After spending the latter years of the NES crafting a distinct and almost unaltered identity and style, the change required by the new 16-bit era must have been fairly daunting for Capcom, with the release of Mega Man X two years into the SNES lifecycle proof of hesitation. During that time, Capcom actually released 3 Mega Man games on the NES, which obviously wasn't going to be sustainable for the franchise in the long run.
Gaining more experience with the console's capabilities, Capcom must have realized that a continuation of the franchise must be something different, something more. As such, the entire style and tone of the game changed, advancing the game's story by 100 years, but advancing the game's art style by a decade; growing up from the Astro-Boy style of the 80s to the attitude style of the 90s.
Thus, the X series was born. While it retained almost all the trapping of the original Mega Man games, including the non-linear level selection method and Boss-weapon mechanics, it had an edgier tone and a more story-focused approach. Its different style was expressed through a different art style, beautifully expressed in 16-bit 2D sprites, and a seriously grungy soundtrack that is still iconic today.
One thing the game made sure to retain was the mechanical precision and action-platforming excellence the series was known for, better improved through the addition of the dash mechanic, which cemented the first Mega Man X game as one of the best tutorial games of all time as well as a masterful SNES game. Here, there should be a note of warning regarding the game's performance in the relatively new Mega Man X Legacy Collection, which has frame drops and performs worse than the SNES original.
Personally, I never considered X1 to be the pinnacle of the X series, although I understand why it's seen in that. It introduces the new series extremely well, but I don't feel Capcom figured out the new mechanics enough to make the best possible game yet.
While the NES Mega Man games started having their stories presented more promptly in the introduction screens of each game, it's in Mega Man X that the series first started clearly having an in-game story rather than a simple plot setting. Later, the Classis series would also include a rudimentary story as well. Here, the first X game doesn't just have a story of its own but also has the responsibility of building the entire world of the X series, which it does reasonably well.
The world in the year 21XX has humans and intelligent robots (called Reploids) living together. However, Reploids are sometimes corrupted and start breaking the first law of Robotics (not harming humans), and turn into "Mavericks". In the first game, the previous leader of the Maverick Hunters, Sigma, turns Maverick and leads a rebellion against humanity.
Here, X, Reploid looking like Mega Man we learn is created by Dr. Light, and another Maverick Hunter called Zero attempt to stop the rebellion. At this stage, there isn't much dialogue besides the few times you see Dr. Light's upgrade capsule and a few set pieces. Still, the few scenes we see effectively show clear themes, such as Zero being cool and X being ultra-powerful and reluctant to fight.
In the end, after you defeat Sigma, there is even a post-credits scene warning the player that the Maverick rebellion isn't over.
Mechanically, X1 follows the same Run-and-Gun rhythms of the classic NES games, adjusted to the SNES 16-bit graphics, with two notable additions. The first is the wall jumping/sliding mechanic which allows for more vertical stages as well as faster vertical movement. The second is the dash, which you uncover through a Dr. Light upgrade (which is why it's always best to play Chill Penguin's stage first), and it significantly speeds up movement and allows for some cool jumping maneuvers. Other than the dash, there are other Dr. Light upgrades that you can find and heart containers to increase your health. Finding and getting these upgrades is a big part of going through each level, and they are necessary to survive against the final boss.
Clearly, the game has a strong mechanical structure, but I don't think the game takes much advantage of it. After an excellent opening stage which works great as a tutorial, the first opening stage in the series, and a legendary tutorial level at that, there are clearly high expectations for the level design in each Maverick stage, and there are some great ideas to a great extent. There is an interesting concept of stages being changed depending on which bosses you defeated, such as when Flame Mammoth's lava-filled stage freezes over after you defeat Chill Penguin. Then there are the interesting obstacle ideas in Boomer Kwanger and Armored Armadillo that are the highlight of the regular stages.
However, too many levels like Storm Eagle and Launch Octopus where there is a repetition of ideas or a focus on spongy enemies to gate progress. Simply put, few levels take advantage of the full skill set of X, and key abilities such as the dash feel underutilized as a result. This is best encapsulated by looking at the Sigma stages, which naturally have a better application of the game mechanics than the first eight stages, but the difference is staggering.
