particularly when it gave us a glimpse into Zero's past via flashbacks and dream sequences. As I played through Zero's campaign, I found myself riveted by those like the opening cut-scene in which we see the silhouette of Dr. Wily commanding Zero to destroy "him" (X, presumably). Later on there was another gripping scene that revealed in great detail one of the major events leading into the Mega Man X series: an extremely violent confrontation between Zero and Sigma, who at that point were on different sides of the conflict--Sigma the calm, collected champion hunter tracking down the crazed killing machine called "Zero." The implications of these events were obvious, and I was excited to see where it was all heading.


All right--so maybe some of the voice-acting was still far from appropriate. The worst example of such--and perhaps the series' most infamous--is a comical scene wherein Zero expresses his grief over the loss of Iris, his female companion, by uncharacteristically breaking down and yelling "WHAT AM I FIGHTING FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR?!" His inflection was such that it sounded more to me like he was Pee-Wee Herman reacting to someone saying the secret word ("Did someone say 'For'?! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" [dinging noises]).

No--that's probably not what they were going for.


Also, X4 boasted a few interesting level-design gimmicks (which I now recall after playing the game in preparation for this piece): There's a stage section in which X finds himself under assault by the interfering Maverick boss Jet Stingray while he blitzes across the terrain on a Ride Chaser (the hover bike we hadn't seen since Overdrive Ostrich's stage in X2). There was Slash Beast's in-transit military train with its large laser turrets and legion of patrolling Metalls (though, I'm biased here in that I've always loved stages where you ride atop trains or series of trucks). The spiraling staircase that comprised the backdrop of Split Mushroom's stage made for a memorably unique visual. And Cyber Peacock's time-based challenges were new and interesting.

These types of creatively implemented gimmicks could almost disguise their concomitant stages' cramped, constrictive linearity.


I had no complaints about the soundtrack; there weren't any standout tunes, no, but all of the compositions were solid. Though, I continued to wonder why none of the Mega Man X sequels could come close to approaching the original in terms of its consistently awesome music. Could it have been one of those missing "creative forces"? (GameFAQs tells me that X1 and X4 share the same composer, so it must have been something else.)


But as yet another underwhelming Sigma battle drew to a close, it was clear that Mega Man X4 was about to fall well short of my expectations. It had chosen the path of pure formula but not even the one its predecessors inspired; rather, it desired to share commonality with Mega Man 8, of which I didn't need to be reminded. That's how it continued: Homogeneity became a theme with the PlayStation Mega Man games; a haunting feeling of sameness pervaded their every pixel. I remember them all as one big inextricable mass.


X4 did, however, succeed in one key area: It hooked me with its story. That is, I was very eager to find out how Zero's story arc would play out--what they'd reveal about his past. That accomplishment, alone, earned the X series another chance. Oh yes--I was willing to buy a sequel just to see where the story would endeavor to take us. And with any luck, Inafune and his staff would use the time in between to find the inspiration they needed to craft a gameplay experience that was equally compelling.


That sense of eagerness persisted: I was genuinely excited to get my hands on the recently released Mega Man X5! That's right: I wasn't going to be late to the party this time! Well, not too late, at least. My copy of X5 arrived on April 25th of 2001--approximately two months after the game released--which was still within the window where I could take part in that all-important collective experience! It felt good to finally be up to date with the scene.


What pumped me up even more was the game's absolutely rockin' opening tune. I'd just begun to recognize that its softly composed, melancholic intro was a recreation of Zero's Mega Man X theme before it exploded into an electrifying piece whose super-charged metal strains filled me with energy and brought my excitement to a fever pitch. I barely knew it, yet it was already a serious challenger to the Mega Man X intro, which I'd always considered the best of the best in terms of perfect lead-ins.

From what I'd seen of it in videos, X5's gameplay was looking to be more of the same--its action solid, yes, but nothing more. Yet I couldn't find it within myself to be disappointed; honestly, I was expecting that it would closely adhere to the existing formula. So that's not where my focus was as I advanced past the title screen. All I really cared about was Zero's story; I needed to know what the game's writers were taking all of this. Truly, I couldn't wait to finish X's campaign (I preferred to play through these games individually with X and Zero rather than constantly swap between them) so I could pick up the action with Zero! I didn't care one bit about the rest of the cast (the Colonel, Double, Signas, Douglas, Moe, Larry, Steve, and whoever else) or their uninteresting character motivations, and I couldn't have been less concerned with plot developments that entailed crashing Space Colonies and other emotionally unimpactful large-scale disasters.


