I have fond memories of playing Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3 on my NES when I was kid, and some not-so-fond memories of getting through the original Mega Man. The games were ingeniously simple: you pick and choose which specially-themed stage you want to play, you beat the boss, and you get the boss' themed weapon, which may help you beat other stages and bosses. This formula may not seem all that special today, but back in the 1980's, it was wholly unprecedented. As a result, the Mega Man series has gone on to spawn over a hundred different games in several different genres and styles, making it one of video game's most prolific franchise powerhouses. Therefore, I am ashamed to admit that, after beating Mega Man 3, I didn't play another Mega Man game until Mega Man 9 was released a few years back.
When I think about the original Mega Man, the first word that pops in my mind is not "fun"
When a friend challenged me to play Mega Man X then, I didn't know what to expect. I honestly knew very little about the "X" series, assuming that it was pretty different from the core Mega Man games. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Mega Man X is to Mega Man what Super Metroid is to Metroid.
When you start up the game, you are given a brief introduction to the Mega Man X universe, which is similar to the world of the originals, but a little darker and more dystopian. As with many classic games, most of the story is contained in the instruction manual, which describes a discovery by archaeologist Dr. Cain. Dr. Cain unearths the lab of Dr. Light from the original series and discovers that Dr. Light created a powerful robot capable of free will: X. X has been undergoing automated diagnostics for 100 years to ensure his morality, but people in the future are impatient, so they create copies of X called "Reploids" that predictably run amok. As these "Maverick" Reploids cause chaos, a Maverick Hunter force is created, lead by a particularly powerful Reploid named Sigma. Sigma turns into a Maverick, though, and so they finally decide to activate X in the hopes that he can save the world.
There's a short introductory level that plays exactly like classic Mega Man, only with a Super NES graphical upgrade, at the end of which you, as X, get your ass handed to you. You are saved by a fellow Hunter, Zero, who encourages you to take on less powerful Mavericks before confronting Sigma. After this, you are taken to a very familiar screen grid, where you get to choose between one of eight different, specially-themed stages.
Dr. Light's ultimate legacy
Assuming this was no different from classic Mega Man, I boldly went into my first stage, a snow-themed one that promised a confrontation with "Chill Penguin." The stage was a challenge, but not impossible, and I was delighted to discover that I could now slide down and jump off of walls, something I'd never been able to do in any previous Mega Man. About halfway through the icy stage, I ran across a holographic Dr. Light, who gave me a dash upgrade which was much appreciated. I eventually got to the penguin and felt my heart skip a beat when his health bar appeared, dwarfing my own. He froze me a couple of times, threw some ice sculptures at me, and despite my new upgrade, I quickly ran out of lives.
This pattern would repeat itself as I made my way through the other seven stages. None of them--aside from Storm Eagle's--were all that difficult, but each and every one of the bosses made mince meat out of me. At some point, I found my first heart upgrade, which slightly improved my health bar, and I intuitively grasped that there must be one of these hidden in every stage. However, even though Dr. Light had promised me more substantive upgrades, I didn't find any of them in this first trip through the eight stages.
Frustrated, I wound up going back to the start menu to reconfigure my controller. I played the game on the Wii--downloaded from the Virtual Console--and the default setting for the Gamecube controller is thumb-mangling. With this slight tweak, the game got a little better, but I still couldn't see how I was supposed to beat any of the bosses. Then, to my surprise, I discovered that I could charge my X-buster, Samus-style (to be fair, I have since learned that the charge beam concept was first seen in Mega Man 4, well before Samus Aran started using it). Feeling kind of stupid for not utilizing this power earlier, I decided to go back to the Chill Penguin and this time, better prepared, I was able to win.
Losing to this guy is embarrassing
Now that I had a cold weapon, I went after the polar opposite (no pun intended) in Flame Mammoth. Upon entering the stage, though, I was taken off-guard by a sudden change: the lava beds that gave me trouble earlier were now frozen over, making the entire level a breeze (and granting me access to a heretofore impossible-to-reach heart upgrade). This is a cool new feature--new to me, at least--in Mega Man X, the idea that beating certain levels make other levels easier. Alas, nothing seemed to make Storm Eagle's level any simpler.
Sufficed to say, now that I had finally beaten one of the Mavericks, the game started getting easier. Through trial-and-error, I was able to discover Mavericks weak to my new weaponry, and since I was going through these levels multiple times, I managed to find all the upgrades, including the hearts, four back-up energy tanks, an armour upgrade, an "X-Buster" upgrade (that I was really proud to have found, because it was well-hidden), and a stronger helmet that let me smash through stuff. The only upgrade I missed--the "Hadouken" upgrade--is something you could only know about if you went online, so I don't feel bad about not finding it.
From the defeat of Chill Penguin all the way to the final confrontation with Sigma, the game was unrestrained fun. The difficulty level was perfectly balanced throughout, offering just enough challenge to make it rewarding without throwing anything at you that seemed impossible. There were one or two plot twists along the way, like Zero's death (sorry, no spoiler alert for an 18-year-old game), and I felt like a superhero when I finally sauntered into Sigma's chamber. He sicked his dog on me, which I handily destroyed, and then he attacked me with a lightsaber, killing me pretty quickly. No matter, I thought, and went after him again. On the third try, I had sorted out his movement patterns and weaknesses enough to defeat him. As his decapitated head crumbled to the floor, I prepared to do a victory lap.
Yay, I beat the bastard! ...Oh wait, shit.
But I had forgotten the golden rule of classic video games: the final boss fight must have at least three stages. Sigma's head rose to the ceiling, atop a giant, seemingly invulnerable mechanical beast that swats at you with spiky hands and shoots lightning and fire at you from its maw. Sufficed to say, I had not yet begun to fight. ...Three days later, I had finally confronted Sigma enough times that I was a master of reaching this final stage and knew how to beat it. It was a bitter war of attrition, but I finished the fight.
Nothing will ever surpass my happy nostalgia for Mega Man 2 (which I did replay last year, incidentally), but if I had to honestly analyze the Mega Man games I have played and decide which one is the best, Mega Man X would win in a landslide. It is a nearly perfect Mega Man experience, and I have a hard time believing that there is a better Mega Man game out there. Fans assure me that there is, however, so it's time for me to keep on catching up with this series. I have a dusty copy of Mega Man Anniversary Collection, which contains all the original games from Mega Man to Mega Man 8, and I have just downloaded Mega Man X2. I've got a lot of work to do, because these robot villains aren't going to defeat themselves.