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In praise of Mega Man X

Going fast is easy—the challenge is in reacting to the unwritten near-future while maintaining environmental awareness to avoid running into shit. For all the risks to life and limb, the human brain and body craves the thrill of speed. As such, even relatively primitive virtualized acceleration titillates. In the 16-bit era, games like Sonic the Hedgehog and F-Zero managed to create a placebo of velocity; my muscles tingled at every near-miss and last-second pass, or more often my ears throbbed with the rage of repetitive crashes. A lack of larger peripheral vision is what held back the otherwise stylish and fondly remembered 2D Sonic games: the sense of perception was too narrow. You were simply a cerulean blur hitting the G’s, but myopia and mass kept you crashing until each layout was adequately memorized.

It’s only recently that I’ve recognized the importance of speed in another Super Nintendo title that has been fundamental to me. Mega Man X harnessed the opioid-like draw of speed while providing enough visual context to manage and utilize momentum for total mastery. This was a reboot of sorts for the NES classic Mega Man, a game about a blue cyborg and the various tool- and element-wielding robot masters he challenged. When a boss was defeated, Mega Man gained a new weapon, and thus a decade-long franchise and mechanic was born. X brought the Blue Bomber into the future of the future (the year 20XX, to be exact) and was his first appearance on the SNES, fawned over upon release in 1993 and canonized for its tight controls, frenetic and colorful visuals, and Iron Maiden-inspired soundtrack.

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Most importantly, Mega Man X found a new way to deliver a headrush of speed, and all it took was abandoning all pretensions of realistic inertial physics. On the surface MMX was not a game about speed, but once the dash boots were claimed, the world truly cracked open and allowed X to compress distance into a blaze while maintaining visual awareness on a 4:3 cathode ray tube television. Where Sonic constantly pancaked into the unseen, for X most walls transformed into launch pads and complete navigation was enabled through cyber-pirouettes with a buster cannon to clear the obscured path ahead.

I did at least one playthrough of the game on a nearly daily basis, starting in 6th grade, cross-legged in my shared concrete bedroom in university student housing while my mom finished college. This lasted pretty much until I graduated high school and took the cartridge back to that same university for myself. I’m almost more proud of my ability to wipe up the Maverick menace in 45 minutes without using any special weapons and getting every upgrade (including the secret Hadouken) than my secondary education. Of course, this personal high point is glacial by today’s glitch-informed speedrunning standards, but every record is possible only through the dash boots (and the surplus of disposable hours available to a teenager).

MMX’s dash goes against known laws of nature. One can’t just dissipate momentum, whiff, full-stop, apropos of nothing, except if you are robot (or if you are the drummer in Napalm Death). Mid-air dashing near an open pit is no problem, just ease up on the d-pad and you float down like a single drop of rain and not a pixel past the ledge. In the context of the game this is all totally acceptable. Only when I am in full X cosplay mode, parkouring all over the zoo and pretending that the assorted animals are actually industrial cyborgs hacked for violence, am I confronted with the absurdity of going from 30 miles-per-hour to standing stone still, instantaneously. And not only that, X can then potentially flick around again, becoming a tornado of dashing bullets. This is what a ninja is supposed to feel like—the freedom to eye-blinkingly teleport around bosses and their measly weapons—and MMX sets the standard.

“Mega Man in Everything but Name”

Some Mega Man games prior to X did have a navigationally beneficial slide, but otherwise Rock was confined to jumping at the right time: not too soon, not too late. With the dash, X truly got horizontal. The other two MMX games on Super Nintendo left the dash relatively untouched; if it ain’t broke, etc. But after that, they never quite got it right again. Past those entries, movement in general would become more cumbersome and clunky as further entries materialized, especially throughout the PlayStation era. He had big open worlds to trot through. Mega Man Zero for the Game Boy Advance resurrected ninja-dashing and much about what made the X games such speedy delights, but the difficulty and claustrophobic screen size were too much for many. Thus, with nary a whimper, Capcom left Mega Man X and his dash to rot.

 

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But others are picking up the slack. Among them is Keiji Inafune, one of the original developers of Mega Man and the person who held the reins for the majority of side-scrolling games that feature the Blue Bomber. He made internet waves with his “Mega Man in Everything but Name” game Mighty No. 9, one of the most high-profile crowdfunded videogame revival projects. This includes ramifications positive and negative, including entitled backer flare-ups and developer delays. As one of those backers, I was given a demo of the near-complete game with four levels and many barely endurable minutes of mostly unskippable voice acting.

