Yes, that’s really how it ends; the most secret of histories is always is the real one. That gnostic gap between what we know happened and what happened. The facts are these: Mega Man X, released in the US just past Christmas at the start of 1994, is the beginning of Capcom’s second line of Mega Man games. There are scads of these now, the franchise famously diluted past all sanity. But at the time, this was the only one. It wasn’t even a “line” at the time; just one game, a grimdark future timeline of the proper series (which was about to put out the baleful Mega Man 6 for the NES, 1994 being the last year of new releases for that console, by now redesigned as a slimline top-loader to resemble its successor, with a key bit of circuitry accidentally removed so that there’s a constant vertical striping effect on games).
The existence of such a game is in hindsight inevitable. Indeed, by 1994 it was in foresight inevitable – franchises in multiple media were doing self-consciously serious installments. In fact, it’s in some ways surprising that Mega Man is the first major video game series we’ve seen pull this trick. But the surprise is only that it got there first, not that it got there. The original NES series was clearly on the road to diminishing returns; a simple SNES iteration of its cartoon robot mayhem would visibly be out of step with the trends. With tastes veering towards Nemesis, the way to update the franchise would have seemed self-evident to literally anyone.
In terms of master narratives, of course, this fits perfectly into the unpleasant and ugly turn that we’ve been tracking all project. The NES Mega Mans were charming family games. Mega Man X is unmistakably for boys. Less exclusionary than, say, Mortal Kombat, yes, but it’s still clearly got distinct opinions about who’s going to be playing, and its status as a revision of something that previously had a wider audience in mind makes it hard not to wince a bit at that.
But from my perspective there’s more to it – Mega Man X is the first game to exist on the wrong side of my Super Nintendo days.Simply put, there’s basically nothing from 1994 on that I actually played when it came out. A couple of games flitted at the edge of my awareness – both Mega Man X and Donkey Kong Country were definitely things I played other people’s copies of, along with, no doubt, a few others. And I was certainly aware that things like Super Metroid existed. But so far as I can tell I basically didn’t buy any Super Nintendo games after 1993, and indeed sold at least some of them off at recess for $15 a pop in the fall of that year.
But what replaced them? Again, I’m forced to reconstruct here, or rather, fail to. I had a PC gaming period in the late 90s, but there’s at least a year’s gap here. I know I was playing Doom by the fall of 1995, because my father came upstairs to tell me my grandfather had died while I was trying to beat the final boss of Doom II. Which meant I must have had the shareware version somewhere in 1994. But that’s about the only PC game I can pin down. Everything else I remember playing came out in 1995-96, which leaves 1994 as an odd gap. I was definitely out of comics by this point, because I quit those shortly before the Clone Saga started. There was Doctor Who, of course, but that hardly anchors an entire middle school pop culture existence. And moreover, it mostly consisted of stuff from the 70s and 80s, as opposed to from the present day. Past that… I think I was on Prodigy by this point, so that’s a timesink.
But for the most part, 1994 is a curious blank that I cannot easily reconstruct. Which is an oddly apropos time for one, in hindsight. This is, after all, Nemesis’s ascension. That I should find myself absent from the narrative at the moment when the world slips from something I understood to something far more sinister seems oddly appropriate. Video games in 2016 do not make sense from the perspective of my childhood. A world where Allison Rapp is hounded out of her job by sexist trolls who can’t even take a throwaway line in a Baldur’s Gate game without having a complete meltdown does not seem to follow from anything that I lived through. The fact that there is, in effect, a gap in that – a period where video games could have gone bad without my noticing – is oddly relieving.
And yet this narrative collapses. For one thing, Mega Man X is wildly better than any post-Mega Man 3 installment in the main series. Perhaps most damningly, it’s wildly better than the 1995 attempt to do a main series game on the SNES, Mega Man 7, which was a damp squib of a game. Mega Man X adds welcome new dynamics to the game. Most obviously, X can grab onto walls and slowly slide down them or execute wall-jumps. Not only does this heavily change the basic dynamics of the levels, it massively transforms boss fights, in that they no longer take place exclusively (or even primarily) on the ground. The slide maneuver introduced in Mega Man 3 and made a standard of the series thereafter is replaced with a dash, which can be chained into an extra-long jump, which further transforms the way in which the game uses space. The result feels genuinely fresh compared to the increasingly tired main series.
