Those of you familiar with the backstory of the ongoing development of the Mega Man X series may be aware that Zero – the sabre-wielding, long-haired secondary protagonist – was, in fact, the original design Keiji Inafune wanted to use for Mega Man. That idea got shot down because of how different Zero looks from the design of classic Mega Man, but Inafune never completely let go of the idea of making Zero a series lead. 2002 came around and Zero finally got his due with Mega Man Zero on the Game Boy Advance, kicking off a short sub-series that would then go on to spawn its own sub-series with Mega Man ZX. Now, Capcom has seen fit to release the whole six-game saga again for the Switch as Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection, and we’re pleased to report that it’s everything you could have possibly hoped for.
Mega Man Zero picks up about a hundred years after the events of the Mega Man X series, taking place in a utopian society called Neo Arcadia, built by X himself. Though it initially seemed to start out fine, the society has taken a turn for the worse in how it persecutes and hunts innocent reploids, who are being retired (read: murdered) in mass numbers. Zero is woken up from an induced sleep by a woman named Ciel, who acts as a key member in a resistance group against Neo Arcadia, and he’s soon swept up in the fight against the oppressive regime X has built. Although the storytelling isn’t anything groundbreaking, it does a solid job of continuing the heavier tone of the Mega Man X series, while introducing a wealth of new characters and conflicts to spice things up.
There’s a clear maturation to the gameplay of the Mega Man Zero series, which has made a name for itself for its astoundingly crushing difficulty. Though they’re all excellent releases, the first entry in the series proves to be a rather rough and unrefined cut of the unique formula the series defined. With each new entry, then, it’s clear that the developers had an ever-clearer idea of what they were trying to do with the gameplay and level design. Each stage you run through in the Mega Man Zero games has you jumping and slashing your way through all manner of enemies and obstacles, culminating in a tough boss fight that occasionally can grant you extra boons to make later levels easier. The key thing here, however, is that your performance in every stage is graded based upon damage, speed, and kills. The margins for reaching the highest rank for a stage are tight, and things are made a little less approachable considering that you can’t redo a stage once you’ve completed it.
As the series wore on, the ranking system became more than just a badge of honour, too, with high ranks in the later games granting you exclusive weapon and armour sets from the bosses you defeat. This ranking system at the heart of the Zero games proves to be both its greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, a huge part of the addictive nature of the gameplay stems from replaying levels and learning them by muscle memory. There’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of earning an S-rank in a Mega Man Zero stage, knowing that your raw skill and knowledge of the mechanics carried you to that victory. On the other hand, the ranking system leaves almost no room for error and actively discourages you from using some game mechanics. Case in point the “Cyber Elf” system is a series of collectible consumables that can grant you a mixture of short and long term benefits, but using a Cyber Elf in a stage immediately disqualifies you from earning top rank.
Even if you don’t go for top ranks, however, the Mega Man Zero series proves to be a wonderfully enjoyable experience from stem to stern. The controls are tight, the level designs are varied and interesting, and the boss encounters prove to be some of the most memorable in the whole Mega Man series. This is a rare case of a Mega Man sub-series that remained consistent in its quality throughout its run, and while it may be that everyone has a favorite entry for their own reasons, it’s tough to objectively argue that any of these four releases are less than high-quality sidescrollers. The collection would be worth its cost just based on these alone, but then there’s also the two ZX entries from the DS to consider.
With a story that takes place two hundred years after the Mega Man Zero series, Mega Man ZX largely continues the work of its predecessor, but with the addition of Metroidvania elements to expand the gameplay options. The tight controls and action-focused gameplay are still present, though the ranking system has been tossed out in favour of the new open-ended design. Unfortunately, the first Mega Man ZX fumbles this overworld; it’s difficult to navigate and the map you’re given doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This was largely fixed, however, in Mega Man ZX Advent, which retooled the map system while reining in the open-world elements a bit more. On the whole, the ZX duo doesn’t hold up as nearly well as the Zero series, but these two games still have some great ideas and fun gameplay.
Those of you that struggle when it comes to sidescrollers will be pleased to know that there are a few options included in the collection to make these releases more palatable. There’s a “Casual Scenario” mode that buffs you up with better offensive and defensive features so you can effectively steamroll through the games and just experience the story. On top of this, there’s a new “Save Assist” feature that drops a few checkpoints into levels, usually before tricky platforming segments and boss fights. Critically, these are not save states that you can trigger at will; you still have to overcome boss fights and obstacles on your own steam. Rather, think of them as a means of cutting back on the tedium of the old-school design. If you lose, you now don’t have to traipse back through an entire level just for another crack at the boss that beat you. Both these new features can be completely ignored, of course, if you want the ‘pure’ experience, but we’d encourage you to at least see what they add.
Another feature brought in with this collection is the all-new “Z-Chaser” mode, which is essentially a time attack. You can compete locally with friends or against online ghosts, and the goal is to complete a selected portion form any of the six games as fast as possible. Though your mileage may vary with this, it’s a nice way of adding more value to the overall package, and having the ability to have a second screen displaying your competitor’s run is a nice way of adding to the stakes while teaching you things you might not have thought of. Once you complete a run in this mode, your data is then uploaded to the global leaderboard, so there’s potentially hours of enjoyment to be had here if score chasing is your thing.
This truly is the complete package when it comes to these releases, as Capcom has seen fit to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. A substantial gallery with all manner of art and music from across the games can be browsed at your pleasure, offering interesting insights behind the scenes of the development of each game. You can play all games in either their Western or Japanese versions and a few filters can be added to tweak the look of your experience.
We preferred the low-res look of the base resolution, but you can also enable a pixel-smoothing filter or a more retro filter that adds in a slight static effect reminiscent of old handheld screens. On top of this, all the Japan-only e-cards for the latter Zero games are included here, alongside a bunch of achievements for hitting various milestones across the games. Also, the dual-screen setup of the ZX games is neatly handled by putting the second screen as a smaller, windowed portion of the display, which you can navigate via the right stick. It’s clear throughout the experience that the developers put a lot of time and love into making this collection a complete package, and the extra mile they went with all the customization options and supplementary content is not something to be overlooked.
Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection is everything that you could’ve hoped it to be. This is ultimately six great Mega Man games presented to you with a slew of customizable features, extra content, and quality of life updates. If you’re a fan of either Mega Man or sidescrolling action games in general, you owe it to yourself to give this release a go and see what all the fuss is about. These are hard and occasionally frustrating games, but they offer up some rewarding, action-heavy gameplay that even today stands among the best of its class. Don’t pass this one up, it’s definitely worth the punt.