Reflecting on the Mega Man Series

Words: 4338 Approximate Reading Time: 30-35 minutes

I’ve been a longtime fan of the Mega Man games. Some of my earliest gaming memories are of playing Mega Man X and X2. And I similarly enjoy games that play off of the basic mechanics, such as Inti Creates’ Azure Striker Gunvolt. I have my quibbles here and there with particular games, but I at least find most of the games I’ve played enjoyable, with only a few exceptions.

While I’ve played almost all of the games in the main series (Mega Man, Mega Man X, and recently as of writing this the Zero and ZX series), I’ve generally come to a couple conclusions on my own:

One, I have a strong preference for the X series over the classics. This preference may partially stem from timing: I was introduced to the X series as a child, while it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I had a chance to play the original Mega Man games.

Two, the series has been stuck between a rock and a hard place: the more it sticks to the solid foundation laid out in the original games, the more the series feels stale; the more it tries to make changes, the more likely those changes create new problems that can make people wish for a return to the good ol’ days.

So imagine my interest when, near the beginning of this year, there was a release of another Mega Man legacy collection. I had already purchased and played through the collections for the classic and X series. But I’d never touched the Zero games. Not from lack of interest, but just because I never owned handheld systems beyond a Game Boy Color. So there’s a lot of wonderful handheld games that I just never got a chance to play. But here, at least, was a chance for me to catch up on something I’d missed out on.

I write this relatively fresh off of completing the various games. I started out some time during the summer by playing through Zero 1 (starting at the beginning seemed like a good choice). I finished the game, to the best of my ability, which just left me feeling…drained. There was so much that seemed interesting, and yet those ideas just felt like they didn’t pan out very well. I decided to revisit the rest and just play them one after the other. And as I kept playing, I kept feeling that same draining sensation.

And so we get to the purpose of this essay: to try and capture in words the frustrations I’ve been feeling playing through these games. I might, at some future time, go through all of the other games and analyze them, pointing out what I find frustrating about entries in the other series. But while my playthroughs in this collection are fresh in my mind, I wanted to capture those feelings as best I could.

I will start out by noting that I went into the games with no prior knowledge. I didn’t look up other playthroughs. I am aware now, after the fact, of the possibilities that are opened up at higher levels of play. But I like to play games and see them with my own eyes, when I can. So my thoughts will mostly stick to my own playthroughs, and refer to what I ended up missing out on when those things become relevant to my frustrations.

I’ll also note that this essay with assume that you, the reader, are sufficiently familiar with the games. This essay is already going to be long. But more importantly, if you aren’t familiar with the games, you’d do well to play them first and develop your own views before reading my musings.

Zero Series

I’ll begin by looking at the Zero series. I mentioned that Zero 1 left me feeling drained. The game is difficult, but not in a particularly fun sense. There are plenty of types of challenges, and some can leave you feeling a sense of accomplishment, like you’ve overcome a trial and are now the better for it. But I never felt that accomplishment completing a level of Zero 1 (or, really, any of the levels in the other games). Instead, I always felt like I was just glad it was over and I didn’t have to go back. If there was a reason to go back – there was a sub tank or cyber elf that I missed – I’d try to figure out if there was any real need to go back: could I get by without this stuff? The answer, of course, is strictly speaking “yes.” Playing with sufficient skill would render these kinds of power-ups redundant. That, however, is not a satisfactory answer.

Each level feels designed to kill you. This trope is fairly common in the Mega Man series as a whole, so that’s not terribly surprising. It leads to very frustrating jumps, especially in the classic games. On its own, this design makes the game tough, but just means you need to be careful.

Here’s where it becomes a problem: the Zero series features a ranking system that grades your performance based on how much you die, how much damage you take, how many enemies you kill, and how fast you go.

Put these two elements together, and now the design is working against itself. The game is telling me to go fast, but not so fast that I skip enemies. Also, I can’t go too fast (unless I know what I’m doing), or else I run into enemies, which either do damage to me or cause me to fall into a pit. And enemies are pretty much always placed so that attempting to jump over a pit gets you knocked back in.

So what am I supposed to do? I can ignore the ranking completely, and just take my time and play carefully. But then every level is still going to end with the game telling me I suck. I can play more aggressively, but since I don’t know what’s coming up next, I still end up taking damage and dying, which means…the game tells me I suck. My rank ended up being terrible in Zero 1, and usually was a B in the other three games. But that’s still not good enough for the big rewards. More on that shortly.

