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Memory Leaks: Mega Man X

👨 X Marks The Spot...

Mega Man was one of Capcom's biggest franchises in the 8-bit era and the titular hero is arguably their most recognizable character. The games were based around a central gimmick: you can play the levels in any order, and after you defeat the boss, you gain their power. This makes for a rock-paper-scissors puzzle where you have to figure out what weapons are useful against what enemies and, therefore, which order to confront them. This simple formula got re-hashed over and over, churning out title after title throughout (and, frankly, beyond) the lifecycle of the original Nintendo. A month after the release of Mega Man 6 in Japan came Mega Man X, which reinvented the franchise for the Super Nintendo, upgrading our upgradable with even more new abilities.

How I Remember It...

For the longest time we thought the name of this game was Mega Man 10. It wasn't until Mega Man X 2 came out that we realized the X wasn't a roman numeral. So that's funny. This franchise has always had a naming problem. In Japan it's "Rock Man" because of the rock-paper-scissors mechanic. That's also why he has a sidekick named Roll in Mega Man 3. Anywho.

This is one of the earliest games that I one-hundred-percented without a guide. I got to where I could play the levels in any order and still beat them. No mean feat, as the biggest headache with Mega Man games was figuring out which of the bosses was easy enough that you could defeat them without exploiting a weakness. But the levels in X were also littered with power ups that you could only access once you had certain abilities, which gave you a reason to go back and explore nooks and crannies--which were myriad--looking for hearts to expand your health gauge and energy tanks so you could refill it. It was also possible to exit a level you'd already beaten at any time, making it easy to farm extra lives or energy before you went after the final boss, Sigma. Furthermore, it was easy to tell that you were missing things. You knew if your health gauge wasn't completely leveled-up because it wasn't the same size as your weapon gauge. You knew that you hadn't found all of the upgrades yet because every time you got one your outfit changed, and it wouldn't be done until you matched the cover art.

For being such a widely beloved franchise, there's a surprising dearth of good Mega Man games. The original is fine, but they hadn't really worked all the kinks out of it yet. 2 and 3 are solid, but after that the games just got repetitive and formulaic while also suffering from having run out of useful adjectives to turn into enemy powers (looking at you, Plant Man). But X is where Capcom found their footing again. It built on the fundamentals of the original games and expanded on them with non-villain-based upgrades and dynamic level design. They did some fun things in that regard. For instance, if you fought Flame Mammoth after defeating Chill Penguin, all the lava in his level would have frozen to rock. When you defeat Storm Eagle, his ship falls out of the sky, and afterwards the wreckage of it can be found in the opening area of Spark Mandrill's level.

I will say (and have said, and will say again) that the 16-bit era was the best incremental improvement in console generations. The Super Nintendo gave us an early version of the controller layouts that are still used today: D-pad on the left, four buttons arranged in a diamond on the right, and bumpers on the shoulders. The new hardware allowed game developers to build on ideas and add complexity without having to fundamentally change them. Franchises didn't get worse going from 8-bit to 16-bit, unlike the subsequent generation when suddenly all games had to be in 3D and action platformers like Mega Man couldn't make the transition. Why yes there are 3D Mega Man games... *shudder*. Although, if we're being honest, it was pretty much all downhill from here. They never topped X for quality. The franchise had a little bit of a renaissance on the Wii when older titles appeared on the virtual console and a new title Mega Man 9 was released on WiiWare in 2008. It was a complete throwback to the 8-bit era, complete with punishing difficulty and retro (virtual) box art. And yes, for those counting along at home, that means that two more games were released for the Nintendo even after the Super Nintendo series started, and they've released two more in that style since. Mega Man 11 came out in 2018.

All of the original Mega Man and Mega Man X games are available now in collections for all the major platforms, because that's just what Capcom does now. This one is worth checking out. And if you're going to check it out... start with Chill Penguin.

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.