Mega Man X is Really Hard to Fix

Mega Man fanboys and fangirls the world over have only just sloppily consumed Mega Man 11, we’re already screaming out for seconds. Except instead of Mega Man 12, the sequel we’re all crying out for is Mega Man X9. The formula seems easy enough: give us a Mega Man X sequel using MM11‘s engine, polish it to a mirror sheen, and sate everyone’s appetite until the Legends or Star Force crowd wakes up. Should be easy, right?

I think rebooting Mega Man X is a much more complicated question than Mega Man Classic, though. And I’m a what-for with a brain and a blog, so now you have to hear all about it.

Here’s the key difference: the Classic series is comprised mostly of iterations on the same core concept: start with eight robot masters, each with a themed weapon, end on a few fortress stages. Innovations came in the form of small gameplay elements which mostly became series mainstays: utility items, the slide, the charge shot, Auto’s shop. When the series got lost and needed a reboot with Mega Man 9, that was easy to do because most of the weighty barnacle-mass had accumulated in one of the many spin-off series. You don’t really have to do that much trimming on Mega Man 8 to get back to something recognizable and fun.

Mega Man X, on the other hand, has the same problem as Sonic the Hedgehog: it’s tried so many experiments, and added so many gameplay systems, that you will never get the fanbase to agree on what the “core” MMX experience even is. Just as a taste, a lot of people seem to like Axl, despite him only being in the two worst MMX titles. (And the RPG, which… well, they made an MMX RPG. I feel like that just accentuates my point.)

Step one in any MMX reboot, therefore, is to just accept that some fans are going to have to go unsatisfied, and will hate the game no matter what just because ________ isn’t in it. Never mind that ________ was a bad idea in the first place, or was poorly implemented, or doesn’t jive with the style or tone of the reboot. Someone out there wants nattering navigators and rescuable reploids, and they’ll boycott if they don’t get them.

For my part, there are five elements that I consider absolutely crucial to Mega Man X, and none of them have been in every single title. Full disclosure: I have not played MMX7 or MMX8, though I am familiar with them through YouTube videos and over a decade’s worth of fanboy tears. Here’s what we need:

1) Mega Man X is fast. The Classic series is all about individually-measured platforming, aiming, and weapon-selection challenges, doled out one room or corridor at a time. X, however, has the dash and wall-kick moves, which open up a lot more physical space the player can cover a lot more quickly. The best X levels are all about gaining and maintaining speed, along both axes, while leaving a trail of explosions in your wake. This is why X1 will never be my favorite in the series; because the dash boots were not standard equipment, the first eight stages were designed more like Classic levels, with stop-and-go jumping and shooting challenges. Fun to play, but not what I came to expect from the series. Conversely, too many of the later sequels were built around frustrating level gimmicks that didn’t feel fast, fun, or challenging.

2) Mega Man X has two player characters. X has weapons, armor, and ranged supremecy. Zero has mobility, a laser sword, and lots of ways to control space. Zero cannot be DLC, or tied to some in-game resource, or unlockable on game clear, or any other such nonsense. He needs to be on the menu from power on, and every level in the game needs to be built with both characters in mind. As awful as X5 and X6 can be sometimes, I still find myself revisiting them more often than, say, X1 or X3, simply because Zero is so central to the experience for me.

3) Mega Man X has stage gimmicks. Yes, I know what I said earlier, but bear with me. For every terrible stage idea this series has had, there has been a good one that flavors the dash/kick/explode gameplay, rather than detracts from it. The minecarts in Armored Armadillo, the submarine that chases you through Bubble Crab, the speed-based grading scale in Cyber Peacock… these are fun ideas that make memorable stages outside of just platform and enemy placement. Focus on good ideas that are fun to play but don’t stray too far from firing, dashing, or wall-kicking. Most stages should have a little extra Something, but that Something need not be a goddamn Nightmare Effect.

