Thursday, January 7, 2016

Mega Man ZX - Overlooked, Unfinished, and Forgotten

I recently soldiered through the notoriously tough Mega Man Zero Collection. I've always been a huge fan of the Mega Man X series, and I adored Mega Man ZX and ZX Advent both back at release, but I'd never played much of Zero outside of the first couple of stages of Z1/Z2. Now that I have that series under my belt, I felt it would be a good time to return to ZX, which is fortunately insanely cheap on Amazon for some reason, even brand new. The ZX series seems to be a largely forgotten set of Mega Man games, rarely mentioned among the remaining fandom these days and almost completely overlooked by casual fans of the series.

While previous Mega Man games have let you choose a character in the beginning, ZX does it a bit differently by allowing you to choose the character's gender. It's left ambiguous as to whether or not both characters exist from an in-universe perspective, but they play mostly identically to one another and share striking visual similarities, to the point where it seems like they were designed to exist separately from one another. I decided to play as Aile this time, on normal. I beat it on easy as Vent the first time I played this game. The first thing I noticed is that Aile's story seems to have more substance to it - you get extra tidbits about the murder of Aile's mother, the main villain Serpent's relation with The Guardians (the unit you end up working for) and the antagonistic Model W, and the reason her mentor Giro has his biometal changes his character pretty significantly.

In Vent's game, Giro seemed to have a buddy cop relationship with Vent, whereas in Aile's game he seems to play a more prominent guardian figure role. It's interesting how that works out, because Zero, the mentor figure from the Mega Man X series and very much Giro's equivalent in said series, filled both of these roles towards Mega Man X at different points in the series. That said, I prefer Vent's voice for gameplay reasons - Aile's high pitched voice gets a bit annoying. Aile's personality is also portrayed differently from Vent's - Vent is very much a "nice guy" protagonist, your typical saturday morning cartoon hero with a shred of self doubt. Aile is much more forward, even snarky at times, and has more confidence in how she presents herself. While the changes in dialogue are minor, each character certainly adds their own unique flavor to the narrative experience.

Vent and Aile.
As for the game itself, I don't like the Metroid map as much as I did before. I don't dislike it, but I suppose its novelty has worn off and I realize that it could have been better - it feels kind of forced. The formula is still very much like the Zero series: pick your mission, go to an area, beat the boss. Having to find the area yourself ends up being more tedious than anything. It does, however, serve as a neat way to hide collectables, and upgrades like life-ups and subtanks. The interconnected world makes you feel like you're actively searching for these things moreso than if there was a stage select.

The world map as it is presented in-game. Here, it presents itself as a grid. This is more like a vague rendition of the game's actual map, serving as a general overview and indication to what area is where.
The actual map looks more like this. 
It is very Metroid in its design, and it isn't afraid to hide that fact. Every area is connected to another, and the transporters placed throughout each set of maps will take you to any area that you have already visited right away. There are two "safe zones." One is in Area C, which you return to often, but in many ways it functions simply as an area of the map with NPCs to talk to and less baddies to fight. There's another in Area X, which is an airship completely removed from the rest of the map with members of The Guardians that you speak to. Both safe zones have numerous side quests for you to undertake from various NPCs.

These quests often involve finding X item from Y area. While they add more depth to the game, as each quest gives you more reason to fully explore each area or revisit areas that you would otherwise leave behind, they can become quite tedious, especially towards the end of the game. By that point you've been doing these sorts of quests over and over again, and the formula of "go here and get this" begins to grate on you. They are all optional, but some of the upgrades for your character can only be gained through side quests, so you'll likely wind up doing quite a few of them.

The music is still amazing. It has such a trance-like vibe to it that I feel sets it apart from the more rock centric X and Zero games. And it's for the game's benefit, too, I think - it fits the less oppressive atmosphere.

Then there's the biometals. I love the biometals. And they mean even more to me now that I know about Harpuia, Leviathan, Fefnir, and Phantom, the characters who serve as the gameplay and story basis for each biometal model. Model H, the Wind Mega Man, is significantly more useful than the other three, and Model L, the Water Mega Man, is barely useful at all, but they're still great fun to use, and it's super cool to be able to basically play as the four guardians from MMZ.

