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Mega Man X: 30th anniversary

Thirty years ago Mega Man X brought Capcom's beloved blue bomber into the 16-bit era, to great acclaim. In a creative twist, Mega Man X (called X for short) is a new robot, not the original Mega Man.

As with Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Mega Man X uses the winning formula of remaking the original NES game but with more and better. Mega Man X, like his predecessor, faces eight robot masters, now called "Mavericks." Instead of "men," they are made in the image of animals: Chill Penguin, Storm Eagle, Launch Octopus, Spark Mandrill (a kind of monkey), Armored Armadillo, Sting Chameleon, Flame Mammoth, and Boomer Kuwanger (a Japanese stag beetle).
An opening stage ends with X being defeated by the robot Vile, a henchman of Sigma, who wants to destroy humanity using something called "Reploids" (the Mavericks?). Fortunately, a "Maverick Hunter" robot named Zero jumps in to save X. He encourages him to develop his powers so that he can defeat the Mavericks and Sigma. You choose the order in which to face the Mavericks in a stage-select screen. Each stage is themed to its boss. The stages are unique, fun, and easy. After a one-on-one battle with the Maverick at the end of the stage, X adds its weapon to his own arsenal. As in all Mega Man games, each robot boss is vulnerable to one weapon. Once all eight Mavericks are defeated, X advances to Sigma's Fortress (which takes the place of Dr. Wily's Castle).

X begins with the abilities to wall jump and charge his regular weapon, the X-Buster. Wall jumping can be used to scale any wall, straight up. This is useful in boss rooms, because X can scale the wall to avoid shots, then drop down when it's clear. This strategy allows him to easily defeat Sigma's first form.
In addition to weapons, X obtains robotic upgrades from a hologram of his long-deceased creator, Dr. Light. You receive the first upgrade almost immediately: it lets X dash by either double-tapping the d-pad or pressing A. This is useful and can be combined with the wall jump to make extra-long jumps. The other four are hidden, so you need to search for secret areas. The armor upgrade reduces damage by 50%, which makes most boss fights a breeze. The helmet upgrade lets X break certain blocks with his head. I got it late in the game and never used it! Only after beating the game did I learn that it can break some blocks in Flame Mammoth's stage to get the X-Buster upgrade early. Otherwise, Zero gives X the upgrade after he defeats Vile in the first stage of Sigma's Fotress. The X-Buster upgrade not only lets X charge up his shot even longer for a more potent attack, it also lets him charge up all his other weapons. If Zero explained this, I missed it; maybe I accidentally skipped the dialogue box! Eventually I discovered the Shotgun Ice could be charged to create an icy platform! I don't know what the other weapons do when charged because, as in all Mega Man games, I use the Buster almost exclusively (except when exploiting a boss's vulnerability).

There is a secret, ultra-powerful fifth upgrade: Ryu's Hadouken. It's performed with the same button sequence as in Street Fighter II. Although I didn't have the game as a child, I found out about this from Nintendo Power magazine.

Instead of e-tanks Mega Man X finds sub-tanks, which are like rechargeable batteries. Instead of being used up after refilling X's health meter, a sub-tank becomes empty. It automatically refills as X collects health pick-ups when he's already at full health. Four sub-tanks are hidden in Maverick stages. This system is better than the disposable e-tanks from the NES games.

In addition, each Maverick stage contains a permanent health upgrade that increases X's health meter by two marks (it starts at eight). Some of these are easy to get; others require certain abilities or weapons to reach. To get ones you missed, you can revisit stages you've already cleared (and then leave instantly from the sub-screen, conveniently).

After X beats all the Mavericks, a cut-scene introduces him to Sigma's lair. These four stages are more difficult. X must fight all eight Mavericks again. Unlike in the NES games, the battles are interspersed throughout the stages. Fighting all eight in a row could be tedious, so I like this better.
At the end of the fourth stage, X battles Sigma. First he sics his robotic dog (Velguarder) on X. The dog moves fast but can be beaten quickly with the Ice Shotgun. Sigma then powers up a green lightsaber and starts zig-zagging around the room. This fight is easy because he never changes his pattern and has no projectile. You just have to scale the wall to stay above him, then drop down and shoot him when you have an opening. Finally, his robot head attaches to a hulking machine with two floating claws. This fight is the hardest part of the game. Dodging his claws and flamethrower attack is not hard, but his rapid-fire projectiles seem nearly unavoidable. His attacks are randomized rather than following a pattern. His head is vulnerable to the Rolling Shield. To get to his head, X must ride a claw after it swoops down (then jump off before it shoots its vertical beam) or wall jump around a claw. The battle is fun, but, because I kept dying, I grew tired of replaying Sigma's first form, which is uninteresting and takes too long. The beginning of the stage has grub-like enemies that drop power-ups and 1-ups like candy, so you can quickly refill X's weapons and sub-tanks before each attempt. However, even this seems tiring and outdated when the game could just refill all X's energy before the fight.

The game has some conveniences that were lacking on the NES. You can cycle through X's weapons with R and L, though I didn't use this because I find it easier to select the weapon I want from the sub-screen. When X picks up a weapon recharge, it is automatically applied to one of his weapons, even if the X-Buster is selected (a feature you have to pay for in Mega Man 4). One convenience it lacks is a battery backup; Mega Man X uses a numerical password, with Mettals added for cuteness. One thing missing from the game is Rush, the original Mega Man's robo-pup.

Mega Man X has excellent graphics, especially when compared to the NES games. The aesthetic is cartoony, and all the sprites big and colorful. This game has reminded me why the 16-bit era, rather than the 8-bit era, has become the gold standard of retro-style games today. Several parts (particularly the designs of Vile and Zero and the dialogue boxes) remind me of Shovel Knight, an amazing retro platformer inspired by old Capcom games like Duck Tales and Mega Man X. None of the music tracks stand out to me the way some of the songs from Mega Man 2 do. The music is good; it just didn't move me.

Mega Man X lives up to its reputation. This is Mega Man perfectly translated to the 16-bit world, and everything is better for it. I especially liked the upgrades and sub-tanks. The secrets hidden in the game, though not numerous, add some replayability. I highly recommend the game to fans of retro platformers. It barely shows its age and holds up well even against modern games.
Grade: A
Linked Reviews
"It retains the charm and pacing of the classic Mega Man series and adds a much appreciated spin of its own."
— Philip J. Reed, Nintendo Life, 9/10

"The evolution of the original series, Mega Man X changed the game by introducing new mechanics, new characters, and a new take on the Blue Bomber."
IGN, #12 of Top 100

"Some of the most pitch-perfect platforming and well-composed music and graphics the SNES has to offer."
— Asheton Phinney, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 5/5

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