So recently I was fortunate enough to acquire one of those oh-so-unreasonably-rare Mini SNES’s, mainly through a combination of insomnia, cosmic good fortune and the kind of reflexes more commonly associated with professional gunfighters, only a lot less useful/cool.
And it provided me with an interesting opportunity both to see how Nintendo’s back catalogue holds up over twenty years later, but also to see what I missed from the decade that I was born in, the dark era documented in tattered scraps of persevered history as the Nineties. Sure, I remember playing video games as early as four years old, but even by then it was 1998 and the SNES was dutifully making way for the approach of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation (not to mention whatever the hell Sega was putting out, I think it might’ve been the Saturn).
So most of what I know about the SNES had to be retroactively hunted down in the years hence. I’d played a few of the Mini SNES library before – I not sure you can call yourself a gamer without playing Street Fighter II at least once, and I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the best platformers of all time – but I hadn’t tried all of them, and the one I went to first was something that had slipped me until now: Megaman X. As a matter of fact, I’d never even played a Megaman game before, but certain infamous box covers had led me to believe it concerned the adventures of a wonky, middle-aged man dancing in the middle of a Dubai firefight. Time to see if I was on the money.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Megaman X, because I’m not convinced the game itself is entirely sure. To begin with there’s a rather prolonged Star Wars text crawl that dumps a ton of information on you, most of which I glazed over and forgot within minutes. I was genuinely trying to pay attention and I can usually swallow some of this stuff, but it’s a mish-mash of uninteresting science-fiction ideas on a glaringly ugly background without any humour or pictures to lighten it up.
At some point you’ve seen something like it, either in games or film. IN THE YEAR 20XX MANKIND HAS CREATED WORKING ROBOT SLAVES THAT CAN THINK AND FEEL AND FOR SOME REASON HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONRY AND NO OFF-SWITCH AND THEY MIGHT GO EVIL, AND APPARENTLY ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS ARE PROGRAMMED IN, BUT THEY’RE MORE LIKE PLAINTIVE SUGGESTIONS THAN ANYTHING REALLY CONCRETE, SO I GUESS THE PROGRAMMERS BUGGERED THAT UP ROYAL, AND I’VE MADE THIS NEW ROBOT CALLED “X” THAT NEEDS THIRTY YEARS OF HAVING HIS BALL-BEARINGS TWIDDLED BEFORE HE’S PROPERLY FUNCTIONAL AND NOT EVIL, SO SOMEBODY SET THE TIMER PLEASE SO WE CAN HAVE HIM BLOW STUFF UP WHEN HE’S DONE.
I found this whole concept slightly weird, and more than a little nonsensical, even getting past the robotics and sci-fi laser fighting. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create artificial, autonomous life that is sentient and can make choices is a perfectly serviceable premise, but I’m not sure it’s much of a choice if “X” has to spend three decades having all the nastiness wired out of his robot brain. You go to all the trouble of building an AI with self-determination, and your first instinct is to try and undo that? And why are they being mass-produced when they could all potentially decide NOT to do whatever we want them to, and just become an enormous problem to be dealt with? Oh, guess what’s happened now.
Whatever, I leapt into the game proper, and then became even more confused, especially when I started going on the internet for clarification. The first thing we get is a rather nifty tutorial stage with X running along a highway blasting robots, but the Wiki page went on about the ruins of a research lab and the enemies being called “Mavericks,” a name which I don’t think I saw anywhere in the game whatsoever. I’m guessing this is all found in a wider continuity from cartoons and manga that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole on the end of another, longer barge pole. I ain’t reading “Baby’s First Philip K. Dick,” no matter how confused I get.
So I’ll stick to the stuff I did comprehend, like the first mission. X leaps into the fray and bounces through several highways laying waste to various robo-thugs, but then has the bad sense to leap into a supposed-to-lose boss fight with a guy named Sigma, who looks like Shovel Knight got dragged into the Marvel 2099 continuity. Sigma promptly pounds X into the floor and is about to permanently send him to the big blue error screen in the sky, whereupon some ostentatious git named Zero leaps in to save him with the power of his blonde ponytail and 80’s fashion sense. Sigma flees back to his fortress and Zero says, “Blimey, you arsed this up. Maybe we should meet again when you don’t suck quite so much and have another go at this, hmm?”
And that’s the storytelling engine, such as it is. X goes around defeating robot bosses and scavenging their parts to add more weapons onto himself, and one thing I actually really like is that you can tackle the bosses in whatever order you want, which feels like the “X has a choice” concept actually coming into gameplay in some fashion, so good work there. Admittedly the bosses aren’t narratively developed in the slightest beyond an animal theme and some incidental height/weight stats (including the bewildering news that the ten-foot tall metal elephant somehow only weighs seven hundred pounds), but I still want to beat them, because I want to eat their processors from their crumpled chassis, and gain their courage and strength for myself. Besides, once I’m done I’ll get to beat up Sigma properly and show up Zero to be the ponce he is, though spoiler alert: that hair-swishing bastard will still find some way to hog the spotlight, whatever it takes.
Call me a sucker for well-crafted pixel art, but I really liked how Megaman X looks, with a few X-ceptions. It’s bright and vibrant and colourful in that way that most SNES games are, though at times becomes a bit too much and gets into that slightly garish level that feels like it’s taking the top layer of skin off your pupils (which presumably would be your eyelids).
But this feeling was generally quite rare, and in most cases each location has a good colour scheme that doesn’t feel overly obtrusive, though the artist might’ve eased up on the use of gunmetal colouring. When even the trees have cybernetic parts hanging off them, you might want to ease up a tad on the concept.
