Feature: The Confusing World of Mega Man Spin-Offs - Part 1

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We've already talked about the ten numbered console games in the Classic Mega Man series, but as you are no doubt aware that barely scratches the surface when it comes to Capcom's classic franchise. We could spend several weeks spotlighting all of the titles released across all platforms — and, believe us, we'd love to — but we thought it better to focus our attention on the Classic series and the multiple side series games.

This means that certain great minor titles (such as Mega Man V for the Game Boy) and other fascinating oddities (such as Mega Man Soccer) are getting the short shrift, but we hope that this overview of Mega Man's side series games makes up for it. After all, there sure are a lot of them, and we're happy to provide you with a guide to decide where to begin.

For starters, it's worth noting that even the wealth of side series games can be divided into two distinct universes. In the first, the order is Mega Man, Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, Mega Man ZX and Mega Man Legends, with the games in those series released in chronological order. In the second universe, the order is Mega Man Battle Network followed by Mega Man Star Force, with those games also released chronologically.

Got that? Now let's dive in.

The most popular side series also sees, perhaps, the biggest fluctuation in quality. The games run the gamut from genre-defining to outright terrible, but the first few entries are every bit as remarkable as anything in the classic titles.

Marking the first step in the evolution of the Mega Man franchise, the Mega Man X series didn't immediately stray too far from its framework. Taking place many years after the classic series — and after the deaths of Dr. Light and Dr. Wily — we now play as X, the crowning achievement of our good scientist. Discovered and activated by Dr. Cain, X fills a similar role to classic Mega Man: he fights his way through eight stages, defeats the main boss of each, adapts their weapons for his own use and then sets out to defeat the main villain.

What set the series apart, however, was its atmosphere. Whereas Classic Mega Man was colourful and cartoony, Mega Man X was bleak from the get-go, starting from the very first stage: an introductory level that finds a destroyed city under siege. In Classic Mega Man it was your job to fight for everlasting peace, but in Mega Man X that peace is long gone, and the best you can hope to do is neutralise the threat.

The series also featured some interesting differences in the main character's abilities. The slide was replaced with a dash, wall jumping was not only possible but an absolute necessity, and in the fifth game a truly sacrilegious feature was introduced: the long-sought ability to duck!

Mega Man X as a series placed a far greater emphasis on item collection, allowing X to increase his health, defences and firepower by locating items hidden in nearly every stage. It encouraged exploration and lateral thinking, which was a nice change of pace from the relatively simple run-and-gun approach to the Classic series.

Perhaps its best innovation was the introduction of Zero...but we'll get to him later on. For now, let's shed a tear for the downward trajectory the series has taken, with an initial trio (or quartet) of great games standing as eternal reminders of what truly great gaming is like, and a string of disappointing, overstuffed, repetitive releases pulling us down.

It's hard to say exactly where the series started to drop off in quality, but we're pretty sure that the Guns N Roses tribute of Mega Man X5 and the awful — and at times impossible — game design of Mega Man X6 represent examples of a great series definitively past its prime.

As for Mega Man X7? We don't talk about Mega Man X7, and we'd like to keep it that way.

The Mega Man Zero series gave Dr. Wily's final creation a chance to shine. It builds far more upon the gameplay found in the X series than it does upon the Classic, but that's to be understood. After all, it's X that introduced the world to Zero and — unsurprisingly — fans loved him.

Zero was the Proto Man of Mega Man X, a cooler, more powerful, more conflicted character who in this case also had a far more interesting weapon: a sabre. When gamers first got to control Zero in Mega Man X3, he was received so well that he became a playable supporting character in the series moving forward. Unsurprisingly, the simple act of playing as Zero transformed the games enormously. Without a buster to take enemies out at range — and without the acquisition of boss weapons — emphasis was placed on close-quarters combat and nimble evasion. It was great.

With Mega Man Zero, many fans got their wish. Item collection was in even fuller force in this series, with upgrades coming in several ways: Zero could collect friendly Cyber Elves, pick up items, earn elemental chips from defeating bosses, learn special moves by defeating them more quickly and without taking damage, building them, and so on. In short, Zero's world was one of possibility and surprise, and the even darker tone of the series makes it feel like a much more mature and desolate experience than anything that had come previously.

With only four games in the series — and a surprisingly conclusive ending — Mega Man Zero was able to maintain a steady quality from front to back. While everyone will have their favourite and least favourite game, none of them are significantly stronger or weaker than any other. Criticism of this series tends to focus on its incredible difficulty. Completing the games is hard enough, but with unlockable items and abilities only available to those who speedrun, avoid damage and defeat every enemy, it's clear that most gamers will never see all that Mega Man Zero has to offer.

Unlike Mega Man X, the Zero series isn't quite a necessary play for fans of Classic Mega Man. It includes a buster weapon, but the emphasis has shifted entirely, and there's a stronger reliance on narrative than ever before. It's a great experience for those who can take the punishment, but for anyone who expects an easy ride it's probably best to keep moving.

Check back tomorrow as we look at Mega Man ZX, Mega Man Legends, Mega Man Battle Network and Mega Man Star Force. That's a lot of Mega Man...

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