18 September, 20XX: At the end of his life, Dr. Thomas Light finally completes work on his greatest creation: a robot that possesses free will, named X. But believing the world is not yet ready for a robot that can make its own decisions, Light seals his creation inside of a diagnostic machine which is set to run tests for the next thirty years. In his last act of creation, Light records a message for future generations–and for X–which he encodes along with a hologram of himself in the prime of his life and at the height of his powers. But unbeknownst to him, Dr. Albert Wily, his greatest rival, has similarly sealed away his own final creation: the formidable–but incomplete–robot known as Zero.
It is the year 21XX and Dr. Light has been dead for a century. Long-dead, too, is Dr. Wily, infamous and villainous, but now at rest. Following the passing of these two skilled scientists, the promise of a humanity aided by advanced and artificially intelligent robotics seems also to have faded away.
On 10 April, the archaeologist Dr. Cain, on a fossil hunt for Mesozoic plant life, accidentally discovers the ruins of Thomas Light’s laboratory. Discovering references to ‘the capsule’, he eventually finds it–the diagnostic capsule containing X. Opening it, he activates the robot, which he recognises as more sophisticated that any other robot in existence. Abandoning his archaeological expedition, Cain returns with X to his own laboratory, where he devotes his effort to copying X’s design. By November, he has succeeded in creating his first replica–a Reploid. By May, they are rolling off of production lines and are becoming integrated into society. There are reports of robots becoming ‘Mavericks’ and attacking humans, but these instances are rare.
Confident that the Mavericks represent only a minor threat, Dr. Cain appoints his most advanced Reploid to the command of the Maverick Hunters–robots designed to stop any rogue Reploids. Soon thereafter, the capsule containing Zero is uncovered. When Zero escapes, he is designated a Maverick, and Sigma is despatched to stop him. In the ensuring battle, Zero is subdued–but not before he surreptitiously infects Sigma with a virus. Although Zero is repaired and repurposed as a Maverick Hunter, the virus continues to damage Sigma’s code. The commander of the Mavericks begins to corrupt the strongest robots in the Maverick Hunters in preparation for a rebellion.
4 July: the Day of Sigma. Sigma defeats the Maverick Hunter commanders Storm Eagle and Sting Chameleon, forcing them into submission; then, he raids a prison to effect the release of the Maverick known as Vile. As Zero is appointed the new commander of the Maverick Hunters, Sigma launches his attack on human civilisation. X, still unsure of his role in the conflict, decides to aid Zero in defending humanity against the Maverick revolt. The events of a century before begin to play out once more as Light’s final creation is pitted against the effects of Wily’s maverick virus.
December, 1993. The Nintendo Entertainment System has been thoroughly supplanted by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Mega Man series has made the jump from the last generation with its final NES entry, Mega Man 6, released only in November. Capcom has determined to establish itself on the SNES, not only with new technology, but with a new direction for the Mega Man franchise. The result is Mega Man X taking place a hundred years after the death of Thomas Light, and introducing a new set of protagonists and conflicts. Although still connected to the Light-Wily rivalry of previous Mega Man games, the story of Mega Man X is centered not upon the roboticists who have designed the robots, but on the robots themselves and the ethical dilemmas they must face as beings possessed of free will.
As the backstory above should demonstrate to anyone familiar with the Mega Man games, the Mega Man X storyline outclasses those of the preceding six NES games. Rather than create another Wily vs. Light game with eight robot masters and minimal game design innovations, Capcom tried to innovate in every area.
“Tried”–because, ultimately, Mega Man X is, from a gameplay perspective, a largely conservative effort from Capcom. This is hardly a complaint–quite the opposite, in fact, for Mega Man X‘s conversative gameplay mechanics are what made it an instant classic, providing the fertile ground for sequels which unfortunately failed to live up to the promise of this first game in what would become the Mega Man X series.
As in all but the first of the previous Mega Man games, there are eight robot masters–here, Mavericks–possessed of a weapon which is strong against another Maverick. The player completes a short introduction stage (meant to be played after reading the backstory in the manual, as was typical for games of the era). Mega Man X incorporates many of the features developed in earlier Mega Man games such as energy tanks (in this case, recyclable) and charging weapons. But Mega Man X also introduces the ability to cling to walls and to break bricks with the helmet. In addition, X gets upgrades to his armour which reduce the damage that he takes from enemies. Gone may be the Rush attachments and utility tools of the Mega Man series, but in their place are upgrades to X himself.
The storyline, whilst developed, is not excessively laboured (as it would become in later entries in the series). Instead, encounters with Dr. Light’s holographic capsules are spaced far enough apart that each one carries a degree of pith and moment to its discovery–especially because it is attended by a longed-for upgrade to X himself. In addition, X can find upgrades to his health bar in the various stages of the game, each of which render him stronger yet. Thus Mega Man X does an excellent job of focusing the player on X. There is clearly an intent to immerse here which was not present in the later Mega Man games on the NES, bogged down as they are with an array of whimsical assistants and distracting technologies.
Mega Man X focuses on a smaller number of significant items and options. In this regard, the decision to prioritise story over hyperdiscrete items and equipment results is an enormous success. Each of the Maverick weapons has a different ‘feel’, and they are useful not only on bosses but in the stages themselves. Some are used to access items which cannot be obtained in any other way, which is why Mega Man X allows for the player to revisit any completed stage, and to leave that stage at any time.
In addition to the puzzle-game aspect of having ‘the right tool for the job’, Mega Man X introduces synergy with stage completion. Completing one stage will effect signficant changes in another. Defeating Chill Penguin, for example, results in the fires of Flame Mammoth’s stage being extinguished. These changes also help to acquire otherwise inaccessible items, and represent a signficant development in how Mega Man stages relate to one another, so that they actually feel as though they are part of the same game, rather than totally isolated one from another. And, the bosses at the ends of each stage are generally challenging enough without being frustratingly random: careful observation of the boss and trial of some of the weapons are usually enough to grant victory to a player of average platforming skill.
Mega Man X was Capcom’s first attempt to bring Mega Man to the Super Nintendo, and thirteen years later it remains their best Mega Man game for that system. With classic platforming gameplay, a challenging but fair skill level, and a wealth of items to discover across stages influenced by synergy and upgrade availability, including the secret insta-killing hadoken, Mega Man X was and remains an instant classic, and will live on as a monument to the success of which Capcom was once capable.