Let’s take a trip back to the 1990s shall we? Everyone was wearing flannel, listening to grunge, and trying to figure out how to get rid of the 1980s. The early 1990s garnered a strange cultural response to the bright neon and bubblegum pop of the 1980s. When Nirvana and Pearl Jam are being played on pop music stations, you can see how a cultural shift has taken place. While we may look back at the early-mid 1990s and reflect upon it as a goofy period for pop culture, there was a certain dark veneer of plaid-clad brooding that draped itself over the beginning of the decade. By the time 1993 came around our culture had an aggressive and sometimes crude edge to it. The colorful cartoons of the 1980s had been replaced with what I would only consider “teenager” culture. Everything was covered in snot, sometimes literally. Aside from music, we were treated to TV shows like The X-Files, Bevis and Butt-head, and Twin Peaks; stranger, darker, and more grotesque television. Kids’ shows from the 1980s were replaced with a certain level of seriousness or 1990s edge. As we said goodbye to TMNT, The Real Ghostbusters, and Transformers, we were introduced to definitively more mature “kid’s” cartoons like X-Men and Batman. In addition we embraced gross out culture with the aforementioned Bevis and Butt-head, Ren and Stimpy, and Rocco’s Modern Life. This was the decade that gave us Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, representing a complete tonal shift in what people wanted to see and experience. Teen angst was the culture of the 1990s, and it only made sense for Video Games to Follow suit.
Mega Man’s History
I grew up on Mega Man. I had Mega Man 2 and 3 for the NES and played them constantly. The Mega Man games were just as tough as Mario, but they offered a different flavor. While it’s always nice to jump on enemies’ heads to get rid of them, I also love blasting them to dust. Mega Man scratched the action itch while forcing the player to use a strategic approach by embodying the premise of “rock, paper, scissors” gameplay. By utilizing that unique strategy, players would select stages and bosses to play in the most beneficial order, using abilities taken from previous bosses to eliminate future Robot Masters. Sometimes it made sense (Bubble Man beats Heat Man) sometimes not (Elec Man beats Ice Man), ultimately it gave the player some options and made for a fairly unique experience each time you played each game. The ultimate success of Mega Man pushed Capcom to develop six games for the NES. As the series continued to expand on NES, Capcom started giving the Blue Bomber more abilities: like the Charged Mega Buster in Mega Man 4 or Rush, his robo-dog companion in Mega Man 3. These advancements made the games feel more original with each sequential outing, but by 1993 Mega Man felt as though he lost his relevance. The new teenage energy of the 1990s called for change..radical change (I had to…)
Teen Approved Mega Man
I’ll say it, the original Mega Man is a cute character. He has large blinking Dragon Ball eyes and fights robots that wear goofy smiles. They have names like Guts Man or Cut Man, Wood Man or Crash Man. The original Mega Man names sound like things an 8 year old would write a comic book about. Even his American name, Mega Man, has a youthful and playful exuberance to it. When it was time to make Mega Man on SNES, it was hard for Capcom to use the same formula. Especially after we spent the past two years beating the snot out of each other in Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat. Gaming found itself in a period of adolescence where gamers wanted blood, violence, heavy metal, and aggression. While this feeling pervaded all forms of media, gaming, led by the Sega Genesis was ready to be a snotty teenager. I wasn’t quite a teen in 1993 (I was 7), but I can see that this period’s attitude would force some series to grow up. Mario did this by expanding exploration and giving the player more freedom. Final Fantasy expressed deeper stories and focused more on their characters’ inner struggles (Final Fantasy IV). Sonic The Hedgehog essentially forced gaming’s hand to step it up into the 1990s with aggressive attitude and designs that just oozed with teenage sarcasm. We weren’t watching Star Wars anymore, we were watching Terminator 2 and everything was blowing up. What was Capcom’s response? How could Mega Man be updated for the slurpee guzzling, dorito chomping generation? Well…you add an “X” to his name, of course!
Mega Man X released in 1993 in Japan, only one month after Mega Man 6 released on the Famicom (Japanese NES). Mega Man 6 was the last 8-bit effort for Rockman before Capcom made the jump to the SNES. MM6 was much like its predecessors and embraced the cutesy graphics of the NES, with big-eyed anime characters reminiscent of Akira Toriyama’s earlier art. Look at how CUTE Mega Man 6 is! It looks like a Saturday Morning Cartoon!
As release windows suggest, both Mega Man 6 and Mega Man X were developed at the same time. X was built to be a spinoff from the series using a different Mega Man. By setting the game 100 years later in the series’ canon, Keiji Inafune, Mega Man’s lead designer could create a very different world than what the original series showcased. From the intro movie an immediate tonal shift is presented through the its perceived urgency. The player is introduced to a new Mega Man, with sharper, narrowed eyes and a confident smirk. He’s bigger and more articulated. His prior roundness is thrown away in substitution for angular shoulder pads and a large, red gem on his helmet. Dr. Cain, the man who activates X explains his weapon systems in great SNES detail. Gone were the tones of Dragon Ball and Astro Boy as this new Mega Man (X) was seemingly inspired by the likes of Tekkaman Blade or Dragon Ball Z. Look at that face…
From the title screen, the player is blasted with samples of crunchy guitars and electric wailing. In some unholy combination of heavy metal and electronica, Mega Man X dives headfirst into the 1990s with its opening number. As you select “Game Start” or “Password” X blasts his X-buster with the proper touch of aggression. While I was only 8 when I first played MMX, it’s easy to see how this game could be sold the Mortal Kombat generation. As the fan base for console games grew up a bit, series like Mega Man were forced to adapt. Mega Man X’s attitude perfectly caters to the gamers who wanted a Sega Genesis experience on the SNES. The game picks up quickly, as its intro stage is not afraid to hit you with dozens of enemies that are literally covered in missile launchers and spikes!