4) Mega Man X has hidden stuff to find. Heart tanks, sub tanks, armor capsules, ride armor chips, what-have-you. This was the key thing that set the original MMX1 aside from the Classic games that came before it; Mega Man only cared about getting to the end of each level, X needed to actively scour each one. This is another thing the most obtrusive level gimmicks really hurt. When your whole stage is a jet bike course or giant robot gauntlet, there’s no cool ways to hide new toys.

4a) Mega Man X gets a little stronger with each thing he finds. As a corrolary to the above, players should get an immediate and noticable effect for finding each new hidden thing. Some of the later X games only let you use armor after finding all the pieces, which mainly means you can’t use any armor at all until the end of the game, and so to offset that they just start you with the full armor set from the previous game, which is dumb because it undermines the whole goddamn point of having armor pieces to begin with! Argh!

5) Mega Man X has meta-bosses, and a reason to fight them. I don’t know a proper name for them, so I’m calling X2‘s X-Hunters, Bit and Byte from X3, and Dynamo from X6 “meta-bosses”. These are generally optional boss fights who are a smidge tougher than the standard eight Mavericks, and stand in the way of full game completion. Hunting down the meta-bosses is a cool side challenge that adds a bit of dimension to the game and, if you’re the sort to care about such things, a bit of story as well.

So, is my list much different from yours? Yeah? Well that’s just tough, isn’t it? And it shows how much steeper this hill is to climb than Mega Man Classic was. With X it’s not just a matter of “return to form”, as with MM9 or MM11. There are a lot more sharp edges to be mindful of.

But okay, this is my blog, and let’s pretend Capcom has tasked me with drawing up the Mega Man X9 blueprint. Here’s what it looks like.

12 Levels, no bullshit
We’ll have eight Maverick stages, one optional meta-boss stage (which unlocks if you meet certain conditions, and is required for the good ending), a teleporter hatch stage that doesn’t count as a stage, and three Sigma Fortress levels. Every stage will be an honest-to-goodness stage that adheres to these two design principles, etched in stone and violated only on pain of death: no stage shall take more than four minutes to speedrun, and no stage gimmick shall deny the player their ability to fire, jump, dash, or wall kick.

Yes, it’s Sigma again.
I don’t care how MMX8 ended. Let’s not mess with success. Sigma is mean and cool and everyone knows him. You don’t get the fanbase back by not including the villain everyone already likes.

X and Zero Tag-Team
Sorry Axl, but you’re weird and confusing, and we don’t need anyone muddying the waters. Instead, X and Zero are the heroes, and the player can hot-swap between them anytime they want. Each bro has his own health bar, and there will be no stages or boss fights that require one bro or the other. (That is, “X only” and “Zero only” runs should be possible.) The logistics on who gets the benefits of sub tanks, where weapon energy goes, and what happens when you fall onto spikes will have to wait for some playtesting feedback to finalize.

Two armor sets, mix-and-match-able.
We won’t start X with any armor, but neither will we force him to wait until he has a full set to wear any. We’ll have two full armor sets — one piece hidden in each Maverick stage — and give X the option to apply a new piece immediately upon finding it, or not, as he wishes. We’ll let him switch armor pieces on the R&D screen (press L1 at stage select). Additionally, we’ll give him a Giga Attack usable only if he’s wearing four pieces of a matching set. Some back-of-envelope ideas:

Falcon Armor

  • Legs: Hover in place, or air dash left, right or upwards.
  • Helmet: Toggle a stage map overlay, and flash when a secret is nearby.
  • Buster: Small charged shot, pierces walls and armor. Can charge subweapons.
  • Body: Can equip one extra Part. Damage charges Giga Attack.
  • Giga Attack: Full-screen invulnerable air dash.
Gaea Armor

  • Legs: Stick to walls. Spikes deal damage, rather than kill.
  • Helmet: Dash and air dash damage enemies and destroys breakable blocks.
  • Buster: Ridiculously huge short-range blast. Can charge subweapons.
  • Body: Halves damage. Reduces knockback. Extends i-frames. Damage charges Giga Attack.
  • Giga Attack: Short term full invulnerability. While active, contact damages enemies.

