By the time Mega Man X was released for the SNES, gamers and critics were already expressing concern about the classic series feeling stale. Mega Man had become formulaic and predictable, and while the NES games were still a lot of fun, there was no denying that they didn't evolve much from title to title.
Mega Man X felt like a firm and confident rejoinder from Capcom; if you wanted a new spin on classic Mega Man action, this was the game to buy. Of course it wasn't just a reactionary release for the sake of being different. If that were the case we wouldn't still be talking about it now. Mega Man X established itself immediately as a masterpiece of the 16-bit era, and it's every bit as exciting today as it was two decades ago.
The classic series mythology forms the backdrop for Mega Man X, but the plot is new and you won't find much in the way of returning faces. Mega Man is gone, Dr. Wily and Dr. Light have both passed away (though they both make appearances at various points in the X series) and a new hero has arisen to tackle a whole new threat. From the start it's clear that Mega Man X wants to chart new territory, and the more it does so the more rewarding it is.
You begin the game with a very limited arsenal, which should come as no surprise, but the way in which you improve it is a bit different. Special weapons are still obtained by defeating bosses (Mavericks here, as opposed to the classic Robot Masters), but along the way you can also find important pickups like subtanks (which collect any health drops you don't need for a later refill), hearts (which extend your life bar little by little), and upgrade capsules, which contain a pre-recorded message from Dr. Light and will provide you with a new ability.
This encourages exploration like no classic series game before it. While Mega Man 4 had some optional utilities lying around and Mega Man 6 featured branching paths, the item collection aspect of Mega Man X takes the concept much further. You'll often be able to see an item that appears to be unreachable, and a little bit of environmental problem solving is necessary to figure out how to get it. It's not as complicated a concept as it would be in later X games — it became a literal nightmare in Mega Man X6 — but it's a great start and it rewards you for exploring every stage to its fullest.
Speaking of stages, the ones in Mega Man X are all memorable and interesting, with clever nods to the classic series that are sure to please long-time fans. Perhaps the most-referenced title is the original Mega Man, with advanced versions of the miner enemies from Guts Man's stage scattered around the junk processing facility of Flame Mammoth. Boomer Kuwanger also acts like a much improved incarnation of Cut Man, and his vertical stage is a direct nod to Elec Man's. There are a few other classic series echoes to be found here, but we won't spoil them for you!
Other great moments include the frantic, speedy on-rails sections of Armored Armadillo, the sky-high battle with Storm Eagle, and the electric maze of Spark Mandrill. The music is overall much moodier and atmospheric than what you might remember in the classic series, which means it's not as immediately catchy or memorable. With enough time however the soundtrack absolutely grows on you, and it contributes to the overall darker feel of this series as compared to its predecessor.
It's unlikely that fans of the original games will be disappointed. The standard run-and-gun action remains intact, with recognizable physics and attack strategies all carrying over. X can charge his buster, which (pre-upgrade at least) feels a bit more balanced than it did in the classic series, and the slide has been replaced with a dash, which serves a similar function. So far, so similar.
The differences however begin with the addition of a wall jump, which not only has the expected effects on stage exploration but also allows for interesting new room design, as vertical advancement is no longer limited by ladders and platforms. It will also be an important ability to keep in mind during boss fights, if you expect to get out alive.
The only real downside to Mega Man X is that the game is a bit too easy. The crushing difficulty of the classic series is one thing that definitely didn't carry over, and it's missed. Mega Man X is far more forgiving, with enough upgrades, health extensions and subtanks that even the final boss is a pushover. Of course, that's the great thing about these items: they're nearly all optional, so if you do find the game to be a hair too easy, just make a point of not seeking out the extra items. That's when things get really interesting.
Restore points are added to this version of the game, but the stages are short enough and extra lives plentiful enough that they're not as helpful as they might sound. This may be a classic Capcom action title, but judging from its low difficulty you'd never know it.
Anyone who hasn't played Mega Man X owes themselves a purchase. It's a prime example of how to do a spin-off series right, and it's a great way to spend a night in.
Mega Man X is a fantastic game. It retains the charm and pacing of the classic Mega Man series and adds a much appreciated spin of its own. With plenty of hidden items and upgrades — don't forget the super-secret one in Armored Armadillo's stage... — and a host of fun new weapons to use, Mega Man X is one worth playing again and again. Later entries in this sub-series might be a bit of a mixed bag, but there's no denying that this first title is a masterpiece.