Going Maverick: How X4 Upgraded Mega Man’s Hardware

Depending on whether you chose to play as X or Zero, the fight against Web Spider requires a different set of tactics. With his X-Buster, X can dash around the small jungle room until Spider descends from the canopy, wall jumping over the webs he shoots and firing from afar. With his Z-Sabre, Zero is forced to stay close to the bug on his line, dashing away from the web only to careen up and around over it in a circle and strike before your foe scrambles back to safety. The fight gets harder when the Repliforce member lays an electric grid and starts scurrying about the scene. Because of their different playstyles, the remaining seven robot masters will present X and Zero with a similarly different dynamic.

Mega Man X4’s contrasting gameplay styles can be seen by looking at its pair of playable characters: one leans forward, a gung-ho blue hero that rushes into danger with his energy cannon; the other a tightly wound red samurai warrior, his hand readied near his beam sword’s handle. It offers an excellent example of the incredible differences in gameplay that a single design can allow. Since their inception, action games have challenged players to defeat different types of enemies in diverse environments armed with a specific collection of actions. Rather than simply graft the same abilities to different sprites, Mega Man X4 built two characters with completely different moves from the same core design, one the evolution of a run-and-gun classic and one a close-ranged powerhouse. But to understand the components that make up these advanced mechanical soldiers, we need to look back on version 1.0.

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Mega Man the franchise entered the pantheon of action greats for many reasons including its versatile set of acquirable weapons and tough difficulty, but its mechanical construction is at the heart of its appeal. Like other famous platformers including Pitfall and Super Mario Bros., Mega Man is about running a deadly obstacle course, every one here ending in a challenging 1 on 1 boss fight. This is done with three simple actions connected to a button: run, jump, and shoot. This list of basic verbs is displayed as a small character sprite with minimal frames of animation in its movements. The benefit of this is twofold- they make it easier for the Nintendo Entertainment System running the game to process other elements like the music, and they create an incredibly fast response time and precise control. By tying those moves to the down press on the controller’s button rather than release, the time between real-world action and onscreen reaction is as quick as your own reflexes. The Robot Masters’ behaviors were built from the same core moves but with different profiles and timings, their defeat granting a new projectile weapon with unique properties to replace the default yellow pellet shooting buster cannon. With the subsequent titles, this core design was expanded to include a slide move in 3 and charge shot in 4.*

The Super Nintendo’s Mega Man X in 1993 was a substantial shift from classic’s design both tonally and mechanically. Where Mega Man’s Astro Boy-esque origins framed a simple tale of good versus evil that pitted the Blue Bomber against the wicked Dr. Wily and his army of robots, X tackled themes of social division, war, and revolution against the machinations of the traitorous Sigma, as a hologram of Dr. Light provides sage wisdom from the great beyond like Harry Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. The mechanics were given a similar upgrade, adding two new verbs to its Gameplay Dictionary: wall jumping and dashing. The first gave the level design more freedom to add verticality to the obstacle courses and the second gave the player a speed boost that could be combo’d with jump. Because of them, complex action scenes can be condensed into small chunks of space, and create quickly paced levels. These elements combined with a sleeker art design and detailed backgrounds gives X a harder aesthetic.

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The implementation of the dashing mechanic changes up the gameplay in some pretty significant ways, and not just in the tactical considerations of the combat. With the dash and generous air control, X’s agility is greatly expanded, including being able to create broad sweeping motions through the level or evade a single shot with a four-point jump that lands back in the starting place, giving him a mobility and fluidity largely unmatched in the genre. The Mega Man X series has some of the most athletic gameplay in all of videogames.

The technological leap that separated the SNES and PlayStation offered a host of advantages, with some seductive, but dangerous pitfalls including poorly implemented polygonal models. Like many series that chose to carry on their 2D traditions and utilize the system’s increased storage and processing, Mega Man 8’s upgrades were primarily aesthetic, and the richer, fuller colors, clean instrumentation in the soundtrack, and animated cutscenes hit the brain harder than the previous entries had. But 8’s ambitions hurt the gameplay, letting larger sprites and overly detailed animations betray their own sense of speed and make control feel sluggish overall, especially noticeable after an era dominated by the X series’ speed. And while X4 trips on some of those same issues, the dash once again lets the player clear them with grace.

Animations are the building blocks to all gameplay. In the same way a film is a collection of still shots shown in a sequence, when a character or unit moves in a videogame those frames give the sense of  motion. Thanks to the storage capacity of CD roms, more animations-and thereby more moves- could be included to create more complex gameplay. Where X3 had finally made Zero a playable character, his moves remained derivative of X’s, with a charged shot that turned into a sword combo the longer you held the button the major point to differentiate them. In comparison to that game, Mega Man X4 was a revelation.