However, once I took control of X, my excitement turned to puzzlement. The reason: this game was chatty as hell. I quickly became agitated by Alia's frequent transmissions, which were seemingly delivered with the intent to hold the player's hand every step of the way. There were periods when she'd interrupt the action every ten seconds to notify me of something that was already patently obvious. "Why is there a hint system in a Mega Man game?!" I questioned in annoyance. "Who do they think they're making these games for?"

It never stopped.

Also, this is where the series started to go overboard with armor upgrades and the number of systems attached to them. None of it made any sense to me. I didn't know what they were going for. And I didn't care to do any research on the matter, because the whole concept was entirely uninteresting to me.


Furthermore, there was now an inexplicable mechanic that would allow for you to somehow travel to the game's final area at any time but only under certain conditions. What those conditions were, I had no clue. And again--I just didn't give a damn. All I wanted to do was play a Mega Man game without having to worry about getting a bad ending because I didn't wear Falcon armor exactly six times while battling Mavericks whose names have two Os.

It did make me wonder, though: When did Dr. Light find the time to scout these locations and station all of these upgrade capsules? I mean, how did he know to build so many of them? And how is it that no one--particularly any of the stages' Maverick guardians--ever stumbled across one of them?

It's either that Light had incredible foresight or everyone else in this world was dangerously oblivious.


Still, I was happy with certain aspects of the game. For one, I thought it was clever in how it was handling Zero's story progression, with hints and subtle inferences working to fill the gaps (Zero's initial interaction with the holographic Dr. Light made for particularly interesting scene, though I was a little concerned with what Light's feigned ignorance might mean for Zero's search for truth). It was the perfect amount of teasing. I was so ready for the big reveal!

Also, the soundtrack was pretty damn good. In contrast to X4, it had a few standouts, like the Zero Space stage theme; 2nd Encounter, which plays during the second Sigma battle; the heart-wrenching Zero's Dead, to which you should listen if you ever want to fall into depression. I didn't even mind that the composer cheated and brought back Mega Man X's Dr. Light-capsule music and the Bubble Crab stage theme (your musical accompaniment during the equally aquatic Duff McWhalen stage). Both were great recreations, and their presence went a long way toward providing the game a nostalgic link to the SNES trilogy, which were otherwise a world away.

Outside of that, there wasn't much unique about Mega Man X5. From an artistic and design standpoint, it was pretty much interchangeable with X4. It featured similarly cramped environments; the same drab, muted background work; and a number of recycled stage gimmicks like speeding across terrain in a Ride Chaser (in one of the most infuriating segments ever), navigating across moving train cars, and running up a large spiral staircase, its higher and lower portions scrolling across the background as if to create the sense that the screen was actually spiraling (still an impressive effect if you ask me).


But I was here for the story, and the game had done a great job of building to its climax. The bulk of the responsibility fell upon its cyber-themed Zero Space stages, which did brilliantly to create an air of finality and ultimate culmination. The music's melancholic, wistful vibes penetrated the soul, its accompaniment fantastically capturing the emotion and anticipation of the moment.

The first stage in the series was a clear recreation of Quick Man's habitat, its every platform remindfully crafted and its timed insta-kill lasers still as stress-inducing as ever (and in staying faithful to the design of yore, could use the time-stopping Dark Hold weapon to neutralize them!). Its final room pit me against the shape-shifting Black Devil--the most cunning and versatile in its line; what made this battle so very memorable to me was its devotion to authenticity--how it was appropriately flavored by the castle-boss theme from the original Mega Man! Suddenly I was home again.


The second was home to recognizable Mega Man X fortress boss Rangda Bangda, who functioned as expected. The third spilled into a chamber whose background displayed an instantly recognize symbol: It was a giant W--Dr. Wily's insignia. Its haunting presence supplied a sense of enormity to the X-versus-Zero encounter we'd been waiting for ever since we saw it predicted in Mega Man X3's credits. And there--in the background of the final stage's boss room: "Those are the capsules from which X and Zero emerged following their respective hibernation periods!" I excitedly observed, my anticipation-level having now reached its peak.

Something big was going to be revealed following this final battle with Sigma. I just knew it.