I think there are two reasons for the conservative design of stages. First, X starts with a pitifully small health bar that only increases when you get enough heart containers, since the first eight selection is non-linear, the balancing should work for the low health state, reducing the overall challenge. Second, despite the experience of the Mega Man team, this was their first 16-bit game and that has its own learning curve.
One thing worth noting is the effective theme of each level, which is presenting an actual location instead of a random labyrinth. From an airport to a jungle base, these levels make sense and are constructed well both through visuals and stage layout. This extends to the cool map layout in the level selection screen.
Changing up the Robot Master of the classic series, the X series bosses are called Mavericks, and they don't need to look humanoid at all. For some reason, it made sense to make anthropomorphic animal robots in the game's world. While this choice may not make logical in-world sense, it allowed for some brilliant boss designs, and X set the stage in that way, introducing the franchise's first Maverick bosses. If you are worried about any weaknesses not making much sense from names like Boomer Kwanger and Sting Chameleon, rest assured you can try and figure it out by analyzing each boss's weapons in the level select screen. However, note that the ideal path through the game starts with Chill Penguin, and then goes back to Storm Eagle before going through the weakness circle: Chill Penguin> Spark Mandrill> Armored Armadillo> Launch Octopus> Boomer Kwanger>Sting Chameleon> Storm Eagle> Flame Mammoth.
Now let's talk about the boss fights themselves, which are a highlight of the game as usual. Compared to the classic series, the Mavericks simply have more attack patterns, and their attacks are visually more impressive. True, you lose some of the dramatic tension of fighting something close to your size, but most battles make up for that. That is until you hit the enemy's weakness.
Unfortunately, X1 is one of the first games where hitting the boss's weakness completely trivializes the fight. Some bosses, like Sting Chameleon, get stun-locked into a repeatable pattern, while the damage is too much for others like Flame Mammoth. An excellent fight with Spike Mandrill turns into a cakewalk once you have Shotgun Ice. Only a couple of bosses remain interesting after you use their weaknesses, which actually brings us up to a slightly controversial matter.
One boss is an extreme pain to deal with unless you acquire the dash boots (which is why you always start with Chill Penguin), and another is almost impossible unless you use their weakness to "disarm" them at the beginning of the battle. These gimmicky restrictions do have an effect on the non-linear approach of the game, but I am actually fine with them, since Mega Man games are also about experimentation and figuring out the best way to go through the game and which boss weapons to get first.
Speaking of boss weapons, I am thankful that they are actually extremely useful throughout the game, with the charge shot not being overpowered even after you upgrade it. In fact, once you upgrade your buster, you can also charge the boss weapons for some cool secondary attacks.
Finally, let's briefly discuss the Sigma stage bosses and Sigma himself. These boss fights are all really good, and the level of damage they receive from their weakness should be the norm. Maybe some people will think the final boss is too hard, and he indeed is if you don't have all energy tanks and heart containers, but finding those should be part of the game so don't skimp on that.
Initially, this game's soundtrack was almost all composed by Setsuo Yamamoto, but he needed help at the end to complete it and other members of the Alph Lyla Capcom sound team chipped in with five additional songs. One of those songs, by Makoto Tomozawa, features in my top 3 song selection.
As I alluded to in the beginning, a new generation needed a new sound, and the expanded sound capabilities of the SNES were more than able to make it. However, it wasn't only about the quality or complexity of the track, but an entire stylistic change, and here is where X1's excellent soundtrack comes in. It has some seriously grungy tunes, with dirty rock riffs all over, but also a strong funky/jazzy beat in some songs that are still celebrated today.