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All action games exist on a spectrum between ranged and melee combat, both styles coming with their own benefits and disadvantages. With the firing lines and distances that are standard for guns or bows, ranged combat lets the player maintain a safe distance from their foes. Ranged play means that you’re far enough away from your enemies to watch for and evade their attacks after they’ve already been fired, letting you identify the projectile as your threat and react appropriately. It is easier to avoid your targets, harder to hit them as you need to predict where they’ll be when your shot travels to their location. Because of the limited range of melee weapons such as swords or axes, combat has to take place much closer to the action. Melee combat requires you to identify the animations that precede the attacks and observe their timings, as your close proximity provides you with very little time to evade an attack once it’s been executed. It has a higher chance to take damage but dishes more out. From this starting point, the damage values for both combat styles are tweaked so that their stats are roughly comparable in the aggregate. Since the first entry, Mega Man had been a game with outstanding ranged combat, and X4 was able to work in much more personal distances.

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It’s kind of remarkable how well Zero’s brawler-esque gameplay slots into Mega Man X’s design, his very nature opening up the strategic possibilities of the dash mechanic; what was prior a tool for evasion and traversal was forced to be a means to outmaneuver and flank out of necessity. Zero’s Z-Sabre is given ample reach and a nice three button attack rate, its precise hitboxes requiring a satisfying timing. With how dependent it is on close combat, Zero’s gameplay would have been impossible if the controls weren’t tight and responsive, but Capcom was able to maintain small, efficient motions with minimal input lag.

As the commander of the Repliforce’s air division, Storm Owl’s level and characterization works well to portray him as part of the story’s military unit. Though he’s perhaps a better example than some of the others, all the Repliforce members have some context in the story, considerable progress from the original game’s use of the six elements. Appropriately, Storm Owl’s level starts at the outskirts of the battalion and has you working through a fleet of turrets, enemy ships, and death rays until you reach the main carrier and midboss.

The combination of enemies and terrain helps keep Mega Man X4’s pace hitting at constant beats by dividing every level into two parts with a checkpoint. The first half of Cyber Peacock’s level is subdivided into three areas, and the game grades your performance getting through each, offering greater rewards all the way up. With some exceptions, Split Mushroom’s stage is all about verticality, first the spiral staircase with the rotating background then the thin corridors of a complex that’s really just a metal tree. X4 has impressive variety in its levels, whether it’s the train that leads to Slash Beast or riding a suped-up Jet Ski to Jet Stingray. There’s scenario there, further evolving the obstacle course structure underneath.

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Where it had already laid a solid foundation for the combat, X4 gave each of its characters their own upgrade paths. Though X’s moves were similar to the past three games, additions like the hover boots and new area of effect charge shot change up the rhythms and intensity of his combat. More significant is Zero’s design, where upgrades taken from the Repliforce masters form a wide variety of new attacks and moves, many of which can be linked together into combo strings. While d-pad + triangle prompts a handful of moves, others have subtler, more impressive, implementations. Probably the smartest of these is the new mid-air attack Kuuenzan, an aerial somersault with a joyfully large number of active frames, the perfect thing for dash jumping into a group of enemies. Because of its simple addition to the list of animations attached to the square button, the move adds a fluidity and grace unseen in the series before with minimal effort. With the complexity in its construction, it could be argued that Zero’s half of X4 has as much in common with Street Fighter 2 as Mega Man 2. It should be no surprise that having put in the effort to represent all these moves on the controller rather than in a menu, the game is gonna put up the best fight it can.

To some extent, every game incentivizes the player to understand character animation systems, enemy tells, and placement, but they differ in how much skill they require to complete. In that the same elements that apply to Zero are applied to the enemies, a rough set of rules that exist universally help the gameplay remain consistent, a feat that any action game based on skill aspires to, as it allows the player to learn and improve. With enemies like Slash Beast and Magma Dragoon, who are both fast and unrelenting, you won’t get very far in X4 without understanding how to play. It’s brutal and satisfying.

Mega Man has rightly been criticized over the years for its ability to produce sequels with minimal upgrades, but the way that the series had continuously reinvented itself with each branch and work to push the boundaries of its structure is worth respecting. In less than a year, the series would get the polygonal treatment and reappear as one of the generation’s finest examples of the 3D action genre with Mega Man Legends, an RPG-lite adventure series populated with a rich location and population, sky pirates and treasure, and a deep and compelling sci-fi story, that looks at its own history and the after effects of mass automation that had to be sealed away to keep the world safe. A few years later, Mega Man Zero would be released on the Gameboy Advance, bridging the social commentary of X and the history of Legends with a metaphysical story of death, transcendence, and rebirth, and would finally merge X and Zero’s fighting styles into a single powerful, agile beast. It would perfect and combine the mechanics and controls that X4 had valiantly explored.

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*In terms of gameplay, the charge shot suffers from the same problem all similar attacks do, incentivizing the player to adopt a rhythm of stopping after each engagement in order to store a shot with max damage before heading further into the level.

PLATFORM: PlayStation
DEVELOPER: CAPCOM
1997

Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapter’s and to see his other works visit his blog.

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