And here we were. Mega Man X5 had gone about paying respect to the series' three most important games (Mega Man, Mega Man 2 and Mega Man X)--those we regard as being most responsible for bringing us here. It had reminded me of who I was and where I came from. We'd come full circle. And what had begun 14 years prior in that humble little NES game with the silly box art was about to come to its grand conclusion!


Aaaaaaaand then they completely and utterly blew it. Following half-a-decade's-worth of hinting and alluding, we were given absolutely zilch. There was no big twist. No Wily reveal. And no epic finale in which Zero battled and defeated a cybernetically enhanced Dr. Wily and thereby exorcised his demons. There was no payoff whatsoever. Instead Zero died again--for, like, the tenth time--his interpretation of his recurring dream (he realizes that he was originally created to destroy Reploids) the last thought relayed to us before a loading screen abruptly ushers in the credits.

Oh, I knew where this was going, and I didn't like it at all. "Buy the sequel to see if Zero returns and discovers more about his past!" they'd likely tell me. Capcom had played me like this before. More than once the company's propensity for endless repetition had rendered my search for finality a pointless pursuit.


Quite simply, I didn't want to be baited anymore. I didn't want buy any more Mega Man X sequels. I was done.

Mega Man X5 should have been it. That Sigma battle should have been the last one ever fought. That soul-touching, apex-rendering Zero Space theme should have endured as the tune that colored our memories of a series that knew when its time had come.


Instead there was Mega Man X6.

And yeah--I talked myself into buying it. I twisted myself into submission using all sorts of mental gymnastics. I put up whatever front was needed to suppress those feelings of shame as I clicked over to Amazon.com and placed that order.


Yet I was well aware that my chosen rationale was anything but sane-sounding: Basically I was still desperately clinging on to the hope that Capcom would deliver something resembling the "epic grand finale" I'd spent years putting together in my head. I couldn't accept how it had gone down--how Zero had anticlimactically died and all of those allusions to "the doctor" were simply going to be forever left to our interpretation. I didn't care about Sigma's purple viruses or what they meant to the story. All I wanted to see was (a) an animated flashback that showed us how Zero killed the original Mega Man (an event we all believed to be canon) and (b) an endgame sequence in which Zero and X teamed up to battle Sigma and his mystery friend--a cybernetic or holographic form of the still-sentient Dr. Wily. All I wanted was finality.

And I was willing to give Capcom one last chance to provide it.

That mistake was on me.


Frankly, I was stunned by how aggressively unapproachable Mega Man X6 was. To start, the situation with the armor sets/upgrades had now grown even more complicated. You could play as an unarmored X, sure, but you probably didn't want to do that when when a number of more powerful armors were readily available; but, you see, if you overused a certain armor, then you wouldn't be able to obtain parts for another armor that was needed to access a special stage whose navigation was required if you desired to earn the best ending, unless, of course, you chose to wear the fourth armor, which would only be available if you used the third armor but never the second, and access the final stage early except if you used the fifth armor more than three times on days beginning with the letter M, in which case you were screwed.

"What the hell is going on here?" I'd wonder, mine a perpetual look of puzzlement. "Why is any of this necessary? Why can't I just play as plain ol' X and upgrade him naturally, like I did in the past?"

Attempting to make any sense of the armor system only made me frustrated, so I decided to ignore it--to just play the game however I wanted.

Also, it was immediately obvious that Capcom didn't even bother to fully localize the game. Both the lyric-driven music and the (overly long) cut-scenes still featured the original Japanese voices! The game was clearly rushed over to the North American market (it did release a mere ten months after X5, after all), which made me believe that Capcom was apathetically dumping it out into the marketplace, as if its executives no longer gave a damn about the Mega Man franchise or how it was perceived. "Why waste money localizing or marketing this stuff?" they probably thought. "The idiots will buy it anyway!"

Well, they were able to rope in one sucker, at least.

But the absolute worst part of Mega Man X6--the principal game-killing attribute--was its rotten level design. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that its stages were some of the most aggravating I'd ever experienced; they were a bad combination of overly gimmicked and cruelly designed, the majority of them so insanely challenging that I couldn't complete a single stage even when using superior armor. One of the biggest offenders was Rainy Turtloid's stage, which implemented a hideously awful dynamic masking effect that darkened 90% of the screen and reduced my field of vision down to a constantly reshaping slice of screen; on top of that, it tasked me with finding and disarming time bombs while a constant deluge of acid rain was slowly draining my health. "Why stop there, really?" I thought. "Why not rig it to where a giant spring-loaded hammer knocks you back to the stage's starting point any time you touch the ground?"