Make the guy in charge of Zero’s moveset play Guacamelee.
Instead of Maverick weapons, Zero earns saber moves for completing levels. The traditional Zero moveset includes an air dash, a double jump, a rising move, a dropping move, a powerful standing-still-in-one-place move with lots of forward range, and a couple other odds and ends. What we’re going to do is make those moves super fluid and easy to chain together, by making it possible to cancel one into another. Instead of a janky moveset with lots of wind-up and cool-down, as is the case with X5 and X6, we want Zero to deftly zoom around the screen like a colorful, deadly ballerina.

Maverick stages have three pickups each.
Since hidden stuff is so central to MMX‘s level design, let’s make sure there’s plenty of stuff to hunt for in each stage. When hiding items, we’ll adhere to three design principles, again, on pain of death. First, every pickup should be reachable with either character (although not necessarily without pickups or weapons). Second, pickups that require equipment to reach should only require one piece, so you don’t get past one barrier just to encounter a second one. And third, no stage should hide an item behind a barrier that requires another item or weapon from that stage to remove. (The “Duff McWhalen Gambit”.) These principles should keep the items hidden in a fun way that minimizes backtracking on replays.

As for what to hide, this is something I think X3 got very right (maybe the only thing it got very right!). Each stage will have one heart tank, one armor capsule, and one “toy”. We’ll make sure half the hearts aren’t blocked behind any barriers (so players will likely find them while learning the levels the first time), and that at least two armor pieces (say, the Falcon Legs and Gaea Helmet) are either right on the critical path or only just off of it.

The “toys” will replicate the kind of stuff you can buy in Auto’s shop in the Classic games. We need eight of these to spread around the levels. We’ll have two sub tanks (one of which won’t require any tools to reach), one weapon tank, and a Spare Body which slowly refills the energy of your idle hero. Then we’ll have three ride armor chips, since those were super fun in X3… say a big stompy one with drill arms, a flying one with machineguns, and an aquatic one that zooms around in water/lava/acid/purple kool-aid. Our last “toy” will be an item similar to Beat which, once per stage, saves you from dying in a bottomless pit.

Ten meta-bosses.
Whatever the story of the game is, it’ll involve eight X-Hunters (or whatever) that are trying to hunt X and Zero down. Since this is the ninth game, and we have eight past games to draw from, this is a no-brainer: we’ll use one Maverick each from the previous titles. If you grinned like a helium-filled fool upon reaching the Wily Archives in Mega Man 10, you already know why this is fun.

Each Maverick stage will have an alternate exit, similar to the crystal areas of Mega Man X6. (Only not quite that obnoxious to reach or clear.) Instead of the stage Maverick, this area will have a meta-boss instead. Defeating either boss counts the stage as “cleared” for purposes of opening up the Sigma levels, which is a nice way of saying killing all the Mavericks is optional. Beating an X-Hunter in a stage rewards you with a Rare Metal instead of a Maverick weapon. (You have to kill all the Mavericks anyway later in Sigma’s Fortress, and you can always go back to get any weapons you skipped, if you want.)

The X-Hunters should travel around the levels, like they do in Mega Man X2. Maybe there’s two X-Hunters out and about at any given time, and you can see where they are (but maybe not which ones?) on the stage select map. Put some randomness into this, so no two playthroughs are the same. Include logic to make sure at least one X-Hunter is always reachable with the weapons and tools the player already has. If you defeat all the Mavericks and open the Sigma stages before all the X-Hunters, they stop appearing and vanish with any Rare Metals they had, denying you the best ending.

