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Monday, December 14, 2015

Memories #18: Mega Man X

Mega Man 2 is the game that made me a Mega Man fan and whenever the Blue Bomber had a new entry, be it on the Game Boy or NES, I was at the table to eat it up. By 1993, however, something was amiss. For two years the SNES had been on the market and I, much like plenty of others was asking the million dollar question: Where is our SNES Mega Man game? Castlevania, Super Mario, Contra, franchises that thrived on the NES had been given the 16-bit treatment but Mega Man was still grounded to the NES and GB hardware. A 16-bit Mega Man game was indeed in the works at Capcom. It just wasn't the Mega Man game I was expecting.

One of the summer issues of 1993's Nintendo Power (R.I.P.) had a preview of the upcoming SNES Mega Man game tentatively titled Super Mega Man. It wasn't an in-depth preview and there were only a handful of screen shots but it was more than enough to wet my appetite. I can remember just staring in awe at that one page, marveling at the 16-bit visuals, wondering what Mega Man's first SNES adventure would play like.

Japanese gamers got their lucky hands on the SNES Mega Man, now called Mega Man X, in December of 1993. Us not so fortunate gamers in America had to wait until January of 1994 to see Mega Man in 16-bits of glory. The official title caused quite a bit of confusion for me. The GB Mega Man games used roman numerals instead for numbering in contrast to the NES games. So in my mind, the X in Mega Man X meant 10, making me wonder where were the other three Mega Man games and why would Capcom jump ahead of themselves. Of course the X in the title referred to the title character X, who was a completely new and different Mega Man but this wasn't something I could wrap my head around when I was a child. At the time, I thought X was an upgraded version of the original Mega Man. From what I gather, I wasn't the only one that believed this but this was long before the age of the internet where things could be clarified quickly.

Nintendo Power, Volume 54.

To help somewhat ease the pain of waiting for Mega Man X's stateside release, I picked up the January 1994 issue of Nintendo Power, which had a blowout feature on the game. It even made the cover of the magazine. I knew names of all of the Mavericks, the X series version of Robot Masters and thanks to those oh-so-helpful maps, the stage layout of the initial eight levels. I would spend so much time flipping through the pages, awestruck by the Maverick designs and just taking in how different X looked from Mega Man.

After Sunday school in January, my family and I went to Blockbuster Video to rent some movies and games. I was looking over the SNES selection and there it was, Mega Man X for rental. I couldn't believe it but I was quick to snatch it up. In a case of extreme rarity, the instruction manual was included. The instruction manual to Mega Man X lighter than some SNES books but it did contain a very fascinating read, the journal entries of Dr. Cain. These notes compiled the events that lead up to the story of Mega Man X, including the unearthing of Dr. Light's Lab which contained X, the warning on the capsule that he was sealed in and the Maverick uprising. I actually sat down and read each entry before turning on the game. I was that enthralled in the game's story and Mega Man X was definitely more story-driven than that of the Classic series.

Having boned up on some of the plot via the manual, I popped the cart into my SNES with excitement and was greeted by an interesting, yet unusual opening. There was some techno babble text on the screen, very little of which I understood but within seconds, the star of the show, X appeared. I'd seen pictures of what X looked like from reading Nintendo Power, but they didn't do justice to having him on my TV screen. Some more techno text filled the screen but some of that was the kind I could actually understand. The screen rattled off the technical specifications of X and it was made quite clear that X was considerably more powerful than the original Blue Bomber. It wasn't just stronger horse power X was packing under the hood. X was far more advanced in artificial intelligence as well, something that that warning, which was glossed over in Dr. Cain's journal entries explained in more detail here. The AI that X possess is so far above the curve of the previous generation of robots that its on a human level. Meaning he can think and feel as if he were human, but apparently this new AI could be dangerous as it means X no longer has to abide by the tree laws of robotics and since X is extremely powerful, that could be disastrous for the human race. So in order to confirm X's reliability a lengthy series of tests were run on the capsule that he was sealed in, a process that would take 30 years to complete. Sadly. Dr. Light was already getting on in years and he wouldn't be around for another thirty more, hence keeping X sealed up from the world inside the capsule. When Dr. Cain found X, we were way beyond the thirty year testing period. I was actually a bit saddened when I finished reading the capsule warning flashing on the screen because it really hit home that Dr. Light and by extension, the whole cast from the Classic Mega Man games were gone.

