In 1996, the Mega Man X series parted ways with Nintendo hardware. Mega Man X3 is how it ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
The first Mega Man X game got things off to such a solid start that it was almost inevitable that a letdown would come sooner rather than later. After all, with so little room for improvement, what could the sequels really do but overcomplicate themselves? Mega Man X2 did an admirable job of keeping the ball in the air — focusing more on refinement than innovation, for better or for worse — but X3 can't find much to do but repeat the past, with noticeably diminished returns.
The storyline is about what you'd expect. There are eight Mavericks to be stopped by our hero X, with a few familiar faces turning up along the way. Defeating each of the main bosses gives you a new ability, and there are upgrade capsules scattered throughout the levels. The mastermind behind this game's evil deeds is Dr. Doppler. Or so we're told. Anyone who knows their Mega Man, however, will see where that's going from the very start.
So far, so familiar, but it's not the story that lets X3 down — it's the design.
Too much of the game is, simply, empty. X can amble around for what seems like a comically long time without encountering an enemy, and far from creating tension it just makes us wonder if the developers forgot to finish the levels. There's a carelessness to the placement of hazards and obstacles. They're there alright, but unlike the exquisite torture of the first two X games, there's very little in the way of strategy that you'll need to learn. At least, most of the time.
The rest of the time, strategy gives way entirely to forced memorisation. Traps — some of which trigger instant death — appear from nowhere, with necessary leaps of faith turning into a mindless gamble until you remember how far you need to fall in which direction.
X3's design spends too much time at each of these extremes. You'll either need no strategy whatsoever, or an immediate flash of perfect foresight. Rewarding game design is between those extremes, and X3 avoids that middleground whenever possible.
The traps at the bottom of falls also reflect another problem with the design: platformers of this kind are not compatible with large, open rooms. Throughout the classic series — and nearly always in the previous two X games — the player is guided along a clear path. How they're meant to survive that path is the puzzle they'll need to solve, but "Where do I go?" is never a question they'll need to ask. Here the player needs to ask it constantly, because there is often no clue as to a room's exit. Sometimes that big drop in front of you means death. Other times it's the only way to progress. Sometimes your blind leap will put you on a platform. Other times you'll land on a bed of spikes and die.
Any of this could have been alleviated by the introduction of visual cues — whether hints in the background layer or visible activity below — but instead we just need to cross our fingers whenever we encounter a vertical drop. Or, for that matter, climb.
The poor design and lack of imagination extends to the bosses. It feels like an unfunny joke that so many of the major fights in X3 (from Mavericks to mini-bosses to fortress guardians) see the enemy ramming itself repeatedly into a wall while you slowly shoot it to death. That's a preposterously simple attack pattern for even one boss to have, but in X3 if you master the fine art of not standing still, you're way ahead of the curve.
In other cases, aspects of the game that should have been fun turn frustrating due to their illogical execution. As in X1, beating one stage can have an impact on another. Unlike X1, however, it's almost impossible to notice the difference. A light, for instance, might flicker. Hooray. This becomes problematic when you spy a heart tank behind a box that looks exactly like other boxes you're able to destroy. For some reason, you can't destroy this one. You return again and again with new weapons, but you'll never get rid of it. What do you have to do? Beat one particular stage, and that one particular box disappears. Why? We have no idea. What fun.
There's one single weapon that will get most of the upgrades for you, which in itself is disappointing. There's nothing to figure out; it's a simple matter of repeating the same thing every time you see cracks in the wall. And yet, in one stage, you'll see you need to break a rope to get an upgrade. There are plenty of logical ways to do this — from cutting it to burning through it — but none of that works. Instead, you need to charge up an electric weapon which — again, illogically — makes X punch the ground. How this breaks the rope but a blade does not is beyond us, and it doesn't seem at all like the product of thoughtful game design.
The soundtrack is another disappointment. While ports of the game to other consoles saw a significant downgrade in sound quality, the ostensibly superior SNES soundtrack isn't exactly easy on the ears. Some tracks — Neon Tiger's and Tunnel Rhino's in particular — are absolutely grating, and their repetition makes exploring their stages a chore.
Additionally, certain bosses need to be defeated with their weaknesses unless you want to fight them again later. Why a player should be rewarded for defeating them the "cheaper" way is beyond us, but there you go.
All of that, however, makes this more of a disappointing Mega Man X game than it does a disappointing game in general. A few of the boss fights can be rather fun, and there's still a sense of achievement when you manage to collect all of X's parts.
We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention the opportunity to summon Zero during the stages. While you're limited in terms of how much you can use him — and his moveset isn't as versatile as it would later become — playing as Zero is a fun way to inject a bit of life into an experience that sorely needs it.
In the end, X3 is frustrating mainly for what it fails to be. It fails to be a solid addition to the X lineup, and it fails to bring the SNES trilogy to a satisfactory close. If this were the first game in its series we might be a bit more forgiving, but instead it takes several big steps backwards, and seems to indicate that the minds behind this series were already losing interest...a suspicion that the quality of later X games can't really dispel.
By no means a bad game, Mega Man X3 still manages to be disappointing. From a design standpoint, there's simply too much that feels lazy and incomplete. Unremarkable weapons, illogical solutions to environmental puzzles, long areas of nothing at all, repetitive boss fights, and a soundtrack that seems to pride itself on being intermittently annoying all come together to make this a pretty sad swansong for X's adventures on the SNES. For fans of the series, there's enough here to warrant a play-through. Those looking to dip a toe, however, would be much better served by either of its predecessors.