Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mega Man X, or "It's gonna be the future soon."

Once upon a time, Capcom made a video game series about a little blue robot kid in tights who ran around killing his fellow robots and foiling the plans of a fairly incompetent, megalomaniacal mad scientist. And it was good. Well, more or less. In any event, we hadn't reached the point where Capcom was really milking the series for all it was worth.

So along came the Super Nintendo. Not wanting to be left behind, Capcom knew they needed to get one of their flagship series on there. While they'd later release a new installment of the original series, they first decided to venture in a different direction with the series. Enter Mega Man X.

The X series is set roughly one hundred years after the classic series. No longer would we be controlling a blue midget in his crusade against themed robots . Instead, we get to control a slightly older looking blue robot as he fights against oddly themed animal-shaped robots. Right, so it doesn't sound that different. But it was. And more importantly, Dr. Wily is dead and gone by the time of the X series. So that leaves room for a new boss to become the predictable foil to our new azure friend. In all, the series seems to be meant to be a darker, edgier version of the Mega Man formula.

X (Who is most likely not Mega Man from the classic series, but rather a later creation) was a robot built by Dr. Light who was capable of thinking and acting on his own with free will - something robots until then had seemingly lacked. In order to make sure X wouldn't go nuts and kill everyone, Dr. Light placed him in a stasis pod to run tests on him. An archeologist named Dr. Cain eventually found the pod buried in the ruins of one of Dr. Light's old labs while looking for for fossil records relating to Mesozoic plant life. No, I don't know why he was looking in the ruins of a century-old laboratory for pre-historic plant life. Don't think too hard about it.

So, our intrepid archeologist took one look at this technological marvel from a hundred years ago and thought to himself, "Gee, would it be great if we could replicate X's designs and mass produce a bunch of robots with free will?" My guess is that Dr. Cain didn't read much science fiction or he'd see the problem with that idea. Instead, he pressed on and within a year, standardized and mass produced his new Reploids. No doubt, he also became filthy rich.

Things were going well, then some Reploids started to, shock of shocks, rebel against humans. At first, it was just a few here and there. Calling these rebels Mavericks, Cain and presumably whatever nebulous government that exists in the future establishes a group of Reploids called Maverick Hunters to police them. At the organization's head was Sigma, a late generation Reploid who was deemed incapable of turning Maverick. Everyone sees where this is going, right?

Sigma, joined by most of the Hunters, rebel and declare war on the humans. The only thing standing in their way? Zero, a high ranking Hunter who didn't rebel (And who has a rather interesting history added in later on linking him back to Dr. Wily himself) and X, who had joined the Hunters at some point but was a bit too pacifistic for the job until now.

The player plays as X - as the title tends to indicate. X starts off pretty weak. He has a charged shot by default. He doesn't have a slide of any sort at first and doesn't gain his equivalent until after he gains his first armor upgrade. He can, however, cling to walls and slowly slide down them. After an introductory level, he is faced with the usual selection of eight bosses. As per the idiom, once he defeats the bosses, he gains their power which can be used on other bosses and so on and so forth. The first place where X diverges though is that he also has armor and heath upgrades scattered through the various levels.

His armor upgrade is divided into four parts - legs, chest, arm and head. Each part either adds new functionality to X or otherwise enhances him. Some of the upgrades are easy to find while others require gaining a particular boss's weapon or another armor upgrade to access them. In each armor pod is a hologram of Dr. Light with a brief message concerning what each armor piece does. The legs are the only mandatory upgrade and grant you the power to dash. The chest increases X's armor. The head allows him to smash through specific kinds of blocks. And finally, the arm cannon adds a second level of charge to his charged shot and lets you charge up the boss weapons. There are also heart upgrades that increase X's heath and four sub tanks - reusable energy tanks that much be charged by gathering health power-ups while at full health. Finally, there's a secret upgrade that allows X to do a Haduken like Ryu from Street Fighter II.