On top of that, there are some solid innovations in overall game structure. Every level has at least an upgrade that adds a few bars to your health meter capacity, and most have one or two more on top of that – either the game’s version of E-Tanks or a capsule via which Doctor Light gives you an ability upgrade (the aforementioned dash, better armor, a super-charged shot, et cetera). Past Mega Man games had hidden items in levels, but never at this scale. On top of that, many items require weapons gained from other levels, so you’re almost certain to have to circle back to grab things. This adds a level of depth, making the game feel richer and more substantial than the NES versions, which is still inherently part of the point of making a SNES version of a NES franchise.
On top of that, for all that Mega Man X clearly fits into the period tendency to do grimdark reboots, it’s a hell of an odd entry into that tendency. Certainly it is the only 90s grimdark reboot to contain characters such as Launch Octopus, Spark Mandrill, and Boomer Kuwanger. More broadly, far from being ostentatiously Grimdark in the Games Workshop/Todd McFarlane aesthetic, or even in the cyberpunk aesthetic that was also in full bloom at the time, Mega Man X is basically just an update of Mega Man into the visual aesthetic of, say, Super Scope 6 – one that’s clearly harder and more angular (there’s a much greater tendency, as you’d expect from the improved graphics, to make robots look like they’re made out of more individual pieces of metal), but is still based on a largely pastel color scheme. The most striking change is simply that, whereas the bulk of NES Mega Man enemies had sizeable eye-white, grounding them firmly as cartoon robots, Mega Man X tends to have robots whose faces seem to be made out of metal plates and bolts, which tend naturally to look more like they’re scowling.
On top of that, the original Mega Man aesthetic is repeatedly on full display. And not just in the sense that Dr. Light makes a bunch of spectral appearances, although his jovial neckbeard is not exactly grimdark. Mets are still regular enemies, and appear on the password screen, and there’s even a cameo from a Batton in Armored Armadillo’s stage. This is visibly a game that’s taking place in amidst the ruins of the Mega Man series. On one level this is even more perverse, but of course Mega Man 3 already pioneered the sense of ruined nostalgia in the series, and indeed the idea of Nintendo nostalgia in the first place.
We are, of course, too savvy to fall into a cheap trap of looking to Mega Man X to single-handedly explain the fallen world in which we find ourselves. To mistake the psychic landscape of an emergent medium for a place where straightforward causality rules is as foolish as mistaking war as a place where run-and-gun action heroics occur. The world simply doesn’t work that way. But the run-and-gun structure demands the existence of some sort of consequence. Its defining mechanism, after all, is forward motion. Relentlessly, a narrative emerges.
X and company are specifically “reploids,” robots with free will. Their name, however, emphasizes that they are replicated; copies of one another. The homage to Blade Runner is obvious, of course, and affects the overall aesthetic. But in Mega Man X the villains are “Mavericks” or, in Japan, “Irregulars,” and are actively corrupted and deranged robots who harm humans, and who must be hunted and destroyed. Charitably, this is a rather extreme vision of positive liberty, with “free will” existing as compliance with the order of things. Uncharitably, it is outright fascism: all deviation is violence. The rules are the only good.
The tipping point is X’s status as a coherent legacy of a past golden age. It seems to go against everything; a backwards motion that stands as the symbolic heart of a mechanism designed only for going forwards. Nemesis’s cruel atavism hangs over it like a bad stench. There’s a flickering superposition here – an image constantly pulsing back and forth across some fundamental divide. Nemesis is atavism, yet Nemesis lies ahead. The only possible future was the one that happened. Now watch closely, I’m going to