That being said, I’m not as enthused about the music, though it’s not bad by any means. As a matter of fact, I went back to listen to it afterwards, and it’s actually fairly solid, if a little unmemorable in that “can’t really hum it” sort of way. But I never really noticed it in-game, for two reasons. First of all, the crazy-stupid difficulty means I’m diverting all the brainpower I have just to keep blasting bots, so there’s nothing left for the music appreciation club, and secondly it’s that X’s charge attack generates a horrible, high-pitched whine that makes me want to turn the volume down and obscures the music anyway. Between combat sections there’s no reason not to have your blaster charged and ready to fire, but you have to deal with the noise of a mosquito in an echo chamber as a result.
Overall Megaman X does come across as rather good-looking even now, sleek and detailed in a way that some artists still struggle to match. In comparison to the games of its time, some of which could barely create an aesthetic tone to begin with, it’s nearly a Da Vinci painting, achieving things the likes of which other titles couldn’t conceive of without limitless ambition and a couple of hallucinogenics.
If you’ve played Megaman before, you know the core of what to expect. It’s a 2D platformer in which you are a little bionic Boy Blue who’s had one arm turned into a giant death cannon, because Doctor Light is many things but he never approved of masturbation. You’re teleported into a mission to do what you always do in platformers: keep running to the right and don’t stop until somebody puts you back into the map screen. If something gets in your way, you blast it, and if it drops something that isn’t rapidly flashing red, you pick it up. This particular instalment ups the ante by adding optional powers and the ability to wall-jump from the start, which certainly helps with exploration, but it’s a shame that everything that made Megaman X feel unique at the time has been copied and recopied to death by thousands of other games in the decades since then, sort of like what happened with fantasy books and Lord of the Rings.
But you know what was really stupid of me? The other game I was playing this week was Bloodborne. Jesus, I do myself no favours. I’d get squashed by Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, and think “this is getting to me, I’ll play some Megaman to cool off.” Then I’d get pummelled into the dirt by that sodding chameleon and think “God damn it, I’ll go and relax with some Bloodborne.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking a lot of caffeine, or I think my heart would’ve physically torn itself from my chest in abject rage and frustration.
Yes, Megaman X is hard, and whilst I’m normally OK with that, there are bits of it that come across a bit cheap. Actually, a lot cheap, and that bird boss is somehow the least of it. I think it’s the movement speed that provides the biggest problem. Fighting regular enemies is usually fine, but most of the bosses seem to have been designed for a protagonist about thirty percent faster than X, and with a bit more manoeuvrability; not to mention that they have the agonising tactic of backing you against a wall and forcing you to take damage again as you push through them to escape. And god help you if you decided to play Percy Penguin’s Icy Igloos after all the other levels, because without the dash ability you get there, you’ll really struggle against all those nimble bastards who will try and sit on you if you stop for even a second.
But the idea of armour mods is innately a very cool one. You always get a new weapon at the end of every level, but actual modifications to your core armour and abilities are optional unlockables, hidden throughout certain levels. Some of these are boring (a contextual ability to smash the right kind of brick with your head, snore) but some are a lot more exciting, like the power to charge up your main weapon even more and fire the Curly Purple DNA Helix of Death, which’ll instantly destroy anything that doesn’t get its own theme music. One armour mod even halves all the damage you take, which seems a bit much, especially considering that it’s very, very easy to miss most of these. I hope you’re not scaling the challenge on the assumption that I have all these trinkets, Capcom, because that’s one hell of an assumption to make when you’re hiding the Master Blaster behind an entirely unintuitive path that demands a fiddly pixel-perfect trick jump using an ability the player probably doesn’t have yet, you bastards.
And oddly enough and in contrast to common sense, the difficulty actually goes down as you progress. All the levels, potentially consumed in any order, therefore have to provide the same level of challenge, so whilst they do start off hard eventually you’ll get lucky and come out with a new weapon. Then it’s a matter of finding which of the bosses is vulnerable to that weapon (there’s always one) and finishing him off. Now you have two new weapons, and things are really starting to snowball now. By the time I was picking off the remnants of Sigma’s henchmen, I was just hanging on the edge of a wall and firing homing rockets at anywhere there was room for them. The last level against Sigma himself ramps up the challenge again (partly by being longer than one of those desert super-marathons, and about as physically draining), but it’s still easier than those early missions that’ll slap you around like they’re being paid to do so.
At the end of the day, Megaman X is still good, which is something it should be proud of. It’s certainly aged better than one might’ve hoped, and I think part of the reason for that is the conspicuous absence of the very kind of story I was dreading. The game almost seems to know that its narrative is the most eye-rolling kind of hokum, and as a result I think there’s about a dozen text boxes over the course of the entire thing. Maybe that was the point of the plot dump at the beginning, getting it out of the way so we can enjoy some running-shooting-jumping action.
Because it is enjoyable, and that’s easier to explain. Despite being difficult, the fact you can pick your levels from the start means you’re never stuck in one place, because you can say “sod this” and go kill somebody else halfway across the world. And whilst the core gameplay is almost too simple, the game knows how to drag every scrap of potential out of it that it can, testing the player’s reflexes, strategy and skill all at once and not relenting until you’ve really earnt your robo-killer badge.
So Megaman X is a really solid game both then and now, a little less unique and certainly not world-changing anymore, but neither is The Three Stooges and I won’t tire of eye-poking and nose-tweaking any time soon.
And now I’m done, I’m going to cool my frayed nerves by playing something less challenging. Hmm, how about this… Contra III?
Megaman X remains a favourite of the era today, and it’s not hard to see why. Now a bit less special but still designed incredibly solidly, the game justifies its teeth-grinding difficulty with a sense of freedom and advancement that’s not easily found in a 2D platformer.