Like I said in my Mega Man 3 review, we don't play these games for silly things like plot. Granted, it wasn't until the X games that there was much of a plot to speak of... Anyway, let's meet the Mavericks:
  • Chill Penguin: Most of these names pretty much tell you all you need to know about the boss. In this case, Chill Penguin is a penguin who shoots ice at his enemies and inhabits an icy level filled with slippery floors and various snow-themed enemies. Defeating him gives you the Shotgun Ice which fires a single block of ice at your opponent that shatters on impact.
  • Flame Mammoth: Again, it's all in the name. He's a mammoth who spews flame in a sort of fiery factory level. Defeating him nets you his Flame Wave attack - a short range stream of fire that runs constantly until you release the button.
  • Spark Mandrill: You detecting a pattern here? Incidentally, a mandrill is a kind of primate related to the baboons. Well, at least that's what Wikipedia says. He hangs out in an power plants. Killing him will get X the weapon called Electric Spark. No points for guessing what it does.
  • Armored Armadillo: He's a heavily armored armadillo. ...What more do you want from him? He rolls around in an armored ball and once killed, gives X his Rolling Shield. It's not really a shield, mind you. More like an oval shaped thing that rolls around, bouncing a bit as it runs over your enemies.
  • Storm Eagle: A large humanoid eagle who uses wind attacks. Honestly, he's one of the more interesting boss fights in the game. Fight your way through the airport he's occupied before the big showdown on board his air ship. X picks up Storm Eagle's Storm Tornado off the bird man's smoking carcass. It shoots long tornadoes forward at the enemy.
  • Launch Octopus: There's something to be said for the classic robot masters. At least a reviewer has room to describe them without feeling redundant to the process. Launch Octopus is a torpedo-launching octopus. Kill him will get you homing torpedo. I'm not sure how they work out of the water, mind you. I mean, at least Dive Man back in Mega Man 4 had the decency of using missiles.
  • Sting Chameleon: He's a chameleon. With a spiked tail. Who lives in a foresty/jungle level. When you fight him, he blends in to the background as he climbs around the room. And he shoots lasers. With his tail. His weapon is Chameleon Sting - a green laser that shoots in three directions. Moving on.
  • Boomer Kuwanger: Hey. Finally a boss who I have to explain. When I first saw him years ago, I wondered to myself, "Okay. What kind of animal is he supposed to be?" The answer, my friends, is a stag beetle. His name comes from, apparently, the word for stag beetle in Japanese, 'Kuwagata.' I guess Boomer Stag Beetle just didn't have the same ring to it. In any event, he's a stag beetle who leaps around the room throwing sharp boomerangs at X. His boss weapon is the Boomerang Cutter, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Before we wrap this up, let's touch on the few other named characters you'll encounter. Zero, as I mentioned earlier, is a fellow Maverick Hunter who helps X and is apparently working in the background to track down Sigma while X is mopping up Sigma's various underlings. In this game, he lacks his later trademarked light beam saber. Zero has a checkered history that more or less gets pushed into the background after X5. Following his heroic sacrifice in X, he'll go on to die several more times and star in his on continuation of the X series, Mega Man Zero.

Since we're playing in a world where the main antagonist is messing around with a light beam saber, why not throw in a Boba Fett doppelganger? Vile is one of Sigma's chief subordinates. He wears body armor with a shoulder-mounted cannon and a face mask that looks dangerously close to that of a certain Star Wars series bounty hunter. He also rides around in a ride armor and enjoys mercilessly beating on X. He's not all that complicated a character in the original X game, but gains a bit more depth in the sequels and remake.

Finally, let's discuss Sigma. Sigma is the big bad of the X series. His motivations vary a bit from game to game, but for the most part, he's after a world dominated by Reploids under his control. In the first game, he appears to have started the rebellion on his own accord and convinced others to join him via persuasion and charisma and such. But subsequent games move towards the idea that he has merged with a virus and infects his fellow Reploids, turning them Maverick.

If you'll forgive a slight digression, I find the charismatic leader version of Sigma is far more interesting from a characterization standpoint. It adds a bit more depth and plays well off the idea that Reploids are an artificial life from with free will who can strive for good or ill. The humans who created them seem not to fully grasp that fact and still treat them like normal robots, deeming them to be Mavericks if they exercise their free will versus the humans. The virus of later games seems to undermine the premise and revert the series to something closer to the classic Mega Man's simplicity of mindless robots wreaking havoc at the behest of a mad man. In a way, they return to the original premise later in the Mega Man Zero series and add a bit more depth to the idea.

In any event, Sigma was the commander of the Maverick Hunters and designed to be unable to turn Maverick. This, of course, is akin to a super villain announcing to the world that he's invincible before subsequently being flattened by the nearest deus ex machina that feels like putting that theory to the test. He wields a light beam saber and has a robotic pet wolf. He also likes to mark everything under his control with a '∑.' Incidentally, he's no relation to Gamma of Mega Man 3 fame, although his second form in X5 is a throwback to Gamma. One of his trademarks is that he has multiple bodies and can move from one to the next. When the whole virus plot takes off in the later games, you'll even fight a sort of virtual construct of Sigma's head that supposedly the virus itself. All in all, killing Sigma never seems to last for very long, thus opening up the ability to make sequels. The closest to actually dying Sigma has come is in X5, where the series was supposed to end, and X8, where for the moment, the X series has ended.

The X series lasted for 8 numbered installments with a pair of side stories on the Game Boy Color and an RPG on the Playstation 2. As I said before, the series was originally supposed to end at X5 and lead into the Mega Man Zero series. In fact, the ending to X5 does a pretty good job wrapping up a lot of the loose ends to the series. Capcom disagreed, however, and decided to make three more games and an RPG. The Zero series had its plot reworked a little to compensate for the additional games.

Mega Man X was released on the Super Nintendo and ported to the PC. In 2006, it was remade as Mega Man Maverick Hunter X. The original game was also released as part of the Mega Man X collection for the Game Cube and Playstation 2.