As 1993 drew to a close, Super Nintendo owners everywhere were wondering one thing: Where was Mega Man? The previous two years had seen Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and numerous other high-profile gaming properties with 8-bit roots make the leap to Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse. The absence of Capcom’s super fighting cash cow, already a six-time headliner on the NES, was positively glaring. Finally, December brought with it the Japanese release of Rockman X, predictably retitled Mega Man X for its North American rollout the following month. Whatever Capcom had been waiting for, it was worth it. This spin-off was destined to become one of the system’s most revered games, not to mention one of the brightest stars in the galaxy that is the extended Mega Man franchise.
But why? At first glance, it may not be obvious what the big deal is. The broad strokes of Mega Man X’s storyline and structure seem entirely in keeping with the blueprint established by the NES hexalogy. Robots are running amok at the behest of an evil mastermind? Check. Stopping them involves defeating eight boss robots in the order of your choice, followed by an assault on the mastermind’s lair? Check. Overcoming each of the initial eight bosses equips you with a new special weapon that one of the others is weak to? Check. In truth, Mega Man X’s overwhelming success is a rare testament to the power of just a few carefully chosen artistic and mechanical tweaks to radically reinvigorate a stale formula.
Set around a century after the events of the main series (or classic series, as it subsequently became known), Mega Man X follows the exploits of its eponymous robot hero. Archeologists stumble upon X, the final and greatest creation of the late Dr. Light, sealed in a capsule and use his design as the basis for a new breed of fully sentient robots, the Reploids. Unfortunately, some Reploids turn against humanity and are dubbed Mavericks. The newly-reactivated X now works as a Maverick Hunter, mentored by his more experienced partner, a too-cool-for-school brooding loner type by the name of Zero. The duo’s latest assignment is to locate and defeat Sigma, leader of the Mavericks and a former Maverick Hunter himself.
The new setting and characters are the first crucial things the developers nailed. Mega Man X clearly set out to be a more mature take on the googly-eye cartoon robot bashing of the mainline titles. You need look no further than the design of X himself for proof of that. He’s noticeably taller, leaner, and more chiseled than his childlike NES ancestor. By story’s end, he’ll also experience more in the way of loss than classic Mega Man ever did. Despite this trend, Capcom wisely refrained from going overboard. X’s journey is still one defined by bright colors, driving rock music, and brisk jump-and-shoot violence of the 100% robot-on-robot variety. Nothing about it comes across gratuitously angsty or overwrought. To put it one way, it’s a tad too serious for X to have a cute robo-dog sidekick like Rush, yet not so serious that he can’t do battle with a mechanized penguin who belly flops around the arena. A fine line indeed.
On the gameplay front, a pair of inspired additions to X’s movement are responsible for much of the improved feel. He can cling to walls as well as execute a speedy forward dash that effectively replaces the ground slide from older games. The importance of the dash in particular can’t be overstated. It can be canceled into a forward jump at any time, even coming off a wall, and these mighty lunges cover more space more quickly than standard running jumps. Dash-jumping through a stage at breakneck pace is a real thrill and the maneuver also has no end of utility in the boss fights.
Complimenting this faster movement is the game engine’s ability to smoothly scroll the screen in all directions. Screens in classic Mega Man games always scrolled horizontally or vertically, never both at once (i.e. diagonally). Furthermore, vertical advancement was strictly of the all-or-nothing flip-screen variety. Combining this newly unrestricted scrolling with the wide open layouts of Launch Octopus or Storm Eagle’s stages and the aforementioned dash-jump, X can literally soar. It’s another exhilarating experience with no parallel in prior entries.
A final key strength of Mega Man X is its stunning presentation. I’m not merely referring to the usual high quality Capcom audiovisuals here, although the sprites, backgrounds, and energetic synth guitar-driven soundtrack are all rightfully iconic. I’m talking about the extraordinary amount of care that went into making the game’s world feel more like one concrete, interconnected place than a chain of isolated stages. Defeat Chill Penguin and the perilous lava which normally fills Flame Mammoth’s lair with be extinguished. Taking down Storm Eagle interrupts the power supply to Spark Mandrill’s level, subjecting it to periodic blackouts and weakening its mid-boss. These nifty interactions aren’t limited to the locations, either. The Boomerang Cutter can actually sever Flame Mammoth’s trunk, depriving him of one of his primary attacks. This uncommon attention to detail is simply a joy to behold throughout. Heck, I didn’t even notice until my most recent playthrough that one solitary bat enemy out of the dozens haunting Armored Armadillo’s mine is based on the original NES design. It’s the little things, you know?
Much as I endeavor to avoid total puff piece reviews, I struggle to dredge up anything meaningfully negative to say about Mega Man X. You’ll run into plenty of the old Super Nintendo slowdown when things get hectic, sure, but beyond that I’d really have to force it. This first X game is an all-around masterpiece, one of the best of its generation. By starting with a tried-and-tested action-platforming template and infusing it with memorable new characters, snappier movement, and a presentation to die for, Capcom produced the first true creative landmark in the saga since 1988’s Mega Man 2. As with the classic series, later X sequels would squander some of this initial goodwill with their rote repetition. Sigma always comes back à la Dr. Wily, he always has eight new Mavericks in tow, etc. Mega Man X itself, though? It’s one for the ages; a thoroughly lovable, endlessly replayable, damn near perfect video game. Bravo.