Visiting an “empty” X-Hunter room, you’ll encounter Dynamo instead. Dynamo is a bit of a butt monkey, and you can fight him as many times as you want. The first time you fight him he drops a Rare Metal, for a total of nine. After that he just laughs at you and vanishes, because he’s an asshole.

If you beat all the X-Hunters (not counting Dynamo), you unlock a hidden stage containing an extremely challenging boss fight against Vile. There’s no reward for beating Vile, but doing so gets you the Super Best Ending. Somewhere in this stage, we’ll hide the silly Street Fighter move: a Hadoken for X, and a Shuryuken for Zero. Maybe you have to pick which hero gets this move, making your endgame a little different from playthrough to playthrough.

And just as an added full-clear bonus, maybe defeating Vile unlocks an alternate path in the Maverick refights level, taking you to an alternate room where the hatches contain X-Hunters instead of Mavericks. Just for the sake of variety. You’d still only need to clear one set of hatches to complete the level.

Okay here’s the bosses I want to see come back, which is really the entire reason I wrote this post:

  • Chill Penguin
  • Wheel Gator
  • Blast Hornet
  • Magma Dragoon
  • Axl the Red / Spike Rosered
  • Metal Shark Player
  • Splash Warfly
  • Bamboo Pandemonium

But I’m not married to this list. Whatever floats your boat. Not really even sure why you asked.

Alia turns Rare Metals into Parts.
If you stay on top of the X-Hunters, you’ll come away with nine Rare Metals. Each Rare Metal can be traded to Alia on the R&D screen for one Part. There are nine Parts total, and you can lock yourself out of some if the X-Hunters vanish before you get all the Metals. But that’s fine, because 1) locking yourself out of the Super Good ending is an MMX tradition, and 2) you won’t be able to use all the Parts at once anyway. Zero can equip only three Parts, and X only two (unless he’s wearing the Falcon Body). Since you can only use a couple Parts per hero anyway, and build them in whatever order you want, most players will have the Parts they want after a couple of stages.

Let’s say there are three each of Anyone Parts, X Only Parts, and Zero Only Parts. Obviously, the bros can’t both be wearing the same Part. Here’s some quick early ideas:

Anyone Parts

  • Hyper Jump: jump higher and farther.
  • Hyper Dash: dash (and air dash, if possible) faster and farther.
  • Hyper Recover: energy drops recover more health.
X Parts

  • X-Charge: X-Buster charges automatically while not firing.
  • X-Turbo: increase speed of shots, and increase number of on-screen shots from 3 to 5.
  • X-Saver: reduce energy needed to fire subweapons.
Zero Parts

  • Z-Extend: increase range of saber.
  • Z-Eraser: saber destroys shots.
  • Z-Flight: can jump or air dash one extra time.

And of course,
we’ll include an option to turn off all the voice acting, automatically skip all the cutscenes, and otherwise jettison all the obnoxious talky-talky you have to button mash through in most of the MMX games. These are games that are meant to be played over and over again, let’s not waste anyone’s time.

It’s possible I’m crazy, and don’t know what I’m talking about. I am, after all, a lapsed Mega Man X fan, who didn’t follow the series down its PS2 rabbit hole. Maybe an MM9-style reboot, which takes the series all the way back to X1, is exactly what the “true” fans want, and what the series really needs.

But I see this as a baby/bathwater situation. The latter X games are full of interesting ideas that didn’t get the polish they deserved, thanks to troubled development, slashed budgets, and maybe a smattering of just plain couldn’t-be-arsed. Hunting for parts and planning stage routes around meta-bosses are the kinds of gameplay that sets X apart from the Classic series. If Capcom wants to give X9 the same loving treatment Mega Man 11 got, I think they’d do well to keep that in mind.

One last note, before I leave you: I have a standing offer to Let’s Play Mega Man X7, as a blind run, as long as I don’t have to spend any money on the game. If you’re an insane person with too much cash who knows how Steam gifts work and wants to see me hurt myself, well, you know what you need to do.

Thanks for reading!

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