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Alas, Mighty No. 9 has lots in common with the PlayStation era of Mega Man X games. Perhaps it was naive to hope that, since I was actively trying to forget the driftwood dialog, high-school theater level construction, and swampy controls of those games, maybe Inafune was, too. Mighty No. 9 is not unendurably mired in these complaints, but I am disappointed that they went with polygons rather than sprites and won’t let me skip through the introductory chaff. Beck’s in-game design is stunted, bulbous, and bland; more a bobble-headed vinyl toy with oversized mitts, less a badass robot. It’s not exactly revolting, but it does feel uninspired. However, my ultimate concern is the potential of an updated dash, and Inafune’s team has surprisingly improved it.

You could beat the original MMX without the dash, though it would be a slog. The same could be said for Mighty No. 0, presumably. One needn’t dash to get through most of the levels, but that’s what they were designed for. The main difference here is that the dash is also a form of non-violent assault—shoot the various malfunctioning robots to wear them down, and then dash through them to repair the nefarious programming causing them to run amok. Dashing through enemies brings greater bounties, temporary ability bonuses, weapon enhancements, and if you can chain multiple dashed-through bots you build up a multiplier combo. None of these aspects are particularly game-changing, but in a near-Bloodborne style risk-reward scenario, you can throw yourself at the enemy and potential harm to garner a better payoff. In MMX it was the dash that kept you safely ensconced on the opposite edge of the screen, but Mighty essentially requires you to do damage and then collide head-on into most enemies and the bosses.

When I do occasionally let too many pellets fly, destroying rather than saving a minor enemy, guilt immediately pangs me. Given that throughout the history of Mega Man most bad guys have been made homicidal against their will, it’s compelling to consider salvation as opposed to wanton destruction. I don’t know if there are any narrative or mechanical consequences to choosing outright murder over the more dangerous but lucrative dash-save method, but having never been given the choice before I’m energized by the heightened tension of the difficult but slightly more morally compelling option.

Mighty No. 9 has lots in common with the PlayStation era of Mega Man X games.

My enthusiasm for Mighty No. 9 is trepidatiously renewed despite the underwhelming in-game art. It ain’t no Mega Man X, but I have faith that Inafune and his team is looking to more than rip off their own past. But it’s such a ripe history to explore, and others are also willing to excavate and innovate, including Batterystaple Games and their upcoming 20XX. Following a successful Kickstarter of their own (when the game was originally called Echoes of Eridu), 20XX is currently in Early Access Beta with a final release scheduled for 2016. The main developer counts Mega Man X as his direct inspiration, though to do otherwise would be a bald-faced denial. The title itself is a straightforward reference to MMX and its gameplay follows the same model of running, jumping, shooting robots, collecting weapons based on the bosses defeated, and most importantly: dashing.

20XX updates the recipe with some of the current trends; “rogue-lite” random elements and co-op. Like last year’s Crypt of the Necrodancer, each attempt at the game offers one life, and when you die, all progress is lost except for the Soul Nuts you’ll spend to unlock more potential items for the next go-round. Each level follows a theme and pattern, which isn’t breaking the contemporary “rogue” mold though that’s fine. They are environmentally familiar while avoiding outright memorization, which makes your one life and each tick of health more precious and forces you to learn dashing with purpose—an eye always looking ahead. There are animal-themed bosses and enemies which are appropriately outlandish but also subject to future changes, and the co-op is a fun way to compress the couch cushions. Overall, it inches very near to the d-pad rooted “feel” of MMX.

20XX isn’t perfect a perfect analogue though, nor could it be. Part of this is the dash, which is uncannily close to the source material, but still not quite there. Dashing hinges on miliseconds, and 20XX is a hair slow. The thinnest hair, but I feel it, though it isn’t enough to cause me to condemn this game which I have been truly enjoying and whose final release I eagerly anticipate. Like a musical harmony in the slightest perceptible discord, it buzzes and detracts ever so slightly.

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Perhaps this says more about me, and the natural fear of change. 20XX is as close to a fresh but familiar Mega Man X experience as I will get, outside of some romhacks and forever-in-development fan tributes that I can’t help but also hopelessly pine for. But it has a GoBots sheen to it, an honest and loving tribute more than outright Chinese bootleg, but an “off” quality nonetheless. The ancillary artwork is charming and well executed, painting with the colors and flavors of the source material, but the the active on-screen characters feel like paper dolls in that “flash” way that I just can’t get behind, closer to the Mega Man cartoon than the sprites of MMX. It’s entirely a subjective reaction to the aesthetic, where I recognize the hard and successful work of these developers based on a series they clearly love as much, if not more, than I do.

Which is my problem, as a fan of a game old enough to drink, that I played so much so as to set the bar for the innate friction of all side-scrolling games since. I’ve been chasing the dash for so long that maybe I don’t even recall what it originally felt like. 20XX and Mighty No. 9 are the closest I’ve seen, with enough evolution to avoid mimicry. Where I am stifled in my desire to travel back into an idealized era that is most certainly not what I remember, others have taken the mantle of Mega Man X and evolved it rather than simply cloning what worked. Trusting in them, I look forward to falling in love with the dash all over again.