So it feels like the game is designed for non-casual players. You’re supposed to save your game, play through a level multiple times until you’ve learned essentially how to speedrun it, and then reload and go through so you can get a good rank. Which is a cool element to have on top of a game that feels inviting to casual players. But at every turn I kept feeling like the game was telling me that I should just stop playing and let the experts handle it all.

I will point out at this point that one thing I was really happy about with this legacy collection was the new Save Assist feature. I got through Zero 1 without it, and through a few levels of 2 before realizing the option existed. But once I turned it on, I saw no reason to turn it off. I can say with 100% certainty that if I had forced myself to go through the rest of the games without the feature, the process would have taken even more time and I would have come away absolutely hating these games, as opposed to just feeling disappointed. The save assist basically provides reload points throughout the levels that fully restore your life and weapon energy, without costing you lives. So no more needing to worry about continues.

Getting back to the rankings, the system gets more annoying because getting a poor rank locks you out of some kind of content. In the first game, there’s a cyber elf that you can only access if you have a rank of A or higher. In the second and third games, you get special EX moves if you defeat a boss while at A or S rank. So a casual player isn’t going to get to even see any of this stuff.

I kept seeing this skill lock defended as essentially granting two ways to play the game. If you play well, you’re rewarded with these special moves that help you play at an even higher skill level. If you don’t play well, there’s plenty of other options to help you.

This explanation makes a kind of sense. But it still doesn’t quite capture that the low-level (i.e. casual) play isn’t all that fun. Zero the character feels built out of paper when he starts out. You have little life, and getting hit takes quite a bit out of you. That was often true in the X games, but each level contained some kind of power-up to help you: a heart tank, maybe a sub tank, and in a few games armor upgrades that would halve damage. These are replaced by the cyber elves. And using cyber elves is fraught with its own problems.

Firstly, there are a lot of them, and most of them have only temporary effects. I never even bothered to use those, because I just saw no point. But there are cyber elves that grant you the kind of permanent bonuses that you might have come to expect from the X games, and which will help you to survive. But you don’t know where those cyber elves are. You have to explore around various stages, find containers and kill enemies, and hope that the cyber elf you collected was one that would give you a useful bonus (admittedly, the ones with permanent bonuses tend to be in those containers that are in specific parts of each stage, so you don’t have to rely on random chance. You just have no idea when you open a container whether you’re getting a useful cyber elf or not).

Secondly, using cyber elves tends to require feeding them. Feeding them involves giving them Energy Crystals, which are little collectibles you can pick up from the stage or after killing enemies. And they need quite a lot to upgrade them. Which means you’ll most likely have to do some grinding.

Grinding is awful.

Oh! And did I mention that using a cyber elf in a stage takes points off of your rank at the end of that stage? This includes those permanent bonuses, which count for every stage after you use them, and which you can’t undo. So if you thought you might like to try improving your survivability and then tackling stages for a good rank, screw you. If you use enough cyber elves, your score can go negative.

So the early game leaves you wandering around levels trying to find the cyber elves that will help you survive. Depending on your choices, you might have happened upon one of those useful cyber elves, or a sub tank. Or you might reach the stage boss with nothing to help you.

Okay, but it’s a Mega Man game, so at least combat retains that sort of combination of puzzle solving plus skill plus trial and error, right? Where you either try to find the best boss to start out a cycle, or just keep banging your head against one until you prevail through pure skill? And then you get a new weapon that helps you beat the next boss in the sequence, so you try to figure out which one might be next?

Nope!

Instead, the game mostly revolves around a small number of elemental chips: ice, fire, and electric. Different bosses drop different chips, and are weak to particular elements. The early games try to help you out a bit with this by limiting what missions you can do, so that it can give you the chips and prevent you from wading into boss fights without useful tools. But these elemental chips often don’t help out too often. They do a bit of extra damage, and the games are inconsistent about how the elements are applied to your weapons.

It prevents the kind of simplistic stunlocking that many players might have found annoying about older games. You definitely have to work for your victories in the early and mid-game. But it also replaces one kind of trial and error for another: now you have to equip a chip, see if it helps or not (and the wrong element can do no damage), and then switch if it doesn’t work. Especially annoying since the process of changing elemental chips requires going into the pause menu, since there aren’t enough buttons in the original mapping to allow for the scrollthrough.

Every stage I beat and each game I completed, I kept coming back to the idea that the game sort of didn’t want me to play it. I feel like it was built off of a cool idea: what if we encouraged and rewarded high-level play? But I am also left with the feeling that so much effort was put into fine-tuning the high-level stuff that the low-level and mid-level stuff was kind of…just thrown in.

