Just one year after Mega Man Zero, Inti Creates released a sequel for the Game Boy Advance spin-off. That might sound a bit quick, but Mega Man Zero 2 is no mindless cash-in. It took the sturdy foundation set by its predecessor and built upon it in impressive ways, while also smoothing out the rough edges. On top of that it wove an excellent narrative of its own and set up the plots for the next two games to come. There's no question about it; Mega Man Zero 2 is a great game.
The story picks up one year after the events of the previous game, which ended with Zero and Ceil going their separate ways. We check in with Zero after a solid 12 months of single-handedly battling the forces of Neo Arcadia, and he finally succumbs to exhaustion. An unlikely ally carries his unconscious body to Ceil, and that's where we see how much things have changed.
The narrative that plays out over the course of the four Zero games is impressively layered. Rather than repeat the plot beats of previous entries, each game builds upon what's already come, and advances it in interesting ways. Here, for instance, we see just how much our efforts in the first game have helped the Resistance; they have a much better new base, they are larger in number and better equipped for the fight, and they've established themselves as a genuine threat to Neo Arcadia. It's a great feeling to stroll through this Resistance Base and compare it to crumbling and dingy headquarters in the first game. It makes it feel like everything we accomplished actually mattered.
A lesser game would have told us about how much we helped, before sending us out on a new set of identical missions. Mega Man Zero 2, though, makes the effort to show us just how far along we've brought the movement, and its missions have actually changed to reflect that. The first game saw Zero rescuing captured members of the Resistance, escorting wounded soldiers back to base, and reacting immediately to urgent threats that went totally undetected. Now the Resistance is stronger and the missions are of a more active sort, with attacks on Neo Arcadia's supply routes and fortifications the norm. Thanks to Zero they're no longer in a fight for survival — they're in a fight to win.
The biggest change, however, is that Zero's been replaced. In his absence, a newcomer named Elpizo leads the Resistance, and while we can't say much about him without spoiling plot details, we can say that when we take him in conjunction with X from the first game, the Mega Man Zero series has a lot to say about the seductive danger of power. It's a great running theme throughout the series, and Elpizo represents a remarkably tragic variation on an old, old story.
We haven't said much about the gameplay, but that's because Mega Man Zero 2 wisely carries over the excellent action and controls from the first game. That's not to say it's identical, however; a few alterations have been made, and they're nearly all for the better.
For starters, our main issue with the first game was to do with grinding. Inti Creates clearly heard similar complaints from gamers, because it's much reduced in this game. The weapons, for instance, level up much more quickly and will often max out from basic usage. You can grind in order to get them there faster, but playing through the game is usually enough to unlock their highest potential. Cyber Elves, similarly, require much less feeding, meaning the best Elves will cost you a few hundred Energy Crystals instead of a few thousand. That's a very welcome difference.
In fact, even though Cyber Elves are still able to turn into subtanks, this time around you can actually find subtanks just lying around in stages, which makes it much easier to remember where they are. On top of that, when you do collect a Cyber Elf, you're now told its name, which is a welcome change from the previous game that never made it clear what you were finding and again helps to keep their locations straight.
One change that does feel like a step backward has to do with the mission selection, which is now a line of boss headshots making it feel more like the Mega Man classic and Mega Man X series. It robs Zero of a little bit of its identity, as does the fact that the game world is no longer interconnected, and you can't stumble into one area by exploring another.
That's a minor concern though, and it's entirely offset by the fact that the level design — perhaps as a welcome byproduct of the above — feels much tighter. The obstacles and enemy placements are no longer chosen solely for maximum frustration, and are instead laid out with an eye toward fair challenge. The punishing difficulty carries over wholesale, to be sure, but this time around the game earns it in much more rewarding ways.
The Electricity / Fire / Ice elemental weakness chain remains intact, as do the weapons from the first game, though your Triple Rod has now been revamped to a Chain Rod. With the Chain Rod you can grab items and blocks from a distance and swing across ceilings, which is a welcome change for a weapon that definitely lacked personality the first time around. The Shield Boomerang, though, is still worthless.
Another welcome addition comes in the form of unlockable EX Skills, which allow Zero to learn a special move from any boss he defeats while holding an A or S rank. These are not necessary to progress through the game, but they are a nice incentive for mastering the game's difficulty. On top of that you can discover different forms for Zero that will change his speed, the amount of damage he takes, and even grant him special abilities. These are unlocked depending upon your play style, so someone who's relying on Z Sabre will unlock something different than the form unlocked by someone who relies on the Buster.
In terms of presentation Mega Man Zero 2 looks and sounds a lot like its predecessor, but the graphics — particularly in terms of character portraits — have been reworked to look much smoother and more vibrant. As always you can enjoy the softer resolution of the GamePad or blow this up on the TV with the Wii U, but in any case this is a pretty attractive game. The soundtrack, meanwhile, also exceeds the high standards set by the first game, and that's no mean feat. There are some genuinely excellent tracks here for sure.
Mega Man Zero 2 has the good sense to know what worked in its first game, and it takes this opportunity to refine rather than reinvent. It also provides us with an interesting new adversary, a whole slew of challenging stages and boss fights, and an impressive sense of narrative progression that we don't always get from Mega Man sequels. In short, it's a great game, and if you've never played anything beyond the first game, you're missing out.
Mega Man Zero 2 does a great job of ironing out the wrinkles of its predecessor, which is a very welcome accomplishment. It improves upon the graphics and the soundtrack, significantly reduces grinding, and provides the same brutal challenge in what feels like a much more fair way - restore points are handy if you need a helping hand, naturally. Unlockable forms and EX Skills are also added to the mix, which gives the game an additional layer of replayability. It's a sequel done right, and it's no surprise that it's remembered so fondly over 10 years after its first release.