X is a serious step up from his predecessor
in more ways than one.

With that opening finally complete, I was finally greeted with the title screen and I thought the way the logo appeared was so cool. The words "Mega Man" take a few seconds to come down and then the letter "X" comes down with a well timed "ching" sound effect. Certainly one of the coolest titles to grave a screen.

Ready to go on a Maverick hunt, the game was quick to slam the breaks on how I thought this new Mega Man adventure would start out. You see, having dozens of Classic Mega Man games under my belt, I was expecting to go to a stage select screen. But after pressing start, the word "Ready" appeared and X shortly after teleported down to a green, ruined highway with the background imagery looking no better. It was... unexpected to say the least. An opening level? This would become a staple for the X series but it was a first for any Mega Man game and as I was quick to find out, Mega Man X may have used the same formula from the Classic Mega Man series but it still looked and felt like a different beast and well, that's because it was.

X, destroyer of insect helicopters!

The opening highway stage served two purposes, one for fleshing out some story elements, and two, for teaching me about X's super helpful ability of clinging to walls. The first mini boss in the game was a fight against a huge helicopter in the shape of a bee and upon blowing it up, it takes out the very bridge that we were fighting on, sending X and it crashing down. Now stuck in a pit, for a moment, I was puzzled as to how I'd escape. I'd seen the screens of X sticking to a wall in issues of Nintendo Power, but I wasn't sure how the wall clinging ability worked. I'd assumed it would be more complex but in reality, it was as simple as jumping on the wall, pressing in the direction of the wall and X clings to it. All that was required to ascend was jumping repeatedly. This new ability helped saved me shortly after I learned how to use. A bit further ahead, the highway was unstable and parts of it began to crumble away. One piece fell and I fell along with but I was able to cling to a another piece of unstable road and leap off of it back to safety.

Not so tough with one arm, are you?

Things were going well for me on the opening stage and I was feeling confident in X's new powers. Maybe too confident. The smile on my face as I shot assaulting cars quickly vanished as an airship flew down, a robot in Ride Armor dropped on the highway. This of course turns out to be Vile and he proceeded to whoop X's metallic hide. I fired off dozens of lemons and fully charged X-Buster shots at him but to no avail. No matter how many times I hit him Vile just wouldn't go down. As my small life bar begin to drain down with each blow he dealt me, I grew worrisome. Eventually he started shooting out out energy balls and one of them paralyzed me. Maddeningly I pressed the buttons on the SNES controller but I couldn't break free. He taunted me for my inability to defeat him and I was sure he was going to end me. Then, off screen, I could hear a familiar charging sound, the same one emitted from X's X-Buster. A shot flew onto the screen, taking out the armor on the armor that held X captive! I saw my rescuer and he was none other than Zero! Zero charged up for another blast but Vile's bravado left as quickly as he did when he hightailed it on his aircraft and fled. The battle with Vile was one I couldn't win, no matter how hard I tried. I didn't know that at first but Vile didn't just beat X, he made him feel weak, helpless and despite the fact that X didn't say much beyond the first stage, I really sympathized with him.

Mega Man X has no shortage of mini bosses.

After a pep talk from Zero, I was finally taken to the stage select screen. My issue of Nintendo Power listed Chill Penguin as the stage one should go to first since the dash ability was quite the essential upgrade because unlike titles after this first installment, dashing wasn't a default ability. X's ability to cling to walls become a great asset during boss confrontations. Any boss fight that had walls meant, you'd be using as a save haven, so long as the boss didn't have attacks that could reach you up there. You still had to be on ground level when attacking most bosses, which meant you couldn't spend all of your time hugging walls, but I came to realize that wall climbing in Mega Man X was just as important as shooting and it felt just as satisfying as landing a well timed shot.

Another thing I really liked about Mega Man X is that not all boss fights were confined to square rooms. Storm Eagle was fought in a wide open arena and you needed that extra space to avoid is swoop down assaults. This battle ground also left no walls to cling to it was very well possible to get knocked off the stage. Flame Mammoth was so massive that he had to be fought on a larger playing field and he shook the ground when he landed from jumps, knocking X off his feet if he happened to be grounded. Sting Chameleon could blend in with the leaves that covered his background lair and used his tongue to attack, Launch Octopus could grab on to X and drain his life to restore his own. Not only did their animal motifs differentiate them fro the Classic Mega Man series, their various methods of attacking did as well.