It wasn't long before I'd reached a breaking point: Following an endless series of failures, I arrived at Commander Yammark's stage, which featured narrow, enemy-stuffed corridors and--oh yes--that same obnoxious masking effect! I couldn't make it past the first section; whether I was attempting to meticulously inch my way forward or swiftly tank my way through, the result would always be the same: failure. And after I died about, oh, thirty times, I'd have enough.

Call it a "rage quit" if you will.

I angrily switched off the system, popped out the disk, snapped it back into its CD case, and tossed it into my game cabinet. And I had no plans to return to it. In fact, I knew that I could die happy if it meant never seeing Mega Man X6 again. (Had I not watched my favorite Youtubers and Twitch personalities play it, I'd still know very little about it.)

But Mega Man X6 did more than kill any of the remaining enthusiasm I had for the Mega Man franchise. No--my disgust with X6 was also the impetus that drove my decision to shut down my Mega Man fansite, which I'd been building for two years (no big loss to the world, really). Talking and writing about Mega Man just wasn't fun anymore.

I wanted nothing more to do with the franchise beyond that point. I had absolutely no interest in the Mega Man Battle Network or Mega Man Zero games because I knew what would happen to them; they'd be driven into the ground in much the same way. That was just Capcom's way.

I grew so detached that neither Mega Man X7 or X8 registered as even a blip on my radar. It wasn't until years later that I saw either in motion. And all I can say is that mediocrity oozed from their every pore.

Damn Capcom for forcing its development teams to continue pumping out Mega Man X titles--for trying to wring every last cent out of a rotting corpse. I may not agree with how Inafune and his staff handled the Mega Man X series past the inaugural entry, but at least they were prepared to let it die with grace. Good on them for objecting to the idea of continuing the series after X5 (Inafune chose not to be involved with X6 and later apologized for it).

I wouldn't play another Mega Man game until seven years later, when I downloaded Mega Man 9 on my Wii. But that's a story for another time.


In the end, the PlayStation Mega Man X games remain something of a sore point for me. They disappointed me in so many ways. Theirs wasn't the start of a celebrated redemption effort, no; rather, each new entry only served to accelerate the download slide on which the series had been since Mega Man X2. And I'll always wonder why it had to be that way--why the X series, which started out so magnificently, worked to deny itself the opportunity to reach legendary status; why it finds itself mired in mediocrity and flirting with irrelevance.


There's no saving it now. It's far too late. All we can do is wonder about what might have been had Capcom known what it had and treated it with the proper respect.

Were it not for the existence of this blog and my need to replay the games I write about, I'd probably have never again revisited Mega Mans X4, X5 and X6. I thought I'd least extract some enjoyment out of X5, which for years I told myself was solid, but after replaying it, I can't imagine why I believed this to be the case (maybe it's that my memories of the game are positively shaded by what went on during its endgame portion--by how I remained so captivated as its story perfectly built to a crescendo). In fact, I didn't enjoy playing a single one of them. Hell--I was fed up with X6 after only a few minutes; I couldn't get that CD out of the disk tray fast enough.

This is probably the last time I'll ever play any of them, and I'm not sad about that. They're just too frustrating. They evoke too many unpleasant memories.

Really, I wish it were true that none of these sequels existed and the original Mega Man X's name wasn't tarnished by its association with a collection of games that just couldn't live up to it. Mega Man X, a brilliant masterwork, gave them an amazing platform from which build, but they dropped the ball, the whole lot of them instead opting for the safety of the ground level.

Maybe the bar was set too high. Or it could have been that Inafune and friends simply didn't possess the drive or the ambition necessary to top the original work. Or perhaps it's that I'm just fooling myself--that maybe the Mega Man X series was never meant to be anything more than it was.

Honestly, I don't know what the truth is. I don't know why history played out like it did.


But of one thing I'm certain: Whenever I play Mega Man X, I'll continue to dream about a reality in which I'm revisiting the game whose success bred a series of sequels that relished the opportunity to build toward the stars and proudly carry forward their forebearer's legacy.

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