Zero, We Must Stop, uh, Sigma
Mega Man X4
When it was released 1993, Mega Man X felt like a revelation for the series. While the classic Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. games had been stuck in a loop across six NES titles and five Game Boy adventures, this new SNES game proved a way forward for the Blue Bomber, exploring and expanding his repertoire in interesting ways while slapping a great looking coat of paint over top. This felt like the way for Mega Man to exist going forward.
The second title, Mega Man X2, felt even better. It took the winning formula of the previous title and refined the game play, making for a polished title befitting the Mega Man X name. However its sequel, Mega Man X3, felt rushed and unpolished. It lacked refinement, added in too many new things to collect, and did little to really push the series forward at all. If the classic series was stuck in a rut, Mega Man X3 made it seem like the X was busy trying to carve its own rut to follow.
I think, for a lot of fans, that was probably the point where we jumped off the ship. After X3 the series moved off the SNES for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. While X3 also featured on those consoles, moving away from the SNES was the end of an era. If you wanted to be done with X after his lackluster third game, now was the time to bail. Those fans of the classic games did miss out on X4 which game the series the closest to its glory days even if it still doesn't quite hit the mark.
In the game, X and Zero have to confront a new threat: the Repliforce, an army of Reploids with shady motives. The Repliforce leader, the General, had previously been contacted by Sigma but refused an alliance. Once confronted by X and Zero, though, the General refuses to lay down his arms and surrender to the Maverick Hunters. This starts a war between our Hunter heroes, X and Zero, and the Repliforce. The fate of the world rests in the hands of our heroes, especially once Sigma reveals himself and plots the destruction of all mankind (again, as always).
Game play in Mega Man X4 is similar to the previous titles. After an opening stage you're given a stage select of eight Mavericks to fight. These bosses, mostly animal themed aside from one mushroom, each sit in their themed stage, waiting for X or Zero to show up. Defeat the Maverick, gain their power, and use that power in the next stage to take on the next Maverick. Lather, rinse, and repeat until all the bosses are defeated and the way to the end game is revealed. If you've played any previous Mega Man game this will sound familiar.
The primary twist of this game is that X and Zero are each fully playable this time around. While Zero could be used in X3, he could only be used to explore stages and couldn't fight bosses. Now, however, Zero can explore the whole of the game, collecting items and fighting bosses to gain their powers. It all ties in to a (slightly varied) storyline for Zero, making for a compelling reason to play through the game at least twice, once for each hero.
Of the two, Zero is the more interesting combatant. His attacks are melee based, as are the powers he gains from the bosses. Fighting as Zero means getting in close to take on enemies, leading to a much different play experience than as X. When it comes to the bosses, Zero also has a distinct leg up as the powers he gains can be used to utterly rip bosses apart. He's an over-powered monster in combat a delight to play and a breath of fresh air for this series, no doubt about that.
X's game play, though, is more of the same from the previous titles. He runs, he guns, he collects distinct abilities from each boss. I will credit the game as the levels for Zero and X are large and varied, with plenty of interesting gimmicks to explore in each stage. Although X has a lot to collect (not just the heart tanks and other energy tanks, which Zero can collect as well, but armor upgrades just for X too), the stages don't feel like they exist solely to siphon X to the various power-ups. Instead the upgrades are nicely hidden along the paths of the stages, rewarding exploration without prioritizing it. That's great.
I just wish X's boss fights were anywhere near as interesting. If a boss has a weakness, more often than not that weakness will completely wreck the enemies A.I. Of the initial eight Mavericks I counted seven that would freak out and get stuck in a damage loop if you had their weakness when fighting them. The other bosses, meanwhile, are over-powered and absurd. They don;t flinch at their weaknesses and will pummel X with a lot of attacks, sending the balance way in the other direction. The game doesn't really have a middle ground between broken A.I. or unfair boss fights, and it really needed it.
Worse, though, is that all of X's attacks feel super weak. Zero can smash anyone in seconds but X, even with a weakness weapon, is stuck waiting for a minute at a time to slowly whittle down a boss. Everything feels piddly and under-powered and I really wish the game could have found a way to make the fights more interesting. The balance really is off, start to finish, making fights with X tedious and uninteresting. If the point was to showcase just how cool Zero is in the series, Mega Man X4 does just that.
The final sin the game commits, though, is that its last act is pretty boring. The stages themselves are linear to a fault without any cool gimmicks to break up the hallways. That's accented by the big stupid boss fights, as noted above, which caps in an absolutely unfair Sigma fight at the end. Phases one and two of Sigma are fine as his weaknesses rip him apart, but his third phase is a damage sponge with two health bars. It shrugs off basically anything you do it it while piling on the damage to X. Zero doesn't have that big of an issue because he can rip this boss apart, too, but X is utterly lost right at the end game. It just sucks.
Visually this game updates the graphics and sound for the new console era. It's decent looking, with bright graphics for the enemies and heroes. The backgrounds do feel a little flat, a little too gray and fuzzy, probably due to compression of the tiles, leading everything to not seem quite as crisp or nice as on the SNES. It's not bad, per se, but there are moments where you see the stage graphics and really miss the bright and snappy pixels of the SNES. It's an upgrade still in its infancy, for sure.
And this, overall, this game feels almost like it could have been great but ever so slightly misses the mark. Zero is fantastic and he's worth playing all day. The hero of the game, X, is lost, though, and it doesn't feel like Mega Man X4 really has a good reason for why. It's a nice looking game with a focused, trimmed down adventure that suits the series. I just wish it could have balanced its too halves better. If it would have done than this this could have been one of the greats in the series.