Holograms are all that remain of Dr. Light.

Mega Man X introduced something that would crop up in the Classic series until Mega Man 8: slopes. These worked well with X's dash ability and they greatly benefited from one of my favorite stages in the game, Armored Armadillo. Full of mine cart thrill rides, the cart would speed to the right, instantly killing enemies that it ran into and if you jumped at the right moment, you could propel X forward. Its such a super fun, fast paced level that's great for refilling your Sub-Tanks.

When I finally made it to the Sigman stages I honestly did not expect to meet Vile again and when he appeared midway through the first Sigma stage, I actually tensed up. That beat down he handed me in the opening stage still stung. Zero stepped in for X but he was quickly overpowered and taken prisoner. With more energy, and armor upgrades, I thought for sure I would best Vile, but nope. Once again X was pinned down, with only two pieces of life energy remaining. This is when Zero sprung free from his prison (shoulda did that before Vile beat X like he owned him money), took out Vile's ride armor, leveling the playing field. Vile was prepared to finished the weakened X off, but for unexplained reasons (maybe it was Zero), X recovered his lost energy and at long last, Vile was given a life bar and I knew that this time, the fight was for real. I wanted to take down Vile not just for the two defeats he handed me but for Zero. Vile was not only quick but he was tough to boot. If  I recall, I used two Sub-Tanks on him. My victory over Vile was much more satisfying than taking down a mini boss or any of the eight Mavericks. The fight with Vile was personal and this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when the score was finally settled. Sadly, the price for winning came with a hefty price tag. Zero had sacrificed himself in an attempt to destroy Vile  but in the end, he only succeeded in destroying Vile's Ride Armor. It helped immensely as Vile's skill with that machinery were incredible but X lost his best friend in the process. This of course, was all before Zero would have a ton of resurrections but at the time, his loss weighed on my heart. But there was still a war to be won so I had to soldier on. His final parting gift to me was his Buster, which was a sweet upgrade because it was something I hadn't picked up in Flame Mammoth's stage.

Mine cart madness has never been this much fun.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the fight against Sigma. Again, this was before the internet age so I couldn't just look him up and see what he'd do. Besides, I actually liked the fact that we could be more surprised back then. He actually sent his dog after me before dealing with me himself. I suppose I should have felt a little insulted but I actually had a hard time with the mutt. Of course, the canine was nothing compared to Sigma himself. Wielding a Saber, Sigma was quicker than anything I'd seen in the game thus far. I wasn't even saw on the walls as he could quickly zig-zag after me. He also did a lot of damage so it took me a few tries to beat his first and second forms. I think I found this second form easier to handle because his attacks were easier to evade.

Flame Mammoth is so huge, the normal sized
boss room doesn't do him justice. 

In the summer of 1994 I took a trip to Toronto Canada with my uncle and cousin for my birthday. He gave each of us $250 to spend and Mega Man X was one of the games I purchased. It still carried a hefty price tag of $75 in Canada but when I arrived back in Ohio, it saw a price drop down to $45. I was a little miffed about that, but I quickly got over it as the money I had was Canadian so it all worked out in the end.

Mega Man X became one of those games where I found it really fun to challenge myself. It is highly recommended that you do Chill Penguin first so you can get the dash power-up, but I've actually beaten the likes of Storm Eagle, Armored Armadillo and a few of the other Mavericks without being able to dash. Without the dash power, Storm Eagle can blow you off the stage with ease. If you don't have that extra speedy mobility, dodging Armored Armadillo's rolling attacks is far less easy. Still, you can get a few of the Heart and Sub Tanks without the dash, but most of them require the ability. I really liked that the fact that you only really needed one armor upgrade made Mega Man X great for self imposed challenges.

Suffice it to say, Mega Man's first 16-bit game did not disappoint. It was the much needed shot in the arm that Mega Man needed. It may not have been the Mega Man I was initially expecting but I'm glad X was a different Blue Bomber. Mega Man X is my second favorite Mega Man game, right behind Mega Man 3. Every time I play through it, it never fails to impress me. Mega Man X is available on both the Wii and Wii U's Virtual Console. Some time has passed since I've looked at Mega Man X and I think I'm due for another run through this magnificent game.

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