Perhaps I’d have a much better opinion of the games if I took the time to learn the levels to get good ranks so I could get the EX skills so I could…you get the point. But the game just continually feels so very intent on pushing me away that I feel no motivation to try harder.

The game that felt the best of the Zero series was the fourth. While it still had a lot of the basic problems with the other games, it tweaked other elements in ways that at least improved on some of the major problems I was having. The cyber elf system was streamlined: rather than exploring and collecting a bunch of cyber elves, you start out with one super elf that you upgrade throughout the game with the Energy Crystals you collect. Which means still more grinding…but at least it’s only one issue, rather than two. And the system doesn’t punish you nearly as hard for using cyber elves, and even allows you to increase your survivability without necessarily forcing you to choose between staying alive and getting a decent rank.

The ranking system itself is also nullified. It appears rankings do nothing in Zero 4, which is what I’d much prefer, if it has to exist at all. The game still has EX moves, but instead of having to play incredibly well, you have a weather system. Each stage allows you to choose from one of two weather settings: one makes the stage and boss tougher than the other; in return, playing on the tougher setting will give you that boss’s EX skill. So you can make the choice about which you prefer. I love this, because it encourages taking on an immediate challenge, rather than banging your head against the wall learning the stage. Ultimately, this one felt closest to a Mega Man game.

There’s my thoughts on the Zero series, or at least what I thought most relevant to share. I could talk about art, music, plot, and so on, but very little there gave me the kind of frustrations that these elements of the gameplay did.

Mega Man ZX & ZX Advent

The ZX series was another attempt to branch out from the standard Mega Man setup while retaining some of the basic elements. This time around, Inti Creates goes for a sort of Metroidvania setup, creating a larger world that the player explores and putting the levels/bosses within that world. It’s a neat idea, and since I really like Metroidvanias and the Mega Man games, it seems like this game should be engineered to specifically please me. And I’ll at least say that I started out happy, that I liked the change, and that overall I enjoyed the ZX games more than the Zero games.

But the setup also causes a few problems. Level design feels somewhat lackluster. I wasn’t a fan of the level design in the Zero series because it relied too heavily on instantly killing the player. Now the ZX series has tried to encourage exploration, but in return the levels don’t feel all that interesting. Areas feel mostly flat, punctuated by gaps and enemies. In the older games levels had both horizontal and vertical movement that logistically made little sense, but meant that playing the level meant more than holding right and pressing jump or attack at the correct time. But it feels like ZX’s attempt to make the world seem big left Inti Creates with the problem of using big horizontal spaces.

Advent improves a bit on this, as the game gives the player a wider variety of areas to explore that themselves feel much more unique. However, the same problem still exists to some extent. The individual areas now feel a bit more…gimmicky. Which helps to set them apart and make them feel more interesting, but also means that the levels seem reducible to those individual gimmicks. They are memorable for the gimmick, but not the levels themselves.

ZX ends up being a confusing game to navigate. A key part of a good Metroidvania is having a good map to help with navigation, but ZX ends up having a terrible map. You can sort of guess where unexplored areas might be, but there is otherwise little logical connection between different parts of the world, and so you’re forced to essentially wander around trying different doors until you can finally stumble upon the right entryway to the next part of the game.

Advent is again able to improve by bringing in a map that more clearly illustrates where the various levels are, and hints at some kind of logical connection. You still have to discover the pathways, which requires exploration, but at the very least you tend to have some indication about where you should begin your exploration, rather than being left without any aid whatsoever.

For both of these games the mostly uninteresting levels make revisiting annoying. Any Metroidvania game is going to involve backtracking, but when making a Metroidvania, you want to be designing a level with the idea that players will have to (or be encouraged to) go through it multiple times. Often, a good way to design a level is so that it’s possible to zoom through it later on, once you have certain skills, or you can go through it slowly if you need to collect resources. But in the ZX games, you’re mostly stuck with your normal mobility options (jump, dash, wall jump), with a few extra options that don’t help that much in helping you avoid pitfalls and enemies. So revisiting areas becomes a cost-benefit analysis, rather than an exciting venture.

But most importantly is how the two components of the game conflict with each other. In a Mega Man game, you pick levels that are designed to be beaten by a player with no weapons and no upgrades: you don’t want to give players the option to pick a stage if you won’t allow them to progress without some specific skill.

But Metroidvanias often contain those progress-blockers, locked behind skills you’re supposed to get in other areas. The point being to encourage players to explore the map, often putting new pathways or items tantalizingly out of the player’s reach so that the player remembers to come back later with some new mobility option. Often the way this works best is by a series of branches, some of which end and some of which open new pathways that lead to more branches.

