Back in the early ’90s, when Capcom began to develop a Mega Man game for the new and impressive Super Nintendo console, the company initially chose to ditch the franchise’s familiar protagonist entirely. Instead of merely sprucing up the look and feel of the happy little blue android, lead character designer Keiji Inafune opted to give Mega Man a full-scale redesign for the upcoming Mega Man X. The result was a substantially more aggressive-looking battle robot with red armor, a horned helmet, and long blond hair. Inafune was pleased with his creation, but ultimately decided that this new character was too different from the original Mega Man to serve as the new face of the franchise. So Inafune tasked another designer with creating a Mega Man X more in line with the legacy protagonist. Rather than scrapping his own design, however, Inafune doubled down on his fierce-looking red automaton and decided that he should serve as X’s superior, mentor, and idol.
Thus, Zero was born, and he was born a total badass.
It’s safe to say that Zero stole the spotlight from X for the entire Mega Man X series, as he routinely went ham on Mavericks in self-sacrificing fashion while saving X’s bacon. Zero eventually became a playable character in Mega Man X3, and in the fourth and fifth games in the series he was essentially a co-lead in his own right. (The cover art for both of these titles rightfully suggests that X and Zero share top billing.) Still, it took until 2002 for Capcom to give Zero his own spinoff title on the Game Boy Advance, aptly called Mega Man Zero. Three sequels followed suit annually, with the series wrapping up for good after Mega Man Zero 4 in 2005. In 2010, all four games were released on a Nintendo DS compilation, which is what I’m here to talk about today.
The most immediately striking aspect of the overall Mega Man Zero Collection experience is how seamlessly the four games fit together. Since all four games came out on the Game Boy Advance, they share the same design and style. Aside from a couple of gameplay tweaks between iterations, all four Mega Man Zero games are cut from the same cloth. They really do seem like different chapters of a larger story. By contrast, the original Mega Man series and Mega Man X both span three generations’ worth of consoles; while the individual installments in those series may connect canonically into the same running stories, it’s tough to look at something on the PlayStation 2 and feel like it’s really a continuation of something on the Super Nintendo. Even the plot feels fully explored across the four Mega Man Zero games. Instead of the same slew of good guys facing off against the same crew of bad guys in game after game, new characters are introduced, old ones are killed off, allegiances shift frequently, and the final showdown in Mega Man Zero 4 gives some closure to the conflict established at the onset of Mega Man Zero. And that’s no small feat! Both Mega Man and Mega Man X are still ongoing franchises, as neither one has officially ended yet.
Another notable aspect of the Mega Man Zero series that immediately jumps out is Zero’s new look. His sharp and angular red and white armor has been replaced by a leaner red and black costume that reveals a far more human-like figure than his chunky robot shape back in Mega Man X. The change isn’t just physical; Zero’s entire “shoot first, ask later” attitude has been replaced by a more empathetic and hesitant baseline. It’s as if after being sealed away for a hundred years or so between the events of Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero, the swagger-laden hero has lost his edge. Dropped instantly into a brand new conflict, he begins to doubt himself, even wondering if he’s still cut out for saving humankind and friendly robot society. In this regard, this new Zero seems like he’s learned a few lessons from X, for better or worse, which neatly brings us full circle in their mentor-mentee relationship. It’s a nice touch, and it makes perfect sense from a story-telling perspective to soften up a protagonist with doubt and other inner demons, but the personality change also robs Zero of his defining characteristics; he’s more or less just X now, with a little more baggage.
I shouldn’t have gotten this far into a review of the Mega Man Zero Collection without even touching on the gameplay, but then, what can be said about Mega Man gameplay? It’s still got the same old tried and true run-and-gun platforming elements that the franchise has always had, and it retains most of the additional features introduced in Mega Man X like dashing, wall-clinging, super-charged shots, and hidden power-ups scattered throughout various stages. Zero has an impressive arsenal of weapons available to him; a pistol and his trusty saber are his go-to options in all four games, and in various titles he’s also given a shield boomerang, a couple of rods, and even a grappling hook. The most notable divergence from legacy Mega Man titles is that Zero no longer acquires new weapons from the bosses he defeats. Gone, then, is the eightfold rock-paper-scissors roulette of boss weaknesses that has long been a staple of Mega Man games. Instead, Zero can now rotate between adding ice, fire, and electrical elemental damage to his weapons. It’s much less satisfying, but it’s an understandable tradeoff given the variety of weapons and attacks in the Mega Man Zero games.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, these are extremely difficult and unforgiving games. I grew up playing Mega Man X games and tackled most of the classic series in college, so I’m very familiar with the franchise’s various tricks, challenges, and boss patterns, but nothing could have prepared me for how easy it was to die in these games. Some of this is by design, and good design at that; enemy attacks just seem to chip more health away than they did in previous games, and health drops are fewer and farther between. There are also a few boss fights where you can be instantly killed by standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of this is fine, but then there’s also some difficulty born out of bad level design, particularly in the first game, where multiple levels require you to take leaps of faith without being able to see the platforms you need to land on. And then there’s the weapon level-up system, which requires you to use the buster or the saber on a certain number of enemies in order to unlock new skills. That mechanic might fit right into an RPG, but in a run-and-gun platforming game it’s flat out monotonous; it just encourages players to find a good grinding spot in an early stage in order to hack at enemies for half an hour. It doesn’t really provide any sense of accomplishment to grind your weapons up to their full potential; it’s just tedious.
Fortunately, the Mega Man Zero Collection includes an optional “easy scenario” mode that drastically reduces the game’s difficulty. In this mode, Zero starts each game with most of his upgrades and power-ups already unlocked. It’s almost too much, as you can storm through the first several levels and boss fights without ever worrying about your health bar or looking for power-ups. Pitfall deaths and boss kill moves still apply, but you’re cheating yourself out of the full experience of Mega Man when you don’t have to find or earn any power-ups or new abilities. (There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s exactly how I played through all four titles.) I wish there had been a slightly less easy mode in which I still had to find all the power-ups and abilities, but started the game with fully unlocked weapons and a maximum health bar, which seems like it would have been the best of both worlds.
The Mega Man Zero Collection is a solid quartet of games that fit together seamlessly and wrap up with a neat little bow. Unfortunately, by the time the best character from Mega Man X got his own turn in the spotlight, he’d been rounded out and softened down into someone who would not have been the best character in Mega Man X in the first place. The gameplay is enjoyable, and gets better with each installment as the series takes a little while to flesh out the things that work well and abandon the ones that don’t. The games are available on Game Boy Advance and the Wii U Virtual Console, but potential buyers would be wise to grab this DS compilation for the “easy scenario” mode alone. People with enough of a Mega Man background should already know whether or not this compilation would appeal to them; people without a Mega Man background would do well for themselves to go play Mega Man X.
Individual reviews of the four games in this compilation are available at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.