Model X having his double charge shot from X2 is a nice touch for fans of that series, and the fact that Vent/Aile use Model X to merge with the other biometals is a nice nod to the original Mega Man X's role as the prototype model on which all other models are based. I do wish Model ZX wasn't just a slightly modified Zero, however - what's the point of having a "ZX" character when the traces of X are barely visible?
From left to right: Model X, Z, F, H, L, and P.
From left to right: Model FX, HX, LX, and PX.
Model ZX, as used by Vent.
Luckily, ZX got a sequel with ZX Advent, which I've also recently re-added to my collection. Interestingly enough, it turns out Grey and Ashe play slightly differently, so my experience in this playthrough has an added level of freshness to it (I went with Ashe last time, Grey this time). ZXA Vent was so much cooler than ZXA Aile is, and I think I like Ashe a bit better than Grey, too, although I feel Grey's abilities are more fun. Oh, that's right - Vent/Aile return in this entry, as older and more capable characters. They fill in the "older brother/mentor" role that the Mega Man series is known to focus on.

This is, in my opinion, very, very cool. Whereas in the X series, especially in the first Mega Man X, you worked hard to reach your mentor's level, you were always playing as X, even after you caught up to your mentor Zero. As they say, the closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it - rarely is anyone completely aware of their own growth as an individual. Seeing your character from the last game from a third person perspective helps to cement them as the "powerful other," with the new sense of distance painting them as having lived up to their mentor's legacy in a more complete and effective way.

On that note, both Vent and Aile have cooled off a lot since their last appearance, although Vent still retains his nice guy persona and Aile is still a slightly cynical wise cracker. Once again, they cannot exist simultaneously, with Vent appearing in Ashe's game, while Aile appears in Grey's.

An older, more experienced Vent.
This time around, each biometal is in the hands of another user, giving more personality to that particular biometal and allowing each of them to have more of a presence in the story. There is very much a Ronin Warriors/Power Rangers type thing going on, with each user transforming into an elemental, color coded Mega Man using their respective biometal. It may be a bit cheesy, but it's infinitely more engaging than the way the biometals were treated in ZX, where they functioned as mere upgrades to collect.

The four Mega Men you fight throughout the game. From left to right, Thetis with Model L, Atlas with Model F, Aeolus with Model H, and Siarnaq with Model P.
The story, for a Mega Man game, is actually very good. I like how much it ties itself to the first game, and it takes a very interesting approach that no other Mega Man series has done by replacing the protagonist entirely. I love when games do this and still tell a related narrative (Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid) so I'm a pretty big fan of this decision, especially because Grey/Ashe's relation to Model W allows the story from the first game to advance in ways that it couldn't if Vent/Aile had remained the focus.

I've said many times that I fell in love with Mega Man for the wrong reason, as I'm smitten with its story, world and characters, which are admittedly fairly barebones and cliche in their execution. Starting with the Zero series, however, it appears as if Capcom started putting a little extra effort into the plot and its writing, creating a much more cohesive narrative with clear cut story arcs and characters that have a bit more depth to them. It was a nice treat to see that trend continue with ZX. Unfortunately, the story ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that will likely never be resolved. It's Mega Man Legends 2 all over again. Ah, what I would do for a proper ZX3...

Prometheus and Pandora return from ZX, and the sequel does much to expand upon their story.
Gameplay wise, I like how they got rid of the Metroidvania map from ZX, at least to an extent. You still have to move from Point A -> B/C/D, but the map is so much more streamlined that there's no more "where do I go?" moments that have me running to a map on GameFAQs. The level design is more or less of equal quality to ZX, which is to say that the game is very fun. Once again, Model H steals the show as the only real useful-at-all-times Biometal aside from Model A and ZX, but all (14!) transformations have their place. You get to play as the bosses this time around, as Model A copies the form of its enemies directly, which is great as a novelty and fun in practice.

My only complaint with the models this time around is how Grey/Ashe are constantly shifting back to Model A every time they enter into a cutscene or conversation. This becomes a problem especially after you copy Model ZX, which is almost objectively a superior model, and it becomes troublesome to have to keep switching back to it.

The only Mega Man game where you can play as each and every boss, final bosses excluded.

My opinion on the games remains largely the same as it was the first time I played them, which is that they are great games, some of the best Mega Man titles, and fantastic additions to the DS library. I prefer the first ZX, but only by a small margin. I would highly recommend both games, especially as they seem to get overshadowed by their more successful and well known brethren in the Mega Man series.