However, to combine those two elements here means that they work against each other. In ZX, the compromise is essentially to meet in the middle: the first few bosses are available from the get-go and don’t require any special skills to get through, and beating the bosses unlocks a new armor mode, at which point you then unlock the ability to progress further into the area to reach the next level and the next boss. This progression rarely actually requires the new armor mode you unlocked, because only a couple of them impact your mobility in some way. So now that meeting in the middle basically sacrifices the key element that makes a Metroidvania world fun and compelling.

In Advent, the problem is lessened a bit because there are a few more points where particular abilities are required, but those areas are relatively few and far between. Usually you are introduced after each boss to a room that gives you a tutorial on how that boss’s unique skills work, and makes you use those skills to navigate to the next room. But in several cases you can end up never using that boss upgrade again.

Speaking of those new armor modes, they don’t feel all that…good. ZX ends up giving you a grand total of five armor modes plus the option to change into a human form. Each form has its own attacks, but your options feel limited. Basically, you get to choose between close-ranged or long-ranged combat, making your normal “ZX” form the best all-around mode for combat. The other modes also have additional overdrive skills and special functions (an item locator, displaying an enemy’s health, revealing secret doors), but most of this stuff felt useless. After a while, I ended up only using the two forms that offer additional mobility options (one which includes an air dash, one which allows you to essentially swim) and the normal form. It’s not that switching is all that annoying, but that there just seems to be so little incentive to switch to those other forms. They just don’t offer anything all that special, and you mostly end up switching when you need to use them.

This problem actually gets worse in Advent, because in addition to your starting Reploid and “Model A” modes, you earn the same five armor modes from the previous game, and eight additional boss transformations. So that leaves you with a grand total of 15 possible transformations. It is, quite frankly, absurd. And since you can’t be handed all of these abilities out at the beginning of the game, the player ends up with several of these abilities so late that there’s little point in reorganizing levels in a way that requires some of those skills. Which means certain transformations and armors have no use beyond 100%ing the game. And on top of that, boss transformations often feel incredibly limited in their broader applicability. Hell, one of those transformations literally only works in the water (and one of the armors you end up with is also specialized to work in the water).

It feels like it would have been much more useful to have fewer options that get more upgrades and get greater utility. Alternatively, leaning harder into the Metroidvania style by giving the different options more purpose in helping the player to get through various pathways. But even then, you’re still running into the problem of creating a Mega Man game. How do you still capture that idea of defeating bosses to get their powers? Admittedly, ZX mostly skips this by just having the four armors split among the eight bosses. So perhaps it’s not as important to have the additional powers, as it is to capture the basic playstyle of the games.

I could add a host of other minor quibbles. The Energy Crystal system feels vestigial in both of these games (they have uses, but the uses feel more like “we need an excuse for giving the player Energy Crystals” than “here’s a good reason to keep Energy Crystals”). Sidequests exist, but don’t feel all that important, aside from a few that give you powerups and one that gives you a subtank. Most of the rest give you Energy Crystals, which…well, see above. And for some reason, Advent keeps switching you back to your default Model A armor mode whenever you interact with NPCs and warp points, or enter cutscenes. Which makes sense if you were in a boss form, but not as much if you’re in one of the other armor modes. This switching becomes particularly annoying if you happen to favor one of those other armor modes, and have to switch back to it.

Concluding Remarks

So to step back and reflect on the collection, and the Zero and ZX games as whole, there’s something interesting in them. Particularly the ZX games, which did more to try to break the basic mold of the Mega Man games. But they feel constrained in a way by trying to still stick to the basic outline of the Mega Man series, like trying to paint a new picture but still being forced to draw within the lines of someone else’s sketch. These games have ultimately fared better than other leaps, such as the shift to 3D in Mega Man X7. But there are still so many weird decisions that have left me at some points baffled, and feeling more like I’d rather just replay the original games.

It seems like if you’re going to make a Mega Man-esque game, you’d do best to try to improve upon the original format. So keep the format of picking levels that have bosses at the end that then give you new power-ups, but iterate in some way on that format. Make the core game fun and engaging for all players.

On the flipside, if you really want to make a game that radically departs from that format, you should perceive the Mega Man element as a sort of vague outline, rather than as a constraint. The more you try to fit the Mega Man format into a genre that works on different principles, the more you get these designs that conflict with one another and demand a sacrifice. Specifically a sacrifice that isn’t going to really solve your underlying problems.

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