I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Welcome to Maximum Metroidvania! In this series of articles, I take a close look at various games that fall under the “Metroidvania” umbrella and give you the 411 on how they play.
While it may be obvious I’m a Metroidvania fan, I’m also a big fan of Mega Man games. The franchise has certainly had its ups and downs, but as a whole it’s a solid collection of fun and influential games. With Mega Man currently being neglected in the games department, fans must instead explore the massive backlog of games the series has built up. In the mid-2000s, Capcom mixed Mega Man Zero’s gameplay with the Metroidvania format and put it to the DS. The result was Mega Man ZX, a game that combines two things I love together into one package.
In theory, Mega Man and Metroidvanias should be a winning combination. Mega Man games are divided into different areas, each with a unique boss that gives you a new ability. The levels can be played in any order, and the boss abilities give you access to new areas within levels. All you need to do is take these levels and connect them through an overworld map instead of a selection screen and you’ve got a Metroidvania on your hands. Unfortunately, things that sound good in theory don’t always work quite right in practice.
ZX carries over a lot of elements from Mega Man Zero, its direct predecessor. The general level design, the elemental ice-fire-lighting system, and emphasis on memorizing boss patterns all return mostly untouched. It does drop the weapons system from Zero, reverting closer to the original series and X with a new system based on the idea of merging with “biometals” from defeated bosses to change into different forms with unique weapons and abilities. While ZX doesn’t reach Zero’s infamous difficulty level, it’s still hard enough to leave less experienced players frustrated at times. It doesn’t mess with the basic Mega Man formula, which in this case isn’t a bad thing.
The main problem with ZX is that while the Mega Man parts are certainly polished, the Metroidvania parts are integrated awkwardly at best. The overworld map is confusing, with a lack of detail or coherence in how areas are connected. Remembering which doors lead to different areas is a chore, discouraging exploration and backtracking in favor of a somewhat obtuse fast-travel system. Once you reach an area, the level design becomes almost completely linear. Everything becomes a straight path simply going from point A to point B. Most of them are dead ends with a fast travel savepoint to take you back out of them.
The kind of level design seen in ZX is lazy at best for a Metroidvania game. A good Metroidvania should foster an urge to explore in the player, providing them with a coherent map and and highly navigable world to travel in. Even if the overworld map is a hub, there should be a detailed map of each area. This was something employed well by Guacamelee!, the last game I looked at on here. ZX fails at this, resulting in a world that is tedious to navigate and irritating to move through.
Instead of taking cues from previous Metroidvania games on the DS at the time and using the other screen for stats/map display, ZX instead wastes it on displaying form-exclusive “abilities” that are mostly useless. Two of these gimmicks could have been integrated into a proper mapscreen. The other two don’t justify using the entire bottom screen of the DS. The ability to see how much health an enemy has left could have been done using health bars like any other game. The most unique ability, the “Buster Edit” that allows you to modify the trajectory of your shots, can only be changed while paused. This means that during actual gameplay it just occupies the bottom screen doing nothing.
Inti Creates would have been better off cutting the game apart into separate areas akin to a traditional Mega Man game. They already made the central hub of the game, a floating battleship, only accessible through fast travel, so why not separate everything else as well instead of smooshing things awkwardly together. This would have also made the odd bottom screen gimmicks much less egregious. While I respect them for trying something different, in this case they moved too fast into new territory without understanding the basics of making a good Metroidvania game.
While Mega Man ZX fails at being a successful Metroidvania game, it isn’t a bad Mega Man game. If you like Mega Man games and you’re looking for one to play, this will certainly scratch your itch. This is a solid entry in the series that, as a Mega Man game, is often overlooked. If nothing else, it certainly deserves some credit for having the first playable lady Mega Man in the franchise. However, if what you’re looking for a high quality Metroidvania experience, you’re probably going to want to give this one a pass. While I appreciate that the effort was made to combine these two types of games, this game fails to execute these ideas properly. Hopefully when Mega Man exits its indefinite hiatus, we’ll see another attempt at creating a Metroidvania game in the series