When Mega Man X was released in 1993 I was so confused. I saw the X in the title and assumed it stood for 10. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for games to not get localized and released in North America for various reasons. Famously, we only received 3 Final Fantasy titles in the same amount of time as Japan getting 6. At the time, there were 6 regular old Mega Man titles released, and the sixth one had just been released on the aging NES hardware, so it didn’t really make sense that there would be three titles missing. Of course, there wasn’t and Capcom had basically just felt it was a good idea to give Mega Man a slight rebranding when moving him to the new hardware – the Super Nintendo.
Mega Man X, or just X, is a future Mega Man who is just a bit more advanced than his predecessor, and yet it feels like he’s moved so far beyond what Mega Man was previously. When the game starts, X mostly looks like Mega Man but with a higher detail sprite making him look more like the character art than the old in-game models. He comes equipped with the X-Buster which mostly functions like the old Mega Buster including a charged shot. He’s lost the ability to slide, but instead can dash forward either with the press of a face button or a double tap of a directional. He can also do a wall kick which allows him to continuously jump off a wall and scale it. Combining the dash with a jump or a wall kick can open up new areas for X and adds a new level of exploration not really found in the prior games.
Aside from all of that, the conventions of the game are still really familiar. Dr. Light and Dr. Wiley are both dead, but in their place X has an ally in Zero, a Maverick Hunter who goes after rogue robots and mostly looks like a red version of X with a ponytail. The villain is the Incredible Crash Dummy look-alike Sigma, a former Maverick Hunter turned….Maverick. The plot is basically that X was the first robot created with free will, and fearing he was too strong and unpredictable, Dr. Light sealed him away. Well past his expiration date, a Dr. Cain found X and basically reverse engineered him to create Zero as well as legions of other robots. A bunch of them went nuts, became Mavericks, and here we are with X having finally awakened on his own. Like any other Mega Man game, the story is simply there for you to take in if you wish, but it’s hardly essential to enjoying the game.
The rest of the setup is also essentially the same. Eight robot masters stand in the way of X and a showdown with Sigma. There’s an intro level which introduces both Zero, as an ally who comes to Mega Man’s aid, and Vile, an enemy robot who pilots a mech suit. The robot masters are only changed in the sense that now they resemble an animal of some kind. They still possess unique weapons and each one is weak to another. Clearing a stage means X can re-enter it and exit it at will, which is important because there are numerous extra goodies to uncover. In addition to the familiar E-Tanks, now called Sub Tanks, X can also find health upgrades that extend his overall health meter. And more importantly, X can also find capsules Dr. Light left behind which contain new upgrades for X’s armor like a chest guard that allows him to absorb more damage and leg upgrades that let him break certain walls. There’s even a special upgrade that allows X to perform a famous maneuver from another popular Capcom series. These armor and weapon upgrades will become a staple of the X franchise, which now has as almost as many games in it it as the regular Mega Man series.
Once the robot masters have been dealt with, Sigma’s base opens up and X is free to pursue the ultimate enemy of the game. Sigma’s base is broken up into three stages, and unlike traditional Mega Man games, there’s no boss-rush room. Instead, X will encounter the defeated robot masters throughout the three stages which makes things a little more fun than the usual room full of capsules. There are also additional other bosses to take down, including a showdown with Vile, before Sigma can be challenged. Like Dr. Wiley before him, Sigma’s fight will encapsulate multiple parts (in this case, three including the fight with his mutt) and is designed to test X’s skills up to this point. Whether it does or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose, though like most boss battles, once you figure out the patterns he’s not particularly difficult. Especially with some fully stocked Sub Tanks.
What makes Mega Man X such a resounding success is the sense of freedom within the game. The various health and armor upgrades are all basically optional and you’re free to make the game as easy or as challenging on yourself as you like. The X-Buster is fairly strong on its own, offering multiple levels of “charged” for damage output. As a result, the robot master weapons need to provide other functions to make them worthwhile and the game does an excellent job of just that. And once X acquires the X-Buster upgrade he can even charge all of the enemy weapons giving them new functions such as Chameleon Sting’s invincibility or the forcefield offered by Rolling Shield. There’s even one weapon that has a Cut Man property to it and can cut-off certain parts of enemies weaponry including some bosses. The generous amount of Sub Tanks that can be acquired also seems to encourage some experimentation as you can always farm power-ups and refill the tanks if you hit a tough part or happen to fail to recognize what weapon works best on a particular enemy.
Visually, Mega Man X looks great for an early Super Nintendo title and holds up quite well even today. The sprites are colorful and well-detailed and there’s very much a Cybertron-like quality to the design of X’s world that works for the franchise. There are numerous large-scale enemies that are common throughout the levels and the usual amount of setting variety as well such as more jungle-like levels and even an underwater one. The bosses are all pretty fun, and they seem a little more agile this time around since X is better equipped to dodge them. Some of the easier ones will let the player exploit X’s wall-kick, but later enemies will know how to get you off the wall and out of the corners. The music is also a strength. It may not be as classic as a Mega Man 2, but it’s still a high point for the franchise.
The only negative with Mega Man X is that the abundance of enemies and detailed graphics do lead to some slowdown. Even when playing on the SNES Classic, slowdown is pretty common at certain points. I especially notice it in Armored Armadillo’s stage when X has to ride a mine cart like device and the screen is loaded with enemies. The slowdown won’t really impact play, since X is largely required to be stationary throughout all of this, but it can be a bit frustrating. I at least can’t recall an instance of slowdown during a tricky platforming section or something.
If the only negative in your 15 year old game is occasional slowdown, then that’s a pretty good legacy to leave for Mega Man X. It was at the time, and still is today, a bright spot for the Mega Man franchise. It felt so fresh at a time when Mega Man was definitely growing stale and playing it today after recently playing both Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 8 it still feels that way. It injects a bit more fun into the formula by making the main character just more fun to handle. It’s the main reason why Mega Man X is arguably the greatest Mega Man game ever made. I’d rather play it over any of the mainline games, though I’d love to revisit Mega Man X4 before declaring it’s definitely the best. Like the regular series, the X series would also suffer from over-saturation as Capcom would fast track another pair of X games for the SNES and then continue along with the Playstation. The games would eventually add Zero as a playable character, which definitely helped reinvigorate the franchise as Zero played differently from X and offered a new set of challenges.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter where Mega Man X fits in the overall series because by itself it’s pretty damn awesome. And thankfully, it’s still pretty easy to come by. It sold really well when it came out so cartridges for the SNES can be found for a reasonable cost today. There was a compilation of X games released on both the Gamecube and PS2, but that’s actually a little harder to come by. Capcom is prepping a new collection of X titles for 2018, so it should be easily available relatively soon. And if you happen to find one, it’s also included among the 21 games on the SNES Classic, which is thankfully a lot easier to find than the NES Classic, but still not as easy as just walking into a store and buying it on any given day. However you go about experiencing it, it’s likely you’ll have a pretty good time with Mega Man X.