One Giant Leap, 1993: Mega Man X

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: the Blue Bomber gets an edgy 90s makeover in Mega Man X

The Mega Man games are some of the absolute best from the NES era. It’s a compelling formula; you have 81 Robot Masters you can challenge in any order, each one drops a weapon that makes elements of the other stages easier2, then you wrap it all up with a few levels in Dr. Wily’s fortress before the day is saved. Over the course of several games this formula was polished to a mirror shine, as each entry built on the previous, iterating on ideas that worked and ditching ones that didn’t.

However, there were six Mega Man games released for the NES, coming out nearly once a year from 1987-1993. Even for the era, that’s a lot of games. Mega Men 1-3 tend to be remembered as the “good ones” in popular recollection, 2 & 3 especially, and while that’s in a way unfair to 4-6 (which are quite good games themselves) it’s also sort of inevitable. Formulas become familiar, and resistant to change. The later games tried to add more story elements (Oh no, Protoman’s gone rouge! But wait, it wasn’t him, it was the shapeshifting Darkman!) but there really wasn’t room for much. They added sliding as an extra movement option, but the NES’s controller couldn’t really support it; pressing down on a d-pad while you’re already pressing right (or left) is kinda awkward, but with only two face buttons there really weren’t any other options. And even Rush items, which can be traced back through 2’s numbered items and 1’s magnet beam never quite feel like a harmonious part of the whole; they feel like ways to skip hard parts of the level, and being tied to the same system as regular weapons means it’s either hard or downright impossible (depending on the game) to shoot while using them. By the end of 1993, two things were clear: Mega Man had gone as far as it could under the constraints of the classic formula, and it was long since time to move past the NES for greener pastures.

And with the change in platform came a major update; the first SNES game would not be Mega Man 73 but rather the first entry in an entirely new(-ish) series: Mega Man X. X takes place ~100 years after the classic games, and has been given an edgy coat of paint just in time for the 90s. This ain’t your moderately younger brother’s Mega Man: X is tall, and cool, and has a mysterious past. This break from the classic games4 gives X room to nail the new features that the NES titles always struggled with.

For instance: story! There is one! In-game even! Mega Man X isn’t much by modern standards, but it’s a huge jump compared to its predecessors. The early “you’re forced to lose” fight against Vile particularly stands out as an example of a narrative beat conveyed through gameplay. This game isn’t exactly a JRPG, but you get a much stronger sense that Things Are Happening now.

Vile taunts our hero

And sliding still exists, more or less, except now it’s become a dash. And instead of triggering it through an awkward d-pad combo, it exists on a fancy third face button, since that’s a thing the SNES has. (It also exists as a double-tap of the d-pad, because it’s the fighting game boom and shit like that was in) It’s not exactly how a modern game would map it5 but it’s much less awkward. And while Mega Man games have always had a mild Metroidvania thing going on X leans into it a bit more, with things like the heart tanks in various stages that you can see but not get until you have Boomer Kuwanger’s weapon, or the various flammable tanks that naturally explode when shot with Flame Mammoth’s weapon. In many ways, X is simply the next iteration on the classics, with its expanded abilities simply allowing it to better manifest what the series has always aspired to be.

Mega Man X does have one huge departure from the classic games, though; the addition of wall jumping. In fact, this is the first time we’ve seen wall jumping in this article series; while I’m almost positive the mechanic was not invented in this game, it wasn’t exactly commonplace in 1993. Which makes it extra impressive just how smooth it feels here. You simply press yourself into a wall to begin sliding down it, and can then jump from there. Lesser games try to add an element of timing to it and skip the slide, but that never works out; the slide gives confirmation to the player that we’re now in a state where wall-jumping is possible, and makes the window of opportunity long enough that even people who don’t play fighting games can pull it off. Which sounds basic when you lay it all out, but you’d be surprised at how many games screw this up in the years to come; not to spoil future articles, but the Mario series will add wall jumping6 in 1996’s Super Mario 64, and won’t get it right until 2006’s New Super Mario Bros.

X sliding down a wall, ready to jump

However, one interesting wrinkle here is that in Mega Man X, you are free to change your momentum the second you start a wall jump. This means that you can go right back into the same wall moments after jumping, and effectively climb up it. This is the big reason why the wall jump fundamentally changes X compared to classic. It massively opens up movement; it lets you climb up to find secrets at the top of levels, it lets you potentially escape a pit you’ve fallen into, it lets you chill in the upper corner of a boss arena to look for an opening…it’s one of those beautiful “simple in concept, complex and wide-ranging in impact” changes.

Ultimately, Mega Man X is not a quantum leap forward; like its predecessor, it’s a bunch of ideas that have been done before, done well. But also like its predecessor, it makes it through to the present day with shockingly little rust. The 16-bit era has far more games that a player with modern sensibilities can just more or less pick up compared to 8-bit, but X is still exemplary. It’s honestly a great place to start if you’ve never played a Mega Man game before7. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes it’s a good idea to pull over and rotate your tires.

(Please tell me that metaphor made sense, I don’t drive)

Stray Observations:

  • Arin Hanson (aka Egoraptor) made a famous video talking about Mega Man X close to 10 years ago, and for 10 whole years I’ve had a bone to pick with it. In the video, he calls out the infinitely spawning worm enemies in the area right before the final boss chamber as a smart piece of design; you can use the charged version of Armored Armadillo’s weapon to effortlessly kill them as soon as they spawn, and since they allways drop pickups it’s an easy way to fully recover your weapon energy and subtanks. And while that is better than not having it and just letting the player be screwed if they die on their first attempt, an even better choice would be to just respawn the player with full weapon energy and subtanks from the start. It’s a smart choice in a vacuum but it’s just covering for a much larger bad choice. Anyway.
  • It’s pretty neat how completing a stage might result in a permanent change to another stage (like Storm Eagle’s airship crashing into Spark Mandrill’s power plant), though I kinda wish there were a way to choose to see the pre-change version anyway. I basically always start on Chill Penguin, so I don’t think I’ve every played Flame Mammoth’s stage with the lava floors active.
  • I’m sure we all remember ridiculous rumors about video game secrets growing up (like how you could supposedly find Mew hidden behind the truck by the S.S. Anne, or how you could unlock Sonic and Tails in Super Smash Bros. Melee by getting 20 KOs in Cruel Melee). However, I cannot blame anyone for believing any of them, because it is a 100% stone cold fact that if you visit Armored Armadillo’s stage after collecting every upgrade, jump off the last mine cart at the end of its run, and then wall jump up the cliffside you’ll reach a hidden room with a health pickup, and that if you then do this 4 more times you will instead find an upgrade terminal that gives you the ability to throw a hadouken, like in Street Fighter. Nothing means anything, eat Arby’s.

Other 1993 platformers of note:

Like I mentioned last time, 1993 sees the release of Kirby’s Adventure for the NES. This game keeps the forgiving nature of Kirby’s Dream Land but adds the now-iconic copy ability, whereby Kirby can gain the powers of enemies he sucks up. Also, between this and Mega Man 6 it is honestly wild that we’re still getting high profile NES games coming out. The SNES had been around for years by this point. The PlayStation comes out next year!

Elsewhere, while the direct follow-up to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would still be a year out, 1993 did see the release of Sonic CD for the short-lived Sega CD add-on. It introduces Metal Sonic and Amy Rose to the series, and features ridiculously sprawling levels courtesy of the Sega CD’s expanded memory. Also courtesy of the CD format is the sample-heavy soundtrack, which like all Sonic OSTs is superb.

Next Time: It’s the advent of 3D! …kinda. It’s Donkey Kong Country