While the game's graphics immediately wowed audiences back in the day, I think it was when they heard it play that they realized this was a different Mega Man character they were playing as. Enjoy this collection of 4 excellent tracks:
Maybe because this is the stage I spent the most time in (it's the best stage for filling up the energy tanks and also contains the secret Hadouken move) but this has long been my favorite Mega Man X track. The track starts with an immediate bang, throwing everything it has at the listener. The main brass melody starts, but you also hear the backup accompanying trumpet which will sound at regular intervals throughout the song, all being driven by a pretty consistent drumming rhythm and some bass guitar. The first time listening, you won't have time to figure out all of the track's background because the main melody will absolutely rock you. At first, there is a back-and-forth between the brass instrument and what sounds like an electric organ instrument for 15 seconds when the organ takes over for the second phase. Here, you should notice the guitar countermelody in the background becoming more prominent, which becomes more obvious when you get a sick guitar solo in the third phase of the track that responds to the earlier melody while climbing up and down and amping up the drama of the track before looping back to the start.
I am not sure if it's just getting used to the track's tricks by then, but I could swear that the second loop always sounds more complex than the first with more guitar accompaniments and stuff. Overall, it's a fun track with a combination of the grunge rock feeling of the track mixed with some Big Band energy thanks to the brass and organ.
This is one of the tracks composed by Makoto Tomozawa, and you don't feel it's much different from the rest of the tracks, except that it may have the grungiest feeling of them all. It's basically a full-blast rock track with a heavy focus on electric guitar riffs and some serious rock drumming going on. It starts with the main guitar's muffled screams compromising the main melody before being joined by an electric organ in the background responding to the main melody in parts and joining it in others, creating a complex soundscape that may not be harmonic but is sure catchy as hell. All the while, an alternating bass line, and some sick drum beats serve as background rhythm to the track. In my opinion, the best part of the track is when the guitar riffs start resolving and a quickfire snare beat accompanies that resolution. It adds such a driving energy to the track that is more electrifying than Spark Mandrill's strongest attacks.
I just had to cheat with this one and choose two tracks instead of one, and that's because both Sigma Stage 1 and Sigma Stage 2 tracks are great and appropriate in their own right, but in widely different ways that effectively follow each other. Sigma Stage 1 starts with bass beats accompanied by a horn and an echo effect, giving an epic feeling to the coming fight. Then the guitars start with a dramatic melody that leaves the stage for the horn and brass to take over providing both a military and suitably heroic feeling to the final stage's first track with just the right amount of tragedy. Of course, we shouldn't neglect the role of the bass and rhythm interruptions throughout the track in preserving the soundtrack's overall grungy feeling.
The second Sigma Stage takes place after Zero's apparent sacrifice and the soundtrack showcases both the tragedy and determination in X's heart. The brass opening carries over from Sigma 1 but into a more determined, rather than heroic, path. It's accompanied by a harpsichord counter-melody that alludes to the tragedy that just happened. In its first part, the track effectively follows up the previous stage. Yet, it manages to find new heights at the 47-second mark when the second part of the track starts and a new xylophone-driven melody starts that perfectly combines the determination of X and his sadness together before giving way back to the guitar and looping back to the start.
There is no doubting X1's influence on the rest of the series, and potentially also Action-Platformers of the era and beyond. It was a massive visual and audio jump from the NES games that managed to effectively transport the iconic gameplay of the classic series into the 16-bit era while adding in some new and welcome elements.
My controversial take on the game is that while all of the above is true, I think that it didn't utilize what it added enough and that the core of the game still suffered from some of the weaknesses of past games. For example, while both the dash and wall jumping are brilliant mechanics, I didn't think the game's level design did enough with either of them.
In a way, I feel that thanks to its new upgrade system, levels weren't properly balanced to take into account the relative strength of X as he found more upgrades. In a similar vein, boss battles weren't properly balanced either, with some interesting fights becoming completely trivial when using the correct weapon, while a few are almost impossible without it (or without the dash upgrade).
These aren't weaknesses unique to X1 though and are common in the franchise as a whole, but I think other games in the series handle them in a better way. One thing for sure though is that this game's influence directed the rest of the franchise from that point onward. Also, it probably has one of the most recognizable soundtracks of any game in the franchise, and that's not a coincidence.
Rankings: I bet this would be one of my most controversial opinions in this retrospective, but I never felt any particular affinity to Mega Man X, and really feel that some of the games after it improved on it without introducing many new flaws of their own.