Mega Man X feelt bigger and faster than anything I played on the NES. It still feels like it’s direct response to the silliness and innocence of the original series. The playful robots and goofy villains are replaced with some seriously intimidating machines. Dr. Wily is no longer the series villain, as Sigma, a genocidal and virus-infected android set on world domination, looms in the background waiting for X. His second-in-command, Vile, is a purple Boba Fett who marches around in a mech suit (yes a robot driving a mech, it’s cool). The Robot Masters were replaced with Mavericks, more intense animal-themed robots who properly embraced the aggressive edge while providing unique boss fights and much more variety.
X Also has a new companion, Zero, who is like a cool cousin that got into metal like 3 years prior. He’s got long blonde hair, and he’s incredibly cool. Like, so cool in the most 1990s way possible.
The shift to Mega Man X gave gamers a series that felt more mature and better represented the attitude of the times. While it was still based on the classic Mega Man formula, Inafune and his team were able to give us something completely new and different. It also spoke to a generation of gamers that were looking for something a little more extreme than the normal 2D platformer.
Upgrade Me – Please
Many games have taken a lot from Metroid. Its lessons have taught designers how to build excellent 2D games and its impact has been felt for generations. Its influence can be felt in games from Castlevania to Batman. Metroid utilized a system that forced the player to explore their environment to find upgrades to Samus’ armor. While the original Mega Man games rarely utilized this functionality the X series has always incorporated some aspect of progress based on upgrades. In the original Mega Man X each stage has secret items you can find that improve your Mega Man. There are “heart” upgrades that increase your life bar, sub tanks that allow you to have back-up reservoirs of health, and armor upgrades. The player needs to find these items in each stage to build the strongest version of X and essentially help make the battle against Sigma just somewhat easier.
Upgrading your character is important as it adds a much needed level of complexity to the normal “run to the right” philosophy of many retro games. For Mega Man X it has become a cornerstone of the gameplay experience. It allows the player to feel like they’re getting better as time goes on. It’s not quite an RPG mechanic, but it’s definitely inspired by their tool-sets. While I’m not calling Mega Man X an RPG, its upgrade system felt inspired by Metroid…which was inspired by RPGs.
Mega Man X’s upgrade system is what allows this game to stand out against it’s predecessors. It forces the player to think more expansively and learn more about their environment. While Mega Man X may push a more “mature” design, it fully shows off its growth in the need for exploration. This emphasis on the unknown was a staple on the SNES (see: Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island) and Mega Man X fully represents that expansiveness. You can even get Ryu’s Hadouken…c’mon….
What Else Makes Mega Man X Great?
Mega Man X is easily one of my favorite 2D action games of all time. I may be unpopular for saying this, but I think it’s the best Mega Man game. I love Mega Man 2 to death, but X is the complete package. Great design, great art, great characters, and unforgettable music. Its variability in stages is also a great testament to its undying quality. Some stages feel vertical, some horizontal, while other force you to creatively use your powers outside of normal combat situations. I, for one, love using the Chill Penguin ice sled!
My absolute favorite aspect of Mega Man X is that the entire world is connected. While you play through the 8 stages before you get to Sigma’s Fortress you can see the influences the stages have upon one another. If you finish certain stages before others you can actually see changes in other Robot Lairs! Many of the stages interact with each other this way and it allows Capcom to tell a story through environments. You can also dilute the difficulty of Mega Man X if you finish the stages in the right order, not just to make the bosses easier, but to create significant environmental effects that will make the stages easier as well. Adding another level of complexity and maturity to the overall design of Mega Man X.
The game still feels amazing, whether you’re fighting a giant bee-robot or shooting bats, Mega Man X has such solid responsiveness. The usage of the X armor gives Mega Man X a suite of abilities that allow him to charge up his special weapons (something fairly unseen prior to X), break certain bricks with his feet or head, and most importantly DASH! The first piece of armor most players get is the leg armor, which gives X the ability to dash, allowing the player to use incredible creativity when making their way through a stage. Combine this with his new ability to Wall-kick up vertical surfaces and you have some great options to traverse a level. The designers of Mega Man X have given the player a great toolset and have allowed them to run wild. I’ve always felt trusted by Capcom whenever I play Mega Man X; they’ve given me all these tools and I can use them as I see fit. It often feels like Dad is giving me permission to take out his car and I’m a-ok if I bring it back in one piece and with full tank of gas. This continues to speak to the maturity Capcom felt that its playerbase had and how they trusted them to not get overwhelmed. It’s a brave move for Capcom, where they could have just made another simple Mega Man Game. Mega Man X reinvented their series with flying colors.
Mega Man X’s Lasting Appeal
Mega Man X is a bit of a time capsule. It openly represents everything great and exciting about gaming at home in the 1990s. It’s loud, fast, and energetic, with a deeper color scheme. In many ways Mega Man X is like the rockstar rebellion against the bubblegum pop of the original Mega Man series. He’s a bit angrier and a bit more determined and he’s got a cool friend with long rockstar hair. Ultimately, Mega Man X is a constant reminder of how good a 2D platformer can be. It reinvents itself while not feeling overwhelmingly foreign. It’s cool and knows it, but also refuses to wink at the camera. It’s completely comfortable doing what it wants to do and allowing the player to do what they want as well. I think Mega Man X’s appeal is seen in its appreciation for an era. It’s like watching an old movie, giving you a window into what culture was like when it was released. X’s solid gameplay has pushed it to be rereleased a few times and remade once. It’s easy to get your hands on Mega Man X if you don’t want to shell out the cash for the original cartridge. The gameplay, music, and characters hold up and it’s worth every dime you have to pay for it.